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.

 

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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.

 

 

One Thing Leads to Another…

On the drive back from Caltagirone, I realized I was coming down with something.  It wasn’t the flu, nothing like that.  These were the symptoms of a malaise I’d been stricken with before in my travels.  MSSFS.  Must-See Site Fatigue Syndrome.  I had reached the point where no matter however beautiful or fascinating, I could not bear the thought of visiting one more Greek temple or Roman ruin or Baroque town.  At least for a day or two.

Early morning view from the agriturismo.

Setting off in the early morning.

So when the host of the agriturismo I was staying in mentioned that the Borgo Più Bello dell’Italia for 2014 was the hilltop village of Gangi, I thought, why not?  I’ve visited many of Italy’s ‘Most Beautiful Villages’ over the years and always found them to be well worth the drive. This one was just over 100 km away, peanuts for a Canadian.

As an added incentive, Gangi was just a few kilometres from the southern boundary of the Parco delle Madonie, a nature reserve – one of only two in all of Sicily – known for its spectacular natural beauty, especially in spring when the mountains were covered with wild flowers.  And… there was another Borgo Più Bello dell’Italia within the park’s borders.  And… the northern border and most common point of entry to the park was on the outskirts of Cefalù, one of Sicily’s most charming fishing villages.  Since I would be staying in Cefalù later on in my trip, it would have made sense to leave the park for later and visit it from the north, like everyone else does.  But I was already beginning to feel an intense longing for the sea.  I was pretty sure that once I got to the coast, I would have no desire to go inland.

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Apart from the occasional local in a hurry to get to work – I just pulled over to let them pass – I had the roads to myself.  It was lovely.  I was so glad I’d decided to take a break from all the erudition and spend a day in the park.  Of course I wasn’t thinking of how the line in the old song ends – …too late to run for cover.

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Apart from the occasional driver, the only other people I saw were farmers, out checking their crops.

As I drove north, the clear blue skies gave way to dark clouds.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.  When I rounded a corner and saw the village, my heart sank.  Do you ever ‘know’ something, but try hard to convince yourself you’re wrong?  This was one of those times.  I knew in my heart of hearts the village I was looking at was Gangi, but the way it sprawled down the hillside looked so utterly lacking in anything that would warrant its being classified as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages made me not want to know this.

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Gangi, one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Hmmm…

I walked all around the village, on the lookout for anything remotely charming or bello.

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I saw a few anziani (old men), but as for Gangi’s charms and beauty, they remained secrets for me. Even the location of the village bar was a secret.

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I had left before breakfast was served at the agriturismo and had been looking forward to a cappuccino and some kind of brioche to go with it for quite a while by now.  There had to be a bar somewhere.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in all my years of travelling around Italy, it’s that even the smallest, most desolate-looking village has a caffè or bar, some place to get a coffee.  Finally I asked.

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The entrance to Gangi’s caffè is the (unmarked) door on the left of the building with the clock tower. Past 10 and I still hadn’t had a cappuccino!

I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t enthralled with the village. After I returned home, there was an article about it in the New York Times (June 22, 2015):  ‘Sicilian Town Tells Outsiders:  Take Our Homes. Please.’ by Elisabetta Povoledo.   It seemed that Gangi had been hemorrhaging young people for decades.  Since the 1950’s the population had dropped from 16,000 to 7,000.  Desperate to resuscitate the village, City Hall had come up with a plan – they would give houses away.  The only catch was the new owners had to make the houses – some of which were in a serious state of disrepair, having been abandoned long ago – liveable.  Within four years.  In spite of the exorbitant costs of renovations in Sicily – or anywhere in Italy for that matter – a few new owners quickly took up the challenge.  Emboldened by the positive response, City Hall set up a waiting list.  They wanted to be sure that prospective home owners could not only afford the costly renovations, but also that whatever the new owners had in mind, it would somehow enhance the village’s chance of survival.  One applicant who promised to create a hotel, was given two houses and permission to purchase an additional seven.

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View of the surrounding countryside.

Who knows? Maybe in a few years Gangi really would be one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.  Even after a cappuccino, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to continue driving all the way to Polizzi Generosa, the other ‘most beautiful village’ in the Madonie.  And this was when one of  the perils of travelling solo raised its ugly head.  Because at that moment, it occurred to me that by the time I explored even part of the park, I wouldn’t be all that far from Cefalù, that charming fishing village I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Now had I been travelling with a companion, it is highly likely that this companion would have pointed out a number of reasons as to why this was not a good idea, and I would have – probably after some undignified protestations, for which I would have had to grovelingly apologize later – turned the car around and headed south, back towards the blue skies and Agrigento and we would have spent a lovely afternoon somewhere along the south coast of the island.

