Lost and Found in Sicily.
This is a mistake. I had landed at Sicily’s Catania airport and was driving on potholed roads to a B&B near Vittoria. Motorists going both ways drove on the center line to pass with alarming frequency. A road intended for two traffic lanes served five. I winced every time branches scraped my black Audi A3, certain I’d pay a damage fee.
Jet-lagged and white-knuckled, I had traveled to Sicily alone because I wanted my heart to beat faster. Because my fearless twenty-five year-old self had moved across the United States but now, at forty-two, I was getting too comfortable. I wanted to trust the universe to take care of me. I wanted to affirm my decision to view the world as one that conspired with me, not against me. I wanted to audition my newly acquired optimism.
Sicily’s sirens spoke of meeting biodynamic winemakers in the southeast, admiring Greek ruins at the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, and learning how a family makes sea salt in Trapani, on the northwestern coast. I would drive clockwise around the island from three o’clock to eleven o’clock. Twenty minutes into my journey, I considered returning to the airport to find a flight back to Rome.
An hour later, I drove through open gates to Baglio Occhipinti, a restored winery house surrounded by the family’s vines. As I unpacked, I glanced at my Fitbit. My heart rate blinked 113. It’s normally 62.
The patriarch Bruno Occhipinti was drying dishes in the stone-walled kitchen when I went downstairs for dinner. He smiled readily; the wrinkles behind his wire-rimmed glasses were genuine laugh lines. He kissed my hand in introduction and shook his head trying to pronounce Heather.
“Erica,” I gave him the Italian translation. He beamed and nodded.
The next morning, I visited COS, the biodynamic winery co-owned by Bruno’s brother Giusto, who showed me around and explained biodynamic winemaking. They eschew chemical fertilizers, irrigate only with rain, grow fertilizing plants between the vines, and harvest in accordance with moon phases. Some of their wines even ferment and age in underground terracotta amphorae.
After I had tasted their earthy wines, Giusto invited me to join him for lunch. As we ate, I confided that Sicily scared me.
“Erica,” he said, “there is no need to worry. All the films and TV, they’re not true.” He rolled his eyes and I got the impression that he tired of defending Sicily’s mafia reputation. He wrote his cell number in my notebook. “If you need anything while you are in Sicilia, call me anytime.”
That evening after dinner I asked Bruno what he loved most about Sicily. “It’s so beautiful. We can grow almost everything. The beach is only a half hour, the mountains are a half hour. But it’s the people. Sicilians have cuore calde.” I mentioned the driving. Bruno chuckled. “Sì. Erica, driving here is a little complicated.”
“Posso farlo,” I said, unsure if my Italian was correct. My new mantra.
Bruno smiled. “Yes, you can do this.”
“Posso farlo,” I repeated trying to find the apartment I had rented in Agrigento, a chaotic city with one-ways, pedestrian-only areas, do-not-enter zones, and road construction. After driving in circles, I stopped in a piazza, parked illegally, and called my host Mauro, who offered to come get me.
Mauro’s apartment had a view of the Mediterranean and a glass of wine in the refrigerator. From the 11th floor balcony, Mauro pointed out the parking lot behind the train station. It looked easy enough, only 500 meters away.
I ended up down a hill in a maze-like neighborhood and drove through the street market. It took me one hour to find the lot where I asked a railway employee for directions back to my apartment. “Follow me,” he smiled. Inside the train station, we rode the elevator up and he walked me around to the corner where I could see my apartment. After welcoming me to Agrigento, he shook my hand in farewell.
The Valley of the Temples is an archaeological UNESCO world heritage site just south of Agrigento, famous for its Tempio della Concordia, one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world. The Kolymbethra Garden was at the farthest end of a mile-long road flanked by ruins. I reached it hot, tired, and hungry. One of the two employees excused himself and walked down a path. He picked an orange from a tree and brought it to me. “For you.”
Mauro had made dinner reservations for me at Ginger, a restaurant near my apartment. Each dish in the four-course special featured almonds. Caponata, a Sicilian sweet and sour salad, was made with fresh artichokes. The zucchini pesto pasta was prepared with wild fennel and seasoned with coriander. My veal stew was served with almonds, dried prunes, cinnamon, and turmeric. I forgot my driving fears and navigation frustrations.
The next morning I took the highway toward the hilltop town Erice. Long bridges spanned verdant valleys with yellow, red, and blue wildflowers. I was approaching a solitary mountain with a castle perched at the top.
“No, that can’t be it,” I thought, “Non posso farlo.” I started my sinuous ascent. Descending trucks barreled around hairpin turns. Cars sped by to get around me on blind stretches. Those who did not pass tailgated. I tried not to look over the edge. If my car veered from the road I would tumble to my death.
For twenty-five nerve-wracking minutes Google Maps said, “Turn sharp left, turn sharp right.” The rental car agent had upsold me to a car with automatic transmission, I was grateful I did not have to use a stick shift to inch my way up the mountain.
My GPS could not find the parking lot where my host Massimo was waiting. I drove Erice’s perimeter then stopped to call him. Massimo arrived in his beat-up little van. He smiled broadly and waved off my apologies. I was to follow him to a spot where I could park my car. I held my breath as we navigated labyrinthine one-ways with improbably tight corners. If my windows had been down, I could have touched the walls we drove between.
Before sunset, I walked through the century-old garden to the medieval castle built on the site of an ancient temple of Venus. Clouds swirled nearby. In the distance Mount Cofano jutted into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Green fields, rolling mountains, and seaside villages were to my north. Trapani, its saltpans, and the Egadi Islands to my south. The road I had driven up earlier resembled a ribbon dropped on the mountainside.
Something brushed my neck while I was taking a picture. I turned around and wispy clouds blew at my face. I climbed up onto a ledge, opened my mouth, and inhaled. I tasted clean water with a hint of salt. I turned back and the clouds wrapped around my neck like a scarf.
The scirocco wind was howling when I met Salvatore Gucciardo and his brothers at their saltpan south of Trapani. They were readying their salt tanks for the season, but invited me to join them for breakfast. Along one side of their large pan, four thirty-foot long, fifteen-foot high triangles of light gray salt were covered with terracotta shingles. Their father, Antonino walked with me and explained that their salt was “integrale,”meaning they don’t clean it, which strips salt of its nutrients, or treat it with any chemicals. The sea, wind, and sun are the only ingredients. Two windmills channel water among the tanks to dry the salt for harvest around September. When I left two hours later, my eyelashes were coated in salt crystals.
Posso farlo. It was dark when I crept out of Erice and down the switchbacks for the airport. I pulled into the car rental return where a luggage cart stood next to my car as if the universe had known I’d need it.
My plane for Rome departed on time. I was meeting my husband at the airport. Luckily, his flights to New York and Rome had also arrived on time. When I landed, he was picking up our rental car for our week in the Umbrian countryside. He waited for me in the parking lot. I asked if he wanted me to drive, saying, “I’ve driven in Sicily. I can do anything.”
BIO: Heather von Bargen is an award-winning writer and photographer who focuses on Italy. Her work has been featured in galleries, websites, literary journals, and print magazines. Based in Florida, she has a home in Le Marche, Italy. You can see her work at: http://www.heathervonbargen.com
This piece was previously published at https://www.gonomad.com/121178-sicily-a-great-place-to-get-lost