Category Archives: Sicilia

p h o t o s : washington, trapani, stromboli, palermo

[ 23:22 tuesday 16 february – haggerston road ]

here’s a crop of fifty-eight photos from last september:

washington dc (ix 2009) : 14 pictures : in washington dc to represent one click orgs at harvard’s summit on next-generation governance, hiking the entire length of rock creek park, exploring the back streets.
trapani (ix 2009) : 20 pictures : out and about in trapani in turbulent weather. abandoned marble factory, ruined tonnara, swimming off the rocks.
stromboli (ix 2009) : 11 pictures : a stormy week with my friends on stromboli.
palermo (ix 2009) : 13 pictures : the festa della madonna delle mercede in palermo.

one picture from each set posted below.

: c :

v i d e o : maria delle mercede

[ 17:26 friday 25 december – sandhurst, gloucestershire ]

christmas day, perched afront the log fire in mum and dad’s sitting room. this afternoon we went out walking in the forest of dean. everything was crusted in snow. a deep, timeless silence hung amongst the trees disturbed only by the crunch of our feet on the icy ground. the river wye was in full flood, winding around the limestone cliffs of symonds yat and churning tirelessly over the shallows. the sun hung low above the horizon and sent fingers of gold piercing the mist between the boughs. we got lost and ended up walking rather further than we intended. it was breathtakingly beautiful. i took photographs with a sense of wide-eyed wonder.

for christmas day i’ve made a little film of the procession i stumbled across in palermo at the end of september, celebrating the feast of the madonna delle mercede. it was a magnificently rowdy affair with two large marching bands, a dozen boys pulling the giant statue of the madonna and shouting fervent invocations to her, then at the climax the most intense firework display i’ve ever encountered. it felt as if we were under artillery bombardment. even the palermitans around me stopped gossiping for a moment and looked slightly nervously at the flaming projectiles darting on all sides.

anyway happy christmas to all who read this and i hope you enjoy the film.

: c :

v i d e o : stromboli ix 2009

[ 02:58 friday 4 december – haggerston road ]

here’s a 6 minute film edited from the footage i recorded on stromboli at the end of september. the weather in sicily  that month was rather savage. there were flash floods across the island. cars were submerged in trapani. hill-side houses collapsed in a mudslide in the suburbs of messina. i reached stromboli on the final boat before communications were cut off by a fast-rising scirocco. four days later i departed in the face of another scirocco. the crews running the siremar hydrofoils between milazzo and the eolian islands are courageous men. it seems to me they love their work most when it’s stormy.

the video is recorded in high definition. to view it at a larger size, right-click anywhere on the video and select “watch on you tube” from the menu.

: c :

v i d e o : t r a p a n i

[ 22:56 monday 16 november – haggerston road, london ]

i’ve compiled a five minute edit of the film i recorded in trapani at the end of september. following the pattern of the previous few clips it consists of a succession of brief snippets keeping strictly to the sequence in which they were recorded and retaining the original audio. the only innovation this time is a few captions to provide contextual details. there’s not much narrative, my aim is simply to capture some vignettes of the trip and convey an impression of the whole.

in retrospect animals feature quite strongly. the beautifully-plumed but ill-mannered blue parakeet which attacked me repeatedly at sergio’s family home. the similarly aggressive crab with which sergio did combat. the prawn which alessandro pretended to eat then miraculously brought back to life (it was fine). the giant cricket sergio and i found ricocheting between houses in confusion. the rat we chased and cornered. in between there are glimpses of the sea, of trapani’s crumbling palaces and of the bizarre weather which mystified people through the whole of september.

: c :

f a c c i e

[ 08:58 monday 28 september – bus from central palermo to punta raisi airport, sicilia ]

it’s touch and go whether i’ll make my flight back to london. i got to the station quarter of an hour early for my 8:09 train. after twenty minutes it struck me as odd that the station was swarming with people, predominantly school children, but i hadn’t seen a single train. this seemed ominous for peak time on a monday morning. arrivals were being announced and passengers advised to stand back from the edge of the platform but no trains were materialising.

i asked an old man on the platform who said “if the train doesn’t come, maybe the next one will” which was admirably philosophical but not exactly reassuring. 8:09 came and went. then the indicator board mysteriously went blank and details for the 8:39 appeared on the next platform. i searched out an official who apologised that there was a strike and all trains were cancelled.

once i would have felt irritated that no signs had been put out, no announcements made, to warn travelers of the situation. but my relationship with sicily has reached a point where i accept her foibles, perhaps even feel affection for them. so i simply rushed outside and got a seat in the half-hourly bus which runs from the station to the airport.

