Postscript from Palermo

Following my last post (‘Giving Palermo Another Go’, Nov.30, 2017) I received a comment that put me in a bit of a quandary.  In addition to the lovely feedback – grazie, Jane – the reader also asked me for the contact info for the B&B I had stayed in.

In the historic centre of Palermo, the B&B was a hidden oasis.

I have no qualms about providing such info about the private gardens I visit, although whenever I’ve had any kind of personal contact with the owner/creator I always send a heads-up after publishing – as a way of thanking them again for their hospitality, as well as to check that I’ve got all the facts straight.  And I do occasionally include the names of places I’ve stayed in and enjoyed if the owner makes it clear publicity is welcome as I recently did for the B&B Montalbano in Punta Secca and l’Orto sul Tetto in Ragusa. But there was something about the B&B in Palermo.  It was such a special, intimate setting and I couldn’t remember if I had told the owner about my blog.  Maybe when he was showing me his terraced garden, but I didn’t think so.  The unease I felt certainly wasn’t because of any worry they’d be all booked when I tried to reserve a room for my trip next May.  I’d already taken care of that back in October.  So in what I have been told is a big breach of on-line etiquette, rather than replying to the comment right away, I emailed the owner asking if he would be OK with my giving out his contact info.

Off the breakfast room, the entrance to the hidden garden.

Friends I brought this up with reacted with incredulity. The B&B was already out there on the web  – that’s how I’d found it!  What planet was I on?  (They didn’t have to say that last part. It was written all over their faces.)  Even so, as the days went by and there was no reply I couldn’t help thinking the worst and when  the email popped up in my inbox this morning I hesitated before opening it.  Of course, as Mark Twain – and probably you – already knew, ‘I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.’

First of all Giovanni want to congratularsi con me – an expression that still throws me off. Rather than congratulating someone for something, in Italian you congratulate yourself with that person. In any event, after congratulating me on my ‘report’ about my travels in Sicily and of his terraced garden, he assured they had nothing against my providing the contact info, and in fact would be most appreciative if I did.  So after what in this age of Instagram and Facebook and whatever else is out there, must seem like a lot of ‘ado’ about nothing, here is the contact info: B&B Le Terrazze • via Pietro Novelli n.14;  www.leterrazzebb.it

As for his garden, Giovanni confessed that he has no idea how many pots there are.  In fact a friend, charged with watering them during an absence – now that’s a friend! – declared that the plants he had watered weren’t just plants, but matrioske di piante!  Russian nesting dolls of plants.

That brave friend must have heaved a sigh of relief when he got to the succulent corner.

And, he added, I was right about there being a story behind the ‘Moor’s Head’ cache-pots. He warned me it was a rather truculenta story, as I would see in the attached file.  I wasn’t sure about truculenta.  I had a feeling it might be one of those border-line ‘faux amis‘, not one of the obvious ones like la libreria which is where you buy books as opposed to la biblioteca, where you borrow them, but something more insidious.  My hunch was right. Truculenta is far darker than our ‘truculent’.

Upscale Teste di Moro in Taormina.

The tile of the legend is a major spoiler alert – ‘Mai Tradire una Siciliana‘.  Never Betray a Sicilian Woman’.

‘Around the year 1100 during the period of Moorish domination of Sicily in the section of Palermo known as Kalsa there lived a beautiful young maiden whose rose-coloured skin was like the flowers of the peach tree in full bloom and whose beautiful eyes were like reflections of the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Palermo.  The young girl rarely left home and passed the days taking care of the plants on her balcony.  One day a young Moro (this being the days prior to PC, all dark-skinned people were called ‘Moors’) was passing through the area.  The moment he laid eyes on her he fell madly in love and had to have her at all costs.  He rushed into the house of the young maiden (who, unfortunately doesn’t seem to have had any of the servants or fiercely protective father that typically guard over such damsels) and upon finding her, declared his undying love.  Overwhelmed by such ardour, and in what seems pretty fast even by today’s standards, the young girl returned his love.  But her happiness was short-lived (we knew that was coming!) for she came to know that her lover would soon leave her to return to the East where waiting for him were his wife and two children.

More Moor Heads including one you could use as a base for a table. For my Sicily souvenir I chose another Sicilian favourite, a Pigna, the much more benign pine-cone.

This is where things get truculenta.  The young maiden waited for night and as soon as the Moro fell asleep, she killed him.  And then, shades of Judith and Holofernes, she cut off his head.   But instead of putting the head in a bag or on a silver tray, she made it into a pot in which she planted some basil and then she put the pot/head in a prominent place on her balcony.   And in this way the betrayed young maiden ensured her lover would never leave her.

A ceramics shop in the mountain-top village of Erice in the north-west corner of Sicily.

As time went by the basil flourished and all the people in the neighbourhood became envious. But rather than asking the usual gardener’s question – what did you put in the soil? – they went to the local potter and ordered him to make pots in the shape of the Moor’s head.  And that is how the Testa del Moro became a popular decoration on balconies throughout Sicily to this day.

Instead of basil, Giovanni has planted succulents in his decidedly upscale Teste di Moro.

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Posted in Sicily, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Giving Palermo Another Go

Along the ancient coastal road west of Palermo.

The first time I visited Palermo I made two mistakes.  I learned about one of them halfway through my trip.  ‘Ah signora, said my concerned host, dopo aver guidato a Palermo non si è più lo stesso.’ After driving in Palermo I would never be the same.  And she was from Palermo.  Having driven in Rome I had an idea of what driving in Palermo might be like, so thinking to dodge the worst of it, had booked a room in a hotel high in the hills outside the city.  That was my second mistake.  The hotel website described a peaceful location, clean air, free parking and lovely views of central Palermo a mere 20-minute drive away.  Even allowing for the usual poetic license of these sites, it seemed a perfect compromise.

The hotel was up in the hills and it did have a view of Palermo, but not one I would describe as  lovely.

Apart from the miserable view, I kept getting lost on the way down to the centro storico, so it took me a lot longer than 20 minutes and then there was the daily battle to find a parking spot.  One time in desperation, on the suggestion of a local restaurant owner, I parked illegally while I ate lunch – in his restaurant of course – all the while keeping an eye on my car.  As for the driving, it was even worse than the signora had led me to believe.  On the first day I almost lost it.  Along one stretch of road there were so many motorcycles and vehicles coming at me I was convinced I had missed the sign warning the road was no longer senso unico.  I was reassured when I passed another ‘One Way’ sign, but that didn’t make the free spirits any easier to take.

On my next trip to Sicily I decided to avoid driving in Palermo.  In fact I decided to avoid Palermo as much as possible and stayed in Cefalù, a charming coastal village 70 k east of Palermo.  (Post to come.)  But the downside of this strategy soon became apparent. Although the trains to Palermo run fairly frequently – it’s a daily commute for many students and workers – it took almost an hour to reach Palermo Centrale.  Add on the time to get to the station and wait times for the (often late) trains and I spent/lost almost 3 hours each time I went into Palermo.

Cefalù, a charming fishing village with a UNESCO cathedral and 5th century B.C. temple to boot.

I was beginning to wonder whether, even with its UNESCO World Heritage sites and all the rest, Palermo was worth the bother.  There was one more thing.  Years earlier, when I first arrived in Italy, I had immediately felt at home in Florence.  But Palermo is worlds away from that elegant Renaissance city.  It was not a natural fit for me.   Still, to visit Sicily and not go to Palermo sounded a lot like visiting Central Italy without spending any time in Rome, a city I hadn’t initially taken to and now look forward to visiting.

How can anyone take in the Cappella Palatina in just one visit?

And what was this extraordinary combo I had parked next to?.

A tour of the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house and the setting for the final scenes of Godfather, III was bound to be worth a return visit.

Would a third trip to Palermo show that the third time’s a charm?   Or would it be more a case of three strikes and you’re out?  Those old sayings can be really annoying and not at all useful.  In the end it might have been the equally annoying harangues about getting out of your comfort zone, but I did not give in to the temptation to abandon Palermo.  Not just yet.  The question was – where to stay?

For a while I toyed with the idea of staying in Mondello, once a small, marshy fishing village that had been transformed into an upscale resort after a Sicilian prince succeeded in draining it at the end of the 19th century.  On my first trip to Palermo – more because I couldn’t face the idea of driving into the centro one more time than because I’m a fan of seaside resorts – I decided to check it out.  The drive was marginally less stressful, and parking, although still a challenge, was doable.

Only 12 k west of Palermo, Mondello is a small, cheerful resort popular with palermitani and tourists.

A wide, white sandy beach stretches along the south side of the harbour.

Crystal clear waters close to the beach turn sapphire and turquoise further out in the harbour.

Along the west side of the harbour fishing boats that aren’t just for effect.

And a wide range of places to eat.  At ‘da Calogero‘ you can have a quick bite at the counter…

… or, after watching the chef chop up a couple of plates of polpo

…  head for the sit-down part of the restaurant for a plate of cozze e vongole washed down with a nice, cool Principe di Corleone. 

But I’ve never really been attracted to such places. As beautiful as it was, I knew that after a few hours I’d start to go stir crazy.  I love the sun and the sea.  It’s the lying on a beach in the blazing sun slathered in sun screen that I don’t get.  Also, there was the sign next to where I’d parked my car.

Comune di Palermo. Swimming prohibited. Per inquinamento. Because of pollution.

Still undecided, I checked the local transit options between Palermo and Mondello. Officially it was a half hour bus ride, but according to on-line comments, which ranged from ‘uncomfortably full’ to ‘heinous’, often took an hour.   (The heinous comment was from a visitor who lives in Rome.  She happily paid €25 for a cab back to Palermo.)

In the end I booked a room in a B&B right in the heart of the centro storico.  No trains.  No driving.  Following the suggestion of the owner of the B&B, I dropped the car off at the airport and took the bus into the city.  I would only visit sites I could walk to.

There would be no getting lost this time. The B&B  was a stone’s throw from Palermo’s impossible to miss cathedral.

You never know what you’re going to find when you book online.  Some owners have really good – and VERY creative – photographers.  I tried not to get my hopes up too much as I lugged my suitcase along Corso Vittorio Emanuele.  Even if it was shabby and run-down,  the location was good and there was a rooftop terrace, which hopefully would not be closed to guests as soon as breakfast was finished like the one in Siracusa I had stayed at earlier in my trip.  Since I had  specifically chosen that B&B for its rooftop terrace and views of the harbour – perfect for the evening aperitivo – I was not happy when I saw the note in my room about the ‘opening hours’ for the terrace.  It turned out – I had to insistere a bit to get the truth from the owner – a few months earlier a guest had thrown himself off the 5th floor terrace.  Oh…

Scenes like this – right across from the cathedral – are always a jolt.

Down the lane across from the cathedral. I don’t think I will ever get used to these contrasts. But I have gotten used to the surprises that often lie behind the dilapidated façades.

The B&B was fantastic.  The interior, the breakfast, and on top of everything else, when the wonderfully hospitable owner found out I was interested in gardens, he took me on a tour of his sun-filled, terraced garden.

Sometimes breakfast is served on the lowest of the terraces.

He had been working on his garden for twenty years. I didn’t even ask how many pots he had.

How did he manage to keep them all watered? I had a feeling he took the ‘benign neglect’ approach.

If you had a week, what fun to try a new terrace every day.

These unusual cache-pots –  ‘Teste del Moro‘ (Moors’ Heads) – are extremely popular with Sicilian gardeners.  I’m sure there is a story behind them.

And on the top terrace, so close it felt you could reach out and touch it, the cathedral.

On the way down, he showed  me the ‘honour system’ wine fridge.  For a moment the idea of just hanging out in that terraced garden seemed a totally respectable thing to do.  But first there was another garden to visit – the Giardino Botanico di Palermo.  I had no idea what to expect.  The very idea of a garden in Palermo seemed an oxymoron.

