Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Get Your Satiricon

When we last left you, which was only yesterday, we were beating a retreat across the island of Sicily in our slightly wounded rental car, having attempted to fit it through a street just a bit narrower than its own width.  Although the front panel scraping and the subsequent backing into a parked car left my ego more bruised than our Lancia’s sheetmetal skin, by dinnertime we had arrived at our home for the next two nights, the estate of Gianfranco Becchina, producer of the award winning Olio Verde extravirgin olive oil in Castelvetrano.  Even under cloak of darkness, when we arrived at the Tenuta Pignatelli we knew we were in for a treat.

On the most basic level our goal for the final two days of our Italian adventure, which had begun a little more than two weeks earlier, was to slow down, relax, explore a little.  To accomplish this we put ourselves in the hands of Gianfranco’s daughter Gabriella Becchina, owner/manager of the family’s hospitality business called Gabriella Sicily.  From the moment we handed over control of our next 60 hours to Gabriella our enjoyment of Sicily had begun.  We knew we were in for a treat.

This is our second trip to Sicily.  Our first was back in 2004 and like this trip it contained a serious design flaw.  It was simply too short, having been sandwiched in between other priorities.  This time, as last, we reasoned that three days in Sicily, not even scratching, but only grazing the surface, was better than thinking about it from afar.  In addition, our itinerary was essentially a rehash of our previous trip, but in reverse order, landing this time in Catania, visiting Caltagirone, driving across to Castelvetrano and departing out of Palermo.  But as wonderful and memorable as that earlier trip had been, the difference this time, a two day sojourn at the Becchina estate, promised to make this visit better than the first.

Before our first visit to Sicily we had been led to believe, by guidebooks, travel magazines and popular culture, that Sicily was some sort of wild west, full of mixed breed mutts that alternately posed a danger to your life and property or whose privacy, modesty and mystery would cause them to scurry away when you approached, like cockroaches when the lights are turned on.  We did not find that to be the case in 2004. 

Our impression this time around was the same.  Sicilians are no wild breed.  For the most part they seem to be like other Italians, for what that is worth.  They enjoy life, stroll the main piazza, drink espresso, and drive around in little cars.  They also look you in the eye, smile and try to talk to you (their accents are a little hard to follow for a non-native Italian speaker, I will confess) and take pride in their own little corner of the world, whether it be their ceramics factory, dairy or soccer team.  Their lives, at least as manifested in public on the streets and roadways may be a bit more frenetic than their cousins on the mainland – traffic in Sicily is a cacophonous blur of cars and scooters that can (and do) come at you from any direction, any lane or any alley – but they do lead what we recognize as Italian lives.

It is rather presumptuous of us to make sweeping generalizations about a people, an island and a culture based on two too brief gallops across their countryside.  We are rather presumptuous, though, so please take our observations with a grain of salt.  Perhaps a grain of salt mined in Trapani, on the island’s west coast and one of the planned highlights of our itinerary.  In fact, upon our arrival at the Tenuta Pignatelli, Gabriella quizzed us about what we might be interested in doing and seeing in Sicily and the next morning, over a huge spread for breakfast featuring fresh local fruits, cakes, yogurts and local sheepsmilk cheese, she went over our itinerary, which she had planned out, typed up and timed out for us.  It included a visit to a nearby quarry used by the Greeks to build their temples, a couple of museum visits, including one to see the famous Mazara Satyr, a winery visit in Marsala, a visit to two salt pans near Trapani, lunch recommendations, what to do in Trapani and a sunset cocktail in Erice, the incredible ancient town built on the very tippy top of the mountain overlooking Trapani.  It was an itinerary that could be accomplished by Ferrari, a police escort and helicopter, and accomplishing it was set back by the two hour delay in our start as we lounged around the lovely Becchina estate in the morning, drinking in all its beauty and serenity, not to mention its sunsplashed veranda overlooking the fishpond.

But the ambitious itinerary was not intended to be followed.  It was simply a well devised incentive plan to get us out of the house and into the life of the island, one that drew us forward from one incredible discovery to the next.  And it worked.

