The Birthplace of Venus

It’s June, wedding month extraordinaire, so in honour of Venus, the goddess that gets these things going, it’s time to visit Erice (eh-ree-chay), aka the ‘Village in the Clouds’ where she was born.  For us mortals the easiest way to visit her birthplace is to stay in Trapani (trah-pah-knee) down at ground level and take the cable car up.

The old fishing port of Trapani on Sicily’s north-west coast.

I’d seen evidence of the goddess’s powers at the salt flats a few kilometres south of Trapani.

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Newlyweds at the salt flats nearby (‘Along the Coast‘).

And even more in Trapani, which I would have missed if it hadn’t been for the owner of the B&B I was staying in.   The city hadn’t done much for me when I’d visited it years earlier.  It probably didn’t help that I had got so hopelessly lost driving in the centro storico that I ended up arriving at my hotel under police escort.  I tried to be diplomatic but my host, sensing my lack of enthusiasm, told me that city authorities had spent a lot of time and money cleaning it up in the last few years in the hopes of boosting tourism.  I really should give it a second try.

When you’re jet-lagged, coming across a herd of goats on the main road into a strange city does not help already frazzled nerves.

The centro storico is not large, just a narrow peninsula formed when Ceres, Goddess of the Harvest, dropped a scythe, ‘drepanon’  in ancient Greek.  At least that’s one explanation for Drepanon being the name of the early settlement.  A name, which in the inextricable intertwining of fact and mythology that characterizes Sicily’s ancient history, the Arabs – after conquering the Byzantines, who had conquered the Vandals, who conquered the Romans, who conquered the Carthaginians, who had fatefully allied themselves with the Greeks – transformed into ‘Itràbinis’, which eventually morphed into the present-day Trapani.  Which explains the unusual stress on the first syllable.  Tra-pa-knee.

As I was saying, the historic centre of Trapani is not large, but it is a tangle of narrow, one-way streets.  Absolutely charming when you’re on foot, infuriating when you’re behind the wheel.  I stopped several times to ask directions – carefully choosing people I was sure were Italians, only to be met with ‘Mi displace. Non sono di qua.‘  They were Italian, but I hadn’t counted on them being tourists. In desperation, after driving round a piazza a few times – waiting for some kind of miraculous intervention from one of the locals gods? – I pulled over behind a police car and, apologizing for il disturbo – even in my frazzled state I was aware that the Sicilian police had more important things to do than give directions to lost tourists – I asked if they knew how to get to the hotel.  To my amazement the officer at the wheel turned to his colleague who nodded, and then he turned back to me and announced, Le facciamo da guida!  We will guide you there.

Much as I enjoyed being escorted to the hotel – they drove me right to the front door and, to my immense relief, at a speed that reflected an understanding that the straniera following them would not be up to Italian driving standards – once was enough.  This time I avoided the historic centre altogether and headed for the south side of the scythe where the commercial port is located.  Not that I’m a fan of commercial ports, although this is a rather lovely one, but because it’s bordered by a wide, two-way avenue lined with parking spots.  And it’s only a five-minute walk from the historic centre.

Since the city’s makeover, cruise ships have started to include Trapani on their itineraries.

Corso Vittorio Emanuele is the main street and social hub of Trapani’s historic centre. Part of its charm lies in the fact that it is a Zona Traffico Limitato.  ZTL’s as they’re usually referred to, can be a nightmare for drivers – I unknowingly drove into one once (in Padova) and didn’t find out until weeks after I’d returned home and got a hefty fine in the mail – but any frustration they cause drivers is vastly outweighed by the important role they play in supporting and maintaining the strong, social fabric of Italy’s urban centres.  I wish we had them in our cities.

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Corso Vittorio Emanuele is a (mostly pedestrian) ZTL, although the sign is so faded a hapless tourist might easily miss it.

This B&B looks like a fascinating place to stay. I just can’t imagine driving here.

The street is lined with caffès, shops and an astonishing number of churches, all done in the classic Sicilian baroque style and all much cleaned up from when I last saw them.

Figures like these always strike me as strangely at odds with the nature of the buildings they so ostensibly decorate.

I tried to find a translation for the message above this church door but from the volumes a quick search revealed, theologians are still discussing its meaning.

At the end of the corsoPalazzo Senatorio. City Hall. I was puzzled at first by the ‘orologi’ on top.  The one on the right is a typical clock and tells the time; the one on the left marks the date.

I had only gone partway along the corso when there was a commotion – Italians would call it movimento – in front of the city’s main church, the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo Martire, Saint Lawrence the Martyr.  I went over to the caffè opposite which was filled with tourists from the cruise ship – Americans by their accents – and gawked along with them at the proceedings.

If you are in a town or city anywhere in Italy on a Saturday in June you are bound to come across a scene like this. No matter how uneven the cobblestone there will be young women in short dresses tottering around on stilettos…

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… and young girls in long, usually white dresses in flats.

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And nowadays it’s the rare wedding where you don’t see a father carrying a baby.

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The wedding parties varied widely in style, some obviously more intent on making a big splash than others.

No matter how simple or elaborate the arrival, there is always a lot of fussing with the bride’s gown as she enters the church.

It was mesmerizing – a steady stream of mortals touched by the Goddess of Love.  (At least you hoped so.)  I got the feeling you could spend the whole day watching the wedding parties come and go. But then you risked missing a visit to the goddess’s  birthplace.

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There is a road up but it’s much more interesting – especially if you’re the driver – to take the Funierice cable car. As you climb higher Trapani comes into view. And to the left the salt flats.

After all the hype of Erice being the birthplace of Venus, you’re in for a big letdown if you think you’re going to find any traces of the goddess or her temple.

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Perched on the eastern edge of the promontory the so-called Castello di Venere. Venus’ Castle.

There are a few fragments in Phoenician bearing what archeologists believe are dedications to Astarte, the Phoenician Goddess of fertility, beauty and love, as well as some to Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess and a few in Latin to the Roman Venus.  Which leads to the totally delightful theory that Astarte, Aphrodite and Venus were actually the transformation, metamorphosis? of a single, centuries-long tradition dedicated not to war,  or conquest or power, but to fertility, beauty and love.

The coins are from 57 B.C., during the rule of the Roman Consul Noniano. On the bottom left, Venus and on the back of the coin the temple dedicated to her.

But that is about all that’s left of the temple.  Some say it collapsed the night of Christ’s birth.  Others that Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, had it destroyed, which makes the survival of other ancient temples something of a miracle.  Luckily, for the most part, Christians were fine with repurposing ancient temples, as they did in the case of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, where they simply exorcised the pagan spirits, switched the front entrance to the rear and declared the structure a Basilica. Maybe Constantine, who was of course wading into unknown waters, was less confident than later Romans that exorcism provided enough protection from the temptations of paganism.  My guess is that the deal breaker was the rite of ‘sacred prostitution’, in which the pagan priestesses committed themselves – soul and body – in worship.

All of which means that this is a place where you have to use your imagination.  To help there are explanatory plaques, including one with a map.

One of the first things you come to is the Ponte di Dedalo.  The Bridge of Daedalus, who was ordered here from Crete, where he famously designed the labyrinth that solved the problem of the Minotaur that had been terrorizing the locals.  Talk about the perils of unintended consequences, by which what we really mean is NEGATIVE, unintended consequences.  After the labyrinth was finished, and the Minotaur trapped inside, Daedalus himself was trapped – imprisoned in a tower – to prevent him from divulging the labyrinth’s secrets.  Following which, in a tragic concatenation of more unintended consequences, he set about making wings so he and his son, Icarus, could escape. And we all know how that ended.  In any event his job here in Erice was to build a drawbridge at the entrance and shore up the foundations of the temple, which, as any visitor can see, was built ridiculously close to the edge of the mountain.

Not far from the bridge, right next to the Cortile (courtyard) where the sacred prostitution rites were performed, is the Sito della Chiesa, the site of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Neve (Church of Saint Mary of the Snow) which the Normans built in the 12th century, using what was left of the temple as a handy source of building materials.  There is nothing left of it either.  Moving on, we come to the Pozzo di Venere (indicated by the big arrow), the ‘Well of Venus’ where, according to legend, the goddess would take ritual baths.  Some prosaically-minded scholars insist it was a granary. But ‘In realtà‘ – (I am translating from the plaque nearby – except for the bit about the scholars being prosaically-minded, I added that) ‘In reality, it was a cistern to collect much-needed water.’

Somewhere around here is the ‘well’ where Venus would take ritual baths.

As I walked around, my mind started to wonder.  A particularly large break in the wall reminded me of one of the things that drive me crazy when I get back home after a trip to Italy – the contrast between the nanny-state measures our government takes to protect us from our apparent innate irresponsibility and the sometimes alarmingly relaxed approach to hazards in Italy.

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Beyond that bit of fencing is a sheer 2500 foot drop.

What doesn’t require any imagination are the views.

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Looking east towards Palermo.

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To the west, the austere, unmistakably Norman Castle.

From the Norman castle looking back at the Castle/Temple of Venus, which from this angle looks more Norman than ancient Greek. No wonder. The Normans used the temple as a quarry to build (yet another) fortified castle.

Just to the west of the Norman Castle, almost dangling off the side of the mountain, is a lovely little castle that looks more like the fairy tale castles in the Loire Valley than the pagan ruins and austere Norman castles I’d seen so far. It’s called La Torretta Pepoli (The Little Tower of Pepoli) and was the private study where the 19th century Count Pepoli sought refuge from the distractions and woes of everyday life, much like the French philosopher, Montaigne had done in his chateau in the south-west of France centuries earlier.  Following its restoration Pepoli’s study was gifted to the village of Erice with a mandate that is becoming more and more challenging – to promote peace and integration among Mediterranean peoples.

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Pepoli’s private study is now open to the public as an Osservatorio permanente di Pace e faro del Mediterraneo.  Permanent Observatory of Peace and Lighthouse of the Mediterranean.

You’d think a place haunted by the ghosts of the goddess of love would be a popular site for weddings.  Sure enough, as I followed the path between Pepoli’s Tower and the dome of the church of San Giovanni, a bride came into view.

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After the ceremony, Italian newlyweds typically go off with their photographer(s), sometimes accompanied by a friend or two, but often on their own. A fetchingly demure pose, but where was the groom?

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As I watched, the poses got less demure. There was no groom.  It was a fashion shoot for bridal gowns. Russian, or maybe Polish, was my guess from the little I overheard.

Once you’ve gone around the perimeter you’ll feel drawn to the centre, a beguiling labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone alleys lined with shops filled with merchandise to tempt all but the most abstemious shopper.

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In addition to ceramics – of varying quality – there are shops selling traditional, local delicacies.  The most famous – no need to bother looking up the address, just keep a lookout for a big crowd in front of a small shop – is the Pasticceria Maria Grammatico.  The big draw here is frutta mortorana, an almond-based pastry that is worked, mostly by hand, into remarkably lifelike fruit that is as popular with locals and Italian tourists as with us foreign visitors, but for me, even more tantalizing is the story of how the shop came to be.  In ‘Bitter Almonds’  Mary Taylor Simeti tells the compelling, tragic and yet somehow uplifting life story of Maria Grammatico, who in the early 1950’s along with her sister was sent by their impoverished mother to a cloistered orphanage in Erice.  Simeti describes in vivid and often disturbing detail the Dickensian life they lived there until, at the age of 22, with no personal possessions and minimum schooling, Maria set out on her own in search of a better life. Simeti, an American, who came to Sicily as a graduation present from her mother – be careful what you give your talented, adventurous offspring as a reward for all their hard work! – married a local from Palermo and stayed.  She tells her own story in ‘On Persephone’s Island.’  Definitely a good read for anyone planning to go to Sicily.  Or even an armchair traveller.

