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Sunday, August 12, 2012, in Licata, Sicily, Italy

Hi everyone. We’re making progress down the coast of Sicily, and it won’t be long before we arrive in Malta. Last week, we were in Trapani.

After a week in Trapani, we were ready to move on, and another early departure gave us many hours to use for sailing to Sciacca. We stopped at the marina that had been recommended to us, and were helped ably by two men on the dock. The marina is secure and has all of the essentials, although the electric power, by the time it got to our boat well down a long dock, was simply whimpering. Art switched the electric source on the boat from our onboard inverter to the dockside electric, and the UPS on our laptop PC moaned, as if the power had been cut. Yes, even a small battery backup device didn’t see the power coming into the boat. Art switched back to the inverter and trickled power into the batteries. Anyway, who needs air conditioning in the Med in early August?

We spent the evening as if we were at anchor. Art was worried that using the wimpy power would actually harm the devices he was trying to charge. To put it in perspective, the best we ever saw, and only for moments, was 180 volts. Our generator, when it only sees 200 volts of its own power, turns itself off in shame. When we’d stop using our laptops, we’d put them to sleep. We ran fans to move around the hot air. Our energy profile was the same as we’d have at anchor, except we were paying the same daily rate we had paid in Trapani.

We try to arrange our sailing days for Sundays, because towns are exceedingly quiet on Sundays, and we were reminded why we do that on our first full day in town in Sciacca. The walk to town from the marina is a hike up a mountain stairs, with about a hundred steps up and three hundred steps if you include the horizontal path from one flight to another. So you’re doing an uphill waltz – up, step, step, up, step, step, and you arrive at the main plaza in town, Piazza Scandaliato (doesn’t that sound delicious?). The tourist office is right across the plaza inside what was once a complex housing the Church of the Jesuits. My eleven-year-old guidebook told me that the tourist office would be closed on Sundays, but I didn’t believe that. Why would a tourist office with a two-month window close on a weekend? It was preposterous, so we went up to the sign to get a closer look. And the tourist guidebook was indeed wrong. The tourist office was also closed on Saturdays, and every afternoon except Wednesday (and this is Italy, so “afternoon” actually means “evening.”) So we abandoned our idea of doing some sort of tour on Sunday, and hoped that we’d be able to arrange something for Monday.

Instead, we walked around the upper town. The cathedral was in the midst of its Sunday service. Originally built in the early 12th century, the front façade has been upgraded with Baroque excessiveness and five lovely statues, while the back of the building is still original. Frescos on the ceiling distracted me from the Italian-language service, and a Madonna watched over the priest. I wondered if this is the same Madonna that is carried through the town twice a year to re-enact a miracle that took place in 1626.

The miracle occurred when lightning struck and smoke arose from the statue, and Sciacca was saved from the plague. Now, twice a year, this miracle is commemorated, once in February and once on August 15, when all of Italy closes. The Madonna is carried through town, by fishermen, who for some reason are barefoot, as if inviting the plague to come back.

Indeed, there are lots of fishermen who must call Sciacca their home port. Most of the huge artificial harbor is devoted to scores of fishing boats, and even much of the pleasure pontoons where we were tied up housed small, local vessels that might also be used for fishing.

We continued our walk around the town, constrained by our infrastructure. Art had a map that was a sort of Ken doll of a document, with a depiction of the town, but without street names. Sites of interest were noted with photos and arrows to their location, but none of them were identified by name. “Oh, maybe that’s a church, or maybe not.” “Should we walk over there?” “I don’t know; what is it?” “I don’t know.” “It’s kind of hot to go somewhere and not know what you’re going over to see.” This wasn’t exactly my idea of a well-planned visit. We couldn’t correspond anything on the map to anything in my guidebooks. In the end, we decided to act like locals and simply relax for the rest of the day.

The hotel between the upper town and lower town was very helpful to us, although they had little requirement to be hospitable. The man at the desk gave us a map with actual street names and a brochure with the contact information for a tour company that we could call.

Back at the marina, the café run by the yacht club offered a great multi-course lunch for a value price, and we sank into Sunday oblivion with a heavy, delicious meal in the shade of a palm-frond umbrella.

