Monthly Archives: October 2015

Seventy-four Tunnels – Travels in Sicily with and without Alice

Once upon a time, the Mediterranean Sea was believed to be the very center of the world. Though it was sometimes a barrier, sometimes a portal, and sometimes a crucible, it was always the center of attention for the brave and the curious. And at the middle of the Mediterranean lay the island of Sicily.

For 2,500 years, civilization after civilization swept over Sicily, then receded – Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, the Angevins, the kingdoms of Aragon, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, and finally, the Bourbons as rulers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Gradually, the world turned its gaze toward other, farther horizons and Sicily slipped into obscurity. It received its first governing assembly since Norman rule in 1947.

What a place to roam. I applied to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Sicily in part to satisfy my curiosity about the island. I would meet other writers, sure, and I hoped to shake off the fecklessness that had affected my writing since my dad died in early April. I wanted to give my imagination something to work with. After the conference I would explore for two weeks, savor Sicily’s paradoxes, discover old beauties, feel the sun. Get the fuck out of New York City.

My friends, John and Greta, were eager to join me, but then their plans changed. I had booked two rooms in at least eight places, so rather than spend a day reorganizing the trip, I asked my daughter, Alice, if she had the time and inclination. Together, we could go on a big adventure. I could write and she could sketch and maybe something would develop. Say yes.

Seventy-four tunnels carve a coastal highway between Siracusa and Palermo. The road flows from light into darkness and back. Like a thread, it stitches together the blues and greens, the grays and golds of landscape onto the skirt of the Mediterranean. Like a thread, it twines through the labyrinth of history. Alice and I covered tremendous ground. No lesson is learned without exertion. What a great time we had.


Sicily – October 8, 2015

The last leg. I decide we will take the long way along the coast via Messina rather than the inland way via Enna. Once we’re underway, our spirits lighten. It’s autostrada all the way. As we approach Catania, Mount Etna appears in the distance, purple and partly wrapped in clouds. It’s the largest active volcano in Europe. The closer we get the more its slopes swell, its vastness increasing in width, not height. Subsidiary cones stride up the incline. The mountain is a great rock fact. A few minutes on, I nudge Alice to point out Italy. Across the Strait of Messina, just three kilometers, lies the continent of Europe. Then we bear sharply to the west and proceed toward along the Tyrrhenian Sea to Palermo.

Tunnel after tunnel after tunnel, around the next curve another goddamn tunnel. Some are barely more than underpasses. Some are disturbingly long and dark. One awful one has stretches of dripping walls, stalactites, wet pavement, and no illumination save the retreating red lights of the cars ahead. “Uh-oh,” I say, “Smell that? That’s definitely sulfur. This could spell our doom.”

We burst into the light. The Mediterranean to our right sings perfect scales of blue: there’s surf, too. To our left, green mountains and limestone promontories lean forward and back. “I love this,” says Alice.

Our gas gauge has slipped into the red. Few things are as intense to me as running on empty. Blessedly, a service area appears. That gives me an idea. “Let’s take the car back this afternoon. It will save us hassling with getting in and out of Palermo, especially tomorrow morning at the crack.” Dad is brilliant. Dad never wants to see the Fiat again. Except there’s a traffic jam as we skirt Palermo. A fucking maintenance crew trimming greenery blocks two lanes. At rush hour.

We settle into our third hotel in Palermo, the Centrale Palace. I book a cab to the airport for six o’clock in the morning and reserve a table at the rooftop restaurant. Alice knocks at my door at five to eight, and there she is in a dress. This has been the best trip ever.




Sicily – October 7, 2015

Our hotel is on the island of Ortygia, where Neolithic remains have been found, marking the first settlement as thousands of years ago. Two bridges link the island to Siracusa proper. A number of very early Greek temple ruins are scattered throughout. Later Greek and Roman works can be found on the mainland in the Neapolis Archeological Park, a large theater and a sacrificial alter built by Greeks, a great amphitheater constructed around the time of Christ by the Romans, and fascinating quarries from which all the stone to build the city was drawn.

Today feels like it’s going to be a grunt. Still, I enjoy my ridiculous shower. It won’t matter: the sun’s ablaze. Alice and I have been working this traveler thing so hard, our nerve and our stamina are a little on the frayed side. Electing to drive to Neapolis means electing to find parking there. Therein lies the bitches’ quandary. Park where, wiseguy? Where do we drop the fucking Fiat? It turns out there’s a dude with a beard providing guidance to those opting for a roadside slot.