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Frutta marmorana at the Pasticceria Maria Grammatico.

The well-worn stones are beautiful, but even on a sunny June day I felt the soles of my (very sensible) shoes slip a couple of times. In December and January, covered in a thin layer of frost, they must be treacherous.

Private courtyards lead off the narrow alleys, many filled with surprisingly healthy looking potted plants. How do plants like the Cycads on the right survive the low light levels and cool temperatures?

The layout of the lanes was designed to soften the bite of cold, winter winds and the narrow areas to slow down would-be attackers into single file.

The tiny hamlet also has an astonishing number of churches. Twelve of them!

I visited a few.

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San Giuliano.  11th century Norman façade  & 18th century Baroque belltower. Classic Sicilian.

The ornately decorated interiors are a startling contrast to the often austere façades.

On Good Friday afternoon this statue and others representing the life and death of Christ are carried along the narrow alleys of the village in the Processione dei Misteri.

Finally, my stomach, to the great relief of my feet, was giving unmistakable signs that it was l’ora di pranzo.  Lunch time.  There was a lot of activity at La Pentolaccia, always a good sign.  I had a glass of the local white on the little terrace at the entrance to the restaurant while I waited for a table.  It was the perfect spot for people watching.  From the bits of conversation that drifted up, almost all the passersby were Italian.

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View from the terrace of  ‘La Pentolaccia’.

Pentolaccia (upside down on the tablecloth below) means battered, old pot. Over the years I’ve had many delicious meals that were prepared in a pentolaccia.  In case you’re wondering how I know this, it’s because I was either doing a corso di cucina (cooking class) or I peeked into the kitchen.

Antipasto misto di mare (seafood). Delicious, though I somehow doubted it was prepared in a pentolaccia.

On the way back to the cable car station at the western edge of the mountain, as far as possible from the pagan temple, there is one more site worth visiting.  Even if you’ve had your fill of churches for the day.

On my first visit to Erice it had started to rain by the time I reached the Cathedral, which confusingly is also known as the Chiesa Matrice (main church), Chiesa della Santa Maria Assunta AND Il Duomo.  You may get lucky as I did on my second trip and see Erice under clear blue skies, but given the altitude – 750 metres (almost 2500 ft) above sea level – like Etna after late morning, you are much more likely to encounter clouds or thick fog.

Rain is the last thing I think of when packing for a June trip to Sicily. But even a lover of blue skies has to admit that dark threatening clouds make an atmospheric background to Erice’s sombre cathedral.

The cathedral’s austere façade reveals its origins as a fortress, commissioned in the early 1300’s by King Federico III of Aragon to defend the area against attack by the Angevins.

The delicate rose window above the front entrance provides a bit of relief, but in no way prepares you for the interior.

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Madonna Assunta. Like the other churches I’d seen in Erice, the cathedral was filled with art.

This painting struck me as more Renaissance than Medieval.  A real oddity in Sicily which was virtually untouched by the Renaissance.  It’s neither.  It’s a modern piece, painted by G. Costa in 2003.

But more than the art at eye level it was the ceiling – a frothy concoction in pale yellows and creams – that caught my attention.

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It was like embroidery. Or icing on a cake.

As I made my way to the cable car I looked back at the cathedral. Now that I had seen the interior, the façade no longer looked quite so austere

Sunset that evening along the north shore of Trapani. I had a feeling that at least this night, it may have been even more spectacular from the Village in the Clouds.

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G7 Woes in ‘The Pearl’- Taormina Part II

When Matteo Renzi, the then Prime Minister of Italy, announced that the G7 Summit of 2017 would be held in Taormina, Sicily, it came as a big surprise to the citizens of Florence, where the meeting had originally been scheduled to take place. But Renzi, who would be Italy’s ex-Prime Minister by the time of the summit, was adamant.  A joke had been told by one of the leaders at a previous summit.  Something about Sicily being the land of the mafia.  With Taormina, Renzi aimed to reclaim the island’s honour, to showcase Sicily as a land of great bellezza (beauty), volontariato (volunteering),  innovazione (innovation) and of people like Pietro Bartolo,the doctor whose crusade to rescue migrants arriving by boat on Lampedusa Island was documented in ‘Fuocamare‘ Fire at Sea.

View from the  Greek Theatre.  Revenge for a tasteless joke was a rather petty basis for choosing Taormina, but the location had an important, if unintended consequence  – it physically brought the leaders close to one of most of the most pressing issues of the day – migrants and refugees.

The Florentines weren’t the only ones taken aback by the announcement.  Taormina, as we saw in my previous post, may be the ‘Pearl’ of Sicily but it is a very small pearl that barely manages to cope with the deluge of tourists that invade its narrow streets on a daily basis.  And its location – perched on a promontory 200 metres above sea level – had helped keep the ancient Greeks safe, at least until the Romans came along, but made modern-day access a nightmare at the best of times.  The challenges of holding a G7 summit here were so numerous and so obvious, even Renzi had to concede that some verifiche tecniche – technical verifications (hard to top that one for political ambiguity) – were still required to determine whether it would actually be logistically possible.  But, he insisted, even if it wasn’t, the G7 would still take place in Sicily.

A few, rumour-filled months later, Renzi phoned Eligio Giardina, the mayor of Taormina, to tell him the town had been given the official OK.  Giardina put on a brave face, declaring that ‘La Perla dovrà brillare’.  The Pearl will shine.  The locals were less enthused.  They already had plenty of visitors.  However would they manage with any more? And what, muttered a fellow standing close to the mayor, would they do with all the spazzatura (garbage)?  There was also the threat of terrorism that events of this magnitude increasingly bring.  The ever-optimistic Giardina dismissed such concerns.  The ancient Greeks had chosen the site well. It was a natural roccaforte, a ‘strong rock’ invincible even to modern terrorists.  (In the end almost 10,000 police, army and security forces – essentially one for each citizen of Taormina – would be brought in.)

Monte Tauro, the mountain the town was named for, has protected Taormina since ancient times.  On its crest, the ruins of a Saracen Castle and the ancient Greek acropolis.

The first notice I got about Taormina hosting the 2017  G7 was as upsetting as the source was unlikely.  On February 7, 2017, a month after I had made a reservation for a special treat – a one-night stay at Casa Cuseni, the villa whose gardens I had visited on an earlier trip (see previous post), I received an email from Booking.com.  They were ‘spiacenti di informarLa…’ it began.  Spiacenti is not a word you want to see in an email from a booking agency.  Piacere and all its derivatives have to do with pleasure.  Tack an ‘s’ on the front of any of them and you have a bunch of unpleasant opposites.  They were sorry to inform me that on the day of my reservation, the G7 would be taking place.  More specifically, the G7 would take place on May 26 and 27 and the historic centre of Taormina would be completamente blindato in order to host the delegations of the countries involved’.  I had heard of una macchina blindata (an armoured car), but not an armoured historic centre.  Besides, my reservation was for May 25.  But the email continued.  ‘In order to guarantee the safety of the parties involved, the centre would be chiuso dal 22 al 28 Maggio.’  Closed from the 22nd to the 28th of May.   To be sure there were no misunderstandings, they added the word ‘compreso’. Inclusive.

View of the historic centre and Greek Theatre from the Via Crucis, the pathway up Monte Tauro.  Breath-taking in more than one sense.

I picked up the phone.  A mellifluous voice from Georgia soon had me calmed down.  Yes, it was true.  All the hotels in Taormina – as well as in many surrounding towns – had been requisitioned for the G7 leaders, their delegations, journalists etc. Booking.com had cancelled all the reservations made on their site for the duration and were scrambling to help customers find new accommodations far from the turmoil, some in  Catania, others as far south as Siracusa, 120 k down the coast.

There was still one thing that concerned me.  Casa Cuseni was well beyond my normal budget.  To secure the room, I had taken the less expensive, no cancellations allowed option.  The payment had already been withdrawn from my bank account.  Not to worry.  Booking.com had this eventuality covered as well.  Even in cases involving un pagamento anticipato, the money would be refunded.  And finally, in the event I didn’t receive the refund within 15 business days of the date of the cancellation email, I was invited to contact the Team di Assistenza Clienti.

A narrow alley off the town’s main road, Corso Umberto, leads to the Villa Comunale.

Disappointed, but resigned, I started looking for a place to stay in Siracusa. I’d been there  before.  Its historic centre, Ortigia, the island where the ancient Greeks first landed, was a charming labyrinth of narrow alleys perfect for meandering. It would be perfect for a one night visit. It didn’t take me long to find a nice B&B overlooking the harbour.   I booked a room – free cancellation within three months of arrival – and reprinted my itinerary.

The following day, still fuming over the way these meetings, which often don’t seem to accomplish much, cause so much inconvenience to others and involve a enormous outlay of taxpayer dollars,  I did something I would come to regret.  I wrote an email to Francesco explaining how much I had been looking forward to staying at Casa Cuseni and how disappointed I was to miss the experience and also how sorry I was for all the other tourists whose plans were being scombussolati (scom-boos-soh-lah-tee), all messed up, as well as for the inevitable disruption for the locals.

The  ‘Villa Comunale‘ is Taormina’s public garden.

It was created by Lady Florence Trevelyan, who, like many English visitors in the 19th century, had stayed on.  Unlike her compatriots, Miss Trevelyan  married a local, Salvatore Cacciola.

Francesco got back to me right away. I expected something along the lines of yes, it was a disappointment, too bad, perhaps another time.  But to my surprise he was on the attack, didn’t understand how booking.com could taken it upon itself to cancel a reservation in his hotel; it was an arbitrary decision, and even though the city would be blindatissima con reali disagi per i nostri ospiti be the hotel was still open and booking.com had no right to cancel the reservation.’  I didn’t know what to make of the bit about the city being not just blindata, but blindatissima.  Extremely armoured?  And what did he mean by ‘real inconveniences for our guests’?  I called Booking.com again.  Again they confirmed that my cancellation, along with those of countless other would-be visitors, was unavoidable. All of the hotels had been taken over by the G7.  What still didn’t make sense was how Booking.com could possibly have a better idea of what was going on than a long-standing hotel owner right in Taormina?  Not knowing who to believe, I stewed. And I watched my account for the refund which, by Feb. 21 was yet to arrive.  But what did arrive was a second email from Francesco. Things had escalated.

Like so many English, Florence was an avid gardener and after she moved into her new husband’s palazzo, she began to buy up parcels of land on the slopes of the Greek Theatre and transform them into a lush garden.  She was especially fond of trees that towered.

