By Jean and Peter Richards
(This driving trip from our house in France to Sicily was taken in January 2005)
The ancient Greeks still reign in Sicily. The treasures are monumental. No picture, lecture or course can convey the impact on the eye under gray cloud or bright sky.
But the best Greek remains we saw were on the mainland and brought ashore at the tip of the boot just a few decades ago. We had the Riace Warriors all to ourselves on a Sunday afternoon in Reggio Calabria before boarding the ferry to Messina.
It was only by chance that we became aware of them and only by chance they were found on a nearby seabed in 1972 by a vacationing diver. That these two larger-than-life, fully articulated, magnificent bronze figures should be housed simply in the basement of the small, regional museum in an otherwise uninviting city is rather wonderful in itself.
These are powerful figures over six feet in height and remarkably preserved . They are simply, “A” and “B”. Though scholars have tried to impute certain attributes, they need no embellishment by anyone. They are superb.
We were already spoiled by the time we arrived in Reggio. The previous morning we had had Piero della Francesca’s mesmerizing “Legend of the Holy Cross” frescoes to ourselves in the apse of the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. It was the manner of telling more than the story which captured us in this vibrant set of murals.
That evening, expecting nothing more than an Italian version of 21st century creativity at dinner, we found the Alias full of the surprises at their Locanda in Castrovillari. The family of hoteliers, sommeliers and cooks is dedicated to preserving the best traditional ingredients of Calabria well prepared. No effort is spared.
It took us four days to drive from our part of France to the tip of the boot, albeit with a morning’s detour to Parma for an antiques fair. Prices were, as usual, astonishing. The Italians have no qualms about pricing to market and enjoying the fray.
“Siamo mangiare,” is one of Peter’s favorite photo mementoes from a Parma antiques event. The sign was propped prominently in an exhibit with an exhortation to call the dealer at lunch on his portable phone, the number writ large in black pen.
We had savored the prospect of Sicily for some time as much for the foods and warm winter temperatures as for the temples. The food was a disappointment. We had a dizzying ride in rare snow. The temples exceeded expectations by far.
We began near Siracusa and worked our way around. The apartment we rented on the east side came complete with views of snow capped Mount Etna, the Ionian sea and a neighboring farmer’s herd of cows regularly in the road. But when, one morning as we drove out, I said to Peter, “I thought that was a pig crossing, but it must have been a dog.” He laughed and said, “It was a pig and here comes another.”
Our first venture out was to the Greek Theater in Syracuse whose tiers of seats we climbed in blustery wind and brilliant sunshine. Its proportions are stunning, but the real treat was outside the city at the lesser known fort of Castello Eurialo, 9 kilometers northwest. It is as described by many as one of the greatest fortresses of the Greek period, built by Denis the Elder with help from Archimedes. Defense, we would later learn, is still an occupation on that part of the coast. The U.S. Navy is said to have 7,000 people stationed along there.
We wandered the old city of Ortigia and found it most pleasant with its Doric columned temple remains, its baroque villas, charming squares and fresh water fountain by the sea dedicated to the nymph Aretusa..
At Catania we saw the symbolic elephant on its pedestal and caught our first glimpse of Sicily as a second world country far removed from the north.
Taormina, with its graceful streets and ancient theater perched on a precipice above the sea and in the shadow of Etna, may be more English now than when the British holiday seekers developed it a century ago. On an island where we were told even other Italians don’t understand the language, Taormina is a bastion of English speakers fresh off the holiday bus.
We caught sight of Ragusa Ibla’s fabulous site just in time to scurry out of there. Snow fell suddenly and heavily. We had seen enough of Sicilian driving to know that the chances of getting out of the hill town intact were slim. Not only do Sicilians drive like madmen; they park that way, too, angling their vehicles to form zigzags with parallel parkers or sometimes just stopping in the middle of the road. No sooner had we started up the hill that led to the only way we knew out of town than the slip-sliding began. One hour and five kilometers later we were back on dry road. Peter’s well honed skills saved us on a hair raising climb littered with the less fortunate.
Thunder and dark cloud added to the dimension of Concordia, the unbelievably beautiful Greek temple at Agrigento. We had it to ourselves in afternoon light as well and found it difficult to tear ourselves away to see as much of the Valley of the Temples as we could before night fell.
So bountiful are the exhibits of extraordinary artifacts in the archeological museums at Siracusa, Ragusa and Agrigento that we could not possibly absorb them all.
The drive from Agrigento in the south to Palermo in the northwest over the mountains and across the island is through a landscape as varied as it is beautiful and takes a little over two hours. There is hardly any settlement or herd of animals to be seen on the way until the shoddy cement suburbs of Palermo come into view. The building construction appears worthy of its reputation. Never before have we seen blocks of recently built apartments with terraces wrapped in plastic and wire to keep their crumbling parts from falling on those below.
Palermo’s charms are few. Food, for us, was not amongst them. I never want to taste Sicilian tomato sauce or its intense fish stock again. Peter, however, very much liked the fresh swordfish which is a staple throughout. My dietary delight was of pasta in a wonderful lemon sauce in Taormina and a serendipitous lunch near Segesta.
It would have been worth spending a second week in Sicily if only to see the temple at Segesta. That which seems an apparition at the bottom of the hill, disappears on the climb and confronts with the full force of its beauty on arrival. Only two other visitors intruded on our private pleasure taking measure of its perfectly proportioned 36 columns set on stepped foundations forever open to the sky. That we had a blue one enhanced our enjoyment.
It’s not our habit to take restaurant recommendations from strangers hanging about a tourist site ticket office. Antiques dealers are generally more reliable on that score. But, the four guys who were still communing in the courtyard when we descended temple hill were firm in their recommendation – an agritourismo place less than 2 kilometers away. We expected a farmhouse lunch and instead found ourselves alone in a large and attractive dining room, the sole clients of one of the most contented looking men we’ve ever encountered. The feasting began with an antipasto rustico of cheese, salamis, a perfect caponata, olives and mushrooms and continued through courses of risotto, pasta, grilled meats from the farm, fruit and a warm cheese filled dessert pastry. We strained to do it justice not wanting to insult our commendable host. Baglio Pocoroba opened last November.
Our plan to leave the island and tour Calabria and Puglia went amuck when snow stranded people on the southern auto route for days. A sea voyage became an attractive alternative. We booked it through a travel agent up the street from the house we rented in on the northwestern coast of Sicily in Casteldaccio, a feat which really became a leap of faith on our part because we didn’t understand most what the agent was saying. Faith was rewarded. Our first cruising adventure was from Palermo to Genoa. We had a fine suite with a view at the bow and great fun wandering the practically empty boat. The purser had so little to do that when we met in the glass elevator the next morning he promptly engaged me in conversation and then invited us to his office for an hour-long chat adding both the the pleasure and interest of the journey. We enjoyed the fine facilities, the calm sea and not having to drive the 1,400 kilometers back up the boot. We might even take another cruise or ferry some day. Avoid the French ones, our purser advised with a twinkle.
Pleasant encounters with stranger aren’t unusual, but one Sicilian will be forever etched in our memories.
Having been warned about Palermo traffic, we had decided to take a public bus to the city the first day of our stay. We checked the schedule, bought our tickets at the tobacconist, arrived early at the stop and missed it. When another bus came along, the driver declined to let us on. A passer-by intervened. The driver relented. We rode with him through one town and then another when he came to a halt and told us to wait. Ten minutes later he returned with coffee for us.
Copyright © 2011 Jean and Peter Richards