Traveling with Mikey in Western Sicily
The only bad meal I’ve ever had in Italy was in a ristorante proper in Sicily, recommended to us by several locals because the owner, a member of the Slow Food movement, had done great p.r. among the locals. Mikel and I henceforth stuck with unpretentious Sicilian trattorie and pizzerie, and takeout from bakeries, bars, gelaterie and holes-in-the-wall. We had been to visit Anna Tasca Lanza, the marchesa, at her family’s Regaleali vineyard, where she served us slow-roasted lamb, arancini (“little oranges” –perfectly fried balls of rice with a molten core of ham and cheese), bitter chicory greens, cauliflower so imbued with the terroir that you would have thought it as important to the estate as their vines, and an elegant salad of apples and pomegranates. I had brought her sweet, brittle benne (sesame seed) wafers from Charleston, which we nibbled as we lingered after lunch before a much-needed nap. We agreed that a light evening meal would suffice, so later she took us into the neighboring village for more of the local cauliflower with pasta.
The next day we slowly motored down Highway 121, which describes Western Sicily, from Palermo in the north to Agrigento in the South. Leaving the vineyard, we could see that the 1500 acres of Regaleali extend to the far ridges of the horizon in all directions.
We spent several hours among the impressive ruins at the so-called Valley of the Temples. So-called because the string of fifth century BC temples are perched atop a ridge that hovers above the valley and the recently refurbished highway. Many previously poor European regions such as Sicily and much of Portugal, I’ve noticed, have learned to milk the EU for projects that will increase tourism, the major industry: if the ancients built it, the tourists will come. Sicily has some of the best ruins in not only Magna Graecia, but also anywhere the ancient Greeks ruled. The Valle dei Templi is easily approachable. We were travelling in November, risking rain, but avoiding the summer busloads of Brits and Germans. We had most of the island nation, including astounding archaeological sites such as those at Agrigento, to ourselves.
Mikel has endured in our fourteen years together many of my maniacal trip-plannings as well as my extravagance at table tempered by my parsimoniousness in other regards. Invariably, I’ll rent the smallest, cheapest car I can find, and not worry about the cost of fuel or the questionable back roads that I choose. He’s also absorbed some pretty ridiculous outbursts from me, expecting him to navigate with maps and roadsigns in languages he doesn’t read or speak. We’ve taken a few wrongs turns in the hinterlands of Mexico, where neither of us speak the language, and in Ireland – where it shouldn’t matter, as well as in Italy, me cramming the gearshift into the wrong position and yelling at him, as though he were the one who had planned the side trip that landed us on a donkey-filled mountain road instead of the “seldom visited spa with panoramic views.” Of course, I will have insisted on the standard transmission, which he doesn’t drive.
But we both have enough of the nineteenth-century romantic in us to enjoy day after day of ruins, my driving fits notwithstanding. At Agrigento, there are grooves in the streets, dug out over time by chariot wheels, like at Pompeii, but they are nearly two feet deep. The temples were all built within about one hundred years, six hundred years before Christ. Facing east over the sea from their summit, the ruins have a theatrical air about them, with the anachronistic modern city rising as stage set behind them. The ancient city grew in riches and power, with abundant olive groves and wheat fields, citrus, lamb, and seafood, until it was sacked by the Carthaginians led by Hannibal in 406 BC. So well placed was the “valley” that it took Hannibal six months to capture it. Goethe wrote that “Without Sicily, Italy cannot be fully understood. It is here one finds the key to all things.” After seeing Agrigento, he lamented, one could not rejoice in seeing other places.
