26 April 2013

Sicily 3

Inspector Montalbano

Rounding the Buoy

We are in Montalbano country, on the trail of Luca Zingaretti and others.  The series of Inspector Montalbano stories, written by native of Port Empedocle, Andrea Camilleri, began in 1994 (with "The Shape of Water") and has continued up to the present day with twenty books, all of which have been filmed.  We are also now into a series called Young Montalbano and four more episodes of this are due to be released soon on Italian TV. 

Camilleri, although 86 now, has been writing since he was twenty, but only started the Montalbano series when he was stuck on another book.  He recently said in an interview with Mark Lawson that, In my books, I deliberately decided to smuggle into a detective novel a critical commentary on my times. This also allowed me to show the progression and evolution in the character of Montalbano.  And so we find comments on bureaucracy, politics, the Mafia and contemporary Sicilian issues.  

Like many others, I have been attracted by both books and films, by the colourful characters, the plots, the humour, the scenery and architecture, and by the food.  

I came late to this author and the films, only relatively recently discovering them on BBC4, but immediately fell under their spell. And this was one reason I wanted to stay in the south-east of Sicily, to see for myself some of the locations and perhaps enter for a moment a different world.

Pecorino cheese, local olives, taralli biscuits and insolia wine

The landscape of this part of Sicily is different from the volcanic region around Etna and the old sandstone hills of Agrigento.  Here we are on the Ragusa Plateau, which is principally limestone, and so we find clefts suddenly dropping away as gorges.  The opening sequence of the Montalbano films shows this well, and also nicely foregrounds the extravagant stilted roadways that save those precious minutes spiralling down and up again as one once did with one's donkey! 

The old and the new - let's just hope there isn't another earthquake!

The films have been shot on various locations around the area, from Siracusa to Ragusa, Modica to Scicli. Montalbano's home is actually at Punta Secca, a tiny, sleepy resort almost twenty kilometres from his office in Vigata, which is actually Scicli.

Salvo Montalbano's residence, with the green shutters and the terrace

It is actually a B & B

Scicli was a delight, and I would probably never have gone there if it wasn't for Montalbano.  You virtually fall off a cliff into it, but then it is laid out in bright squares and shady streets.  

The Church and ex-convent of the Carmelites, Scicli

Having need of a hat (the perils of a soft-top car!) I ask the girl in the sports shop whereabouts I might find Inspector Montalbano.  She brightened immediately and enthusiastically directed me to his office.

The Municipio, Scicli - Salvo's office

This is actually the town hall, but once was a Benedictine convent attached to the church next door. After the 1693 earthquake, which devastated much of southern Sicily (2,000 people died in Scicli alone), the building was restructured, and the convent declined, though the church still has grilles across the balconies to keep the nuns back from inappropriate eyes.  Then in 1906 the main building was once again renovated to give it its present neo-classical appearance.  The current mayoral office on the first floor is used as the office of Luca Bonetti Alderighi, Montalbano's Head of Department.

The man in black in the picture is Enzo, who became my friend for the morning and showed me not only the streets and the church but also guided me around the Palazzo Spadaro, which could be a film set for Il Gattopardo with its silk walls and crystal chandeliers, mirrored ballroom and genteel withdrawing room.

A room for Don Fabrizio - Palazzo Spadaro, Scicli

The Palazzo also houses works by members of the "Movimento Culturale Vitaliano Brancati" a circle of local artists founded in 1980.  Two of these, Carmelo Candiano (born here in 1951) and Franco Polizzi (also born in Scicli in 1954)  gained recognition at the Accademia delle Belle Arti di Venezia.  Their work celebrates the colour and warmth of Sicily.  Polizzi was associated with Renato Guttoso in Rome, but Candiano, who works mainly as a sculptor, uses local materials and still lives in Scicli.  I love their bright skies and the way the buildings seem to live in the pictures.

Franco Polizzi, "Case, chiese e piazza di Scicli," 2002

Carmelo Candiano

Scicli has another surprise for us as we walk back to the car.  Although the traffic is light, I suddenly find myself almost run down by a horseman, who then coolly rides round to a bar, and hitches his steed to a table.  Not something you see every day!

