Category Archives: Sicilia

p a n t e l l e r i a

[ 00:19 sunday 16 september – pietro novelli, from trapani to pantelleria ]

the afterdeck of a sturdy little ship. a windy night. an agitated sea. twenty minutes since we cast off from trapani at sicily’s western tip. the voyage to pantelleria usually five and a half hours. tonight perhaps a little longer.

the maestrale wind arrives, shifting gradually through the afternoon from north to north-west, strengthening a little. there was surf at capaci. gabriele and i were almost the only people in the water, plunging ourselves into the toiling spume.

for tonight’s passage i’ve taken a berth in one of the ship’s 18 tiny cabins. i adore sleeping in a vessel under way, preferably in a slightly lumpy sea.

sebastian and karen will have arrived on the island by air this afternoon. i’m looking forward to seeing them both again. sebastian is, of course, ecstatic at the prospect of meeting me at the port at quarter to six in the morning.

[ 18:50 tuesday 18 september – scauri, isola di pantelleria ]

impressions from two days. bouncing a fiat panda along miles of steep dirt track. neat terraces of vines, olives, capers, palm-nuts, squashes and figs cramming every conceivable inch of mountain, plain and cliff alike. swimming in perfectly clear water around lava outcrops. hitching a lift across the island with two non-english-speaking lads from trapini. sinking into three feet of soft mud in a wide turquoise crater-lake surrounded by sulphurous hot springs. landscapes peopled by squat tufa-built dwellings with inward-sloping walls and gently domed roofs. the chatter of the maestrale winds in the grass, delivering fresher air from france, switzerland, the alps. a house in the middle of a farm by the sea. extraordinary tranquility. being once again on an island with karen and sebastian.

[ 10:37 thursday 20 september ]

overnight the wind backs round to the south and drops to a whisper. this is the scirocco, bathing the island in hot, dry air from north africa.

: cH

a t t a c c o

[ 19:42 tuesday 11 september – ortegia, siracusa, sicilia ]

a table in a small bar in this unbelievably lovely town. a tv brings apocolyptic images from new york, the volume turned up high. the other three people don’t look like locals.

something appalling has happened but it feels distant and i am reluctant to know the details. i heard the news around half past four from a friend on stromboli. dad called a little later and craig phoned a few minutes ago.

the only people who will benefit from this are those who seek to augment the powers of the police, the military, the intelligence services. those whose goal is total surveillance of society. those who believe that the liberty of individuals is less important than the security of political and commercial establishments. those whose vision of society is one in which everyone experiences fear, all the time.

i am sad this is what came into my head, rather than sympathy for those who died, their families, their friends. tens of thousands of people will have been directly affected by this tragedy. but i fear that tens of millions will be oppressed by the responses which are to come.

the tv replays the collapsing tower, with a big caption: ATTACCO AGLI STATI UNITI. then we are shown the aeroplane flying into the tower and exploding. current affairs producers dream about footage like this. i feel sick.

pictures of jubilation in an islamic community somewhere. our fury as an audience must have a target, there must always be an enemy. the name of osama bin laden is uttered, a talisman for everything we fear in the world.

[ 17:56 wednesday 12 september – piazza duomo ]

ettore sottsass, the great designer, walks past and takes a seat at a nearby table. i want to tell him how much i admire his writing (i’m not crazy about his furniture). i wonder if designers get pissed off by this sort of thing?

siracusa is so beautiful it makes me laugh. ortegia is the ancient city, confined to an island in a large bay with two bridges connecting it to the mainland. it is a labyrinth of narrow streets, a palimpsest spanning greek austerity and baroque exuberance. i’ve been here for four days. tomorrow i leave for palermo, and then pantelleria.

a burst of applause from a crowd on the steps of the duomo in front of me. a freshly-wed couple emerges from inside. corks pop. a corpulent man in a shiny powder-blue suit and ill-judged pink sunglasses drives them off in a roofless mercedes.

unless i am mistaken the duomo has at its heart an original greek temple. the ancient columns are still exposed, though the gaps between them have been filled by walls. the interior is plain and awe-inspiring, with the usual pastel-hued pieties mercifully reserved to side chapels. the front is baroque. the piazza is an ellipse of diverse but harmonious structures.

my days alternate work with swimming off rocks just round the corner from where i am staying. it’s a productive rhythm.

since last writing i have been in catania, at the foot of mount etna, and in noto, on a hill near the southern tip of sicilia. catania is an exciting place. a small city, but full of energy and possibility. noto seems to have been built from scratch between 1700 and 1750, replacing a roman settlement a few kilometres away which was destroyed in an earthquake. it is probably the most perfect baroque theme-park in the world. every building is a perfect confection. it must have cost a fortune. it feels like there’s still a lot of money around. i didn’t like the atmosphere very much in fact. it reminded rather of erice, its perfectly-preserved mediaeval sister on a mountain above trapani, the other end of sicilia. something a bit too self-satisfied and ordered.

i’m sorry if what i wrote yesterday evening seems inappropriate. but it’s always been my habit to be honest in these despatches. there are things afoot in the world which we may discern only from their echoes.

here in siracusa people don’t seem too concerned about yesterday’s events. life goes on as usual and the snatches of conversation i overhear in streets and caffes are still dominated by food, football and love. today’s copy of “il manifesto”, italy’s snappily-designed and widely-read communist newspaper, had a cartoon on its front page depicting a panicky statue of liberty with the flame of her torch setting fire to her clothes. this seemed to me to be on the borderline of taste.

hehe! sottsass was a bit startled when i sprang on him. he shook my hand and allowed me to take his photo. he’s got a splendid jowly, unshockable face and a rakish plaited ponytail. he looks like a disgraceful old man.

on friday it’s my thirtieth birthday.

