Tuesday, May 09, 2006

from Baglio Spano: the Sicilian way

[Monday post]

As I type the last words of yesterday’s post and watch the sun come up over the orange trees just outside the baglio, it strikes me that it is Sunday. In travel, time is measured by how many days are in front of you and how many have passed. Dates, days of the week are irrelevant. Until you realize that they are very relevant to everyone around you.

Sunday is not a work day here. Nothing that can be closed stays open. Internet points? Forget it.

We drive into Marsala just to make certain that someone somewhere hasn’t decided to rebel and open the door to the world of the Internet for the likes of me. And there we find the obvious. This is a day for pleasure, not for work. People, crowds of them, dressed with great care, are out for The Stroll, and maybe The Capucci’o (with pastry), nothing more. In groups, in pairs, in embrace, arms, hands linked in a physical demonstration of connectedness. It is jarring how different their world is from ours back home.

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Sunday stroll, 1

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Sunday stroll, 2

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Sunday stroll, 3

We interrupt our own hiking plans to join this sea of humanity. We stroll, we eat pastries.

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choosing the right one

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my choices

…And I ask with my best smile a hotel clerk downtown if I can, for a moment, use his computer for two minutes. Ocean is there, of course, but equally significantly, I cannot tear myself away from an email check. The world may implode and I can live without learning of it from the NYT or CNN, but email? That’s another matter. [In fairness to myself, I am anxious to hear from family members who are in the midst of a number of significant events back home.]

Thus, yet again, our hike is pushed to a later hour. It cannot be helped. La passagiata (the stroll), the café, and the drive through hill towns (you haven’t lived until you’ve driven a five foot six inch wide car – with a 900 Euro deductible for damage to it – through twisting five foot seven inch wide lanes), admiring the symmetry of grape vine fields – it all takes time.

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As if awakening from a siesta break, we finally abandon the car and start looking for the trail for this day at (please don’t laugh) 4 in the afternoon.

After realizing that this island is not full of recorded paths nor marked trails, Ed has succumbed to studying the printed word. He has lost himself to books and texts, poring over pages and pages of tourist matter to find the ideal path for the day.

On this Sunday, we are to climb a mountain that stands across the ravine from the Segesto Temple – possibly the most beautifully positioned ancient architectural wonder of the entire Mediterranean basin The goal is to view the temple from this more remote, neighboring peak, towering more than a thousand feet above the ravine.

The path begins by the creek and crosses over the water repeatedly before beginning the ascent. In places it is overgrown with shrubs, reeds and grasses. Ed reads this as I survey the terrain.
Ed, there is no path. What year is that book from?
It was “overgrown” in 1998? Let me tell you, it is “gone” in 2006. And the water level is, shall we say, “different” as well.

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overgrown, wet, rocky

But we are old and foolish and we think we can make it. The going is absolutely treacherous. Vertigo be damned, I can’t be bothered. I am climbing up a mudslide, while reeds, made wet from an afternoon shower, are marking up my bare legs and a short denim skirt is absolutely saturated with water.

Yes, you read it right. I am hiking in a short denim skirt. Why this most inappropriate attire? It’s like this: we go from hiking to eating. Everyone around me is dressed up. Women are wearing pointy shoes and jewels. I refuse to go to Sunday dinner in hiking jeans. So I compromise with a denim skirt, thinking, how hard can it be to hike in a denim skirt? Never again.

By the time we are half way up, we can catch glimpses of the Doric columns across the ravine.

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first view: looking up

It is inspiring. It makes us continue, up through the forest, up, climbing now between squat palms and sage brush, legs scratched to the core – until, three fourths of the way up, the path completely disappears.

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next view: eye level

And still we continue, cross country now, looking for any possible way to reach the top of the mountain. We read that there is a jeep track on the other side. The idea of descending through the ravine is absolutely horrifying and so we are determined to reach the summit, just find the track down. We are rewarded with this:

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slightly higher

Ed tells me later that the climb was absolutely too risky and should be eliminated from public consumption. But the view, oh the view!

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from the top, looking down

We return to Marsala for dinner at La Botega del Carmine – a simple trattoria, empty when we arrive at 9, packed by the time we leave at 11. The meal, Sicilian to the core (it’s sort of like taking Italian cooking and turning up the spices a notch), is fantastic: my pasta, with fish and eggplant is faultless. Next come huge prawns, steamed in their shells in a spicy broth. But it is always the antipasto tray that stands out. Mounds of variously spiced and grilled vegetables, calamari, salami, couscous in the center (a Sicilian bow to the continent across the sea) – it is a wonderful assortment of flavors.

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I eat and watch the families around me. Behind us, the mother takes into her lap her sleepy four year old daughter. She smiles at me. I am sure she can tell I am moving back in time to my own images of daughters in restaurants, in laps.

The two men that run the show at the Botega are determined to please us. At the close of dinner, they place bottles of grappa and herby liqueurs for us to sample. The room is charged with the music of Italian banter and laughter. A Sicilian Sunday. No work. Not today.

from Baglio Spano: the definition of late

[Sunday post]

A relative term. Late. Yes, you may show up beyond the hour set for a meeting and you will be late. But otherwise? It’s all in how you regard a day.