In my travels around Italy I’d already seen some unexpected takes on the botanical garden concept – the most unusual was the Giardino Botanico Heller on Lake Garda in northern Italy  (‘The Rewards of Suspending Judgment’, Feb. 14, 2016).  What kind of botanical garden would Palermo’s be?  A dark place with narrow paths lined with poisonous plants?

From the cathedral the garden is an easy, fifteen minute walk down Corso Vittorio Emanuele – as long as you don’t stop at any of the countless, must-see sights along the way.

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The building looked a lot like Teatro Massimo.

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The entrance looked more like what you’d expect at an opera house than a botanical garden.

Unusually for May it had started to drizzle on the way and was still lightly raining when I arrived.   Hoping it was just a brief spring shower, I decided to have a quick look at the greenhouse.

The recent shower gave a strong tropical feel to the lushly planted path.

At first I thought this Bougainvillea had woven itself through the branches of an ancient tree.

But no, it was growing out of the massive trunk below.

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Nearby a purple beauty, a member of the Verbena family.

Plants have the most ingenious ways of defending themselves.  One of the most peculiar is that of the most Mimosa sensitiva.  If a leaf is touched, it immediately folds shut, which of course makes it irresistible for human hands. Despite the common name ‘Touch Me Not’.

Not wanting to traumatize the delicate little plant I did not test its security system.

The sky soon brightened and I went back outside.  Close to the greenhouse was a gorgeous clump of Chamaerops humilis, aka European Fan Palm or Mediterranea Dwarf Palm.

Chamaerops humilis, the only palm native to Sicily.

Down the path to the right was an extraordinary sight.

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I suspect the trees were absolutely beautiful in bloom, but I doubted they were any more intriguing looking than when covered with these improbable puffballs, presumably the covering for the seed pods.

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Choridis/Ceiba speciosa, a native of Brazil…

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aka Silk Floss Tree.

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The tree grows in spurts when water is abundant, resulting in the strange trunk shapes and the tree’s other common name – Drunken Tree.

Spikes along trunk are the tree’s defence against small animals.

Among the agave – a plant for Margarita lovers – three of them had sent up the giant asparagus-like spears that are the flower stems.

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Do you ever get the feeling that Nature might have a sense of humour? Against the whirling Dervishes (Yucca rustrata) behind them, the red flowers of this aloe swayed tipsily in the breeze.

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For years I didn’t think the aloe had a flower. Mine certainly never did.

To the left of the aloe grove, were a couple of small, tree-like things covered in stick-like branches.  I would never have guessed it was a Euphorbia.  Nor did I make the connection to the pot of branchy things at the entrance to the succulent greenhouse at Allan Gardens. Nor did I have any idea what a dangerous thing it is.  Apparently the little branches break easily and the milky sap that oozes – and sometimes squirts out – pity the gardeners who have to work with the things – causes severe skin irritations and a burning sensation that last for days, and the tiniest droplet in your eye can cause painful, temporary blindness.   It’s commonly called ‘Fire Sticks’ or ‘Sticks on Fire’.  But is that because the branches turn red when the weather starts to cool or because of what its sap does?  Definitely a plant worthy of the city’s tortured history.

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Euphorbia tirucalli, aka Pencil Sticks, Milkbush or Sticks on Fire, although I think ‘Touch Me Not’ would be a much more useful option.  Whatever name you go with, a highly toxic, dangerous plant.

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Next to the Fire Sticks, a pole-like tree trunk along which impossibly symmetrical leaves (?) lined up. Alluadia procera.

Then there were the Opuntia.  The English common name is Prickly Pear, which like most common names is derived from the colour or shape of some part of the plant, in this case the shape of the fruit that grows from the base of the flower.  So why in Italian is it called Fichi d’India?  Figs of India.

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Covered in flowers, the prickly pears looked more like  a member of the rose family than a cactus.

It turns out that although it grows wild all over the island, it is not native to Sicily.   Columbus brought it back from the West Indies.

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With water droplets from the recent shower still clinging to the petals,  the resemblance to roses was even stronger.

After taking far too many photos I finally dragged myself away from the opuntia. And a good thing, because there was a lot more to see.  I walked round and round the enormous pond.

Who would have thought of planting aloe – a desert plant – around a pond full of lily pads and other water-loving plants?

A path off the pond led to what many consider the star of the gardens – a Ficus macrophylla that survived the long journey from Australia and was planted here in 1845, making it the oldest plant in the garden.  It’s also the largest tree in the garden – no surprise there – but not the largest Ficus in Italy.  That honour belongs to a tree that was planted twenty years later in Piazza Marina a couple of blocks away.

You have to step way back in order to get a photo of the entire tree.

Commonly called Moreton Bay Fig, or Australian Banyan Tree in reference to its origins off the east coast of Australia, it also has another, equally accurate common name that reveals the tree’s dark side.   Strangler Fig.

Things start off innocently enough.  The seeds germinate in the canopy of a host tree, where it grows for a while as an epiphyte, which means it gets all its nutrients from the air, without in any way harming the host tree.  UNTIL its roots reach the ground.  Then it mutates into a gigantic growth machine – a plant on steroids – stretching its tentacles all over the host tree, which it strangles as it gradually grows into a freestanding behemoth.

The ‘pillars’ supporting the enormous branch were once delicate air roots.

From what I can make out there was no sacrificial lamb in Palermo.  The tree was brought over, already fully independent.  But if you were head of a botanical garden and someone gave you a packet of seeds what plant would you choose to play the doomed role of host?

Look at it long enough and you’ll start to see all sorts of creatures emerging from the mass of branches and trunks.  Time to go.

It was hard at times to think of the garden with its strange, beautiful and dangerous plants being in the heart of Palermo.  But then again, the two had a lot in common.  They were both definitely worth a return visit.

The path back to the city beyond the garden walls.

 

 

Posted in Sicily, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Garden That Takes You Above and Beyond

In 2000, a momentous year on many accounts, a woman living in Catania ‘nel mezzo del cammin‘* of her life had not lost her way in a dark wood, but she had experienced a great many of life’s pleasures as well as its tragedies and felt compelled to create something that would not only reflect her experiences, but would also allargare l’anima (enlarge the soul).  She decided to transform the ancient citrus grove around the family villa into a garden.

*’Nel mezzo del cammin’ di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita‘. (In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself in a dark wood for I had lost my/ the right way) 1st canto, Hell, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The 19th century family villa.

Rossella Pezzino de Geronimo hadn’t created a garden on this scale before – 7 hectares (17 acres) – but she was well equipped for the undertaking.  Already an accomplished artist and photographer – the day after my visit was the opening gala in Catania for an exhibit of her latest book and photographs – she had the eye and the imagination to design a great garden.  She was also  adventurous and would travel extensively to collect the plants she wanted, including to Burma which involved being granted a special permit.

She called her garden Le Stanze in Fiore di Canalicchio.    Canalicchio is a comune, a village or town, sort of like our municipality, on the outskirts of Catania.  Fiore means ‘flower’ and le stanze means ‘the rooms’.  The Rooms in Bloom of Canalicchio?  The Flowering Rooms of Canalicchio?  I once had a professor offer to write a letter of support for the Masters program in translation at the University of Ottawa.  I don’t remember what I said, but I have a bad feeling it was not very gracious.  The idea appalled me.

My garden tour – visits are by guided tour only, advance reservations required – began close to the villa, in the ‘Tropical Garden’.

We followed Rossella down a narrow path into a world of lush, dense tropical plants.

We had no sense of where we were heading.  There was no focal point, no central axis, no symmetry and not a clipped boxwood in sight.  Nothing remotely connected to what we often think of as a Giardino all’italiana.   Rossella’s goal was to create not the utopia of the formal Renaissance Garden, but instead a heteropia, one of those places that is embedded in aspects and stages of our life, that mirrors as well as distorts and unsettles other spaces.

In case you’re wondering if I was sampling the tropical plants as we went along, that last bit is from one of the websites on the garden.  Utopia I was familiar with – the concept that is, sadly not the experience – as well as dystopia which, equally sadly, seems to be less and less a mere concept lately, but I had never seen the word eteropia. I assumed it was one of those esoteric words Italian is full of that have an utterly mundane English equivalent, but no, when I googled it, up popped ‘heteropia’.  And the name of a French philosopher I also had never heard of – Michel Foucault, who in his 1966 book ‘Les mots et les choses‘ (Words and Things) introduced heteropia as a way to discuss places that – in a nutshell –  while physically connected to the surrounding environment are separate from it; places used by society to regulate our behaviour, control our movements and, in some situations, to reduce our autonomy and even sense of identity.  From prisons to schools to your local tennis club.

Catania was just outside the high stone walls, but in this lush, tropical space it seemed worlds away.

Fortunately Rossella did not talk about any of this as we walked along.  Instead she talked about the garden as un percorso dell’anima.  A journey of the soul.  And just as there is no single, preordained mortal journey for any of us, at least none that is readily apparent, there is no one ‘proper’ way to visit Rossella’s garden.  The stanze are all interconnected, like a web, so that depending on where you start and the route you take, your experience of the garden and the emotions it aroused might vary from one visit to another.

Our journey started in the Tropical Garden, the least structured, wildest ‘room’ so that we would quickly feel lost, disoriented, off balance.   In real life of course, despite the barrage of slogans exhorting us to get out of our comfort zone, feeling lost and disoriented is not a sensation most of us willingly seek out, let alone enjoy.   Especially when we’re driving around a foreign island on our own. But this wasn’t real life, and blindly following Rossella was incantevole, from incanto meaning ‘spell, enchantment’.

An ancient trough made of pietra volcanica, the prevalent building material in the shadow of Etna.

After we’d spent a bit of time wandering around the tropical forest, getting acclimatized to the spirit of the garden, we came to an open area close to the villa.

Contemporary sculptures – many of them gifts – add to the sense of dépaysement.  Of being away from your pays.  Your country.

Beyond the pillar and the gigantic twin palms was a wide open space.

Next to the pillar was one of many extraordinary plants in the garden.  I vaguely remember Rossella telling me what it was, but there was so much going on it slipped my mind before I could jot it down.

Repeating rows of ancient ploughs are a reminder of the back-breaking work that first transformed the once hostile land into a citrus orchard.

In late evening the play of light and shadow, symbol of the alternating joyful and dark stages of a life fully lived, was even more accentuated.

A rather lovely greenhouse.

Amidst the palm fronds reflected in the pond, clumps of water hyacinths. The balloon-like base keeps the plants afloat.

Water flowing and falling from one stanza to the next is the garden’s filo conduttore.  Leading thread.

If you remember to look up, the fantastical flowers of the White Crane or Giant Bird of Paradise.

Close by was a Ficus macrophylla aka Moreton Bay Fig or Australian Banyan Tree.  I’d seen many of these lumbering giants in my travels across Sicily – the most amazing and one of the largest in Palermo’s Botanical Garden (post to come) – but none with such an odd base.  When Rossella saw me looking at  it there was that glimmer of recognition that occasionally passes between gardeners.  The garden, as she had explained at the outset of the tour, was a reflection of different stages in her life.  The distorted trunk was a reminder of a dark period in Rossella’s life.  It was also a reminder of the inner strength she had found to endure that dark period and eventually to embrace joy again.  I was reminded of  the grieving mother I once read about, whose only source of comfort from the pain of losing her child came from digging up her front lawn and putting in a garden.

Misshapen, but still thriving.

This sculpture might be Ophelia, but the group had gone ahead and the artist, Gunther Stilling, has created other sculptures that to my eye look very similar, but are of African Kings.

Roses and palm trees always make such an incredibly exotic combination.

One plant brought back memories of a tour I had led a while ago at Allan Gardens in downtown Toronto.  In one of the tropical greenhouses a plant which I had never noticed before, despite having led many tours, was putting on a fabulous show.  It was the tour guide’s nightmare.   Sure enough, one of the people in the group asked what it was.   I confessed that I didn’t have a clue, but would ask the head gardener.  When we caught up with him, I asked about the little purple flower that looked like a butterfly, he laughed.  ‘Oh that, we just call it the Butterfly Flower!’