‘Dear Madam, he began, I am obliged to inform you, in my role as Vice president of the B&B Association of Taormina, that unbeknownst to us, Booking.com cancelled your reservation, without us knowing anything, inventing a problem with the G7 causing limitations of the fruibilità of the city of Taormina.’  Fruibilità is a tricky word, it could mean enjoyment or access.  In any case it was not good.  He went on to list a slew of government and local organizations, none of whom were aware of any restrictions pertaining to hotels or any other commercial activities in Taormina and also did not understand on what basis Booking.com made the cancellations.  He ranted on and on, culminating in the threat that if he was not contacted by the reservation office (no time limit given), deniunceremo Booking.com.  Denunciare is not a word I’ve personally ever had to deal with so I double checked to be absolutely sure and yes, it means ‘to file charges against’.  Now I really didn’t know what to think.  Apart from the obviously misdirected vitriol – he seemed to have forgotten that I was a hapless bystander in all this – there was the fact that the refund Booking.com had promised had yet to come through.  And why weren’t they answering his calls? Muddying the waters even further, in his closing remarks he suggested that in the meantime I might wish to make a reservation directly with the hotel, in which case they would refund the amount I had already paid.

My favourite of the towering beauties, Magnolia grandiflora.  The circumstances leading to Lady Trevelyan’s arrival in Taormina would make a great movie.  She was the 7th Duchess and a close relative of Queen Victoria, who took her in when she was orphaned  at a young age,

Having used Booking.com for years, my understanding was that payments go directly to the hotels.  But I’d met Francesco, spent time with him; he was there, on the ground, surely he would have a better idea of the situation than a faceless, international booking agency located who knows where and, probably what fatefully tipped the scales, I was really keen on experiencing life at Casa Cuseni.  After a great deal of mulling things over I wrote back – this was Feb. 22 – asking him to reinstate my reservation.

One of the many giants Florence introduced, transforming the town’s landscape, Grevillea Robusta, aka Australian Silver Oak.  In time Florence’s relations with one member of the Queen’s family – her son, the future King Edward VII – became too close and at age 27, she was exiled from the royal house.

Francesco replied immediately, confirming the reservation. He also made a comment about the disagio (dee-za-joe) that Booking.com was creating in their city.  Agio means ease or comfort, so diasagio can mean discomfort.  Or inconvenience.  Or disturbance.  By now I had the feeling Francesco had a bee in his bonnet and couldn’t help himself, so I just rolled my eyes and continued reading.  ‘It is true that the G7 will limit the fruizione – (that word again!) – of the historic centre of our city.’  What?! Now the bee was buzzing around in my bonnet.

I started digging.  You wouldn’t think you’d have to dig on the Internet, but those algorithms can be a real pain in the neck when you’re looking for something they don’t think you should be interested in.  I started focusing on Italian language websites only and finally, Eureka!  In ‘100NOVE’, a weekly newspaper published in Messina, there was an article about the G7.  Italo Mennella, president of the Association of Hoteliers of Taormina had announced that ‘le strutture ricettive «di qualsiasi tipologia (accommodations of all classes) not just in Taormina, but also in Giardini Naxos, Sant’Alessio Siculo, Letojanni, and other cities would be reserved for G7 participants.  All hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, Holiday Homes would therefore be  ‘off-limits per turisti e visitatori‘ for the duration of the meetings and presumably for a period of days in advance.’  The article was dated Nov. 6, 2016, two and a half months earlier.  Now there wasn’t a bee in my bonnet, it was a whole hornets’ nest.

Close-up it’s possible to see the resemblance between the flower of the Grevillea Tree and the Grevillea plant.  Undaunted, the independent and upbeat young Duchess explored the world for a number of years before finally settling down in Taormina.

I forwarded the article to Francesco, in light of which I asked him to please precisare the limitations I would find in Taormina, including how exactly I was to reach Casa Cuseni and where to park the car.  His reply was much toned down. Almost conciliatory.  And totally lacking in anything that could remotely be considered preciso, or an answer to my questions.

‘They had reinstated my reservation, but I was of course free to choose another destination given that Taormina would be interamente blindata …. ‘ (What!?)  ‘However, despite the limitations – no access to the town’s monuments and historic centre, and restricted travel on the surrounding roads – Taormina and the hinterland would still be beautiful. It was up to me if I chose to come at another time in order to enjoy the town nel modo giusto.  In the right way.’  In a final, flabbergasting flourish he added that he had taken it upon himself to inform Booking.com  of the limitazione monumentale della fruibilità  – monumental limitation of access or enjoyment or whatever that word means – that would be imposed.  It was beginning to sound like a bad rewrite of  ‘Gaslight’, an old black and white movie I’d seen years ago, about a husband who slowly tricks his wife into believing she was going insane by fiddling with the settings on the gas lights.  I wrote back the same day to request that the original cancellation made by Booking.com be reinstated.

Like many of her compatriots of the era, Florence was crazy about follies, but the bizarre structures scattered throughout the garden did nothing for me. They looked so out of place. And almost tacky.

It took a long time and many emails and phone calls between me and Booking.com, and the Booking.com agent in Taormina and the hotel, before I got my refund, which, in the end, I received from Booking.com in what they characterized as an ‘Incorrect Charge Case’ and which is why, although I rarely do endorsements, I strongly recommend Booking.com for anyone who books independently as I do.

The towers weren’t just whimsical follies. Lady Florence was an avid ornithologist.  From the top of the towers she had a birds’ eye view of her passion.

But my G7 woes paled in comparison to what the locals endured.  All of the four and five star hotels that were located in what became known as the ‘red zone’ were prohibited from accepting any reservations from May 22 to May 28, and to remain exclusively for the use of the G7 delegates who would be present May 27 and 28.  And the other three days of the prohibition?  The hotels – all 23 of them – were to be vacant in order to facilitate security clearances.

View from the balustrade. In 1923 Lady Florence’s garden was expropriated and turned into a public garden, much-loved by locals and tourists to this day.

There were also a few ‘kerfuffles’ caused by one of the delegations.  (Take a guess.)  Despite all the ultra luxury hotels that had been requisitioned for the G7, and unlike the six other G7 leaders, President Trump would not be staying in Taormina.  American security agents had taken a look around Taormina and they did not like what they’d seen. (Back to Thoreau again!)  The president would stay at the American Naval Air Base in Sigonella and be flown in every day by helicopter.

Apart from bruised feelings on the part of the locals, there were some problems with this plan.  Sigonella is 70 k south-west of Taormina.  En route to Taormina the helicopter bearing the American president would pass by a volcano, the largest and most active in Europe.  It took a while, but eventually the American security agents agreed that Sigonella would not work.  The particles that Etna routinely spewed out could easily damage the helicopter motors.  Trump would have to stay in Taormina.

But the American security agents were not done.  They also did not like the charming, medieval streets that attracted millions of visitors from all over the world every year.  They were too narrow and had too many tight curves for the presidential car.  By this point even the ever upbeat mayor Giardina was beginning to lose it.  The Americans were driving them pazzi (pats-see).  Corso Umberto was only 900 metres long, not much longer than the motorcade the Americans proposed to drive through the town centre.  ‘There will be no room for them to move!’  The goccia (drop) that finally made the mayor’s vaso (pitcher) traboccare (overflow) came when the Americans requested that the road from the newly built heliport to the Hotel San Domenico where the meetings were to be held, be widened, which would of course have involved the ‘removal’ of some of the ancient building that lined the street. The mayor put his foot down.  No roads, not even the road to the G7 venue, were to be widened. But he did agree to have the road, which was too bumpy for the Americans’ taste, resurfaced.

Marzipan fruits in a shop along Corso Umberto. So life-like, people apparently can’t resist touching.

If Taormina is your first, or only stop in Sicily, you might spend a lot of time in the shops along Corso Umberto.  Especially the ones specializing in Sicily’s fabulous ceramica.

A few days after the summit,  I decided to check out the Alcantara Gorge (gorgeous and so unexpected) and then go to Taormina for lunch.  It was only 20 k and I figured the dust would have settled by then.

Is that a chicken or an owl on the right? It obviously required a great deal of skill and time, but do people really buy such things?

The G7 leaders and the thousands associated with the meetings had left, but it soon became clear that the dust hadn’t quite settled.  When I asked the waiter if he had stayed open during the meetings, he gave me a look – almost of annoyance – and then he simply said, ‘Preferiamo scordarcelo‘.  We prefer to forget about it.  The fellow chatting with the attendant in the parking lot was more forthcoming.  He was a chef, had been to Montreal for an international food festival, thought the food at the market was very good quality – probably because I was with the Italians, he said.  Hanno l’occhio.  They have an eye.  What was not so good was people wanting everything all year long.  (I thought of the strawberries I can never resist in winter.)  I stood in the parking lot talking with him for a while about this and that, and then I asked him about the G7.  His face darkened.  His nonno (grandfather) had fought in two world wars and his father in one so they would not live in a police state, and despite their efforts and the hardships they had endured, for the week of the G7 they had lived in what was essentially a police state.  He couldn’t even go out – on foot – beyond a VERY restricted area.  Some locals had closed down their businesses and gone on a ‘holiday’.

Here’s a souvenir that fits more easily in a suitcase. Tiles of the professions.  Alphabetical order makes them easier to find, but creates some strange companions, like the enologo (wine maker) next to the estetista (hair stylist) and the gelataio (ice cream maker) next to the geometra (surveyor).

Taormina is where I first saw the ‘Moor Heads’. (‘Postscript from Palermo’, Dec.5, 2017)  I still wouldn’t want one in my garden.

I loved the look of this place and, unusually for Taormina, the only language to be heard was Italian. A huge table was taken up by the crew working at the Greek Theatre.

Fritto misto. According to the anziano sitting at the staff table next to mine, the little fish – I forget what he called them – are the best in Sicily. The old fellow probably assumed I knew that unlike the similarly small acciuga (anchovy), the bone of this fish is inedible. I had to spit the first one out.

Gelato a tre gusti. I don’t usually have dessert, but I was glad I make an exception here. This photo does not begin to capture the intense flavours and creamy textures.

Another thing the American security agents had insisted on was that there would be no moving their president around except by armoured vehicles.  As for walking – out of the question!  Too dangerous! So when it came time for one of the group photos, six world leaders, risking all, went a piedi (a pyay-dee) – on foot from the Greek Theatre to Piazza IX Aprile – a distance of 650 meters, where they then had to stand around, waiting for the American president to arrive.  Not by armoured car, as his security agents had originally insisted, but in a golf cart.

A short walk from the Greek Theatre, Corso Umberto opens onto the enormous Piazza IX Aprile.

The Church of St. Joseph and Mt. Tauro formed the backdrop for the ‘Family’ photo.

It seems highly doubtful the American president made it to Piazza Duomo, a two-minute walk further along Corso Umberto.

From Piazza IX Aprile, views of Sicily’s east coast all the way down to Catania and beyond. And closer at hand, tiny Isola Bella.

Locating the entrance to the funivia (cable car) down to sea level is a bit of a challenge. It’s at the north end of town, not far from the pink building on the right.

There is a road down, but even if you have a car, you do not want to drive.

Before going over to Isola Bella I thought it would be fun to go for a boat ride.  But when I inquired at one of the little huts, things didn’t look promising.  I waited around, while Sebastiano walked up and down the beach looking for other takers, but he came back and shook his head.  Mi displace.  I’m sorry, no-one wants to go out now and if you don’t go soon, the sun won’t be at the right angle to see the grottoes.  I started to head over to Isola Bella when he called me back.  He’d just spotted two people about to get into someone else’s boat.  I rushed over to join them, amazed once again at the casual generosity.

