It was time to leave Agrigento. My next base on this clock-wise journey around Sicily would be Trapani – pronounced ‘trah-pah-knee’ with the stress, like so many Sicilian place names, atypically on the first syllable. You will get lots of ‘complimenti‘ for getting this one right. In any event, Trapani is on the north-west tip of the island, a drive of just under 200 km. Navigating would be a piece of cake. I was taking the SS115 the whole way. There was a faster route that cut through the interior, but I wanted to be by the sea.
Just 20 minutes west of Agrigento was a site that the folks at Villa San Marco had recommended. It was a natural formation – a limestone cliff – called la Scala dei Turchi. The Staircase of the Turks. Apart from the Scalinata in Caltagirone I hadn’t come across any other staircases, Turkish or otherwise, when I was researching my trip and since I leave all things electronic at home when I travel I couldn’t look it up. But it was only a couple of kilometres off the SS115 and it was by the sea. Perchè no? Why not stop and have a look?
I turned off the SS115 and followed a narrow road, which became narrower and narrower. As it passed through the seaside village closest to the Turks’ Staircase, the lanes, having apparently become too narrow even for the locals, suddenly split and the road became one-way. This provided a lovely, but short-lived respite and then, once past the holiday villas, the lanes joined up into a two way road again, as narrow as ever, and started climbing up an alarmingly steep slope. After a few kilometres it flattened out. I was at the top of the cliff. Of course, as you’ll know if you have ever found yourself at the top of a cliff, I couldn’t actually see the cliff from up here. There was a small parking area – just enough space for four, maybe five cars – at the side of the road. I pulled over. There was no ticket machine. There was also no guard. I got out and had a look around.
Then I went back to my car and sat there for a while wondering if checking out a cliff was worth losing what were, for the time being, all my worldly belongings. There were no shady-looking characters hanging around. In fact, I hadn’t encountered one shady character since arriving. While some of the people I’d met had struck me as somewhat shy – reticent maybe – they were uniformly warm, patient and extraordinarily hospitable. Friends who’ve been to Newfoundland say the Newfoundlanders are the warmest, most hospitable Canadians they’ve ever met. Maybe it’s an island thing. As I sat there two more cars pulled up, the occupants got out and started down the path to the sea. Taking comfort in numbers and the fact that my suitcase was stowed safely out of sight – I always get the smallest, least gadget-packed car available, but it has to have a trunk – I decided to risk it.
The sea was even more bello from ground level. Along the beach were huge clumps of one of Nature’s many improbable creations. Sea Holly.
During the Elizabethan era, the Sea Holly was considered an aphrodisiac. Before that, during the otherwise enlightened Renaissance, the artichoke was believed to contain aphrodisiacal powers. What is it about these spiky plants?
As for the cliff, as I continued along the beach, I couldn’t shake a nagging suspicion this might be another of those hyped-up local schemes to attract unsuspecting visitors. There were no signs. No ticket office. No entrance fee. No info plaque. Then I caught my first glimpse.
It was as beautiful as I’d been led to believe, but why the odd name?
The odd name is a mix of natural and historical origins. The rock had been sculpted by the wind into what looked like the risers of a staircase – la Scala. And the Turks? Well, for that part of the name you have to go back a few centuries to when various dark-skinned tribes, known collectively (and incorrectly – PC and ethnic-wise) as Mori (Moors), would periodically set out on raids along the coast. And presumably climb up the scala to where the terrorized locals lived. No-one said it had to make sense.
There were a few visitors who seemed to have taken one look and decided to admire the cliff from sea level. The steps were on a slant and very smooth, and although it doesn’t come out in the photos, there was a pretty strong wind. But others, who looked a lot less fit than I – definitely a lot less steady – were going up, so I put my hat in my knapsack – one less thing to worry about – and very gingerly started up the cliff. In case you’re wondering, whenever I wanted to take a photo I just sat down. Not very dignified, but a lot more relaxing. Besides, when there’s no-0ne around that you know to see you doing embarrassing things, somehow those embarrassing things aren’t nearly as embarrassing.
Around the curve, the ‘staircase’ continued for a while and then gradually lost its steps, becoming a normal cliff.
