The Watcher: Sicily continued V

Sicily, a land of contrasts:


The bare mountains around Palermo gave way to valleys and more rocks, a harsh wildness sweetened by the soft blush blossoms of the almond. There was a fierceness and a starkness to the land yet it was covered with flowers, stalks of pale stars, small white and purple blossoms against ragged silver grey leaves. This was a land one either loved or hated with a passion. Man seemed very small and the mountains very permanent and proud against the fading sunset.

After settling into the hotel, it was already night. “Come”, Andrea said, “I will show you the temples.” We drove along a road illuminated wanly by the moon and suddenly the headlights of the car reached out and the columns sprang up out of the darkness, with the clarity of a dream image immediately after waking. The almond trees moved faint and white in the breeze as we took the path along the grassy hillside. Large and dark, the columns loomed up unreal in this magnificent silence. Giant steps took us into the heart of the temple. To whom was this temple dedicated? We walked slowly to the great flat stone in the center and felt the roughness of the stone.  There was a sense of holiness here I had never felt in the churches.

The moon clouded over and it was midnight. The little car started back to the Roman Agrigentum…and stopped. We were out of gas. Yet it didn’t seem to matter. Dogs barked as we neared the town and the raindrops kindly waited till Andrea had seen me to my door.

Next morning, a cold wind blew across the courtyard but I set out to discover modern Agrigento just the same. It had once been a flourishing city – but that was way back in the 5th century B.C.  Its temples were what counted now. The streets were undecided as to whether they were roads or ramps for donkeys. To the north, mountain after mountain marched into the core of Sicily. Far below, on the south, lay the ocean. The contradictions of the island were all there in this curious small ochre-colored town with its blatant Spanish baroque cathedral where nude female torsos thrust their breasts forward and strained upwards into a wild jungle of carvings.

It had a museum as well as the cathedral. The woman looking at the figures on a Greek vase looked familiar and indeed our paths had briefly crossed in Palermo.  Her wedding band told the Italians she was married but she wondered if she shouldn’t take it off. Perhaps, she said, then they would leave her alone, would not assume that she was looking for adventure because she was not with her husband. The truth was simply that she was a painter and had decided to spend a year in Europe. We left the museum together, bought some bread and mozzarella and sat in the sun, watching a flock of sheep and the distant temples.

Sicilian towns

So far all I knew of Sicily was Agrigento and Monreale and Palermo. Andrea was to go on to Taormina, and train and bus connections for me had been checked. But then I thought – why not? We piled my luggage in his car and started down the hill.

There was a bitter reality to the small villages scattered in the interior that soon became apparent as I accompanied Andrea on his rounds. Villages were simply outcroppings of the rock itself, piles of stone, grey, bleak, the color of bleached bones. Women stood silently in the doorways or moved slowly between the houses, draped in heavy fringed shawls. There was something dignified about them, a sorrow without pain. Innumerable children and shaggy-haired goats with twisted horns wandered through otherwise empty streets. Shouts rose into the air, but no laughter. The blossoming almond trees seemed like porous white rock jutting forth from the friendless bare earth of Sicily.

It was in one of these hill towns that I began to draw just as school let out. I was soon surrounded as the children climbed over each other to see what I was doing. I closed my sketchbook and started to wander through the streets.  There was no way of shaking them off and I felt it would take very little to turn them into a howling pack of baby coyotes. The grown ups turned and stared, eyeing me suspiciously. I managed to return to the car, but Andrea had the keys so I could only wait and seek refuge in a shoe store. This was a world where I simply did not understand the people and was happy finally to return to the world I knew.

Everywhere the towns rose from the surrounding rocks or from the dust of the plain. Caltanisetta. Low houses, stairs, piazzas. Prostrate in the sun. Figures, always in black, paused immovable in front of caffe bars.  Scattered through the streets in the irregular fashion of particles in a half-settled solution, they were not yet completed beings and were waiting for something, but that something would never come. They watched me silently as I passed. A woman and a foreigner. I felt the questioning words that formed as soon as I was out of sight. The men wrapped their dark wool capes closer and let their dark eyes talk. They could not understand me, only a woman, traveling alone. Yet even a man would find it hard to breach the invisible barrier with which they surrounded themselves.

Enna particularly belonged to another world. From a distance, it was El Greco’s Toledo with menacing clouds hanging low. The wind threatened to sweep me off the cliff and when dressing for the day I had to add a long-sleeved woolen undershirt and knee-length underpants over my ordinary underwear. The other cities were timeless. Enna was left over from its medieval past, the dry skeleton of an organism that died of hunger. The stones held up well against the gales that seemed to meet here in the center of Sicily. There was an intensity of feeling in the Crucifix in the Cathedral where real hair had been used for the hair of Christ. There was an agony in this tortured figure that somehow echoed that inspired by the unforgiving mountains.


To be continued . . .

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