that was half an hour ago. this is the peak of the morning rush hour and we’re still battling through the palermo streets towards the autostrada. my chances of reaching the airport before check-in closes are evenly balanced.

i flew into trapani last saturday with sergio and spent several days there with his family. then on tuesday i journeyed to milazzo and took wednesday morning’s first hydrofoil to stromboli. the crew told me a scirocco was rising from the south-east and they were uncertain if they’d be able to dock. indeed there was a large sea running by the time we reached the island three hours later. but they managed to come alongside just long enough for me to leap off.

that was the last boat to dock until saturday. within an hour the waves were crashing down on the quay. there’s a special atmosphere on the island when it’s cut off like this. nobody arrives, nobody leaves. then after two days the wind and sea shifted ninety degrees and a maestrale came up from the north-east. now the waves pounded spiaggia lunga whilst scari and the quay fell into the lea of the island. stromboli was re-connected to the outside world.

yesterday afternoon as i was packing my bags the wind shifted back to the south-east and waves began to lick the sides of the quay again. one of the two companies running hydrofoils to stromboli cancelled their services. but my boat managed to come alongside. the hydrofoil was pitching and lurching alarmingly as we ran up the gangplank. it was the roughest i’ve seen anyone dock there.

the journey back to milazzo was quite an adventure. every few minutes the forward foils would catch a wave and the bow would slam down sending torrents of water over the cabin. i have the greatest admiration for the siremar crews. they continue to operate these machines masterfully under conditions in which most would stay in port. we reached milazzo right on time and i caught the last train to palermo.

it was eleven in the evening when i arrived in palermo. after my time on stromboli and with sergio in trapani i was expecting palermo to be the anti-climax of the trip. but sicily blessed me with one last surprise and i found myself in the chaos of a religious festival in the quarter where i was staying. a huge statue of the madonna was being carried through the streets by young men with priests and white-robed women carrying candles in front and two fifty-piece brass bands following behind. every twenty metres a handbell would ring, the statue would be set down and one of the bearers would shout invocations at the statue at the top of his voice to be affirmed by the rest of the bearers with an impassioned cry of “viva maria!”. all the while the bands kept playing, one alternating with the other to save the musicians from complete exhaustion. it was incredibly moving, there were moments when i had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

dangling my camera, video camera and audio recorder from various limbs i threw myself into the thick of the procession. it took an hour passing down via roma before pausing and turning into piazza sant’anna. the piazza was blazing with ornate festal arches studded with coloured lights. as the procession entered a welter of fireworks commenced which rose to a deafening crescendo. fragments of burning carboard began to rain down and people started retreating nervously before a series of huge explosions marked its finale. the statue passed into the small plain church of maria of the mercede. there was an awkward moment when it came off the ramp to its resting place at the alter, triggering a thrill of terror that some harbinger of bad fortune was about to transpire, then a final heave restored her to her resting place and everyone relaxed.

i ate a carton of panelli on the street, drank a few glasses of rum at the tiny bar “monkey” on the piazza where i met some friendly musicians, then it was time for me to retire and get a few hours’ sleep.

thus sicily continually tests me and shows me her different faces. it is a place, a people, where i find a vividness and intensity of life that raises me above myself.

we are on the autostrada now. i think i will reach the airport in time.

: c :

n e b r o d i

[ 17:20 monday 4 september – porto di milazzo, sicily ]

the hydrofoil’s crew unhurriedly take their places, preparing to cast off from milazzo for the final journey of the day. the late afternoon sun catches my face through an open hatchway. in two and a half hours i’ll be on stromboli.

on friday i said goodbye to gaetano and his family after an invigorating dip in the stream that tumbles down from the aspromonte. the tiny train carried me down to gioia then i got the main line to villa san giovani with its criss-cross relay of ferries  traversing the straits of messina. there was a tiny beach between the ferry terminals and the water looked reasonably clean so i had a quick swim before taking a ship. from messina i caught the coach to palermo, where i passed a riotous night with impromptu friends before uniting with gabriele.

on saturday morning gabriele and i drove to a rocky stretch of coast for a swim then headed up into the mighty nebrodi mountains in the north-east of sicily. we stopped and watched the spectacular sunset with livid-hued clouds swirling all around us.

after spending saturday night upstairs from a bar in the little town of cesero we bought some supplies, packed our rucksacks and set off on foot. we hiked all afternoon through the wooded mountainside, eyed with curiosity by the wild black pigs that seem to be the nebrodi’s masters. our goal was the biviere di cesaro, a remote and beautiful lake a thousand metres up in the mountains. our solitude was disturbed only by a convoy of mountain bikers in a race.

by the time we reached the lake the morning’s clear sky had been obscured by clouds trickling up from the mountains. the water was completely still, with reed beds dotting its perimeter and the forest extending down to its western shore.

