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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
Of course not all your unexpected encounters will involve animals.
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.
Some signs aren’t missing vital parts, they’re just hard to see behind all the foliage.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.)
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?
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.
So save yourself a lot of grief, pack lightly and rent the smallest car you and your stuff can fit into.
Luckily, Sicily offers a cornucopia of spectacular and fascinating sites that will make all your white-knuckle experiences absolutely worth it in the end.
Next – One Woman’s Dream Garden