Nevertheless, Mikey and I moved westward up the coast to see the ruins at Eraclea Minoa, stopping at Capo Bianco, where an unspoiled arc of beach is fronted by a prominent stand of pines. There was an older, nude German couple swimming in the roiling surf, so we slipped into the pineta and spread our picnic out on a carpet of ferns. We lunched on the sheep’s milk cheese from the vineyard’s creamery, leftover greens, excellent bread from the local bakery, and a bottle of Regaleali red that the marchesa had given us. The bread in Sicily is always good, never mediocre the way it can be in France, or downright awful, as it is in Spain. To the northwest, white cliffs — Capo Bianco — dominate the beachhead. The ruins command a sweeping view of the coastline from the promontory, and the crumbling Greek theater looks out over the southern Mediterraean. I can’t imagine such a dramatic setting not distracting from ancient plays, even with the backdrop that the original scene building, long destroyed, would have provided. According to legend, the city was founded where Minos, the ruler of Crete, captured Daedalus and punished him for helping Ariadne and Theseus escape from the Labyrinth.
A sackful of guidebooks in tow, Mikey and I would read the myths to each other and marvel over the sites, the stories from grammar and high school coming back to life among the ruins. Daedalus, in case you don’t remember, was a sort of Leonardo of his day who designed the Labyrinth to contain the Minotaur. When Minos wouldn’t let him leave Crete, he created wings for himself and his son Icarus, and they flew away to Sicily. Icarus flew too close to the sun, though, and the wax holding his feathers together melted and he fell to his death. Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, but she fell in love with Theseus, the heir to the Greek throne who was roving about the ancient world, looking for adventures – such as killing the Minotaur. Ariadne gave him a ball of string that led him out of the Labyrinth. She ran away with him, hoping to become his queen, but Theseus abandoned her on Naxos, where her plaintive cries were heard by Dionysius (Bacchus), who took pity on her, loved her, protected her, and eventually married her.
When I was growing up in South Carolina and spending a lot of time on my parents’ sailboat, we learned the constellations by memorizing the myths, in the remote case that we should ever need to steer by the stars. Corona borealis – the Northern crown – is a small tiara-shaped constellation that appears high in the western July sky, near Arcturus. The myths say that Zeus granted Aridane immortality; Dionysius set her sparkling crown in the heavens. The southern coast of Sicily is a wonderful place for stargazing, but we spent our nights inside, dining and recovering from our long days.
We stopped in Sciacca for a night, where Daedalus is said to have taken advantage of the therapeutic waters when he himself escaped Eraclea Minoa. He is also supposed to have carved out the caves for the famous baths, but there is evidence of Neolithic activity there. The modern city reflects its turbulent history under the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards, but it is perhaps best known for its excellent majolica. We walked down to the old seaport, where fishermen were hauling in their day’s catch, and up on the bluff where a warren of medieval streets open onto airy piazze surrounded by ceramics studios. We bought several plates from the artists themselves and inquired where we might get an authentic Sciacchese meal. When a second potter, whose work I truly admired, recommended the ristorante, I explained to him that I would prefer a trattoria where I could get simple, local cuisine; that I was a food writer and had lived in Italy, and knew that a small, family-run place would better suit my taste. But he would hear nothing of it and insisted that we go to the restaurant.
It was late in the day and we hadn’t checked in to our hotel, so we went by the restaurant to make sure that we could get served. I should have backed out then, when the chef-proprietor acted as though I were insulting him to be making reservations so late in the day, and, well, yes, he could fit us in, but not before eight. So we went to our hotel and freshened up and returned promptly at eight to find the restaurant with one table of diners – the chef and his kitchen staff. He made us wait for another half-hour before he would seat us, and when we asked for authentic local fare, he went on and on about all the culinary organizations that he belongs to, among them Slow Food, and did I have any idea how careful he is with his preparations. He was even more insulted when I asked what those preparations might be, and he insisted that we just let him bring us several courses, which is what we would have done in a simple trattoria. The first course to arrive, his fritto misto, was a fish mousse coated in sesame seeds and pan-fried. It was such a shock to be served New American Cuisine in Sciacca, a busy fishing and agricultural town in western Sicily, that I barely remember the rest of the painstakingly slow meal. If there were local fresh fish in the dish, they were disguised in the mousse. Looking back at my notes, I see that I wrote “Yuck!” to describe the pasta dish of almonds, radicchio, and bottarga. Bottarga is an ancient food, the salted and dried roe of certain fish. In Sicily, it’s made from tuna and is, in fact, often called uovo di tonno. It is an elegant topping that is sprinkled on buttered toast, on salads, and on pasta dishes. A little bit of good bottarga can be as memorable as a shaving of fresh truffle. Any amount of oversalted, thickly sliced bottarga is also memorable, unfortunately. We were in the restaurant for several hours. There was one other diner, obviously a regular. Since we had reserved the piano nobile of a large home overlooking Marsala for the next week, Mikel and I shrugged off the bad meal and looked forward to shopping the local markets and my own cooking.
