Alice and I have developed a morning routine. We set a time and meet for breakfast. I’m usually early, sucking down caffeine and filling my own canoli. After breakfast this morning, we drop our bags at the front desk, call for the Fiat, and go for a walk. From the hotel, it’s a straight shot to the sea, through the triumphal arch built to celebrate Giuseppe Garibaldi’s entry into Marsala, the beginning of his march across Sicily that brought about the unification of Italy.
Part of the reason for Marsala’s impenetrability is because they’ve blocked off a significant portion of the city for pedestrians only. We stroll amiably. Alice remarks on the flocks of old men, either walking and talking, always with the hands clasped behind their backs, or sitting on benches or at cafés discussing animatedly. We reach the sea. A man is opening his merry-go-round with little cars and trucks and fire engines under a canvas canopy. It is called FantasiaLand.
Expulsion from Marsala is accomplished with ease. We motor along a rustic corniche on the edge of the beautiful shallow lagoon of Lo Stagnone where salt extraction has been practiced for millennia. In isolated splendor, Monte San Giuliano rises to the north. Erice is at its summit. Great rows of piles of salt, too white to be clouds, reflect in the blue of the lagoon. Conical windmills with red tiles roofs and wooden sail frames stand at the intersections of enormous rectangular saltpans. They used to pump the seawater into the pans, where it evaporates, leaving the original condiment.
A boat will transport us to an island in the middle where once a great Phoenician/Carthaginian city arose beginning in the 8th Century BCE. The island was purchased in the late 19th Century by the Whitaker family of marsala wine fame and excavations begun. The island is flat with fenced-off archeological sites amid vineyards and olive groves. The sun is hot. We will pay for hatlessness. The stony remains are enough to bring the ancient city to life.
A small café offers panini and agua and shade. We indulge. The anchovy and sliced tomato sandwich may be the best meal so far. The boat back to the mainland departs on the half hour, so we decide to see what the museum holds before leaving this fabled isle. Many amphora and tombstones, and an astonishing Greek statue of a youth discovered only in 1979. The young man, carved in white marble, wears a thin pleated garment that gives this ‘giovane’ the sex appeal that nakedness really can’t.
Selinunte, our next stop, was a powerful ancient city from the era when Sicily was more Greek than Greece. Its complete abandonment after Roman times and its distance from other urban areas has meant that, though tumbled down, the ruins weren’t significantly ‘mined’ for its stone. Selinunte is a National Archeological Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One great temple has been reassembled and another will begin reconstruction in a few years. The city’s acropolis stands a kilometer away on the other side of a valley from the temples, closer to the bluff that overlooks the Mediterranean. Our imaginations get a workout.
Agrigento, another ancient Greek city, is on tomorrow’s docket. Once more into the Fiat. The Sicilian landscape passes in infinite variety almost as if in a dream. The sky above presents another landscape, one of ever-changing clouds and weather, sweeping across a spectrum of perfect blues. Sometimes the road arcs into the sky on a graceful viaduct. The feeling is like flying. Alice guides us to the evening’s resting place, the Not-So-Hot Hotel.