Sciacca has a very long history, no doubt because of the thermal baths that emanate under Monte San Calogero. The world’s oldest heating system (17th century BC) was found there along with a “sweating cave” that must be the world’s oldest sauna. After that, the Greeks and the Romans used the baths for curing diseases as disparate as arthritis, rheumatism, and the plague. Of all of the legends that purport to explain the source of the sulphurous steam, my favorite is the one in which San Calogero made water spring forth from the mountain to scare away the devils that lived there. Other cultures must have viewed the smelly vapors as the existence of something terrible, too, because jars discovered from the Copper Age contained the tiny arm bones of the children sacrificed to the gods inside. There’s nothing like travel to make you grateful that you were born when you were. For example, I’m left-handed. Italians didn’t make up the word sinistra for “left” by accident. It wasn’t always only about the finger holes of scissors.

We walked from the harbor up to the baths, to a grand building that was arranged indoors like a hospital, complete with utilitarian signs to various departments and staff members clad in long white coats. The signs, though, were for various steam-based remedies, and in translation didn’t give me any sense that these treatments were at all therapeutic. I half-expected to see signs for astrological readings and phrenology among the cures.

Nearby, there’s a swimming pool borne of the same healing water, and a park with a fountain that smelled of chlorine. Having slowly made our way up to the level of the upper town while avoiding the many steps we’d taken the previous day, we strolled across to the bustle in hopes of seeing a bit more urban activity than we’d witnessed the previous day. Alas, by the time we were in the heart of downtown, many of the businesses had closed for mid-day, or for August, or for the recession. The most densely-peopled area was a concrete park adorned by a statue, where various speakers took turns denouncing the Mafia.

Being weathered in gave us an extra day in Sciacca, and we arranged a trip to the Greek settlement of Selinunte. This is the westernmost colony of ancient Greece, founded in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Another Greek site on the opposite side of Sciacca, Agrigento, is more popular an attraction, but this one was more accessible to us.

About a half-hour away, there weren’t a lot of travel options for us. There is no bus service, and we stopped in at least three travel agencies asking about group tours, shooed away every time. But the hotel brochure we’d seen on our first day sent us into the arms of Domenico, who picked us up in his Volkswagen Golf in the relative cool of the morning, and off we went. Outside of crowded Sciacca, Sicily soon became rural, with jewel-like fields of olive trees and vineyards visible from our perch on a highway bridge above the valley farms.

Without obsessing about the back-and-forth of history, I’ll begin with what is left at the site. It’s the largest archaeological site in Europe (although I suspect that this claim depends some on how you count; how big is Athens, after all?) But it’s so big that it’s smarter not to explore it on foot, and the management of the site has provided a golf-cart option, where drivers take you here and there, and by the time you’re finished exploring one set of ruins, a new driver magically appears in your vehicle.

Domenico drove us to the main entrance and parked alongside the ticketing building. We thought that he’d just leave the car there until we got settled, but he must go to Selinunte often, since his car alone stayed in the best parking spot next to the door for our entire visit. There are so many temples on the site that they’ve simply assigned letters to them, and the letters go from A to O. The temples are sprinkled over the highest points of land, overlooking a now-silted ancient harbor.

The first place to visit is Temple E, from 480-460 BC, dedicated to the goddess Hera. Temple E is the only one that has been reconstructed, so you get a real sense of what it was like to be there 2500 years ago. During our visit, workmen dismantled the folding chairs and platform that had obviously just been used for a glorious nighttime production of something under the stars. Most of the other temples are simply a mass of fallen columns or a lonely wall of graceful construction. Temple E is six columns by fifteen columns, statuesque even without its metopes (decorative elements along the top of the building) The four metopes which have been rescued are on display in a regional museum in Palermo and contain the markings that document the temple’s dedication to Hera.

Two other temples are in pieces alongside Temple E, and you can study them in amazement to see how much work must have gone into building them. The columns are in pieces the shape of soup macaroni, but they are so wide and so thick that it’s hard to imagine how each of them could be moved, let alone carved. The columns were stacked with internal diamond-shaped gouges at top and bottom, held into place with a diamond-shaped carved piece of rock. These people must have been really afraid of the gods that lived on Mount Olympus.

One pile of column pieces is strategically placed so that you can see the remnants of the bright red and blue paint that must have made these stone temples even more majestic than they seem today. In this dry, hot, desolate place, eucalyptus grows, and oleander, and so does a cactus that flowers like a tulip, its orange-red bloom so assertive it appears to be smiling at you, or smirking.

Temple C isn’t nearly as complete, but at 6 x 17 columns, it is simply enormous, and most of the columns are about two meters (about 6 feet) in diameter at the base. There’s a metal anchor that once provided support to keep the columns upright, but they were no match for erosion and a series of earthquakes that toppled much of the site over the years. The agora is just a mass of rubble now, but the two main crossroads are intact, and you can imagine what it was to live with 100,000 of your friends in this Greek community.

