Sicily

Sicily - May 2009

My girlfriend and I recently visited the east coast of Sicily staying in the small resort of Letojanni, a sleepy town resting in its own shadows and living in the shadow (at least as far as the tourist is concerned) of the town of Taormina, perched as it is high on Monte Tauro from where it commands spectacular views of the Ionian sea.

The hotel we stayed in was itself perched high upon the rocks and was accessible through a tunnel, at the end of which a lift took us up through the rocks to the hotel reception, groaning as it did so like an old, unwilling porter carrying heavy luggage. I always judge a hotel by its reception (particularly when I first arrive) and that of the Hotel Antares came as something of a relief. It looked good. It was clean and spacious. And at 1.30am, when we arrived it was empty.

We checked in, took our key and made our way to the room, and, as we climbed to the fourth floor (in another lift) we had the impression the hotel had seen better days. It seemed slightly old fashioned, and, for the moment, as if we were the only guests. Of course, come the morning, that all changed. There is something to be said for arriving in a place when it's dark, of going straight to bed and waking in the morning eager to unwrap the view. We threw back the curtains and found the sun, the sea and a beautiful view of Monte Tauro, one spoiled only a little by the raised road which ran just below the hotel. Another criterion on which to judge a hotel is the breakfast and the Hotel Antares didn't disappoint. Nor for that matter did the dinner. We were staying half-board so it was with some trepidation that we went to the dining room that first evening. It was a canteen-style buffet, but the quality of the food and the variety was excellent. The only thing we didn't like were the cakes; big, colourful (especially the vivid green of the pistachio) and so moist as to ultimately be lacking in substance. If you could eat a rain-cloud that is how they'd be (but not green of course).

The hotel's Maitre D' looked like Bill Murray, the actor, aptly enough from the film 'Lost in Translation'. With his deadpan face and monotone voice he seemed cheerful enough, but his smile belied his cynicism. He enjoyed the same joke every day which invariably involved his wireless palm-held computer into which he would type the orders for the drinks before showing the screen to the guest like a magician asking an audience member to pick a card. On the first day I was presented with the device so I could acknowledge what I was buying (it just goes to show how little attention one pays when buying drinks this way - I only realised the price of the wine when it came to checking out at the end of the holiday). On the screen was a photograph of porn-star turned politician Cicciolina. Of course I laughed politely then looked to Monika for help. "Oh Cicciolina," she said. I hadn't even remembered her name. Bill Murray tried the same joke on some elderly Belgians (who made up most of the hotel's clientele) who seemed to laugh harder - but then they laughed at 'Popcorn TV' (a particularly feeble version of Candid Camera) on the way home on the plane.

For a couple of days of our week long stay, we relaxed by the pool and for the rest of the time went on excursions to Etna, Siracusa, Savoca and Forza D'Agro. But before I discuss those I must first describe the pool attendant.

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He was slim, handsome and somewhat pigeon-chested and had started the job on the day we arrived. He certainly seemed a little unsure of the job (but by no means unsure of himself) and would spend a great deal of time doing not very much very well (much as how a newbie in any job does something as meaningless as sharpening a pencil with the care and expertise normally reserved for a surgeon). At first he seemed to be just that (not a surgeon); a rookie lifeguard/pool attendant/poser who didn't have enough to do, but as the week went on I found him more unsettling (I did overhear another English guest describe him as 'creepy'). He stood at the edges of the pool like an Antony Gormley figure such as you might find on a rooftop or on a beach looking out to sea. He would move occasionally and resume his study of things as if he was the sculpture and the gaze of the sculptor combined. He would lean and check the alignment of sunbeds, making sure they were exactly as they should be. The lack of anything to do on that first day which had caused him to do inane things like lining up the beds, had grown within a week into a case of obsessive behavioural disorder. And if children or old people were swimming, he would 'guard' them, by looking at them from behind his shades, standing with like an automaton, his arms hanging almost akimbo (his hands not quite upon his hips), a creature unable to comprehend what it meant to be human let alone a human on holiday. Straight lines, that was what he understood. Straight lines and sunbeds. But these people playing? This noise? This irregularity? He had power over the sunbeds but not people, and so he watched them from behind his shades, his head twitching like C3P0.

