[Writing in Siracusa, August 19, 2010 ]
Moving a bit too fast to keep up with, we’re in a B&B in Siracusa, the second night. Catching up briefly – we spent 6 days in Palermo, a delirious city of contrasts too complex to broach in few words. The outskirts are a sadly typical example of southern Italian periferia – ugly, ill-conceived concrete boxes scattered heedlessly across the landscape: apartment blocks, little industrial complexes, shopping streets, nearly all gritty with gray and dull earthen colors, with a jumble of splashy commercial signs and billboards, all with almost no evident planning, aesthetic consideration, or anything aside from expediency and perhaps profit. And all seemingly left to decay, surrounded with the trash which southern Italians seem to toss aside with no care at all – any deep vertical drop, urban or rural, is likely to find a pile of garbage at its bottom, just as the roads are littered with bottles, plastic detritus, abandoned refrigerators or TVs, just dumped for some non-existent other party to clean up. The other party is the ever corrupt government to which no one pays taxes if they can avoid it. Palermo is no exception to this.
The interior of Palermo is that of a once rich city – economically and culturally – gone to total decay: cathedrals crumbling, with facades in utter ruin, not to mention the insides. Old medieval neighborhoods of labyrinthian streets are pocked with buildings collapsing, walls marked with centuries of neglect, all the signs of abandonment. And yet it is a city vividly alive, with a very particular character unlike others (except perhaps, I am told, Napoli, which I have never visited). Immersed in a deep-south Mediterranean heat, it sleeps through the sun scorched afternoon, and comes alive as the sun recedes, and a hint of coolness arrives with the night: Palermo lives, and perhaps to the degree that it does at all, works, at night, with a sudden flush of liveliness, arriving at 9 or 10 in the evening. Whether in somewhat costly (25 Euro) fish restaurants (very good if very simple and on-the-street) along Via Torremuzza or in a nearby worker’s (or not) park, Piazza della Magione, with stands selling beer and simple barbeque food, the action begins at 10 or so. And goes on deep into the morning.
Behind mostly time-stained and crumbling facades, many churches reveal an orgy of artistic investment – stunning mosaics, stucco sculpture, marble inlays. Much of this was in an advanced state of collapse but recently many places have been restored, and others are in process. The many once opulent private palazzi are in various states from utter abandonment to newly restored and converted to museums or other cultural settings. Elsewhere in the old center buildings are collapsed, gouged with the wages of time, but still living, with markets, narrow alleyways affording shade in mid-day’s harsh sun, children playing impromptu football, and the vivid rhythms of life coursing by, languid in day, and building as the sun sets, and a hint of evening cool arrives. These days the many immigrants – African, North African, lend their stamp decisively onto the city, as one suspects was always the case: the old architecture with its mix of Arabic, Norman, English, Italian is but the concrete trace of a living lineage of mixture which gives Sicily its unique qualities. Elsewhere it is the Greek imprint, but not in Palermo.
From Palermo we went to Monreale, only 20 kilometers or so distant, passing through the devasted semi-urban landscape of litter, ugly dingy buildings with brief patches of fields, wending our way upward on the narrow chaotic road, to arrive in the city’s center, a grim melange of non-descript modernity giving way to a small centro storico at which sits the splendor of the Cathedral, the inside of which is vast and graced with mosaics on a large scale. Famed for these, one is naturally tempted to make comparisons with the mosaics of Palermo, in which case both Marcella and I found those more primitive ones found in the earlier and far smaller Chiesa di S Cataldo to be much more attractive in their more primitive but far more lively qualities. It seemed as if as the mixture of wealth and power grew, the imagery became more codified and rigid, as doubtless did the religion which was being so represented. Monreale was impressive, yet stultifying.
We then went on towards the coastal plains of Trapani in the west of Sicily – which was for me a place ruined with industrialization and the awful sudden architecture which had come with it: ugly concrete skeletons, many abandoned and illegal, drab stucco surfaces, surrounded with desolate grounds, and trash. We moved quickly on, passing through a number of smaller towns of the same quality, though some imagined themselves vacation beach towns, though it is difficult to imagine any pleasure in being there. Failing to find a hotel or B&B we ended late in the evening in a rural agri-tourismo place near Selinunte, which when morning came revealed a curious place with a little ill-kept zoo run by some people from Milano who had escaped to rural Sicily a decade ago – there was a tinge of hippie-life to the place, for better and worse. The animals could have, in my view, been better cared for – they can’t read the ecological messages posted here and there, but they could have more and better tended space.
Ragusa, Modica, and Scicli, are three small cities close by each other, inverting the usual mountain-top siting, thanks to earthquakes, after which the wealthy class of 1600 chose to rebuild below, presumably as the dangers of constant warring had subsided. The results are small treasures of Baroque churches and palaces nestled up against the steep valley sides, the streets and stairways cascading down in a cubist jumble of planes, a delight to the eye, if not the legs or car clutch. Here again the Sicilian reality though intrudes, and much of this is in a state of advanced disrepair, though some restoration has taken place, and with it, the concomitant gaggle of tourists and places to relieve them of their money. B&B’s are omnipresent. We ended in one in a grungy beach town just down the road from Scicli.
The next morning we went on to Selinunte, a former Greek city left a pile of rubble by the Cathaginians, way back in 250BC. As seemingly almost everything of such a nature in Sicily, it was encrusted with a tourist town, and the price for entry was 8 Euro, or about ten bucks. Each. What one saw were the handful of columns left standing, and a sequence of mounds of rubble in which bits of massive carved lintels and columns hinted at the scale and impressiveness of what had been a city of 200,000, completely upturned, burned and laid waste in the Punic wars. Ample food for thoughts on the nature of we humans.
We moved on to Agrigento and a false B&B, where we spent a hot afternoon wandering the more intact ruins of the Valley of the Temples, and ended with a rest in a lovely garden embedded within, run by an ecological organization. In the B&B we met a charming woman from the north of Spain, Basque country, Maria Asun. We spent the day with her and the next day she accompanied us to the grim, modestly well-known industrial town of Gela, famed for the number of mafia murders that once occurred there daily. The aura of the town seemed to warrant this fame, and taking Maria Asun to the train station to catch a ride back to Agrigento, we stayed another hour and a half to assure she got on and away safely. Gela did not seem a hospitable place, and a woman in a café where we had a coffee cautioned a lone woman at the station was not a good idea. Seeing her off, Marcella and I moved along toward Siracusa, spending a few nights there, taking some long walk on the small island which is its center. I had been there some years ago, a ghostly place on the verge of collapse. It has now been subject to some restoration – the duomo, and some palaces – and some gentrification, but some old neighborhoods remain, with some graffiti indicating a certain resistance to the changes being imposed by the monied classes.
Finally we headed to Gallodoro, stopping for a few hours in Catania, a run-down but interesting city, it’s center piazza surrounded by Baroque churches in various states of decay vaguely suggestive of those things which make Palermo attractive. Lunch in a rosticceria and then a visit to the castello which had a very nice little museum brought us almost to the close of our journey in Sicilia.
[Posted from Matera, Basilicata, August 23, 2010. For more on Sicily see my other blog, www.jonjost.wordpress.com.]