Tapestries in Stone
Amazing things have been happening here for centuries
As usual, Sicily was nothing like I imagined. I can't even describe what I did expect. The mafia springs to mind, of course. So does wine, and hot, dry, rocky slopes covered with olive trees. Old stone buildings covered with vines and old people sitting in the shade, sipping coffee were in there, somewhere. Or was that Greece? I have no idea if we met anyone from the mafia, but we did see all the rest, and more besides.

Sicily was very different to the little I'd seen of mainland Italy. In Rome and Pompeii I could see the history, dated from such-and-such. It was old because someone told me. Sicily, on the other hand, felt old. The winding roads and small towns perched high on the hilltops like remnants from an older, feudal age and fitted the landscape perfectly. Maybe it's because the Roman Empire collapsed, was torn down then built over. Maybe, during all that time, Sicily just kept on going.
We avoided the coastal autostrada to Messina and drove across country instead. All around, derelict farmhouses looked out through empty windows over gnarled olive groves and old walls. The road climbed and curved upwards from the coast. We grabbed some delicious fruit from a local stall in Novara Di Sicilia, then continued south towards the slopes of Mt Etna. We'd already seen enough volcano action on Stromboli and, with the temperature now well above thirty degrees, didn't feel inclined to get any closer.

In one town, I forget where, we managed to avoid possibly the world's oldest, toughest, Fiat Bambina driver. We saw her car first, trundling down the middle of the road in all its battered, rusted and baby-blued splendour, seemingly without a driver until it was almost upon us. Then, looking down, we could just see the top of the driver's white-haired head and wrinkled hands as she peered grimly between steering wheel and dashboard. She wasn't giving way to anybody and, judging by her car, never had.

Fresh to You
The local fruit store in Novara Di Sicilia
The place we were staying was on the coast just north of Acireale, notable for it's mysterious one-way streets. A few unplanned turnings had us using the maps function on K's phone to find a way out again. Not for the last time. There was a mercato shown on the map close-by, but when we found it, the shelves were bare apart from some wilting veges, chips and bottled water. At least we helped the old shop owner with a few Euro for his retirement plans.
No better place to have a Mediterranean salad
Back at the AirBnB it was still too darn hot, like an oven in the small courtyard. In the evening, though, a door in the back wall took us to the rocky shore and a cooling dip. The sea was very calm. The Coast Guard laid on entertainment by flying very low over us a few times, and dropping their nose once, for a closer look. Apparently many refugees from Africa come ashore here. But we weren’t of interest.
Just as it was getting dark, we started hearing the meowing of a kitten, trapped in the yard next door. A and K called our host to try and help. All that could be done was to drop some food down to it, over the wall. In the morning both plate and food were gone, so maybe all's well that ends well. There were a lot of cats in Sicily, and a lot of dogs. Apparently one provides occasional food for the other.

Hall of Stone
Main in Villa Romana del Casale
We faced a longish drive to Agrigento in the morning, so had a look on the internet for distractions on the way. At Villa Romana del Casale, just south of Enna, there was a place that apparently had some of the most extensive and perfectly preserved mosaics in the world. Having now seen them, and even if mosaics aren't your thing, I think only a plebiscite would not appreciate the fine craft, myriad colours, and patience needed to make them. They were huge and finely-rendered in countless colours and patterns. If you're ever in Sicily, go there.

Finding our accommodation in Agrigento that evening was interesting. Instead of getting a GPS, we'd plotted our route in Google Maps and taken multiple screenshots of it. But some of the roads simply weren't there or were, in reality, a narrow track next to someone's house. We had to use K's phone data again to get there. Not for the last time. Our hosts were lovely and welcoming, and so was a bed and the air con.
That evening, we walked down the road to the beach. Just beyond our driveway, the road deteriorated to a dusty, deserted track with piles of half-burned refuse on either side, before coming out onto houses again. We found a restaurant on the ocean front and ate while the sun set. I couldn't stop thinking that people are a bit screwed: on one side, there's a beachfront paradise with warm sand, setting sun, and fairy lights. On the other, piles of rubbish fester in the heat. It's as though we can compartmentalise it and ignore what we want to.

Our main "thing" in Agrigento was to see Valley of the Temples, the fifth century BC remains of what used to be one of the largest cities in the known world. By opening time it was already blazing hot. Much of the old city walls had collapsed over the last couple of thousand years, but you could still see the line of it. I know some would say it's just a pile of rocks, but it was cool to see the stonework and the scale of the buildings. The whole setup was really well done, with displays at various points showing reconstructed tools and machinery used to make the temples.

