The Mediterranean in Ruins
Samuel Jay Keyser
June 9, 2000
© June 2000 by Samuel Jay Keyser. All rights reserved.
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"Where are you going in Italy?" a colleague asks just before Nancy and I leave.
He replies with a gesture, his hand raised above his head as if he were miming a waiter with a full tray making his way through a crowded restaurant.
"I don't get it."
"That's how you hold your wallet in Palermo. It makes it easier for the thieves."
His joke comes back to me as our plane begins its descent into the newly renamed Falcone Borsellino airport at Punta Raisi. It banks for its final approach. I can see Montagne Longo rising up out of the flat plain next to the sea like the wall of some ancient god's ruined fortress, a harbinger of all the mountaintops to come.
Our taxi into Palermo takes us through Capaci. Eight years ago, almost to the day (May 23, 1992), the famous anti-Mafia prosecutor, Judge Giovanni Falcone, made this same trip, traveling, like us, from Rome to Raisi for a weekend of relaxation with his wife. When he got to Capaci, a mafiosi, guided by an accomplice with a cell phone detonated 500 kilos of dynamite buried that same morning in a culvert beneath the road. The blast tore the road and Falcone to bits. His wife was next to him in the front seat. Francesca Morvillo died the next day. It was the price he paid for orchestrating the most successful anti-Mafia investigation in history. We speed past a section of guard rail painted blood red to mark the spot of his execution.
Two months after the assassination, on July 19, 1992, Falcone's twenty year friend and colleague, Judge Paolo Borsellino was blown up outside his mother's house in the Via D'Amilio. The blast was heard all across Palermo. Four days later Guiliano Amato, the prime minister then and, as it happens, now, sends more troops into Sicily than were amassed at the battle of Benevento on February 26, 1266 when Charles the First defeated Manfred and ended the Hohenstaufen rule over Sicily. One way or another Sicily has managed to be invaded, if not by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Normans, or the Spanish, then by themselves.
The drive from Raisi to our hotel, Villa Igiea, takes us through the center of Palermo. The entire town appears to be made of flimsy high rises that grow like a fungus around the hundred year old residences that once gave the town the sultry air of the Boulevard Hauptmann in Paris. That elegance is gone now, replaced by a Palermo the mafia built.
In the 13th century the Kingdom of Two Sicilies consisted of the island of Sicily and a large portion of southern Italy centered around Naples. Now thanks to my Cambridge colleague's jibe, I will visit two Sicilies, the visible Sicily of Monreale and the Cappella Palatina and the invisible Sicily that killed Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Part of the appeal of this island is surely its Jekyll and Hydeness.
It is Monday afternoon, closing on 5 o'clock.. Nancy and I are sitting on the patio of the Villa Igiea overlooking the Golfo di Palermo. The sky above is cloudless. The waters of the gulf look as if they had been ironed by the chambermaid. I am sipping Corvo, a good local Sicilian wine and Nancy, l'acqua minerale naturale. I read aloud to her what I have written.
"It's a bit of a downer, isn't it?" she says. "Couldn't you start off with something more upbeat?"
The truth is I can't. It is not my fault. Because I love Italy, I have internalized something of her. Luigi Barzini in his insightful if somewhat outdated The Italians observes that the Italians always see the dark side of the moon. They are waiting for someone to turn the rainbow off. For the Italians a cache of cash under the pillow and a full tank of gas in the Fiat at the ready is standard equipment.
Barzini thinks this obsessive caution is a hedge against being too happy, too complacent in the well-being of the Italian present. It takes the edge off loss which, they are convinced, is inevitable. Well, I'm with the Italians. If being ravished by the gorgeous light of a late Italian afternoon on a patio overlooking the placid Gulf of Palermo makes me recall poor Giovanni Falcone and his dead wife, Francesca, as a hedge against the fading of the light, so be it.
Sicily is about the size of Vermont. It supports 5 million people, 1/5th of whom live in this town. Only 14% of the island is inhabitable, the bulk being mountains and highlands. At its closest point the island is only two miles from Messina to the mainland, about the same distance from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island. There is a bridge between the latter two. It was built in a little over three years, an engineering marvel of efficiency and speed. Italy, on the other hand, has been contemplating a bridge for the past thirty years and will probably contemplate for another thirty.
