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Authors: Francine Prose

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Sicilian Odyssey

BOOK: Sicilian Odyssey
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Sicilian Odyssey
FRANCINE PROSE
Sicilian Odyssey

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC DIRECTIONS

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Washington, D.C.

Published by the National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-4688

Text copyright © 2003 Francine Prose
Map and photographs copyright © 2003 National Geographic Society

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without permission in writing from the National Geographic Society.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Prose, Francine, 1947-

Sicilian odyssey / Francine Prose.
      p. cm. — (National Geographic directions)

ISBN: 978-1-4262-0908-6

1. Sicily (Italy)–Description and travel. 2. Prose, Francine, 1947-–Journeys—Italy—Sicily. I. Title. II. Series.

DG864.3.P76 2003
  914.5’80493–dc21

2002044379

One of the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations, the National Geographic Society was founded in 1888 “for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” Fulfilling this mission, the Society educates and inspires millions every day through its magazines, books, television programs, videos, maps and atlases, research grants, the National Geographic Bee, teacher workshops, and innovative classroom materials. The Society is supported through membership dues, charitable gifts, and income from the sale of its educational products. This support is vital to National Geographic’s mission to increase global understanding and promote conservation of our planet through exploration, research, and education.

For more information, please call 1-800-NGS LINE (647-5463), write to the Society at the above address, or visit the Society’s Web site at
www.nationalgeographic.com.

For Howie Michels and Letizia Battaglia

Sicilian Odyssey

CHAPTER ONE
Arrivals

On the north coast of Sicily, which Homer called the Island of the Sun, the shipwrecked Odysseus washed up on shore and was saved by Nausicaa, the king’s daughter. Farther inland, on the flowery banks of Lake Pergusa, Hades seized Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, and carried her clear across the island to a spring just south of Syracuse, where they descended into the underworld and remained there until Demeter’s pleas persuaded the gods to let Persephone rejoin the living for two-thirds of every year. Pursued through Arcadia by the river god Alpheus, the nymph Arethusa prayed to Artemis for help; changed into a fountain, she reappeared across the ocean, in Syracuse, joined with her pursuer in a pool that today is overgrown with papyrus, occupied by placid white ducks, and surrounded by stylish bars. So even in pre-Homeric times it must have been apparent that this island was so magical that the gods and heroes would naturally have come here to act out their dramas of danger and survival, of grief, mourning, and reunion.

Amphitheater, Segesta

Sicily is where Daedalus landed. After the failure of his ingenious plan to free himself and his son from King Minos’s prison on the wings that he fashioned from wax, after the tragic accident he must have witnessed, watching his son soar higher and higher, closer to the sun until the wax wings melted and sent Icarus plummeting into the sea, after gathering up his son’s body and burying it on the island of Icaria—only then did the architect of the Labyrinth, the inventor, and the master technician come to rest in Sicily, of all the places he could have chosen. hat did he see as he flew in and—according to the myth—touched ground somewhere along the west coast? Whatever sights greeted him would have only distantly resembled what the traveler finds today. Erice, near where Daedalus is said to have arrived, was not yet the austere and lovely medieval town swathed in mists and set high on the mountaintop like a diamond solitaire in an antique ring. The salt pans on the coast between Trapani and Marsala, the cathedral at Cefalù, the giddy baroque excesses of Noto and Palermo, the petrochemical plants at Gela—none of it would exist for centuries. Lake Pergusa—where Persephone was seized by the enamored Lord of the Underworld—had not yet been encircled by a dusty racecar track.

And the island’s colorful, brutal history had not yet had a chance to cover the landscape with the rubble and dust of battle, invasion, foreign occupation, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, warfare, tyranny, crime, and death. Inhabited by prehistoric tribes, the island had still to repel and then embrace the long succession of invaders—Greeks and Carthaginians, Romans, Goths and Vandals, Byzantines and Saracens, Normans, Swabians, the Spanish and French—all of whom would inflict great losses and bestow even greater gifts on the conquered country. In fact, the whole history of Italy—and of much of Europe—seems to have been distilled, concentrated, and acted out on this singular island. “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all,” wrote Goethe, who landed in Palermo in April 1787. “For Sicily is the clue to everything.”

