The Warmth of the People is What Makes Sicily Worth Every Hassle
By Heather Von Bargen
An hour after I landed at Sicily’s Catania airport, I wanted to return my rental car and take the next flight back to Rome. This is a huge mistake. What was I thinking?
I was driving on a potholed, two-lane road that somehow accommodated five. The centerline that separated traffic by direction, when it existed at all, served no purpose.
Motorists going both ways drove on it to pass in the middle with alarming frequency and racing velocity, decelerating only to honk and gesture at an approaching offender.
Semi-trucks, three-wheeled vehicles, and sports cars alike careened on the tiny shoulder, assaulted by the weeds and wildflowers that grew beside the road. Better to scratch the car than crash it.
Nothing Prepared Her for Sicily
I winced every time branches scraped my brand-new Audi A3, certain I’d pay the damage liability.
I had driven a manual transmission up mountain switchbacks in Northern Italy and the city streets of Milan. Nothing prepared me for Sicily.
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.
Sicily’s sirens had beckoned me to meet biodynamic winemakers in the southeast near Vittoria, admire Greek ruins south of Agrigento, and learn how a family makes sea salt in Trapani, on the northwestern coast. I would travel clockwise around the island from three o’clock to eleven o’clock. That is if I could drive.
I ascended a steep hill toward a fiery sunset that silhouetted a field of blossoming almond trees. Perhaps tomorrow’s sunset would be as beautiful?
An hour later, I drove through the 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 59.
The patriarch Bruno Occhipinti was drying dishes in the stone-walled kitchen when I went downstairs for the communal dinner made for guests.
Kissing my hand in introduction, he smiled readily, with laugh lines behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
The next morning, I visited COS, the biodynamic winery co-owned by Bruno’s brother Giusto, who showed me around.
At COS 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.
“There is no need to worry. All the films and TV, they’re not true.” 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, the mountains, they are only a half-hour away. But it’s the people. Sicilians have warm hearts.”
I mentioned driving. Bruno chuckled. “Sì. Driving here is a little complicated.”
“Posso farlo,” I said, unsure if my Italian was correct. I can do this.
Bruno smiled. “Yes, you can do this.”
“Posso farlo,” I repeated to myself trying to find my Airbnb in Agrigento, a bustling city with unmarked roads, one ways, roundabouts, restricted traffic areas, and road construction. Google maps’ “best route” took me through warrens.
After driving in circles, I stopped in a piazza, parked illegally next to an RV on blocks, and called Mauro, my host, who offered to come to get me.
Mauro’s apartment had a view of the Mediterranean and a glass of wine in the refrigerator. From the eleventh floor balcony, Mauro pointed out the parking lot where I was to keep my car. It was only 500 meters away, behind the train station.
Thirty minutes later, I was still trying to find the parking lot. I had mistaken its entrance for a door one would walk through and ended up in a maze-like neighborhood below the city. Curious stares turned into glares when I drove through the market.
The tailgater behind me honked at my impudence when I stopped at a stop sign. After another half-hour of wending my way up the hill, I drove through the pedestrian-sized door and parked.
I asked a railway employee for directions back to my apartment. “Follow me,” he smiled. We headed to the train station, took the elevator up, and he accompanied me to the street 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 famous for its well-preserved Tempio della Concordia, built in the fifth century BC, and the model for the UNESCO logo.
The Kolymbethra Garden was at the farthest end. I reached it hot, tired, and hungry. One of the two employees excused himself and went 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 inspired dish in the four-course special featured almonds, in honor of Agrigento’s recent Almond Blossom Festival. Caponata, a Sicilian sweet and sour salad, was made with fresh artichokes.
The zucchini pesto pasta was prepared with wild fennel and coriander. My veal stew was served with almonds, dried prunes, cinnamon, and turmeric. I soon forgot my driving fears.
To Erice, on a Hilltop
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, 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 me, tailgated. I tried not to look over the edge. For twenty-five nerve-wracking minutes Google Maps said, “Turn sharp left, turn sharp right.”
My GPS could not find the parking lot where my host Massimo was waiting. I drove Erice’s perimeter then stopped to call him. “Mi sono persa,” I am lost. For the second time in as many days, my host fetched me.
Massimo smiled and waved off my apologies. I was to follow him to a parking lot where I could leave my car.
I held my breath as I navigated the labyrinthine one-ways with improbably tight corners. The distance sensors on my car blared. With my window down, I could have touched the walls we drove between.
Massimo stopped and directed me to park on the left. I tucked into the allotted spot, opened my door, and it hit the ledge. Massimo winced. I wedged out of the car and looked down. Two nicks marred the door.
Temple of Venus
Before sunset, I strolled to the medieval castle built on the site of an ancient temple of Venus. Locals on their evening walk sat on the benches that lined the overlook. Clouds swirled in the distance. The setting sun cast a flat rainbow where the sky met the sea.
Beyond the seaside villages and green fields to the north, the limestone promontory Monte Cofano jutted into the Tyrrhenian.
Trapani, its saltpans, and the Egadi Islands were 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 a trail of clouds blew at me.
I climbed up onto a ledge, opened my mouth, and tasted clean water with a hint of salt. When I turned around, the clouds wrapped around my neck like a scarf.
The next day the sirocco wind was howling when I met Salvatore Gucciardo and his brothers at their saltpan. They were readying their salt tanks for the season but invited me to join them for breakfast. Four thirty-feet long, fifteen-feet high pyramids of salt bordered one side of their large saltpan.
Their father, Antonino walked with me and explained that their salt was “integrale,” meaning they don’t clean it, which strips the nutrients or treat it with any chemicals.
The sea, wind, and sun are the only ingredients. Two windmills channel water to dry the salt for harvest around September.
When I left two hours later, my eyelashes were mascaraed in salt crystals.
Posso farlo. It was dark when I crept out of Erice and down the switchbacks for the airport. I returned my rental car having covered the two scratches with a Sharpie marker. I owed no damage charges.
When I landed in Rome, my husband Matt was picking up the rental car for our week in the Umbrian countryside.
I asked if he wanted me to drive. “I’ve driven in Sicily, Italy. I can do anything.”