I HP and no road tax

We explore the coastline, where much of the action in the dramas takes place.  Agave reach for the sky, while sand and sky kiss at the water's edge.

Agave by the beach

The building in the picture below was a furnace of some kind, probably producing lime, though there is no indication now as to what it was.  It is the one place I felt a little uncomfortable on our tour, as something slightly odd is going on along the shore.  Individuals sit in their cars, smoking.  A gang of German bikers stand around.  It may be that this is the seediest place in the films, where transvestites and prostitutes parade, but I find myself wondering which came first, the myth or the reality.

My photo

A scene from the films

We also visit Ragusa, where again the 1693 earthquake caused mayhem.  The old part of the city was completely destroyed, and many inhabitants decided to start afresh on the opposite hill,  Some stalwarts, however, were not easily bested and so Ragusa Ibla reappeared from the ruins.  It is now a wonderful maze of alleys and squares, gracious churches and palaces.  Here Marcello Mastroianni lived in "Divorce, Italian Style" a 1961 Oscar winning film, and here Montalbano also talks and walks with stunning backdrops.

In the centre of Ragusa Ibla

The houses of Ragusa Ibla

Ragusa Ibla from the steps of Santa Maria della Scala

While in this area we stay at another renovated seventeenth century Masseria.  This is Nacalino Agriturismo run by Tina and Filippo.  It is a perfect place to rest, with excellent food, all from local produce - smoked ricotta, sun-dried tomatoes, yoghurt, cheese, olive oil, zucchini, beans, wine.  Filippo works the farm (he has thousands of carob and olive trees, varied livestock, vegetables and crops in four parcels of land, as much as twenty kilometres apart) but is also constantly working on restoring the masseria, which is beautiful.

Amongst the colours around us are the silver green of olive leaves and the darkest, almost black, green of carobs, to the orange and red of the many different citrus fruits that abound.

Then there are flowers.  As before, but this time with the violets and blacks of orchids.

The wildest flowers

Our last stop on this tour was Siracusa, or rather Ortigia.  I had been here before, but it has been cleaned up, and I was struck how bright the stone work was, how quiet the streets were without incessant traffic.  I still find echoes of Montalbano, as scenes have been filmed here, and now almost everything has some resonance, but it was not Montalbano who brought me here.  It was Camilleri.  His book, "Il Colore Del Sole" is an intricately crafted interpretation of the troubled times of Caravaggio in Malta and Sicily.  The church of Santa Lucia alla Badia has his "Sepoltura di Santa Lucia" as an altar piece (after years in restoration) and it is a strange but emotive piece - largely an empty canvas and with the little saint laid along the edge of her grave.  Camilleri recreates the world of intrigue and deception that surrounded Caravaggio with the chiaroscuro that it deserves, and it lends another layer to our exploration of this part of the world.  

Marriage Italian Style, the steps of the Duomo, with the church of Santa Lucia in the background

Another reason brought me to Ortigia.  I wanted lunch in a trattoria, just to sit in the sunny shades of a small piazza and taste the sea, rinsed with Grillo.  And so I make my way to the Taberna Sveva, a few steps, but a world apart, from the tourist crush near the Fonte Aretusa.  Here, with all the time in the world, we dine on the sweetest melanzana alla parmigiana, tagliolini con alici freschi, pomodorini e pepe rosso, and a grilliata mista di pesci.


The day is clear blue and gold, and it is a pleasure to sit and chat with Luca Zingaretti, aka Commissario Salvo Montalbano.  He is good company, and knowledgeable about Caravaggio, and although he is pressed for time, with Livia on his back about a sailing holiday, our trip to Sicily has made us firm friends and we are reluctant to part.   The Grillo, from Mandarossa, slips sleepily away, and the warmth of companionship glows.

But, hey, we have to round the buoy..... 