It may have a fancy Latin name, but for me it will always be the  ‘Butterfly Flower’.

Bauhinia aculeata. White Orchid Tree. Chinese symbol of renewal. The flowers look as if they’ve been attached to the branches. A kind of arboreal hand-tied bouquet.

This might be Fuchsia arborescens.  Fuchsia Tree.  Definitely tailor-made for a hummingbird.

Angel’s Trumpet, a toxic beauty.

Just about to open, the flowers of the Cockspur Coral Tree which, in the wonderful world of plants, is a not too distant relative of the pea and the bean.

Cycads. A species that has survived millennia only now becoming endangered – because of poaching. The plant’s unusual shape have made it a must-have item for unscrupulous plant collectors.

Close by a gigantic clump of shrimp plants. The odd name comes from its shape. If you stand back a bit and squint, the flowers resemble the shape of a shrimp. The proper squinting technique helps.

If this had been the end of the tour, I would have been well satisfied.  But Rossella urged me on.  The sun was starting to set and we hadn’t yet been to the Giardino dell’altrove e della rinascita.  The Garden of the Beyond and Rebirth.

It is not easy to reach the beyond. You have to make your way along a stream, stepping VERY carefully from one rock to the next.  The stream is set in an expanse of pebbles, white on one side, black on the other.  The Yin and Yang of life.

The stepping stones are made of rough volcanic rock and you really do have to pay attention as you step from one to the next.

Rossella saw me eyeing the daisy on the far side of the stream.  She pointed to the butterfly that had lit on its petals and then to the sculpture on the ground close to where we were standing.

The butterfly. Symbol of transformation.

Once we were safely across the stream, we passed through a dense forest into a wide open grassy area.  This was not your usual lawn.  It had all sorts of humps and troughs and on top of the humps, white flowers had been planted willy nilly. I hope I didn’t disappoint our guide but my imagination was nowhere near up to this vision.

What would you think?

This is the sea we must also cross on our journey to the Garden of the Beyond.  The white flowers – Alyssum – represent the sea spray on the crest of the waves.  The entrance to our destination is next to two bronze, crescent moons.

On the right shore of the sea, one of the ancient Arab saie (sigh-yay), troughs that carry water throughout the gardens.

Why two moons? my unimaginative self asked. ‘Because we’re going to a new world’, replied Rossella.

A short path through a tiny dense forest brought us to Rossella’s vision of the primordial landscape, untouched by human artifice.

A great deal of human artifice would have gone into creating such a convincing primordial landscape.

Any gardener who has tried to create a wild garden knows how difficult it is to achieve a ‘natural’ look.  This area reminded me of the Garden of Ninfa in Central Italy  where the gardeners’ major task is to make it look as if there were no gardeners.  (‘Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village’, Feb. 15, 2015)

A rotten tree trunk has fallen just so onto the forest floor, and in its crotches bromeliads have taken root.  All on their own.

We walked through a later stage of the new world and started up a slope that led to the gardens of le terre lontane.  Far off places.

In a later stage, the chaos of the primordial forest has been tamed by the unmistakable hand of man. Or, as in this case, of a woman.

It was only when we had climbed up the slope that now and then we caught glimpses of Catania and the real world beyond the garden walls.

Instead of the ocean, the humpy allée up here symbolized a dragon.

For the plants for this part of the garden, Rossella had travelled extensively in the East, including to Burma, now Myanmar, which required a special permit.

We were speechless and would have loved to linger, but it was getting late and Rossella still had lots to do in preparation for the gala opening the following evening.

This would have been an extraordinary sight anywhere, but here, on the outskirts of Catania, in the shadow of Mt.Etna, it was truly altrove. Beyond.

A garden as un’opera d’arte viva. A living work of art, in continual evolution and transformation.

Next – An Unexpected Delight

 

 

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Getting Around

In case you’ve been wondering lately why I called the blog ‘Loving Italy’s Gardens’ (I’ve definitely been wondering about it), I have just the thing to make amends for the dearth of things horticultural in the last few posts.  The most remarkable private garden I’ve visited in Italy or France.  But first, I want to talk about the elephant in the room when it comes to Sicily.  And by elephant I don’t mean the Mafia.  The taboo about talking about that aspect of Sicilian life has been shattered by all the courageous individuals and organizations who for some time now have been openly campaigning against it.  I saw many encouraging, and heartbreaking signs of this throughout my trip, from the banner in southern Sicily in memory of the Mafia’s innocent victims (‘Realistic and Not Realistic’, July 19, 2017) to a banner in the island’s capital, Palermo, in the north.

In Italy the bride and groom are married twice. In church and at city hall. One afternoon I came across a wedding party celebrating after the civil ceremony in the town hall of Palermo.

As I stood there watching the happy group, a bit of wind lifted the flags over the entrance. On the banner was a powerful message. PALERMO STA CON DI MATTEO E IL POOL ANTIMAFIA. (Palermo is with Di Matteo (the chief prosecutor) and the Antifmafia ‘Pool’)

No, the elephant I’d like to talk about has to do with the nuts and bolts of getting to the island’s fabulous sites.  If, like me,  you are genetically unsuitable for group tours, you’ve essentially got two options –  i mezzi pubblici (public transit) or drive.  (A third possible option is to hire a driver, but that is exorbitantly expensive, so doesn’t count.  At least not in my books.)  In some regions of Italy, public transit is a viable option.  Sicily is not one of them.

However, there are a couple of places where, even if you have a car, you’re best off parking it and taking the mezzi pubblici. Taormina is one of them.

Take for example, getting to the Castle of Donnafugata (previous post).  Italian and foreign visitors alike warn against using public transit.  As one Italian put it, non consentono in pratica di raggiungere questo monumento.  (They do not, in actual practice, allow one to reach the site.)  An English visitor was less diplomatic, describing the bus timetable from Ragusa as ‘a work of fiction’.

Palermo is another. When the owner of the agriturismo learned I would be heading to Palermo she looked at me in alarm. ‘Signora, she warned me, quando si ha guidato a Palermo, non si è più lo stesso. Once you’ve driven in Palermo you’ll never be the same.

That leaves the car, which in the case of the castle meant a rather uninspiring, but absolutely straightforward drive.  (I was surprised to read one online commentator complaining it was tricky to find.  As far as I’m concerned, their biggest problem was their reliance on their ‘Sat Nav’, which in this case refused to take them where they wanted to go.)

Ciò nonostante (choe-no-no-stan-tay) – a lovely term which gives ‘however’ the full gravitas it really requires – despite my strong endorsement of renting a car, it does have its challenges.  So, since un uomo avvisato è mezzo salvato – in Italian, instead of being forearmed, one is ‘half saved’ when forewarned – here are a few of the things you need to be prepared for if you want to enjoy, rather than hate every minute of your Sicilian adventure al volante. At the flying thing, or as we so prosaically put it, behind the wheel.

One of the most important has to do with unexpected encounters on the road.  And I’m not even talking about the ones involving humans.  After the flight from Toronto to Rome – as usual I hadn’t slept – then the connecting flight to Palermo, then making my way through security and the mysteries of the baggage claim system, then locating the rental car office, and finally the lot where the cars are, I managed to drive all the way to the historic centre of Trapani and was looking forward to a nice little nap in the B&B when all of a sudden the cars in front of me came to a halt.

Not what I thought would be the first photo from this trip.  The goats took their time – notice the ones checking out the store on the left.

There was a long line-up of vehicles, but I didn’t hear one horn honking. Welcome to Sicily!

The goats in Trapani were not an isolated incident.  One day I set out for a village in the area close to the Madonie Mountains.  The road was pretty rough and as I had learned on my previous trip to the area (‘One Thing Leads to Another’, Sept. 13, 2015), could get even rougher with little in the way of warning signs. So I was driving quite slowly when I came to the curve below.  As it turned out, although the road beyond the curve was fine, it was a good thing I was going slowly.

In the distance, Castiglione di Sicilia.

Maybe I should have rented a more substantial car. A free-spirit that size could do a lot of damage to my little Ypsilon.

Instead it  began – rather daintily – to cross the road.

And then proceeded to make its way, slowly, down the middle of the road.

I really did not want to get T-boned in the middle of nowhere by a rogue cow or bull, or whatever it was, but after a while of inching along the road, even a cautious female driver of a certain age will get fed up. When I saw a bit of straight road, I gunned it.

Of course not all your unexpected encounters will involve animals.

On the way to a vineyard I kept well behind this truck.  One bump taken just a bit too fast and I could see those rocks come flying at me.

I don’t care if the locals do it all the time. I am not going to pass any vehicle, even a hay wagon, on a blind curve.

Instead I pulled over to wait until he went by. This strategy has the added benefit of allowing the driver to admire the scenery.

Signs are another unexpected challenge.  The owner of the agriturismo I was staying at had given me directions to the summer pastures.  When I got to the ‘T’ at the end of the long road up to the agriturismo all I had to do was follow the sign for Collesano.

I parked the car and walked over to get a closer look at the sign. In the end I figured that because the right end of the uppermost sign, obviously for Palermo, was straight, that meant that the broken off end would have been triangular, which meant that Palermo was to the left, which meant that for Collesano I had to turn right.

The vaguely arrow-shaped black bits at the left end of the middle sign almost led me the wrong way.

Some signs aren’t missing vital parts, they’re just hard to see behind all the foliage.

Somewhere in there was the sign for the winery I wanted to visit.

Sometimes the signs are so unobtrusive and/or weather-worn you’ll only see them once you’ve found your destination and are walking along the road.

One of my favourites. Normally a warning against falling rocks, but with the cow on top…

More often however, when it comes to signs, it’s the lack of encounters that is unexpected. And molto scocciante (skoch-chan-tay)  Annoying.

One day I came the closest I’ve ever been to thinking about not doing any more driving trips.  What happened is exactly as follows, but I’ve been careful not to reveal the identity of the location or the owner of the B&B for reasons that will become obvious.  Since I can’t use any photos of that experience, I’ve interspersed the story with shots from another outing.

On my way to one of Sicily’s ‘Most Beautiful Villages” I was delighted to come across one of the island’s iconic animals – l’asino – on the proper side of a somewhat sturdy fence.

Things got off to a good start.  The exit I was supposed to take off the highway was well signed and I continued along a quiet, country road following the signs for the village the B&B was in.  Until the signs petered out. I knew I was close – it was becoming a pattern – but the village was nowhere in sight. I decided to stop and ask at a fruttivendolo (froo-tee-ven-doh-low).  I approached a young fellow who was working on a huge pile of rapini.  He pointed to a fellow by the cash register.  Yes, of course, the boss knew the village I was trying to get to.  It was vicinissimo!  (vee-chee-nees-see-moh).  Very close.  I already knew that. He also knew the B&B which, I was happy to hear, was molto bello.  As for explaining how to get there…

A bit further along the road I was even more delighted when I saw a bunch of humpy things.

Pecore! (pay-coh-ray) I’d been hearing their bells for days, but hadn’t been able to spot any.

The wind turbines made for an odd sight, but the sheep seemed oblivious .

He pulled out his cellulare (chell-loo-lah-ray) and started tapping.  As the minutes went by, I began to get a strong feeling that directions were beyond his cellphone skills. Finally, after a great deal of tapping and ‘oofing’ and frowning at the little screen, he put the phone back in his pocket.  What I needed to do, he said with a confidence that belied what I’d just watched, was rifare la strada alberata.  Did I know the road with the trees on both sides?  Yes, I did, having driven up and down it several times before finally stopping at his store.  Poi (poy), he continued, when I reached the end of that road, I needed to ask for the directions from there.

Not far from the sheep I saw some more humpy things. Much larger humpy things. On the road. Coming towards me.

In the end I stopped at a panificio (bread store), a garden supply store, and the local vigili, whose combined directions left me totally disoriented and heading for the entrance ramp to the highway I’d got off an hour earlier There are a lot of Italian expressions for situations like this, but I like to keep my posts civilized so I’ll spare you my thoughts as I approached the ramp.  The Fates, as it turned out, are not totally without mercy.  Just before I would be forced back on to the highway heading in the direction I’d come from, there was a huge open area on the left side of the road. Filled with cars.  It was a used car dealership. People in car dealerships drive.  They know the roads.

