h e a d i n g s o u t h

[ 20:15 wednesday 7 april – via castore e pollusa, selinunte, sicilia ]

sitting here on the rooftop with the bark of three or four dogs echoing across the fields, mingling with the warble of crickets and night birds. the moon has not yet risen so venus’ cold blaze commands the sky. to my right the floodlit columns of a two-and-a-half-thousand year-old greek temple stand out on the dark hillside. i cannot hear the sea but it is there below me.

the process of arriving in selinunte has been as beautiful as the place itself. forty-eight hours ago i was in london, mid-way through a tele-conference with some possible clients in america. my flight was at seven on tuesday the morning and i didn’t get any sleep on monday night. i was tying up loose ends with my work until about three in the morning, after which sergio and i wandered round the cab firms of shoreditch and bethnal green to book the friendliest. just after five we were collected and whisked to heathrow as the sky started lightening. at the airport i bumped into john and janie maclay (janie’s my third cousin i think) on their way to croatia. this was doubly improbably as i also bumped into john and janie the last time i was in heathrow, back in february when i was flying to vienna and they were on their way to morocco.

i like alitalia. the dark green upholstery reminds me of being in a forest and the staff resemble prison warders less than those of other airlines. italians make good fellow-passengers too. our flight was packed but when it emerged that a mother and two young children had been seated separately a cry of “c’e una mama con due bambini!” went up and everyone rearranged to give them a row together.

en route to palermo we had an hour to kill in rome. the sardegnian cashier in the airport’s self-service restaurant taught us some numbers in sardo dialect, to which sergio replied with the equivalent words in the trapani dialect. arriving at palermo airport i was too knackered to feel much excitement, even greeted by the hot sun and clear skies. having taken the bus into the stazione centrale we went straight to the gelateria da ciccio round the corner where we revived ourselves with some of their fabulous ice-cream. the mulberry ice-cream they produced last summer was one of the most impossibly good things i’ve ever tasted. i went back for three cupfuls in a row of the deep purple confection. mulberry (“gelsi”) is out of season at the moment so i’m counting the days until june or july when the trees are once again dripping with the dark red fruit.

after our ice-cream break sergio took the coach westwards to trapani to stay with his parents (where i’ll join him on friday) and i set to thinking about where i was going to go. gabriele was in the port at palermo working on his boat so i organised to meet him there and maybe spend the night at his flat before heading on. but encountering a coach that was about to leave for castelvetrano in the south i had a sudden impulse to get to selinunte straight away, so i jumped on board. the coach dropped me in castelvetrano about half past six. an old lady came up to me and started babbling away in pure dialect. i couldn’t understand a single word, which delighted me no end. it’s the first time i’ve met someone in sicily who doesn’t speak italian. only when she pressed a timetable for the airport coaches into my hand did i realise that she’d seen my backpack and assumed i was trying to get to that destination.

in the next ten minutes i garnered two pieces of information, neither of which was encouraging. first, the day’s final bus for selinunte (14 kilometres hence) had departed a couple of hours earlier. second, there wasn’t anywhere in castelventrano where i could spend the night. my impulsive decision to head south was not looking like a good choice. feeling crestfallen i wandered into the station bar and ordered a coffee. it was an unassuming place, selling newspapers and lottery tickets as well as drinks and pastries. i asked the girl running the bar if she had any ideas about what i could do. she said i should ask the owner, which i did.

the bar owner, michele, thumbed through the phone book and made some calls. i gathered he was trying to track down a place in selinunte called “il pescatore” but was having trouble getting its number. he spoke to a couple of other hotels in selinunte but didn’t like the sound of them. a detective from the local caribinieri called matteo came into the bar and soon joined the search. i felt pretty overwhelmed. i don’t know many places else in the world where a stranger could walk into a bar and be treated in this way.

half an hour later, after speaking with several friends, michele got the number for “il pescatore” and spoke to its proprietor, salvatore, who agreed to drive to castelvetrano to collect me. michele, matteo, valentina and i took each other’s photos, joked about the price of wine in restaurants and swapped addresses. if i needed any reminder of why i am so enraptured by sicily, and why living in london so depresses me, it had been convincingly provided.

on the way to selinunte salvatore told me about the village and how his family balances fishing with running their small pensione. when we arrived there the streets were completely silent and the air was fresh and clear. i was led up marble stairs to a spotlessly clean room overlooking a terrace. i had a shower then went out for a wander; down to the shore, around the port, everything silent. my heart was leaping with delight. i returned to my room and fell into a deep sleep.

that was yesterday. i spent the whole of today exploring the ancient city which covers 300 hectares of the neighbouring hillside, carpeted with daisies and mimosas and other spring flowers. late in the afternoon i found my way down to a deserted beach where i took my first delicious swim of the year. now i am sitting here writing waiting for gabriele to arrive from agrigento, where he had a meeting this afternoon. we’ll eat together and he’ll stay here at “il pescatore” for the night, then tomorrow we’re planning to head further east with my tent and see what we can find.

this is all wonderful

: c **

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