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#70 Midnight in Sicily
First and lasting impressions of Palermo
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There is a book by Australian writer Peter Robb which 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. I was happy to get the opportunity to journey to Palermo by train and walk around for a few hours to get my first taste of the city.
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. But 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 one of many tiny bumps in a writer's life. I recall Stephen King saying he used to stick all his rejection letters on the wall as motivation to keep going. 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.
But 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 improving my craft and finding people who want to read and appreciate what I say. Since then, my work has become an ongoing blog, this newsletter and many other things to my readers. And I still love Midnight in Sicily and take it as inspiration for my work.
The train ride along the coast from the seaside city of Capo d'Orlando to Palermo is comfortable, and with my window seat, I see many other places I'd like to stop in and visit.
Sicily 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 to 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 I'm not in a hurry today, so I'm happy to look out the window and soak up the sunshine.
I often wonder how the project for the Messina Bridge will change the travel landscape in Sicily. Right now, the railway connection is slow and filled with delays. If you are going long distances, you are often confronted with positively archaic trains and many potential mishaps due to everything being so run down.
I am midway between Palermo and Messina, so it isn't difficult for me to go in either direction. Palermo is a good two hours away, as there are many significant towns and stops in that direction. While going to Messina, I usually grab an intercity, which skips the smaller cities and lets me get to my destination comfortably in about an hour.
The Ponte di Messina is a massive project that promises to connect Sicily to the mainland over a three-kilometre suspension bridge with modern autostrada and railway lines integrated into it. It took thirty years to complete the Messina Palermo autostrada from scratch to finish, but I can see there is so much more work needed in building the bridge and then some. I am not hopeful at all because politics is so fickle in Italy, and these kinds of projects need decades.
Let's put aside any concerns about the railway; the roads are the most worrying part of the problems in modernising Sicilian infrastructure. The current autostrada in Sicily is filled with holes and endless roadworks. Outside of Messina, for example, bridges are in continuous construction and above the city, it all looks like an abandoned amusement park roller coaster ride. Lord knows how everything will be ironed out, completed, and eventually connected with the bridge. It would take one hell of a project and administrative commitment to see it through. I doubt I'll see it in the foreseeable future.
But, I am getting ahead of myself; today, the train stops at many stations, and its rhythmic motion 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 Capraleone is an ugly, primarily 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 place.
Santo Stefano di Camastra is one of Sicily's ceramics capital; the train station is decorated in bright ceramic tiles that testify 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 names 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 by 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 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.
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 wonder who would climb over a busy train line 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, hoping 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 later witnessed another strange sight.
It is a clever piece of modern public art. At first, I thought it was some industrial machinery. I see a giant piece of black steel leaning on a frame, a loading deck left balancing unevenly. At first, I thought it was some white elephant construction half-finished left to decay and fall. Abandoned half-finished buildings are typical 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 a giant blue picture frame highlighting a dramatic piece of the coast. The black part of the steel is 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 that art is all around us; we only need to recognise it.
Later, I read the giant sculpture is the work of the Italian sculptor Tano Festa and is part of the
Fiumara d'Arte is an outdoor sculpture park 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. Or it can simply be another white elephant to add to the list for those who don't see it as art.
Well, this is what has been on my mind today.
Ciao for now, your friend