Whenever I've been away, I always try and think of something which encapsulates the trip. So what do I remember most about Sicily?

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Colour is one thing; not only the vivid green of the pistachio cake and the mint granite (which looked and tasted like ice crushed with washing-up liquid - the limone flavour was however wonderful) but the faded paint on doorways and the abundant, beautiful flowers.

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Indeed, the flowers were something which really took me by surprise. I like flowers but am not someone who gets excited in garden-centres or for that matter in gardens. But in Sicily it was different, they did excite me; from the wild flowers frothing beside the pathway from Castelmola to Taormina; to the violet fountain, cascading down a façade in Ortigia, Siracusa, and the pointillist dabs on the crumbling houses in Forza D'Agro (houses which seemed held up by the power of a gasp). Lines and shadows and balconies are other things I recall, but I shall return to these later.

Our first expedition was to Mount Etna, Europe's biggest (and currently active) volcano (in the last ten years alone there have been five eruptions). We made our way there on the bus stopping first at the site of one of the more recent lava flows which, although it's now cold, grey and as still as the rocks on which surrounding towns have been built, retains nonetheless a sense of its original movement; that which caused villagers to look to the Heavens for help as it moved towards them (of course, the rocks in Sicily are never always still, something to which residents would no doubt testify).

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One can imagine how it must have felt when the slow river of black stone was a moving mass of molten lava. As it headed towards one of Etna's outlying villages, the residents began to pray for help and, just as the lava reached them, its progress was stopped, as if a pouncing lion had been miraculously turned into stone. Thanks of course was given to the Virgin Mary and a glistening white statue of her and the infant Jesus was erected at the head of the great cascade of rocks. But not only does this juxtaposition of white against the grey lend the statue a divine air, but perhaps, more importantly it seems to mark the lava out as malign, as something intentionally bad rather than a purely natural, if devastating phenomenon.

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These primeval eruptions point to a time when mankind was not even a feature upon the earth and like any natural 'disaster' they serve to remind us of our place in the scheme of things, of the comparative brevity of human history as opposed to that of nature. An interesting point about the statue is the fact that Mary is placed facing away from the progress of the lava when one might have assumed that she would be positioned facing towards the vast black scar, her palm towards the lava like a traffic cop stopping a car. Instead, she seems to be leading it, as if the rocks are in something of a procession behind her (processions are of course a big thing in Sicily). The statue is in some respects an image of ourselves, and its placement at the head of the lava flow perhaps suggests that we, in the scheme of things come before nature. In time no doubt, more rocks will come and overtake us.

One can certainly understand why people have always been in awe of Etna - it inspires such emotions when seen today, whether from afar or up close. It makes one feel very insignificant; it makes history itself appear insignificant, particularly when one considers the recorded eruptions as far back as Virgil. The distinction between the natural world and natural history and that of the recorded history of man is clear. To us, Virgil appears - indeed as he is - as very distant figure. To Etna, the intervening time, as slow to man as rocks themselves, must pass like yet another lava flow.

Once at the volcano, we climbed aboard the creaking cable-cars (replacements for those destroyed in the eruption of 1983) which took us to a 'half-way' point where we could hire winter coats for 2 Euros and board the large jeep-buses.

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These took us through the roads cut into the stratified snow which dripped as it thawed in the sun (again I thought of natural history; of molten rocks) and after about 15 minutes, we arrived at one of the craters. At once the sight was spectacular, not only physically but also the light, the movement of shadows upon the snow, the tiny shapes of people on the zigzag horizon.

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As we paced around the crater, bending down to touch the hot rocks, it was easy to imagine this place as a portal to the Underworld, the beginnings of a 'Wellsian' journey with ample nods to Hieronymous Bosch. The imagination could indeed run riot in such a space, while all the senses can do is stand still in the face of such incredible natural beauty, and again, as I stood and took in the view (or was it the view that took in all of us) I thought again of Mary at the head of the petrified flow; the imagined versus the real.

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Things cascade in Sicily. Villages cascade down the rocky hills on which they're built and flowers tumble down the hillsides. Tourists move like lava through the streets of Taormina, eating up the town with the every click of their cameras. Time however seems to sit; perhaps on the steps of the town's Teatro Greco.