: cH

a r t h o u s

[ 18:07 Wednesday 5 September – Palermo, Sicilia ]

Sitting in a sleak and sparsely-populated coach, just departed from Stazione Centrale, on my way to Catania on the east coast. With splendid Sicilian perversity this is a faster way to make the journey than the train.

This afternoon I finally got my Italian email services working properly. I thought I was being very efficient by setting up an account before I left London, but of course it didn’t work. While I was in Ginostra there wasn’t much chance to rectify the situation.

Meanwhile my Motorola uber-telefonino developed severe personality problems as soon as it tasted the Palermo airwaves. Perhaps it remembers the traumas of last year? It now turns itself on and off at random and has completely lost its appetite for recharging. Yesterday I was quoted a ridiculous sum for repairing the wretched thing, with the ominous prediction that it might have to go off to Milan. About half an hour ago I acquired a device which should allow me to recharge the battery externally, which will at least allow me to continue using the thing. It’s a damn nuisance though. I should have stuck to Finnish engineering…

Castel di Tusa was a fabulous experience. Antonio Testi is a fully-fledged maverick, a large man in his forties with a deep voice and bone-dry humour. He inherited one of the largest construction firms in Italy but at his father’s death he refused to deal with the Mafia and instead devoted himself to contemporary art. Over the last decade he has commissioned a series of huge open-air projects in the north of Sicilia. Most of these have been undertaken without planning permission, which has resulted in a succession of complex legal proceedings with the Messina public prosecutor. On each occasion Antonio has secured support in Rome and succeeded in getting the law re-interpreted to his advantage.

He bought the hotel in Castel di Tusa ten years ago. It has forty rooms, fourteen of which have been created by major artists. This amounts to rather more than slapping some pictures on the wall. I spent the night in the room designed by Renato Curcio (who I am informed is a terrorist in the Brigata Rossa). The bedroom is completely empty except for a sweeping plaster installation incorporating panels in a variety of ancient scripts. I swoke to alpha and omega picked out in red above me. The bed sits in the middle of the room with a cover continuing the pattern. The bathroom is a kind of cave. Twisting a little iron figure causes water to trickle down the walls. Another lever activates a shower, splashing hot water off a rock ledge. The loo is cased in corroded steel.

The other rooms are equally dramatic. One has a massive cylindrical bedroom with a circular rotating bed. Turning a crank on the wall opens the ceiling to the stars. Another room consists entirely of triangles, inspired by the shape of Sicilia. You can probably see some pictures at http://www.ateliersulmare.com, though I have not yet looked at the site.

Antonio’s next project focuses on a poverty-stricken area of Catania called Librino. He plans to invite world-famous photographers to work with residents of twenty massive tenement blocks and to cover one side of each building with giant portraits, rather in the manner of the Armani posters in Milano. By turning the neighbourhood into a public gallery in this way he believes the inhabitants will rediscover a sense of their own beauty, by which he means not just outward beauty. As a vision of regeneration I find this inspiring. I have offered my support. It was a slightly intimidating experience sitting on the roof of the hotel with Antonio and his associates on Sunday night as they interrogated me about my plans in the south of Italy. It is a frustrating disability that I am not yet able to converse in their language. But I hope I managed to avoid saying anything too offensive.

For the last couple of days I have been once more with Gabriele, which has been a great pleasure. Miraculously I survived this time in palermo with no theft. My computer has scarcely been out of my grasp.

This afternoon Gabriele introduced me to his friend Vincenzo di Leonardo, a hydraulic engineer who now wishes to devote himself to social projects. He wants to establish a scheme providing opportunities for disabled or miscreant youths to learn sustainable agricultural skills.

As I write we are driving through rolling hill-country. To my left a long concrete road bridge spans a valley. But it stands in curious isolation, with no road attached to either end. I keep coming across abstract pieces of civil engineering like this, which I fear are probably the result of Mafia financial logic.

Or perhaps the bridge is just another of Antonio’s projects.

: cH

m i l a z z o

[ 17:04 Sunday 2 September – Stazione di Milazzo, Sicilia ]

A table in the station cafe. This place looks to have been built in the seventies, somewhat out of town. It’s an impersonal echoey building. Grandiose spaces, lots of concrete and marble. The booth selling lottery tickets is closed. Beside me a display case contains Gillete razor blades, Garnier hair colourants, Imation camera films and tubes of Scotch glue. Almost everything is branded in English. A father and son face one another across the table football, both of them forced by corpulence to stand a little back from the levers as they play. Their unselfconscious grins, shouts and gestures relay the game’s progress.

