Sunday, September 25, 2005

Valle dei Templi

I feel compelled to write about the Valley of the Temples but at a loss of how to do it. Here it is, the site of some of the best preserved Greek temples in the world, one of the Top Ten sites of Sicily, and, really, one of my favorite places in the whole world, and yet I've never written about it? I've tried several times, intended to do so for a year, and yet I still don't have a clue as to how to write anything good enough to describe this place, these temples.

I've been to visit the temples at least half a dozen times, and each time my breath is taken away, my heart beats a little harder when I come around that last corner in the car and the first temple, dedicated to the goddess Hera, appears, high on its stony cliff, bravely facing the sea. Then Concord comes into view, then the ruin of Hercules. I drive in awe through the valley below them, barely able to keep my eyes on the road, turn up the hill and enter an ancient place and time both enigmatic and beautiful.

It doesn't do them justice to give you dates, details of construction or use, or even names, because none of those things matter when I walk up the cobblestone road to the temples. Any season of the year, and I've been there in all of them, it's best to just experience the beauty of the Greek temples and feel their massiveness, their power. How did they survive all the earthquakes of Sicily? Huge, ancient stone blocks are still supported by golden columns. How do they stay up?

I try to go back 2400 years and imagine people in and around these temples, the sacrificial altars . . . priests, virgins, cattle. One huge altar was used to sacrifice a hundred cattle at one time. Another temple has an unusual round altar. What did these people believe the sacrifices accomplished? At the end of the road, I usually sit on one of these altars, look back on four temples and ponder it all. Except for the fences to keep tourists out of the actual interiors, it can't be changed much. The same olive and almond trees and cacti struggle to grow in the rocky terrain.

It never fails to move me in indescribable ways . . . the mystery, the peacefulness, the beauty . . . ancient souls walk with me in the gentle breeze . . . I've been there; we all have.

Are these temples a monument to the gods or to man's artfulness?

Back down the path and across the road to the remains of what was once one of the largest temples known to man, now just acres of rubble. But upon closer inspection, the rubble is a column here, a pedestal there, an altar, a foundation, a capitol, a chunk of a statue. One of the dozens of Hercules statues that once served as pillars lies on its back on the ground, a favorite photo op for tourists. I think of Shelley's poem, "Ozymandias" every time:

"I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive stamped on these lifeless things . . . "

I walk a little further and peer down to the remains of a entire Greek city--nothing now but foundations and random pieces of structures. On the far corner, though, is the last standing corner, just four columns, of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, a symbol of the Valley of the Temples and of Greek Sicily, Magna Graecia.

More Shelley comes to mind:

"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

(See Agrigento in My Photos of Sicily at right for many views of the temples.)

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Origin of the Stone Boudoir

"These streets were so close and intimate that I felt I'd walked into someone's stone boudoir. Every time I put my foot down, it rolled over the soft convex curve of a stone. Each one had passed through the hands of a builder who had felt its shape and heft before setting it in the mosaic. In the rain the stones shone like puffed satin pillows--uneven, imperfect, and of humans. Hand-painted ceramic placards named the cross street at every corner; house numbers appeared in smaller, matching pink tiles. Wrought-iron lamps curved out over the street. The people did this all for themselves, not for tourists. So high, so serene, so alone, this town. It hardly seemed real" (The Stone Boudoir by Theresa Maggio).

I found this description of Polizzi Generosa so appealing, I talked two friends into going to see it over Labor Day weekend. It was an easy drive, all autostrada, about ninety miles in all. We stayed at a wonderful, remote agriturismo about ten kilometers from the town, with spectacular views of the rolling hills and the Madonie Mountains all around. It was so remote and so quiet, Michael thought he wouldn't be able to stay there. But he did, and he loved it, too. Each day we did what the Italians do: do one thing in the morning, take a long afternoon rest, and do one thing in the afternoon. It's a very civilized plan for life.

Back to Polizzi Generosa . . . it's an ancient town of Roman, Arab, and Norman history. Frederick the Second added the "generosa" to the name in 1234 for the generosity the town had shown his army. You can read all about it in Chapter 10 of Maggio's book, but I'll tell you our impressions.