As has been typical of many of these archeological sites, nothing is what it seems. The ticket booth has been moved to a dusty patch of nowhere at the far end of  the pavilion of sixty-five bazillion trinkets. This dislocation does not bode well. They don’t ask for this ticket until you’re well within the park. The Greek theater is enormous. It dates from the 5th century BCE, though much restored and rebuilt over successive millennia, for example the ruins of the stageworks date from Roman times. A terrace dedicated to the Muses rings the top seats and a noisy torrent called La Grotta del Ninfeo spills from a cavity. The gush drowns out a wildly gesticulating tour guide, standing before a group of frying Germans. We don’t exactly know what we’re looking at half the time, but I have a reserve of guidebook factoids at my disposal and I’m not afraid to toss them around.

Alice and I wander the site, dodging into pockets of shades, while perspiring with reckless abandon. The quarries make for a cool-ish and otherworldly environment, sheer limestone walls, lush greenery, befuddled tourists. The most intriguing feature of this sunken area is called Orecchio di Dionisio, The Ear of Dionysius, so named by Caravaggio himself for its peculiar echoes. As we enter there’s a hubbub and we hear repeated calls of “Achtung” mit corresponding echo as a guide attempts to get her group’s attention.

After many cul-de-sacs and pointless exploratories, Alice and I find ourselves consuming adequate pizza and wondering how the fuck we would locate the antiquities museum four blocks away. This means finding another fucking parking space. But at least there’s a landmark to guide us. The Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime.

In 1953, a plaster bas-relief plaque of Our Lady of Fatima given to a young Siracusan couple as wedding present began to shed tears. A great to-do ensued. After much ecclesiastical scrutiny, the miracle was deemed genuine enough that a huge church was constructed. It is shaped much like a tepee and is visible for miles. I didn’t set foot inside the thing, but, man, do I have a lot to say.

Antiquities ‘R Us. The ingresso to this treasure house is obscure, hidden by trees and underbrush, not the shiny ticket booth, but the plywood one, and how about a front door, is that too much to ask for? Inside is a trove of shards and TMI in Italian. Case after case of what the two of us have come to call ‘action figures’; little goddess figurines used as votive offerings to the real goddess. There was some lovely statuary, a beautiful, unidealized Venus in particular, a Roman copy of a Greek original and a small but mesmerizing bronze athlete. The collection contains many wonderful things, but is way too cluttered. An editor would help and a little curatorial self-esteem.

We had parked in a strange limbo zone and stood around cluelessly, then almost got sucked into a poor German woman’s search for catacombs. She dithered and we bolted. When we return, the Fiat remains stalwart in its solitude. Back at the Hotel Livingston, footsore and crabby, the only thing that could possibly restore us is gelato. The Concierge points us in a direction. We pass by the Fontana di Artemide, Ortygia’s hub, and easily find delicious ice cream. “Hey, Alice, I think the Duomo is a mere block or two that way. Let’s go find it. It’s a Norman church built around the columns of the Temple of Athena.”

Here is a nuanced, yet factual, tidbit from its auto-translated Wiki page. During the terrible 1693 earthquake that leveled several towns in eastern Sicily, including much of Syracuse, the Duomo but remained standing, and despite its Norman façade was destroyed, its internal structure, including columns of the temple greek, remained Hello.

It is altogether fitting that our last sight is a spectacular amalgam of Greek and Norman with a Baroque façade. This is exactly what Sicily is about. On this island, history has many overlays, many variations. We will be forever enchanted.

Sicily – October 6, 2015

I’m up at dawn’s crack and inspired to explore Noto in the early morning sun, camera in hand. The glow is magic. Few people are about, the old men beginning to cluster to gossip and smoke and the buskers beginning to hawk their ugly inflated pigs and tennis balls on elastic.

The beautiful buildings on Noto’s main avenue, which has three names in the course of a single kilometer, stand suffused with golden light and uninfested by midday’s dithery tourists. The grand staircase to the Duomo is empty. Most intriguing to me is the theater, a 300-seat hall built around the time of the Unification. It will open at ten o’clock. I pass a vintage store with a couple of captivating baubles in the window. When I get back to the hotel, there’s a message from Ali saying she needs a couple more hours’ sleep.