Nancy and I had a perfect example of the Italian aversion to getting anything done quickly. We left our passports at the reception desk in the hotel. When we returned for them, the clerk said he would have to call someone. A woman appeared. She said she would look into it. She disappeared into a room behind the desk from which arose a huge commotion. The clerk disappeared into the hubbub. Ten minutes passed. We thought about going for dinner and coming back. Just then a third person appeared. He asked if he could help us. We explained that we were waiting for our passports. He, too, disappeared into the room behind the desk. Fifteen minutes and three people after we started, the clerk reappeared with our passports, apologizing for the delay and annoyed at having to return them so quickly.
The drive into Palermo is along the Via della Liberta'. Our guide, Antonio, provides commentary. The Villa Igiea, he tells us, was designed in 1908 by Ernesto Basile, Sicily's most famous architect. It is one of the best examples of the Art Nouveau style then in vogue. Called the Liberty style because of its floral character, he mentions Liberty of London, noted for its flower-saturated textiles. I haven't the slightest idea what one has to do with the other. Perhaps Antonio is a post-modernist, finding connections the way a Jewish marriage broker finds a bride.
We pass a park with a statue of Garabaldi sitting a horse pointed toward Rome. The statue commemorates Garibaldi's unification of Italy in 1859. The park is dedicated to Giovanni Falcone and Francesca Morvillo who lived nearby. First the airport and now the park. Sicily must feel badly indeed, though I wouldn't be surprised if the airport and the park were built by Mafia contractors.
Graffiti is everywhere, decorating the first six feet of every available facade. In the park in the center of Palermo, the Politeama, the pedestal of one monument has been sprayed so much there appears to be a solid black band around its base. At busy intersections I catch sight of young men with dark faces washing, unbidden, the windshields of cars waiting for the light to turn green. Elsewhere other young men with official looking caps that mean absolutely nothing take it upon themselves to guide cars into curbside parking places, for which they expect payment These are the signs of too many young people and not enough work.
In the golden years of Sicily's past, those that began with the Norman Conquest of Sicily in 1091 by Roger I and lasting through the reigns of his son, Roger II (1105-1154), his grandson, William the Bad (1154-66), and his great-grandson, William the Good (1166-89), Sicilians, with the exception of the barons whom William the Bad suppressed, lived a relatively tranquil and prosperous life. Palermo was the chosen residence of both Williams. They seldom emerged from their palaces, living like Muslim sultans. Then Greek was the principal language of the island though there were large Arabic-speaking populations and a few Jewish colonies. The language of the court was, of course, Norman French. Italian, the language of the mainland, was only just beginning to filter in.
Then the island was a multi-culturalists dream. According to Steven Runciman in his Sicilian Vespers, "At the Court, Arab sempstresses embroidered for the king Christian texts in Arabic lettering on his ceremonial robes. Court officials included men of such diverse origin as the Greek-born Admiral, George of Antioch, or the English-born Richard Palmer, Bishop of Syracuse, or the Hungarian Gentile who became Bishop of Girgenti." He cites the Arab traveler, Ibn Jubayr, who "...noted with interest that the Christian women of the island followed the fashions of Muslim women; they wore veils and abbas when they went out of doors, and never stopped talking."
Many of the sites we visit reflect this 12th century diversity. The Church of St. John the Hermit, for example, was built in 1132 for Roger II on the site of a Benedictine Monastery constructed for Pope Gregory in 581. The church, however, was built by Arab-Norman craftsman and looks for all the world like an Arab mosque with its red domes and cubic towers.
We have acquired a local guide for the day, Paolo, who, by Palermo law, will shepherd us from St. John's to the Cappella Palatina to the Cathedral. A short, stocky man with a salt and pepper beard, he carries a stick with a red ruffle that he holds over his head so we can find him in the crowds of school children swarming everywhere like bees in a garden. Paolo is a native Palermitano. He studied languages at the University of Palermo and is a guide by trade. He lives with a wife, who is an elementary school teacher, and two children. He tells me he loves his work.
When we enter the unadorned room of the original church, no bigger than a two car garage, a woman is talking in Italian to her own group. She turns to Paolo, says she will be finished in two minutes. Paolo waits for thirty seconds and begins to speak. His Sicilian English and her Italian are now at war inside the small, echoing chamber. Nothing he says is intelligible, but he plows on like a lawyer trying to out shout an opponent.
