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!


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

Deck the Halls with Orchids and Succulents

At this year’s Allan Gardens Christmas Flower Show, you won’t find a single bough of holly.  At least I didn’t.  Instead, you’ll see plants from tropical and desert regions, as well as from our Canadian forests, all arranged in the most beautiful and unexpected ways.

Boxwood wreaths, dusty millers, white flowered kalanchoes and rosemary ‘trees’ create an unusual but  unmistakably Christmas scene.

I had skipped the Grand Opening festivities (Saturday December 3) – wagon rides, cider, cookies, carollers and even a visit from Santa.  From past experience I knew that the sight of tripods blocking the narrow paths (not allowed! unless you have a permit, which for obvious reasons you won’t be given on a busy weekend) and proud parents plopping their precious progeny on the poinsettia borders for those perfect Christmas photos, would get me all Grinchy.  No, no, no.  Better to go mid-week, preferably late in the morning when any visitors would be heading off to lunch.  And it had to be sunny. The displays would, undoubtedly, be as beautiful as always, but dappled sunlight and a clear blue sky in the background really bring them to life for me.  As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait long. The first Wednesday after the opening started off bright and sunny.  The clouds, harbingers of the first snow storm to hit the city, would come later.

The five greenhouses open to the public – there is a sixth that is reserved for children’s programs and special events – are laid out in a horseshoe pattern.  I started in the Tropical Greenhouse at the south end of the horse shoe.  I was hoping the gardener in charge of this area had created another of her beautiful Amaryllis chandeliers.

The turtles, as usual, had clambered out of their pond and piled on top of each other.  Why do they do this?

In the Bromeliad patch beyond the turtles’ pond, one of many ‘Christmas’ trees.

As I continued along the paths I kept looking up, hoping to see a chandelier.  Finally, at the main entrance to the greenhouse, there it was.

This year the gardener had added a second tier to her Amaryllis ‘chandelier’.

As I stood there trying to figure out how to take a photo, several visitors walked by, oblivious to the extravaganza dangling above them.  Since the all too modest gardener had not put up a big sign – LOOK AT ME!  – I did everything but block the hapless visitors from proceeding until they had given her chandelier a good look. Very unCanadian, I know.

In fairness to the visitors who hadn’t noticed the chandelier, in addition to the (welcome) blast of heat, there is a lot going on at the entrance to the Tropical Greenhouse.

What makes this creation especially brilliant is that it demonstrates what I suspect is a largely unknown feature of the Amaryllis. Everything it needs is in the bulb, which means that it doesn’t actually need to be planted in soil, and can bloom anywhere. Even hung upside down from a wire ring.

Orchids are the tropical gardener’s special passion, so not surprisingly, there are lots of them here all year round, suspended safely out of reach – yes, apparently not all plant lovers are content to simply admire the exotic beauties, which is why the rarest and most expensive orchids are in their own little greenhouse that only the gardener can access.

Orchids hanging in the middle of the ‘island’ in the Tropical Greenhouse.

Additionally, every year for the Christmas show, the gardener comes up with a new and stunning way to show off her orchids.

She had patiently coaxed the unruly roots of miniature white orchids into large silver balls.

Red Amaryllis, reflected in the silver balls, are a perfect match the feathers.

Just be careful of your angle or you could end up with a surprise selfie.

As you walk through the doors to the next greenhouse the temperature drops.  We’re now in the Temperate Greenhouse, where plants like cyclamen and azaleas and camellias thrive.  Unlike the tropicals next door, these plants like to ‘rest’ after blooming, so they need a cool period. But never below freezing point.  None of the plants in here could survive a Canadian winter outdoors.  We’ll need a lot more global warming before that happens.

Leda and the swan always get special treatment.  One year their pond was decorated as a skating rink.  Huge, sparkling snowflakes were suspended from the ceiling and a pair of skates dangled around Leda’s neck.  This year she’s on a northern Canadian lake, decorated with snowshoes and a birch bark canoe laden with gifts.

But what was the woodsy thing looking out at her from under the Norfolk Island Pine?

It was covered in lichen and mosses and bark.