Most of the G7 press, close to 4,000 of them, were lodged in neighbouring centres like Mazzarò, where the vibe was very different, more like a typical Italian seaside resort.

From the sea it was easy to see why the ancient Greeks had chosen this site.

How do plants do it?

Our driver guided the boat – carefully – into one of the caves.

He wanted to show us what was left of the coral. Harvesting it had been banned years ago. None of the stuff in the stores up in Taormina, he warned us, was from around here.

While working on this post I was alarmed to learn that in 2018 the G7 summit will be held in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada.  Let’s hope things go more smoothly for the Malbaisiens than they did for the Taorminesi. The two communities have a great deal in common.  Like Taormina, La Malbaie is a small town (population 9,000 compared to Taormina’s 11,000) and is located – this may come as a surprise to my fellow Canadians – in an earthquake-prone area, in fact the most active seismic zone in eastern Canada.  And although La Malbaie is not perched on a cliff, access is in many ways just as challenging.  It is 150 k north-east of Quebec City, the nearest urban centre and international airport, three times the distance from Catania to Taormina.   Access is via a two-lane road, a tourist train or the St. Lawrence River, which has led a security expert to describe it as a ‘beautiful nightmare’.

Lots of lovely little coves and caves for a private lunch and leisurely swim.

One challenge that didn’t come up in Taormina was language. Of the Sicilians I have encountered, many of whom speak siciliano as their mother tongue, almost all  effortlessly – and graciously – switch to italiano or English when dealing with outsiders.  It will be interesting to see how Quebec’s ‘Language Police’, of recent ‘Pastagate’ notoriety, handle things.  If you haven’t heard of ‘Pastagate’, it’s the name given to an incident in which inspectors from the Office québécoise de la langue française (Quebec Office of the French Language) fined the owner of an Italian restaurant in Montreal for including the word pasta on his menu. (For more on this, check out an article by Sandy White in the Toronto newspaper, The Globe and Mail  – “‘Pastagate’ reveals the hypocrisy of Quebec’s French hardliners”,  published Feb. 26, 2013, updated March 26, 2017)

Isola Bella was Lady Trevelyan’s second, and perhaps, favourite garden in Taormina. She had a small villa built facing the sea and covered the island with exotic, sun-loving plants.  A  narrow strip – more like a thread – of beach joins it to the mainland.  At low tide.

The beach area is small – part of its charm – but it does get crowded and besides, after the 160 steps down, you won’t be in a hurry to go back up, so best to come early.

On my first trip to Sicily so many years ago, I knew nothing about Isola Bella and didn’t have time to explore it, something I will definitely do on my next trip.

Isola Bella, one more reason to return to Sicily.

Looking But Not Seeing – Taormina Part I

After the wreath ceremony (previous post), I left Cefalù’s crowded beach and walked over to the village’s quieter, rocky side where I’d had a lovely lunch at a simple trattoria years before and was hoping to do a repeat, right down to the waterside table.

From here it was hard to imagine the pandemonium on the other side of the tower.

The trattoria was still there and there was a free table by the water.  I ordered the same thing I’d had on my earlier trip –  pasta con cozze e vongole (mussels and clams).

Did the view have something to do with how good the simple vino bianco locale tasted?

As I sat waiting for the pasta to arrive, two sailboats added a magical touch to the idyllic view.  Or at least that’s how I, a committed landlubber, saw them.  But as the boats sat there, motionless, it occurred to me that something else might also be at play.   As Thoreau had so masterfully put it, ‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see.’  (If that wording seems a bit off to you, not to worry – this is one of Thoreau’s most often misquoted gems.  You may know it as ‘It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see’, which of course does not mean the same thing at all, but has gained a lot of traction because that is how Thoreau’s biographer, Richard D. Richardson Jr., put it in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.)  In any event, it occurred to me that if I were an ardent sailing enthusiast – say, someone who looks forward to getting out of the office and on the water all week long – I might see something entirely different.  Something to do with dashed hopes, and frustration and a ruined holiday afternoon. A few days later, in Taormina, I would be reminded of Thoreau’s words.

What do you see?

Taormina (tah-or-mee-nuh), spectacularly perched mid-way up a mountain on the north-east coast of Sicily, is the island’s go-to destination if you’re looking for glitz.  The wealthy elites of Ancient Rome were the first to discover the delights of ‘La Perla’ (pearl) and many centuries later, a new, less violent invader arrived.  Tourists.  It was the German author, Goethe, who first alerted the wealthy elites of Europe to the seductive beauty and lavish lifestyle that awaited them in Taormina with the publication of ‘Italian Journey’, the memoir of his almost two-year long journey in 1787 through Italy, three months of which he spent in Sicily.   Taormina was quickly added to the list of must-see sites on the ‘Grand Tour’ and artists, writers, philosophers, royalty and aspiring royalty – Nicholas 1 of Russia, Wagner, Nietzsche and on and on, and years later, Churchill, Capote, Orson Welles, Bertrand Russell and a host of Hollywood stars – Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Greta Garbo – all came to see its ancient splendours.  And to enjoy its lavish, modern offerings.

From the Greek Theatre, 3rd century BCE, perched at the edge of the promontory, a spectacular view down the east coast of Sicily.

Looking west from the theatre, in the foreground the tower of San Domenico, a former Benedictine monastery, now one of the town’s many exclusive hotels, and in the distance, dominating the landscape, Mt. Etna.

As well as the wealthy elites, Taormina is also a magnet for the rest of us, of which an astonishing number are disgorged every day from enormous cruise ships.

The ships’ passengers are dropped off at the north end of the historic centre.  Foreign tourists are forbidden from driving into this area.  This prohibition is only annoying until you see what is involved.

While the tourists make their way to Porta Messina, the ancient northern entrance to Taormina, there is nothing for a poor wretch at the wheel to do but wait.

From Porta Messina, waves of tour groups inundate the town’s narrow main road, Corso Umberto.

The groups, all of which were obviously intent on seeing as much of the town as they could cram into their no doubt limited shore leave, made leisurely meandering a challenge.  But I tried not to let the jostling get to me.  At least not too much.  I knew I would be able to return later when the groups were back on their ships.  Besides, I was pressed for time too. In a half hour I was to be at the entrance to a rare and private garden, open to the public only by appointment which, after a great deal of juggling with my itinerary, I had finally managed to arrange.  The best way to fill the time, I decided, was to ignore what was going on at street level and focus on the balconies overhead where there was an astonishing amount of gardening going on.

Lack of a ‘real’ garden obviously didn’t deter this plant enthusiast.

The blue and white lobelias made a lovely contrast to the hot pinks. Do they get straggly here, like back home and have to be cut back? My guess is this gardener wouldn’t be happy with any bare spots.

Growing roses in the searing heat of a Sicilian summer must take serious gardening know-how. And on a balcony!

Even on a small, corner balcony room is made for pots of brightly coloured flowers.

Some of the façades were so beautiful the flowers and plants were almost (!) superfluous.

While other façades were in such a bad state of repair, if it hadn’t been for the obviously carefully attended plants, you might wonder if they were lived in.

Do they ever pick the oranges or are they simply for show?

After a short stroll it was time to head to the garden.  I followed the detailed directions I had been given, but when I arrived at the address where it should have been, instead of Casa Cuseni, the name I knew the garden by, I found two imposing columns joined by a tightly closed gate and a plaque bearing one word – Museo.

Museo (moo-zay-oh) as I’m sure you’ve guessed means ‘museum’. In 2015 Casa Cuseni was designated a National Monument. Hence, the plaque bearing the prestigious (but not very helpful) word Museo.

At the far end of the wall was a much more humble, but more welcoming, open gate.  No-one was around and I couldn’t see any bell, so I went in and headed over to the ‘casa‘ (kah-zuh),  technically ‘house’, looking for a sign to the reception office.  There wasn’t a sign, it was not that kind of place, but after wandering around for a while I came upon a somewhat office-like room in which, to my great relief, a signora was seated at an enormous, antique desk.  ‘Buon giorno‘, I said, ‘sono la Signora Fenice’, adding that I was here for the 3 pm garden tour.  ‘Ah, buon giorno, La stavamo aspettando,’ replied the signora smiling.  ‘We have been expecting you. It is still quite early’, she smiled again, ‘but not to worry, mentre aspettiamo che il resto del gruppo arrivi …  while we wait for the others to arrive…’   ‘But’, I spluttered, interrupting her, ‘there are no others.  It’s just me.’  To which the signora, no longer smiling, replied,  ‘We don’t do tours for one individual, only group tours.’

Now I am well aware that as a humble member of the hoi poloi and not some august figure from the BBC it is not reasonable to expect to be given private tours of private gardens such as Casa Cuseni.   Which is why, as I’ve mentioned before, in such cases, I try to piggyback on a pre-existing group booking.  And why, in the hopes that it might improve my chances, I always ask a local, someone from the place I’m staying at, to call to make the arrangements.  I stood there for a second, gathering up the shredded remnants of my sense of equanimity, and then began to explain in my best Tuscan Italian how when Valentina from the agriturismo nearby had spoken with the signora two days earlier, she had made it very clear that ‘si trattava di una persona’.  It was a matter of one person.

One thing I’ve learned on my travels around Italy is that Italians love hearing a foreigner speak their language.  And sure enough, as I went on and on in a shamelessly lengthy account of what Valentina had said, I began to see signs that the signora was warming up to my plight and when I finished, she simply remarked that there had obviously been some kind of malinteso (mal-in-tay-zoh) – misunderstanding – and she would be delighted to give me a tour.  She led me out to the garden in front of the villa.

While Kitson left many of the existing olive and almond trees and planted classic Sicilian citrus trees, the garden has a distinctively English feel.

The villa and gardens were created by Sir Robert Kitson, a British artist who moved to Taormina at the beginning of the 20th century in a kind of self-imposed exile.  It all started with a collection of photos that were featured in the 1893 edition of ‘The Studio’, the world’s pre-eminent art magazine of the time.  The photos, by the German exile, Baron Von Gloeden, were all variations on one theme –  provocatively posed Sicilian youths.  To be absolutely clear, nude, male youths.  The edition circulated widely in aristocratic and artistic circles throughout Europe.  The message was powerful and clear.  At a time when even a person of the renown of Oscar Wilde languished in jail in England, there was a place where men like him were free to be themselves.

An unusually shaped lemon, one of the many citrus fruits introduced to the island by the Arabs.

Five years later, while travelling with his parents along Sicily’s east coast, Kitson, who had been aware from an early age of his homosexual tendencies, managed to slip away from his parents and secretly visit Van Gloeden’s studio.  Seeing first-hand that it was possible to live a fuller, if not completely open life, in a spectacularly beautiful setting was a life-changing experience for the young man.  He returned to England, and when his father died a few years later, made his move.  He sold his grandfather’s locomotive company, the largest in the world at the time, and 100 days later returned to Taormina where he was greeted like royalty – even without Twitter and Instagram the locals had quickly got wind of his enormous wealth, some say more than Onassis and Rockefeller combined – and set about building a home for himself and a haven for artists and writers who, like him, were threatened in their home countries to the north.