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Although it's called the Teatro Greco, it is predominantly Roman, dating from around the 1st and 2nd century AD. The steps are largely intact (with some wooden seating built around the topmost part) and between the ancient stones, grass and wild flowers grow, retaining the integrity of the ruins. The theatre itself (like the bigger theatre in Siracusa) is still used today, and while I like the idea of theatre continuing on a site where plays have been performed for almost two millennia, I can't help but think it would be better to see the place without the wooden stage, the scaffolding and the wooden seating.

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Ruins become, as Christopher Woodward writes in his excellent book 'In Ruins' a work of nature rather than man. Certainly the flowers on the steps are testament to this. And again we have the contrast between man and nature which is everywhere in this part of Sicily. Ruins are melancholic places, but at the same time strangely uplifting. Gustave Flaubert enjoyed Ruins. Woodward writes how in a letter to a friend in 1846, he wrote about some ruins he visited:

"I thought," he wrote, "about the dead whom I had never known and on whom my feet trampled. I love above all the sight of vegetation resting upon old ruins; this embrace of nature, coming swiftly to bury the work of man the moment his hand is no longer there to defend it, fills me with deep and ample joy."

In his book, On Creaturely Life, Eric L Santner, in discussing Walter Benjamin's understanding of Natural History (Naturgeschichte), writes how Natural History in Benjamin's parlance refers not the fact that nature has a history but that artefacts of human history acquire an aspect of mute, natural being at the point where they begin to lose their place in a viable form of life. This mute being can be heard in the silence which drifts in and out of the theatre, as if the sound of the voices of all those who would have once been seated there. This silence was punctuated only by the cries of tourists, a few of whom felt the urge to find their own echo, calling out like fools; shouting their own names almost as if before the empty steps on which Time was sitting, they felt the need to perform.

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As we sat on the steps that morning, before the crowds had gathered to strut upon the stage, we gazed out through the breach in the ruins, between what remained of the Doric columns, at the magnificent sight of Etna. Who needs a stage when one can see such a view behind? (It was in the theatre that I came to ask myself the question, what is a view? Why do we like to stand and look at the view? But the answer to that is for another time.)

Having left the theatre we passed a shop selling old prints of the town. One of them was a scene from the theatre, a painting made in the 18th century showing the theatre for the most part covered with grass, with just the brick backdrop and columns recognisable today. And I couldn't help but wish it still looked that way. Visiting the ancient Greek theatre at Siracusa a few days later, we were disappointed to find that much of it had been covered with boards for people to sit and watch a performance and again I couldn't help but question the use of ancient places for this purpose. It might seem apposite perhaps, but ultimately it robs the place of its beauty and the ruins of their integrity - perhaps even purpose. It's akin to the squawks and barks of the tourist searching out his echo; an attempt to mollify the progression of time and our own mortality.

There are of course different types of ruin in Sicily. There are those caused by time and those by seismic activity (Siracusa itself was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, indeed, in Goethe's 'Italian Journey', written in the 1780s, the great man didn't visit, understanding that "little now remained of that once glorious city but its name"). There are the ancient ruins (such as the theatres) and those which are ruins of the present day, ruins 'in progress' as it were.

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On a trip to two villages in the hills around Taormina, we found examples of the latter (places too where parts of the Godfather trilogy were filmed). In Forza D'Agro, I fell in love with the dry decay of the buildings on which, like the steps in the Teatro Greco, flowers were growing. Even on inhabited buildings, flowers were sprouting from the rooftops, as if reminding us of the certainty to follow.

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Again in Woodward's book, the author tells us of an English botanist called Richard Deakin, who described the ruins of the Colosseum in his book Flora of the Colosseum (1855). Woodward writes that

".to the sensitive botanist flowers 'form a link in the memory, and teach us hopeful and soothing lessons, amid the sadness of bygone ages: and cold indeed must be the heart that does not respond to their silent appeal; for though without speech, they tell us of the regenerating power which animates the dust of mouldering greatness.'"

This 'power' again reminds me of the difference between natural and human history. It serves to remind me that flowers were here long before man and will be here long after we have gone.

And again there was the curious juxtaposition of those wild flowers springing from the fissures, and those contained in window-boxes. Of course they are similar in many respects, but ultimately they say very different things.