Take Saturday. Our daily hike was to be at a natural reserve some 30 – 40 kms to the south of our farm. Would you consider showing up at the entrance just a hair past 6 pm late? Maybe. Unless your day looked like this:

Up before sunrise. Sort through the dozens of photos from the previous day, play with them. The sun comes up, the world is pink. You stop for a farm breakfast, do some laundry in the sink, hang it up on the balcony clothes line to dry. You are like one of the locals – clothes on a line, all colorful, waiting for a tourist camera such as yours.

You edit the post that has been in your head all night. By noon, you’re ready to go.

Leaving the baglio, you pause to talk to the man working in a field of baby vines. He touches them delicately, with pride and tells you way more than you can understand.

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tending young vines

So you’re driving now. But where? To Marsala to find an Internet point. There you make friends with the man behind the counter. Why? Because you’re going to spend a while there. May as well be friends. It takes time, after all, to transfer your own photos to a DVD, find out their computer wont take a DVD, borrow the nice clerk’s external drive (see? friendship), load it, transfer it to your flickr account, put it all together and post. And of course, there is email nudging you, reminding you that everyday worries are just an ocean away. You engage in worry for a while and finally unplug the whole damn thing and leave.

It’s 2pm. Not too bad. Time for a cappucci’o (there, got that one right finally).

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capucci'o break, 1

Back to the car, point it south. Take note of yet another cloudburst. You wonder if your colorful clothes on the clothesline out on that farm balcony are enjoying a second wash.

You pass fields and groves and you stop every .05 of a kilometer. Because you cannot resist it. The beauty of a grove of olives, framed by flowers and vines.

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You get chased out of one such grove by a local who suddenly needs the same single car dirt lane you chose for a photo base.

You come to Campobello di Mazara and note that the rain has passed. It’s after 4, you have, in two hours, traveled 35 kilometers. Nice going. Celebrate progress with a cappuci’o break. I mean, these frothy drinks are small. Compare it to my Madison afternoon grande latte.

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capucci'o break, 2

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Marsala, proudly displayed

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in town of capucci'o break

[Compare the price as well. Madison latte: $3.25 plus tip. Italy cappuci’o: 80 Euro cents. With pastry, grand total 1 Euro 60 cents. Go to Italy for your coffee break, save money.]

You’re almost at your hiking spot. But first, a visit to the Acropolis. Not the one in Athens. The one in Sicily. You admire it for more than a minute. After all, it took more than a minute to build and it has been standing there for a while, though crumbling a bit at the edges.

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Onwards. Oh, but wait, it’s hilly here and so beautiful!

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And you come across fields overgrown with fennel and artichoke.

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artichoke and fennel, close-up

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And finally, it is past 6 and you are there, ready to hike.

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riserva naturale

Needless to say, the hike is greatly cut back. Why? Well, because you are hungry. Between here and the baglio there is a medium sized town: Mazara del Vallo. You were told there is a good place for dinner there. You point the nose of your car north and give the command to find the food. It’s a Smart car. It can do anything.

The Smart car takes you past hills striped with rows of vines and olives. The sun is setting. It takes your breath away.

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in a hill town, enjoying the dusk

...Again and again

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And when the Smart car finds the town and a parking space, you note that it is past nine.

You are given a table in spite of the full house and in spite of your attire (for me: jeans skirt and hiking shoes. So, well, causal for a Saturday evening dinner). Why the friendly reception? Because people in Sicily again and again go out of their way to help, to explain, to delight in your choice of travel destinations.

The chef comes out and recites the daily specials. Can he tempt you with any of them? What, you are going to say no? Of course not. You say yes to every one of them (warm seafood antipasti, homemade spaghetti with artichoke and shrimp, a fish sautéed with roasted potatoes, strawberries with lemon sorbet) because you did not have lunch, you’re starved out of your mind and you do not want to be the dumb foreigner who does not appreciate local food.

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from the grill

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from the fields

At the table next to yours, a young couple has with them their four-month old daughter, Maria Vittoria. They are Sicilians, from Catania. They, too, are curious what Americans are doing in this not exactly touristy town in a remote corner of southwestern Sicily. And the chef is back to smile at the baby, and they all pass around last month’s copy of the magazine, Cucina Italiana, because lo, there is a short story about the very place we are eating in.

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chef, guest, baby

And you leave, reluctantly, but still, it is after 11 and you are tired from all that non-hiking.

Do you call this hour late? Not for the people living in Mazara. During the day, it looked shuttered and deserted. Not now. There are hundreds out and about, packing the street. Young, old, all in conversation with one another. I am inching forward. Ed asks me – what does it mean, “zona pedonale?” Pedestrian zone? Damn! It’s a pedestrian zone until midnight. Drive on, Nina, you cannot possibly back out. Besides, it is almost midnight.

And of course, we get lost. Not to panic. You get used to it. So you’re lost on narrow lanes that meander through vineyards. So what. Eventually you will find the right combination of turns and you will not have to retrace yours steps after dead-ending yet again. You will get to the baglio, check on the wet laundry, note with pleasure that it is only 98% wet, so there’s progress made and you retire. Late? It’s relative, isn’t it?