The lighting was a real challenge. I hope you can see the moose.

Tucked away at the opposite end of the greenhouse, the little Christmas train chugged around an elevated track as it had the year before,  safely beyond the reach of excited little hands.

What do the twin red towers represent?

On the north side of the horseshoe are two more greenhouses. The first is home to more tropicals.

Decorating the windows at the entrance to this Tropical Greenhouse is a whimsical display that,  like the Amaryllis chandelier, demonstrates an important bit of botany.

The plants that have been nudged into the crevices of the giant pine cones are epiphytes, aka ‘Air Plants’. As the name suggests, they get everything they need from the air.

Every year between 2,500 and 3,000 Poinsettias are brought in to carpet the flower beds.

Reindeer graze, hopefully not on the toxic Poinsettias.

Amidst the Cycads, topiary trees studded with Air Plants like those we saw at the entrance and tiny star-shaped bromeliads – Cryptanthus aka Earth Star Bromeliad.

Leaving the tropics we enter the last greenhouse on the north side of the horseshoe.  A hot blast of dry air announces the Arid Greenhouse, which is packed with plants of such fantastical and diverse appearance, you would think they had nothing in common.  But look a little closer and you will see how they have all been shaped by the same evolutionary trajectory – attracting and preserving water.

Seemingly endless variations on the theme of catching and preserving water.

Hanging on the opposite wall is the desert gardener’s latest creation.  Typically hundreds of pins would be used to hold the plants in place, but the pins can damage the fragile roots, so this year, hoping to prolong the life of his tableau, the gardener decided to use a new, pin-free strategy.

A ‘succulent’ Christmas package. Let’s hope the gardener’s new strategy works!

Even the jade trees have been gussied up with colourful Kalanchoe and other succulents.

Leaning against a spikey Kapok Tree, last year’s tableau is still looking fabulous!

The red and white Kalanchoe creative a wonderfully festive scene. I just hope the gardener was wearing a sturdy pair of gloves when he set them out amongst the thorny, spikey cacti.

On the opposite side of the path, amidst the festivities there is also an example of Nature’s many odd families.  The red and white-flowered Kalanchoes in the foreground belong to the same botanical family as the bizarre, fan-shaped plant in the centre background.

Even when you know the facts, it’s hard to see the family connection.  Not unlike some human families.

As wonderful as the displays in these four greenhouses are, the one I most look forward to is in the Dome, the greenhouse at the top of the horseshoe. In years gone by the central area had been transformed into fantastical settings, from a Victorian fireplace with an intricate ‘succulent’ carpet to the stage for a jazz trio.

This year’s Christmas tableau has strong hints of the classic Renaissance garden.

The lights I spent so much time winding around the tree frames on my balcony look nothing like the perfect spirals of Kalanchoe the gardener has wound around this tree.

How do you maintain the pattern? Do you go with one colour at a time? And how do you make sure you don’t run out of plants before you get to the top?

On the other side of the path, an enormous apparition stretched along the length of the border.

Can you guess what this is?

The tail feathers of … a peacock!  Two gardeners had been brought in from another conservatory to assemble the bird.  It took them two weeks.  How fascinating it would have been to watch them.

The details are ingenious, from the pine cone scales tipped with blue and silver on the bird’s neck, to the crest of blue and silver thistles.

The designer has even managed to capture the peacock’s proud stare.

What wonderful things we are capable of creating!

Wishing you Happy Holidays and the inspiration and courage in the New Year to add your own wonderful and much-needed creations to our world’s fragile cache of goodwill.






The Tree of 100 Horses

The fig tree in Palermo’s Botanical Garden (‘Giving Palermo Another Go’, Nov 30, 2017) got me thinking about another big tree I’d seen in Sicily.  I was staying in an agriturismo that from a Benedictine monastery in the 16th century had been transformed into a vineyard in the mid 19th century and was now a destination restaurant with rooms for overnight guests.

Entrance to the 16th century Agriturismo Case Perrotta.

My room had once been part of the Palmento where the grapes were crushed.