The Cappella Palatina is another present to modern Sicily from its Norman forebear, Roger II . It was begun in 1132, the same year St. John the Hermit was completed. It is a chapel built on the Byzantine model, with three apses. Its aisles are separated from the nave by granite columns. The main attraction, of course, are the mosaics that line the upper walls and the cupola. A carved marble candelabra, the oldest piece of Romanesque art in Sicily, stands against one of the columns. The dominant color is gold, obviously because gold is valuable and god deserves the best money can buy.
Our last stop of the morning is the Cathedral of Palermo, a pastiche of building styles, with its Norman doors and original Norman facades hidden under a bevy of Arabic copulas, the highest copula, a Baroque addition at the end of the 18th century. It is a building redolent with Sicilian history. Here, for example, William the Bad, was crowned king.
Like the hapless camel, the cathedral looks on the outside like a building put together by a committee. On the inside it is, like Mother Hubbard's cupboard, bare. Two exceptions break the monotony. The first is the Chapel of St. Rosalia, Palermo's patron saint who saved the city from the plague in 1624 after three of its patron saints botched the job. A chapel with an ornate silver and gold cask housing her bones was opened twenty years ago by a local bishop who assured everyone that the cask did, indeed, contain a cache of bones.
The second exception is, to my mind, the more impressive. Just to the left as you enter through the Norman doorway are four sarcophagi. Made of unadorned, undistinguished red stone, these coffins, lined up side by side, two by two like crates in a warehouse, contain the remains of Roger II , Frederick II , Henry VI and the Empress Costanza. The tombs are identical. Four stone coffins set on simple pedestals. Here lie one of the architects of Sicily's golden age, Roger II, and three who presided, to one extent or another, over its decline. Their funereal presence somehow makes Sicilys past palpable.
After lunch we set off on a bus trip to visit the Cathedral of Monreale, some ten miles outside Palermo. The trip takes us up the side of one of the mountains forming the golden cup around the long, broad valley at the end of which, at the brink of the Gulf of Palermo, is the city itself. Once called the valley of gold, it is now called the valley of cement. Here is how Alexander Stille describes it in Excellent Cadavers. Speaking of the period called "The Sack of Palermo" in the 1950's he says, "Real estate developers ran wild, pushing the center of the city out along Viale della Liberta toward the new airport at Punta Raisi...builders tore down countless Art Deco palaces and asphalted many of the city's finest parks, transforming one of the most beautiful cities in Europe into a thick, unsightly forest of cement condominia....One of the most important buildings of the great Sicilian architect Ernesto Basile was razed to the ground in the middle of the night, hours before it would have come under protection of the historic preservation laws." As I look out over this vast expanse of cheap concrete high rises hunching up against a pall of industrial smoke, I realize that poor Palermo could not have suffered a worse fate, except for the bombing of War World II that paved the way for this final insult to the Golden Age of Sicily.
Monreale Cathedral, sitting atop Conca d'Oro, houses the largest expanse of mosaics in the world. The inside walls of this monumental structure support a band of mosaics six meters wide and one kilometer long. Along the upper walls of the nave are representations from the old testament, Rebecca at the Well, Cain slaying Abel, Adam and Eve cast out of Eden. Persephone and Demeter are there as well, the artist segueing nicely from Greek myth to the Old Testament.
Monreale is the Capella Palatina writ large, with the same image of Christ Pantocrator hovering over the central apse in a field of gold. William the Good, who began the Cathedral in 1172, intended precisely that, to outshine the Cappella Palatina built by his grandfather, Roger II .
As we enter, a funeral mass is being celebrated. A man of the village, who tried to keep us from entering the cathedral while the mass was going on, is now seated to one side wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. Another man, again apparently of the village, has motioned to me to stop gawking at the golden mosaics that surround the nave. I must either sit or leave. I sit, surreptitiously examining what mosaics I can from the vantage point I have been condemned to. When he isnt looking, I sneak across the church to view the other wall. Here, too, pictures of old testament scenes are depicted in endless streams of gold tesserae. The denseness of the mosaics is mind boggling. The interior is like the body of the tattooed lady. Not a single square inch of unadorned skin anywhere.
William the Good, one of the golden agers, is buried here along with his father, William the Bad. Both are at one end of the transept. Between the Cathedrals at Monreale and Palermo we have all of the Norman kings of Sicilys salad days, except for Roger I.
The Norman legacy is impressive. They were Vikings who came down out of Scandinavia starting around 800AD and left an indelible mark on Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Germany, Italy, even Russia, to say nothing of having discovered America.. One theory holds that the very name "Russia" is derived from a Norse word "Rus," which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "the name of a group of Swedish merchant warriors who established themselves around Kiev and the Dnieper in the ninth century, whose settlements gave rise to the later Russian principalities." One wonders what they were on.
