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Sunday, August 5, 2012, in Sciacca, Sicily, Italy

Hi everyone. We’re working our way down the southern coast of Sicily, now in Sciacca. Last Sunday, we had just arrived in Trapani, where we stayed a week.

Trapani sounds a lot like the Greek word for “sickle”, and it was named either after the sickle dropped from the poor goddess Demeter when she tried to rescue her daughter Persephone from Hades or after Saturn, who eviscerated his father Uranus with a sickle, after which the weapon fell from the sky and created the skinny peninsula. Or maybe it’s just because the spit of land is shaped like a sickle.

The fortifications that are still visible around the city had their start as protection during a war between Carthage and Syracuse in 480 BC. A variety of rulers came and went, and Trapani had its heyday in the 1500s, and later, Trapani was the birthplace of canned tuna. Sorry, Charlie.

The tourist office had advised us that there would be a festival, on our first evening, in a large square near the shopping district. We stalled as long as we could, and made our way into the neighborhood at about 9:30. Our own neighborhood was active, queues waiting for pizzas at counters, kids in groups with no apparent destination, and people walking in the general direction of the festival. By the time we arrived at the festival site, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of people milling around, but the stage was empty, and screens flanking the stage were showing videos. We walked down the shopping boulevard just to dawdle, but it was apparent that we were swimming upstream, and we turned around to go with the flow of people that were now flooding the piazza. At this point, there were thousands, maybe ten thousand people around, and the show hadn’t started yet. We could barely make out the stage or the screens from our vantage point outside of the square, though we could hear the music through speakers. We loitered for a while, and finally made our way back towards the boat. At some point, we decided that it wouldn’t be worth it to stand far away to listen to music we didn’t know being performed by people we’d never heard of.

Our first full day in town was a Sunday, but we made good use of the early part of the day with a walk down the main artery traversing the old town, Corso Vittorio Emanuele originally laid out in the 13th century. At one end is the 15th-century Palazzo Cavaretta, or Senatorio, where from a balcony Garibaldi famously said “Rome or death” in 1860, or his version of “Don’t Cry for Me, Sicilia”,

The Fontana di Saturno stands nearby, across from the tourist office, diagonally and polytheistically facing away from Sant-Agostino, a Templars’ church, both from the mid-fourteenth century. The walking street is an alley of old palaces and religious buildings. The Collegio dei Gesuiti from 1636 crowns the street with ornate facades, and lesser-heralded buildings now host hotels and shops. On a side street, the church Purgatorio houses life-sized (for the 18th-century) wooden figures in dioramas representing scenes from the Passion. Each of these scenes is clearly denoted to be sponsored by a guild from the time: the fishermen, bakers, fruit vendors, barbers and hairdressers. The washing of the feet by the fishermen, the arrest brought to you by the silversmiths. It’s the forerunner to the Exxon Universe of Energy at Epcot.

A large park off of the main shopping street contains a theater and an odd sort of zoo for the kids. The zoo’s cages were more like storage crates, and each one contained a single species: chickens, hamsters, rabbits, and in one case some birds, including a peacock. Now these are all actually animals that I’ve seen walking around freely in the outdoors at other places. So I guess I wouldn’t have been surprised to see, for example, an ant farm, highlighted like a treasure, in the center of a garden.

We decided to forego the “menu” that we often find for lunch in favor of a restaurant we’d passed the night before. We’d been entranced by a cart of antipasti – like marinated vegetables, cheeses, fritters, olives – and we hoped that they were a regular feature of the lunch menu as well. Other than multi-course offers, the menu in most places we visit doesn’t change from lunch to dinner.

Alas, the antipasti were nowhere to be seen, but we each ordered a local version of pasta, Art’s with almonds, garlic, basil and peppers, and mine with eggplant and tuna. The pasta, busiate, is a spiral shape, not like fusilli, but more like a long spiral-curled girls’ pigtail. We followed that with a pizza that was magnificent, charred from the oven and cut into dozens of puzzle pieces. We managed about a third of the pizza and asked to take it home. It went back into the kitchen, and after we’d paid the bill, we asked about it. Yes, of course, and a box came out to the table. But our pizza was only about one-quarter its original size. My guess is that the waiter left it out, and everyone just picked at it (as, after all, we had hoped to do) until it was recovered for us.

Secure in Trapani, it was our chance to visit the Egadi Islands (or Aegadian Islands, according to Wikipedia) without worrying about an anchored boat bobbing around in a bumpy harbor. There are three major islands in the archipelago – Favignana, Levanzo, and Marettimo – and they were all once part of the mainland of Sicily. The departure of Marettimo predated human habitation, but Favignana and Levanzo both show prehistoric human activity.

The ferry took us back to Levanzo for a good look at the Grotta del Genovese. Cave paintings there (about 100 of them) of charcoal and ochre are 7,000 years old, and 33 engravings in the rock are from 12,000 years ago. These aren’t quite as old as the cave paintings from Lascaux in France or Altamira in Spain, but I’d never seen a painting in a cave in my life, and I wanted to see these.

