IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL day in November when I stepped off the train in Cefalu’. Pots of petunias and geraniums were growing on every window sill and balcony, and the palm trees that shaded the train station were so perfect they looked like they were made of marzipan. The sun was shining, it was calm, it was peaceful. People were strolling by, they smiled. I knew I was a long way from home.
I had always heard that Sicilian time was different from Milan time. Now I know it’s true. My 550 mile flight from Milan to Palermo took one hour and forty-five minutes. The 45 mile train ride along Sicily’s northern coast from Palermo to Cefalu’ took a little less than an hour. Getting to my hotel from the Cefalu’ train station, a distance of about 10 blocks, took longer than the train ride.
It was my fault. I made the mistake of arriving at lunch time expecting to find a taxi at the train station. But after waiting for almost half an hour I began to wonder if they even had taxis in Cefalu’ and so I went into the bar to ask. My answer from the offended bar owner was a gruff “of course.” But when another twenty minutes passed and there was still no taxi in sight, I called my hotel and asked if they could send someone to fetch me. Subito, they said.
A wide, paved sea walk passes in front of my hotel. It is lined with wooden benches that are shaded from the sun by palm trees and massive bushes of flowering bougainvillea. If I turn right and walk for 10 minutes I will be in the center of Cefalu’. If I turn to the left and walk for as far as I can see, I will disappear into the side of a mountain. It is a glorious day, the sea view is breathtaking, all is forgiven. I turn right.
Cefalu’, with a population of about 14,000, is built in the shadow of a colossal rock cliff. Thousands of years ago there was a Sicanian settlement on that rock cliff, and it is from them that Sicily gets its name. When the Greeks arrived in the 8th century BC, they called the island Trinakria (triangle), and for them it was the land of opportunity, a place where a man could make his fortune. Their Little America.
Apparently it was everyone’s Little America, for in its 3,000 year history Sicily was invaded and dominated by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, Saracen Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, (whose rule sparked the War of the Sicilian Vespers), the French and the Spanish. Some of them more than once. In turn, each conquering power did its best to erase all signs of the civilization before it, and for the most part they were successful. But some traces have survived, and along with them colorful legends like this one:
In the 12th century, when the Normans ruled this land, King Roger II encountered a terrible storm at sea as he sailed from Naples back to Sicily. Fearing for his life, he vowed to build a Cathedral wherever he landed. That turned out to be the fishing village of Cefalu’. By his order construction of the Cathedral began in 1131. Little did he know that in less than a hundred years, the Normans would be defeated by the Swabians and lose control of Sicily. There are parts of that legend that are true. The Cathedral was started in 1131 and the Swabian Hohenstaufen dynasty did come into power in 1194. As for the rest, who knows.
Today tall palm trees flank wide stone steps that lead to the door of the majestic Cathedral that King Roger ordered to be built. The front of the Cathedral is like a scene set for a Verdi opera, a spectacular theatrical entrance created long before Verdi was born. In front of the door there is a wide terrace called a “turniali”, and the guide books say that space was once used as a cemetery. The guide books also say the cemetery was created from soil brought from Jerusalem which contained a substance that caused the rapid mummification of corpses. Is it another legend? No idea. All I know is my feel feet funny when I stand on it, but then again it could just be my imagination.
In front of a nearby café-bakery a group of tourists are milling around the outdoor tables trying to decide whether or not they want to sit down. They’re not quite sure where they are or why they are here, but they like it. Sicily is a tough tour they tell me, too much history, too many curlicued buildings, too many crumbling sites; it all kind of runs together after a while. And everything is too baroquely complicated. Even the food. Yesterday they were served an eggplant, olive, caper and celery salad and pasta with sardines and ferny green things. It’s not like any Italian food they have ever seen before. And don’t I think the ricotta stuffed, chocolate dipped pistachio sprinkled cherry topped puffy pastries in the café are a bit much?
Then they spot a young guy dressed in well worn jeans and a baseball cap, leaning against a crumbling wall selling freshly caught squid from a small wooden box strapped to the back of his motor bike. With a hand rolled cigarette clamped between his thin lips he looks like he’s auditioning for a Fellini movie.
How is it the police allow this, the tourists want to know. Doesn’t the town have a Department of Health and Hygiene? I shrug my shoulders. I don’t know. He seems pretty relaxed so I have to think he does this all the time. And then, out of nowhere, the sweet fragrance of oregano and tomatoes floats by on a sudden breeze. Someone somewhere nearby is making pizza. In that instant I’m five years old again and back in my grandmother’s kitchen. I leave the tourists to their tour and follow my nose and my memories.
As I walk along Corso Ruggero, the town’s main shopping street, a group of kids are going into the Teatro dell’Opera dei Pupi. I go in too. I love Sicilian puppet shows. The puppeteers are the last of the old story tellers and singers who once roamed the streets of Sicily recounting the tales of hard fought battles between the Arabs and the Christians during the Middle Ages. The stories they tell are highly idealistic accounts of chivalry, honor, justice, faith and love. And it amazes me, in this age of iPods, game boys and fast moving television cartoons, how still the kids sit with their eyes wide and mouths open as they watch Norman knights lift papier mache swords to do battle against the Saracen Arabs.
|The Mighty Christian Soldiers|
The story the puppet masters recreate is how the Normans conquered Sicily in 1061. What they don’t tell is what a sophisticated civilization the Normans found, and how they sought to imitate the Arabic architecture, government structure, literature, and especially the food. Many of the ingredients for the meal the tourist were talking about were brought here by the Saracen Arabs, including eggplants, artichokes, pistachios, sugar cane, lemons and oranges, saffron and the flaky shells for the over-the- top pastries in the bakery. Even the oregano perfuming the pizza that drew me away from them was brought here by the Arabs.
Back on the street after the puppet show, the seductive lure of the Baroque architecture teases with its excesses, making me want to know more. While Sicilian Baroque does include many of the Baroque characteristics found in Italy and other European countries, it is also different in the use of grimacing masks and adorable grinning putti, all created with a grandiosity not found anywhere else. But who did all this? Who bent and teased those bars of iron into the decorative, elaborate balustrades? Who decided if 10 grinning and grimacing faces were enough, or should it be 20?
I’m slowly coming to the realization that for me there can never be enough Sicily. It’s the real Siren calling to me to surrender, give up Milan and move south. Johann Wolfgang Goethe once wrote that without Sicily, Italy leaves no image on the soul, Sicily is the key to everything. And at this moment, as I stand and look around, I couldn’t agree more.
There are many things to see in Cefalù, historic sites, all neatly listed, categorized and rated by level of interest in any travel book worth its salt. But it’s not the sites of Cefalù that I remember but the feeling of the place, the quick smiles and conversations with shop keepers eager to exchange impressions and share stories. It’s difficult not to feel the weight of the centuries of history and tradition that surround me. Understanding it however, could take a lifetime.