Leonardo Sciascia - Il giorno della civetta

Andrea Camilleri - Il Colore del Sole

Andrea Camilleri - la prima indagine di montalbano

Andrea Camilleri - The Potter's Field

Inspector Montalbano - Collection Three (dvd)

19 April 2013

Sicily 2

Land of Hawks and Sparrows

Il Tempio di Giunone, Agrigento

We drive away from Etna, though cannot shed her looming shape from our mirrors.  The landscape rolls open and floral, as if we are wandering across wallpaper. A passage from the essential Sicilian novel, Il Gattopardo comes to mind:  L'aspetto di un'aridita ondulante all'infinito, in groppe sopra groppe, sconfortate e irrazionali delle quali la mente non poteva afferare le linee principali, concepite in una fase delirante della creazione; un mare che si fosse pietrificato in un attimo in cui un cambiamento di vento avesse reso dementi le onde. Or, as Archibald Colquhoun translated the last phrase: a sea suddenly petrified when a change of wind had flung the waves into a frenzy. Ancient uninhibited fertility abounds at this time of year, so different from the scorched fields of summer or the wet cold of winter.


It is strangely quiet.  There are occasional vehicles but most are parked in impossible corners of towns, as if the possession of a parking space is more precious than any need for transport.  Our modest machine, incidentally the only Golf 1.6TD Cabriolet on the island, is perfect at curving and shifting and breezing and making the most of the extraordinary curls of stilted motorways and the steep narrow lanes of baroque town centres.  Everywhere we go we are waved and tooted at as being eccentric foreign visitors.  We are like exotic birds that have been blown off course.

And then we reach the coast, the southern face of the island, and there is no one there.  We are screamed at by swifts and croaked at by jackdaws nesting on the cliffs but no one else is around.  I park the car and draw my name in the sand with a stick.  The waters sparkle turquoise and azure, the rocks lie tanning themselves, like beached seals, the struts of incomplete buildings stand like bleached skeletons, pecked clean by vultures. A memorial to the 1943 landings reminds me that others have been here before, but no one else appears.

But it wasn't the 1943 landings that created Sicily, even though it may have legitimised the mafia.  There is another line from Il Gattopardo which refers to the waves of invaders in the past:  The macchia which clings to the hillsides maintains the same tangle of aromas which the Phoenicians,  the Dorians and the Ionians found when they landed in Sicily, that America of the past.

Il Tempio della Concordia, Agrigento

The Greeks came here about five hundred years before Christ was born.  That 'America of the past,' such a telling phrase, was fertile, wooded, available, and uncluttered.  Greece, pestered by Middle Eastern forces, was more populous and less arable.  No wonder that the New World became popular, and the colonies became powerful.   And no wonder that the potentates, such as tyrant Terone (488 - 473 BC), raised such impressive monuments as these temples at Akragas.

A Booted Eagle surveys the world about Agrigento

Nothing lasts forever, however, and in 406 BC the city was sacked and burnt by the Carthaginians.  Two hundred years later it became Agrigentum, under the Romans, and then, after the decline of the empire, it came under Bizantine rule, and then Arab, then Norman, then Spanish, and then Italian. Nothing here is Sicilian (if you avert your eyes from the crude and suspect concrete erections of the twentieth century).  Or, paradoxically, everything here is Sicilian, as in a certain sense all who land here are ensnared by the sirens or by the cyclops or simply by the climate and food and wine, and so become a part of the culture and the world of Sicily. But that world has always been divided, between Lords and serfs, or Hawks and Sparrows.  The rulers had left their mark in the great buildings, the extravagance and permanence of the powerful.  The serfs have left their mark, as they still do, in the stone walls and olive trees, the carobs and the sheep that are so characteristic of the island.

Tempio della Concordia, seen from that of Giunone

The small town of Naro, thirty-five kilometres from Agrigento, shows this well.  Surmounting the top of the hill, dominating the settlement and the valleys around, is the tightly sealed and impregnable nest of the hawkish landlords, the thirteenth century Castello del Chiaramonte, with cylindrical towers and square keep.  But then in the narrow lanes around there are the dilapidated and in some cases abandoned dwellings of the sparrows. 