He also imported tropicals and subtropicals from all over the world.  Grevillea, a native of Australia, with its yellow and red flowers, the colours of the Sicilian flag, looks very much at home here.

Kitson took his time selecting the site for his new home, eventually, to the astonishment of the locals, choosing a property that was on the market for a pittance, a reflection of what  the locals thought of it.  It was outside the medieval fortifications, an outlandish 15 minute walk from the town centre, on a steep hillside where nothing but a few almond and olive trees managed to survive, and perhaps most importantly of all,  apart from a couple of ancient Greek wells, had no source of water.  But the ‘mad’ Englishman, an artist by inclination, and engineer by training, wasn’t worried about having to bring fresh water up for drinking and building.  There were plenty of donkeys for that.  And the wells would provide enough water for irrigating the gardens, which he began work on even before the house was finished.

Hollyhocks, on the other hand, seemed totally bizarre here.

A combo that captures the quintessence of an English garden in Sicily – nasturtiums and oranges.

By this point the signora‘s husband had taken over my tour.  Initially I was disappointed.  She and I had been having a lovely time, but it soon became clear that Francesco, who pointed out that he was in charge of tours, was extremely knowledgeable and I had a hard time keeping up.

Kitson had some help in the design of his home as well as the gardens from a former teacher and once intimate friend, Sir Frank Brangywn.  One disadvantage of all the attention you get on a private tour is there is no hiding one’s deficiencies.  I had never heard of Brangywn before.  Fine art aficionados, especially on this side of the Atlantic, may know him as the artist who introduced Art Nouveau to Tiffany’s and created the murals for the Rockefeller Centre.  In England, where I suspect he is better known, he was prolific and much celebrated – in fact the first English artist to have a retrospective mounted during his lifetime.

Behind the giant mask and fountain designed by Brangwyn is one of the storage tanks Kitson built to collect rain water for the front garden.

The steep hillside is divided into seven terraces, each with a fountain designed by Brangwyn.

The largest piscina (pool) was designed so that each full moon would be perfectly reflected in its centre.  And when Etna was erupting, it too would be reflected in the pool.

Every detail of the garden was infused with meaning, including the decoration of the pathways made in the traditional ciottolato technique, named for ciottolo – ‘choh-toe-low’ –  a small pebble.

The property continues further up the hillside but the tour ended at this ‘Moorish’ fountain.

On the way down Francesco told me there was one more thing – not normally included in a garden tour – he wanted to show me.  Or rather, one more thing he felt I needed to see.  My head was already reeling, but I didn’t want to look ungracious, especially after the way things had started, so I thanked him and asked what it was.

As he had told me earlier, Brangwyn was a prolific, extremely busy artist, so for many years it was a mystery why, despite his hectic schedule and even accounting for Taormina’s indisputable beauty and Brangwyn’s involvement in the design of the garden, he visited Taormina so many times – seven in all – in an era when travel was so much more time-consuming.  The mystery was eventually revealed.  During his many visits, in addition to the garden, Brangwyn had also been working on a series of frescos in the villa dining room, the subject matter of which was considered so controversial and so dangerous, even in Taormina, that the room was kept locked and only a trusted few allowed in to see them.  Guiding me through the villa to the dining room, Francesco explained that the room was still kept shut and dark, but nowadays it was to protect the colours of the frescos.

As I looked around the room, Francesco watched me carefully.  After a while, in what struck me as a vaguely familiar echo of Thoreau’s observation about looking and seeing, he declared, ‘Lei guarda, ma non capisce.’   Now we all have our triggers, and one of mine is having people tell me they know better than I what is in my head.  I hadn’t merely been informed that I didn’t ‘see’ what I was looking at, but, adding insult to injury, that I didn’t understand it.  Fortunately, before I could get really riled up and say something unhelpful,  Francesco started to tell me what the frescos were about.  He was of course right.  I didn’t have a clue what I was looking at.

The tall blond on the left holds a bowl of fruit which represents the life enjoyed by homosexuals in Taormina. The small figure in black cowering behind him represents the life Kitson would have led if he had stayed in England.

The healthy, vibrant figure in white represents Kitson in Taormina. The wizened figure in black represents Kitson as he would have been in England.

The male lovers are dressed in the colours of Taormina – the white snow of Etna, and the clear, blue sky over the town.

The Family, fleeing to an unknown and distant place.

After the intense emotions of the dining room, it was a relief to sit for a moment on the terrace…

… and look out onto the views that had captivated the young, Englishman so many years ago.

After Kitson died, his niece, Daphne Phelps, who had never been to Sicily and didn’t speak a word of Italian, let alone siciliano, was charged with selling Casa Cuseni.  She didn’t.  And in her fascinating memoir, ‘A House in Sicily’, she tells the story of what happened.

Daphne died in 2005 and the villa was taken over by my tour guides, Francesco Spadaro and his wife, Mimma, whose parents had played a critical role in Daphne’s ability to hold on to Casa Cuseni and to continue in her uncle’s footsteps as benefactor not only to foreign artists, but also to needy locals.  Nowadays, as well as guiding groups around the gardens and hosting cultural events befitting the villa’s status as a National Monument, the Spadaros also operate the villa as a B&B.  In memory of its history and some of its illustrious guests, they named the five bedrooms – Don Roberto, Greta Garbo, Pablo Picasso, Daphne and Henry Faulkner.

How marvellous to stay overnight – perhaps when the moon was full and reflected in the main pool – and the next morning step out onto your balcony …

… to the sight of Etna puffing away in the distance.

 

 

 

 

A Farm Stay and Italy’s National Holiday

Cefalù’s glorious sunsets and evening strolls along its narrow, medieval lanes after the hordes had left held a lot of appeal.  But not enough to make me want to stay in the village on my next trip.  It would take a few more years before I’d feel up to driving into that dedalo (day-dah-low) again.

Metonymy is one of those figures of speech that have terribly erudite sounding definitions – ‘the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant’ – but if you can make your way through to the examples, turn out to be very ordinary, everyday expressions.  Like ‘suits’ for business men and ‘counting heads’ when you’re not talking about the French Revolution.

Dedalo – Daedalus in English – was the brilliant architect and inventor to King Minos of Crete.  In addition to the spectacular Palace of Knossos, he also designed the labyrinth which unlike the very real palace was probably mythical, in which the Minotaur was held captive.  In case your memory of this particular myth is a bit hazy, the Minotaur was a ferocious monster with the body of a man and head of a bull that had resulted from the coupling between the king’s wife and a white bull sent to the king by Poseidon.  Said coupling, by the way, had been orchestrated by Poseidon as punishment – of the king!  – for having disobeyed the god’s order to sacrifice the bull.   In any event, to avoid driving into Cefalù I booked a room in what was described on one website as a ‘farm stay’, in the hills a short distance inland.

The courtyard of the Relais Sant’Anastasia, a most unfarm-like farm stay.

I suppose ‘Relais’ should have tipped me off, but it was only slightly more expensive than the B&B in Cefalu.  And there was loads of parking!  On the drive up I’d been thinking of indulging in a pisolino (pee-zoh-lee-no) but as usual, as soon as I saw the place, all desire to waste time napping vanished.

Like many repurposed buildings in Italy it had originally been a Benedictine monastery. And like so many others,  had a subtle and charming elegance about it.

I decided to save the ‘Vista panoramica‘ for sunset.

The piscina (pee-she-nuh) was a beautiful and unaccustomed luxury.

The view from the pool terrace was exquisite, especially the pond which was surrounded with Eucalyptus, one of my favourite trees.  When I asked at the front desk, the signorina said of course guests were free to walk around it.  There was a gate which might need a bit of a tug, but it wasn’t locked.

The planting along the road was so thick I hadn’t even noticed the pond when I’d driven up.

I was so busy admiring the oleanders and the broom and the occasional glimpses of the pond I almost missed what was down at foot level.

Even though it was obviously dead – and had been so for a while – I couldn’t bring myself to come any closer. This is the best I could do with my limited zoom. The iridescent spots on the right are flies.

To say the snake put a damper on my idyllic pond walk is as much a misnomer as describing the relais as a ‘farm stay’, an understandable, but ultimately awkward attempt to render agriturismo in English.  In any event, from my city dweller’s perspective the snake looked absolutely venomous.  But if there were  venomous snakes around, wouldn’t the nice young woman at the desk have warned me?   They say trust your gut.  Well, what my gut was telling me – screaming at me – was that a walk around the pond was not the best thing for a signora to be doing on her own, especially one in sandals and bare legs.

The essence of peace. Who could resist such a view?

Over the years I’v accumulated quite a few succulents in the same blue/green hue of the Eucalyptus leaf.  Set against Sicily’s clear, blue sky it looked even more gorgeous.

For a plant that likes well-drained soil and tolerates drought, the banks of a pond seemed an unlikely place for an Australian bottlebrush (Calliestemon), but somehow it didn’t look out of place.

On the other side of the pond, enormous clumps of Pampas grass were a natural fit.

I made it around the laghetto without any further sightings of reptilian nature, although I jumped at pretty well every little rustle along the leaf-covered path.   Passing by the reception desk on my way to my room I stopped to tell them about the snake.  Oh, that would have been a besce, the young man replied nonchalantly.  But it had a triangular head! I insisted.  Non si preoccupi signora.  There was no need to worry.  Black-coloured snakes, even ones with triangular shaped heads, are not velenose (vay-lay-no-zay).  It’s only the light brown ones you have to watch out for.  It was only much later that it occurred to me that implicit in his reassuring words was the possibility that instead of the innocuous besce, I might have come across a vipera (vee-peh-rah).  A light brown and highly poisonous viper!

As beautiful as it was, the idea of lounging by a pool when there was all of Sicily to explore did not appeal to me at all.  On the other hand, an evening dip followed by an aperitivo on the terrace and then dinner, was to my mind highly appealing.  Sadly one of the (prominently displayed) rules regarding the use of the pool was that after 19,00 it was chiusa (kyu-zuh). Closed.

The pool looked especially inviting in the golden glow of the advancing sunset.

So instead of a dip I went up the deceptively long flight of steps to the Vista Panoramica.

Despite the lovely grounds, the relais was a serious agricultural enterprise with vineyards and olive groves that stretched all the way to the distant mountains

No fertile land was left unused. Terraces – some just wide enough for a single row of vines – had been carved into the low hills.

Even though I had already been converted to the ‘Golden hour’ (previous post), watching the terraced hills which I had found so compelling in normal daylight slowly transform into shimmering drifts of gold was as unexpected as it was beautiful.

As the shadows lengthened, the haze dissipated somewhat and to the north, not only Alicudi, the Aeolian island I had seen on my previous trip to Cefalù, but also its closest neighbour, Filicudi Island, became visible.

As the haze slowly dissipated, it was as if Aeolus himself, the ancient Greek God of the winds, had blown the two small islands into view.

From up here the narrow, country road I had driven to the relais was also visible.  At least stretches of it, as it wound its way through the valley and under the bridge to the sea and Cefalù.  In a few days I would be heading west on that bridge, part of the highway between Messina and Palermo, but for now, Cefalù – a whole 13 k away – was as far as I was going.

The only thing that marred my Punta Panoramica experience was that, unlike the two couples who had climbed up the staircase shortly after me, carrying wine glasses and a bottle, I had not thought to bring along an aperitivo.  I wished them ‘Salute‘ and went down to see if it was  pos-see-bee-lay, despite its being closed, to have a glass of wine by the pool.