I watched in disbelief as they came closer and closer.

Except for two fellows sitting at a desk in the shade of a huge canopy, there was no-one around. I parked and walked over to them.  Buon giorno, mi displace disturbarLe…    Sorry to bother you… (There were no customers, but I am very fond of this phrase; it has worked wonders for me over the years.)  When I finished explaining my sad little tale, the older fellow – the owner – looked around, tapped the table and then announced, Le faccio da guida.  Se no, non lo trova.  (I’ll take you there.  Otherwise you won’t find it.)   I stared at him, sbalordita.  Aghast, dumbfounded. Off balance.

Like the white cow earlier, the leader moved over to the side to pass by my car.  As I sat there taking photos it occurred to me that having the window down might not be a good idea. Look at those horns.

But the ones behind him did not exactly go in single file.

For the record, I would like it to be known that I am not one of those women who go to Italy in search of searing avventure amorose (I don’t think it’s necessary to translate.  I think you know what I mean.)  I do not enjoy putting myself at the mercy of strangers, even handsome, promising-looking ones.  On the contrary, I take all sorts of cautions to ensure I won’t have to.  I stay at places that don’t involve driving at night along dark, country roads where I could easily take a wrong turn.  I fill up the tank long before it gets close to empty. I keep my passport and money VERY close to me.  Etc.  But it was broad daylight and even though it felt like the middle of nowhere, I knew it wasn’t.

This one was it for me. I closed the window.

I sputtered troppo gentile (too kind) and many mille grazie.  As I followed him in my car – his gallant offer included driving at a speed even I could easily keep up with – I softened the edges of my discomfort with the thought of the grande piacere (great pleasure) he would no doubt have that evening as he told his buddies at the bar how he had rescued the lost straniera.

I took a few photos through the  windshield until I finally saw the ‘shepherd’.

My galantuomo was right.  I would never have found the B&B on my own.  In addition to a tricky turn, there was also the fact that there was no sign – none – at the road, which was more of a lane than a road, that led to the B&B.  What kind of a B&B doesn’t even put up a sign so tourists can find it? Maybe one that doesn’t want tourists to find it?  This was Sicily after all.  I didn’t have time to get too nervous before I reached the gate.

Even though I know not one of the huge creatures touched the car, not even a swish of a tail, I can’t help wincing when I look at some of the photos.

Later, as I was chatting with the owner, who was as delightful as the B&B, I couldn’t resist mentioning how hard it had been for me to find it.  I don’t like complaining, but really!  Couldn’t they at least put up a sign at the end of the lane?! (And also for the record, I didn’t put it quite like that.)

Ah signora, he sighed, ha ragione.   He had put up a sign – a couple of them in fact – after, si capisce, obtaining the obligatory permesso from the local authorities.  He had put them up on a Friday.  The following Sunday they were gone.  Disappeared.  He found out, much later, that the Carabinieri had taken them.  And were keeping them in their possession. Somewhere.  An action usually known as rubare (roo-bah-ray).  Stealing.  The Carabinieri is the generally much-maligned military force charged with police duties under the authority of the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of the Interior.  You need only watch a couple of episodes of Detective Montalbano to get a sense of its poor public image.  And if you google ‘carabinieri‘ one of the first recommended sites that pop up is ‘carabinieri jokes’.  There are apparently thousands of them, all on the same theme.  For example – Su una porta di una caserma c’è un foglio con scritto “Questa caserma è aperta 24 ore su 24 dalle 8 di mattina fino alle 8 di sera!”  (On a barrack door is a sign – ‘This barrack is open 24 hours a day, from 8 in the morning until 8 at night’.)

This old matriarch – or maybe with those horns it’s a patriarch – was not going to be rushed. Even when the ‘shepherd’ leaned on his horn.

And why would the Carabinieri have rubato (roo-bah-toe) a couple of signs indicating the way to a B&B?  The answer is mired in the layers and layers of bureaucracy and jostling for power and status that we tourists are usually blissfully unaware of.  The local vigili had not notified the local carabinieri of the permesso.  So now, sighed the owner again, what was he supposed to do?  Sue the carabinieri for theft?

Finally the herd continued on its way and so did I.

There is one more thing you need to be aware of if you want your driving experience in Sicily to be a happy one.  Space.  If you are used to the broad streets and open areas of North America you may never have thought much about space before and will be surprised to discover that it is a relative concept.

Sometimes even the locals struggle. Historic centre of Randazzo.

So save yourself a lot of grief, pack lightly and rent the smallest car you and your stuff can fit into.

This lane into a B&B near the Valley of Temples is two-way.  I only had to back up a couple of times during my stay.

Luckily, Sicily offers a cornucopia of spectacular and fascinating sites that will make all your white-knuckle experiences absolutely worth it in the end.

All thoughts of the drive into the B&B will vanish when you sit down on the terrace, a glass of the strong, local wine in hand, to watch the sun set over the Temple of Concordia.

Next – One Woman’s Dream Garden

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Where the Leopard and the Detective Meet

One of the drawbacks of designing your own itinerary is that at one point or other in your trip you’re probably going to come down with a bad case of second guessing-itis. Halfway between Punta Secca – probably better known nowadays as Marinella, hometown of Detective Montalbano – and Ragusa, where I would be staying next, is a building featured in the series.  It wasn’t far – 15 kilometres – and it was on the way, but as I drove through the uninspiring scrubland I began to have my doubts. Maybe it would have been better to spend the morning by the sea.   Luckily, 15 kilometres doesn’t give you much time to get into full-blown second-guessing gear and when I finally arrived, I was glad I hadn’t given into the self-doubts.

Leaving the sea – the faint, blue haze in the background – is always hard. Driving through landscapes like this makes it even harder.

A great deal of the allure of the site comes from the captivating tales it has given rise to.  A favourite is the story of the Regina Bianca di Navarra.  After the premature death of her husband, King Martin the Younger of Sicily, followed by the equally untimely death in 1410 of her father-in-law, Martin the Elder, who had been appointed Viceroy, the young Queen Blanche’s misfortunes were far from over.  Count Bernardo Cabrera, Lord of Modica and one of the most powerful men in Sicily took a fancy to her.  More precisely to her position.  After a few unsuccessful attempts to wrest the crown from her by force, he decided to try le buone maniere.  He asked for her hand in marriage.  This being centuries before ‘No means no!’, when she refused, he locked her up in his palace, the one I was about to visit.  When she escaped, the enraged Cabrera set out in hot pursuit, following her around the island, attacking the various castles in which she sought refuge.

The site was only opened to the public fairly recently after five years of intensive restoration. As you can see in the photo below, work on the outbuildings – the stalls, warehouses and hovels where the farm workers once lived – continues.

View from the terrace. If I were going to dedicate a significant portion of my life energy and (non existent) wealth fixing up a place, I’d at least want a more uplifting view.

The tale of Queen Blanche is often used to explain the castle’s name – Donnafugata – which as anyone who knows a bit of Italian will recognize as the synthesis of  ‘donna in fuga’.  ‘Woman in Flight’ or ‘Fleeing Woman’.  We are wrong. The name comes from a spring discovered by the Arabs in the 10th century.  Over time the Arab name, ‘Ayn As Jagat’ (‘Fountain of Health’), evolved into Ronnafuata in the local dialect and eventually Donnafugata.  This and another documented fact – the earliest records pertaining to the castle date back only to the 17th century, long after both the Queen and her pursuer were dead – have not deterred the romantically inclined who insist on the White Queen derivation.

‘The Fleeing Woman’ is without doubt a fabulous name for the fairy tale castle.  Unfortunately, the oldest part of the castle, the square tower, was built long after her death.

The castle got a big boost in tourism after it started appearing in the Detective Montalbano series.  The downside, as experienced by some unlucky tourists, is that it’s off limits to the public during filming.  And private events.  Like the wedding – the real life wedding – of Luca Zingaretti, the actor who plays Montalbano.

In the world of Montalbano the castle is the villa of local Mafia boss, Balduccio Sinagra. On the day I visited, there were no Mafia bosses in sight.  Just a group of young children on a school outing.

To my uneducated eye, the castle looked like any self-respecting castle, with all the usual enchanting embellishments.  For those who know even a bit more about such things than I, it is an architectural hodge podge.  Or to put it more delicately, a pastiche.  Eclecticism was all the rage in the 19th century and when Corrado Arezzo de Spuches, Baron, Member of the Sicilian Parliament and Senator of the Kingdom of Italy,  purchased the property in 1869, he set about decorating the castle with his favourite motifs.  He especially liked Venetian Gothic, which explains the loggia above the terrace.

The true eclectic spirit knows no geographical bounds, so two sphinxes guard the staircase leading up to the terrace.

The legend of Queen Blanche isn’t the only thing that confounds visitors.  Fans of the Sicilian classic, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), who come here expecting to walk in the footsteps of the last of the great Sicilian aristocrats are disappointed to learn this is NOT the castle where Prince Salina and his family sought refuge from the stifling heat of Palermo’s summers.  However, I doubt that even the most devoted Gattopardo fans remain disappointed once they climb the scala monumentale (monumental staircase) to the piano nobile where the real life 19th century noble owners lived.  Of the castle’s 122 rooms, 28  – more than enough for any fan – are open to the public, all filled with period furniture and clothes and the paraphernalia of daily life.  (Whereas if they had gone to the ‘real’ Donnafugata, the one in Santa Margherita Belice that Lampedusa based his novel on, they would have been as wretched as I was after the long and difficult drive.  I’ll write about that experience later.)

The first room I came to was the Sala dell’Ombrello. The Umbrella Room.

In each room a plaque provides a mini history of the item being focused on.  For the most part these explanations – which really are fascinating – are in Italian only.  I didn’t hear any English during my visit and I suspect there haven’t been many English speaking visitors in the past.  Not surprising, given all the other more famous must-see sites on the island.  I’d come to Sicily twice before – for three weeks at a time – and was only now visiting the castle for the first time.   However, with the immense popularity the series is having with British viewers, that is bound to change, so perhaps more English explanations are in the wings.

‘The umbrella (from the Latin umbra or ‘ombra’) was initially used to protect against the sun.’

If I were to do that relationship exercise where someone says a word and you have to say the first thing that pops into your head, the last thing that would come to my mind for ‘umbrella’ would be ‘sun’.  I’ve always found the habit, practiced predominantly by certain ethnic groups in Toronto – I am trying to be careful here – of carrying an umbrella when the sun is shining rather odd.  Who knew they’re just using the umbrella the way it was originally designed to be used?

More bits of umbrella history follow.  ‘In the 1700’s it was an important symbol of social status, owned only by the aristocracy.  By the 1800’s it had become an essential element of the noble woman’s wardrobe, a charming accessory designed to highlight the elegance of one’s outfit.  It was only in the first half of the 20th century that its use as a shield from rain became widespread.’  Then came the most fascinating bit of all.  ‘Along with the hat and purse, it was the first sign of the emancipation of women, in that it was associated with life outside the home.’

One of the many elaborate silk wall coverings features repeating patterns of twin lions, atop ornately decorated interlacing pipes, licking the gold base of an urn holding a bunch of loaves of bread. Obviously I was missing something.

This is the Fumoir, where the men retired to play cards – and smoke their pipes – after dinner.

Peacocks, an ancient symbol of immortality, glare down proudly from the ceiling.

I hope whoever was in charge of lighting fires in the castle removed the curtains beforehand.