Naro - Castello del Chiaramonte

Naro - medieval house

Naro - abandoned housing

I was asked the other day if I met any Mafiosi in Sicily. The answer is probably, yes, though it is not that they wear a badge. Like many fraternities, like the masons, they may have their secret signs and handshakes, but they do not necessarily advertise their allegiance. According to authorities, such as Norman Lewis, Cosa Nostra is a relatively new feature of Sicilian life (the word "mafia" was first recorded in 1668, but "mafiosi" did not appear until after Garibaldi coined it in 1861), but is also one that has changed radically in the last half century since the US deal with powerful Sicilian bosses in 1943 which helped liberate the island from German occupation, but which indirectly led to the world of drug trafficking.

The tradition of a mafia, however, was described by Tomasso Buscetta, the first and most famous of the Pentiti, [Repentents] in November 1992. Ognuno, ogni mafioso, ha una Famiglia numerosissima, e questa Famiglia ha altre Famiglie.....  Each individual, each mafioso, has a very large family, and that family has other family..... It is connection.....

I am not defending anything here; the many murders associated with the mafia, the drug dealing, the appallingly wasteful and disfiguring construction contracts, the political intrigue - the mafia is a criminal organisation and its leaders' talons are deeply stained with the blood of others.  The hawks bite the heads off sparrows.

It is difficult to read about Sicily without reading about the Mafia.  Mary Taylor Simeti's book, On Persephone's Island, essentially a journal of family life with much about the seasons and agriculture, refers to threatening phone calls, exploding gas cylinders, a residual fear that nothing is absolutely secure which imbues existence with a particular paranoia.  Shortly before his death, at the hands of the Mafia, Giovanni Falcone, Director of Penal Division in the Ministry of Justice, said this in an interview:  Solitude, pessimism, death are the themes of our literature from Pirandello to Sciascia. It is as if we were people who have lived too long and all of a sudden feel tired, drained, emptied, like Don Fabrizio in Tomasi di Lampedusa [The Leopard]. Affinities between Sicily and the Mafia are many.  His point was that the Mafia was the "culture of death," and that this was  applicable to all things Sicilian.

More abandoned housing in Naro.  Empty nests.  
The population has halved in the last sixty years.

In The Mafia in Sicilian Literature, (New Academia Publishing, 2008) Corinna del Greco Lobner refers to Leonardo Sciascia's choice of, writers who have unveiled the secrets of the Sicilian people. There are several but Verga, Pirandello, Tomasi di Lampedusa dominate his choice. What Sciascia is suggesting is that in order to find out what the Mafia is really like readers must go to Sicilian literature. It is here that they will discover the importance of Mafioso behaviour that animates characters and situations as presented by Sicilian writers.

In a further paragraph, del Greco Lobner explains how complex and insidious the Mafia really is: the 1987 Palermo maxi-trial of 465 indicted Mafiosi delivered 342 convictions with sentences adding to a total of 2655 years in prison, not including the nineteen life terms adjudged to members of the cupola. It was not long, however, before business as usual resumed.  As recently as August 2003 the Italian government admitted the impossibility of eliminating the Mafia from the national scene and suggested some form of convivenza [cohabitation] to ease the tension and stabilize the situation which notes the ability of the Mafia’s adjustments to changing social and economic conditions (a factor constantly present in Sicilian literature), mix with ordinary people without creating specific problems for the Mafiosi, rely on intimidation and violence, and be faithful to oneself regardless of the circumstances. In short, to be and to remain la stessa cosa [the same thing] at all times. Even if frustrated, Italians have kept their sense of humor. They call Cosa Nostra – Casa Nostra (Our House).

Agriturismo Baglio San Nicola

And our house for a day or two is a restored masseria [farm] where the charming Santo Schembri and his wife look after us with meticulous care.  It may be something of a contradiction in the light of the above, but there is more to Sicily than the Mafia.  There is Nero d'avola, for example, a smooth red wine which goes perfectly with spicy sausages and fresh vegetables.  There is the scent of crushed fennel from the roadside verges; the sight of peach blossom in ranked orchards; wild flowers abound everywhere; bee eaters, swallows, swifts, peregrine falcons, booted eagles score the sky; magpies and hooded crows scour the fields.  