Even more than the interesting architecture and warm hospitality, I was attracted by the location.  It was on the east slopes of Mt. Etna.

Beyond the rose garden and cherry trees, a white cloud seems to rise from one of the mountains in the distance. But it is not a cloud or a mountain. It’s Etna puffing away.

I had arrived mid-afternoon, too late to visit Etna – you have to go first thing in the morning before clouds – real clouds – roll in and block the views – so after a bit of lounging in the rose garden with a glass of the local white – a great antidote to the white knuckle drive up to the village – I decided to go have a look at a Castagno (kass-tan-yoh).  The largest Chestnut Tree in the world – around 50 meters in circumference – and one of the oldest – between 2,000 and 4,000 years old.  Another point of attraction was that it was half a kilometre down the road from the agriturismo.  No tree, no matter how large or old, would have got me behind the wheel again that day.

I was even more glad to be on foot when I saw that the road was narrow and full of curves, and maybe even more hazardous, covered in sabbia vulcanica – slippery, volcanic sand.

Along what passed for the shoulder of the road, wild flowers had somehow taken root.

And in the crevices of the rough, stone wall.

It was the perfect pre-dinner walk.  Besides, if I’d been driving by all the fabulous views with no place to pull over, I would have had my own little eruzione for sure.

The tree’s size and age are even more astonishing when you see how close it is to Etna, all of which led UNESCO to include it in a worldwide project called ‘Heritage for a Culture of Peace’.  Unlike traditional UNESCO World Heritage Sites which are selected for their artistic and or historical value, the goal in this project was to celebrate monuments or sites which ‘represent or promote the universal value of harmony and understanding in the cultural turmoil of the collective’.   A goal that must sorely test the most optimistic spirits of those involved in the project.

The sight of vineyards on the slopes of Europe’s most active volcano takes a bit of getting used to.

The tree is a short distance down a little lane off the ‘main’ road.  As I approached I was surprised to see that it’s surrounded by a fence.  A rather insubstantial fence it seemed to me, given the tree’s proximity to Etna.

One of Nature’s grand, old beauties. The 100-Horse Chestnut Tree.

But as is the case with many of the world’s  treasures – natural or man-made – the greatest danger to the tree does not lurk in Nature.  On the locked gate was a decidedly unpeaceful notice.


Having survived relatively unscathed for thousands of years, in 1923 the main trunk was severely damaged by a fire, which it is strongly suspected, was set by locals from the nearby village of Giarre who were upset that Sant’Alfio had succeeded in obtaining administrative autonomy, which, in the arcane ways of such things, meant that Giarra lost a sizeable chunk of land.

I walked around, peering through the gaps in the fence, which really did not strike me as any kind of protection against lava or upset locals.  It is probably the most understated treatment of a UNESCO site I’ve ever visited.   A rough collection of supports had weathered over the years, almost blending into the tree and the standard, honorary ‘plaque’ was a simple, hand-written affair.

“Village of Sant’Alfio/Thousand year old Chestnut Tree of the 100 Horses/Monument ‘Messenger of Peace’/ Recognized by UNESCO, May 18, 2008”

As I continued around the fence I came to a sign more in keeping with the honour that had been bestowed on the tree.

Monument as Messenger of a culture of peace.

When presented with the opportunity to wax lyrically, Italians typically do not hold back. And stylistic tics like redundancy and run-on sentences, which in my school days got you lots of nasty red ‘x’s’, seem to be positively encouraged.  To give you an idea, here is a stylistically terrible, but very close translation:

Yearned-for destination through all times, and refuge for men and women of all circumstances, united by the common desire to find themselves again through peaceful contact with a Nature still uncontaminated and therefore potentially the inspiration for superhuman and eternal messages that via the tree lead to the rediscovery of the absolute that is in each of us.  Close to this tree we feel in harmony with nature, in peace with our fellow beings and with the entire Universe.  Our passions and torments quieten, our spirits find their equilibrium and our bodies their well-being. Admired by 17th and 18th century visitors for its wild aspect, the site has been and continues to be a symbol of evoked fertility. 

