Sicily’s scenic beauty continues to amaze me. Yesterday’s excursion by train to the medieval town of Cefalu was just one more example of the stunning urban and rural beauty that this Mediterranean island has to offer. I walked downstairs from my comfortable room in the five-bedroom student apartment to the offices of Laboratorio Linguistico, the Italian language
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Italian on a sailboat. Just last week I had sailed together with six other people through the gorgeous Eolian Islands and studied Italian, just off the coast of Sicily.
At the school’s office I met Francesca, the wife of one of the co-owners, who also handles student affairs and logistics, as well as Sonia, a young lady from Switzerland, who handles administrative support for the school. Franco Zodda, the other co-owner of the school, was also there and showed me around the premises. I witnessed a three-person Italian class, saw several classrooms, a lunchroom, and the computer facilities which provide free Internet access to the international language students. Everything was very well organized and the staff is extremely friendly. After exchanging my photos with Francesca I headed off to the supermarket to buy some basic provisions to make myself a lunch.
Back at the apartment I met another international language students: Trevor is a 19-year old high school graduate from Cleveland, Ohio, whose great-grandparents emigrated from Sicily, to be more exact, from the Palermo area. Trevor mentioned that he graduated from high school last year and worked the whole year in order to save enough money to go on a seven-month language study trip to learn the language of his forefathers. He was a very well-mannered personable young man who really wanted to learn about the culture of his ancestors. Naturally he was also a bit nervous since he was traveling for the first time away from home, so he asked me basic questions about how the supermarkets work and similar practicalities. I was very touched by this young man’s desire to connect with his roots.
My next adventure awaited me at 3 pm: I was invited to go on a local country excursion with Francesco di Santi and Franco Zodda, the two co-owners of Laboratorio Linguistico. Both gentlemen have a language teaching background, and in addition Francesco is a licensed captain, so he runs the language study trips on the sailboat, now in hindsight a truly unforgettable experience.
The two Francescos packed me into their car and we started driving past the outskirts of Milazzo into the winding roads of the Nebrodi Mountains. I had already had a chance to discover the interior of Sicily a bit about two weeks earlier during my driving tour around Mount Etna and found that Sicily’s countryside is extremely beautiful.
We drove about an hour into the mountains and arrived in an area above the tree line that featured a variety of strange sandstone formations. To me the Rocks of Agrimusco had a natural Stonehenge quality, and they have indeed been used for centuries, maybe even millennia, as places for ritual celebrations.
The view from this area was astounding: a 360 degree panorama unfolded that included the Eolian Islands in the north, the continuous mountain chain of the Nebrodi and Peloritani Mountains, running east-west on the north-side of Sicily, and straight south we were looking at the imposing cone of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest volcano. In one word, a magical, enchanting environment.
Some of the rocks reminded me of paintings by Salvador Dali, and Francesco pointed out some large, perfectly round inclusions in the rock that looked as if cannon balls had melted into the sandstone. Having grown up in Austria myself, I found myself continuously reminded of the Alps in my birth country and was blown away by the picturesque quality of this island. I commented that Sicily is just totally predestined for unconventional tourism and perfect for hiking, biking, horseback riding and other nature pursuits.
Francesco and Franco enlightened me a little about Sicily, its history and its unique character. They explained that hiking is actually not very popular with Southern Italians at all; Francesco joked and said that Sicilians like to drive up to their destination, not walk there. While climbing around the rocks we talked about the mafia and Sicilian mentality. Francesco described Sicilians as individualistic and fatalistic, an interesting combination of traits.
My tour guides also educated me about the plant life up here at an altitude of about 2000 m: the tree cover consists of hazelnut, chest nut and cork oak trees, all of which have commercial applications. In addition, they showed me a corral for goats that was made of stone. Franco explained that the goats get herded into these stone enclosures at night which incidentally keeps them safe from foxes and other predators. Shortly after we indeed ran into a huge herd of goats, all of whom looked at me kind of funny when I started snapping pictures of them.
Another 20 minutes or so by car later we had arrived at our second destination: Montalbano Elicona, a typical authentic Sicilian mountain village that is perched on a hilltop. We parked our vehicle and started walking through town. The main square opened up around a big church, and on this Monday afternoon, dozens of people were sitting next to the church, in the patios in front of various bars and on benches surrounding the square.
Now this was a real Sicilian town without tourists. According to time-honoured Sicilian traditions, the older men sat together on the side of the church, younger women sat on the front steps of the church, children were playing together on the piazza, and older women were hardly to be seen.
We walked past the main square to take a little walk through town through narrow cobble-stoned streets that led us up to an ancient castle and old churches. Most of the streets were very quiet and many streets were so narrow that they would be impassable for a vehicle. Back on the main square we ourselves sat down to grab a few refreshments.
I was a bit hungry, and the bar we chose had a display case of local fast foods, so I ordered an “arancino di funghi” – a rice ball spiced up with mushroom bits that has a crunchy orange-coloured crust. This little morsel was actually very tasty, and I could have definitely enjoyed a second one, but decided to restrain myself.
Ever since I have arrived in Sicily I have been fascinated by these authentic mountain villages that always feature large groups of older men, many of them wearing berets, and animatedly discussing topics of interest, which probably include soccer and politics. So far I had been to shy to take pictures of them, but I asked Francesco to make a request for photos on my behalf.
Sure enough, with his Sicilian charm, he explained that an Austro-Canadian traveller was requesting to make some photos of these unique characters and they complied. Some of the gentlemen actually did not want to be photographed and hid their faces behind their neighbour’s head, but the vast majority of them was game and even gave me a smile for my pictures. After finally having snapped some pictures of authentic Sicilians I was very happy and we started to head back towards Milazzo. The sun was already setting and the country houses were bathed in golden light – a fitting ending to an interesting excursion.
At 9 pm my tour guides dropped me off at Laboratorio Linguistico’s apartment and I settled in for a quiet night, getting ready for my last full day in Sicily.
About the Author:
Susanne Pacher is the publisher of http://www.travelandtransitions.com
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