Borage amongst the hawkweeds and marigolds

And everywhere there are churches, often ornately baroque, with their revered saints and images within. Padre Pio is popular, but the Virgin Mary is omnipresent, receiving gifts and granting peace of mind to the faithful from innumerable shrines and chapels.

A Martyress in the Santuario di San Calogero, Naro

It is curious that this statue (above) is blonde, as this is not the natural Sicilian tint. Coincidentally certain other young women in Sicilian art are blonde as well.  In the magnificent Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina (constructed in the 3rd to 4th centuries AD) the mosaic floors tell of hunting, shooting and fishing, in grandiose style.  Pass-times as popular then as they were for Il Gattopardo, Don Fabrizio, in 1861.  There are beautiful geometric designs, pictures of beasts, gods, heroes and daily life and amongst the most delightful are those of a series of bikini clad ladies in the gym, toning themselves up and counteracting the effects of grand feasts.  They have golden hair, but I wonder if they were natural blondes?  Perhaps they were Greeks?

There is more to Sicily than the Mafia.  I may have met some Mafiosi, but we did not meet men with bloody hands, or witness the Lupara Bianca.  Yes we saw sparrows, and we saw hawks, but that is the way of the world, and to a certain extent we can co-exist.  

Sicily has produced a fair share of art, in several forms, and for a relatively small island two Nobel Prize Winners for Literature is not bad going. In 1934 it was the turn of Luigi Pirandello, author of The Late Mathias Pascal, Six Characters in search of an Author, and Henry IV, among other works. He was born and lived near Agrigento and was one of the twentieth century's greatest dramatists.

In 1959 Salvatore Quasimodo, another native Sicilian, was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The citation said that it was, for his poetry which with classical fire expresses the tragic experience of life in our time.

Street in Agrigentum

The wind is still there that I remember
kindling the manes of horses coursing
oblique among the plains; a wind
that stains and gnaws the sandstone and the heart
of the doleful telamons lying
felled on the grass.
Ancient soul grey with bitterness
you return with the wind, sniff
the delicate moss that clothes
the giants thrust down from the sky.....

Evening near Agrigento

There is more to Sicily than the mafia.  Even sparrows can be beautiful.....

A Reading List

Tomasi di Lampedusa: "Il Gattopardo"

Quasimodo: Selected Poems (Penguin Modern Poets)

Luigi Pirandello:  "Six characters in search of an author."

Luigi Pirandello:  "Il fu Mattia Pascal"

Leonardo Sciascia:  "Una Storia Semplice"

Leonardo Sciascia: "Il giorno della civetta."

I Libri dell'Unita:  "Mafia e Potere"

I Libri dell'Unita:  "I Corleonesi: Mafia e sistema eversivo."

Mary Taylor Simeti:  "On Persephone's Island."

Norman Lewis:  "In Sicily"

Vincent Cronin:  "The Golden Honeycomb."

Lawrence Durrell: "Sicilian Carousel."

Norman Lewis:  "The Honoured Society."

Giovanni Verga (translated by D H Lawrence):  Short Sicilian Novels

"Sicily through writers' eyes" - Horatio Clare

Where we stayed:

12 April 2013

Merrie England - Part Three

Spring Watch

April 7th.  The road is blocked with snow.  It is cold and dull and winter has not yet given way.  A week after Easter and we are looking for signs of rebirth, regeneration, new life.  I have to say that England does not look very Merrie....

It is April. Where is the warmth of Spring? What is this never-ending winter? We withdraw from the drifted snow that blocks our way and find another route. But everywhere seems lifeless and cold. Is the world coming to an end?

We find an Inn, check in for the night and take a walk, and examine the prospects of a world in a coma. Little by little signs of life appear. It's not so much that it is cold, though the unseasonal temperatures have kept life safe in dormancy, it is more that it is dull. Where is the fresh light and the blue sky that cheers so much after the drear of winter?