To reassure myself that I hadn’t been afflicted with a momentary impairment of my faculties – a worrying thought for someone who would like to continue travelling on her own, at least for a few more years – I checked the exact distance out later. From Gangi to Cefalù was 60 k – less than half the distance from Toronto to Niagara Falls, a day trip most Torontonians would take without a second thought.  I didn’t need to worry.  Not for the time being.

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Are all passersby subjected to such intense scrutiny?  My guess was that the yellow and grey striped pole was a marker for snow.  I was glad to be here now.

In the lower areas – below 1,500 m – cattle and sheep are grazed as they have been for centuries.

Not quite joined at the hip.

These two aren’t quite joined at the hip.

The road wound itself up the hill. I could hear the sound of bells, but apart from the cows I’d passed earlier (lower right corner in the photo below), there were no other animals in sight.

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The clanging kept getting louder, and a few bends in the road later, I saw the sheep.

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Further along I saw a bull – or was it a big cow?  One of the drawbacks of being a driver on twisting, mountain roads – if you want to have a good look at the sights, sometimes the only thing to do is pull over.

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I found a spot where the road was marginally wider and started walking back.  But then the cow/bull turned around. As we stood there eyeing each other, it occurred to me that the break in the wall wasn’t temporary.  The wall hadn’t collapsed in a recent storm and was going to be repaired any day soon.  This really was a bull crossing.  The enormous creature had probably made his way down to the break in the wall and crossed the road to the pasture on the other side many times.  I beat an undignified retreat to my car.

No bull about this crossing.

A bit further along I came to a spot that looked more promising.  A rare straight stretch and a flat area off to the right.

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Love the wild dill.  Even though it took up valuable pull over space.

There was no shortage of bees here. I was just bending over to take this shot when I felt something stinging my legs. I was covered with ants.

There was no shortage of bees in this clump by the road.

I was adjusting my lens to take another shot when I felt something stinging my legs. I was covered with ants.  The biting kind.  I had been so focused on avoiding getting stung by a bee I hadn’t thought about being attacked from the ground.  I swatted furiously and headed away from the road to a part of the ridge where the plants were much lower and I could keep an eye on the flowers and other things coming up from the ground.

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Further from the road the hillside was covered with the low-growing white rock rose.  No ants here.

It turns out the rock rose is a lot less fragile and a lot more wily than it looks.  Over the centuries, it has set up a partnership with a fungus – a distant relative of the truffle, no less – which among numerous skills of use to the rock rose, has the dubious ability to kill all vegetation – except of course its host plant, the rock rose – within reach of its mycelium (roots).  The competition having been eliminated, the rock rose has exclusive access to whatever nutrients are in the vicinity, which means that it can grow in even the poorest soils throughout Sicily’s long, hot, dry summers.

Another trick up its pistil – or is it the stamen? – in any event, another, equally canny adaptation has to do with reproduction.  After its seeds ripen, they get blown around by the wind for a bit, and eventually, like the seeds of other plants, fall to the ground.  But instead of germinating right away, the rock rose’s seeds remain dormant.  For as long as necessary, which usually means until the occurrence of a ‘disturbance event’.  Fire is the most frequent ‘disturbance event’ in these parts.  The heat of the fire softens the hard coating and the seeds sprout.  And since they are so small, there are usually a lot of them lying in wait in one area, certainly more than most other plants, which means they can easily beat out the competition, number-wise, in the post-fire sprouting frenzy.

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The Madonie Rock Rose. Tougher than it looks.

I walked to the edge of the crest.  There are 15 towns and villages within the park, but most parts felt very remote.

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Only 4% of Sicily is covered with forest. It looked like a lot of it was in the Madonie Park.

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Up here most of the rock roses were white, but there was the odd pink one.

The hilltop village beyond the roses looked more promising than Gangi had been, but the clouds put me off.  Time to head for the sea and, speriamo (speh-ree-ah-moh), the sun.  One can always hope.

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As I continued northwards, whenever bells and a bit of space at the side of the road came together, I would pull over and play ‘spot the herd’.

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It was fun watching them. For a bunch of sheep they were pretty orderly.

It was fun watching them. For a bunch of sheep and a few goats they were pretty orderly.

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I made one exception to the no-hilltop village rule.  In Geraci Siculo there was a castle.

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Ruins of the Castello dei Ventimiglia.  I think I expected the ruins to be somewhat less ruined.

It was a good thing I’d had a cappuccino in Gangi.  Here there wasn’t even a bakery, let alone a bar.