We’d made a reservation for a tour in Trapani, but a young woman representing the cave tour met the ferry and convinced a few more of our fellow ferry passengers to take a look. About a dozen of us piled into a workhorse of a boat, and we motored around the island, captained by a guy with a stub of a cigar in his mouth, a jutting chin, and an indifferent masculine air. I’ve been on the water for many years, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to actually meeting Popeye the sailor man in my travels. And that includes our visit to Popeye Village in Malta.

The island is nearly empty away from the port, but my glance was fixated on a board of some sort installed atop the mountain. What possible purpose could it have, an institutional obstruction into the naturalness of the topography? Was it a solar panel? That would be practical, but unattractive. A billboard on the road that goes across the island? I’ll never know, but I imagined that I’d pass it on the two-hour walk on the dirt path that connects the port with the cave. It would say “Photo spot, brought to you by Kodak.”

A small concrete dock was built into the rocks near the cave’s entrance. The little place for docking must have been the best of all possible options, but Popeye needed to rev the boat up with all it had, because it had to penetrate a thin channel between rocks just below the surface and tie up tightly before the waves pounded it into little fiberglass twigs.

A path led to the cave itself, a steep walk but well-secured with a wooden rail. The dripped rock inspired Art to remark that the cave looked from the outside as if it had been designed by Gaudi. The guide opened a small gate locked by a rope tied in a loose knot, and then opened a tiny door to the cave with a key. He emerged again with a portable generator, which he placed outdoors next to what is probably the backup generator. He plugged it in and turned it on. I looked at the tiny cave door and saw that lights were on inside.

Our guide took the Italian speakers into the cave, and we hoped that he’d come back for us within moments. The four English speakers waited outside, baking in the sun. A half hour later, Art simply walked into the cave on his own, prompting an unhappy reaction from our guide. It would have been better if we’d simply gone inside with the rest of the group and ignored the lecture in Italian.

We finally had our chance, and I was determined that we, too, would get a half hour of lecture. Our visit lasted about fifteen minutes, but that was probably because our group of four didn’t have the same number of questions as the previous group. The guide was knowledgeable and patient, and we all got over our frustration with each other pretty quickly.

The drawings are numerous and intriguing, and the engravings are haunting. The engravings are from the late Paleolithic era, and include a deer, a bull, and a donkey that includes a hump that is consistent with the fossil record. The deer is beautiful in its primitive way, whipping its head around as if to sense the hunter; apparently it’s the original “deer in the headlights” look. Most of the animals are shown in profile, except a bull, which sported a face-on view and a profile of the whole animal under it, as if in a mug shot.

The drawings are nearly all in black charcoal, and are representations of people and objects, consistent with the worship of a female deity and fertility, and similar to images from Crete, Spain, and Sardinia. There’s a drawing of a tuna fish and of a dolphin (apparently nobody was concerned about dolphin-free tuna at the time) and it’s likely that the tuna is the very first depiction of a tuna in recorded history.

The ochre drawing probably dates back to the same period of the engravings. The drawings and engravings have been extraordinarily well-protected inside this cave, and continue to be preserved through the efforts of the local government.

On our way out, Art asked me to unclip my fanny pack to make sure that I could toss it off before it acted as a weight belt if we were to sink on our way out of the dock. That was comforting. Popeye gunned the engine, and we were out of the dock and safe. The cigar stub never wavered.

We took the next ferry we could and got off at Favignana, an island larger than Levanzo and the most popular destination of the Egadi Islands. Favignana is famous for its tufo (volcanic rock) and for the tonnara, a method of catching tuna with a maze of nets, a technique originated by the Arabs.

It’s an unabashed tourist town. Signs for bike rentals are ubiquitous, as are the bikes themselves, which are clearly the preferred mode of transportation on the flat, built-out part of the island. The port leads to the Palazzo Florio, an 1878 neo-Gothic style building. Vincenzo Florio was a captain of industry and the father of canned tuna.

Favignana doesn’t have much more historical significance than anywhere else in the region, so we busied ourselves with the task of finding a place for a leisurely lunch, and spending our remaining visit wandering the empty streets on the shady side.

Crowning Monte San Giuliano 2500 feet (750 meters) above Trapani, the town of Erice enjoys a multi-layered history. It’s been a holy place since it was founded, first, to the goddess of love (Astarte for the Phoenicians, Aphrodite to the Greeks, and Venus to the Romans), and then to the Christians, and in time to the Muslims. It doesn’t hurt the mystical aura that the place is shaped like a triangle.

