Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Greek Temples and skinny dipping on Mount Etna
We popped into Paestum for a 2 day history lesson wandering serenely through magnificently preserved 500BC Greek temples. Von and I remember studying temples at school and being baffled why we were made to spend so long drawing those archetypal 6 by 14 column Greek buildings, without, as it seemed to us at the time, any learning purpose whatsoever. Admiring up close the brilliance and durability of the architecture and hearing more about the alternating religious and social usage through the various empires of the ages, was a whole different experience. It bought history alive for us let alone the kids.
Walking through and touching a place that old made it possible to tune in to any moment of 2500 years of history and imagine with surprising clarity what the inhabitants of that city were doing, what clothes they were wearing; you could almost hear the sounds of life in the city and smell the cooking. The Greeks, the Latins and the Romans all built vast empires of wealth and power. And in a generation they were gone. All the sophistication and brilliance of these civilisations couldn’t sustain them. At the height of their influence I bet few could foresee they would all collapse. But ultimately they did. And if History teaches us anything it’s that every empire falls. And so surely will ours. The era of the west is drawing to a close and the dawn of the east begins. Sitting in the ruins of a Roman villa brings that inevitability of our future into sharp focus.
So to Sicily. The ferry across was exhilarating mainly because a new and strange sense began to surface in my consciousness. I never met my half Italian grandfather, Vittorio Emmanuelle Maffezzoni, but I started to feel like he along with his 2 brothers, were calling us. Even, dare I say heretically, guiding us? Vittorio’s father, Arnaldo, came to London at the turn of the last century from northern Italy near Milano to set up a restaurant business in Soho. We don’t know why he left Italy or what he was fleeing from. And I don’t know what the connection with southern Italy or Sicily would be. But I feel something deep in my bones like I am home at last. More probably I am identifying subconsciously with the young Don Corleone first journey’s back here in The Godfather II!
Day 34: Skinny dipping in the Gore D’Alacanta was a bit special. Like so many of the sites of natural beauty through Italy where tourist centres have been built to cash in on the passing trade of wallets, this one was no different. 5 sanitised walks were laid out on a map which indicated the dangers of the gorge below and suggested strongly hiring necessary fluvial trekking equipment along with the €10 entrance fee. Luckily some kind Dutch travellers told us we could climb down steps a little further along the road for free. So we did and consequently discovered a stunning stretch of the gorge where the usual crowds of pesky tourists were thankfully absent. Huge boulders scattered at the bottom of a deep ravine with icy cold waters from Mount Etna’s snow covered summit gushing past. Perfect for a sneaky dip to cool down. Moses absolutely loved it too.
We travelled on in the evening to Randozza, a grey non descript busy but sad little town north of Mt Etna where we stayed with a lovely old retired couple, Johny and Ezna, in the grounds of their house. They explained the reason they lived there was due to the weather in that region having 2 clear seasons - snowy winters and not too hot summers. The rest of the island was mainly hot throughout the year. It was good to hear about snow as Von is worried about relentless heat and missing the changing English seasons. On the drive through to Randozza we passed several farms for sale and one area can best be described as ‘wild’. Although there was clear evidence it must have, at one time in its past, looked altogether different. Behind the overgrown vineyards and tumbling down buildings we caught glimpses of Yorkshire dales style dry walling and terraces carefully constructed from the volcanic rocks. It was a rich, green and fertile area but oddly abandoned. Who knows why but we could imagine ourselves living there and making one of those farms beautiful and fruitful once again. Probably a bit far inland to what we are really hoping to find, although with the spectacular backdrop of Mount Etna to inspire and protect us, we might consider settling for it.
The last week we’ve toured precariously along mountainous cliff edge winding roads in the 2 national mountainous forested parks on the north coast of Sicily – Monti Nébrodi and Le Madonie. After a days driving through Palermo, we headed for San Vito lo Capo and found by chance along the way yet another quiet tourist free Agrotouristico farm available for campers. I think we must be the first visitors of the season as the owners are quite excited by our arrival and are spoiling us rotten. Apart from the horses, donkeys, cows and mountainside outside showers overlooking a sun baked valley, they also have a restaurant here and the first night it was rammed with a hundred people in what initially appeared to be a wedding reception. The noise level when Italians eat altogether like that is phenomenal. They all made us feel exceptionally welcome rather than what could have been construed as gate crashing a private family affair. It actually turned out to be an end of season celebration for the local boys swimming team. All the 16 year old lads had dark curly black hair with rich olive bronzed skin and were accompanied by girlfriends and parents. Bizarrely, the boys all looked liked they could have been Josh’s older brothers. He looked spookily similar to a few of them.
Then the food started rushing at us one course after another complemented with an endless stream of vino rosso from one of Italy’s 300 varieties of grapes (compared to France’s paultry 50 and the Aussie’s 7). Antipasta was scrumptious cous cous, grilled aubergines and cheese followed by prima plati of pastas, one with truffles the other with tuna. Perfect thinly cut fillet of steak with a sausage dish and salad arrived next for secondi plati. Dolce were large cream filled sweet case somethings washed down with aniseed flavoured liquor. To be honest we were stuffed after the antipasta! The rest was pure Roman gluttony and another extraordinary evening already etched into our long term memory that we’ll treasure for years to come. It’s set the benchmark for what we now expect for an evening eating out in Sicily. I could live with this.
Next we’re off along the west coast past Trapani, sampling the sweetness of Marsala and hopefully a quick peek at the ancient now mafia infested town of Agrigento in the south. After her trip to India, Michelle should be hopping over from London to join us at some point next week too. If we find a place to settle for a week or two here, we’ll extend a warm invitation to join us if you fancy a week in the scorching Sicilian sun.