Monday, 25 August 2014


We left Punta Secca and headed for Agrigento via a coastal road. We wanted to see the ruins and have a quick look at nearby Porto Empodocle, the town that the fictional "Vigata" in author Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano series is based. I also fancied seeing the town made famous by the Godfather films, Corleone, if at some point we could get to it easily. It was inland and not on our route around the island. We might have made it from Palermo but we'd have to see. We were both really apprehensive of driving through Sicily's capital city when the time inevitably came, although we both wanted to see it.

The parched Sicilian countryside was stunning. I could imagine Michael Corleone walking across that vast unspoiled rustic landscape. The occasional old derelict stone buildings crumbled on top of hillsides. Remote, off the beaten track, country back roads we used were perfect to get a feel of old Sicily but they also seemed to be the sort of places that people took rubbish. We came across bin bags, tattered shoes and clothing, domestic appliances, and an old sofa and mattress dumped on the roadside.

It was very hot again so we thought that was probably why we could see fires in the distance. In some places the dry grass on the roadside verge was burning. We saw smoke often as we drove along. Sometime flames spread across whole fields, getting perilously close to farmhouses, and sometimes just small burning patches of dry grass. We surmised that they were probably a mixture of spontaneous fires from the dry heat, and stubble burning by farmers which still went on in the south.

The Greek Temple ruins dominated the landscape on the approach to Agrigento. We pitched at Camping Nettuno and then went sightseeing. It was a long afternoon of walking around in the heat but the ruins were worth seeing up close. There were lots of fossilised shells embedded in the rocks and I later learned it was because the ruins sit on a high ledge that was once at sea level.

We paid 10 Euros each to get in but that didn't include entrance to other features on the site such as the villa built by Englishman Captain Alexander Hardcastle who was the first to begin major excavation and restoration of the now famous site. In fairness, an extra entry fee of just one euro each was the price to have a look around that but we couldn't work out quite where we should get the ticket from. We were also expected to pay more to see the Kolymbetra Gardens but by then we were too hot to be bothered although I managed to take this photo before we made for the bar and grabbed a cool drink instead.

Before heading back to the campsite, we decided to have a look around the town of Agrigento. There were lots of shops, big, small, and specialist, little alleyways and stepped passages. We followed a sign for a Monastery that took us up an incline of narrow streets but when we got there we found it was a B&B so we went back down again. We were both tired and decided to get the car and go off in search of a supermarket, head back to camp and cook. Beggars waited by traffic lights and when they changed to red, they went down the line of waiting cars with their hands out for money. Some motorists gave and others didn't.

I hadn't seen the beach at Nettuno despite the fact it was immediately opposite our tent but I resolved to have a look before we packed up and left the next day. Agrigento was scorching hot in the daytime but our camp site on the coast, a few km from the town, got very chilly as the evening wore on. I wasn't the only one who needed a jumper and jeans that night. After the heat of Letojanni, we tended to camp in shade where we could so I didn't feel really warm again until I was under the glare of the sun the next morning. The beach was beautiful. Gorgeous scented white flowers grew wild in the sand. Two Dutch boys I'd seen on the camp were collecting huge dung-beetles in a bucket. I picked one of the flowers and kept it with me in the car because it was so delightful.

We came to the traffic lights and the same African man asking for money the day before was in his usual spot. When he got to our car and stuck his hand out, I placed the flower in it. He looked surprised for a minute and then a broad white smile spread across his face. He sniffed it as he moved on to the next car.

We did pop over to Porto Empodocle - now known as Porto Empodocle Vigata - but it was chaos. They are not currently filming Montalbano so I don't know why the centre of the town was blocked off. A policewoman was directing traffic so there was lots of horns pipping and a general crush of cars with everyone trying to get past her first. From what we could see, there was a huge industrial, and not particularly attractive port in the distance, but of course there was probably a lot more that we weren't going to see. We decided to get out of there as quick as we could and head for Trapani - our next planned stop.

We got lost again and ended up going through a town which had signs to Trapani that pointed all ways so it seemed no matter which way we went, we ended up back in the centre again. After an hour of going in circles, we approached the same arch in town that we had gone through many times before. We were both getting frustrated and we began to argue. I warned him that the light was changing to red at the arch but he stormed that he didn't give a shit.

"Italians don't stop at red lights so why the bloody hell should I!" he said and with that, there was a sudden screech of brakes as a car was coming into the archway from the bend you couldn't see from our side expecting the arch to be clear because it was controlled by traffic lights. I just squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the impact that luckily, either due to the skill of my husband's driving or that of the oncoming motorist, never came. Nothing worse happened than a few angry hoots of the horn afterwards. We decided to take a sign, any sign, and head for it to get out of this Groundhog Day town, trauma has prevented me from remembering its name. We headed back towards Agrigento and once back on a main road, we finally found signs to Trapani and onwards.

We were flying around the Sicilian coast a bit too quickly but I think we were both feeling a bit jaded and, if I'm honest, I was starting to feel homesick. My husband had just come along for the ride - or rather was my driver on a tour that was more my dream than his - and was ready to go home whenever I gave the word. I did contemplate getting a ferry from Sicily to Genoa up in the north. After all we had done top to toe and it would save the car a lot of work if we cut the driving short, but my other half didn't want to do that. He said not going all the way around the boot as we had planned would be like saying we were going to climb Mount Everest only to get a ski-lift to the top.