That gives me plenty of time to caffeinate at my leisure and noodle with the website. It’s nice to push off slowly. I’m all packed. The hotel will let us deposit our luggage in a corner of the breakfast room, where I then sit watching Italian pop music videos. The most memorable one involves a young woman dressed in tin foil wandering around an empty hospital while a creepy hipster dude sings into the camera. Alice appears. We drink coffee on the terrace that looks over the roofs of Noto to the hills beyond. She smokes. And off we go, to Teatro Tina di Lorenzo. It is small and it is grand, with a red velvet curtain in a gold proscenium, 72 red plush orchestra seats, three tiers of boxes, and a peanut gallery. Trompe l’oeil plasterwork covers the ceiling. Only a few theaters in Sicily run a full season of programming: Teatro Lorenzo in one.

Though it’s grown pretty steamy, Alice and I opt for déjeuner sous ficus benjamina, hoping for a wee breeze. We both order pizzas, and when they come, lean back in our chairs, groaning, “Oh, this is too much.” Too much, indeed. We clean our plates.

Our directions are straightforward, but, once off the highway and pointed into Siracusa, the hoops necessary to jump through in order to reach our hotel are medieval. If I make a misstep, the plan gets thrown into the digital hopper and we’re in ‘recalibration’ limbo. The Testy Travelers finally arrive.

A grumpy, late-afternoon exploration of Siracusa is undertaken after a quasi-restorative nap and shower in this bizarro Jacuzzi orgasmatron thing, a glass person-size cylinder with nozzles everywhere and a digital fucking dashboard. . We locate the remaining stones of the temple of Apollo and the amazing freshwater spring, mythologically ascribed to the nymph Arethusa who made the mistake of bathing in the wrong river god’s river. To avoid his aggressive attentions, she dove into the Ionian Sea, resurfacing in Sicily. The smitten deity stalked her, whereupon the goddess Artemis turned her into a spring. The spring is right at the seawall, where it gushes into the sea from a pool of papyrus and koi. Lord Nelson, whose Sicilian adventures mostly involved courting Lady Hamilton, supplied his fleet there before the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

Dinner at the Hotel Livingston is not good, but not having to make a decision was.

Sicily – October 5, 2015

There’s a short circuit somewhere. My MacBook vibrates as if its aluminum surface were alive. Electricity seems to leak out of everything in Sicily. Yet, is my personal energy source recharged? I think not, despite a night of well-deserved sleep. I feel sorry for the parents in equal measure to bitter personal privation.

Alice and I meet for breakfast and contemplate a slow start. No hurry. Destination – Noto. A stop on the way in Ragusa is the planned. Lunch, perhaps; gelato, certainly. First, we collect her laundry, releasing her from t-shirt sink washing and gamy trouser wearing. Her pants come back damp and linty. Villa Trigona has been a very pleasant inn, and probably on weekdays would be baby-free. Genial men from Afghanistan and South Sudan work long days at the inn in every capacity. I’m terribly curious, but can’t get up the nerve to attempt an awkward conversation through a convoluted language barrier.

Alice’s satellite of remote authority insists we drive the most direct possible way: it doesn’t take into account the perils inherent in its single-mindedness. Automotive vulnerability is a given on these Sicilian byways.

Ragusa has two parts, unlike Gaul. We are compelled to negotiate the unprepossessing, hectic, and sprawling Ragusa Superiore in order to enter the enchantment of Ragusa Ibla, the old town. Walking around the twisting cobblestone streets and stairways to heaven is deliciously disorienting. The sun sheds magic photons on the tile-roofed houses and uplifts the magnificence of Duomo di San Giorgio. We cap it off with an exquisite gelati in the piazza at the foot of the Duomo.

At last, we come to rest in Noto, in the southeast corner of the island. This citta is the apotheosis of Sicilian Baroque architecture. After the catastrophic earthquake of 1693, Noto (Antica) was abandoned and rebuilt 14 kilometers away, according to a pleasing grid pattern. The new construction used the local honey-colored tufa, a porous form of limestone. Noto is universally referred to as il giardino di pietra, the garden of stone.