I’ve always thought that the best way to visit another country is to try to live like the locals for awhile. I’ve been on at least a dozen press junkets to some of the more exotic olive oil producing regions of the Mediterranean, where brilliant millers and bakers and chefs and vintners have presented us writers with incredibly inspiring meals that evoke centuries of culinary tradition. But I never get the feel of the kitchen unless I cook the food myself – or at least spend time in a cucina tipica, with a truly local cook. My modus operandi is to rent as nice a place (with kitchen) as I can afford that is closest to the most authentic marketplace in an area known for quality ingredients. It’s even better if some of those ingredients aren’t just regional, but peculiar. Foods like bottarga. Sara Jenkins is a chef friend of mine who grew up in Spain and Italy and Lebanon. Sara and I have been on those press trips together before and have slipped away from the crowds, rented a car, and driven through miles of olive groves, looking for dolmen and the perfect picnic spot to eat the breads, cheeses, preserved fish, and fruit that we buy in tiny taverns along the way. In a New York Times Magazine article about Sara, she described her cooking style, which one young chef had told her wasn’t cooking, but “shopping.” I’ve also worked in a kitchen with Sara, recreating an elaborate meal of Pugliese dishes we learned about on one of those junkets. And, yes, the shopping is possibly the most important part of preparing a good meal. Cooking is, I guess, work. But, to both Sara and me, it’s fun. Maybe that’s what the young Turk really meant, that she enjoys it too much.
Our next meal in Sicily was one of the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere, and it came on the heels of one of the most satisfying days of travel I’ve ever had. Leaving Sciacca, we drove to the folk artist Filippo Bentivegna’s “Enchanted Castle” outside of town. Now a park maintained by the city, the artist’s garden of sculpted heads is possibly the saddest place I’ve ever been. Locally referred to as “Filuppu di li testi” (Philip of the Heads), Bentivegna created a body of work that is an astounding display of passionate outsider art. Primitively carved in stone and in the trunks of the olive trees above his simple house, the heads represent the men whose inhumanity haunted him until his death in 1965. There are several critical analyses of Bentivegna’s life and work, but the official brochure that the Sciacca tourist office provides says that, having emigrated to the United States where he fell in love, he was beaten in the streets of Chicago by his rival. He returned home and worked as a common laborer, living in Sciacca, but returning when he could to his simple farmhouse outside of town, for forty years carving into the rock the menacing faces. Il Castello Incantato is one of the great folk art environments of the world, a self-made world that portrays the artist’s vision at every turn, like Simon Rodia’s tower in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles or Howard Finster’s Georgia garden.
We were both horribly moved by Bentivegna’s world and drove in near silence to the little seaport of Marinella and the magnificent ruins at Selinunte. The site does not have as many important buildings as the Valley of the Temples, but the setting is verdant and spacious, overlooking the sea. The day was sunny and warm, and we had the ruins, for the most part, to ourselves. I prefer Selinunte because I could get a feeling for the 2500-year-old city of 25,000 people. The temples – and they are every bit as grand as those at Agrigento – are in varying states of reconstruction. There’s more to be learned in seeing them juxtaposed like that, and one gets a better sense of the massive scale when the columns are tossed about. Even more fascinating are the Cave di Cusa, the quarries eighteen kilometers away, that have not been worked since the destruction of the city in 409 BC. Here’s a photo of Mikel standing in the foot-wide gap carved around a column section that was never finished. No wonder it took a hundred years to finish some of the buildings!