Sunset drinks up on the Punta Panoramica would have been lovely, but a glass of wine by the pool was not only possible, but also mica male. (me-kuh mah-lay) Not bad.

After a leisurely day spent exploring a quiet inland village and taking it easy on the ‘farm’, I felt up to driving into Cefalù.  This was not part of the ‘official’ itinerary but I think some part of me always knew I wouldn’t be able to resist spending at least a few hours in what was after all one of my favourite Sicilian seaside villages.  But the following day was June 2.  Festa della Repubblica.  The Italian equivalent – more or less – of the Canadian national holiday, Canada Day, which is celebrated on July 1.  ‘More or less’ because there are a few surprising differences between the two.  First of all, Italy’s National Day is a fairly recent affair, dating back to only 1946, while Canada’s was first celebrated in 1867.  Secondly – and much more significantly – the reasons for the two nations’ holidays are vastly different.  The Canadian holiday commemorates the amalgamation of three independent colonies, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and ‘Canada’ (the present-day provinces of Ontario and Quebec) into a self-governing ‘Dominion’ of Great Britain.  The rest of what we know as Canada would come along in a dragged out, piecemeal fashion, from Manitoba in 1870 to Newfoundland in 1949.  Italy, however was already a fully formed, if not always united country in 1946.  Rather than the nation’s birth, which had taken place well over half a century earlier (1861), the Festa della Repubblica commemorates the date of the referendum in which, by a slim margin, the Italian people – ALL of them – even the women, a first for Italy – voted in favour of a republic, and the male descendants of the House of Savoy which had ruled the country since its inception were sent into exile.

While the survival of the Repubblica has often been in doubt since then, what was not in doubt was that Italians throughout the land would be off celebrating.  Which meant that there would be even more movimento in Cefalù than usual.  I wasn’t encouraged when the receptionist told me a Dutch couple had driven down the day before but after being stuck in a traffic jam for over an hour they’d turned around and come right back to the relais.

I decided to take my chances.

I didn’t get as early a start as I probably should have.  But rushing la prima colazione on the terrace seemed a travesty.  It was 10 o’clock when I reached the road into the village. The confusione (con-foo-zeeoh-nay) was overwhelming.  But I got lucky.  Or rather, for once my long-ingrained habit of obeying traffic signs paid off.  Instead of following the cars who continued past the ‘traffico limitato‘ sign, I followed the temporary signs that directed me – infuriatingly! – away from the sea and down a couple of streets that of course had no traffic on them to a narrow gate with a big ‘P’ sign.  It was the back entrance to an enormous field that had been set aside for parking.  I paid the attendant 8€ – which I knew was a bargain – and walked out the seaside entrance and past an enormous line of cars, all of which would have driven past the traffico limitato sign.  I told myself I would stay for a few hours, have a nice lunch and leave before the hordes.  I just hoped my car wouldn’t be blocked in when I got back.

With those freshly manicured nails I doubted these two would be doing any swimming.  Besides, if they moved, it looked like they were at risk of a serious wardrobe malfunction.

Italian beaches tend to be very democratic. There are the private sections where you have to rent umbrellas and then there are the public sections where people create their own, often well-equipped oases.

I sat in the shade of the ancient gate and watched the goings on. I noticed a woman giving a massage to a young woman.  I was close enough I could hear the happy groaning of her client.  When she was finished she approached the group on the right under the umbrellas, holding out a laminated sheet. She didn’t speak Italian!  Was she a refugee? She got a lot of takers in the short time I sat there. I hope she charged a decent amount.

Festa for some meant a good work day for others.

In the midst of the day trippers the fishermen continued mending their nets as they always did. What an ‘unorganized’, inclusive scene.

After a while I went for a stroll through the village. To my surprise, not everyone was at the beach.

Maybe the cyclists had come down through the mountains and would have lunch here.

Why anyone would even think of driving through the village on such a day was beyond me, but these two were having a great time enjoying all the attention.

As I got closer to the main piazza the noise level increased exponentially.

The speeches had been given and the processione was about to get going.

Above the entrance to the city hall, three brand new flags had been mounted – the EU, Italy and Sicily. And next to the flags the emblem of Cefalù – three fishes around a loaf of bread.

There was a bit more confusione as they struggled to manoeuvre the flag into the narrow alley…

…and then the band followed the flag…

…down the lane to…

… the ancient port.

The crowds were so thick, and the lanes so narrow, I wasn’t able to keep up with the parade.  After some speeches and a short serenade by a bugler, during which half-naked beach goers intermingled with fully dressed military men and women, the parade people marched to the end of the pier and then came back.

It is easy to object to this scene. But perhaps when we object, we forget the importance of ‘live and let live’.

The flag bearers and band made their way back to city hall and the beach goers, most of whom had stood at attention during the ceremonies,  continued doing their beach thing.

 

The crowds gone, I was finally able to make my way to the end of the pier.

Floating in the sea was the corona, the laurel wreath, in memory of all the soldiers lost at sea.

 

When Yellow and Blue Don’t Make Green

For a long time I wasn’t a fan of the ‘golden hour’, photographese for the brief period before sunset and after sunrise when everything is tinged with a warm, soft golden hue.  As far as I could tell, the only thing those golden rays did was dull the light and turn gardens into sickly yellows.  Then I went to a small fishing village on the north-east coast of Sicily and saw what all the fuss was about.

Cefalù (chay-fah-loo) is the site of the third cathedral in the UNESCO  triumvirate of Arab-Norman cathedrals.   (The other two are in Monreale and Palermo). It was only 120 k west of Tindari (post to come), but the coastal road was a lot more coastal than I’d expected and while it wasn’t ‘eternal’, which is how one commentator on Trip Advisor described it, it took a lot longer than I’d anticipated.

The SS113 takes the concept of coastal road literally.  The hump in the distance is La Rocca, the mountain that looms over Cefalù.

By the time I arrived in Cefalù, it was late afternoon.  After driving round and round for what did seem like an eternity I found the B&B, but what to do with the car?  Of all the charming medieval villages I’ve visited, Cefalù is by far the most challenging when it comes to parking.  On a previous trip to Sicily I had spent a miserable hour driving up and down the narrow, congested lanes before I gave up and continued on to Palermo.  But this time I was staying in Cefalù.  I drove round and round some more until it was obvious, even to my frazzled self,  that I was merely illustrating the definition of idiocy – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

Finally, Torre Caldura on the eastern edge of Cefalù came into view.

So instead of driving by, I pulled over in front of a tiny fruttivendolo (fru-tee-ven-doh-low) across from the B&B.  One thing I’ve learned in all the years of visiting Italy’s charming, but cramped villages is that everyone in these villages knows everyone else.  And everyone else’s business.  I went up to the fruit seller, apologized for the disturbo and explained my predicament.  Without a moment’s hesitation he called over to a woman standing by the fence surrounding the B&B.  It was Maria Luisa.  She had been waiting for me.  Had been holding a spot for me with her car, which she promptly backed out of the spot, blocking the road so no-one would zip in front of the straniera who she correctly assumed was no match for the locals, and I slowly inched into my very own posteggio riservato.  Which is where my car stayed for the duration of my stay in Cefalù.

Then I set out for the cathedral.

Under the dark clouds the cathedral looked more like a fortress than a place of worship.

The cathedral was closed, so I went looking for a bar.

By ‘went looking for a bar’, this is what I meant.

The view was wonderful, as was the bianco locale, and before long, all the second guessing and nasty recriminations about who in their right mind would willingly choose to drive into this place, let alone stay here had vanished into the ether.

After a while I noticed people setting up tripods along the boardwalk at the west edge of town.  Tripods are always a good sign that something interesting photographically is about to happen.  I went over to see what they were up to.

Behind the cathedral towers the grand ‘Rocca‘, known to the Phoenicians as the Promontory of Hercules.  At its summit are the ruins of a 13th century castle and an ancient temple. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too hot the next day when I climbed up there.

The twin arches are part of the ‘bar’ where the village’s charms began to reveal themselves.

I didn’t have a tripod so I set my camera on the balustrade in anticipation of whatever it was that all the better equipped photographers around me were waiting for.

It happened so quickly. If I’d lingered a few minutes longer over the bianco I would have missed it.

And it was over so quickly.  A few minutes later, all that remained of the golden hour were the cathedral towers.

But no. It wasn’t over.  It was the winds chasing the clouds that plunged first one then another part of the village into darkness. 

And then, when I was sure the fantastical light show was finally over, something equally  magical happened.

I later read that what I was watching was the ‘Blue Hour’.  Unlike the ‘golden hour’ (the period after sunrise and before sunset), the Blue Hour occurs – sometimes, it’s not a given – before sunrise and after sunset. The bluish tones have something to do with residual, indirect sunlight caused when the sun is at a significant depth below the horizon.

Not everything, we are cautioned, looks as good in the ‘blue hour’ as a fishing village by the sea.

The following morning I got an early start. There was a lot to see in the tiny village and because of my late arrival the evening before there was one more thing on my to-do list.

Porta Marina aka Porta Pescara (Fishermen’s Gate), the last of the four gates in the walls that once surrounded the village.

A villager smokes the first cigarette of the day as he watches the waves crashing against the rocks.

What a wonderful way to start the day. (Minus the cigarette!)

When I reached Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral hadn’t yet opened.  I went over to one of the caffès, which as usual kept longer hours than the church, and had a cappuccino.

The cathedral looked much less forbidding under sunny skies, and what struck me now was how out of place it looked in what had been, and apart from the seasonal hordes of tourists, still is essentially a small, simple village.  So what was it doing here?

The cathedral, looking slightly less fortress-like under clear, blue skies.

In 1131 Roger II, the Norman King who had conquered Sicily a few decades earlier, was returning to Palermo from Salerno on the eastern end of the Amalfi Coast when suddenly a violent storm arose.  Fearing for his life, the king made a vow. If they survived the storm, wherever they first touched land, he would build a majestic temple in honour of his Saviour.  (The part about the Normans conquering Sicily is history.  The part about the storm and the vow is (sadly) more legend than history.)

As I sat there looking at the cathedral I began to feel that something was off.

The towers are invariably described as ‘twin’ towers.  In human twins, there are usually a few minor (and extremely helpful) variations – although I once had twins in an Intro Italian class that cause me conniptions all year long – but when we talk of twins in architecture, we are usually referring to 100% identical structures.  As far as I could see, these two towers started off in identical fashion, but at the top they were not at all the same.  Most glaringly, the window treatments on the spires – a 15th century addition – were different.  And, more importantly, so were the merlons (‘notches’ for those whose knowledge of battlement design is as non-existent as mine).  The v-shaped merlons on the left tower symbolize royal, temporal power, while the flame-shaped merlons on the right tower represent the Papal authority.

Some of the Papal flames have lost some of their fire.

When I got back to the B&B later that day I asked the Signora why the towers were different.  She hesitated and then, with a remarkable degree of confidence, explained. ‘Perché l’una è nata per primo e hanno fatto l’altra diversa per distinguerla.’  Because the one was born first and they made the other different to tell them apart.

While not as elaborately or as completely decorated as the cathedrals in Monreale and Palermo, all the essential elements are present.

