The view from our Vorarlberg, Austria apartment is stunning. We survey the Rhine valley below us, encircled by a cordon of mountaintops all covered in snow…… But, I’m getting way ahead of myself. The past 12 days have been so busy that I’ve neglected the Blog and will now attempt to catch up. For this, I must apologize for this lengthy narrative, but it covers about 10 days of activity.
We last left off with a morning departure from Taormina overlooking the eastern coast of Sicily. Our destination was to a rented villa in the fishing village of Sferracavallo, just west of the capital of Salerno. Sicily is an island with a breadth of about 170 miles wide, and about 110 miles running up the middle from north to south. It took us a leisurely three hours to drive from the center of the east coast, down south to where the highway connects with the east-west passage just below snow-covered mount Etna. Sicily changes character as you transverse up the middle. The western side is windblown with large green trees, cactus, palms, and has a very modern feel. Once you swoop around Mt Etna and into the interior, that all changes. The high hills mellow out and begin to roll. For a while, there were plenty of orange groves, but even they stopped extending into the interior where it’s not clear what’s there other than a tan countryside filled with craggy, eroded mountains with stone fields, and a few villages sprinkled throughout. Throughout much of the interior, the farmers must be growing rocks because that’s all we could see within the furrowed fields. Once you get through the ‘pass,’ the clouds begin to form along the opposing mountains and coastline; again, the trees become taller and greener, and there is grass and flowers in abundance. The interior is interesting for visiting, but probably a foreboding place to live.
Sferracavallo is a quaint fishing village and bedroom community to the capital of Palermo. It’s noted for the massive southern outcropping of rocks forming a backdrop to a panoramic canvas of ocean splendor to the north. In the summer, the village waterfront teams with visitors and Palermo residents in search of delectable seafoods that the village offers in abundance. While it is a charming village, it improves at night when the trash his hidden, or provides a sparkling reflective surface to the waterfront’ s numerous neon lights. Sicily is gorgeous, It’s also poverty-stricken. I’ll never understand why people who live in such incredible beauty cannot seem to afford to pick up the crap around their streets and ‘unfoul’ the natural paradise in which they live. Having said that, once you get used to it, I guess you can see through it, it must fade into the background, and all that is left are the incredible vistas, sunsets, fauna, and active skies. The beauty really is remarkable,,, but, it’s also such a shame (OK, enough of the social narrative!)
We arrived two days early so we could reconnoiter the town, it’s sights, restaurants, cafes, markets, and bakeries so when our guest arrived, we’d be clued-in. We also purchased enough food to stock the fridge for a few meals for 8 and enough ‘appetizers’ for sitting around the terrace and living room talking. Naturally, we figured the talking would require lubrication, so we picked up 12 bottles of wine and 3 bottles of Prosecco (Italian Champaign), just for starters!
A few days later, many of us hopped on a short train-ride to Palermo to check out Sicily’s capital. The town was interesting, but not really as captivating as most of the places we’ve visited. The major shopping street (Via Roma) was nice, but quite a few of the stores were closed and the quality of goods not nearly as high as in many other places we’ve explored. Poverty has descended on Sicily and left an ugly veil (perhaps a long, long time ago). The ‘Old Town’ had a few impressive churches, buildings, fountains, but nothing that over-awed the visitor like many other places. After a bit, I felt a bit let down and disappointed that our visitors would not share in the delights and marvels of Italian history and architecture that we’d come to expect from our previous experiences. I guess Palermo just wasn’t up to that standard. But, the old churches were unique. As many were initially built around 1100 (the Norman conquest period), the facades still had a lot of that old Moorish or Eastern Orthodox design to them. However, the interiors had been updated, and many equaled the best of the best in opulence and mesmerizing splendor. I guess money did find its way to Sicily, but it may have stayed in the churches.
Always interested in the ‘off the beaten path’ curiosities, one of our guests fortuitously discovered an internet write-up for the ‘Catacombe de Cappuccini.’ The Catacombe is a crypt where they used to mummify folks remains and mount them in an upright position along the walls. Literally, thousands of dried up dead people are hanging from the walls or stacked on shelves like books. Many of them are dressed in their finest clothing of the period, some in uniforms, others with their religious vestments, some were even wrapped in what looked like burlap sacks. It’s kind of eerie and very macabre, but definitely worth checking out. I guess that’s how they did it in Salerno two centuries ago.