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The last baker left years ago. Now the locals’ bread is delivered by car.  A friendly enough ritual, but I wondered how often the bread truck came up here.

As I got closer to the sea, the vegetation changed.  Around one bend in the road I came across the strangest sight.  Like some tangled forest in a Grimms’ fairy tale.

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They were cork oak trees.

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When you see what they do to the trees, those plastic corks don’t seem so bad.

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Finally.  Il mare and the distinctive rocky outcrop on the east edge of Cefalù.

The idea of having ‘just a quick look’ at the town was tempting, but the thought of the long drive back to the south coast of the island was stronger.  Thank goodness.  In fact, if I had known how long and how stressful that drive would turn out to be, I might have turned right around and headed south immediately.  But then I would have missed a delightful lunch.

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Lots of cozze – cots-say (mussels) in these fettuccine ai frutti di mare.

I’m a slow eater, but even so the dark clouds gathered so quickly, by the time I’d finished lunch, the skies were totally overcast. It was easier to leave, knowing I’d soon be back.  By which time the sun would surely be out.

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A dark sky may add lots of ‘atmosphere’, but I wanted to see the village bathed by sunlight.

Maybe if I were one of those Canadians who live in British Columbia I’d have a better sense of what can happen, weather-wise, in the mountains or by the coast.  But I live in Toronto.  The land – where you can glimpse it among the plethora of skyscrapers –  is flat.  And the lake we’re by is, well, think of a very large bath-tub. It’s not that we don’t have the full range of weather.  It’s just that we don’t have such a wide range of it all at once.

At first the skies to the south were a nice blue, with lots of fluffy, white clouds.

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I thought these clouds were low.  Then I saw some almost hugging the ground a few kilometres on.

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This wasn’t the Himalyas. Who knew clouds could come so low?

The clouds got thicker and lower and less white until as far as I was concerned they weren’t clouds any more – this was fog.  While this may not have been a meteorologically sound point of view, there wasn’t much of a view left anyway.  And then I came around a bend.

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I left the car in the middle of what was left of the road – I was beyond caring about such things – to have a closer look.

I got out - leaving the car in the middle of what was left in the road - to have a closer look.

If someone else had been with me what kind of conversation would we have had?  Would I have done what I did?  If you’re guessing I kept on going, bravo!  What were the options anyway?  Go all the way back to Cefalù?  Try one of the few roads I’d passed to get here?  Have you noticed there haven’t been any road signs.  And the cloud-fog was so thick I didn’t even know which direction I was going by this point.  I don’t know how long it took me to drive what was probably less than a 1/4 kilometre before I was back on a proper surface.

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ROAD (misspelled – it’s STRADA) CLOSED TO TRAFFIC AT KM9. Would you have paid any attention to this kind of sign?

I drove for an hour or so along various twisting mountain roads – the SS643, then a bunch of SP9730’s – SP9732, SP9737, Sp9738.  I’m not really sure.  All I knew, because occasionally the clouds would part for a moment, was that I was heading south.

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Olives, citrus trees and vineyards growing in the shelter of a valley.

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In some places the road passed close to a house. It was so remote. Surely you’d have to be born here in order to survive.

I think the town below is Polizzi Generosa, the other ‘Beautiful Village’.  I’m not sure.  And even though I drove right through it, I have no idea whether it is beautiful or not.  Because I saw nothing of it.

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Polizzi Generosa?

As I climbed the mountain I drove into the densest fog I had ever encountered. Even worse than the fog I’d driven through years ago in the Po Valley in northern Italy.  The only thing that made the situation marginally less stressful was that all the other drivers – all of a sudden there were cars everywhere, as if they’d been sucked in by the fog – were responsibly crawling along at a snail’s pace even I felt comfortable with.

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By the time I got far enough down the mountain that the fog started to dissipate, I was so rattled I was still driving at a snail’s pace, which turned out to be a good thing because around one of the bends in the road…

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…a cow and her nursing calf were standing in the middle of the lane.

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The bent barrier up ahead was not reassuring.

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I hadn’t seen another car for a while, and any ideas I’d previously entertained about road safety had taken a battering in the last few hours, so I just stopped in the middle of the road to take a photo.

I still had a long way to go, but from here it was mostly downhill.  Literally.  When I finally saw the sea – or maybe I was willing that hazy bluish colour beyond the mountains to be the sea – I heaved the proverbial sigh of relief.  There were still a few more white knuckle stretches ahead, but the worst was behind me.

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By the time I pulled into the driveway of the agriturismo the sun was starting to set.  Just enough time for a swim and a glass of the local white before dinner.

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Recently I came across a quote that might have been useful that day – ‘Follow your heart … but take your brain with you.’