As it turns out, there is really no need for the ‘Fleeing Woman’ story.   The real life story of Baron Corrado had enough drama and tragedy to satisfy the most diehard romantic.  His only child, Vincenzina, was married at 16 – probably not unusual in those times – but then she and her two daughters – if they had been sons the story would of course have been different – were abandoned by her husband.  The young mother set off for Paris, city of love as well as light, to recover from the heartbreak.  The city’s magic didn’t work and she died.  Shortly after, her mother also died, leaving the Baron alone with his two granddaughters, one of whom died in the 1908 earthquake in Messina.  Part of her inheritance was donated to the construction of a hospital in nearby Ragusa.  This didn’t lessen the baron’s grief, but it was a noble thing to do.  On my previous trip to Ragusa I had been intrigued by a couple of plaques along Corso Umberto.  They seemed so out of place in the lively area that even though I had no idea what they were about I took a photo.

The upper plaque was the original one.  You can tell because of the date at the bottom – MCMXXII.  For those of you whose knowledge of Roman numerals is a bit rusty:  M = 1,000; C = 100; C before M = minus one C; X = 10;  two X’s = 20; I = 1 and two II = 2 (not 11!).   So MCMXXII = …  The plaque is written in formal, ‘monumental’ Italian. The gist of it is that with this plaque, the town fathers of Ragusa Ibla wished to consecrate their gratitude to the memory and name of MARIA PATERNO’ AREZZO  (the wretch who had abandoned Maria’s mother Maria was Giuseppe Paternò Castello Alliata – try hyphenating that one) Princess of Castellaci who, inspired by the writings of the Evangel, donated the funds to build a hospital and cover the costs of caring for thirty patients’.

The lower plaque reads – ‘On the centenary of the death of the great benefactress, MARIA PATERNO’ AREZZO, from the grateful citizens.  (And yes, the date on the upper panel is 1922.)

That left Clementina, and this is where real life comes deliciously close to fiction.  Clementina and the French Viscount, Gaetano Combes de Lestrade, fell in love.  But the baron, perhaps wishing to protect his one remaining grandchild from the fate that had befallen her mother, forbade the relationship.  So the two young things did what young lovers everywhere do – they ran away.  But they had underestimated the baron, who had grown used to using his powerful contacts and influence to get his way.  One of his campieri (field guards), the unfortunately named don Mario ‘U Crapu’, followed their trail to the south shore of Sicily, where they had boarded a ship on its way to the continent.  The enterprising ‘U Crapu’ commandeered a ship moored off Punta Secca (perhaps not far from Montalbano’s villa), and no doubt spurring on the deck hands with threats of the baron’s displeasure if they did not succeed, caught up with the nave in fuga.  Fleeing Ship.  It took some doing, but there was – eventually – a happy ending to this story.  The baron and the count’s family overcame their objections and the two were married and lived happy ever after, dividing their time between Paris and Sicily.

The difference between a velo (veil) and a scialle (shawl) was a subtle one, a scialle essentially being a velo worn on the shoulders rather than on the head. Shawls like these served to soften the effect of a plunging neckline or exposed shoulders.

As explained on the plaque in the Sala della Musica, one of the few with an English translation, the room contains several wonderful instruments from the baron’s time…

…but it was the enormous frescoes that really caught my attention.

To this day Naples looks more enchanting from a distance.

The real Teatro Massimo is in the heart of Palermo, closed in on all sides by palazzi of various styles and states of repair, rather than this delightful fantasy landscape.

The next room featured the influence of the Oriente, meaning Japan and China, on fashion  in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Like most of the longer, more involved explanations, there was no English translation.

Amongst the interesting bits was something I hadn’t expected to come across during my visit of the castle – or anywhere on my travels around Sicily for that matter.  A reference to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which had facilitated contact between the two worlds – allowed them to toccarsi la mano (touch each other’s hand) and led to an even greater enthusiasm for the Far East.  Not just in art – the red arrow is presumably to ensure we don’t miss this point – but also in music.

The lower red arrow highlights the items protected behind glass.  A priceless Kimono, fan and umbrella from the early 1900’s, as well as a Chinese vase and rare Japanese jewellery box that belonged to the Barons of Donnafugata.

On one side of a long hall were the guest bedrooms.

I got the feeling there was a strict hierarchy of guests.

As I walked past another guest room I overheard one of the guards talking about a working clock in a painting. When I asked her,  she pointed to the blank space in the tower on the left.  A tiny clock used to tick tock the hours from the space.  It was one of the Baron’s scherzi.  Jokes. The painting had to be hung on an angle to make room for the mechanics of the little clock.

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and hearing the tick tock of the clock in the painting.

Some fashion accessories struck me as not all that ancient looking. I guess it’s a matter of personal perspective.

Another corridor led to one of the most remarkable rooms in the castle – the Stanza del Billiardo.  Elevated chairs allowed a good view of the table which was lit by the ornate bronze lamp suspended from the ceiling. A sign of the times, the lamp could be ‘lit’ by candles or petrol.  Preferably not at the same time.

Above, a magnificent trompe l’oeil.

Amidst the elegant shawls a Great Dane, an allusion to Bendico’, the Prince’s loyal dog, and according to the author himself, la chiave del Gattopardo. The key to understanding the novel.

Some visitors bemoan the state of the castle interior. To my mind, signs of decay, like these water stains, detract nothing from the powerful sense of place.

There were a few moments of pandemonium as the teachers herded their young charges through the Sala degli Specchi.

Once the school children were well down the hall the Room of Mirrors returned to its usual refined elegance. The room was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, another site the Baron would have visited.

Reflected in the mirror, a rare portrait of Baron Corrado Arezzo. The butterfly is embedded in the glass. Another of the baron’s jokes.

This seemed too morbid to be one of the baron’s jokes. But who would want to pose for such a portrait?  And who would want to have it hanging on their wall?

Now and then special exhibits are mounted in the castle.  The photo below is of the normally very staid Salone degli Stemmi.  Crests, even of Sicily’s great families, are not my thing, so normally I would have walked right by.  I had no idea what was going on here.  Neither did the couple I’d befriended at Villa Montalbano who, as it happened, were also visiting the castle.  Some of the gowns had labels.

The white gown in the foreground was ‘Isola Bella’. A reference to the island on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy?  The black dress at the back is ‘Notturno’. OK.  But I still didn’t see a pattern. As far as I could tell the green dress didn’t have a tag. If it were up to me, I’d called it ‘La Primavera‘. Spring.

The red gown at the back of the room was the strangest of all.  It was called ‘La Strega delle Rose.’  It took me a while of meandering around the Internet but eventually I found it at ‘suggestionidicarta.blogspot.ca’.  The artist – I couldn’t find his name anywhere on the site, although there was a photo of him working on the red grown – takes paper of all types and weights and works it into fabric, lace and embroidery, which he then uses to create gowns for the heroines of a bygone era.  Divas and femmes fatales. The mannequin dressed in red is a Sicilian witch.  On her head she wears a crown of red coral; an arrow pierces her heart, illuminating the mysterious interlacing of her corset; red blood flows down the billowing skirt, transforming it into roses… 

La Strega delle Rose. The Rose Witch

It was time to check out the baron’s garden.  In the grand tradition of 18th century garden design in Sicily, it had been divided into three distinct areas – the English Garden, the French Garden and the Mediterranean Garden.  The baron had over 1,500 species of plants brought over to the island, many of them rare. But when I saw what was left of his garden, I hesitated.  Sicily obviously has had and continues to have many, much more serious problems to contend with than the state of its gardens, but still, it did not look worth my while.  And it was hot.  And close to lunch time.  But then I gave myself the ‘for heaven’s sake, you crossed the Atlantic to get here, just go have a quick look at it’ talk and went out into the garden.

As other visitors have complained, this is not the giardino lussureggiante of the baron’s day. Rare, colourful, lush plants are always the first to succumb to neglect.

Close to the palace is an ancient fig tree. The Baron’s guests were encouraged to take a leaf – literally – and write a little note on the leaf which would then, thanks to a special permit granted courtesy of the Baron’s powerful connections, go off in the mail to friends and family.

Postcards from a fig tree. Now there’s an idea.

The baron was well aware that although he derived a great deal of pleasure from embellishing his castle, the days could be long and boring for his guests, so as well as in the castle he also had a few scherzi installed in his garden.  Some of these were scherzi d’acqua, water jokes, similar to ones I had seen in gardens such as Villa Medicea di Castello near Florence (‘The 1st Renaissance Garden – part III’, Sept. 22, 2013) and Villa Valsanzibio in the Veneto (‘A Garden that Wants You to Think’, April 10, 2016).  I was relieved to learn that, like those in mainland Italy, they were no longer functional, but aghast when I found out that work was underway to get them working again.  

Not all the scherzi involved water.  Scattered throughout the park were empty tombs.  The idea was that young (hopefully attractive) female guests would come across the tombs and,  terrified at the thought of tripping over a dead body, would run to the waiting arms of the baron, who was more than pleased to comfort them. I didn’t come across any empty tombs. Presumably they have all been filled in.  Even if it does make for less fun, no owner nowadays wants visitors falling into holes and filing lawsuits.

On top of a slight elevated area partway down the central pathway was one of the baron’s folies.  Il Tempietto.

Below the little temple the baron had built a grotto where his guests, sheltered from the glaring Sicilian sun, could amuse themselves dodging stalactites.

I looked around for the grotto and finally found it behind a bunch of overgrown bushes.  A wrought iron gate barred the entrance.  That was annoying. We modern visitors in our sneakers and track shoes are a lot surer on our feet than his 19th century guests would have been.  Maybe, unlike the real thing, the baron’s stalactites had started to crumble.  I continued down to the end of the wide, central pathway – the setting for the horse race in ‘La Pista di Sabbia‘ (The Track of Sand) – to another temple-like structure.  The ‘Coffee House’, where the Baron’s guests could refresh themselves after their long, hot walk.

Modern visitors have to bring their own refreshments, as this group of school children has done. Even in Italian this kind of garden folie is always called a ‘Coffee House’. No idea why.

View from the Coffee House. No wonder the baron filled his garden with scherzi to amuse his guests.

Unlike the school group I had not brought lunch and my water bottle was empty.  Time to get back on the road to Ragusa and the little trattoria where I’d had such a lovely antipasto misto on my last trip.  On my way back to the castle I climbed up the little slope to have a better look at the Tempietto.

It’s hard to see in the glaring light of mid-day but the ceiling of the little temple is painted with a night sky scene.

I also hoped that from up here I’d get an overhead view of the labirinto, another of the amusements the baron had made for his guests’ enjoyment. The maze (I wrote about the difference between labyrinths and mazes in  ‘Carpe the Sunny Diem’, May 15, 2016) replicates the one at Hampton Court that the Baron would have visited on one of his trips abroad.  At the time, climbing roses blocked the view between the walls and prevented visitors from climbing on top of the walls to see the way out.  Which is exactly what one visitor, a rather spry fellow for someone who looked to be well into his sixties was doing as I watched from the temple.  I climbed down the slope and approached the entrance.  He was talking to some people in the maze.  Giving them directions.   Eh, vous trichez!  (That’s cheating!), I teased him.  A few minutes later a woman and a man, also in their late sixties, half stumbled out of the maze.  Perspiration was dripping down their faces and they looked more than a bit rattled.  How difficult is it? I asked them, I’m thinking of trying it.  Mais non, Madame, the woman said, a truly concerned look on her face, il ne faut pas y entrer toute seule. C’est vraiment difficile.

I was hot and hungry. The idea of getting lost in those stone walls was as unappealing as it was embarrassing.

It may not look like much of a challenge from this angle, but online commentators warn otherwise.

I headed back to the castle.

Historical facts and all, it’s easy to understand why the story of the ‘Fleeing Woman’ has endured. That tower seems ready made for a beautiful, young queen’s escape.

 

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The Upstager

Although many scenes in the Montalbano episodes are filmed in Scicli, the sede della location is 30 kilometres north in the hilltop town of Ragusa.

The Duomo of San Giorgio, Ragusa, May, 2015. On my return two years later the palm trees were gone.  A pity.  I thought they added a nice touch

Given that Andrea Camilleri, the author of the novels the episodes are based on, was born in Porto Empedocle, a few kilometres west of the Valley of the Temples in the Province of Agrigento, it was widely considered – especially by the citizens of Porto Empedocle – that the series would be set in the author’s birthplace.