The Chestnut Tree is in fact testimony of the generative power of a Nature that is both life-giving and at the same time fertile and fruitful, is universally renowned as a symbol of the power of life that is born and continually regenerates itself.  To its trunk it beckons couples in love from around the world and thereby, perennial and infinite, becomes a dialogue between mankind and nature in a union without end that involves together the richness and fertility of the tree and soil and man’s industry.”  Whew!

And what, you might be wondering, in all this talk about peace and fertility, is with the hundred horses?

Above ground the trunk has split into three branches that appear separate but are joined underground.

The last few lines on the plaque talk about the rituals and legends that have grown up around the tree.  Especially fascinating is the myth about a stormy night when a queen named Giovanna who had taken refuge under the great tree ‘sia stata amata dai Cento cavalieri del suo seguito.’   Was loved by the Hundred horsemen in her retinue.

I first heard the story on the way to the train station in Cefalù.  I had been chatting with the owner of the B&B about gardens in Palermo I should visit.  Telling me about the Banyan tree in Palermo’s Botanical Garden had reminded him of another big tree I needed to see.  He had just started to tell me the legend when I glanced at my watch.  The 3 pm train to Palermo would be leaving in ten minutes. I jumped up and rushed around gathering my stuff.  “Ma signora, non c’è la fa!”  he protested. There was no way I would make it.  Seeing I was determined to try anyway, he announced,  “Allora, ce La porto in macchina.” He would drive me.  It had started to rain.  I accepted.  And as he drove through the rain which was now pelting, he told me the story.  Or rather, he told me one version of the story.

Once upon a time a Queen, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting and one hundred horsemen, was out hunting in Sicily when they were caught in a sudden downpour.  They rushed to the refuge of a large tree close by.  The storm continued into the evening and when it became clear they would have to spend the night under the shelter of the tree, the queen demanded that the local Abbess provide food for her retinue and ‘paglia per 100 cavalli’.  At this point my B&B host/driver hesitated and, eyes still uncharacteristically on the road, gave me a quick, sideways glance.  Then, apparently having decided that even though I was una straniera (a foreigner) and a guest at his B&B, I could be trusted with the ‘real’ story.  ‘Paglia, he continued, ha un doppio senso in siciliano.’  It turns out that paglia, which in italiano, the language we were speaking, means straw, has a double meaning in Sicilian.  A woman who asks for paglia is a woman of grande potere.  Great power.  He didn’t have to go into details.  Besides, we had arrived at the station.  It was still pouring, but I made the train to Palermo.

With a few minor variations – in some versions, the queen’s potere extended to only 30 cavallieri – this was  the essence of the story.  What remained in question was the identity of the queen.  Giovanna d’Aragona? Empress Isabella of England, third wife of Federico II?  Or maybe another Giovanna, Giovanni I d’Angiò, Queen of Naples who despite a reputation for a certain ‘potere’ was later revealed to have never touched Sicilian soil. But let’s not let minor details spoil a good legend.

In May there were of course no chestnuts, but the lush foliage and flower buds were unmistakeable signs of the tree’s enduring health.

When I got back to the agriturismo and was chatting with the young woman who had given me directions to the tree, she said I should try to go back the following evening. There was going to be a wedding.

Sure enough, when I went started out the next evening there was a line of cars along the road and the gate that had been tightly locked the day before was wide open.

Below the ‘plaque’, leaning against a flower-filled basket was a chalkboard on which was written Matrimonio Sala. Wedding Room.

What a lovely bouquet! Just right for the setting.

The ‘Wedding Room’ was in the heart of the tree.

I had arrived just in time.  The ceremony was almost over.

To my surprise there was a flurry of signing of the all important documents ….

… and then the young couple exchanged rings.

The ceremony over, the couple and family and guests started the customary round of kisses and hugs. On my way back to the lane I encountered a bizarre sight.

After all the weddings I’d come across in my travels around Italy this was a first. In my ignorance it struck me as a bit creepy…

… but the newlyweds and their guests were delighted.  The strange fellow on stilts bore champagne.  ‘Auguri!


Postscript from Palermo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upscale Teste di Moro in Taormina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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