Getting the fucking Fiat parked requires the not unfamiliar contortions, but once we’re settled at the Hotel Porta Reale, a stroll up the luminous main thoroughfare has us muttering and cooing and not taking photos. The Porta Reale is a triumphal arch built in the 19th century to honor their visiting ruler, Ferdinand the Second, King of the Two Sicilies. It features the three sculpted symbols of Noto, a tower for strength, a dog for loyalty, and a pelican for self-sacrifice. The pelican’s a head-scratcher. The hotel reserves us a table at a trattoria. I order far too much food. A group of three dashingly gay gentlemen sitting behind us have elaborately garnished cocktails delivered from some other bar. Certamente.

Sicily – October 4, 2015

So, the two of us could not be more stellar examples of the resilience of human consciousness. Down to breakfast at eight o’clock, and parked and through the gate at Villa Romana del Casale by 9:15. This 3rd century Roman hunting lodge has the most extensive and magnificent mosaic floors in the world. The site was covered by a mudslide and largely forgotten for centuries, then sporadically excavated since the 1800s. Beginning in the 1950s, the splendid art was brought to light, one room after another.

Alice isn’t fully awake, but her orienteering skills are unimpeded. Though we follow a bus with big load of evil through the gate, we are but the third car in the parking lot. I have been warned about the attraction this place has for buses. Plus, personal experience has shown that the early bird often gets an experience unencumbered by jabbering assholes. And because it’s Sunday, the site is free.

The building’s foundation has been partially enclosed, protecting the floors from the elements. It can snow in Sicily: we’ve seen traffic signs with a tire and two snowflakes, so we know. Wandering along the catwalks, deciphering the goofily translated documentation, and peering at antic or ferocious animals, frolicking putti, and kaleidoscopic geometries, we butt into the slowpoke group of tourists getting the English-language lowdown from a voluble Sicilian lady. We tag along, semi-unobtrusively. Sponge-like we absorb info we’ll likely forget in 90 minutes. The building’s centerpiece, the long Corridor of the Great Hunt depicts the capture and transport of wild beasts; African critters on one half and Indian on the other, in other words, giraffes and lions, elephants and tigers, in minute and careful detail. The drama and sheer narrative drive of the images is remarkable and nearly impossible to leave.

The parking lot is full when we amble back to the car. With a Coke and a croissant in hand, we are ready to tackle anything. Morgantina is a dozen kilometers away. The ancient Greek town was at its peak during the time of Christ and was the last community in Sicily to fall to the Romans in 211. It’s situated high on a long ridge and suggests what a large agricultural center might look like. Grass and wildflowers cover the site, giving it a feeling of lushness and life. Golden stone set in green under a gray Sicilian sky.

Morgantina’s fame rests on its spectacular treasures, looted in the 1970s and 80s and recently repatriated after much bickering. These include a hoard of sixteen pieces of gilded silver and three acroliths of goddesses. And, wouldn’t you know it, the silver and two of the goddesses have gone on tour. They won’t be at the Museo Archeologico in Aidone. The larger than life statue of Persephone or perhaps Demeter is still there and still commanding. An acrolith, by the way, is a statue whose head and arms are marble, while the corpus is wood or limestone. The Met in New York had purchased the silver hoard and for some reason, it has returned for a visit. Disappointed, yes, but there’s a story here.

Aidone seems pretty deserted this Sunday afternoon, but when we order a slice of pizza and an espresso at a café, the couple with last night’s caterwauling baby are sitting right next to us. This compels us to fixate on the mysteries of Italian television and eat a kilo of cookies. It’s time to admit that each of us is whipped, done in by travel.

Alice guides us to Villa Trigona the back way. “The way we were supposed to go yesterday, Dad.” It requires the traversing of a fifty-yard puddle. We generate a little, muddy Fiat wake. There’s a fucking car behind, so onward. Up to our gunwales!

We enjoy another excellent rustic meal with the grumpy, old people from Hoboken on one side and the sweet newlyweds from London on the other. The crazed baby seems to have exhausted its repetoire. Pray for us.

Sicily – October 3, 2015

Today’s major question is: Do we stop in Enna on the way to Piazza Armerina? Well, no. We’ve a three-hour majestic journey ahead of us and downtime feels more necessary than seeing another fucking beautiful thing/building/vista. So, after a scramble along the rocks in front of Cefalu’s seawall and fortified with strange pizza, we call for the car and hie our bunny asses outta there.