Marzara del Vallo is less than a hundred miles from Tunisia, and I expected to feel the North African influence in the air, as the guidebooks had described it. But the first thing we noticed when we stopped our car was the indescribably appetizing aroma we smelled coming from Il Gambero, the first trattoria we came to. I don’t know that I’ve ever eaten a better meal, and I was not surprised to see a veritable army of chefs preparing foods for the evening (it was late in the day for lunch, but they were delighted to serve us). Our first course of handmade straccatelle, an impossibly difficult pasta to shape by hand (two vertically split hollow tubes attached their full length), sauced with tiny frutte di mare –miniscule octopus, shrimp, and clam-like bivalves swimming in a hearty seafood broth. Then roast fish – lots of it: a bream, a red mullet, a prawn, and a sole apiece, plus a squid that had been stuffed with delicately seasoned breadcrumbs, breaded, and grilled, and another fish whose name I forgot to ask. Stuffed ourselves, we drove on, never once seeing any African connection.
Alas, my Marsala kitchen was not to be. The house, built in 1750, had once been grand, but it was located a mile or two outside the city, through winding, unmarked roads, far from any markets. The villa was an eighteenth century palace of a lesser nobleman, but it had been redecorated in the Victorian era and not touched since. Yellowed, crocheted antimacassars on the chairs of the large main room were flimsy, greasy, and well-worn. Lightbulbs barely shone. The lady of the house needn’t have explained to me how wealthy they had once been, how she had to rent out the house to keep it up, that she and her ailing husband – who had had a stroke and who howled unintelligible moans when she wasn’t by his side – had to live downstairs, in the former servants’ quarters. The young man downtown – in Marsala – who had arranged the rental, she told me, had been very good to her. He, too, had inherited a big house that he was having to rent out to make ends meet. He had neglected to tell her that we were two men. Having prepared the camera matrimoniale, she said she must have misunderstood, wouldn’t we prefer the single beds upstairs?
I explained to her that I wanted the room with the double bed because that’s the one on the main floor, the one with the kitchen privileges.
“But I make the meals myself,” she said, obviously hearing for the first time that I intended to use what was becoming evident to me was the only kitchen.
The wonderful young man from downtown, I noticed, had slipped away as soon as he made our introductions and saw the look of shock on her face. I was furious, but stood my ground. I had a printout of my correspondence with the middle man. I told her that we would be content to eat out tonight, that everything would work out.
“But the bed,” she said. “Two men. How will you sleep?”
“It will be okay,” I said, carefully choosing my rusty Italian words. “We’re good friends…”
“Since childhood!” she said. Dall’infanzia!
Not exactly, I thought, but whatever. She finally left us alone to sleep, warning us that there has been a scirocco going on for fifteen days. If it would just rain, she said, it would stop. We knew when we came to Sicily in November that the rains might start at some point, but we had seen mostly crystalline skies since our arrival. In the middle of the night, however, the tempest that signals autumn on the island began in earnest: several hours of horrendous thunder and lightning that kept us up most of the night. When we did awaken, it was to a house without water or electricity. Mikey and I joked that the storm was a gift from the gods, to get us out of that freaky house. Ironically, we had rented the house, which we knew was on a hill over the town, as a vantage point for watching the Leonids meteor shower, which was supposed to be spectacular during that particular week of that particular year in that particular corner of the world. We didn’t mind the rain, but we had missed not only the meteors, but our chance to cook the lovely local foods.