I’ve been here an hour already. My desination is Castel di Tusa, some 60 miles west along the north coast of Sicilia. There isn’t a train until 19:02.

Yesterday morning I left Ginostra after a week living with Alice, Emmanuella, Maddelena, Margaritta, Nancy, Fyodor, Robin, Malcolm and Toni; none of whom I’d met before. People with strong personalities and open hearts. I was touched by their willingness to absorb me into their household. In the neighbouring house were Matteo and Nana, friends from London whom I hadn’t seen for three years. Small world.

On Wednesday night I climbed the volcano with Matteo, Nana and three friends of theirs. It’s a fairly tough ascent, a 45 degree incline with nothing but loose ash underfoot in the latter stages. It’s forbidden to go up without a guide but… well you know how it is. We set off a couple of hours before sundown, when the air was beginning to cool. As we ascended the world seemed to drop away vertically beneath us, the village a cluster of tiny white dots, the sea an intensely blue miasma shimmering without definite location or boundary. After a few hours we reached a plateau at the top, a landscape of grey-black pummice stones framed by sheer cliffs of iron-stained basalt. It is the most unearthly place I have set foot. The islanders call it the Valley of the Moon.

After a couple of minutes the earth shook and a fountain of incandescent lava rose several hundred feet into the air. Those who have witnessed an active volcano at close quarters will know what it felt like to behold this. It is probably not possible to convey it to those who have not. There’s a unique sense of connection to the deepest heart of the planet, to the cataclysmic processes which forged the continents, something appalling yet also life-affirming.

My companions and I ate our supper there and unfurled our sleeping bags. We lay there side by side on a patch of black ash watching the volcano spit its fire into the black sky every fifteen or twenty minutes. Somehow we all drifted to sleep.

At dawn we made the final ascent to the summit, swathed in swirling sulphurous mists. From here we could look down into the glowing craters. But we wanted to make our descent before the sun grew too hot. After picking our way between ravines we took the most direct route: a scree of black ash down which we half-ran, half-fell, arriving laughing, aching and black at the bottom where we stripped off and threw ourselves into the cool water. We must have descended 600 metres in a couple of minutes.

I must find a house for myself and Landon Fuller ready to start work at the beginning of October. My expectation was that this would be somewhere near Napoli or Catania. But suddenly I am drawn to the idea of spending the winter on Stromboli. Fate has conspired to present this possibility. I departed today at noon on the hydrofoil which brought me here but events are in motion and we shall see what results.

For the last two days the weather has been very strange. After weeks of unbroken sun there have been spectacular lightning storms and today it has been raining. There is change in the air.

At Castel di Tusa a man called Antonio Testi runs an hotel whose rooms have been created by artists and designers from all over the world. He is much involved in the new cultural currents brewing in Sicilia. My friends Roberta and Bobo made an introduction and yesterday evening Antonio phoned to invite me to visit. From there I may make a short visit to Palermo to see Gabriele, with whom I travelled last summer. Then I shall spend a week or so in Catania, following other threads laid before me by Roberta and Bobo.

For the second half of September I shall be in the fabulously remote Isola di Pantelleria, close to Tunisia, with Sebastian and Karen.

As I write curious children come over to my table and stare. Between paragraphs I turn the PowerBook towards them and invite them to play. I’m a little self-conscious about producing such an expensive device in a place where people are have so little material wealth.

Hopefully I shall succeed in the next few days in sending some of the despatches I have written. It already seems like an eternity since I flew from London. Oh, and my phone account from last year is up and running again: +39 328 916 1968.

I think this is the first time I’ve used capital letters in an email
since 1996. An unexpected development.

: cH

p e r d u t o

19:08 saturday 2 september – palermo

it is a week and a half now since i decided the time had come to leave my friends on stromboli and take up gabriele’s invitation to visit palermo . having bid farewell to tommaso , britta , fabio and fabrizio in the preceding days i bought a ticket for the lunchtime hydrofoil and lugged my baggage one last time through the narrow streets beneath the blazing midday sun , accompanied by sasi .

off i sped , weaving between the neighbouring islands . but the crew omitted to mention , or i to glean , that for palermo i should change vessels at lipari . so it was i found myself docking some hours later at milazzo , an ugly industrial sprawl at the wrong end of sicilia . the crew was less than sympathetic to my situation but ill-humouredly established on my behalf that a train would be departing for palermo in quarter of an hour . a short ( and hilariously costly) taxi ride brought me to the station and i was back on route . oddly enough i arrived in palermo several hours earlier by this indirect route than i would have done by hydrofoil . i have since learned to recognise this as a characteristic example of sicilian logic .

my rerouted arrival set the tone for the days which have followed . one intense and unpredicted experience has followed another . most have been wonderful but a few have been quite terrible . my time now is limited as gabriele and i must be at his parents’ house for supper in twenty minutes so i shall be brief and write more later .

for now i shall report merely that within six hours of my arrival in palermo almost all my belongings , including my powerbook , had emphatically left my possession .

tomorrow night i depart for milano .

: cH