According to Google and her Maps, the route follows a four-lane motorway for the bulk of the way, though there appears to be a kerfuffle somewhere midway, a detour. The landscape varies constantly and abruptly, from cliff-hugging stark ruggedness to rich patchwork farmland adorned with wind turbines. Neither Alice nor I can fathom what the occasional traffic sign of a windsock means, but whoever shouts “Windsock!” first, wins. When we saw a real fucking windsock fluttering on the shoulder of the road, we could only glance at one another and whisper – ‘windsock.’

The detour commences. This is another case of Everything Happens For No Reason. We veer into a village for no reason, double back on ourselves incomprehensibly, speed across a one-lane metal bridge disregarding the stoplight, and, sweet Jesus, where’s the escape velocity incline? Ahhhhh. Up we go! The road has been scored for traction purposes. It doesn’t appear to deviate from a straightaway, yet it must either crest somewhere above or disappear into the clouds on its way to infinitum. Finally, the foolishness ends. We may have altitude sickness to look forward to, but at least we didn’t run out of gas, I mean, benzina.

Enna passes us by, with its formidable Lombard castle looking impregnable and far away. Alice manoeuvres us through Piazza Armerina to our respite for the next two nights – Villa Trigona, a rustic country inn. They are cordial and everything couldn’t be more accommodating. Until the baby begins to cry and carry on. In the late afternoon, tossing on my bed, I smell the reassurance of homecooking. For 25 euros, they’ll serve dinner. We enlist.

At dinner, we chat with a bashful married couple from England, the first people other than ourselves that we’ve spoken with. The meal seems endless and satisfies completely. I bid Alice goodnight. The baby. Its wailing intensifies and reverberates, bouncing off the tile floors and stucco walls. It begins to feel like its happening right in my room. The crying starts. The crying stops. The crying starts. The TV mumbles. Finally, I play into the hands of exhaustion.

Sicily – October 2, 2015

I have to check to see that the Fiat is still there, still intact, out in plain sight in the Sicilian night. I fret, okay? The Palazzo dei Normanni lies at the opposite end of Via Vittorio Emanuele at the highest point of the old city. It served as the royal palace during the brief Norman rule. The Normans conquered Sicily in 1072, just six years after dealing decisively with the English. One hundred years later, they were gone. Palermo’s crown jewel, and perhaps of all Sicily’s, is the Palatine Chapel, built by Roger II (William II’s granddad) in a fantastic amalgam of Arab, Norman, and Byzantine styles.

Along the way, we must pay homage to the Fountain of Shame, because it is so grand and so silly. A couple hundred yards further on, a great square opens in front of the Palermo’s Cathedral, commenced in 1185 by that pain-in-the-ass Walter of the Mill, the guy who prompted the construction of glorious Monreale. It combines elements of many stylistic influences of its time with additions of later eras, but is primarily remarkable for being huge. Kings are buried there, but as we know so well – dead people is free from pain. Alice and I sit and catch our breath.

Further on, the imposing Porto Nuova straddles Via Vittorio Emanuele, built to celebrate a victory over Tunis in the 16th century. We tiptoe through. The Palazzo dei Normanni is to the right, and typically seems to have no front door. When Ali and I do find the entrance, we’re informed that the Cappella Palatina will be closed until 12:30. Tickets are bought nevertheless, because we’re here and because so what. In minutes we discover the reason: a bride. All is well. In the meantime, we can examine the Royal Apartments, which turn out to be a series of stiff ceremonial rooms. The Sicilian legislative assembly meets there.

Killing time is never efficient. The bookstore holds no charm, so joining the hubbub on the grand staircase becomes our default. Sometime after 12:30, wedding guests begin to depart, and finally, the bride looking transcendent and clutching in one hand what looks like a bunch of asparagus and, in the other, her groom in full military dress with sword. Smiling that on-another-planet newlywed smile, they make their way through the crowd. Spontaneous joyful applause!

Now if you goin’ to the chapel and you’re gonna get meh-eh-arried, the Cappella Palatina would be the one to go to. It is a claustrophobically fabulous, golden chamber, apsed and domed, with biblical vignettes and saints galore, also griffins and lions and peacocks and palms. But it’s a chapel and the milling multitude drains any magic away. A wedding ceremony must have been too too fine.

