The gloriously hot Sicilian air blows in through the car windows as we drive along the highway, indulging in sun while the cold, rainy spring continues its sour mood in Madrid. On the road towards Syracuse from Palermo, an ancient village called Cefalu winks in the distance, where pastel-colored flat-roofed houses hang right over the beaches. We delve into the town to explore. Tiny streets branch off into crumbling alleyways where lines of laundry spend their slow mornings, where shop owners wait for passersby to buy gelato or water ice.
An afternoon dip in icy water jolts the senses, with the joyous lilt of conversation in the restaurants right above the sand. The port to the right and a barricade of rocks to the left form a cove that is almost completely empty, save for us and a group of swimmers who squeeze on their slick bodysuits to brave a swim to the next beach.
Cefalu is unlike any other fishermen’s village I’ve ever seen, with its rocky promontory, the cathedral on a hill, and the shallow, crystalline waters which seem to slide right up to the centuries-old houses. The smell of the sea, however, is so welcomingly familiar as we walk lazily along the waterfront. Hats, bracelets, and trinkets glimmer on the tables where foreigners try to sell their beach-going goods.
Ancient, dilapidated buildings, Greek temple ruins, zipping Vespas, fishermen selling freshly-caught sea urchins in plastic cups… Syracuse reminds me of Rome, with its slightly chaotic combination of old and modern, and the ever-present aesthetic nature of Italian cities. Stone faces of buffoons peer at us from window ledges, and the slow sunset winds it way from the horizon at the port into the empty alleyways where the buildings lean into each other, looking as if they will topple any minute.
The markets gleam with fresh fish and fruit. On the ortigia, the island, the open plazas and old palaces are guarded by statues. One is reminded of the extensiveness of history, the very beginning of civilization itself. Even the churches house ancient Greek columns which blend into the more recent architecture.
Arching up to over 210 feet, the Ear of Dionysus can’t keep a secret. It was dug in Greek and Roman times for water storage, but legend has it that the tyrant Dionysus I used the cave as a prison for political dissidents, that he eavesdropped on their secret plans, and that the acoustics of the cave amplified screams of prisoners being tortured.
The dirt road leading to the beach stretches through fields of dandelions and yellow grass, a walk which seems long after a day of city trekking. The sun gives off its last rays as I swim back and forth through the cold, shallow water of Cala Mosche, trying to find warm pockets, kicking to fight off the chill. As the few beach-goers begin to leave, we dry off on the sand, and I try to brush up on my few words of Italian.
Dusk on the bridge shows dotted lights of modern buildings which rise up on a hill in a medieval city. The hosts of our bed-and-breakfast are effusively Italian, hospitality over the top, everything in the world is beautiful. “É bello, é BELLO!”
In a tour through the old medieval town, the churches take center place, rising up two, three stories in the middle of white plazas, churches reminiscent of colonial Spain and Portugal. Up and down steps in the midday heat, through palace gardens, relishing views of the houses in Ragusa.
A caffe latte and a crema de caffe, those delicious frappuccino shots, are good for the Italian soul in us.
An enormous salad, “como Dios manda,” and pasta bolognesa on our way to the next city.
At the Valley of the Temples, Greek structures dating back to 5th century BC stand in glorified ruins with the background of a grey, drizzling sky. The temples’ Doric columns are a fragmented yet lasting testament to the Greek empire.
A bronze angel has fallen.
6. Scala dei Turchi.
I’ve arrived at the end of the world. There is nothing more past this sand and sliver of ocean. I’m reminded of Sabriel, a book I once read as a child, and the shoreline that existed between the human world and the world beyond. In my imagination, all of those magical thresholds looked like this, the Cove of Turks, with water which is a liquid glass reflecting a doomsday sky, molded cliffs of white, chalky rock that could only exist in a wild landscape from a fantasy book.
Among hilly Sicilian fields lie the best-preserved Greek temple and amphitheater in the world, possibly. Athens is no comparison. The hot stone steps of the semicircular theater overlook a sprawling, green valley.
This temple looks almost like how it would’ve appeared 2500 years ago. Beautiful, rosy rock columns remind me of gigantic wine corks stacked one on top of another. The best thing is there’s nary a soul here; the intimacy of millenia creeps up on us under the shade, on a rock where we contemplate the columns.
8. Zingaro Nature Reserve.
An invigorating hike at dusk leads us from cove to cove on snaking dirt paths, between long grasses into which lizards scuttle, along the shoreline which is slowly settling into its barren, lonely nocturnal adventures.
I wish we had time to hike the entire 7 kilometers and back — a day’s trek. Flowers peek from the brushes and the cool salt breeze threatens to send my hat flying. Walking on a silent road in a foreign place between mountains and sea is one of the best ways to let go of one’s self.
The island scenery is cinematographic as we whizz by smoothly on our bikes; the sun glimmers through the shade of trees, calves feed under their mothers on blank stretches of farmland. Ruins sit untouched and ignored in valleys. On the northern side, the beaches are windy and boast fiercely turqoise waters, whereas the ones in the south are calm, hot, and sandy.
There must be particular comforts to living on such a small island. To be nowhere near the center of the world, to never pay mind to traffic lights, to always be able to go back to that one rocky, empty cove which is sympathetic to lonely island hearts.
Dusk, again. The car climbs the steep hills up, up, and above the clouds into a town where surely some fairy tale must have taken place in the past. A castle hanging over a cliff, where Rapunzel let down her hair into the foggy abyss. As daylight slowly fades, the streetlights blink on, illuminating the promenades which overlook the sprawling city of Trapani far below. Here there is something mystical, something which has defied the passing of time. On the threshold between day and night, Erice is a town of ghosts that wander the bell towers, the alleyways, the castles in which they died centuries ago.