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It was almost as if those placed in boxes, and set upon the balconies as decorations were tamed; they were like the actors in the ruins, denying time and the certainty that awaits empires and individuals alike; the flowers in the pots will die before the building, but those on the walls and rooftops will survive it. (The statue of Mary at the head of the rupestrian procession has power over the rocks; the lady with her window box has power over the flowers.)

In some places ruins are inhabited; they are integrated into newer structures and as a result, these structures becoming living palimpsests. In Taormina, we walked alongside an ancient Roman Cistern, a long, beautiful, brick-built edifice in which one could see the mastery of Roman engineering and craftsmanship.

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On top of it, apartments had been built. Also in Taormina, we came upon a small Roman amphitheatre which was in the process of being excavated. In some respects this ruin was one of the most authentic we saw, in that it was located amongst a number of houses which had been built upon it over the course of the last two millennia. I'm not sure why this felt more 'alive' than the other theatres we saw. Perhaps because although a ruin, and one which had been uncovered, it was nonetheless a part of the living town, just as when it was first constructed. One didn't go to see the ruin per se, but rather stumbled upon it.

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I've always been drawn to doorways, particularly those that are blocked up. In Sicily I couldn't help but photograph those that were both blocked up and open; ruined doorways through which people would once have passed during the course of the everyday lives, through which now only the grass and the flowers made their way. They were doorways through which time had passed and through which nothing would be coming back again. Some were boarded up, to deter thieves or squatters; or perhaps it was the time itself the doors were closed to?

I wondered as the week went by whether living in the shadow of Etna made the denial of death much stronger in this place? I don't know, but certainly the desire to prolong life and to deny mortality is apparent. Death is something to be overcome. Those who believe, believe in a final victory over death as if like the lava flow it's something malign rather than entirely natural, something which can be stopped in its tracks. The very idea that death has been around longer than mankind doesn't seem to figure in people's thinking. They look for help in comprehending non-existence by calling upon the saints, by perpetuating life in an imagined afterlife. And perhaps the ultimate symbol of man's inability to comprehend death, or rather non-existence, was what we saw in Savoca, one of the two villages where time slowly chews the buildings.

In a priory, we entered a room in which, along the floor a number of temporary coffins were laying, inside each of which were the mummified remains of some of Savoca's past residents. Priests, lawyers and doctors all lay with pained expressions, still dressed in their funerary clothes. Two of the bodies from the eighteenth century were dressed in all their 'finery' and I couldn't help but imagine them, as we left and walked around the village, walking the same roads three hundred years ago. 'Normally,' these mummies are displayed standing up, perhaps to maintain the idea that they are somehow still alive, or still a part of the world. I must say I didn't find them macabre or even creepy, but instead rather sad. The name Giuseppe was scrawled in marker-pen on the end of one of the boxes; a name which was now just a label, one which meant nothing anymore where once it had once meant something. It was a name that belonged to a living being, a name which had rebounded from the walls and facades of Savoca itself. To see the same name on a tombstone would inspire thoughts of a living person. When one sees names on tombstones, one knows that friends and family of the deceased would have seen that same name and remembered the living being. To see it on the coffin, scrawled with a marker-pen robbed the body of any life it might once have had.

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The remains themselves were fairly pitiful (even if I found them interesting). They looked, as I said, pained, and dressed in their decaying clothes and lying in their boxes, reminded me of the dried flowers in their window boxes, rather than the wild flowers growing on the steps of the Teatro Greco, in places where people whose names and bodies have long been lost to time, once sat. Unable to let them go, friends and family deny them the afterlife of memory and condemn them to a perpetual existence as objects. Rilke wrote that to die is: 'to leave even our name behind us as a child leaves off playing with a broken toy'. And in a sense, these bodies are broken toys with which others cannot stop playing.

One of the most beautiful places we visited was the city of Siracusa, the ancient city of Syracuse. The town as I said was all but levelled in the earthquake of 1693 and was rebuilt almost entirely in the Baroque style with beautiful churches, palaces and houses.

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The Piazza del Duomo in Ortigia (the ancient nucleus of Siracusa) has recently been restored and is a spectacular sight. There are some beautiful buildings here, but the most fabulous has to be the Duomo itself, whose incredible age can be glimpsed in the via Minerva where surviving Doric columns of an ancient Greek temple can be seen forming the skeleton of the building. Inside, the columns can be seen embedded in the walls, in an interior space which is in stark contrast to the rich Baroque facade.