We walked down Trapani’s main shopping artery to reach the funicular that would take us skyward. The gondola swept around to the bottom of its course, slowed down to a crawl, and the doors opened. Nobody was staffing the embarkation. We entered and the doors closed automatically, much to my relief. The ride provided a striking view of the densely-populated city below that ends abruptly at large salt pans, and the farmland beyond. While the breeze blew us gently from side to side and the gondola snorted each time it passed one of the poles holding its cable, I tried not to think about the metal hook that seemed to be the only object between us and a plunge down the mountain.

Art had expected the top of the mountain to consist entirely of a lookout point and a snack bar, and I knew that there would be a town, but neither of us was prepared for the enchanting (as in fairy-tale) place we encountered as we stepped off of the funicular.

The side of the mountain is rounded and steep, and the castle is built to match its shape above it. The walls were originally built by the Phoenicians and enhanced by the Normans in the 12th and 13th centuries over the various religious shrines that preceded it, such as the temple of the Venus Eryx. This was a particularly holy site to ancient sailors, perhaps due to the Ierodule, the holy prostitutes stationed therein. There’s nothing holier than prostitutes when you’ve been out at sea for a while. There’s the remainder of an ancient church, and discernible Roman baths. Art declared it “a pile of rocks.”

We walked through the Gardens of Balio into the town. It’s a maze of cobblestone streets, all slanted up and down, a mosaic of well-worn stones that were increasingly hazardous to my smoothed sandal soles. Art had been wiser and worn sneakers for our visit, and I used him as a walker for a good part of our stroll through the town. It’s charming and as authentic as a tourist destination can be, with ten churches and well-preserved building facades for intense peering and photographing. With our Trapani Welcome Card (which was funded with the savings from the funicular ride), we visited the castle and the archaeological museum at reduced rates, making them almost worth what we paid for them.

Lunches in remote tourist destination towns are always a risk. They could be wonderful and expensive, or moderate and lacking. The place we chose, La Prima Dea, nearly by accident, was both moderate and wonderful. Art was entranced by the house pasta sauce (a variation on the Trapanese sauce served nearly everywhere in this town). We each took half of the delicious secondo home. Even so, I couldn’t even finish my cannolo (cannoli are from Sicily).

Though we’d walked much of the day, we thought that it would be wise to walk off the meal on our way back to the boat once we were deposited back in the lower town. It’s difficult to convey how quiet a city can be in the middle of the day until you visit a Mediterranean town. True, the cafés are open, although even they aren’t crowded. But shops are closed up tight, with metal garage doors obscuring their wares. Even supermarkets and big retailers close, knowing that there are no customers coming. It’s like Sunday comes every day, just for a visit.

We haven’t been in many cities yet, but I feel safe in claiming that Italian drivers have a slightly different interpretation of pedestrian crosswalks from their European brethren. The first problem is that many of the crosswalks are faded into oblivion, and many that aren’t faded away are covered by illegally parked cars. In Trapani alone, I’m sure that I could make up a calendar of photos whose top half depict a stern No Parking sign with an icon of a tow truck and beneath it, a car in profile that looks just like the icon of the car in tow.

Crossing a street is a competition. If you stand at the edge of the street, or heaven help you, on the sidewalk, you will not cross until Christmas Eve. You have to indicate that you are crossing the street by actually walking in front of each moving vehicle. Occasionally, they��ll stop. More often, they’ll simply swerve into some other lane, in front of you, in back of you, or in front of oncoming traffic, who will swerve into the place you just vacated. It’s like being in a live animation video game, where you could actually be flattened; game over.

The Trapani shops that real people use are, actually, a little disappointing and dated for such a vibrant town. Most of the marine shops or hardware stores are organized as a counter near the front of the shop, with all of the merchandise behind it. This, people realized in 1950, isn’t as much fun for shoppers as colorful aisles of items and advertising posters. It���s quaint and amusing, but less practical for shopping when you don’t really speak the language.

Actually it isn’t that hard to communicate most of the time in Italy. I have a small collection of expressions that are important for traveling boaters, things like “I need” and “something like this, but smaller…” Most people we encounter speak English at least as well as I speak Italian, and Italian words I hear are a lot easier for me to deconstruct than French, even though my French vocabulary is at a solid high school level, or more. But Art is irrationally convinced of my ability to communicate.

We were in a hardware store, hoping to find a hose nozzle to replace one that had jumped overboard in Arbatax. I was clueless as to how I’d begin to ask for it, when I caught sight of a display of garden hose connectors. So I pulled from my catalog of expressions, “Like those, but…”, and then I shot an invisible gun. “Pistolo?” asked the proprietor. "Si."

He didn’t have one, and as we were walking out the door, Art said to me, “Actually, I’d really like to find one of those fittings of the right size to fill the fender from my pressure pump.” This isn’t the sort of sentence that’s back in the glossary of Lonely Planet. My translation was directed at Art. “We’ll get one in Malta.�����

Happy anniversary coming up to the Momma and the Poppa. Much love on your special day (one of very many special anniversary days.) And many more.

Love, Karen (and Art)