There is a book by Australian writer Peter Robb which has contributed to my ongoing fascination with Palermo. After reading Midnight in Sicily, I imagined wandering through Palermo’s streets, exploring Norman palaces, experiencing the exotic food markets and discovering little hidden restaurants which cooked an endless array of seafood.
Apart from being one of my favourite books about Palermo Midnight in Sicily, it strangely has another personal story attached to it. I suppose you don’t mind me going on a slight sidetrack. When I was trying to get publishers interested in my early work, one of many rejection letters condescendingly asked me if I had read the Peter Robb book. Of course, I had.
The letter then suggested that my book had already been written by a much more qualified and respected male writer and that I perhaps should go back and write about something else. This rejection is just one of many tiny bumps on the road of a writerly life.
I recall Stephen King saying how he used to stick all his rejection letters on the wall as motivation to keep ongoing. It was a bit rough to be disregarded, but if they had taken the time to read my submission, they would have realised my work is something utterly different to Peter Robb’s.
Over the years, I have become used to the condescension; I’m not bothered. There are endless examples of writers and artists who were never really understood. I like to concentrate on getting better at my craft and finding people who want to read what I have to say. Since then, my work has become this blog and many other things to my readers. And I still love the book and take it as inspiration for my work.
I was happy to get the opportunity to journey to Palermo by train and walk around for a few hours to give me my first taste of the city.
The train ride along the coast from the seaside city of Capo d’Orlando is comfortable, and with my window seat, I see many other places I’d like to visit in Sicily. The island is some 25,707 square kilometres; its mountainous landscape makes it hard to negotiate. The same harsh landscape has created hundreds of small towns, cities and villages, each with its unique language and culture, which would take a lifetime to explore. The beauty of Sicily is there is always something new to experience.
I enjoy travelling by train, it is comfortable, reasonably inexpensive and easy to do, especially in Italy. It’s a good idea to travel in Sicily by train as you can see a fair amount of the countryside as the line takes a coastal route, but for a few moments in the odd tunnel, you get primarily uninterrupted views. It’s a little slow, but today I’m not in a hurry, so I’m happy to look out the window and soak up the sunshine.
The train stops at many stations as the rhythmic motion of the train makes me drowsy with sleep. I haven’t had my regular caffeine fix this morning. I note the names of the train stops written in white on the characteristic blue background of Italian station signs between bouts of sleepiness, making me feel like I’m dreaming up these names.
Rocca di Capraleone is an ugly, mostly industrial city near the coast famous for being the birthplace of Maria Grazia Cucinotta, a well known Italian model and actress. Not Messina, as she often tells the press; I wonder why she would lie about this? I guess because Rocca isn’t as beautiful or romantic as Messina.
Caronia, a little known town in one of the great forests of the Nebrodi National Park, a small part of the town, got some news coverage in 2003 for a series of unexplained electrical fires. Electrical appliances exploded and caught fire for no apparent reason. I’m sure the fact that the train line passes so close to the town must have something to do with it, all of that static electricity must affect the town.
Santo Stefano di Camastra is one of Sicily’s ceramics capital; the train station is decorated in bright ceramic tiles testifies to this. A walk to the centre of town is a decent hike up from the station, and when you reach the main street, you are beaten to death by the truckloads of terribly overpriced ceramics in the endless shop fronts sacked by tourists throughout the year.
I pass by other places I’ve vaguely heard of and seem familiar yet merely name to me like Tusa, Acquadolce and Finale. Then there is Cefalù, the famous beachside resort town from ancient Greek times. There are endless beachside villas, fishing boats and ruins left behind from long-departed Greek and Roman tourists.
The view of Cefalù is frustratingly blocked by a tunnel made up of several archways, which create a series of half snapshots like a stilted slide show of the seaside. The clear deep aquamarine sea is dotted with anchored boats and the beach umbrellas of intrepid beachgoers who climb like mountain goats over the rocky outcrops lining the coast.
It is strange to me, brought up on Australian beaches, to see people sunbathing on the rocks. There is no beach here, only large boulders and stones, no sand to be seen anywhere. Admiring the summertime ocean and suddenly feeling very hot, I am overwhelmed by the desire to leap out of the train into the water. Looking out lustfully at sea, I see a wonderful mirage directly in front of the railway line.
A series of columns and stone blocks of different heights ruins from some ancient Greek or Roman construction. It was there on a piece of flat land, looking out to the sea for a moment. The train passed so quickly that I wasn’t sure if it was real or not.
I feel like I had seen Stone Hedge for a fleeting moment, it was something ancient, crafted and intriguing, but it passed by so quickly that I didn’t have a moment to absorb it. I still have the snapshot of that moment in my memory, the sandy colours of the lined columns in the early morning sunshine completed with a modern plaque no doubt explaining the ruins’ origins. I suddenly wonder who would climb over a busy train line to go and look at some out of the way ruins.
Excited by this vision, I became more alert paying more attention to the landscape near the train line in the hope to see more ruins. The surroundings changed as the line moved further back away from the sea. I am now passing endless beachside villas and palazzos. I didn’t see any more ruins, but I later witnessed another strange sight.
It is a clever piece of modern public art. At first, I thought it was some kind of industrial machinery. I see a giant piece of black steel leaning on a frame; a loading deck left balancing unevenly. At first, I think it was some kind of white elephant construction half-finished left to decay and fall. Abandoned half-finished buildings are common in Sicily, as companies seem to run out of money or structures are delayed so long by the red tape they never get adequately finished or are never used.
Looking more closely, I see it is a giant blue picture frame that highlights a dramatic piece of the coast, the black part of steel serving as a massive pointer that directs the eye to look through the frame out to the horizon. I found it wonderfully puzzling yet straightforward. The artist undoubtedly expresses the idea that art is all around us; all we need to do is recognise it.
Later I read the giant sculpture is the work of Italian sculpture Tano Festa and is part of the
Fiumara d’Arte is an outdoor sculpture park located out in the hills of Castel di Tusa after Cefalu’.
The Monumento per un Poeta morto or La Finestra Sul mare (a monument for a dead poet or a window over the sea) is a lovely metaphor for the nature of art. Still, it is another white elephant to add to the list for those who don’t believe in art.