Only one thing: it isn't a valley, it's a hill. Hill of the Temples. Call me picky.
On our way out of town, we stopped at a rock formation in chalk called the Turkish Steps. The sea looked lovely and the steps suitably white, but there was too much humanity floating about for my taste. Our next place to stay was in Ballata, up in the north-western corner of the island. The drive was pretty good. Being a train fan, I was excited to see some old railway bridges and tunnels on the way.
The thing I'm loving about this AirBnB thing is being able to stay away from towns and hotels. Our hosts were great and their house was awesome. It was also really nice that they all spoke English. It's not a given, of course, but it was interesting to be able to talk with them, and learn a bit more about what they did and thought. In the evening, A, K and I walked a short way to a local restaurant for superb pizza and a antipasto table that was groaning under the weight of food.

The next day was a huge milestone for me. It was unexpected and had nothing to do with Sicily: I learned to swim. The place we stayed had a pool, which was fantastic in itself. My lovely wife is an excellent swimmer, but I can only thrash along with breaststroke for a bit, before starting to sink. Well, she taught me to swim that day.

This has more meaning for me than you might think. My father was an excellent swimmer, and his mother and father were both New Zealand champions. My grandfather was in the 1912 British Olympic swim team, for goodness sake. Then there's me, thrashing around in the shallow end like a muppet. No pressure. I'll never be a champion, but at least now I can get along. Thanks, babe.

Learning to Swim
Not a bad place to learn
No Job Satisfaction
“If you bid a hasty retreat instead of dying decently, you'd be put to the sword for cowardice when you got home. It just wouldn't have ended well."

Fifteenth Century
An unexpected and tranquil view through a side door in Erice
That afternoon we went to the town of Erice, stopping to buy petrol on the way. It reminded me of getting Metro tickets in Naples. The guy at the self-service garage indicated that unless we had cash, we needed to pay with a credit card beforehand. But what that meant was using the card, then him opening up the cash-payment machine at the pump, taking some money out of the bag inside, closing it up, and feeding it back into the machine again. I thought this was only because we had a NZ card but nope, he did the same with the next bloke as well. Surely, there had to be an easier way. It seemed that a fair bit of infrastructure in Sicily was in poor repair or broken, with people figuring ingenious ways around it. Anyway, the tank was full, so who's complaining.

As far as building on the highest ground is concerned, Erice is built as high and as steep as you could want. I just pitied the poor buggers who were ordered to attack it, back in the day. You'd be wrung out by the time you'd climbed up there then, instead of getting a cup of tea and a biscuit for your efforts, there'd be some bloke firing rocks and arrows at you. If you bid a hasty retreat instead of dying decently, you'd be put to the sword for cowardice when you got home. It just wouldn't have ended well.
Nowadays, it was peaceful. In fact, the streets of Erice were almost empty. There were only so many old wooden doors to photograph before it got boring, but I did my best. The three of us parted company to explore it separately and met up every so often by surprise. It was lovely to be walking down a quiet street in an old Italian town and see your wife walking towards you, smiling. It might have been because she was lost, but we won't go into that.

The evening back at our place was a give and take affair. After a tasty dinner on the terrace, we shared some delicious raisin wine with our lovely hosts, and in turn provided a smorgasbord for the local mosquito population.
I won Grumpy Face of the Day Award next morning, when I found out we had to pay admission to walk along a track and jump in the sea. I've been spoiled by New Zealand, I tell you. On the way, we ducked into the local museum and chatted to a ranger who worked there in the summer. In the off-season he scouted around the local olive plantations and vineyards, getting work wherever he could. There was not much work going, that was plain. He was very proud of his daughter, who had gained admission to medicine in Milan. He saw it as an excellent way out of the place he was in. I still don't know Sicily, but it’s clear there’s no spare money floating about.

Grumpy Face had to eat his words in the end, as swimming in the clear, warm waters was amazing. We avoided the crowds by climbing off the path before the beach, and swimming off the rocks instead.

All that remained was to drive back to Palermo, drop off the car and get to our BnB, before flying out the next day. I know that Palermo is touted as the cultural capital of Sicily and it probably is, but none of us liked the place. It didn't have that nice a feeling to it. We're more suited to smaller towns and a quieter outlook.

I loved Sicily. In some ways it was all the same, but there were also many contrasts. If we came back, I think we'd head down to Siracusa and Ragusa and see the countryside around there. We didn't have to get very far off the main roads to see some lovely, quiet places that seemed to have been going much as they had for many, many years.

Right, off to Sardinia.
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