Buenos Dias al todo mondo –
And so begins our bilingual tour in Sicily – the only organised coach tour we plan to do on this trip. By the end of seven days, I may be able to exchange pleasantries with the Spanish speaking members of our group which includes a couple from Spain and others from Argentina. Most of the group is from Australia, there are a few from Canada (including an Italo-Canadian), and one couple each from England and the USA. Plus one brave, delightful couple from Italy. Our tour guide is Franco and our driver is Andreo (Andrew).
Sicily is the biggest island of the Mediterranean Sea, some 25000 square kilometres, with five million inhabitants in total. Even though the island appears dry, and not as lushly green as Umbria, it is fertile and productive, cereals, durum wheat, olives, wine, pistachio, almond, oranges, lemons and prickly pear are just a few of the agricultural products. It is also mountainous, the Mardonie range straddling across it.
We are in the south of Italy, and this is a much poorer economic zone. Houses are in dishevelled shape externally and the streets are dirty. Ginestra and poppies are replaced with oleander and bougainvillea. Tourism is important, and we frequently find ourselves in a convoy of bus coaches, but our guide Franco is adept at manoeuvring us through. There is also much history in Sicily, and references to Greeks, Visigoths, Romans, Byzantine, Norman and Arabic influences wash over me faster than I can take it in. I did read much Greek mythology as a child, but sadly it is not coming back to me, and I cannot retain all the legends that Franco outlines for us.
Summer has arrived in Italy, just in time for the start of the school holidays. The beach at Cefalu, our first stop of our first day, is filling with locals and tourists, even though it is not yet ten in the morning. Gorgeous girls in bikinis fuss with their towels and umbrellas, young lithe men in budgie smugglers bat ping pong balls back and forward to each other. A man struggles along the beach, born down by the weight and awkward shape of the balls and inflatable children’s toys he is selling. A family has taken possession of a square metre of precious sand, a ten year old girl with long athletic legs runs back and forth from the sea, filling her baby sister’s paddle pool, which has been set beside mum, under the protective shade of an umbrella. Within a few hours they will be challenged to move closer, this beach is so popular that you can feel your neighbour’s body heat.
For as many young slim girls decorating the beach, there is an older woman who is just as proud to wear a two piece costume, oblivious to the extra flesh that pushes out of the fabric. People are here to soak up the sun, and take a dip in the still waters of the Mediterranean. The fat have just as much right to wear a skimpy costume. Hurrah!
Restaurants line the opposite side of the road, a gay jumble of coloured tablecloths and umbrellas strung along the footpath. On the boardwalk of the beach, sports camps have been set up, young children are kicking soccer balls or shooting basketball.
Cefalu is a former fishing village, sandwiched between a dominant rocky hill and the sea. There is a fortress at the top of the rock. Sicily has a long history as a cross roads for sea traders, but not everyone came with good intentions. The island is dotted with fortresses.
At the top of the town there is a famous Norman church, one of the reasons the tour stops here. Then the streets run down to the sea, narrow roads lined with cement rendered buildings with wrought iron balconies. This is a tourist town now, and the guide said the houses have been renovated and are let for holiday rentals, but after the cleanliness and orderliness of Umbria, it did look quite poor and rundown to my eye. Untidy balconies in need of a wash, and plaster falling off every building. We are in the southernmost point in Italy, an area not known for the good economy of the north. The streets were littered with cigarette butts, everyone here still smokes profusely. The guide says that the ethos is that anything inside the house is their responsibility, anything outside is someone else’s. Presumably that someone else is the government, but the public economy is already stretched, and there is no appetite to clean up after careless mess. In fact, we saw a most unusual sight today. All around Cefalu, young people were out on a cleanup campaign – in the streets, on the sand, even divers in the water pulling out empty drink bottles and other rubbish. Italy is not known as a volunteering culture, the population must be really fed up to reach this point. The economy is not strong, yesterday the news reported that fourteen million Italians are saying they will not take a vacation away from home this year because of the recession.
Today is Sunday, and our next stop is Castelbuono (good castle). There is an open air market, and the weather is good, people are out and about. As we wander through the town, smallholders offer their produce to try – nougat, panettone, sweets, liqueurs. Men of all ages are hanging around the village square, a three piece band and singer play local traditional songs in the doorway of a shady bar. I strike up a conversation with two of the older men, one offers me his chair and I explain that I must stick with the group. He sees that they are still at the tasting stall, and he urges me to try a limoncello. I have already tried a mandarin flavoured liqueur, but I take their advice, and I have to agree that the one based on lemon is far superior. Very delicious.
Sunday 9th June 2013, Garrulous Gwendoline, Palermo – Catania, Sicily