At breakfast, the sad old blue-haired heiress was contrite. She prepared us a simple breakfast and served us homemade marmalade from her own oranges, wondering aloud why the United States , “the voice of democracy,” had not announced to the world who its new president would be. It was over a week since we had left home, right after voting in the scandalous presidential election of 2000. We were at a loss to explain the situation to her, but I tried, in a language in which I’ve never discussed politics, to expound on the Electoral College. “But Gore won more votes,” she said. “He should win.” Of course I agreed with her, but I myself was having a hard time understanding what was going on, and we had come on this vacation at least partially to avoid the news. I didn’t want to face another Bush in the White House. “He will start a war, like his father,” she said. “We don’t need any more wars.”
She was right about that. But what worried me then, as it does today, is his embracing the so-called Christian right, his ties to the military/industrial complex, and his lack of intelligence and curiosity. Our landlady-for-a-night might agree with Bush on gay issues, but she was better informed about what was going on in our country than most folks I knew back home. I bet she knows today more about the United States than Bush knows about Italy. At least she was interested enough to ask. And when we all agreed that Mikel and I should leave the villa – for some place with electricity and running water, she embraced us, refunded our money; and, when she saw that I had left the driver’s window in our rental car down, gave me a stack of her husband’s diapers to keep my butt dry.
“Va bene?” she asked as we were pulling out of the driveway. She wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings. “I hope your candidate wins.”
There’s a fascinating lagoon between Marsala and Trapani that is the site of an ancient Phoenician settlement called Mozia (also Motya or Mothia). The Riserva Naturale di Stagnone is a protected wetland area, with a large population of wading birds and native plants. A group of uninhabited islands, Isole dello Stagnone, punctuate the picturesque, shallow seascape, which is bordered by the still operative workings of a salt industry – saltpans, windmills, and conical mounds of the white crystals covered with terra cotta tiles. We arrived in the full golden sun of an autumn morning, but the skiffs that take passengers to the island of San Pantaleo, a favored picnic spot, weren’t operating, so we chatted for awhile with the gregarious, affable, and round-faced Peppe Genna, Il Poeta Incisore – the poet of the saltworks.
At once both proud and charming, Genna, in his sixties, was braiding palm fronds with his tan, chubby hands as he talked, explaining that he had come home to the lagoon to continue the traditions that were in danger of disappearing, such as giummara (dwarf palm) basket-weaving, tufa carving, and the writing and public reciting of poetry in the local dialect. Tufa is the soft yellow stone that everything in Sicily is made of – the ancient temples, the baroque palaces, the saltworks, and the small carvings that Genna sells from the trunk of his little red car. “My father taught me to make ropes and brooms,” he says, “and I don’t want to see the art die out.” We bought little stones onto which he had incised primitive faces (“all by hand,” he reiterated). They remind me of Bentivegna’s heads. We bought some little flowers that were woven from giummara; they look like green camellias. And we bought, as he recited an impromptu poem for us, little tufa carvings of classical temple facades. We promised to return another day and left the magical lagoon for Erice, a magical place itself.
Nothing can quite prepare you for Erice, though you see it – a 2000-foot-tall hill town that rises up from the Marsala vineyards at sea level – long before you begin the breathtaking ascent. Hairpin turns and frequent switchbacks mark the climb to the ancient fortress, whose history is as shrouded in uncertainty as the mountain itself often is in cloud and fog. Erice is often filled with tourists, but our November travel again spared us the crowds. I had first heard about Erice from Fritz Blank, the big, naughty chef/owner of Philadelphia’s long-standing French restaurant, Deux Cheminees. Fritz has degrees in dairy husbandry, dairy science, medical technology, and clinical microbiology. He participates each year in the International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy (food science to the rest of us) that is held in the beautifully preserved medieval town. Erice has a scientific conference center that folks love to attend not just for the interesting topics – Mathematical Diagnostics, Stochastic Methods in Decision and Game Theory, Quantam Phases at the Nanoscale, to cite a few from 2002 – but also for the breathtaking views and utter charm of the city. After visiting dozens of medieval European towns, with their quaint, meandering streets that pass through arched buttresses; their ancient churches and clock towers; and their fountained squares; I have stopped photographing them because I’ve gotten to the point that I can’t tell one photo from the other. But Erice is the original Rock City, and its cobbled and pebbled streets and alleyways are unlike any other, the stones under your feet seemingly polished by hand and the lofty setting giving the village a dreamlike, ethereal quality.
