The golden moment of the early Sicilian early morning overwhelms me, church steeples from the cramped towns hanging off the Nebrodi Mountains for dear life are lit up with a distinctly auburn glow. I rolled out of bed this morning at four am for a day trip by bus to Noto, Syracuse, so things are still a little groggy but the splendid morning is making me appreciate the effort.
It is a privilege to salute the mystic Aeolian Islands in the hues of a misty sunrise deep in the province of Messina as the sun begins to shine out from under its bed covers. The bus is filled with loud slightly hyperactive Sicilians who guffaw and happily proclaim: ‘Ogni tantu dovemu alargari’ – literally we need to let ourselves go occasionally.
As we climb onto the Consorzio delle Autostrade superhighway, a nattering group of fifty-somethings start to peel off layers of clothes to reveal freshly varnished nails and dressed hair. I put my headphones on to shut drown out the chatter.
At Messina the strait is like a sheet of ice as if Calabria is only a brief sledge ride away. Quaint Sicilian villages are littered like discarded building blocks and look out from the shifting mountains who appear to heave a sigh of restlessness. Autostrada tunnels create the illusion night time is close despite the evasive morning light. I don’t know whether to sleep or rejoice for the pristine lustre before me.
Those yelping hyenas who dominate the bus have settled down and we sneak under the bustling tourist Mecca of Taormina, briefly snatching a glance down at the ancient Greek seaside colony of Giardini Naxos, a respite from the darkness of the underworld beneath the ranges.
Heading towards Catania a dark lady reveals her splendid silhouette, even if she normally hides like a coquette seductively behind a feathered boa stole. Etna’s jagged outline sketches itself out despite the dreary clouds, wearing only a tuft of white as if gently pulling on a cigarette above the Messina – Catania highway. For Sicilian’s Etna is defiantly female alluding to the fertility of the goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology who create the gifts of agriculture and the seasons.
Palm trees and palazzi give way to a mélange of apartments, industrial warehouses, truck deposits and abandoned boarded up houses near Giarre. The foothills of Etna become a harsh and ugly juxtaposition of factories with an infestation of overgrown prickly pear cactus, rubbish tips, recycling plants and lava stone homes with names like Villa Corallo dell’Etna.
We stop at a tired Acireale autogrill gas station and I wistfully day-dream about Carnival parades while studying a solitary broken down campanile just behind the depot. The slate coloured steeple is covered in ‘edera’ vines adorned with white flowers called the ‘calice della Madonna,’ elongated chalices in which according to Sicilian folklore the infant Jesus drank.
Travelling in the bus again I can see into the windows of peoples high-rise apartments beside the highway as we creep around the back of Etna and through densely populated towns. Misterbianco is filled with mega shopping complexes and an IKEA superstore, while old lava deposits are piled up in between condominiums outside of Paternò.
As we reach Sicula Occidentale, it begins pelting with rain which blurs together the olive groves of Priolo, with the blockheaded limestone mountains of Gargallo and blankets the solar panels near Solarino.
Etna has mysteriously disappeared and more plains appear dotted by irrigated orchids of oranges, lemons, golden meadows, greenhouses and pleasant hills.
Rain comes streaming down the buses generous side windows as we reach Avola the town nearest to Noto, famous for its fruity red wine with a punch.
I’m contemplating the prospect of having to shut myself inside a little bar for the whole day to shield from the downpour, perhaps I could drown my disappointment in a few glasses of ‘Nero d’avola.’