Attached to the cathedral at Monreale are the cloisters of a Benedictine monastery, a rectangle with 114 pairs of white marble columns each decorated with its own carvings or else with inlaid ribbons of mosaic tiles. Atop the columns are religious scenes carved by stone workers throughout Southern Italy. Hoards of school children pass up and down the aisles. They are in a constant state of chatter, illustrating the doppler effect as their voices rise when they approach and fall when they pass, a locomotive made of arms, legs and acned faces. If they are not talking to one another, they are talking to someone on the other end of a cell phone.
Three days ago, in Rome, Nancy and I visited the Gesu. Dedicated to Ignatius of Loyola, the richness of the statuary, the ornateness of the chapel lined with columns of lapis lazuli and streamers of gold was breathtaking. Saint Ignatius statue was dressed in a gold and silver alb lined with precious stones. The meager decorations of the Cathedrals of Sicily pale against this kind of sumptuousness. On the other hand I think of mosaiced churches as a kind of poor man's art, a way of approximating the richness of precious stones with pieces of colored terra cotta. Perhaps that, as much as the skill with which they are assembled, is their strength. It is not surprising to find grandeur where there is untold wealth and power. But to find it where there is none. That is another matter.
I have traveled extensively in Africa. I don't say this to boast. If I had my druthers, Id rather not have been there. I think it is risky and uncomfortable. In Africa I have never been able to escape gastrointestinal mayhem. However, Africa has taught me one thing, the importance of roads. Without good roads and the infrastructure needed to maintain them you can forget about economic progress. As we drive out of Palermo and onto the A28 toward Segesta, I see the roads are in excellent condition, clean, smooth, without a pothole in sight. In Tanzania, on the other hand, potholes are as common as tsetse flies. When it comes to roads, Sicily, by comparison with, say, Malawi, is the promised land.
Segesta is a hill acropolis to match the hill towns of Tuscany. If you ask a real estate dealer what the three most important attributes of a desirable property are, he or she will surely answer "location, location, location." Perched atop Mount Barbaro, Segesta, with its wide open view of the hill country rolling down to the Golf of Castellmare is prime real estate, not only because of the view but because of the inherent security of the heights. One culture after another coveted this hill and, either by fighting or squatters rights, built where generations earlier had built.
Segesta sports three major sites: a breathtaking 5th century BC Doric temple; a splendidly situated amphitheater two hundred years younger; a newly discovered town, or more accurately, series of towns built one atop the other just above the theater.
As recently as ten years ago this town was covered by soil and vegetation. To the naked eye travelling one of the valley roads below, Segesta would have been one more hilltop. Today, thanks to painstaking restoration, we know ourselves to be on the site of an Arab mosque of the 12th century that subsequently formed the foundation for a Norman Church built atop it. The replacement of the mosque by the church is undoubtedly connected to the war between the Saracens and the Norman king Frederick II. As a result of a terrible famine in 1212, the Saracens rose in revolt against Frederick. He took ten years to crush the revolt and hang its leader, Morabit, in Palermo.
The Norman stronghold dating to the 13th century that sits just a few yards away from the church was very likely built as part of the campaign against the Saracens. There is evidence that the Norman fortress was itself built on top of much earlier Roman ruins which themselves were built adjacent to the Greek structures that were the work of a race of people who came here from Troy, perhaps as early as the 7th century BC., the time of the founding of the rival city of Selinunte. Archeology has taught us that history is an onion.
Here is the picture I piece together from the ruins and the placards in front of them that do their best to inform me. Maybe three thousand years ago "location, location, location" led travelers from Troy to the 2,200 foot high peak of Mount Barbaro. They must have built a great deal. What remains is a Doric Temple and a Greek amphitheater.
The Doric Temple was raised by people who knew their business and their Greek roots. Some think the architect must have been Greek. 36 unfluted columns curved in the Greek fashion to relieve the rigidity of straight lines make up the walls of the temple and give it an air of lightness, even springiness that belies its massive stone parts. The columns, 12 along each side and six across the front and back, rest on huge blocks of granite. Tongues of stone that linked the blocks one to the other in a tongue in groove fashion are still visible along the outer edges of the temple like so many granite noses. These nubs make historians think the temple was not completed since they would normally have been knocked off and the stone surface smoothed to finish the building the way a carpenter might finish a cabinet.