It’s possible to navigate the place without a guide (with well-documented signs in multiple languages) and without the golf cart, but walking would bake you for hours in the sun. We had a bottle of room-temperature water with us; by the time we finished the bottle, the water was bath-temperature.

Domenico didn’t want our day to end, and he took us unsuccessfully for a museum visit in nearby Castelvatrano. After all, who would expect a museum to be open at 11:30 on a Tuesday? So instead, he took us to the top of Monte San Calogero, where we could see the steamy grotto that is constantly at Finnish sauna temperature and humidity, where San Calogero ended the plague or scared away demons, and where the calming vapors of an underground volcano appear to be wastefully underused, at least in August. Nearby, we visited the basilica that was undoubtedly constructed to reciprocate the divine powers for the healing steam and under the basilica a cave where San Calogero himself lived in a tiny crevice.

Next door, a museum explains the arduous exploration being done inside the mountain, where unprepared spelunkers would die of heat stroke after only thirty minutes of immersion. We also saw a topographical model of a nearby lost volcanic island. It was discovered and claimed by the British in 1831, and then claimed by the French, and the Kingdom of Naples. Photography wasn’t invented yet, but there are paintings documenting the actual place, including the eruption. All of these claimants began to send warships to the area but just in time to avoid the conflict, the island simply disappeared. Our nautical chart shows the shallow area that used to be the island twenty-five miles off the coast.

We’d been becoming addicted to granitas, the snowy snack that is Italian water ice to us, and we learned from friends that Sicilians commonly pair it with a soft brioche. There are as many ways to eat these two foods together as the decoupling of an Oreo, and Domenico was delighted to take us to a portside bar where the granite are famous. We watched as the electric masher pounded the ingredients into slush, while most of the tables were filled. Many people, according to Domenico, will have a granita and brioche for lunch. This makes sense to anyone who has trouble imagining the normal Italian cuisine of multi-course lunches and dinners on the same day. Summertime is just so sunny and hot and dry that I could almost imagine a diet of a granita every hour or so, and in between a bottle of sparkling water. Maybe I’d stop obsessing over the heat once we were back in a marina that actually had enough current to run an air conditioner.

The next day, we left Sciacca in pursuit of an anchorage called Porto Empedocle. Empedocles was an eminent Greek philosopher, living in Agrigento, the hill city above this port. His works formed the basis of scientific thought for thousands of years. His theory was that there are four elements – fire, air, water, and earth – and that they are pulled by two strong and opposite forces, Love and Strife. Though much of the theory now seems too mystical, his ideas about light and vision formed a foundation for later scientists who did a better job of studying them empirically.

He’s one of the most important in the sciences that flowed from the flawed Greek theories, yet he’s also perhaps the first documented hot-dog celebrity. He threw himself to his death into the active Mt. Etna volcano so that he would convince the populace that his body had vanished and that he’d turned into a god.

He probably never learned this, but Mt. Etna had the last laugh. It spewed out a single sandal, and that’s what’s left of Empedocles, other than this port. Empedocles was probably the last of the Greeks to record his philosophy in verse. Following his poetic lead, Bertrand Russell related the following quote about Empedocles in his History of Western Philosophy: "Great Empedocles, that ardent soul, Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole."

We arrived at Port Empedocle just as the winds were picking up, but there was a spot nearby that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s the remains of ancient Agrigento, not the present busy urban area, but a huge Greek settlement on its outskirts. It’s just a quirk of timing that we���d be visiting Greek temples twice in a span of two days, but I’ll just have to blame the Greeks for putting them so close together.

Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples is not in a valley at all. Greeks always sited their temples as close as they could to the gods. This time, we’d be able to arrive by bus, a lovely, air-conditioned coach that we caught at the bus stop at the harbor. In the doldrums of the day (actually, anytime after the morning) the buses were an hour apart. Having just missed one; we utilized the time gainfully with a reinvigorating granita.

Agrigento was founded in 581 BC, and named Akragas. The Greek poet Pindar called it “the fairest city inhabited by mortals.” Besides Empedocles, the other famous citizen of Agrigento is the 1934 Nobel prizewinner Luigi Pirandello, who wrote, for example, “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” But the big draw of the place is called “Valley of the Temples” perhaps because “Ridge of Temples”, while accurate, doesn’t sound at all mystical.

The Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, contains the remains of seven temples, built in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Our first stop was to the Temple of Juno Lacinia, which is called the Temple of Juno or the Temple of Hera. Both names are inaccurate, but the original dedication is unknown. Though it’s only about half-there, with 25 of its original 34 columns, it’s possible to see marks from the sack of 409 BC, when it was burnt by the Carthaginians. The Romans restored it, but an earthquake accomplished what the Carthaginians could not.