The people ARE very generous and friendly! They talked to us, shared with us their crocheting, needlework, recipe for drying tomatoes, cactus fruit (prickly pear), posed for photos, gave us directions, and summoned their younger family members who spoke English. We were directed where to find the best sfoglio, a cake made with fresh cheese, sugar, chocolate and cinnamon. They explained the story of Saint Gandolfo (who is not really a saint except in this town) as he saved the city during the great earthquakes. We met half a dozen Sicilian-Americans, most from New York, who come back in the summer to their roots and heritage. We noted how much cleaner it was than the area of Sicily where we live. Not only the streets are made of stone, but also the houses, and they are not plastered over, as in other parts of the island. We walked, talked, took photos, explored, ate cake, and marveled at the friendliness and helpfulness of the people. (See link at right to My Photos on Yahoo for more images)

When we returned to our agriturismo that evening, the owner-host, who was from Palermo, told us that the people of Polizzi Generosa do not like each other. "They are always saying this one did that, that one said this, and fighting among themselves," he said. I thought, they've been living too long together in this ancient town!

Friday, September 16, 2005

Jehovah's Witnesses Alive in Sicily

Yes, believe it or not, they are alive and well in Sicily and even way up here on Mt. Etna. I was taking a nap after a hard day/week at school when my gate bell rang. I wasn't expecting anyone, but I buzzed it open and then padded outside to see who it might be. I saw a man and a woman standing outside the gate, way down the driveway by the street. So I spoke loudly to them, "Can I help you?" They came up the driveway and I could see that I did not know them. It took about two seconds to realize who/what they were with their clean-cut appearance, tracts in pocket, and Bible in hand. Luckily, I have fool-proof way of dealing with them. No matter what they say, my polite, calm answer is "I already have a religion, thank you." The man asked me what is was and I said Catholic. Oh, they spoke English and had blue eyes, by the way. He then asked me if I believed something about Jesus and God and the end of the world, and I answered, "Yes." Then they didn't really know what to do. So, he chose a passage from the Bible to read on the same subject (death) and I told him it was beautiful, thank you, and good luck. Off they went, puzzled, I'm sure.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Try it, you'll like it!

I was thinking of the many new dishes and even new foods I've had since moving to Sicily just thirteen months ago. Not counting the varieties of Sicilian dishes or wines, the four that stand out in mind, and on my tongue, have been the following:

1. almond milk (latte de mandorla)
2. fresh figs (fichi freschi)
3. cactus fruit or prickly pears (figidindi)
4. squid ink spaghetti (spaghetti Nero di Sepia)

Where have these wonderful foods been hiding my whole life?? Well, none of them are exactly middle-class, midwestern foods, are they?

Here, almond milk is served cooled to guests in summer, as it was to me in the first week I arrived.

Figs are plucked right off the tree and peeled by hand, sweet and tart and ready to eat.

Prickly pears must be peeled and then eaten, seeds and all, tasting a bit like watermelon. (See photo of a woman in Polizzi Generosa making some for us.) They grow wild all over the place, but vendors sell them on every corner.

And, ah, the black spaghetti made with squid ink! It looks horrible and makes your mouth all black, splashes on the tablecloth like India ink. But, oh, the taste is exquisite and worth the mess!

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Simply Red Wine in Sicily

(See Etna vineyard at right)

It seems that Mick Hucknall, star of the hugely popular rock group Simply Red, now at the ripe old age of 45 is beginning to focus on interests other than music in case his voice crashes at 50. According to Manchester Online, "other interests include a red wine-making company he's set up in Sicily." (Naturally it would be RED.)

"Mick said: 'We focus on quality, using a grape found only on Mount Etna. We'll be auctioning it later this year. Unfortunately, not many people will taste it - there's only going to be 3,000 bottles produced.'"

Well then, why tease us with its existence?? Gads, this guy's a multi-millionaire, having sold more than 45 million records! He could produce enought wine to supply the entire island of Sicily for free. And it's ALL quality wine!

So, I wonder where this little grape/wine stash is? Another mystery of the mountain. But, doesn't he have to come around occasionally to check on his grapes and wine production? It just so happens that Simply Red will be performing here in Sicily, in NEARBY Acireale on the 18th of December! Woo-hoo!

By the way, did I mention that I thought I saw Rod Stewart and his tall, young, blonde wife strolling along in Taormina this summer?