On a clear day you can see Tunisia. We looked out over the city of Trapani, where we would stay for several days, and up the pristine coastline towards Capo San Vito, a peninsula in the far northwestern corner of Sicily that is home to one of the best nature preserves in Europe. Sadly, we found Maria Grammatico’s renowned pastry shop closed on the one day that we were there. Driving down into Trapani to find a hotel, we passed some vineyards on the slopes. Later that night, with our ricci di mare (sea urchins) and fish kuskus, we drank a straw-colored, dry wine from those collini Ericini. We talked about the strange feeling that Erice had given us (Nancy Jenkins, Sara’s mom, had told me before going, “It’s its own place.”), and our waitress agreed, bringing us an herbal amare from there to finish our meal.
That night, the rains came again, and we slept through thunder in our dark hotel room converted from an old inner city villa. Trapani is a working man’s town, a busy seaport where fishermen and construction workers cluster in the bars for espresso at all hours of the day. I left Mikel sleeping and arose early to go, in the rain, to the city’s “fish” market, where I bought homemade pecorino cheese for our picnic. The streets were lined with smoking teenagers selling land snails and olives from buckets, and there was a queue outside the one artisanal, wood-fired bakery in the neighborhood, which I gladly joined. Both bread and cheese were excellent, as were the local olives, fresh dates from Tunisia, and oranges from Brazil (the local blood oranges weren’t yet ripe). Sicilians were once great producers of both dates and oranges, but they cannot compete commercially with the growers in California, Florida, Africa, and South America, I was told. Many citrus groves are being dug up and planted with wine grapes.
The rain was light and intermittent when we arrived at the ferry dock for Mozia. We were the only tourists there among the ancient saltworks, but the boatman was cheery and inquisitive.
“Still no president?” he queried, with that upward thrust of the chin that says in all of Italy, “What are we to make of that?”
I told him that we were on vacation and hadn’t seen or heard any news since leaving Naples a week earlier, that we were more concerned with the four-month-old puppy we had adopted shortly before we left on our trip.
“What breed?” he wanted to know.
I had no idea how to say “poodle” in Italian, though I did know that the French had taken the standard poodle – the duck hunter (the big one, like ours) — indoors in the 1840s, breeding them smaller and smaller. “The French call them ‘caniche’,” I said, “and use them in circus acts. The ones with the hairdos.”
“Barboni!” he said. Tramps. The Italians call poodles tramps!
“Let me know about the election when you pick us up,” I told him. He said he’d return in four hours.
Mozia has layers of civilization visible at every turn: Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, and Greek. We had the island all to ourselves, except for the caretaker of the archaeological museum that is housed in the former home of the wealthy Englishman, Joseph Whitaker, who bought the island at the turn of the twentieth century and devoted his life to the study of the island’s natural sciences, history, and archaeology. The tiny museum is actually quite interesting, and the collection is richly varied. There is evidence of prehistoric man on the isle, as well as eighth century BC pottery that is stylistically similar to that from the North Syrian coast. There is a seventh century BC dry dock and inner harbor – a cothon, the only one in Sicily. There are ruins of a Tophet with its disturbing traces of human sacrifices. Fennel, borage, alyssum, and century plants grow wild in the subtropical microclimate. And there are stunning mosaics made from black and white pebbles. But the real glory of Mozia is the “Ephebus,” a fifth century BC statue that is one of the most sublime works of art that I have ever seen. No one is really sure what the sculpture is doing there. It was discovered recently, buried – hidden, that is – on the northern side of the island. The “Young Man of Mozia,” as it’s often called, seems surreal, so modern do his sentiments appear. His head and eyes gaze out over his left pectoral, his head turned slightly, as though aloof; his posture almost suggests camp, with his hand on his hip and his buttocks thrust in an exaggeration of Praxitelean contraposto. He’s a sexy figure, and I’m tempted to say he’s got that “come hither” stare. Upon seeing the sculpture, Francine Prose wrote “the effect of the work is so unmistakably erotic that I’m glad there’s no one else at the museum….It would be…embarrassing to look at the statue with strangers around; it’s something you want to do in private.”