Our first stop was the Greek quarry, the cave di cusa.  Arriving there after a short drive from the villa, across the rocky hills, grabbing a view of the nearby sea here and there, we got out of the car, wandered down some stone paths walked on by Greeks over two millennia ago and decided we did not want to pay the admission charge to see stone in the ground.  That visit would have to wait until our return trip, which we already started planning along our drive to the quarry.  So instead, it was off to Mazara del Vallo and an appointment with the Mazara Satyr.

Mazara del Vallo is a much bigger town than one would imagine from its name.  We managed to circumnavigate it several times looking for a parking space near the signs that pointed to the Museo del Satiro, the Satyr Museum.  Finally we found a space along the lungomare, the seaside road and followed the signs. 

As is often the case in Italy, signage tempts and tantalizes you, and then suddenly breaks down.  Signage is fickle and mocking and even signs for the most important things, like the Satyr Museum can lead you confidently toward your objective only to go completely cold, leaving you with no idea where the prize is, only a feeling that it is somewhere nearby.  Our satyr trail having gone completely cold we resorted to a time tested response.  Get an espresso in a nearby bar and ask for directions.  Despite being only a few blocks from the museum, however, the friendly staff could not tell us exactly where the Satyr Museum was, because they had never been there. Don’t get me started.

We did eventually wander into the museum, practically walking into it without knowing it housed the life sized bronze statue of a dancing satyr, a Greek original that was fished out of the sea by Italian fishermen only a decade ago.  The museum, sprinkled with a few other artifacts is dedicated almost solely to the dramatically displayed figure.  It is nothing short of breathtaking.

And the museum does a very good job of describing the importance of this work through a 25 minute video.  There we learned about its history, significance, its restoration and, sort of, its discovery.  For the story goes that one day the fishermen pulled up in their nets the leg of the sculpture and turned it into the authorities, retaining hope that one day they might find the rest lying at the bottom of the sea some 500 meters deep.  Sure enough, according to local lore and the video, the rest was found, as serendipitously as the leg, several years later by the same crew, tangled in the same net that was looking for the same whelk as before.  Others, more steeped in the traditions of Sicily believe the period between the “discovery” of the leg and the recovery of the rest of the figure represented the delay that was needed to negotiate an adequate “finders fee” and that the initial finding of the leg was either an earnest payment or ransom, like sending the finger of a kidnapping victim to the victim’s family.

How the satyr was paid for was not our concern, only that it had been.  As we left the museum Suzy proclaimed that even if we did nothing else the rest of the day, our day would have been a success.  She was right on so many levels.

From Mazara del Vallo we drove to Marsala looking for a salt museum but got sidetracked at a bar-restaurant instead.  No surprise there.  There we had a few simple plates of Sicilian fare, including the fried riceballs called arancini.  After lunch we abandoned our ambition for finding the salt museum, heading for a sunset cocktail in Erice.  Timing can be everything, however, and arriving at the base of the mountain as the sun set, we began our half hour ascent in the dark.  The incredibly windy, narrow road poses a particular challenge to those who have downed several arancini, not to mention a few glasses of grillo white wine.  The road is so windy and compact, in fact, that when we looked at our GPS showing the road highlighted in blue against the black nighttime background, the squiggly blue lines looked like Arabic writing.  Sicily is Italy’s great melting pot, having been settled and conquered by Greeks, Romans, Normans and Arabs.  Maybe it was fitting that we were being welcomed in Arabic to a Greek settlement.

Erice is a magnet for visitors to Sicily.  For us it was simply a nice place to stroll the streets and soak in the lights of Trapani and the other towns that stretch and fade into the horizon below.  As we made our way back to Castelvetrano for the evening and an unforgettable dinner at the villa prepared by Gabriella and her assistant Natasha, the sense of calm, of peacefulness that we had sought from our brief visit to Sicily was already comfortably settling in on us.  It is nice to put yourselves in someone else’s hands, someone you can trust to make your experience relevant to place and at the same time fits your needs.  After our first day in Castelvetrano, a day when we did not accomplish much of anything, we accomplished a lot.  Just what we had been looking for.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

No comments: