Friday, December 03, 2004

She can weave, but can she add?

I spent the recent Thanksgiving holiday weekend completely on the other side of Sicily, at an ancient, tiny cliff top village called Erice. There was no turkey dinner, but there was probably the best chicken breast with lemon sauce I’ve ever had.

The town is perched 750 meters high (over 2200 feet) with spectacular views of the sea to the north, the sea to the west, the city of Trapani, and the rolling interior of Sicily. There really isn’t a bad view anywhere (except out of my hotel window, which was okay because it was at least quiet). One guidebook said that when it is a “particularly clear day,” you could see Mt. Etna on the other side of Sicily! That would be 200 miles away, and, needless to say, it didn’t get THAT clear during our stay. Supposedly one can also see Africa to the south on very clear days.

Old, old, old. How old is it? Erice is SO old that its origins get mixed up in mythology. It’s hard to tell where mythology stops and history begins. Let’s say, though, that it has been inhabited for centuries and centuries B.C. by Neolithic types and then a race of people called the Elimi. The history is all tied up with Venus and even earlier goddess of love, so, needless to say, it was a popular pilgrimage destination. It remained prosperous throughout the ages and through various inhabitant groups.

And, it is charming in and of itself . . . the patterned stone streets and walkways are hypnotizing and beautiful. It’s easy to imagine yourself in a human-size maze as you wander the narrow, curved streets, alleyways, stairs, and paths. Paradoxically, you cannot get lost, but you cannot know exactly where you are, either. Because of the potentially high winds up that high, the streets were laid out so as not to let the wind roar through. Especially at night or in the fog, or both, one wanders around rather aimlessly from light to light and eventually says, “Aha, THIS is where we are!”

Another guidebook stated that there were over sixty churches and monasteries/convents in Erice. Since there are only about 250 inhabitants in the winter months, that’s about . . . one religious building for every four persons?? We did see quite a few, nowhere near sixty, but only one was actually open to the public, the beautiful duomo (cathedral) with its white-on-white interior. Some of the churches, and many other buildings, have distinct Arabic architectural elements about them. That plus the weather-beaten, mossy, faded facades make it all the more enchanting.

Speaking of churches and convents, apparently one enterprising Maria “escaped” with the convent’s “secret” recipes for unique cookies, candies, and pastries. You can now indulge in these at her shop called Maria Grammatico. They are not only beautiful, they are delicious and sweet! Primary ingredients are almonds, dates, marzipan, walnuts, and raisins. Well worth the calories. Almonds, by the way, were in everything, including the bread and pasta and meat sauces. Wonderful and unusual!

Carpet weaving seems to be the #1 artisan work of Erice. We saw beautiful colorful carpets in many shops, often with the weaver herself working in the shop. The designs are very different, as Erice itself is, not quite African, not quite European. Eventually, we came to the shop and workshop of Francesca Vario. She was outside trimming her plants and surrounded by many cats and kittens. We all went inside, including the cats and kittens, to check out the carpets. Franscesca spoke no English, so conversation was definitely limited but of a friendly nature. She proudly showed us a scrapbook of her recent visit to New York City, where she was either attending a workshop for weavers or displaying her weaving . . . we are not quite sure. She also showed us the magazine Bella Italia, which had a photo essay about her.
I settled on two carpets of two meters each that I really liked and began the process of bargaining, which always seems to be permissible in Sicily. The marked prices were 82 and 150 Euros for the two. My friend asked me what I wanted to pay. I told her I would pay 200 for both, and she suggested that we start by offering 180. With our limited Italian and Francesca’s non-existent English, we somehow ended up paying only 160 for both! I don’t know how, but it was in cash with no receipt. I’m happy; she’s happy, the rugs look great. So be it.

Beware if you go in the off season (like Thanksgiving, November?) that this town is about 75% shut down. Prices are cheaper, but the only hotel guests seem to be other American teachers on vacation.


At December 04, 2004 3:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey! I can't help it if we all have great taste in vacation spots. =)


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