Driving into Ragusa for the first time in 2005.

By the way, what is up with the apparent Italian craze for English words and expressions? The way Italians pronounce those words does make them sound a lot more intriguing, but really, don’t they have any language police like the French?  It drives me crazy.  It took me forever to figure out that the ‘Veep’ one young receptionist was going on and on about – at one point, it was getting so awkward she tried speaking English, but that only made things worse – were celebrities visiting in the area. VIP’s.

10 years later, Corso Umberto, the heart of Ragusa, on a Sunday morning.

To the surprise of many and the dismay of the empedoclini, after a great deal of searching – soul-searching as well as geographical – the town of Ragusa was chosen over Porto Empedocle.  The reason given was the povertà scenografica not only of Porto Empedocle, but of the ENTIRE province of Agrigento.  Ouch! It was a decision that to this day arouses bitter polemiche e rivendicazioni among the citizens of Agrigento, who in addition to having their feelings hurt, are also no doubt well aware of having lost out on a serious source of tourist revenue.  Their discontent has sometimes even been directed at Camilleri, who in his defence has been at pains to point out that he had put in la buona parola (good word) for Porto Empedocle,  “Però, se tecnicamente but, if technically speaking, the natural beauties of this area have been sporcate (sullied) by construction, satellite dishes and whatever, che ci posso fare (what can I do)?”

To my dismay, two years earlier I had taken a wrong turn and almost ended up in Porto Empedocle on my way to the Scala dei Turchi.

La Scala dei Turchi. No povertà scenografica here.

I took lots of photos of the Turkish Staircase (post to come – eventually), but none of Porto Empedocles.  (Camilleri was right.)  I also took lots of Ragusa, which as the location scouts knew, is full of intriguing alleys and buildings that lend themselves beautifully to crime scenes and interesting venues for investigations.

In one episode Montalbano walks under this arch on his way to interview a reluctant witness.

I had liked Ragusa so much on my previous visits that I decided to stay here this time.  L’Orto sul Tetto, a B&B in the centro storico sounded perfect – charming hosts, steps from the Duomo and breakfast in the rooftop vegetable garden it’s named for.  Well worth the ordeal getting there. Previous guests recommended slavishly following your GSP.  Others, better informed, who know we visitors are not allowed to drive into the historic centre said forget it, just phone from the big parking lot below the centre and someone from the B&B would come and get you.

Ragusa’s narrow, atmospheric alleys are a director’s – and a tourist’s! – dream, but it’s clear that living here has its challenges.

Since I had been to Ragusa just two years earlier ( ‘Keeping Everybody Happy’, August 2, 2015), I figured I could manage getting to the B&B on my own.  After a fair bit of time spent cross-checking the directions I found on Google against the map I’d brought back from my previous visit I had a rather long, but what I thought was a foolproof set of directions.

I got as far as the little piazza in the photo below.  I knew I was close.  The B&B was at Via Tenente Distefano, 56 (in Italy street numbers follow the street names), the street directly across from the bar. But there was a big sign, which, atypically, had been placed where it couldn’t be missed, even by a frazzled foreign driver, advising that the area beyond the sign was a ZTL.  Zona Traffico Limitato.  All the major cities and towns in Italy have them.  They are to keep outsiders – even Italian outsiders – off the roads in really tight or congested areas.  I once got terribly lost in Padua in northern Italy and ended up driving through a ZTL.  Of course I had no idea at the time and was horrified when a couple of months later I received a letter from the car rental agency containing a copy of a hefty fine which had been charged to my Visa.

For once ignoring the ‘No Parking’ signs scattered around the tiny piazza, I pulled up in front of the bar to ponder my next move.  A couple of tourists sitting at a table in front of the bar eyed me sympathetically.

The idea of having a good cry was tempting and although I am a firm believer in the therapeutic effects of a good cry, I doubted it would help in this case, so instead I went into the bar.  Not, as some of you may be thinking, to drown my sorrows.  Italian bars, I have discovered over the countless times I have got lost in my travels around the country, are a surprisingly reliable source of information.  I explained my predicament to the signorina tending the bar.  It turned out I was less than a 10-minute walk from the B&B and a mere 100 meters from the parking lot.  But, she warned, the vigili passed by regularly and I would get a big fat multa (ticket) if I left my car where it was.  Also, the parking lot was at the bottom of the hill.  ‘Non ce la farà con la valigia.’  She doubted I would be able to drag my suitcase up the long staircase.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, she added with a concerned look on her face that even though the B&B was not far, it would be una fatica (fa-tee-kuh) to get there.  It was all uphill.

So, so close.  The ultimate frustration. Behind the bar was the blue dome I’d used to make my way back to the parking lot on my previous trip.

While I worked on trying to find my zen zone, she came up with the solution to my predicament.  A solution that was as simple as it was generous. She would keep an eye on my suitcase while I parked my car.  Then I really almost burst into tears.

As the signorina had warned me, it was a good workout hauling my suitcase up to the B&B, but I hardly felt it.  Amazing how an act of kindness can lighten our load.

Looking out my window the next morning I couldn’t see much of yesterday’s long climb, but I had a great view of the street below.  No wonder tourists aren’t allowed to drive up here.

Breakfast wasn’t quite ready when I went up to the rooftop terrace, so I put my things down at one of the tables and went over to have a look at the ‘orto‘.  It was lovely.  A tiny bit of paradise full of citrus trees and what back home we call ‘tropicals’.  A few minutes later I was joined by Pino, who in addition to helping with the breakfast service, is also the gardener.   He saw me looking at a shopping bag in one of the lemon trees.  At first I thought it had just blown into the tree and got caught in the branches, but when I got closer I saw it had been very carefully tied, at the top and bottom, onto a branch.  “Margotta”, he said.  “Innesto?” I asked, thinking margotta might be Sicilian for ‘graft’.  No, no, no.  It was a totally different thing.  Whenever he wants a new tree – you can never have too many lemon trees in a Sicilian garden – he has a good look at a ‘Mother’ tree and chooses a branch he thinks will make a good, new one.  He carefully scrapes the bark to form a ring around the branch and then he ties a bag filled with moist earth around the ring.  In September he cuts the branch off – below the bag, which is where the roots of the new tree have formed – and plants it in a pot.

Margotta, a simple and chemical-free way of multiplying your plants. ‘Layering’ in English.

Pino also had a place in campagna (cam-pan-yuh).  In the countryside outside Ragusa.  There he has olive trees and fruit trees of every variety. Tutti i frutti.   He made a point of letting me know that he grows everything zoobiologicamente.  Organically.  No poisons or chemicals touch his plants or soil.  He started to tell me about his natural remedies for pests.  For the tiny wasps that attack the olive trees he makes a concoction of honey and vinegar and hangs bottles of it – the bottles have small holes that prevent the wasps from getting out – on the trees, a few scattered through the grove, but most of them at the south end, the direction the wasps come from.  Controlling aphids takes a few trattamenti of a spray made with ortica (or-tee-kuh).  I grimaced. Yes I knew what it was, having stumbled into a clump on a trail years earlier.  Stinging nettle.

The tiny orange tree in the pot next to the table where I had breakfast was one of Pino’s ‘margottas‘.

I’m sure he would have loved to go on – and me too – but other guests had come up to the terrace.  It was time for la prima colazione (pree-muh coh-lah-tsee-oh-nay).

Lingering over breakfast in the lush, secluded getaway was a wonderful way to start the day.

I loved going out the front door of the B&B and walking up the lane to the Duomo.

The first time I reached the top of the ridge and saw the light display being installed along Corso Umberto I wondered if by sheer luck my stay in Ragusa coincided with a festival.  I have mixed feelings about Italy’s festivals.  In Puglia I had once got caught in the middle of a procession and couldn’t get back to my car (‘When the Saints Go Marching’, Apr. 4, 2017) and on this trip I ended up handing my car keys over to perfect strangers – twice – because of festivals.  One of the guests at Montalbano’s Villa, a Brit who was using Sicily’s limited public transit to get around, had hired a driver  to take him to Noto for the annual Infiorata (‘Flowery But Not Florid Street Art’, July 7, 2015).  It cost him €120 – roughly $180 Cdn – for four hours, 45 minutes of which he had spent sitting behind hundreds of other cars in periferia and another 45 minutes getting to the little lane where the display is held.   Festivals can be a fantastic experience.  The trick is to get settled in before they start and plan not to go anywhere in your car until they’re over.

In the middle of the piazza was another ZTL sign. I pitied the poor tourist who drove up here.

Down the lane to the left was the trattoria where I’d had a lovely Sunday lunch on my previous trip.

There were lights on the side streets too. This one reminded me of a Victorian Christmas scene.

La Bettola was closed. It was their weekly giorno di chiusura. Just around the corner I saw a few people eating at tables set out along a narrow terrace. I was hungry so I decided to give it a try.

The pasta del giorno, tuna with tomatoes from Pachino and mint. Delizioso!

Feeling much better, I tucked the half bottle carefully into my bag.  It was delicious, but as the Stanford marshmallow experiment showed, a bit of delayed gratification often leads to greater rewards, in this case not feeling (too) sluggish after lunch and a lovely aperitivo on the rooftop terrace of the B&B in the evening.

Further down the corso I came to the meeting place of the so-called ‘Conversation Society’ where Montalbano occasionally interrupts Dottor Pasquano, the irascible coroner, at a card game.

Where the corso narrows can get pretty congested with locals autorizzati to drive in the ZTL and school groups and tourists.  Add in the lighting crew and their equipment and it becomes really slow going. But everyone took it in their stride. They knew the town was getting ready for a party.

The last time I’d seen such a big light display was in Gaeta on my way back from the gardens of the Reggia Caserta (‘Versailles all’italiana’, Feb. 1, 2015).  In fact it was so big it had fatto saltare il generatore.  Made the town’s generator jump.  I went up to one of the crew to have a chat.  They travelled all over Sicily putting up these displays.  And no, he laughed, they weren’t worried about blowing the generators.  Una volta sì.  In the past, yes, they’d had problems, but now they bring in extra portable generators.  And they use LED lights which consume much less electricity.

Like working on a giant puzzle. With electrically charged pieces.

The panels would all be mounted, and the lights tested and ready to go for the opening ceremonies on Friday evening.   Oh, I said dejectedly, I’ll miss it by one day. I would be in Siracusa on Friday. The festival continues until Sunday, he said hopefully.   I shook my head.  It may be something a local would do – Siracusa is less than 100 kilometres from Ragusa – but there was no way I was going to drive back along those narrow, twisting, country roads in the dark.

At ground level the crew had neat bundles of colour-coded wires at the ready.

I continued down the lane towards the Public Garden.

Was it really the same crowd that had been sitting in front of the San Giorgio Social Club two years earlier?

Even the Giardino Pubblico was getting the treatment.

I retraced my steps to the Duomo di San Giorgio, Saint George, in whose honour the festival was being held.

The sunlight caught some of the bulbs at just the right angle to give a hint of what things would look like Friday evening.

I had just taken the photo below when a young man came up to me and asked if I would fare una foto.  Certo, I replied.  He pointed to a group standing in front of the Duomo.  They were all young men, of various skin colours from dark brown to black.  Sono profughi, their leader explained as we walked over to the group.  Refugees. Sono appena arrivati. In barca.  They had just arrived. By boat.  Di dove sono?  Where are they from? I asked.  Different countries – Ghana, Nigeria.  The young man had an odd, somewhat halting accent.  It didn’t sound like any dialect I’d heard. I asked where he was from. I didn’t write it down – some things you think you won’t possibly forget – but I have a vague recollection he said Chicago.  I laughed.  Allora, well, if you prefer, I said, we can speak English.

The light display was only on one side of the piazza.  Like cats everywhere, this one, on the undecorated side of the piazza, was unperturbed by all the human activity around it.

He was with an NGO that worked with the locals.  The young men before me would stay in a camp nearby for four months, to help them recover, then be transferred to a more permanent camp where they would wait to be processed.  The hope was that they would be allowed to stay.    Were there any females? I asked.  Yes, a few, but they were more traumatized so they were being kept more sheltered for the time being.  I took a couple of photos of the group, who posed solemnly in front of the church.  I wished them well.