Mikel and I studied the figure for quite a while. A breastplate is stretched across his chest, covering his nipples, but his tunic of finely pleated gauze is carved with such finesse that you can discern every muscle in his buttocks. His navel and penis are draped delicately. Prose also wrote that “not until Michelangelo would a sculptor again prove able to breath so much life into marble,” but Mikel and I found the sculpture far more entertaining than those of the great master of the Renaissance for its human quality. Italian art historians have suggested that the sculpture possibly represents a god, or a charioteer, or a judge. The work is said to be that of a fourth century BC artist, influenced by Hellenistic prototypes, but I wonder just what the statue was doing on this Phoenician isle? Booty taken as spoils of war? The image of a warlord’s lover? A tramp?
After the Ephebus, only a temple would do, so before heading back toward Palermo, we drove to Segesta to see the great open-roofed hilltop shrine and its accompanying theater. It’s hard to choose a favorite archaeological site in Sicily, where each has its own sense of wonder, but there’s no setting quite like the ancient city of Segesta. All that’s really left is a huge Doric temple, but it’s pretty much the way it was in 416 BC when a war broke out with Selinus and work on the building stopped. We chose to walk up the hill, and, from a distance, it appears much like the Parthenon. You don’t realize until you are practically inside the building that it lacks a roof. Theories conflict, of course, the way they always do over dramatic architectural ruins; but if this temple was meant to have been roofless, it is alone among Greek ruins, and would suggest the worship of some unidentified god. From its thousand-foot summit, we could look out over the Gulf of Castellamare, ten miles away, even in the rain. There was a light drizzle, but the clouds, however black, were high flying, and we saw several rainbows while we toured the grounds. Wild iris and clover were blooming, and the surrounding countryside was brilliantly green in November. Behind the temple, there is a steep canyon where perhaps the stones for the building were quarried. Across the divide, we watched hunters shooting wild rabbits.
When I lived in Genoa, twenty years ago, I was often told that I would enjoy Sicily, where “there are more and better Greek ruins than in Greece.” The photo that was always shown to impress me was the Segesta temple, appearing majestically in the verdant countryside. The massive temple has fourteen side columns, never fluted, so they appear even larger because of their rough, unfinished bulk. But the temple is not alone, as the old photos always suggest. A half-mile up the hill, on another peak, the mostly unexcavated remains of the city culminate with a theater, unusual because it faces north. You can take a bus both up to and down from the sites, but to get the full effect of the place, you should at least walk part of the way. Every other year Greek plays are performed in the ancient theater.
Our Sicilian sojourn, we knew, had reached its climax, but we had several more days planned of city life followed by a respite at the picturesque village of Scopello, on the border of the Zingaro Nature Preserve, and hovering above the ancient and fascinating Tonnarra, a tuna-processing facility that is picture-perfect and begging to made into a 5-star resort.
Palermo is the rightful capital of Sicily, with Baroque, Norman, Arabic, and Byzantine layers evident in its medieval alleys and bustling markets alike. I never once thought about crime or the Mafia, though prior to our visit, I had read several books that should have had me scared out of my wits. It helped that we liked our sleek modern hotel overlooking the botanical garden, slept well, and awoke each day to perfectly beautiful weather – 65 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. And that I had no driving to do! We had read that we would find bargain antiquities at the Ballaro market, but we discovered there instead a food market to rival the Vucciria, often described as the heart and soul of the city, where we were headed. Da Bilbol is a miniscule corner trattoria, open onto the bustling street, right in the middle of the Vucciria. Attracted by beautiful green beans, we explained to the owner that we were craving vegetables – that all we seemed to have eaten for two weeks was fish. Platters of prepared food were displayed on outdoor tables. Mikel was drawn to the liver.
“Please, come in and take a table,” la signora said. “I make everything myself. This is my son. He helps. I cook everything for you, just the way I cook for my husband. He will be here soon, and he will sit down to eat, just like you.”
For fifteen thousand lire – about seven dollars at the time – we ate green beans with garlic, eggplant Tunisian (sliced vertically, lightly breaded, and fried), cardo tempura (fried cardoons), fave in brodo (huge, delicious fresh fava beans cooked in broth, brought especially to the table from the kitchen), zucchino dolce (a luscious sweet pumpkin cooked with garlic), hard boiled eggs (just laid, bright orange yolk, exquisitely seasoned), several oven roasted vegetables that were as good as I’ve eaten (local peppers and carrots from neighboring vendors, like everything else), mozzarella with tomatoes that made me not care about the insipid ones I was growing back home (and dressed with delicate local olive oil and the most flavorful oregano I’ve ever tasted) and the lightly sauteed liver. The owner’s son was upset that we didn’t taste the bread – the only part of the meal they hadn’t prepared themselves. His father did eventually arrive, machismo at every turn, ordering both his wife and son around grumpily, as though they weren’t working or were offending the customers, when he was the lazy boor.
Throughout southern Italy, and particularly in Sicily, I have seen villages and cities full of these crowds of middle-aged men who seem to have nothing to do but gather in bars and cafes, play bocce and cards, and discuss football. In twenty-five years of travelling throughout the country, however, I’ve rarely seen idle women. Not that no men work. Like Peppe Genna, Vincenzo Argento is a talented craftsman who works every day in Palermo to maintain the art of puppetry, a popular form of entertainment there since the fourteenth century. A third generation puppeteer and puppet maker, Argento continues to carve the marionette’s wooden faces and bodies, to paint them by hand, to hand-stitch the costumes, and to hammer the knights’ metal swords and shields. The characters are always the same; the stories, the same chivalric tales from the lives of the Paladins, the twelve peers of Charlemagne’s court. The Sicilian dialect is impossible to understand, but the stories of the clash between Christianity and Islam are as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago when the artform emerged. There’s an international puppet museum down near the port in an old villa, and it was wonderful to have Mikel, who lived in Jakarta, with me to explain the various Indonesian forms they had mounted.
Leaving Palermo, we wanted to visit one last site, the Convento dei Cappuccini on the edge of town, where the macabre catacombs house the dried bodies, dressed in all their finery, of deceased monks and rich laymen, some 8000 in all. I imagine that if you’ve seen one of these peculiar death chambers before, you’ve probably seen them all, but everyone should go at least once if you have any doubts about how twisted the Catholic church can be. We got caught in the middle of a road construction site, and were hemmed in by streetworkers placing barriers on either end of the road we had taken. After two weeks in Sicily, my Italian was improving, but most of what I had heard was dialect. I was overjoyed when a worker whom I asked to guide me out of the traffic jam asked me if I were Roman! I’ve been mistaken for a Genoese by the French and for an Englishman by many Italians, but never had an Italian thought I were Italian.
I often begin any sentence in Italy with the disclaimer, “Sono americano,” so that the folks I’m trying to communicate with will know from the start that my Italian is poor. They are invariably amused by my effort, speak more slowly and clearly, and avoid dialect, all to facilitate my understanding. This time, I had simply said that I was a tourist following the signs to the catacombs, could he help me, when he asked if I were from Rome.
For the first time ever, I very nearly boasted, and loudly, “No, I’m American!”