It is a mystery why the building was not completed. There was a war between Segesta and Selinunte with Carthage weighing in against Selinunte and with Segesta, culturally a Greek town, siding with the Cathaginians. Hannibals (not the famous one) destruction of Selinunte in 409BC certainly took the pressure off Segesta. Maybe that is why the Temple wasn't finished. Perhaps it was built as an offering in exchange for victory against Selinunte. Once the pressure was off, so was the need to finish. Whatever may be the case, the fact that the temple has survived the ravages of 2500 years of war, weather and neglect has to be one of the great pieces of archeological good fortune.
About a half mile away on slightly higher ground at 1414 feet above sea level is the amphitheater. Also Greek in origin it was built in the 3rd century BC. It is 207 feet across with a stage that faces north so that spectators might watch the hills and the sea merge with the actors. The stage comes alive every other summer with performances of ancient Greek plays. What an experience it must be to watch Antigone throw a handful of dust over her brother, Polyneices, burying him against Creon's wishes, knowing she would come to no good end on this hillside, or Oedipus, Antigones father by Jocasta, his own mother, blinding himself with her hat pin. I think that if I were in town, I would surely come to a performance but frankly as I sat on the hard stone steps of the theater watching the play and the day come to an end, it would scare the hell out of me.
After Segesta we stop for lunch at the Marzuka winery where the proprietor, Guiseppe Rotolo, serves a lunch as informal as it is excellent, laced with bottles from his own cellars, both red and white. There is a tour of the winery, which produces a million bottles a year, an exchange of cards between the proprietor and one of the travelers who offers to help Rotolo find a distributor in the U.S.
At the entrance to Erice, our final stop of the day, is a plaque dedicated to Gennaro Esposito, a Neopolitan who, in May 1993, fell to his death on the stone street below in a brave but vain attempt to save a cat. The plaque attributes his death to "giovanile slancio." youthful courage. The guidebooks want us to contemplate the antiquity of Erice, its early devotion to Venus Erycina and the cult of fertility. They want us to notice the medieval walls, the intricately laid, babys-bottom-smooth stones of the ancient streets, the Porta Spada, "Gate of the Sword," so named for the slaughter of the Angevins during the Sicilian Vespers of 30 March 1282. Too late. Thanks to the power of first impressions Erice will always be the place where a carabiniere died saving a cat.
Our first and only stop as we enter the town is the Chiese Matrice, the mother church of the town. The most notable feature is the ceiling. The church reminds me of a cannoli, creamy white on the inside, curliqued on the outside. The ceiling is a restoration, a recent one since the original roof collapsed in the 19th century. It was built in 1315 in the Aragonese style. The Angevin rule under the great Charles I was over. Charles, at first welcomed by the papacy, was soon resented by one pope after another, being no more malleable than the Hohenstaufens he had replaced. Charles ruled for fifty years.
This is a town I can guarantee you I will never visit again. The road winding to the top of its 2,300 foot height switches back and forth across the face of Monte San Giuliano, providing magnificent as well as treacherous views of the plain below, the town of Trapani and the desolate mass of Cofano, rising out of the Gulf like a Norman helmet. The scenery is spectacular, showing again how careful the Sicilians are at farming. The blocks of land not devoted to housing are carefully tilled and neatly rowed. The plain has the tidy, compact look of some master builder's toy train landscape, as if, once finished with it, he might roll it up and store it until next Christmas.
I don't think I could manage the narrow roads with drops of at least a thousand feet on the outer shoulder. Three hundred people live in the town. Everyone else lives in Trapani and commutes each day to work, either in a shop, or a hotel or a museum or in the scientific conference center that has been here since the mid-60's. Can you imagine driving--one certainly can't walk--2300 feet up and down on a switchback road everyday? What a legacy for an ancestor to leave a descendant. No pun intended.
The Italians are nothing if not creative. Take graffiti. When there are no walls or sidewalks, they carve their names into the leaves of agava plants lining the paths to the temples. They do not, however, touch the temples. It is not as if they couldn't. Guards are less evident here than in a cemetery. I do not think this is an accident. I suspect the Italians have great respect for the past and very little for the present. I may be wrong. After all, as hard as it is to read the present the past is that much harder.
