Friday, May 05, 2006

from Baglio Fontanasalsa: averting danger (or: how to write a very very long post without really trying)

We are in Sicily to hike. That is why we came here. Moving between three farmsteads with rooms to let, positioned in key regions where the terrain is rugged, beautiful and underappreciated, we are to give ourselves a truly rural adventure.

I would not have thought, when planning this week of hiking, eating, more eating and more hiking, that I would ever write the following, but I say this with dead earnestness: today I came closest to experiencing the most dangerous situation of my life. There were several tricky twists to this day, but most certainly, it was at the end of it that I faced a movie-worthy moment of near terror. Read on and tell me if you don’t agree.

Such a benign beginning! We return to the Palermo airport to pick up one of those fantastically smart cars. They are called that – Smart cars. I think they’re supposed to virtually travel on air rather than gas, which is a good thing, because gas is topping $7 per gallon here.

Europe 06 Sicily 012

We head toward Zingaro Nature Reserve. I gave my traveling companion, Ed, a book on hikes from these regions, but if you tell Ed that someone recommends a set of trails, he’ll head with enthusiasm toward that area, but then completely ignore any suggestion on how to proceed. This is a man who likes to invent his own wheel, a man who has hiked and sailed solo far too many times to work with anything but his own maps, setting his own course.

Of course, a stop at a sleeping village for lunch food is molto importante. Siesta means siesta here, but a local grocer defies the norm and sells us fantastic tomatoes and strawberries.

Europe 06 Sicily 013

Europe 06 Sicily 005

We add these to bread, cheese, olives, several bottles of water and we’re set. Okay, we’re set after I make us take a cappuch break (I'm catching on to the lingo, truly!).

Europe 06 Sicily 010

We reach the Reserve by two, Ed finds a ranger, gets himself a map and we’re off.

And it is breathtakingly beautiful. The plan appears to be to stay with a lower coastal trail in one direction, then climb up to the top of the ridge and head back. Estimated hike time: five hours.

Europe 06 Sicily 015
the beginning

Europe 06 Sicily 016

Europe 06 Sicily 027
along the coast, an abandoned farmstead

Europe 06 Sicily 037
rock flowers

Europe 06 Sicily 053
fennel everywhere

Ed and I balance each other. He is happy to carry the day pack, I am happy to carry my camera. He is steady and forceful on climb up, I am wiry and spry on the downhill stretch.

There seem to be more uphill than downhill stretches.

Having done the coastal run, we start heading up. Initially energetic, I start to pant now.
Ed, we are heading straight, up! I am sweating in my tank top, I have nothing more to remove. Ed, the sun has disappeared, we are heading into the clouds! Ed, it is near five, shouldn’t we stop for lunch?

Ed is reluctant to stop. I notice half way up the hill that his initial amusement with me is disappearing. He has turned serious. And now the balance of anxiety has shifted.

Nina, we should not stop until we reach the top. Nina, we may have to turn around. Nina, we cannot work these rocky paths after dark. I may have underestimated the length of the trail. If we can’t see where we’re going, we’ll have to sleep in a ditch until it is light again.

Sleep in a ditch? I have a beautiful farm stay set for tonight! I want a bottle of Sicilian wine with pasta and a grilled something or other, followed by desert. I want a shower and more water than we’re carrying!

At five, we reach the top and pause for ten minutes to eat. It is stunning up here. A few ancient stone huts where cattle are herded, flowers filling meadows and rock crevices, old olive and almond trees and the sea below – magnificent.

Europe 06 Sicily 057

Europe 06 Sicily 073
lunch spot

Europe 06 Sicily 076

But the note of concern remains. So now I play the role of the spirited one.
Ed, we’ll be back in the car by 8, I know it. We’re virtually flying up here.
Nina, it is a long long hike down. Nina, that bull looks ready to charge you. Please back away with your camera!

Europe 06 Sicily 068

We move on. I sing. It’s what I do when a physical challenge presents itself. I am cold and sweaty, I am covered with Sicilian dust, but I am absolutely thrilled by the scenery, the fragrant smells of chamomile and rosemary.

Europe 06 Sicily 088

And I get to say those favorite words that Ed and I like to toss between each other: I was right. We make it to the car by 8.

In the lot, Ed studies the map. We need to find the farmstead. A lonely trekker comes up to us. Have you seen a woman out there on the upper ridge trail? She is walking by herself, she has red hair. No, sorry, no one up there at all. A few cows, one small group coming down, that’s it. He is plainly worried. How do you look for a lost hiker? The ranger is there as well. I know there will be a search that evening.

