I’m not sure. But it might be because, packed onto this triangular “isola,” one sees all of Italy’s magnificent landscape, with the exception of the ruggedness of its northern Alps and Apennine mountain ranges, and its beautiful lakes north of Milan. I was going to write “snow capped” mountains, and then I remembered the snow on Mount Etna, a paradox for sure, given its other face features the simmering volcano.
Maybe it’s that paradoxical, elemental nature. A people fiercely independent, having learned throughout the ages to look after itself, yet begrudgingly appreciative of the money directed its way from the European Union. Money needed to bring it into the 21st century with roads and services. Or the infamous crime affiliations, particularly in Palermo (they filled a necessary void and then as the saying goes: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) juxtaposed with their yearly reverent pilgrimage up Mount Pellegrino to pay homage to its patron saint, Rosalia, attributed with saving thousands from the Black Plague. Or the intensity of their nature…that “in your face” intensity with hollering, hand gesture, black eyes flashing only to, in moments, have their arm around your shoulder, white teeth gleaming in a smile of affection.
I only know that as we drove across the island, through its centre, towards Agrigento, when I said to Rosario, a native son from Cefalu, “Conoscuto perchè i siciliani amorana la Sicilia, è molto bella,” he graciously corrected my Italian to “inamorana,” and replied “si.” My travel mates and I were enthralled with Sicily.
Mountains. Fields full of wild flowers – purple, deep crimson, yellow and finally those red poppies I’d been longing to see since Tuscany. Yellow broom. Grove upon grove of olive, orange, lemon and other fruit trees. Terraced vineyards. Hilltop towns. And the sea…soon enough always that deep blue sea.
As we traveled west and then south, we felt the heat rising and those of my travel mates keen for some tan welcomed our lunch break at the beach just this side of Agrigento. We dined “al fresco” with the sandy beach to our backs. I had a disappointing salad of iceberg lettuce (in my books this doesn’t even qualify as a vegetable), tomatoes and canned tuna. I didn’t realize there were more offerings further inside the menu…pastas, pizza and fresh grilled swordfish. Rosario, who’d asked for a “piccolo” portion of a customized primo – spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and green olives, insisted I take some. “Grazie.” I was delighted with the full bottle of vino bianco brought to our table, and then realized I’d have to make a serious dent in it as I was the only one drinking white. “Grazie mille!”
A quick walk on the beach, and then off to Agrigento’s main attraction, another one of Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Valley of the Temples, a collection of Greek columned buildings, easily rivaling those in Athens. (Side note: Remarkably, Italy is home to forty-four of these sites, more than any other country in the world. And for me, even more remarkable is the number that I have personally visited.)
By this time, the sun was beating on the hillside, and cooling shade was at a premium. Dina said during the summer months, they book this tour at 5:30 pm when it gets a bit cooler. In addition to these spectacular buildings, the sculptures of Polish artist Igor Mitoraj offered, for some of us, a beautiful counterpoint.
My father’s longtime work “mate,” Joe, is Sicilian from near Agrigento. Years ago he taught me to drink espresso with sambuca. He introduced me to grappa. He talks italiano with me when I’m home visiting my family. And he is fiercely proud of his Sicilia. His passion is contagious and I know planted the seed of possibility to visit his country…a seed that ripened into the fruit of this wonderful experience.