What must it have been like for the young refugees?  To find themselves in the middle of the beautiful piazza, surrounded by carefree tourists and locals, and the preparations for a festival?  To be there, but not really there. Yet.

The entrance to the Duomo is up a flight of stairs on the left.  The small, plain door was tightly shut.  The church was on (a rather lengthy) lunch break. The sign next to the door was a bit scruffy looking so I decided to make sure the schedule was up-to-date.  A fellow came by carrying a shopping bag out of which dangled a couple of tenerumi, the long, snake-like squashes I’d seen in markets.  I figured he was a local.

Opening Hours. Every day from 10 am until (smudged) 12:30 and from 4 pm until 6:30 pm. Tuesdays open only in the afternoons.  It is (smudged) forbidden to visit the church during sacred (smudged) functions. Please turn off cell phones.

Another couple came up to the door as he was assuring me that the opening hours were indeed as posted.  It was almost 3:30 by now, he suggested we go up to the Belvedere and take in the ‘beautiful sight’.  It was hot and all three of us were already puffing but, as the signora commented,  ‘Ormai abbiamo fatto trenta…’ (We have already done 30).  The rest of the expression, often left unsaid, is ‘Facciamo trentuno.’  Let’s do 31.

Partway up, someone had taken advantage of a kind of open air landing.

I’d come across the peculiar saying years ago when I lived in Tuscany.  lt didn’t make any more sense coming from the mouth of a Sicilian. (She was from Agrigento.)

In almost every town I visited I saw signs like this one of the battle against the corruption that had crippled the island for centuries.

Perchè 30?’ I asked.  What was so special about that number?  Ah, she shrugged, I’m not the colto (educated one).  She pointed to her companion. ‘He’s the one who knows about geography and everything.  His sisters are maestre (teachers)’.  This struck me as an unfair and potentially inaccurate attribution so I countered, Ognuno ha le sue doti.  Everyone has their own gifts.  E’ vero, she agreed, ed io ho le mie.  ‘It’s true, and I have mine.’  On this note of happy solidarity – but no wiser about the saying – we continued up the stairs.

At the top of the staircase, a palace that looked perfect for a Montalbano episode.  The cushion and towels hung out to dry heightened the sense of decay and faded glory oozing from its walls.

As anyone who has spent time in Sicily will know, it’s probably absolutely magnificent inside.

Like Montalbano, we gazed out on the ‘new’ Ragusa, where most of the locals built after their homes after the earthquake of 1693.

When we got back to the Duomo it was open.  There was another sign inside the main door.

THE LORD CALLS EVERYWHERE BUT HE WILL CERTAINLY NEVER CALL YOU ON YOUR CELLPHONE. (so you are asked to please turn it off) Grazie

St. George and his steed about to stomp on the dragon were all set for the procession.  Unlike the Madonna in Scicli, St. George would not be rolled through the town, but would be carried on the stalwart shoulders of the members of the Association of Portatori (from portare, to carry).

The banner of the Associazione dei Portatori is proudly displayed next to the saint.

The Duomo was filled with the lavish ornamentation typically found in religious buildings of its stature. The only difference was that there seemed to be a lot more Madonnas than usual.

Notice the careful placement of the blanket in the lower right corner and of the head of the cherub kneeling on a cloud in the upper left corner.

On the other side of the altar an ornately decorated reliquary was also set up for the parade.

L’Arca Santa. Presumably the reliquary is connected to San Giorgio, but I haven’t been able to find any information on exactly whose sacred remains it contains.

At one end of the reliquary, golden-robed angels.

At the other end, I’m not sure. These dark-skinned figures seem much too finely dressed and their position too exalted for them to be symbols of the usual downtrodden mori.

While I was fiddling with my camera – as you can see the lighting was all over the place – the couple came over to say they were leaving.  E’ stato un piacere, said la signora as she held out her hand to shake mine.  A small, and delightful gesture that, no matter how many times it happens, always takes me by surprise.  The idea that a shared experience, even a short one, is something of meaning that warrants more than a casual Arrivederci.

The lights wouldn’t be turned on until the following evening. Even so, it was quite a display.

 

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Realistic – and Not Realistic

I had come to Scicli (she-klee), the town that plays such a big role in the Montalbano Detective series.  It’s named after the Sicels, one of the three earliest known tribes in Sicily.  When the Greeks arrived, that was the end of the Sicels but not their settlement which, like towns and villages throughout the Val di Noto in south-eastern Sicily, survived centuries of invaders and conquerors only to be destroyed in the earthquake of 1693.  Like its more famous neighbours, Ragusa and Modica, Scicli was rebuilt in the ‘new’ baroque style.

Grotteschi like this one on the façade of Palazzo Beneventano were popular – and to my eye, unlikely – decorative elements of the new baroque style.

Palazzo Beneventano is considered by many to be the most beautiful baroque building in Sicily. But it’s difficult to get a good shot of it.  Although the sciclitani adopted the new architectural style for their buildings, they kept the narrow, winding alleys of the previous medieval layout, which makes it difficult to get far enough back to get a complete shot of a big building like Palazzo Beneventano. I caught my first glimpse of the palace at the end of a block that sits, island-like, between two other blocks.

Assigning modern street addresses must have been a logistical nightmare. How to decide what street a unit is on when it opens onto two, or as in the case of the store in the centre, three streets?

At the end of the block takes on new meaning in medieval Scicli.

There are a lot of baroque buildings in Sicily, so I’m going to stay clear of whether Palazzo Beneventano is the most beautiful of all.  I’m not a fan of these pronouncements anyway. They remind me of the tale of the wicked queen who commands her mirror to declare who is the fairest of them all.  The mirror, in case you’re rusty on your fairy tales, is supposed to reply that she is, but one day slips up and says Snow White, which leads to all sorts of problems for the poor, young thing.   Having said that, I think it’s fair to say there is definitely a lot of baroqueness going on here.

Below the Beneventano crest, the heads of two (conquered) mori, the historic, but obviously now politically incorrect term for dark-skinned people.

Because all the towns of the Val di Noto were rebuilt at the same time, in the same style, they are to a certain extent indistinguishable. (But I wouldn’t say that to a local.) The supports for this balcony in Scicli could easily be mistaken for those on Via Nocolaci in Noto.

But before I could explore Scicli’s baroque palazzi and Montalbano’s haunts, I had to park the car.  Like driving in Sicily – I have an entire post in the wings dedicated to that subject – parking in Sicily is not always a straightforward matter, especially if you don’t want to come back to a ticket or a bashed car.  In any event, somehow, without a piantina (map of the town)  I had managed to make my way to Piazza Italia, which is as close as you can drive to the centro storico.  This would have been good for some pretty healthy bragging rights except for the fact that I didn’t yet know where I was.  For that I still had to find the local tourist office, which hopefully would not be closed and hopefully would not yet have run out of maps.  It was only May, but it wouldn’t have been the first time.

For such a small town the piazza was a pretty lively area with an astonishing number of vehicles either whizzing around or parked, many rather haphazardly, it seemed to me. On my second time round I saw an empty spot that looked like it might be legit.  It was.  There was even a parking meter right next to it. The only problem was, I couldn’t figure out how the meter worked.  There were a few fellows I took to be locals standing next to the kiosk across the road.  I walked over under their watchful eyes.  I knew the routine by now.  They would stare, I would say ‘Buon giorno‘, keep talking and eventually one of them would start talking to me.  In this case it was a young man who put his beer down – it was 11 am – and proceeded to explain how the meter worked.   I wasn’t sure if it was his accent – much heavier than I had encountered so far – or something else (it seems small-minded to criticize those who reach out to lend a hand) but I couldn’t understand half of what he said.  I thanked him and headed back to the meter.  To my surprise he followed me.  Faccio io, (I’ll do it) he said, with a hint of swagger as his buddies watched.  He glanced at the instructions on the meter machine and said, it was easy, a one euro coin, and I’d be set.   This surprised me.  From what I had been able to make out, this was one of those places where the idea of charging people for parking while they are eating lunch is considered contrary to the social fabric.  Accordingly, although you had to pay to park between 9:30 and 12:30, it was free from then until the end of the lunch break, which in Scicli apparently ended at 16,00.  I tried to suggest that I didn’t think one euro would do it, but he was having nothing of it.  I fished around in my wallet and gave him my last one euro coin.  Usually I make a point of hanging on to spiccioli (spee-choe-lee) but I’d used up a bunch of coins for parking the day before and hadn’t yet had an opportunity to replenish my supply.  He inserted the coin, pressed the button and out came a biglietto valido fino alle …12,07.    Perhaps the vigile may not come by, he offered after an uncomfortable few moments, it’s only a few minutes.  I was occupied with resisting the urge to say I told you so, and trying to dismiss uncharitable thoughts about why I hadn’t been able to understand him in the first place, so by way of reply I gave him my best shot at an ambiguously thoughtful look.  In fairness, instead of standing red-faced in front of a parking meter with a straniera, he could have been back at the kiosk enjoying his beer.  To the relief of both of us I am sure, the solution to our predicament soon presented itself in the form of a father with his young son.   Without getting into any niceties such as enquiring how long they wished to park, he informed the hapless newcomer that because “abbiamo sbagliato” (WE had made a mistake) he could have my ticket and in return, would buy a new ticket for me for €1,50 – I would provide the additional 50 cents.  The poor fellow hesitated, looked at the duo in front of him and probably decided it was not worth arguing about.  I lavished mille grazie (a thousand thanks) on both of them and put my new biglietto which was valido until a comfortable 12,47 on the dashboard.   Then I set off in search of Montalbano.

On the left, the kiosk across the road from where I’d parked. On the right, the tourist office, which, as luck would have it was aperto (open) and still had a good supply of piantine.

Even if you’ve only watched a few Montalbano episodes, many of these photos will be familiar.  But you won’t recognize them as from a town named Scicli.  That’s because in Montalbano’s world, a world that seems so real it’s hard to remember it’s fictional, Scicli is not Scicli – it’s Vigata (vee-gah-tuh).

A poster on the door to the Tourist Office announces the upcoming MADONNA OF THE MILITIA. Historical Re-enactment of the Miraculous Intervention of 1091.

Most of the action in Vigata takes place a short walk from where I was parked, on Via Mormino Penna, a few blocks beyond the Chiesa Madre on the other side of Piazza Italia

Scicli’s Mother Church, home of the equestrian Madonna.

On my way over to the church I noticed a banner hanging from the building next to it.  Amidst the highly ornate façades of the surrounding buildings it looked jarringly, coldly modern.  It turns out it is modern.  Very modern.  The Scuola Media Lipparini (Lipparini Middle School) was built in 1961.  To make room for the new school the convent that had for centuries been attached to the church was torn down.  Which says a lot about how Scicli regards its young people.

In any event, there was nothing cold about the message on the banner.

DAY OF MEMORY, OF COMMITMENT AND OF THE INNOCENT VICTIMS OF THE MAFIA. MARCH 21

La Giornata della Memoria is not a holiday.  But it is an extremely important day for the future of Italy.  Since 1996, on March 21 – a day chosen because of its strong symbolism as the first day of spring and renewal – a list of over 900 names – all innocent victims of the mafia – is read out in a prominent public setting and schools of all levels, primary to university, organize events, ceremonies and activities designed to educate and engage the younger generations in the battle against the mafia.  Every year the reading of the list is assigned to a different city.  Rome was the first.  Since then cities from Torino, Milano and Genoa in the north, to Bologna and Florence in central Italy and to Naples, Bari, in the far south, as well as Messina, Corleone and Gela in Sicily, but not yet Palermo, have taken up the challenge.