We drive to our farm. It is getting dark. Road markings here are either very good or very not good. There is no inbetween. We get completely utterly lost.

It is close to 10 and we are driving randomly, up one road, down the next. Houses with tightly closed shutters, no sign of life within, without. How could this happen? I printed directions, bought maps. But it’s no use. Somehow I took a wrong turn early on and everything after was a series of corrections that failed to correct the basic problem of being lost.

I am laughing now. My daughters call it That Nervous Laugh. It verges on hysteria, I suppose. Oh, I know we can find a place to sleep. But hopes of food are fading. And there is, of course, that image of the lovely farmstead, the photos of which I pulled off the Net.

I am driving slowly now, looking for any sing of a farm with rooms to let. I pass a slow moving police car but I do not know how to stop it. Hey, why is there a slow moving police car here in the middle of nowhere? Where the hell are we anyway? Oh, in Sicily, that’s right.

Finally, I see a dirt driveway. It seems to lead to some place deep in a grove of olive trees. I follow it, because in the distance I see car lights. Maybe there will be a farm around the bend? At least we can ask for directions. It’s the first sign of life in these dark deserted roads. Okay, no farmhouse, but a car. I pull up along side. A man rolls down his window. I do as well. I ask in my best Italian – do you know where the Baglio Fontanasalsa is? He stares absolutely incredulously at me, stunned into silence. He gets out of the car, glaring now, then changes his mind, gets back inside, still in utter silence. I am confused. Ed says, quietly: turn around and leave.

It’s a tight spot. The man rolls down the window again, but I am no longer playing this game. I try to move the car in the narrow spot. He turns on the engine and pulls away before me. Eventually I move down the dirt tracks as well. I pull out onto the main road and turn toward the village. In the rear view mirror, I see that another car is now pulling into that same dark path. Seconds, that’s all that separated me from coming upon something that clearly was not intended for public viewing. And I am alive to write a post about it. Amazing.

The day has the stamp of good fortune. The bull did not charge me, the trail did not exhaust me, the Mafia did not shoot me, and eventually a kind soul, out for a breath of night air, directed me to the most beautiful farmstead I have ever seen.

It’s managed by the wife of the man who makes wines and olive oil for a living and is very successful at it. We arrive just as the kitchen is about to close down for the night and several other guests are eating their last crumbs of cake. The wife insists that the cook stay an extra hour and we are served heaven. Pizza breads, pasta, grilled meats and eggplant, cake, accompanied by their wine.

Europe 06 Sicily 105

Europe 06 Sicily 109
first course

Europe 06 Sicily 110
second course

Europe 06 Sicily 112
sweet course

We don’t just eat, we wolf down the food and drain several bottles of wine and water (mostly water, I hope). An older man, sitting with someone whom I am guessing is a distant relative comes over. He hands us a plate of spice cookies and chocolates with a wine-infused ganache. It’s for you, he says. I like watching you eat here. Let me pour you some more wine, on the house. It is my house, my wine.

And he refills our glasses.

That is my last recollection from the day. It appears that sometime after I made my way to bed.

Europe 06 Sicily 114
olive grower, wine maker


  1. You're killing me with these stories and photos. Will you and Ed be my tourguides someday? The best trips are the ones during which you almost die.

  2. Wow! I'm glad you made it! I had a dream about a bull last night, strangely. How dangerous are those things?

  3. I think it will take a while for my heart rate to slow down! I was very worried, reading about you driving around Sicily at night, completely lost. What a relief that you made it to your farmstead!

    And now I totally want to move to Italy, because it is so beautiful and the food looks incredible.

  4. Wow!! Another adventure. Your pictures and sotry make it seem that I am walking the hills with you. You are TERRIFIC!!

  5. *phew*

    What a story! Glad you both found your way to (good) food, water, wine, and shelter.

  6. While you're in Sicily, please do not sit with your back to the door when you eat in restaurants. I don't want to read about any more near-death experiences during your travels. It makes me nervous for you.

  7. Thanks, all. Do assume that if I miss a day of posting, it's because of my Internet issues (every day presents computer problems, but those are too boring to write about), it will not be because of guns, bulls or storms. I don't think.

  8. That olive-stuffed sandwich looks like a cartoon character!


I welcome comments, but I will not publish submissions that insult or demean, or that are posted anonymously. I am sorry to lose commenting Ocean friends who are not registered, but I want to encourage readers to submit remarks only if they feel they can stand behind their words. I do not seek a free-for-all here. I like camaraderie far more than conflict.