Sicilian villages are amazingly steadfast and stoic.
I am constantly impressed by the way they have been constructed a top the mountains in the most unlikely places as if they have always been a part of the landscape.
This is Ficarra in the province of Messina which casually lounges on the Nebrodi mountains looking out to the Aeolian Islands.
We know of a natural water fountain where we refill our drinking water bottles which looks up at the village, as we fill our cups we hear the Ficarra church bells playing Schubert’s Ave Maria down to the valley.
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 sled ride away. Quaint Sicilian villages are littered like discarded building blocks and look out from the shifting mountains who appear to heave a sighs 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 luster 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 herself 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 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.
Traveling 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.’
This year I was fortunate enough to get to San Leone’s ‘festa’ at Longi (20th Feb) which I find is generally more traditional and particular then the one celebrated at Sinagra (even if I love them both!)
I liked the solemn religiosity and playfulness of Longi’s interpretation of this Saint’s celebration. Not only does the procession take the Saint’s statue around the town, it has him dancing to the time of the local brass band. Leone doesn’t move without musical accompaniment, here the catchphrase is ‘Viva Santu Leo … E musica!’
The face of San Leone is always the same yet the elaborate decoration gives Longi’s festa a more traditional feel, here he is decorated in flowers, monetary offerings, bells chiming, threaded wheat shafts, golden vestments and the local children adore him too. The procession lasts nearly the whole day from after the late morning church service until four o’clock in the afternoon when he is placed down in the square before the parish church to receive final offerings and salutes from the devout.
During the procession the warmth the locals have to their patron is palpable and it quite frankly gave me goosebumps. A saint’s day in a small town is a particularly special occasion everyone puts on their best face and there is a real sense of pride and religiosity through out the day, it is an exceptional Sicilian tradition.
For more details on San Leone and other Sicilian saints see my article on Times of Sicily.
This curious itsy-bitsy place attracted my attention when I first saw it from a train heading from Palermo to Messina. I blinked my eyes in amazement to witness a town literally camped up on the top of a mountain.
San Marco d’Alunzio seems tightly compacted up there on Monte Castro some five hundred and forty meters above sea level but there are many features packed into this wee town.
Founded in the fourth century B.C during the Greek period in Sicily, San Marco has a rich history as a prosperous agricultural and economic centre in the area.
Strategically speaking it was in a perfect position both as a look out and a defensive point and so it found itself being jostled between the various conquerors of Sicily, from the Romans to Byzantines and the Arabs.
Another amazing aspect of this town is just how many churches it has, there is a joke which says there are more churches than people at San Marco.
Look in at the Commune of San Marco d’Alunzio and you will find the Churches of Santissimo Salvatore (which only partially survives),the main parish church of San Nicola di Bari, the church of the Aracoeli built with a sumptuous local marble, the churches of Sant’Antonio, Sant’Agostino, San Basilio, Santa Maria dei Poveri, Casile, Gesù e Maria, tutti i Santi, Quaranta martiri, San Giuseppe, San Giovanni and the convents of the Cappuccini and the Benedettine.
It is a testament to the Sammarchitani (as they are known in Sicilian) that they are able to maintain so many churches filled with precious art and decorations, I’m sure they are quite a tourist attraction.
The marble from San Marco is famous throughout Sicily and is used in many important monuments in the province of Messina, including the interior of the provinces impressive town hall, even the main roads and squares are paved in it.
I once read in a curious little tourist guide that the folks at San Marco are particularly well known for their politeness and always say hello and welcome everyone with particular warmth. What else can you ask for in a picturesque Sicilian town, loads of history, beauty and good manners, sounds marvelous doesn’t it!