I think we were both at our lowest point in Trapani when we got lost again. That was a point more than any other other when I wished I could have just been beamed back home like they do in Startrek. We had a day out there looking around and we saw more churches, another beach, more alleyways and passages, more piazzas and shops, although Trapani is different in character to a lot of the Italian towns we saw because of it's Arabic influence. However, it was still all becoming rather repetitive. We arrived about 4pm, parked the car until 9pm near a big park by the sea, my husband said he knew the name of the street we were on, and then went off down some steps to explore the town. After about three hours of walking around, we stopped for a drink and a bite to eat. My other half fancied an ice cream afterwards and went back into the bar to order one as I polished off my beer. He looked at his change when he came out, counted it and then counted it again. He swore blind that he'd been short changed by five Euros. I told him to take it up with the bloke who served him but he didn't see the point as he and the barman didn't speak the same language.

He was frustrated enough about that but to add insult to injury, he didn't even like the ice cream he bought. It was more of a sorbet than gelato. A very old lady hobbled past us with a plastic cup outstretched mumbling "poverina." I felt very sorry to see someone of that great age in those circumstances so I gave her a euro that I happened to have sitting on the table in front of me. Seconds later, a stocky man came by just shoving his cup at me and gasping as he did so. I looked up to see he had what looked like a brass bolt in a tracheotomy. I didn't have any more change to give. Later I saw both him and the old woman in another part of town. They were close to each other and I wondered if they were together, mother and son, perhaps.

It was getting on for 7pm when we decided to go and get the car and head back to our camp site at Valderice, another coastal town a few km away. We didn't like driving in the dark because the damn blinkers you have to put on GB headlights, to stop them blinding continental drivers on the road at night, made them rather dim. We tried to retrace our steps but we couldn't find the area where we'd parked our car. Trapani has sea on three sides and more than one park and my husband couldn't say or spell the street where we'd left it. He struggled to pronounce anything in Italian and although he knew it in his head, and would recognise it when he saw it, he couldn't tell me what it was.

We walked for almost two hours and no matter which way we went, we always ended up coming back to this building. It was starting to get dark and I worried that the police would tow the car away if we didn't pick it up by the time the parking was out at 9pm. I suggested we come out of the labyrinth of streets and walk around on the beach road. We walked for a while and still didn't see the big park near the sea where we'd left the car. He was convinced that we should go back into town again but I was more sure that if just kept on walking a bit more, we'd be sure to find it. He's always had a better sense of direction than me and this time he was determined he would get us where we needed to be so I followed. We came to the centre of town and he was sure that if we just walked ahead a bit more, we'd see the sea, the green park with a fence around it and the car park where we'd left the car. Then we saw a German family of tourists looking at a map so we stretched our necks towards it and tried to take a discreet look when they caught us. I asked if they spoke English. The man said he did, a little.

"Do you know where the big green park is, with a fence around it?" I asked. He pointed to a big green area that didn't look very far away. "Is it this way or that?" I pointed ahead of me and behind me. He looked blank. A police officer was standing nearby.

"This man will help you," he said, so I approached the police officer.

"Do you speak English?" I asked him.

"Yes, a little," he said.

"OK, we have lost our car and we're trying to..." He put his hand up to stop me. His colleague spoke better English, he said, and he called him over and explained something in Italian.

The second policeman asked me what the problem was.

"We've parked our car ..."

"What do you man parked?" he said.

"Parcchegio," I said.

"One minute..." he said and went off to fetch an Italian waiter from a bar close by.

The waiter came over and I began to explain again that we had lost our car because we couldn't find the place we had parked it.

"What do you mean lost?" he said and then had a discussion with the Italian policeman.

"One minute," he said and went off to fetch his barman who he said had better English and he would help us.

By now the Italian policeman thought we'd had our car stolen and he got on his radio to report it. I was getting frantic wondering if the madness would end. My husband was going through all kinds of funny sounding names in hope that one of them would strike a chord with the barman who'd recognise the name of the street he was trying desperately to pronounce, and all I wanted to know was whether the bloody big park was ahead or behind us and how far. It was when the Italian policeman said he needed our registration plate to complete the theft report that in desperation I stepped outside of the bar, approached a group of customers and asked if any of them possibly spoke good English and could help us.

A lovely Italian man stood up. I explained our dilemma and he understood perfectly. He translated to the Italian policeman that our car was not stolen, just mislaid, and we were trying to find the big park we had left it.

"Ah!" said the policeman. "You worry if we take it away because it's after 9pm?" he said and he got on his radio again.

"Well yes," I said, "but more than that we just needed to find it." I turned to the customer who spoke English. "Is it this way or that way?" I asked him.

"That way, just ahead, about 100 metres behind that tree up there."

I apologised for interrupting his meal and he was very gracious about it. The policeman decided to go on ahead and make sure we got to the car park and when we arrived, I hugged and kissed that car. I've never been quite so pleased to see it. In the kerfuffle of mixed messages and language problems we had just been through, my husband wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't be nicked for being in a stolen car somewhere on the way back to camp but happily it ended there.

If we'd not stopped to speak to the Germans with a map, and not got involved in the unfolding misunderstanding that followed, then my husband was right that after getting back into town we were almost there, and I was right that if we had walked a bit further around the main road then we would have found it.

As we walked around lost and feeling glum and helpless, we saw the most bizarre sight that didn't fully register with us until we got back to camp and relaxed a bit. A man on a scooter doing about 30mph, and wearing no helmet, was dragging a cooker on its side behind him. There was a hell of a screeching noise and sparks flew up from the ground. I wondered what use it would be when he got it back to wherever he was taking it - or maybe he was heading for one of the remote back roads somewhere to dump it.

In the next post, which may or may not be tomorrow due to a busy day ahead, we drive through Palermo, contemplate getting to Corleone, and head back to Messina for the ferry to the mainland and the journey ahead around the sole of Italy's foot, the heel and the east coast up the leg.

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