49. Sicilian Travels

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Palermo and surrounds

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Time for a quick update. It seems like ages since I last wrote; we’ve been quite busy working which still tends to get in the way of one’s lives. We have full timetables in a well-organised school (extraordinary, in our experience!) and the staff and teachers here are all decent and splendid individuals. I’m fortunate to have classes with mostly adults but Helen does seem to have a lot of baby-sitting duties to perform! We still plan to stay here until July when we’ll return to the UK for my 30th birthday bash in Leeds – currently scheduled for Saturday the 27th – we’d love to see you there.

We have found the time to get away from canis turdus ubiquitarius for a few weekends and explore this stunningly beautiful island. The train line from Palermo to the east runs continually along the breath-taking coastline and the line to the south goes through fantastic mountainous scenery. The island is not too big and you can get from one side to the other in about three hours, or so.

Passeggiatta on Ruggero Settimo, P

Passeggiatta on Ruggero Settimo, Palermo.

A peculiar practice among Sicilianos (and southern Italians) is the early evening Passeggiata. Thousands of locals dress up and simply wander up and down the main streets, stopping to talk to other groups on their way. In Palermo, the central Via Ruggero Settimo is made into a pedestrian area for a few hours every evening for this very purpose and is chocker with folk.

The young guys here mostly sport the trendy, designer-stubble look which I have also perfected but without the ‘trendy’ and ‘designer’ aspects. Many of the women seem to be having a ‘bad hair day’.

Of course, the Italians have been busy in the last few weeks choosing a new government and pope and managing only one. The political scene is mired in more than the normal imbroglio as even the usual coalition system seems to be unworkable. Another election is likely.

The traffic continues to annoy although we are getting more comfortable with crossing the road defying oncoming vehicles, partially controlled by the fag- and phone-toting ‘driver’. It is common for cars to be parked two abreast, on zebra crossings and in various states of disarray and, despite there being many tiers of police present, never seem to attract any attention from the aforementioned.

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Inside the Vila Malfitano

Near where we live is the marvellous Villa Malfitano. This old mansion was built by Joseph Whitaker in 1886. Whitaker was a member of an entrepreneurial English family which had a big influence on Sicily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries after making a fortune exporting Marsala wine to all parts of the world. The son of one of our fellow teachers is doing research here and has already uncovered some fascinating archaeological findings which threaten to rewrite the history books.

Serins abound and last weekend we heard our first chiffchaff; we can’t wait for the spring migration season as we should get some belting passage sightings. (Sorry, that last sentence was probably quite meaningless to my normal readers!)

Mondello

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On the outskirts of Palermo’s north is the summer haven of Mondello – a kind of local Blackpool. It was crowded in February so god knows what this place will be like when the spring arrives. We probably won’t be going back!

Catania

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Situated on the eastern coast, at the foot of Mount Etna, this town is full of character. It was totally wiped out in 1669 when Etna erupted and swamped the town in lava. Many Sicilianos don’t like Catania and think it is too dark and depressing. This is because the city was rebuilt using the volcanic rock which covered it. We liked it. We had the best value 5 Euro tourist bus trip ever and had an outside dinner late in the evening – there’s a real café society feeling about the place in complete contrast to the utilitarian capital.

A local speciality is the smoked artichoke: we came across a very popular street stall on the Sunday morning where half the population of Catania seem to have gathered to purchase this item.

We learnt the following day that there had indeed been rumblings from the famous mountain – clearly it hadn’t realised we were there and a full eruption was avoided.

Messina

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The Straits of Messina separate Sicily from the mainland and, at its nearest, is only about 5 kilometres wide. Successive governments have toyed with the thought of building a bridge across but this has always been shelved. This is largely because the straits lies on top of one of the world’s liveliest tectonic cracks which caused Europe’s biggest ever earthquake in 1908. We decided, therefore, not to

Messina duomo at night

Messina duomo at night

visit this place on the weekend at the end of February – being the anniversary of both our Libyan evacuation and Chilean earthquake – too risky!

Messina is not the prettiest place on earth but it does have a beautiful cathedral with a bizarre tower and astronomical clock (reminiscent of Prague’s Staroměstské náměstí). Every midday, the clock tower comes to life and people gather round to see the spectacle of the roaring lion and strutting cockerel for a fifteen minute hoot! Also, the city has a tram!  Sadly, it is probably the worst tram in the world: most of the seats are so badly-designed it’s virtually impossible to sit on them with a normal-sized butt and the tracks appear to have been engineered to some white-knuckle, fairground-ride standard – throwing the passengers from side to side with neck-breaking alacrity.

Agrigento

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Across the island on the south side lies this historic town, home to some of Europe’s best-kept Greek temple ruins. Having seen many ruins before in our lives we decided not to bother going round these and spent a day in the nearby coastal resort of San Leone which was virtually deserted at this time of year.

Cefalù

An hour’s train journey east from Palermo you arrive at the delightful tourist trap of Cefalù. Sadly, we had forgotten to bring the camera so there’s no piccies but the sea-front has a wonderful path hewn out of the rocks and you walk along under hotels and restaurants, dodging the waves and the rock pools. It’s really quite exciting!

Castellammare del Golfo

Dodgy dude in Castellammare

Dodgy dude in Castellammare

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We had our first visitor at the beginning of February: Matthew (the son of our good friends Bob and Jan) came from frozen Blighty to soak up the Sicilian sun and ended up simply getting soaked. The weather was atrocious but this didn’t dampen our spirits. We got a car for the weekend and having miraculously got out of Palermo with our lives intact, we made our way over to Castellammare, a picturesque harbour town west of Palermo. I’ve just finished reading a book about the history of the Cosa Nostra and this place was the birthplace of one of the influential godfathers and many a plot was hatched from here. Helen wandered off alone for 10 minutes on the Sunday morning and she managed to get befriended by a shifty-looking, local raconteur who tried to interest us in his detached-horse-head business.

Just up the road from here is the Zingaro national park – famous (as I’m sure you’re aware) for Bonelli’s Eagle. We arrived at 3.45 to find that the place closed at 4, so we got in free provided we didn’t stray more than 7.5 minutes into the park. We plan to return here later when I’m sure we’ll miss the damn bird again – our track record on eagle spotting is not impressive!

OK, enough for now. It’s Saturday and it’s been wazzing it down all day – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be here, you know!

Andy

Palermo, 16.3.13

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