10 Jun 2012
|We collected the car at Notorbartolo railway station in Palermo. 'Not Centro' said the Europe Car Office man on the phone when we eventually found the number and worked out how to call. 'Everyone always goes to Centro, Notorbartolo!' As one of the guests at breakfast observed, why doesn't someone do something about it if everyone always has that problem? Like make it clear on the website? But he was no doubt feeling particularly snaky that morning.
Anyway the Europe car man was polite and helpful as we have found Sicilians in general, and we sailed through without a hitch and were soon zipping down Sicilian roads in our almost new Fiat Bravo. Best car John's ever driven, he says.
You may think I have gotten my chronology all mixed up and that I should be focussing now on Piazza Armerina and Syracusa - I am sure you have the itinerary off verbatim - but we will get to those in good time. Patience. I want to record here some of the experience of driving through the Sicilian landscape.
First of all the major roads are very good and for the most part give you a good view of the country. Not like the experience of driving on freeways in Oz. Signposting...well that's a different story. But this story is not about driving - that is John's to tell.
Sicily is a fertile and rich land. It is intensely cultivated, a bountiful old land. That humans have worked and re-worked this land down the millennia is written in its plantings, the shape of the land and its buildings.
Everywhere in Sicily - east, south, north, and west, there are olive orchards, sometimes they are the major crop as they were around our B&B outside of Trapani, or a major crop along with others, vineyards being common in the west, sometimes they are what is planted in the spots where other things can't grow along the stony tops of hills and ridges.
The soil is dark black or chocolate brown, with white stones in the south west. As we drive across the landscape micro climates are reflected in what is grown. In one place oranges, in another prickly pear orchards, these odd gangly things all in rows, in another lemons, almonds. As we moved inland the country seems less fertile. We see some large areas (for Sicily, small in Australian terms) that have been cut for hay with the giant tubular bales dotting the hillsides. Small wheat fields.
In the south west dry stone walls line the road, terrace hillsides, and wall fields, whole hillsides a jigsaw pattern of small fields - some not as large as a house block, others perhaps a few acres. They are made from the collected stones from the fields and mostly firm, straight and well made, some are more crumbling affairs - perhaps reflecting their owners.
As you look across the landscape it is nearly always a patchwork, except in the higher or stonier, less fertile areas where pale cattle might loll. But you rarely see anyone working this land. I imagine it was very different 50 years ago.
Eucalypts and oleanders, white, pink, and gaudy crimson line the roads. Fluorescent bougainvilleas, pencil cypress, Canary Island palms, umbrella pines are the trees and plants of the land. Clumps of yellow broom. Areas of reforestation, usually, eucalypts. Sometimes we can drive through an area and get that intense summer sun on dried eucalyptus leaves smell and perhaps for a minute or two we can't see a palm or other distinctively Sicilian sight and we are momentarily disorientated and could be traveling in country Victoria, but it doesn't last long.
As we drive through the centre of Sicily Etna is a majestic sight. Much taller and larger than imagined, it is a grand figure in the landscape. Snow streaked still, puffs of cloud adjacent, presumably emitted by it.
In the inland centre and east we pass many old stone sheds - to call them a cottage is too grand. Roofless now and crumbling we guess they are old shepherds' huts. But they may be old family houses given what I have read of the conditions of the poor in the recent past. Their isolation suggests not. At the other end of the social scale we pass a conglomeration of stone buildings of various sizes, some quite large, also now crumbling. Perhaps these are the centres of the old feudal estates - I am guessing only - dismantled in so called land reforms in the 1950s.
I reported in a previous blog that I was going to start re-reading The Leopard but changed my mind and am instead reading Words Are Stones by Carlo Levi. This is a collection of essays he wrote about Sicily in the early to mid 1950s. I think they were originally published in newspapers then collected into a book in the mid 50s. In that he talks about traveling through the land of the feudal estates - the area in central Sicily through which we passed,
In another he writes about the strike of sulphur miners against conditions he says workers unionized against and changed 100 years before in England, then corrects himself saying that this is a fight against slavery of a kind that has existed here since the eighth or ninth century. He doesn't say much about the conditions but what he says is enough. What he does say is what had finally sparked the people - men, women and children worked in the mine - to rebel. A young boy had been killed. His wage packet was docked for the days of that week he didn't work and all the workers in the mine had had their wages docked for the time it had taken to dig him out. They formed a union with the dead boy's name.
We did travel close to Caltinasetta centre of the sulphur mining though not the town of this story (that was at Lercara). The guidebook spoke of the large proportion of the world's sulphur that came from Caltinasetta but that it became uncompetitive and that the centre of production had shifted to the new world. What a story lies behind that statement. To read this book is to make one realise that Sicily has been through a remarkable transformation in the past half century. But I have digressed.
Towns and villages inland are clearly separated, often on the tops of hills. Some seem to be quite well off. Newer buildings look sprightly and there is an air of civic pride and things happening. We stopped at Grammichile close to the centre of Sicily for a cup of tea. The town 'square' is a huge circle, from which narrow streets radiate and flanked by a baroque church, a classically proportioned civic building, and cafes with their tables out under umbrellas.. Two interesting modern sculptures are in the square. One a bronze bod in eighteenth century costume and wig, strides forth toward a flight of stairs. Another a bronze atlas from which polished bronze strips of different lengths, inlaid in the marble flagstones, radiate, each saying something about the longitude, latitude, altitude or monthly temperature of the village.
After gelatti in the square we visit the church and sit in the back as a service proceeds. We hadn't realized it was happening because it was self led. Perhaps it is one of the services commemorating the anniversary of someone's death. We have seen on village walls elsewhere printed announcements of these services. The 25th anniversary of a child's death. The first anniversary of a loved mother's passing. Each notice tells a story. All together they tell a part of the village's story. Photos usually included and a touching comment. We leave quietly before it finishes. Again I have digressed
Just a little inland from the coast, along the 'coastal roads' the towns and the development are ugly and scrappy. Buildings mostly of concrete, poorly made, cracking, dust caking their paint. We see one development that has windows bricked up, clearly new, but can't be lived in because the concrete is crumbling. One town runs into another. It's a relief to get off these roads either inland or down to the coastal towns proper.
Sicily is a wonder. Apologies for the no doubt poor Italian in the heading.