As in the other two cathedrals, presiding over all, an enormous Christ Pantokrator.

As I made my way over to the path up the Rocca I couldn’t help thinking that if the cathedral had been open I probably would have taken a photo or two of the exterior, had the same quick look inside and then gone off without ever realizing that the towers were mismatched.   It was an unsettling thought.  How many other things had I missed because I hadn’t had to wait around?

Where streets are so narrow, everyone is obliged to share the road. Engaging in any form of road rage would amount to fare brutta figura.  And in a place where la bellezza in all things is greatly admired, making an ‘ugly’ impression is to be avoided at all costs.

On the main corso a rather well-dressed, elderly man was pushing a wheelbarrow.

He was the village’s itinerant fishmonger.

The fish was carefully weighed…

…payment made…

…and he continued down the lane in search of his next customer.

A laundromat is normally something I try to stay away from while travelling, but when I saw all the people going down to the Lavatoio medievale I decided to have a look.

The already hot air on the corso just a few steps above was no match for the bone-chilling dampness.

The lavatoio was built over the sorgente (source) of the Cefalino River, known since antiquity for its water – ‘purer than silver and colder than snow’ – and which had been created by the tears of a disconsolate nymph who, after killing her unfaithful lover, later came to regret the act.

The water may be sweet, but ‘as cold as snow’ had as little appeal for me on that warm May day as it does today as the snow slants endlessly outside my window..

On the same website I also learned that until a few decades ago the village women still did their laundry in the lavatoio and the sound of their voices raised in canti tradizionali would echo along the lanes of the village.  Between the story of the ancient nymph and of the 20th century village women singing gaily as they scrubbed their families’ dirty clothes on the cold lava rocks, I don’t know which strikes me as more fanciful.  For the sake of the latter, I hope it was more than a few decades ago.

The wash boards. Maybe in the summer this would have been a welcome refuge. But the rest of the year?

When I reached the beginning of the path up the Rocca, I was surprised to see a gate and a ticket office. You had to pay to climb up Hercule’s Promontory!  But it was only a few euros and there would no doubt be some costs involved in maintaining the site.  And the staff. In addition to the ticket collector I was surprised to see a second fellow sitting inside the entrance.  He had one of those clickers that are used at crowded sites like the Colosseum in Rome or the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.  But a path up a mountain in a small village? There weren’t exactly hordes lined up for the 270 metre climb.

Next to the ticket office was a brightly coloured plant that looked like a Crown of Thorns, but I’d never seen a multi-coloured one before. What if our red ones are really latent multi-coloured ones that just need a bit more light?

The clicker fellow explained that his job wasn’t only to keep track of the number of people who walked into the site, but also the number that walked out of it.  In the past there had been problems with visitors being stranded on top of the mountain in the dark.

Scabiosa had not only taken root in the vertical rock, but was obviously flourishing.

Halfway up, a view of the medieval jumble and the (non-twin) spires of the cathedral.

Diana’s Temple. Depending on your source, 5th C B.C. or even as early as the 8th C B.C

A plaque near the entrance explained that inside the temple are the ruins of a byzantine church dedicated to Santa Venere. Saint Venus. Definitely a lot of muddling of eras up here.

An archeologist or a geologist would see so much in these strange patterns.

They say we see what we look for.  Or what we know.  While rocks are a total mystery and will probably remain so for me, plants are becoming more and more familiar.

Margherite puzzolenti. Stinking daisies.

How did borage get up here?

At the top of the Rocca are the remains of an Arab citadel and the castle which the next conquerors, the Normans, built on top of it.   Some visitors talk about goat droppings and giant lizards.  I didn’t see any of that.  Just spectacular views.

To the east lies Messina at the north-east tip of the island.

To the north the dome poking out of the sea is Alicudi Island, the most westerly of the Aeolian Islands.

And to the west, somewhere in the mist is Palermo.

They say that on a clear day you can see all the way from Messina to Palermo.  But that will have to wait for another trip.

 

 

On the Other Side of the Mountain

Okay.  The north slope of Mt. Etna is not a gigantic bed of roses.  But it is a lot more lush than the south slope.  I was staying at an agriturismo surrounded by olive groves and vineyards.

Il Feudo Vagliasindi.

The views from my room were as beautiful as I had hoped.

Below my room the pink roses in the first photo were growing up the wall of a lovely little outbuilding.

I didn’t even bother unpacking.  I dumped my suitcase just inside the door, grabbed my camera and set out to explore the grounds.

Amongst the ancient farm tools and equipment outside the ‘storage shed’, a circle of bells. It looked as if it would have been mounted on some kind of pole, but no-one seemed to know how it worked.

The olive trees were covered in flowers. If all continued to go well – no rain until the fruit had set, no hail, lots of sunshine – it would be a good year for olive oil.

The rows of vitas vinifera were also coming along beautifully.

At the foot of the staircase that leads to the wide, upper terrace Matruzza Bedda, Sicilian for Madre Bella (Beautiful Mother) stands watch.

There was a lovely dining room where dinner was served, but in the morning, if you wanted, the staff would set up a table for you on the terrace so you could watch Etna puff away as you had breakfast.  And a late lunch too, as it turned out.

From the terrace, an endlessly fascinating view of Etna.

The best time of all was in the evening, relaxing after the day’s outing with a glass of Etna Rosso, watching the sun set over the mountain the wine was named for.

Some evenings, Paolo, one of the two brothers who own Vagliasindi, invited guests to a tour of the Palmento, an enormous area under the villa where the grapes were once crushed.

The only downside to all these delights was that now and then you had to rouse yourself and go out to see the sights.

One of the must-do things in the area that I had never got round to checking out – there is a surprising number of these things for an island that is only 1/40 the size of Ontario – is to go for a ride on the Ferrovia Circumetnea.

The ‘Railway Around Etna’.

It’s a narrow gauge railway built at the end of the 19th century that does a 110 k C-shaped loop around Etna.  It starts on the south-east side in Catania and makes it way, clock-wise around the base to the coastal town of Riposto, about 30 k north of Catania.  The closest station was in Randazzo, a five-minute drive away.  But when I asked Paolo, he said there was no need to go all the way to Randazzo to catch the train.  There was a station in the hills just across from Vagliasindi.  Starting there would make for a much more pleasant excursion.  He would drive me over the next morning.

Apart from his kind offer to drive, the idea struck me as a little odd. How much difference could one short stop make?  Besides, since the preferred starting point was una stazione dimessa I would have to drive into Randazzo to buy my ticket.  But having enjoyed many wonderful experiences over the years, experiences I would never have had if I hadn’t relied on the wisdom of the locals, I ignored my misgivings and drove into Randazzo – one of Italy’s ‘Borghi più belli’ (Most Beautiful Villages) – had a look around and bought my ticket.  Before he dropped me off the following morning Paolo wrote down the name of station – Calderara – so I would know where to ask the conductor to let me off on my return.

The seriously ‘decommissioned’ station a few kilometres east of Randazzo.

My heart dropped when Paolo drove away and I had a chance to look around. I told myself he would not abandon a guest by the side of the tracks in the middle of nowhere.

There must be a heartbreak blues song about being abandoned along the tracks.

There wasn’t a sound or sign of life around, so against a lifetime of obeying signs to not cross the tracks, I walked over to the other side to wait in the shade.

I  sat on the low stone wall and stared down the line.

Travelling solo has many advantages, but sitting by the side of the tracks by yourself, realizing that you don’t really have any idea where you are is not one of them.  Adding to my misery was the fact that as a very recent and still uncomfortable convert to the cell phone, it hadn’t occurred to me to bring mine with me.  Even the thought that at least there was no one giving me dirty looks, or demanding to know why we hadn’t just gone to Randazzo was of little consolation.

I wasn’t in the desert and I wasn’t seeing a mirage but it gave me an inkling of what that must feel like.

I dashed over to the platform and started madly waving my hat to indicate I wanted to board the train. (As if there was some other reason to be standing here in the middle of nowhere in the blazing sun.)

The train stopped and to my great relief, although the conductor was a little surprised, he did not give me the crazy straniera (stran-yeh-ruh) look. Foreign lady.

Feeling ridiculously elated I sat down and off we went.

To the north vineyards came right up to the tracks and stretched across the valley – around the extinct volcano on the right – all the way to the mountains.

In some sections it looked as if we were going right through a vineyard.

As on the south slope, the ginestra was in full bloom.  Against the lush greens of the vines its bright yellow flowers looked even brighter.

When Etna erupts the lava typically flows south so I was surprised to see the unmistakable signs of a lava flow here on the north side.

And even more surprised at the size of the flow. They say you get used to such things, but I cannot imagine rebuilding so close to such a path of destruction.

The draw, as the farmers and vintners in the shadow of Etna know, is the rich volcanic soil.

Occasionally we caught glimpses of the locals.

On Paolo’s suggestion, when I went to the station in Randazzo I had bought a ticket –  andata ritorno,  Randazzo – Piedimonte.  The ride was short – only about 40 minutes long, he told me, but covered the most scenic part of the route.

Unlike the station I’d got on at, Piedimonte was not una stazione dimessa.  I still felt a little uneasy when I got off the train and saw that there was no-one else around.

There was no office where visitors could get a map of the town so I headed for where I assumed the centro would be, trying to make as few turns as possible and carefully taking note of the street names.  Just in case – it had happened to me before – there were no signs for the station.

In my walk around the village the only sign I came across was one for the local school. From here all I had to do was turn right and keep going until I could see the station on the left.

The open doors meant that there were people around but it was very quiet on what I took for the main street.

Next to the station the houses were new and lovingly maintained. Was it the high cost of restoring the older buildings that had driven so many of the villagers to the new ‘suburb’?

Apart from a group of anziani (ants-ya-knee) sitting at a caffè near the fountain there wasn’t a soul in sight.  Not even a cat.   Which of course made the appearance of una straniera (foreign female) an object of intense scrutiny. They watched as I attempted to fill my water bottle from the fountain.  I had forgotten the little trick of putting your thumb on the nozzle and was getting more water on me than in the bottle, when one of the old fellows took pity on me and came over to show how it was done.

An encouraging sign that this was not one of Sicily’s moribund villages was the poster for the ‘O kilometre Market’.

Arts, crafts and and local products. Every 3rd Sunday in summer.

Another sign that the village was alive and well was a rather grand and well maintained palazzo next to the fountain.

There was probably more going on in some other part of the village, but without a map and no tourist office in sight, I didn’t want to risk getting lost and the temporarily abandoned feel of the town was unnerving, so I headed back to the station.

I made it back to the station in time to board the 11:38 train.

Since there was only one set of tracks, we literally retraced our tracks on the return trip. Even so there were lots of things I had missed on the ride out.

What struck me more forcefully on the return trip was how much wilder the terrain was on the south side of the tracks. The side closer to Etna.

When I got on the train I had asked the agent to let me off at Calderara, the station I had got on at.  He looked at me puzzled.  “Calderara, signora?” , I answered, Calderara“.  I showed him the piece of paper on which Paolo had written the name of the station.  He shook his head, but assured me he would let me off at Calderara.  After I got off, I watched the odd little train until it disappeared around the curve and then had a look around for the road I needed to take back to Vagliasindi.

For something that looks so terribly quaint, the logistics of timing the trains on the single track is anything but.