It’s easy to understand what drew the invaders here, why they bothered, what they wanted. Some part of the attraction must have been the sheer beauty, which—as Homer reminded us—men will go to extreme lengths to possess, to claim as their own. But there was also the fertility, the generosity of the soil. From earliest times, the goddess of fertility—Cybele, Demeter, Ceres—has been worshiped here. In the archaeological museum at Syracuse is a collection of votive figurines of the goddess holding sheaves of grain. Down the hill from the Greek theater at Palazzolo Acreide are the Santoni, a dozen or so statues of Cybele roughly hewn from the rock face. The fact that the sculptures have been put behind bars—for their own protection—makes them seem all the more mysterious, otherworldly, and imposing. Every August, the hill town of Gangi decorates its streets with ears of corn tied with red ribbons—a festival that derives from the sacred rites in honor of Demeter. And in Enna, the highest major city on the island and the nearest to its geographical center, you can climb out on a rock believed to have been the most important altar in the cult of Ceres and, on rare clear days, you can see all the way to Mount Etna.

So perhaps Daedalus saw only the goddess’s gifts: the golden hills, the turquoise coast, the warm sun, the stands of wild fennel and orange, and, across the island, the smoking cone of Etna with its threat or promise that something dramatic was about to happen. Perhaps he intuited or understood that he had come to a land in which the most extreme natural and man-made splendor insisted on its right to coexist with the most extreme horror, the most sustained and terrible bloodshed—a conjunction that must have seemed refreshingly truthful and even comforting in its honesty in light of the pain and loss that he had just endured. Possibly, Daedalus recognized that he had reached a place in which the most lush magnificence, the most sybaritic pleasures console us for—without ever lying about—the harshness of existence.

Rooftops, Enna

For all those reasons, it is the place where I most want to come at a time when the world has never seemed more chaotic, more savage, more precious, or more fragile. When Howie and I leave New York to spend a month in Sicily, it is February, 2002. We have not ventured very far from home since that morning last September, when, as we waited to board a plane for California at John F. Kennedy airport, we first noticed the plumes of black smoke billowing east from Lower Manhattan and joined the cluster of shocked, silent travelers gathered around a TV set. And now, like Daedalus, we have traveled to Sicily, partly to experience its mystery and fascination, the richness of its art and architecture, its history and its culture, the seamlessness with which it merges the present and the past—and partly to discover what this island has learned and can teach us about the triumph of beauty over violence, of life over death.

 

How strange that Daedalus should have landed in the west when, by all rights, he should have been coming from the other direction. Perhaps he had heard about—and feared—the eastern shore, the legendary Riviera dei Ciclopi, the “coast of the cyclopes,” from which the blinded and infuriated Polyphemus hurled giant boulders after the fleeing Odysseus and his men. The rocks are still there, bizarrely shaped volcanic mini-islands poking out of the sea off the beach at Aci Trezza. Decorated with holy statues to bless the fishermen sailing out in their wooden boats, the islands are visible from the seafood restaurants to which chic, prosperous Catanians drive up from the city to tuck into steaming plates of linguine with lobster and
risotto alla marinara.

Fishing boats, Aci Trezza

The Greek navigators, who first landed up the coast at Naxos, may have had good reason for steering clear of Polyphemus’s stony, dangerous missiles. But for modern travelers, like ourselves, this side of the island—or more specifically, the airport at Catania—offers a gentler, more accommodating place to land than its counterpart in Palermo, with its precipitous approach and its proximity to the chaotic, homicidal traffic of the island’s capital.