looking northward one could make out the hazy outline of the aeolian islands. the view to the south was dominated by etna’s brooding cone with its eternal streamer of smoke. the only sounds were the buzzing insects, faraway cowbells and the occasional hoot of water fowl.

gabriele had heard that the solitary farmhouse near the lake had a cattle shed that was left open where hikers could pass the night. the farmhouse’s gates were heavily padlocked and there was no reply to our calls so we climbed over and looked around for the shed. at this point the farmer returned. he seemed like a tough fellow, accustomed to being alone, and he was not amused to find us there. it turned out gabriele’s information was essentially correct, but the farmer resented people like us taking the shed for granted. in the end gabriele’s charm and my stupid englishman act worked their magic and he said we could stay. he also gave us permission to walk in the mountainside around the lake, all of which was his property.

the shed was a little way up the hill from the farmhouse. inside we found three ancient camp beds and a rickety table. it was already inhabited by eight adorable little bats, hanging from the rafters busily cleaning themselves, and everything was covered with their shit. we dumped our rucksacks and headed out to explore.

below the lake was a marshy area, followed a dry stream-bed piled with huge boulders washed down the mountain. beyond this we discovered an abandoned village comprising seven or eight simple stone dwellings in an advanced state of decay. each house had a carefully leveled stone terrace in front of it where the inhabitants must have lived and worked in daylight hours through the warmer months. it was a strongly evocative place.

after dark we climbed up the hillside and sat silently in the bright moonlight, looking out over the mountains and valleys stretching to the distance. at one point a hedgehog trotted over to investigate us. later an owl swooped around us, hunting for its prey. there were probably no more than a dozen people within ten kilometres.

: c :

f l a m i n g o s

[ 23:05 monday 19 april – torre ventorello, sicilia ]

cross-legged in my tent on the edge of a small bay. sergio is lying next to me tapping out a message on his mobile phone. the area is a nature reserve which means camping is prohibited. we saw some wardens doing their rounds earlier and we’re eager not to attract their attention, so we haven’t got any lights on. in such circumstances the powerbook’s backlit keyboard is a great asset, making it possible to dim the screen and type without any light.

this place is fantastically beautiful. behind the curving white sand a series of pools and marshes overflows with plants and birds whose ecosystems have not been disturbed. shortly after we arrived this afternoon a flock of flamingos flew over. later on thousands of swallows swooped and dived around us as the sun set. further inland there’s a stand of tall eucalyptus trees surrounded by orange and lemon orchards. on the point of the bay, just beyond us, are the ruins of a rectangular fort (aroganese i think, from the eighteenth century) and the columns and chimney of a tonnara where freshly-caught tuna was offloaded from boats to be salted and packed.

the nearest streetlight is several miles away. the sea is very still, just a slow lapping of waves. the light this afternoon was golden and rich. my camera was busy.

the ventorello reserve is on the east side of the rolling plains which occupy the southern tip of sicily. to the south west there is the town of pachino, where we bought some groceries earlier. to the north rise the long ranges on which the towns of noto, rosselino and ispica are perched. the ancient cities on these sites were flattened by a big earthquake in the late seventeenth century so the baroque architects and town planners had a field day. likewise ragusa, spectacularly wrapped around a lump of rock.

this will be my fourth night in a tent on a beach since arriving in sicily a couple of weeks ago. the first was the day after i wrote my previous despatch, when gabriele guided me along a bumpy dirt track to the shore below torre salsa, far to the west near sciacca. this was an amazing place, absolutely unspoilt with nobody for miles. the second was last wednesday, on stromboli’s spiaggia lunga. i remember sleeping on the beach here back in august 2000, when i built a shelter from palm leaves and wedged some candles in the rocks. the third occasion was last night, which we spent on the long straight beach at marza, to the west of pozzalo, a tip we got from a barista in a caffe in ragusa. there was a strong wind blowing all night and the tent was bowing and shaking but it stood firm. this morning sergio and i emerged from the tent to find the beach stretching for several miles in each direction without a single person in sight. we both ran naked along the beach whooping with joy and splashing in the waves.

tomorrow morning we’ll drive back to milazzo, hand over the car and get a train to palermo. we’ll spend the night there before catching the plane early on wednesday morning. sitting here in this wonderful place with the gentle waves and the tent rustling in the breeze london seems a long long way away. by the miracle of bluetooth and gprs i can send this email right now, direct from the tent!

: c * *

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 **

f e u d

[ 18:35 friday 28 september – scauri, isola di pantelleria ]

a departure from the usual commentary to bring you a rough translation of an article from tuesday’s edition of “il manifesto”, italy’s rather remarkable mass-circulation communist newspaper. if anyone can verify whether the alleged links between the bush and bin laden families are genuine,please let me know.