Then my heart sank.  This was indeed Calderara. But it was not at all dilapidated.  The windows were all in good shape and it looked like it had been recently given a fresh coat of paint.  This was not the station Paolo had driven me to.

Calderara may have been a decommissioned station but it was not at all derelict.

This is where, in my opinion, the solo traveller is allowed to cry.  The only reason I didn’t was because I was too upset.  It was well past noon and must have been at least 30 degrees.  I had no water, no food and no cell phone to call Paolo.   The lack of water and food was obviously a problem, but not having the phone may in the end have been a good thing, because in the moment I may not have been able to resist giving Paolo quattro (kwaht-tro) Four. Which somehow in Italian means giving someone a piece of your mind.

I got out the orario (oh-rah-ree-oh).  The next train would arrive at Piedimonte at 13:15, an hour and a half after the one I had taken.  Now, if you were a person ‘of a certain age’ and you found yourself in the same situation, you may have decided on the course of action that reflected the wisdom you had gained through your many years of hard-won life experiences.   But, and this is one of those things a parent hopes their offspring never find out about, there was no way I was going to sit by those tracks in the blazing sun in the middle of nowhere for an hour and a half.  I had another look at the schedule.  Calderara, unlike whatever the building was that I had started from, was on the list.  It was the station before Randazzo.  9 minutes travelling time.   The building I had got on at was somewhere in between the two.  Hoping it was closer to Calderara than Randazzo, I started out.

I’m a fast walker, but the loose, uneven rocks made for agonizingly slow going.  And the barb-wire fences were a constant reminder that this was not a good idea.

The curves were the worst part.

Since I’m writing this, you know that my guardian angel was working hard that day and no trains passed as I walked along the rails to the old, half-forgotten station that, I learned later, was once known as Monte La Guardia.  From there it was a few kilometres down the hill to the agriturismo.

I breathed the proverbial sigh of relief when I rounded this curve and saw the villa.

By the time I arrived at the villa I was more hungry than upset, so when I saw Paolo I gave him a very short summary of my outing and then asked if it would be possible to have something to eat.  Lunch is not typically served at Vagliasindi, but, date le cirostanze (given the circumstances) Paolo said he would ask the chef to prepare me something.  Would I like to take it on the terrace? he asked.  Yes, that would be lovely, I replied.  E qualcosa da bere?  Yes, I would like something to drink.  And it was not water.

The chef brought out an enormous platter – something I would normally have shared – but I ate the whole thing. And the poached pear. Delizioso!

 Salute!

Next:  Back to the sea

P.S. Since publishing this post I received an email that sent me on a delightful meandering around the Internet.  The email contained a link that might shed some light on the bell-encircled wheel at the agriturismo.  As usual that link led me to other sites and when I landed on one called ‘Venipedia’, I thought I’d found the answer.  In an article about the bells of Venice, there was a reference to a Chinese philosopher, who in 132 AD had invented the first earthquake detector.  That site led me to a website called ‘Ancient Origins’ and an article by April Holloway entitled  ‘The incredible earthquake detector invented nearly 2,000 years ago’ which expanded on the ancient philosopher’s invention.  It also contained a photo which, if you took away the Chinese cultural references and gave it a few hundred centuries, didn’t look all that different from the wheel in my post.  And given where I’d seen it – on the slopes of Etna,  an area prone to earthquakes as well as volcanic eruptions – the idea that it might be a charming, but simple early warning signal seemed entirely plausible.  Sadly, for I liked this idea, as I continued the search, it became increasingly clear that the ‘ruota di campanelli’  was something quite different.  As explained on ‘Cathopedia’ (who knew there were all these variations on Wikipedia?), during the Middle Ages wheels encircled by bells were sometimes mounted on the church wall next to the altar.  To signal the beginning of mass or other religious ceremonies a tug on a rope attached to the wheel would set the bells ringing.  The wheel might also have been a door knocker.   In any event, mille grazie, Nora for the link.

 

The Mountain – Part I

BUON ANNO!  It’s a bit late, but this is my first post for 2018 and I wanted to wish you all a very Happy New Year!

To start the year off with a bang –  hoping of course that Mother Nature doesn’t decide to do the real thing – we’re going to take a closer look at the mountain we caught glimpses of along the road to the Tree of the Hundred Horses (December 12, 2017).

Mt. Etna puffing away in the background along the road to the giant Chestnut Tree.

Etna has apparently been erupting for about 500,000 years, which makes it one of the oldest and most active volcanoes in the world.  The Phoenicians called it ‘Attano‘ (furnace) and the Greeks ‘Aitna‘ from ‘aitho’ meaning ‘I burn’.  In modern times, leery locals, perhaps not wishing to attract the attention of the spirits dwelling in its fiery bowels, refer to it simply as a Muntagna, dialect for la Montagna. (moan-tan-yuh).  The Mountain.  In light of the recent acceleration in eruptions –  from an average of once every 18 months before 2001, to once yearly ever since (with the exception of 2007) – the locals’ caution appears less whimsical.  Although, after spending a couple of days travelling around Etna, during which time I had plenty of opportunity to observe the vast differences between its north and south slopes, it occurred to me the locals could also have gone with ‘The Two-faced Mountain’.  But then again, there is nothing fraudulent or deceptive about Etna’s eruptions and besides, anyone with a propensity to superstition would probably not feel comfortable with the potentially incendiary undertones of ‘two-faced’.

In any event, despite the risks associated with the increasing frequency, as well as unpredictability of the eruptions – including one in March of 2017 that injured and almost killed members of a BBC crew (‘Europe’s Largest Active Volcano Mount Etna Erupts – Nearly Kills BBC Crew’, Trevor Nace, Forbes, March 20, 2017) – to go all the way to Sicily and not visit Etna doesn’t seem right.

Access to the summit, or as close to the summit as visitors are – to my great relief – allowed to go, is via Etna’s southern slope.  The first stretch of the road is surprisingly pastoral.  Another surprise was coming upon a forest of birch trees.

Birch trees are fairly common in Canada – after all, as the song goes, it’s the – ‘Land of the Silver Birch/Home of the beaver…’, but in Sicily?

The Birch Tree, or more precisely, Betula Aetnensis, is, according to the first website I looked at, ‘one of the most peculiar and representative endemism of the Etna area’.  Apart from recognizing that Betula Aetnensis meant Birch Tree of Aetna, I had no idea what the author was talking about.  I googled ‘endemism’.  Up popped ‘endemic’.  Endemic I know.  It’s what diseases and poverty and corruption are.  I had never seen it used in reference to plants and was surprised that a word with such strong negative connotations could also be a synonym for ‘native’.

There is some controversy as to how the birch tree came to be native/endemic in the area, the only part of Sicily where it is found.   The most compelling clue to the mystery has to do with the Last Ice Age and the unique internal structure of this particular strain of birch which over the ages has enabled it to not only withstand, but also adapt to extreme cold and hot conditions. Like Canadians! (As I write this, a snow storm – yet another! – is slowly erasing the city skyline.)

Further up Etna’s south slope, another surprise. Golden Chain Tree, a gorgeous but highly toxic beauty.

As the road climbs up the slope, the trees give way to low bushes.

Impossibly, growing out of the black rock – how can you call it soil? – sturdy bushes of bright yellow broom and splashes of bright pink Roman Orchids.

As I drove higher there were fewer and fewer bushes and the ‘soil’ gave way to seemingly impenetrable rock.

Even here a seemingly delicate Scabiosa produces gorgeous purple flowers, some so large the stem cannot support them.

The landscape is frequently described as lunar. It may not be what the surface of the moon really looks like, but I think it captures perfectly our sense of it.

Where there’s a will…

As the crow flies it’s just under 10 k from the 100 Horse Chestnut Tree to the summit of Mt. Etna, but with all the twists and turns in the road, and slowdowns to take in the views, and who knows how many photo stops, it took me over an hour to reach the end of the road.

Driving up the long, winding road, surrounded on all sides by the strange, unearthly landscape, it’s easy to forget you’re in Sicily.  Or anywhere for that matter.

From this level – 1,935 metres asl – it’s still a long way to the top, but before getting on the cable car up to the next level it’s well worth taking a short walk around the area.

The Silvestri Craters. This may look like a painting, but I assure you, I cannot paint.

Maybe it’s the altitude, but when you’re up here, wandering around these strange landscapes, your thoughts can start to wander too.  To musings about our need to understand the meaning of the slings and arrows of our sometimes outrageous fortunes being an inherent part of the human condition.  And the great comfort we derive from the explanations we come up with for the causes of our travails. In any event, in ancient times, without the benefit of today’s vast technical and scientific advances, explanations for the inexplicable were perhaps even more greatly appreciated.  So not surprisingly, although they don’t strike me as particularly comforting, there was no shortage of ‘explanations’ for Etna’s unpredictable and violent eruptions.   In fact, with all the gods and monsters in its bowels who were responsible for the eruptions, Etna became a pretty crowded place.

Amazingly, just meters from one of the (supposedly) dormant craters pine trees are taking root.

Etna is where Vulcan, the Roman God of Fire (Hephaestus to the Greeks) had his smithy.  It’s also where the giant Typhon was imprisoned after Zeus threw Etna, which up until then had been your everyday mountain, on top of him.  Then another rebel giant, Encelades, came along to avenge Typhon and ended up being thrown into the cauldron.   Aeolus, God of the winds, got on the wrong side of the gods and spent time here too.  Some people even believed that after abducting Persephone, Hades had dragged her down into the Underworld through a crevice in the volcano.  Which of course can’t be true because, as everyone knows, the abduction took place at Fonte Ciane near Syracuse many miles to the south (‘Hot Ruins and a Cool River’, July 12, 2015).

Adding to all the amazing things wrought by Nature was that visitors are free to wander at will.

Salt flats as a background for your wedding photos is one thing (‘Along the Coast’, Sept. 16, 2015)), but isn’t it tempting the fates to have those photos taken on top of a highly volatile volcano?

From the Rifugio Sapienza (1,395 metres asl), a cable car takes visitors up to the landing (at 2,500 metres asl) from which all terrain vehicles continue up the last 400 metres to the authorized visitors’ zone.

Two things to keep in mind if you’re planning on visiting Etna.  First, it may be 30 degrees when you set out, but you still need to bring a warm sweater.  At the top it will be cold – even in August which, having done it once, I don’t recommend.  And if you go in May there will probably still be snow – lots of it!

At the top of the cable car ride, there is still enough snow in May for die hard skiers.

Secondly, and more importantly, if you want to actually see anything of the summit, you have to set off EARLY.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when I set out, but on the last leg of the drive thick clouds started rolling in.

Luckily, on a previous trip I had heeded the advice of the manager of the hotel I was staying in and for the first, and only time throughout my trip, had set my alarm to make sure I got an early start.

From the hotel terrace in Taormina, the morning sun lights up the summit of Mt. Etna.

This time, when we reached the authorized visitors’ zone we had a clear view for miles around.

When it’s safe, the guides take you surprisingly close to vents like these, which although they pose no danger, puff out alarmingly hot air.

It is highly unsettling to think that just a few minutes earlier, you too had been a tiny little speck on top of the ridge.

Etna.  A mountain that both nurtures and destroys life.

Next:  On the Other Side of the Mountain