Try reading the drinking dishes, water pots, wine pitchers, the kylices, kraters and amphorae in the Museo Regionale Archeologico in Agrigento. The red figures on a black background depict ladies in long gowns holding ewers, huge horses goaded by powerful men, lithe warriors wielding spears, small boys carrying jugs. Each pot bears an image as pregnant with meaning for the 4th century BC as it is impregnable to us. A half hour among them and I feel the need for something familiar. A vendors truck outside the museum, plastered with an ad for Snapple, the glass bottle my centurys amphora, does the trick.
We pause for lunch before viewing the Valley of the Temples. The meal at the restaurant is interrupted by a quintet, a guitar player, an accordionist, a bass player who doubles on penny whistle, a young boy on tambourine and a lead tenor. They play tarantellas that remind me of Dean Martin singing "Thats Amore" and one ballad, a love song, that the tenor sings to a smartly dressed women sitting alone at a table in the corner. There is a lot of eye contact between them. The quintet is good at what it does, but so was Jack the Ripper. This is histronic serenading at its best, lots of sweeping gestures, oh altitudos, and perspiration.
The Valley of the Temples is the site of a series of 21 Doric temples dating from the 5th century BC, only a third of which have been located. One of them, the Temple of Concord, is among the best preserved in the world. Started in 430 BC, the temple became a Christian Church in the 6th century AD thanks to Sainto Gregorio della Rape, i.e. St. Gregory of the Turnips, so named, perhaps, because, when as a young monk in St. Andrews he fell ill, his mother sent him vegetables in a silver dish. Had he been Jewish, it would have been chicken soup. At least three things have worked to save antiquity from utter obliteration, volcanic ash, doing double duty as a Christian church and having a good mother.
Somewhere the poet e.e. cummings wrote "Oh to be a metope now that triglyph's here." Looking at the fully preserved facade of the Temple of Concord I can see the triglyphs as plain as day, the metopes keeping them apart like a referee in a boxing match. The original frescoes are gone, of course, and I am looking at blank friezes, but the space is palpable, the real thing, not just a series of columns holding up empty air. I come away thinking this is getting close to what it must really have been like. Only the painted triglyphs and metopes have grown plain in time.
The ancient city of Akragas of the Greeks, Agrigentium of the Romans, Agrigento of the Sicilians is 2500 years old, roughly the same age as Segesta. In its heyday around 480BC, it housed 200,000 inhabitants and was in the same league with Athens, in fact, in competition with Athens.
The city plan is a grand conception. It did not grow like topsy. Up on the hill, just below the modern city of Agrigento, was the acropolis. The marketplace, the agora, was below in the valley. Along the ridge on the other side of the valley were the temples of Herakles, Concord and Hera, strung out one after the other.
If the idea was to impress the barbarians and keep them at bay, it wasn't a great success. Agrigento fell to the Carthaginians in 406BC. It was retaken by Timoleon of Corinth in 338BC, who rebuilt the city. In 262BC the Romans took over and remained in possession until the empire fell apart. In 827AD the Saracens conquered it, roughly 1400 years after it was first founded and then, in 1087, it was reclaimed by Count Roger, soon to be Roger I, King of Sicily, whose tomb we saw in Palermo just yesterday.
Modern Agrigento occupies the acropolis of the old city. It has buried the top of Mount Camico in a dismal stubble of high rises that has made its way to the edge of the Valley of the Temples. This is not a good thing. There is virtually no place to stand where the modern city isn't breathing over your shoulder as you try to experience the Valley. Despite the excellent state of preservation of the Temple of Concord, I prefer the temple at Segesta where nothing but sky and earth intrudes.
The rebuilding of modern Agrigento began after the war. Virtually put out of business by Mussolini, the Mafia, like the Frankenstein monster, came back to life with the allied victory and essentially took over the building trade. Some say the United States was the Mafia's Dr. Frankenstein. What was the trade-off? The US would get a ready made anticommunist cadre right here in Italy. The Mafia would get a free hand in the building industry. Whatever the cause of the Mafia's revivification, the rush to high rises has cast a pall over the Valley of the Temples. Ever since construction has been banned, 600 buildings have been raised in no-building zones and 1500 in so-called "protected zones." Agrigento is Sicily's Jekyll and Hydeness at its best.