The plane from Rome deposits us at the sleepy Aeroporto Fontanarossa, which, in the decade since we’ve last been here, has come to resemble a regional airport in some distant Balkan outpost. Not that I remember precisely how things looked the last time we were here. Howie and I were traveling with my mother and our two young sons, and our most vivid memories are of yanking the boys out of the path of cars speeding in the wrong direction up one-way streets. But we saw just enough—and remembered enough—to have fallen in love with Sicily, and to have promised ourselves that we would come back, as soon as possible.

Mostly what I remembered was the beauty of its shore, its landscape, and especially its art; and the fact that a few hours’ drive would take you from one of the world’s most perfectly preserved Greek temples to the site of the greatest surviving Roman or Byzantine mosaics. I remember thinking that Sicily was the place I wished I’d been born, and where I would like to be reborn—preferably as a big, handsome, life-loving, prosperous Sicilian guy, with a large adoring family, an enormous appetite, and no worries about weight, health, or business. (Gender loyalty aside, I realize that being reborn as a Sicilian woman might involve more of a daily struggle.)

Now, as I wait at the baggage carousel at the airport, I’m surrounded by guys just like that—embracing, talking, gesturing with their hands in semaphores so expressive of their individual personalities, so voluble, graceful, and emphatic that it’s as if they’re each conducting a symphony: the music of the language. And this—more than anything—reminds me that I’m in Italy, in Sicily, again.

Life here burns at a high heat and lends an unusual warmth to the people who live it. Though Sicilians have a reputation for dourness, for severity, for short violent tempers and an agonized religiosity, the fact is that almost every casual social interchange we have is characterized by a remarkable sweetness. The first policeman whom we approach to ask for directions engages us in a fifteen-minute conversation that ranges from the annoyance of paying high taxes to the pleasures and the relief of having (nearly) grown children. When he and Howie discover that they’re the same age, they burst out laughing; each had assumed the other was years younger. A few days later, we ask a long-distance bus driver, leaving from Syracuse, how to reach the city’s archaeological museum. He asks where we’re from and tells us:
No problema!
Get on the bus!
“Buon giorno,
hello,” he calls to the understandably startled passengers who follow us onto the bus.
“Andiamo,
get in, come on, we’re going to New York!” Within minutes, he’s made an unscheduled stop—a slight detour from his regular route—in order to drop us at our destination.

Much has been said and written about what the great Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia has called his countrymen’s “natural tragic solitude,” but what’s less often remarked upon is the Sicilian sense of humor: the comedy of the puppet theater, of the folk paintings collected in Palermo’s Museo Pitrè and Palazzolo Acreide’s Casa Museo Uccello, of the allegorical floats of Carnival, and of the ham sandwiches and plates of spaghetti fashioned out of marzipan and displayed in the windows of the pastry shops so common that, it often seems, every city block has at least one and sometimes two
pasticcerie
or
gelaterie.
Certain sweetshops—Maria Grammatico’s in Erice, for example—are known all over the island, and function as pilgrimage sites for travelers from other parts of Sicily and the mainland.

In no other region do adults have quite so fierce an ardor for pastries, candies, and ice cream; here, an ice-cream sandwich is literally an ice-cream sandwich—huge gobs of pistachio or strawberry pressed inside a brioche or a roll—and Sicilians eat them for breakfast. And like so much else about Sicily, this enthusiasm turns out to be contagious. Soon after we arrive, I find myself craving a daily cannoli and the sort of teeth-aching, sugary confections I would never dream of eating at home; just as I watch myself persuading Howie that the best way to get to our hotel is to drive—just a short distance, really—in the wrong direction up a one-way street. Still, it takes quite a while longer before I stop closing my eyes on two-lane highways when drivers cut into our lane to pass speeding trucks on inside curves at over a hundred kilometers an hour, and then dart back onto their side of the road at the very last minute, barely avoiding a head-on collision. Driving anywhere in Sicily is not for the faint of heart.

BOOK: Sicilian Odyssey
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