We moved on to the Temple of Concord, one of the best-preserved Doric temples in the world. This is probably due to its temporary use as a Christian basilica. The Temple of Hercules didn’t fare as well. Only eight of its columns are standing, and that’s only because of a 20th-century reconstruction effort.

Arguably the most significant part of the site is just a giant pile of rubble, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It’s the largest Greek temple in the world, or was, or almost was, because it was never finished. The enormous amount of ruined stone would be even more if Porto Empedocle hadn’t used it as a quarry. It would have been larger than a football field, at 373 feet by 278 feet. The columns were probably 53 feet tall, and would take twenty men standing in a circle to surround the pillar.

We stayed at anchor in Porto Empedocle overnight, and were faced with a decision as to whether to stay in town for another day. We could have listened to my guidebook, which said “Unless you have to go there, avoid this town; there isn’t a good word to be said for it.” We were glad we didn’t pay attention to that. Porto Empedocle is a real Sicilian town. The prices are reasonable, the beach is sprawling (though we don’t care about that) and the restaurant we found for lunch provided an enjoyable meal in a stone cavern.

But the weather was very hot, and at anchor, air conditioning isn’t available. We reminded ourselves that we didn’t have air conditioning on our previous boat and that it had been no problem. But we’d see temperature gauges on buildings reporting more than 40 degrees Celsius (40 degrees C is 104 F), up to 44 degrees, and there was hardly anywhere to hide. We’d stop in cafés to share a bottle of water or to have a granita (both refreshing, and always accompanied by a shaded, comfortable table.)

Air conditioning and a marina berth began to assume a priority in our planning. The next morning, we pulled up the anchor from the very muddy bottom of Porto Empedocle, and set out for a medium-length cruise to Licata. We had stalled our departure until mid-morning, in hopes of wind, and we were rewarded with enough that we were able to sail nearly the entire day, albeit sometimes rather slowly.

Few fishing boats were out at sea, and even fewer pleasure boats, even though August is prime vacation season in all of Europe, and especially in Italy. Late afternoon, we pulled into Licata’s gigantic harbor, where we were met by an inflatable and ushered to a berth on a surprisingly vacant pontoon.

Licata has been inhabited since Paleolithic times, but the first impression from the vantage of the marina is that it’s as new as a model home. The marina is barely built out, with infrastructure that seems as if the wrapping is newly removed. The bathrooms are spanking new and clean, and only a few of the buildings lining the manicured harborside are leased or even built out.

An attentive staff member helped me tie up securely to the two led moorings and the cleats on the pontoon, and then he picked me up in a golf cart to drive me to the marina office, which was not very far away. We’ve been in a few marinas that seem like we’re taking a vacation from our vacation: Corfu, Greece, Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Jounieh, Lebanon. The marina at Licata isn’t commensurate with those…yet, but its building plans are ambitious, the harbor is enormous, and deep pockets are developing homes around the area.

Next to the marina is a mall, and among its offers are a supermarket and a large electronics shop. Down the road is a large beach. The evening stroll is divided between the paved marina quay and a street housing a flea market nearby, and probably another path near the beach. Some of the amenities that should have been available weren’t: the wireless Internet was down, with no hope of recovery until after the August 15 holiday released all of the technical support people; and the laundry which proclaimed that it was “self-service” ironically needed someone unavailable until the next week to open it up. The electrical power was weaker than ideal, but it would have been enough to charge our batteries and turn on our much-anticipated air conditioning.

Alas, we were not to be cooled off at this port. The cooling pump that led water into the air conditioner was not pumping. It wasn’t the marina’s fault; something was wrong with our system, and we’d have to wait for Malta to find someone to fix it. Luckily, the heat wave was subsiding, and the fans on the boat were moving air sufficiently to provide a base level of comfort.

We spent our day in town just strolling through the ancient streets, some too narrow for any means of transportation beyond a bicycle. Most of the churches were shut tight on Saturday morning, and their façades, once glorious, were tattered. The ancient houses that make up the central part of town had also been invested with grand carvings, wide doors, and one-time opulence, but they now hold tiny shops and apartments. The missing pieces of these once-elegant places have been stuffed with bricks and rocks to keep out the weather, apparently indifferent to style when comfort is at stake.

We’ll move on tomorrow, and by next week, we expect to be in Malta. Hope you’re having a great summer. It’s hard to imagine it’s nearly mid-August. Let us know how you’re doing.

Love, Karen (and Art)