There are no railings. No barriers of any kind. None of the warnings signs that would have been plastered over a similar site back home. What does this say, I wonder, about our respective cultures? Our sense of how much responsibility the state has for the welfare of the individual? How much freedom from authority the individual should have to pursue his or her goals? To what degree the individual should be held accountable for his or her actions?
Finally I dragged myself away. 200 km was not a great distance to cover in a day, but so far I’d only gone 13 k.
My next stop was Marsala. Yes, there really is a place called Marsala. And they really do make the sweet fortified wine there. I’d had a visita con degustazione (tour with tasting) at one of the major producers on my previous trip, so this time I was just going to have lunch at I Bucanieri (Buccaneers) a restaurant close to the winery where I’d had a lovely meal before the tour. I hadn’t brought a map of the city with me. The restaurant was on the waterfront at the south end of the city. How hard would it be to find it again?
I got lost in a labyrinth of one-way streets and ended up in a large parking area next to a church. Next to the church was a combined parking lot/flower shop. I was at the city cemetery.
Close to the entrance was a colourful, oddly cheery, garden-like section.
But the vast majority of the 11 hectares (almost 30 acres) consisted of long, seemingly endless walls of burial niches.
I was surprised to learn upon my return home that as big as it is, the cemetery is running out of space. An article in the July 24, 2015 issue of the Giornale di Sicilia bore the alarming headline – Cimitero di Marsala, rimozione delle vecchie salme (Cemetery of Marsala, removal of old corpses). The director of Public Services had sent out bids for another esumazione in order to prevent an emergenza. A strange concept for a cemetery. Three years earlier 900 of the loculi (burial niches) had been relieved of their contents and now the authorities were looking to free up 500 more. The director made clear that this extraordinary measure would only be applied where the tombstone or inscriptions were in a state of abbandono totale or alternatively, in those cases where things had only deteriorated to a state of semi-abbandono, if the authorities were unable to identify or locate relatives or descendants, direct or indirect.
I wandered around for while, but the thought of the long drive ahead of me kept popping up and, a more immediately pressing concern – although it seemed somehow disrespectful – I was hungry. I continued along the one-way labyrinth that had brought me to the cemetery and eventually reached the coast. I turned left. When I saw the porto turistico I knew I was close.
I decided to go with the Antipasti del Mare. It was a bit of a splurge, but now and then…
When the waitress brought this plate, I asked her, hopefully, if it was the ultimo (last).
I found my way back to the SS115 and continued north. There was one more site I wanted to visit on my way to Trapani. Given all the negativity around salt these days, it might seem strange to make a special detour off the main road – and risk getting lost again – to go see some, but that was my plan. I’d been to the Saline – sah-lee-nay (salt flats) of Trapani years ago. For a Canadian, it was a strange experience. The piles glittered in the sunlight and had the same bluish tinge I had grown up with. Only instead of being weighed down by layers of clothes and sending out little white puffs when I breathed, I had been wearing sandals.
On my previous trip I had arrived late in the day and hadn’t seen much, so I returned early the following morning.
This time I arrived mid-afternoon. The windmills were still there as I remembered, but where were the piles of salt?
I decided to go find the B&B I was staying in while it was still light. It was close by, but the way the roads meandered amidst the salt flats I was pretty sure it would take me a while to find it.
But even he had a hard time taking a philosophical view of the neighbours.
Now that I knew where I was staying I felt comfortable driving back out to the salt flats. I could have walked, it was so close, but I didn’t like the idea of coming back along the narrow, unlit road in the dark. The sun was just starting to set.
And, like the time before, there was a wedding photo shoot in progress. It had struck me as an odd setting, but perhaps I had been overlooking the old superstition – sale porta fortuna. (salt brings good luck.)
It was fascinating, as always, watching the photographers scramble around getting the requisite shots.
In the dimming light the bride and groom posed for a few more photos and then they all drove off to the last of the day’s ritual – il Ricevimento. The wedding reception.
It’s mid-week, not my usual ‘publishing’ time, but I wanted to send out one last post before I leave for northern Italy, where I’ll be visiting – and revisiting – the fabulous gardens of Italy’s dreamy lake district – Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, Lake Garda – and of the Palladian villas of the Veneto.
In the meantime I wish you a buona continuazione in all your endeavours.