There is a chill in the land, and it is hard to believe that Easter, with its resurrective spirit, is a week behind us already. It is hard to believe that the clocks have changed. The valley seems dreich (to borrow the Scots' favourite word) and I just want to curl up and sleep.

But in fact the land is slowly coming back to life.  Trees are beginning to show their buds and flowers are managing to blossom.  

There is a lot going on.  Lambs, the symbol of many things, are stumbling into life.  I am reminded of an Easter in the Peloponnese years ago, taking a bus on Good Friday, and finding the luggage racks full of loosely wrapped carcasses of lambs, tears of blood trickling from their open necks.  The sacrifice of new born flesh being one of the most primitive rituals of man, but the taste of spit-roast meat with marjoram and fresh bread takes some beating.

But eggs are another potent symbol of rebirth and it is the bird song I notice next. Rarely heard from within the confines of a car, walking in an otherwise silent valley I find I am tuned in to the chattering and chirruping of tiny souls.  There is a proud Great Tit, boldly atop a bush, vigorously practising his characteristic two tone call. Then a happy refrain above me catches my ear, and I search the trees to catch a glimpse of a cock chaffinch, whistling in cheerful territorial claim, or to attract his mate.

Twitching about on the ground, rustling under leaves and pecking at the moss, a busy Dunnock catches my eye, foraging for insects and spiders to keep his strength up and perhaps even to feed his young.

Not far away twiggy nests still stand out in leafless trees, soon to be camouflaged by expected growth.  There is a lot going on, and the longer days help birds enormously as their need to feed their families increases.  The cold winter has been hard on them, and the extra weeks will have exhausted many, but there is no mistaking the sound of Spring in the songs of the survivors.

We move on.  It's not quite the joyous riot of Spring I had hoped for, especially having just got back from being screamed at by swifts on a beach in sunny Sicily, where the roadside verges are amok with flowers, but the evidence is there.  Slowly but surely we are emerging from our torpor.  There is light at the end of the tunnel.

The celebration of a family 21st birthday, another rite of passage, takes us on to Liverpool.  I was not expecting Spring to be much further advanced here amid the walls and the roads, but I am in for a surprise.  The warmth of Liverpool is not just in the ocean tides.  The spirit is welcoming, and generous, and despite the litter that blusters around the waste patches, and the houses that have seen many better days, there is a colourfulness about the ambience and about the people, and, like the birds, there is an excited business of preparation for new life apparent.

There is sufficient sun to bring people, and their pets, out onto the streets, out of the confines of the winter home and into the public world.

And people are busy with decoration, either painting or planting, outside their homes.

I find myself in a pub, joining in the craic with two gentlemen of substance.  Mr Sixteen-and-a-Half Stone is telling his elder, Mr Twenty Stone and Rising, about his diet.  "They weighed me, like, and I was 16 and a half stone, which for a man of my height is too much."  We nod.  "So I'm on a diet - I was eating six, seven pieces of bread....  And I'm swimmin', go to the gym - but not the heavy things, just the light exercise to start with."

"It's the food," interjects Mr Twenty, taking a draft from his pint.

"It's self-discipline," I add.

"An I got a bike.  Not goin' to use the car.  Want to lose some of this before the sun comes out!"  Mr Sixteen-and-a-Half wobbles his tummy.

"Walking is good,"  I suggest.

"It's the food," Mr Twenty repeats, quaffing another draft of ale.  This seems to cause some thought, just as Mr Fourteen Stone joins us.  

"I'm givin' up my diet," he offers, cheerily, ordering a pint.  "It didn't werk.  Potatoes, bread, butter, milk, sugar.  Jest didn't werk! I'm back on the fresh fruit and veg, me!"

We sail on, reinventing ourselves, reconstructing, resurrecting our images.  I come home to find a blackbird singing his heart out in my cherry tree, the buds just forming ready to foam in celebration of the light and warmth.  The fluting song, and the waving daffodils in the evening light seem good to me.  It has been a long winter, but the world keeps on turning.  For now, at least.

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world

And should you wish to hear the chaffinch (pictured above) - you won't see him here, but you can (just) hear him....