I walked back to the church. In anticipation of the upcoming ceremonies the Madonna had already been taken out of her niche.  Unlike the jewel-bedecked saints I’d seen in Puglia (‘When the Saints Go Marching’, April 4, 2017), there was no-one guarding the statue so I was able to get a good, close-up look at her. I thought the contraption she was mounted on took away from the intended effect, but on the day of the procession,with the crowds pressing close to her along the narrow lanes of the town, it would probably pass unnoticed.

The Madonna was already set up for the processione. The statue must be heavier than most. Usually they are  paraded around town on the (mostly broad) shoulders of the local males.

Like Spain’s Santiago (St. James) di Compostela, Sicily’s Madonna delle Milizie is celebrated for having miraculously appeared, sword in hand, on horseback and led the ‘believers’ on to victory over the ‘infidels’.

The battle took place in 1091. I wonder – as the locals follow the Madonna through the town, what do they think of the figures about to be stomped on?

I continued on to Via Mormino Penna.  The first Montalbano site I came to was the Municipio.  Confusingly – especially for a neophyte fan – as more and more episodes were made – 28 as of March 2017 – some locations ended up doing double duty. The (real-life) exterior of the (real-life) Town Hall is the (fictional) exterior of the (fictional) police headquarters where Montalbano works with Fabio and Mimì and the incomprehensible, but occasionally brilliant Catarella, while the (real-life) mayor’s office inside is the (fictional) regional office of the Superintendent which is located in the vaguely nearby and totally fictional town of Montelusa.  Adding to the confusion, despite the fact that his villa is 25 kilometres south-west of Scicli in the real-life seaside hamlet of Punta Secca, Montalbano lives and works in Vigata,

The only way for a regular tourist to see the Ufficio del Questore is by guided tour.  Not to worry.  Even if you’re generally adverse to these things, the guides are fabulous – just the right amount and type of information – and if you spring for the €5 combo, you’ll get to see two other fascinating sites nearby.

The exterior of the real-life Town Hall of Scicli and of the fictional Commissariato (police station).

The walls around the grand staircase that leads to the office of the questore/mayor are covered with enormous paintings.  Given the setting, the scenes they portray struck me as unexpected, even questionable.

On one wall, ‘La Richezza‘ (wealth).

On the opposite wall ‘La Povertà‘ (Poverty).  What message are these paintings meant to suggest?

On another wall cherubs hold up a medallion that I think the guide said was meant to represent Mussolini.  But I’m afraid by this point none of us were paying much attention to the guide, who was really doing a lovely job.  We were about to enter l’Ufficio del Questore, the room where Montalbano regularly battles with his interfering and unsympathetic boss.

An unlikely combo – Cherubs and Mussolini.

Unlike Montalbano’s Villa (previous post) the Superintendent’s Office was just as it appears in the movies.

We entered through a grand door on the right. In the series, to create a more dramatic effect,  Montalbano storms in and out of a door behind me.

In ‘Making Montalbano:  Behind the Scenes’, a fascinating documentary by MHz Networks, Alberto Sironi, Director of the series, is interviewed with views of Scicli in the background.

From the balcony, a view that seems custom-made for a movie director.

“In the beginning”, Sironi explains “we did all the filming in Sicily.  It was so much easier then to get rid of cars, road signs and ads.  The places we were filming in were much less visited by the public.  Even by Sicilians.”

The documentary is on Youtube and the interviews are in Italian and English with subtitles in English – even when the people being interviewed are speaking English.  If you are already familiar with MHz, this probably won’t come as a surprise, but it took me a while to figure out what was going on.  Sironi, like Luca Zingaretti, the actor who plays Montalbano, speaks in Italian.  You get the sense he can speak English, but to explain his work he prefers his native language.  Translating, as I’ve mentioned before, is not an easy task and I have a great deal of respect for those who choose to do it.  Creating subtitles is in a way even more challenging because of the limited space you have to work within. Having said that, the subtitles, although not as colourful as the original, are an accurate reflection of what the speaker is saying.

Sironi is also filmed against another view of Scicli that will be familiar to fans. La Chiesa di San Bartolomeo (St. Bartholomew) and on top of the ridge, la Chiesa di Santa Maria della Croce (St. Mary of the Cross).

Except for one phrase that occurs while Sironi is standing with the view below in the background. He is talking about the early days of filming when “Everything was più puro, più sognato” (more pure, more dream-like) and how it was “desueto, talmente poco abituale fare quello che abbiamo fatto noi, che è realistico e non è realistico“.  Here the translator stumbles, for he – or she – translates ‘desueto‘ as ‘deserted’ and ‘poco abituale‘ as ‘uninhabited’ when instead desueto means ‘archaic, no longer used’ and poco abituale means ‘not the habit, uncustomary’.  You see how awkward things can get?  What Sironi is saying has nothing to do with the area being deserted.  He is saying that what they were doing was so beyond the realm of what others were still doing, so out of the ordinary, it gave them the freedom to create something that was realistico and not realistico.   (Realistic and not realistic.)  More real than real?  What is Sironi really saying?

“We were able to create something that was realistico – e non realistico.”  (Alberto Sironi)

Like all the principal actors (apart from Catarella) and crew, Franco Lecca, the director of photography, is from Rome.  When he talks about the light in Sicily, it’s like listening to poetry.  For him it is una luce (loo-chay) crepuscolare (twilight), and yet also eccessiva, a light that suggests molta solitudine (great solitude).  At times, he admits, he wants to ramp up this light, make it even stronger, more intense, but Sironi insists on a darker tone, more in keeping with Sicily’s dark interiors. Maybe it’s because I’m visiting after a long winter of endless dark, gloomy skies, but I am glad for the intense light.

Balcony along Via Mormino Penna in May.

A few doors down from the Municipio is Palazzo Spadaro, Scicli’s Pinacoteca Comunale (Art Gallery) and, as our guide tells us, the setting for Le Ali della Sfinge (Wings of the Sphinx).  One more episode to check out when I got back home.

Balcony over the entrance to Palazzo Spadaro.

Paintings cover the walls of  the Salone delle Feste where concerts and other artistic events are held.

The Chiesa di San Giovanni Evangelista (Church of St. John the Evangelist) was not on our Montalbano tour but I stepped in for a quick look.

A lot going on here.

Detail of the wall to the left of the altar. There is so much going on it’s hard to know where to look. Was that the point? To be overwhelmed?

Parts of Via Penna looked almost too beautiful, too perfect to be real.

Our little group continued down the street – although street doesn’t seem the right word. Lane or alley seem too small, and avenue too large.  It felt more like a long piazza. Perhaps it was because the whole thing is a pedestrian zone. It was so relaxing. And so unreal.

So many churches for a town of just 26,000 – and a lot fewer when all these churches were built.

The last of the three sites on our Montalbano tour was at the far end of Via Marmino Penna.  I was a bit skeptical when our new guide – a different guide was stationed at each site – admitted straight off that although many scenes had been filmed in front of the Chiesa di Santa Teresa, none had been filmed in the interior.  Hmmm…

At the end of Via Mormino Penna, the Church of St. Teresa makes a few appearances as background.

The interior was like so many I’d already seen in Sicily.  And so was the light – a challenging combination of what Lecca described as crepuscolare and eccessiva that made getting a decent photo difficult.

Once again I had the saints mixed up. The objects held aloft on the platter are not the breasts of Saint Agatha, but the eyes of Saint Lucia. Equally gruesome.

To the left of St. Lucia, lower down, is a less gruesome, but equally moving sight. The unadorned area within the small, baroque frame was once the door of a Ruota degli Innocenti. Wheel of the Innocents.  I had only ever seen one before in Florence, in Piazza Santissima Annunziata.  (‘Taking a Break – Una Passeggiata a Firenze’ – Part I, April 20, 2013)  Mothers who could not, or did not want to care for their newborn babies would place them on a revolving wheel to be cared for by the nuns.

This simple, easily overlooked space marks a bygone scene of misery and heartache.

It was all very interesting of course, but I couldn’t help wondering what the rationale was for including this church on a tour of Montalbano sites.  The rationale, I eventually concluded had nothing to do with Montalbano.  It was a ruse – perhaps too harsh a word – to entice visitors to a Mostra Affreschi.

The frescoes had originally decorated the walls of the Church and Convent of St. Mary of the Cross, the ruins of which can still be seen on one of the ridges that overlook Scicli.  The complex was severely damaged in an earthquake and after a great deal of discussion, no doubt heated, it was decided to remove the frescoes from the walls.  Even those promoting removal admitted the procedure would be highly aggressivo, but in the end both sides agreed that the alternative – continued exposure to the elements – would have caused even greater damage.

Some of the frescoes were in really bad shape, but others, like this Madonna della Misercordia, were remarkably well preserved.

Next to the Madonna della Misericorda was another Madonna.  La Madonna della Catena.  The catena (chain) – which looked surprisingly modern to me – symbolizes the life-long ties that bind a mother to her child, because, continued our young, male guide, in a manner that suggested he was about to reveal to us some hitherto unknown fact of life, the moment a woman brings a child into this world her life is forever changed.  I burst out laughing. Really?  One of the women in our group – who didn’t strike me as someone who’d had any personal experience with such chains – shot me a withering look.

As well as modern, the chain also looks a lot less ethereal than the Mother and Child it binds.

For me the most interesting part of the exhibit was the series of of six panels that portray the miracles performed by the saint the church and convent were dedicated to. It wasn’t the subject matter of the scenes that really caught my attention, it was the script below them.

At a time when so few could read, a forward-thinking artist had added script.  In Sicilian dialect.

By now I was starving.  It was hot, too hot even for a heat-lover to sit in the sun, so when I saw an osteria, steps from where I had parked my car, with a shaded terrace and view of Piazza Italia, I didn’t look any further.

The table on the left offered shade, a bit of breeze and a front row view of goings-on in the piazza below.

In true Montalbano fashion I ordered a classic Sicilian dish – spaghettoni con fave, pomodori secchi, porcini e menta.

Beans, dried tomatoes and porcini doesn’t come anywhere close to describing how delicious this classic Sicilian dish was.

On the way back to Montalbano’s villa – since this was real life I had to drive back to Punta Secca – I stopped by another filming location, la Fornace Penna, the ruined brickworks on the outskirts of the seaside town of Sampieri.  I drove down a narrow dirt road and parked in the shade of an abandoned farmhouse.  There was no-one around. It was the only time during the three weeks I was in Sicily that I felt uneasy.

A vineyard and the collapsed roof of a farmhouse, long since abandoned.

La Fornace Penna, was built between 1909 and 1912 by Baron Guglielmo Penna.  The goal of the far-thinking Baron was to diversify, a revolutionary concept for that time and place. He wanted to transform his vast holdings from strictly agrarian-based activities to include industry as well. In other words he wanted to bring Sicily – at least the part of Sicily that was under his control – into the 20th century.

A haunting reminder of an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to bring development and industrialization to Sicily.

The site, Punta Pisciotto, was carefully chosen.  The sea off the point was deep enough to allow ships to dock, the railway was nearby and the primary raw material, clay, would come from a quarry a mere 200 metres from where the fornace (furnace) was located.

Punta Pisciotto, the point from which Montalbano gazes out to sea in La Forma dell’Acqua (The Shape of Water).

But what the Baron hadn’t counted on, and what wasn’t under his control was the political environment.  On January 26, 1924 a fire ripped through the complex, destroying it beyond repair.  There was no doubt that the cause of the fire was d’origine dolosa.  Arson. The reason there was no doubt was because the brickworks shut down in the winter months. Rumours of a vendetta involving the Fascists circulated widely.

The complex was abandoned to the forces of nature. In 1989, the upper part of the chimney, which had previously been damaged by lightning, collapsed.

For some reason I felt compelled to check out the bowels of the ruins There were no VIETATO or any other kind of ‘No Entry’ signs, so it had to be safe, right?  It was of course even creepier wandering around the dank, dark interior with its low ceilings and signs of previous, unsavoury visitors.

I read later that the ruins were in uno stato discreto.

It was less than 30 kilometres to Punta Secca and Montalbano’s Villa.  I was looking forward to a nice, long, relaxing walk along the beach.  Maybe even a swim.

 

 

 

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