Our mission in Palermo has been accomplished and the Fiat’s still there, so it’s on to Cefalu. We round a curve to confront the chamber of commerce picture of the town. The twin-spired Norman Cattedral lording over red tiled neighborhoods, while a tremendous headland called La Rocca lords over all. To our amazement and delight a low-arcing rainbow covers the town, from La Rocca over the Duomo, dipping finally into the sea. It is a swath of joy and unphotographable.

Let the games begin. Our designated hotel has off-site parking. Cefalu’s a no-auto zone. We find the parking lot to be gated and are mystified, so maybe if we locate the hotel all will resolve itself. Hotel La Plumeria whizzes (at 3 km/hr) by. I am driving in zona negativo. I barely squeeze by some walls, miraculous turns get made, I plunge down one-way vias the wrong way, fifteen-point turns are accomplished. I’m going to scrap the door or peel off one of the side-view mirrors; I know I am. Finally, back at the parking lot, we call the hotel. Brilliant, fucking brilliant. If you want to know, the access code is 3146 enter. It swings open like the Pearly Fucking Gates will never do. We are shuttled to La Plumeria. Stability becomes a possibility. Take a shower. The sights and sites of Cefalu stay open until seven o’clock.

The Duomo, the Cathedral of Cefalu is mere paces away. Above the apse, a magnificent mosaic depiction of Christ Pantocrator spreads beneficence. This is a common Greek image of Christ the Righteous Judge and the Lover of Mankind, his left hand holds the open Gospel and his right gesturing in a blessing. The nave has recently been shorn of its baroque accretions, which allows the image to fill the great room. I’m an atheist but I can respond to an act of faith as well as anybody. The less said about the attached cloister, the better. And, of course, there was another bride. Before we entered the cathedral Alice and I bore witness to her grand descent to the piazza below. I picked up off the stones a small white mesh bag with the remnants of green and white rice.

Down a narrow street off the cathedral’s piazza we search for Museo Mandralisca, home to one 19th century polymath’s remarkable ‘cabinet of objects.’ Among the various things, the Museo houses one great masterpiece, early Renaissance Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man. Also in the collection is the funniest piece of Greek painting I’ve ever seen, a redware krater depicting a tuna-monger and an animated fish buyer.


Sicily – October 1, 2015

Today’s a travel day, devoted to getting from the south side of the island to the north. When I was to be traveling with my Arizona friends, this is when we would have parted, at the airport early tomorrow morning. Rather than cancel and rebook when they dropped out and Alice joined, I kept the itinerary. So back to Palermo for a night. This will give us the opportunity to see more of Palermo, for example, the fine antiquities museum with treasures from the ancient sites we’ve just been to. Most particularly, I want to visit the Norman palace and the Palatine Chapel.

Anyway, this is but bullshit rationalization for the semi-unnecessary cross-island schlep. We wake to rain, big fat drops. We set our sights on reaching Mussomeli for lunch. Mussomeli, just a bit off the beaten path, has a striking keep, Castello Manfredonico, perched, there’s no other word, precariously upon an enormous limestone outcropping. The castle is said to be haunted by the ghosts of three sisters who were walled into a small room by their brother when he went off to war. ‘For their own good,’ the story goes. Though he left them with plenty of food and water, he was delayed, and when he returned he found the corpses of the unfortunate women and the half-eaten soles of their shoes. Hell, I’d be pretty haunty, too.

Alice’s guidance is spot on, however, once we’ve turned off the highway, I make a wrong turn and we’re forced to recalibrate. She says we’re good. The Fiat commences twisting upward through a medieval town, forever nameless. “Turn right in no meters,” she barks. I obey, and suddenly we’re catapulting upward at an angle like being strapped to an Atlas rocket. The pavement is cobblestone. I floor it. Escape velocity! Did I just stall out/slip backwards? There’s no time for an ‘uh-oh’. We make it. Ha! A level place at a cross street. But Jesus Christ, another incline? Alice, what? And another. And another. I’m leaning into the steering wheel while Alice has flattened herself against the back of her seat. We’re both hollering, not unlike the Millennium Falcon inside that space worm thing.

Then, as if we’ve broken through cloud cover, we reach the rarefied atmosphere of Mussomeli. The weather’s still grim, but a recommended restaurant should be nearby. Alice has been guiding us here all along. The door’s open, we walk in. I can’t help but believe in whatever mojo has brought us to this restaurant called Divinity. The chef/proprietor looks a bit surprised, probably at our ashen faces. Watching us stare hopelessly at the menu, he suggests spaghetti carbonara. “E insalata mista,” I chime in. It is a perfect meal. Some of the tension slips away.

