Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sicily Day Four: Sant'Angelo Muxaro

We left the hotel at the usual time Monday morning, but we had the extra obligation of checking out, as we would be spending the night in Agrigento, on the southern coast of the island.  Everybody loaded up onto the bus, and we headed south through the beautiful rolling hills of Sicily to another very small town atop a plateau: Sant'Angelo Muxaro.  It was essentially a farm commune of some 1200 people, which was, similar to Erice, only accessible by one winding road of switchbacks.  Driving into the town, our bus nearly was halted as it barely fit the width of the road.

Windmills lined many of the ridgetops on the way to Sant'Angelo Muxaro

We saw smoke billowing from the roofs of so many houses across Sicily.  I loved how this one in particular streamed out to the south.

A castle in the distance

As every other day, we hardly knew what to expect going in, but we were treated to some real small-town wonders.  It began with a tour of a small cheese maker's  store.  There was barely enough room for all of us to fit in the facility, and after describing the process, we were all treated to more than enough fresh ricotta and pecorino, the two cheeses typically made in the region.

Preparing to serve ricotta (picture taken by Carrie Salmon)

The pecorino fridge (picture taken by Carrie Salmon)

Walking through the town (picture taken by Pizeme Tchara)

Next, it was off to the town's baker, run by a kind old woman who was raised in Britain and spoke to us in English.  There, we were again treated to a short tour of the facilities, getting a good look at the old coal-fueled oven.  Neither of these shops had a storefront, and the town seemed to run largely on the bartering of goods.  We were given an abundance of samples again including fresh semolina, garlic bread, and almond biscotti, each of which were extremely fresh and tasty.

The baker serves us fresh semolina (picture taken by Elanna Seid)

Semolina and honey (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

Almond biscotti (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

 The sign outside the baker's shop (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

We then walked a block to a house where a man had built an extremely elaborate nativity scene to stay up year-round.  It was almost disney-esque—save for the music—with it's use of little animatronics.  The elderly couple overseeing it was so happy to show off their work, which wrapped around the walls of three rooms (below.)

Finally, we wound up on a small dead-end street, where several locals treated us to a fantastic home-cooked meal, which we ate outside on lawn chairs.  It began with some sort of fried dough that was filled with an artichoke-like vegetable—I'm pretty sure we were told it was not artichoke.  Next, we had some wonderful frittata bites with bell pepper.  Like the day before in the farmhouse, the meal was well paced as it took time for each dish to make its way around to all 30-some people in our group.  In contrast though, this was not a restaurant atmosphere, and we got to really interact with the lovely people of the town, who were so happy to have visitors.

There was an elderly 84 year-old lady who it seemed lived next door to the home where the food for our feast was coming, and she came out and talked to us for a little while.  I did my best to translate for those of us at that end of the street, and we figured out that she had two sons living in Geneva, Switzerland.  It seems she had been lonely and was happy to have some company.  (I believe she also wanted to marry off one of her grandsons to my friend Maria, but Maria was probably the most enamored with this woman of all of us.)

The day's pasta was made with a rustic tomato sauce almost like a gumbo broth and then topped with some fresh ricotta.  Unlike every other meal though, we had a refreshing dessert of fresh sweet and tart nectarines and oranges.  Rather than feeling compelled to eat the final rich dish, this made a great light conclusion to the meal, cleansing our palates rather than overwhelming them.

After some parting shots of espresso, we had an extended session of goodbyes with the family(s) that had treated us to such a wonderful meal.  We felt like we had entered their lives and they ours.  Nobody was quite ready to leave, and the town's folk waved to us for as long as we were in view.

The artichoke-like dish (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

Pepper frittate (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

One of our chaperone's, Tanya, tries to follow as I talk to the elderly lady. (picture taken by Pizeme Tchara) 

The day's pasta (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

Eventually we made our way to a wicker basket workshop, where we were given a brief demonstration of how different vines were woven to make items such as bottle holders and miniature birds.
The basket workshop (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

We next worked back to the town's center to board the bus, where we ran into some of the same people we'd seen over the course of the day, who again bade us goodbye, while others we hadn't run into greeted us with, "buongiorno."  

As you probably noticed, most of the pictures from the town came from my peers, as I snapped so few photos during the day.  I don't think I would be alone in saying, our experiences in the tiny town couldn't be captured in photographs, so I largely refrained from taking any.  Fortunately, some of my classmates made the extra effort, and I've drawn on their images to capture some of surface visuals of our day.

It was probably all of four hours, maybe five, that we spent in Sant'Angelo Muxaro, but, along with many of my friends, I felt like we'd spent a whole day there, and the evening in Agrigento was another day entirely.  There was such a dichotomy between the two halves to our day.

Looking out across the valley and to another city atop a hill from the southwest edge of the plateau in Sant'Angelo Muxaro

I love how the old men in each of these towns congregate in the main square to talk for most of the day

We traveled about 45 minutes to the outskirts of Agrigento, the largest city on the southwest coast of Sicily.  Unfortunately, wherever the tour group had picked out our hotel was so far removed from the city itself, it seemed more like a shopping strip in Dayton, Ohio than anywhere in Italy.  One of my friends had a really fantastic room though, and several of us made a pilgrimage to a grocery store to by drinks and snacks to enjoy in the room that evening.

Dinner was served at the hotel, but by this point, I'd had a stomachache for about a day and a half, which wasn't getting any better.  If anything, I started to feel worse.  I had all of a few bites of the pasticio they served us, which looked and tasted much more like lasagna than any Greek pastitsio I've known, and then I headed up to bed.  The next course was a not particularly appetizing-looking hunk of veal and oily french fries.

I passed on the food in favor of a nap, something I'd desperately been needing.  I had been burning the candle a bit on both ends, but on top of that I hadn't been sleeping well.  Since getting to Italy, I had one night of about six hours of sleep and many more of three or less.  I had been going to bed late but still waking up before anybody else.

I got about two fair hours of sleep before I decided to go hang out with my friends for another nice evening, drinking water and eating crostini.  I was hoping I'd get a full nights' sleep after that, but unfortunately my luck wasn't so good.

Looking back up at the town atop the hill: Sant'Angelo Muxaro. (picture taken by Pizeme Tchara)

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