Bush and Bin Laden, Business Partners and Blood Brothers (the never-ending saga of relations between two families in which the Bin Ladens are to lose)

That old pirate Prescott Bush would certainly have been pleased by the extent to which his descendents have inherited his spirit. He who in 1918 raided the Apache cemetary to seize Geronimo’s skull as a trophy for his student society, the Skull and Bones. He who in the 1930s and early 40s trafficked with the Luftwaffe until three companies of which he was a major shareholder were sanctioned for violation of the Trading with the Enemy act. He who dined daily with Allen and Foster Dulles (head of the CIA at the time of JFK’s assasination) and who called upon the head of the Apache Nation for a ceremony to return Geronimo’s skull, which ended badly when he tried to hand over a different skull and deeply offended the Apache chief.

He was certainly happy with his first-born George Herbert, an oil man with little luck but as an agent of the CIA successful at climbing the greasy pole (he was nominated Director in 1976) despite the inglorious result of the Bay of Bigs landing in Cuba of which he was co-ordinator. He showed his Texan roots in oil and family, naming three ships that would make the landing Houston, Zapata (his first ill-fated oil company) and Barbara (his wife). He must have reflected on the strange liason between his son in the 1960s with an Arab constructor who from time to time came to Texas seeking to introduce himself into the local high society. But this Mohammad Bin Laden didn’t last long: falling with his aeroplane whilst crossing the skies above the oil wells that were giving him so little satisfaction. It was 1968 and the world was thinking of other things.

George W must initially have caused consternation. He was a donkey at school (averaging Cs, a whisker away from being kept down a year), he came last in the admission exam to enter the Air Force (just in time to avoid Vietnam), he was an assiduous companion of bottles of bourbon and ski-slopes of cocaine. But in the end even he launched himself into the oil business. In the mid 70s he founded Arbusto (“Bush” in Spanish) Energy, alongside business partners drawn from his Father’s friends (the CIA has many friends). His friend from school and military, James Bath, procured invesments on behalf of Khaled Bin Mafouz and Salem Bin Laden, eldest son of Mohammad and new head of the family. Mafouz was a notable figure. He was banker for the Saudi royal family and happy husband of a sister of Salem and Osama, head of Relief and Blessed Relief, the two Arab NGOs accused of being a cover for Osama’s organisation.

George was unlucky in business. Arbusto failed and became Bush Exploration then Spectrum 7. Inevitably it too went bankrupt. But Salem continued to support him generously and success seemed to smile upon him when Harken Energy bought out Spectrum paying its shareholders $600,000, supplemented by a consultancy contract worth $120,000 a year. In short he ended up with $1m in his pocket whilst Harken lost several. Then he won an offshore oil exploration contract in Bahrain, beating Amoco and Esso. It’s 1991, the Gulf War is about to explode, Daddy Bush is President and a local sheik Khalifa prefers not to take risks.

After all they’re old family friends. Khalifa, Bin Mafouz and Salem Bin Laden were on the board of BCCI when it was transferring immense sums of money for the Iran Contra affair. At the end of 1980 the Republicans had secretly met in Paris with moderate supporters of Khomeini to stall the release of American hostages in Tehran and thus screw up Jimmy Carter’s re-election hopes. Daddy George reached that summit at speed on board Salem Bin Laden’s jet.

George W is unlucky with his business partners. On the same jet in 1988 Salem meets his death (even he) whilst he crosses the sky over the oil wells of Texas. To many this seemed like an excessive co-incidence but the investigation was carefully handled. The conclusions, indeed, were never made public. In the meantime another protagonist from the Paris meeting, Amiram Nir (an agent of Mossad) dies in an air accident but no suspicions are raised: he crashes in Mexico, not in Texas.

Bad luck dogs even the journalists who concern themselves with Bush. Danny Casolaro was writing a book (“Untangling the Octopus”) picking apart the network of large and small scandals surrounding the Paternal Presidency. Before finishing it, though, he decides to commit suicide “like an imbecile”, as reported by Steve Mizrach. The same fate befalls James H Hatfield, 43 years old, who was able to publish “A Fortunate Son: George W Bush and the Making of an American President”. An unauthorised biography which in 1999 revealed how George had covered up his cocaine habit. By the law of poetic retribution he was found dead from an overdose in a hotel in Springdale, Arkansas on the 18th of July this year.

Now it’s Osama’s turn, of course. Only this time it’s not a business affair but a CIA operation. Maybe his other 52 brothers will soon have something to object to. But, as Prescott would say, in a World War there’s plenty of room to resolve disputes between old business partners.

(translation by SNERO)

: cH