Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sicily Day Two: Erice

For another night, I got a mere four hours of sleep, but this had more to do with staying out till past 2AM with a few friends.  Regardless, I woke up out of habit by 7:00, and I headed down to breakfast on the early side yet again.

We met as a class at 9:00 and headed off to the far northwest corner of the island to the town of Erice (Eh-rhee-chay,) a notable lookout perched some 2600 feet above the sea on a small plateau.  It provided the Carthaginians with great advance knowledge of Roman invasions during the first Punic war, as they could see any ships coming from a great distance away.

Development on the outskirts of Palermo

A 14th century watchtower sits on an island just off the north coast

Looking out towards the northwest coast of the island

 Traveling through the countryside

Beginning to ascend the hill to Erice

Facing northeast as we head up the switchbacks

The fog-infested woods outside the town
The fog-infested town

The city itself reminded me a good bit of Perugia, with it's small hillside location and nearly all stone buildings.  The bus ride up this great plateau was nerve-wracking to some as we swung around switchback after switchback in our coach bus. Approaching the top, we entered the clouds, and the fog allowed for maybe ten feet of visibility at any given time.  The fog-infested pines would have made an ideal backdrop for a horror film.  When we finally reached the top, a stray cat came wandering out of the fog, which many thought of as some sort of bad omen.

We first went to view the city's main church, with a finely chiseled roof that was simply stunning.  At this point, the class split up, and I walked with the tour guide and four other students to the amazing 12th century castle at the other end of town.  Seeing this gorgeous stone structure shrouded in wisps of fog looked like something straight out of a video game.  (All that was needed was a weapon and a boss to defeat.)

The Duomo of Erice (La Chiesa Matrice)

The bell tower adjacent to the church

Inside La Chiesa Matrice

Outside La Chiesa Matrice

The park surrounding the Pepoli and Venus castles.

Il Castello Pepoli

Il Castello Di Venere

Fellow classmates walking into the clouds

In front of Il Castello Di Venere

That's a long way down

A road on the backside of the town, with a steep drop down the plateau immediately behind me.

A pedestrian street

Being up in the clouds raised a lot of interesting thoughts for my classmates and myself.  First of all, the speed at which the clouds moved up close seemed significantly faster than they appear on the ground.  I felt at times like I was watching time-lapse photography before my eyes.  Secondly, it seemed possible that the rain and weather patterns of the town might be completely different than those below cloud-level.  We were at times afforded remarkable views of land above and below the thick layers of clouds.  Thirdly, we speculated as to the effect of living in this environment.  Did kids draw pictures with birds and sky below them, and would it feel odd to then leave the city and live at sea level after a life on the plateau?

Walking back through the town, I stopped in with a few fellow students at a liquor shop to check out some of the local products.  Sicily is a much better producer of sweet wines, such as Zbibbo and Marsala, than dry wines.  The young woman in the shop was so gracious to us, giving samples of nearly everything we asked about and many we didn't.  Even after I'd made my purchases, she continued to give my friends and I tastes of different liquors and hors d'oeuvres.  She gave us samples of one memorable local product called "crema di pistacchio," which was like a liquid pistacchio pate liqueur.

This woman knew some English but not a lot, and I got a chance to use my Italian to fill in the gaps in the conversation.  Similar to Jackie, she wore her affection for Sicily on her sleeve.  I found the people here to have a real pride for their island distinct from Italy (I guess that shouldn't be a big surprise to anybody who's seen The Godfather.)  Having been so generous, Pizeme, who was with me at the time, said, "Viva Italia," to which she defiantly responded, "Viva Sicilia."  Sicily and the south of Italy have had a tenuous relationship with the rest of the nation for as long as it has existed, but it was interesting to see this declared as forcefully as a Virginian might have in the antebellum south.

One interesting feature that I didn't notice in my first two hours in the city was the preponderance of giant radio and television towers.  It was obvious why they would be placed there high on the hill, but, shrouded in fog, they were concealed for much of our time up there.  At one point, in the span of about forty-five seconds, I looked straight into the fog, then saw a television tower, and then watched as it was made invisible yet again (seen below). 

This city had some real magic about it, and I'll treasure my experiences forever.  What a truly remarkable place.

Going back down the hill, we drove out to the coast to see the salt flats near the seaside.  Sea salt is one of the island's great exports, and the open reservoirs afforded some gorgeous views with white flamingos and other birds nestling atop the water.  Since receiving the itinerary, many of us, including the chaperones, had been speculating as to what the "salt museum" could be, and we got our answer in the form of an old mill.  We spent about twenty minutes in one dank room with Jackie as she demonstrated a few of the tools that were used through the years to manufacture salt.  Without context, I think it easily could have been confused for a medieval torture chamber.

Looking back up at the town, with Il Castello Di Venere sticking out in the clouds on the right.

Salt flats

They lay terracotta shingles over the mounds of salt

 A windmill at the salt museum

Later that night I had a nice time at the "drinkeria," where several Italians approached my friends and I.  I spent about fifteen minutes talking to two of them, relating in Italian in a way I hadn't experienced in some time.  My language skills, while still limited, definitely came back far better than I imagined.  The funny thing was, as my friends and I decided to leave, I bade goodbye to my Italian acquaintances with the traditional hug and touching of both cheeks.  The first man replied to this by saying, "what are you apart of the Mafia or something?"  Of course, I told him "no," but it was interesting to see his reaction to what I thought of as a sign of respect for local customs.

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