Saturday, May 06, 2006

from Baglio Spano: mountain towns, coastal villages and farmsteads; olive groves and Sicilian oranges; windmills and boats; vineyards and poppy fields

There, I’ve kept the text brief for those in a hurry. The day is in the title.

The morning is devoted to, well, posting. Perpetual Internet access challenges will only be on the rise as the next two farms do not even have phones, making even old reliable dial-up a thumbs down option.

By noon I am done. Yes, it takes time, yes Ed is patient, yes I do not mind sacrificing sleep for it.

We ask for a walk through the olive oil making operation at the farm. The Baglio Fontanasala where we spent the night apparently makes some award winning (aka damn good) olive oils. Ed is now carrying a bottle for me to have back home. Sometimes it pays to travel with a guy who fits two weeks’ worth of clothes into one little baggie (or so it seems).

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We leave the olives and oranges of Fontanasalsa and, in the middle of a cloudburst, make our way up up up to Erice – a medieval town perched high, atop a mountain. Certo, it is terribly fun driving up the winding road, as water and mud cascade around you and you spend the minutes-seems-like-hours explaining that indeed, you do have vertigo, but no, you do not want to stop and hand over the driving to your traveling companion because you do not like his habit of taking the hands off the wheel – something that just does not work on snaky roads that haven't an inch of straightness about them.

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at the top, fennel and a castle

Erice is dazzling. I would think that, sure. It is home to two best-in-Sicily pastry shops. And so we dispense with the stroll through the town quickly and make our way to both, where, consecutively we sample five pastries. That is correct, five in each. Yes, just between the two of us. For a total of ten pastries. [Okay, only two were full sized.]

Ed claims that they are all variations on the same almond theme. I don’t agree. Sure, when in doubt, guess almond paste and you’ll probably be right.

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all with almond

But the one that locals favor, the Genovesi (ask them to warm it up for you so that it oozes ricotta in your mouth), is actually a simple pastry around a cheese filling. Absolutely delicious. And I have no bones to pick with the almond ones either.

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warm, with ricotta

If you are going to build a medieval town on top of a mountain, you can expect that for hundreds, nay thousands of years thereafter, tourists will come, both for the architecture and the views. So it’s a sound investment. Guaranteed tourism and a source of revenue. More towns should try it.

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toward the hills on a hazy day

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toward the sea on a hazy day

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Erice, toward the top

Of course, early May is the off season. So that in spite of perfect temperatures and wonderful walking conditions (once the clouds burst and move on), you have the place pretty much to yourself. Except for a few locals who are far too busy engaging each other in conversation to pay much attention to you.

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expression: face, hands, words

A note on guidebooks

If I could, I would write a guidebook of the type I myself would want to have. It would have the small inns and guest rooms, sure, and the favorite local eating spots. And it would have listings of archeological and historical treasures somewhere toward the front. But the bulk would be on where to walk, drive, sit if you want to see life as lived by the people in the place you are in.

In western Sicily, it would describe the coastal villages as you head south along the water's edge toward Marsala (yes, THE Marsala, of the wine fame). It would mention the poppies that come together with vineyards and olive groves, creating colors that are best admired in the first week of May, when the greens are delicate and the reds brilliant and daring.

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right next to the farmhouse

And the salt fields. Certainly it would suggest that a drive to the salt fields is worth the trouble, so you wouldn’t just stumble upon them by accident, because of your backroads driving habits. I mean, there stand a series of old windmills, still draining beds that are then converted into sea salt sold the world over. Sicilian sea salt. Look for it.

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It would certainly suggest getting out of the car for a close up look at how men paint their boats, how in their complete friendliness, they tell you that no, orange is not the color of the boat, it is the base coat and it will be covered by a deep blue.

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nothing is done solo

And finally, it would mention the baglio we are now staying in and include an explanation that a baglio is a farmstead built around a square courtyard, and that it is found only in western Sicily so that even in the eastern part of the island people don’t know what the word means.

Wake up, Frommers, Fodors, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. You’ve got work to do.

A dirt road leads us to the first place on this trip where we are spending not one but three nights. So that I can finally unpack and put my feet up.

Tonight we are eating at the baglio because the young man that runs the place (it has been in his family for hundreds of years) feels like doing food. Other nights we can eat in Marsala, some 20 kilometers away. And what in between, during the day? Who knows. Probably looking for Internet connections. In a town that does business with the world, surely they will have points of access, wouldn’t you think?

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farmhouse dinner: antipasti

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Sicilian past: with artichokes, fennel, tomatoes

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at the end, local marsala