The outdoor market was impressive. It must have extended for 10 city blocks, chocked full of stands featuring sea creatures, grains, nuts, tourist crap, pastries, and every conceivable street market product that someone could profit from selling. But, we couldn’t find pizza, so off the market alleys and into the main street to find a spaghettiria.
We found one near the train station, so our guests could have their very first genuine Italian pizza. Only after we sat and ordered drinks did the waiter declaratively inform us that there was no Pizza to be had in Palermo at lunch, ‘pizza was a dinner meal.’ At first, we thought it was a joke, but we were wrong. He was quite serious! It turns out it’s not a cultural thing, like no cappuccino after noon. It turns out that the city didn’t want restaurants firing up their woodburning pizza stoves before evening to cut down on the smoke and particulate matter floating around town. So, the only pizza to be had was pizza cooked in a gas oven. As that’s practically heresy in S. Italy there was no pizza to be had for lunch that day in Palermo, or any day.
On another day we ventured off to see the ‘God-Father’s’ home town of Corleone! We were curious if there was anything curious or exciting to be seen. There really wasn’t. It’s just a small town in the hills of central Sicily that its promoters took advantage of the fact that the town was mentioned in a movie featuring a fictitious character. Everywhere we looked, we tried to find signs of the ‘Mafia’ doing mafioso things. We didn’t. We just found a bunch of people trying to make a living in a small village up in the hills of Sicily. But, there were quite a few tough-looking guys and who knows what they were really up to. So, another pasta lunch, a few more boots for Ursula’s closet and back to the Villa for another relaxing night.
Our final exploration was to Marsala to taste some of their wine and discover if we could get them to ship some home (at less than extortionists prices). Marsala, on the far west coast of the island, is a wine town. That’s what they do, there are dozens of warehouse business that stomp on grapes and turn them into that delightful elixir of life. But, we also found they do it at prices that make it just as easy to purchase similar quality back home, without the hassle of shippers, customs, etc. Our guest bought a few to carry home and enjoy on our remaining night, but that was it.
On the way home, we side-stepped over to the town of Trapani, where they feature a funicular launching people up the mountain side to the ancient precipice village of Erice. Erice is the quintessential old Italian mountain village that fills the imagination of every tourist to Italy and historical movie set.
The 2-mile ride up the mountain offered spectacular views of the town and coastline below, to include several islands off-shore. Like many that we’ve been in, this village had soapstone roads, rock, walled buildings, and terra-cotta roofs. It was all very touristy. But, as it was the offseason, most everything was closed except for a few cafes, tourist crap (craft) shops, and that’s it. This suited us all fine as we had the village almost all to ourselves and we could wander and explore without any congestion or interruption. There was much to see. After traversing the village’s central ally’s, we came to the edge where the castle dominated the countryside and shoreline. The cliff below the castle walls fell about 400 feet, and then the hill, not so gently, fell away about another 500 feet below that. Beneath the fortress lay a tapestry of villages, farms, smaller hills, and the seaside, all of which nestled up to another very large outcropping of mountains to the northeast 10 miles away. It was a magnificent view. This one village pulled us (maybe just me?) out of the Sicily doldrums of shunted expectations. It was a good day.
Perhaps my descriptions of the area sound less than glorious. But, it really is hard to measure above many of the mesmerizing, breathtaking, and magnificent sites that we’ve experienced over the previous 60 days. I suspect my views of western Sicily are filtered through a hope and expectation that our guests could experience in a few days, all that we’ve discovered in two months. I’m hopeful that their memories match ours (mine?) of our many adventures throughout this magnificent land.
This Blog pretty much finalizes my recounts of our travel adventures. In the next few entries, I’ll share a bit about living in a 109-year-old villa on the coast with half a dozen friends from Alaska, Germany, and Austria. All of whom traveled these distances to spend time with us and celebrate Ursula’s 60th Birthday. I’ll also close out this ‘Bellissima Italia’ Blog with another entry about our observations about the country, it’s people and customs. Until then, Ciao!