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But of all the wonderful sights of Siracusa, including the numerous and beautiful Baroque doorways, the things which I will perhaps remember most are the balconies. I like to see things restored - the Piazza del Duomo is a fine example of how it should be done, but I also like (and perhaps prefer) to see things that are past their best (except that is for Hotels - these should always be immaculate). Everywhere in Siracusa there seemed to be balconies and almost all of them were beautifully carved, with tiny details that one could blink and miss, but which would have held the attention of their makers for days and weeks on end. There is something about their position in the street, the space they occupy, the views they would have afforded those who stood or sat upon them hundreds of years ago. (Having read Gaston Bachelard's 'The Poetics of Space' whilst away, I could probably wax lyrical about them for hours, but that perhaps is for another time.)

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They are rather like the steps of the Teatro Greco in Taormina. One gets the impression that the past sits upon them looking down at the world carrying on below; they are places from where a gaze might emanate, and when one looks up, aware of being watched, one finds that no-one is there.

In Siracusa I found some graffiti which caught my eye; a section of wall which I thought particularly beautiful.

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On it names had been scratched into the painted fabric of the wall. From one line gouged into the surface, from one name, hundreds have since been added, creating a palimpsest on which successive names have erased those that came before them, albeit not entirely. Lines are left which seem to connect to others, which no longer spell names but instead make patterns for us to follow.

Siracusa is a city of lines; names scratched into walls, the trace of gazes, the wires which run across the facades of its buildings, which join the houses and seem to hold the place together. In 'Invisible Cities' Italo Calvino, through the character of Marco Polo, describes Venice as many different cities: some of those cities could easily be Siracusa.

"In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city's life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their house¬hold goods, Ersilia's refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a simi¬lar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other.

Then they abandon it and take them¬selves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spider¬webs of intricate relationships seeking a form."

The names in the graffiti are themselves reduced to lines, web-like structures seeking a form, re-seeking the names they were and the bodies they once belonged to. We look up at the balconies, searching out the eyes from which the line of a gaze might have come from.

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Most people lost to the past did not leave their names, but nonetheless left something of themselves. In the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis in Siracusa, there is a cave called the Ear of Dionysius (Caravaggio is said to have coined the phrase after suggesting it looked like a human ear). It is a vast chamber cut from the rock by prisoners and is some 60 metres in length and 20 metres in height. In many respects one could say that they have carved their name collectively into the stone, a name in which today we can certainly find an echo.

On the last day of our holiday we went to the beach on Letojanni. I've always had a fondness for grey stones with lines in them - there is a formal quality which I like and having found a particularly beautiful specimen we began to collect others and to put them together, creating a single line from many different stones.

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Stones are in themselves incredible things, objects of an age far exceeding that of the Teatro Greco, the Temple of Apollo in Siracusa and even that of Etna. They are almost beyond our imagination and yet we can hold them in our hands. I have already looked at the lines of Siracusa, the lines of names scratched into the walls and so on, and so it's fitting to end on the lines found in each of these stones.

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The line in these photographs is man-made; we have made it and yet the lines in the stones have been 'written' by the earth itself, by geological processes over unimaginably long periods of time. Placing them together was rather like looking at the graffitied names in Siracusa, written over and over one on top of the other; picking a line and following it, to make sense of something lost or forgotten, creating something new as a result.

As Christopher Woodward writes regarding ruins:

"Each spectator is forced to supply the missing pieces from his or her own imagination and a ruin therefore appears differently to everyone."

Pebbles (and pebble beaches) are themselves ruins; ruins of the world millions of years ago, and just as in the Teatro Greco, we have to use our imaginations to fill the gaps between the extant stones. In any old place, we have the juxtaposition between the ancient past and immediate present. The white lines upon the stones could almost be a trail of paint, drizzled upon the stones like that dripped by Pollock onto his canvases. The trails appear instantaneous and yet as we know, they are older than mankind. They are both the ancient past and now, combined; a phrase which seems to encapsulate this place - Sicily - perfectly.

A selection of photographs from the trip can be found on Flickr.