Before we begin our descent, it is absolutely mandatory to document this fucking castle, which just happens to be closed for a three-hour midday whatever. Done. Please God, not back the way we came. Alice gets us back to terra firma, but not without suffering the nausea that comes from reading a handheld device on hair-raising mountain roads. The rest of the trip spools out calmly, though our highway is a work in progress, forcing us to submit every so often to the Italian version of a flagman, a stoplight.

We cruise into Palermo and down Via Vittorio Emanuele to our hotel, a slick venue. They would park the car for a fee, but suggest a free spot on the embankment. We clean up and meet for a walk to the Museo Archeologico Regionale. Its front door is where its back door should be, plus it’s not really open. Just a few cursory exhibits, as the museum is reimagining its collection. Oh, well. Let’s have dinner and go to sleep. Fuck this day.


Sicily – September 30, 2015

We are the Testy Travelers. The bed had no right side.

And Agrigento, the ruin, is a damn confounding site, with three parking lots and daunting changes in elevation. The Via Sacra and its string of temples and necropolises drop over a hundred meters in the course of two kilometers. Neither conventional maps nor new-fangled electronics can make head or fucking tail of this. There’s a parking lot at the top and one at the bottom and a mystery one somewhere near the theoretical museum. I’d like to park at the top and walk down. It seems sensible, and ever more sensible the less achievable it becomes. My ability to communicate to Alice is compromised by my misguided belief in my inner GPS, my impromptu heedlessness on the road, and my inability to speak in complete sentences. Finally we land at the downside lot, not exactly fuming but vibrating. For three euros per person, one can hire a cab to the top of the site. Oh.

Once at the top, we find ourselves at the threshold of the Temple of Giunone (Juno). No one knows for sure to what deity most of these temples were dedicated, but I only have to say, “Giunone,” with conviction. And if I hold the tips of my fingers together and gesture emphatically, I am invincibly declarative. “Giunone.” Juno’s home base in Agrigento surveys fertile countryside and horizonless blue. It is largely intact, meaning the columns and architrave and pediments have been reassembled. The material used is a soft, golden sandstone that emits warmth and light. In the day it was coated with stucco, patches of which remain. There’s quite a bit of milling at the feet of Giunone, but as soon as we embark on our stroll down the Via Sacra the crowd thins out.

Alice and I happily let gravity pull us along. Eroded burial niches punctuate the panorama of the Mediterranean in a picturesque manner as we ease our way along the wide and dusty thoroughfare to the Temple of Concord at the midpoint. We’re starting to find our fellow tourists more interesting than the monuments of the ancient ones. Possible antiquity saturation. It’s not seen-one-seen-‘em-all, but after the tenth temple or so, familiarity, compounded by the absence of any depth of knowledge, renders the experience a little dry. And there’s the usual fixation on lunch. At the lower terminus of the Via, clusters of foundations and column groupings dedicated to the Chthonic deities recharge the imagination. Chthonic is a great word used to denote the gods of the earth, but not in strict opposition to the Olympian crew. Hades – yes. Demeter and Persephone – sort of.

It’s time to go get the car and attempt to find the parking lot at the Museo Archeologico. Up and down, back and forth. At last, Alice’s GPS draws a bead on the parking lot. It’s free. The Museum is filled to the rafters with shards and reassembled items just missing that telling shard. Of special note – in the subterranean numismatic chambers, silver coins featuring the spirit animals of Agrigento, the golden eagle and the river crab, and a gold horde of Roman coins from the Second Punic War (that one), and nearby, a two-story human figure, a telamon, not a caryatid which is load-bearing, that stood between columns of the Temple of (we conjecture) Zeus.

We’re dying here. Gotta find something to eat. There’s a guy waving to us at the lot’s gate, ‘One euro!’ but we bolt without paying and head up the hill where spaghetti lies. Our luck is right on. The Trattoria dei Templi has divine mixed seafood and a rich cavatelli, as well as death-dealing semifreddo pistacchio and sorbetto limone.

Returning to our polished but weird hotel, we discover the busload of Chinese has been replaced by a busload of Germans. Things should quiet down.