As an after dinner surprise, we are driven back to the Valley of the Temples. It is ten o'clock and there is a full moon. The weather is cool. The temples of Hera, Hercules and Concord have been lit up and our bus joins several others that move back and forth in a lumbering minuet along the road beneath them. The traffic is light. For the first time we see the temples without the interference of modern Agrigento. Antonio hands Fabbio, our bus driver, a tape cassette. He slips it into the buss tape deck. The "Dance of the Hours" from Ponchiellis La Gioconda drifts through the buss speaker system. In my head I hear Alan Sherman singing "Hello muddah. Hello faddah. Here I am in Camp Granada." Obviously Fabbio and Antonio are setting a scene. At the rotary at the foot of the Temple of Hera Fabbio circles slowly, not once, but three times around, as if he were tangoing on the tarmac. I don't think the Italians are romantics. I think they think we think they are. That is why they do such ridiculous things.
There is something very sad about the spectacle of these torchlit temples. They are not in their time nor are they in ours. They sit atop their individual promontories like displaced persons, people without a country. I think of them as trained elephants, made to stand unnaturally on their hind legs for appreciative audiences. The elephants, of course, have a home. But not the temples. They are both timeless and homeless.
We have the European and African plates to thank for Sicily, The restlessness of these monumental blocks has not only given us Mont Blanc, and its namesake pens, but the spiny mountains of Sicily. There are even pieces of the Alps resting in Sardinia. We drive from Agrigento to Catania, from the high land to the town below Etna. The peaks are connected by fields of olive trees, almond trees, grape vines, hay, garlic, onions, the hay already mown and strewn about like giant balls of string. The land has that well manicured look of an English park, not a single square inch wasted. In the distance you see rows of almond trees straining up the mountain side as far as alluvially possible, stopping only when the soil gives way to hard rock. Fields planted with high grass are bordered by yellow scotch broom. Every now and then bright blotches of red poppies surprise you with their chipperness.
In the distance I see a flock of sheep being driven down the hillside. They are in the shape of a tear and the flock looks as if it were a drop of water running down a window pane. A small black sheep dog keeps them together and moving. I am reminded of David, our tour manager, who spends his days doing much the same thing.
It's hard to tell from the window of a speeding bus, but the farmhouses are uniformly modest. The rooms must be few, their size miniscule. Only occasionally do you see a grand hacienda at some high point overlooking the green and the yellow and the red. Where, I wonder, are the farmers? Perhaps, like in Tuscany, they till the fields at night when its cool, driving their tractors in the dark over land so familiar they don't need headlights. In Tuscany you can hear them shouting to one another across the fields long after midnight. I can imagine the same thing happens here. This land looks coddled.
Our destination today is the Piazza Armerina, a 4th century Roman villa that may have been the summer home of Maximian, one of the co-emperors of Rome during the Tetrarchic period. The villa was occupied for almost 700 years from its inception to 1160 when William the Bad, the son of Roger II, destroyed it, doubtless because of his ongoing feud with the Saracens.
Nature has a way of protecting its treasures, at least some of them. Just outside of Djojakarta in central Java is a magnificent Buddhist Temple, Borobudur. Shaped like a buddhist stupa, the structure is three stories high, its carved walls a virtual slide show of the life of Prince Gautama. When the Buddhists fled to Bali in 1000AD, the abandoned temple lay hidden under volcanic ash for over eight hundred years until the English Lieutenant Governor Thomas Raffles discovered it in 1814. Restoration began at the turn of this century. The hominid footsteps hidden for 3.6 million years under a sheet of volcanic ash at Laetoli near Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania were discovered by Mary Leakey a quarter of a century years ago when the protective skin was finally worn away by the wind. And had it not been for a mudslide shortly after William the Bad abandoned the Piazza Armerina, its stone walls, marble columns, tepidarium, ambulatorium, triclinium, the whole nine yards, would surely have been dismantled, stone by stone, tessera by tessera, gobbled up in some local's kitchen garden, some housewife's kitchen floor.
Out of harms way until they were rediscovered in 1761, no one actually gave much of a damn until the early 1950's when excavation and restoration were officially undertaken. This was, of course, just after the second world. Tourism is a great conservator.
Looking at the temples at Agrigento and Segesta and now the mosaics at Piazzo Armerina has made me very tired. At first I thought it was the physical exertion of the trip, but that isnt it. The trip is a breeze. We spend most of our time on busses and when we are not looking we are eating. I have estimated that the time I spend eating in Italy has grown by a factor of five. Lunch and dinner alone are easily four hours. Breakfast is close to an hour. And then there are those fifteen minute stops for ice cream, coffee and licorice twirls.
No. What makes me tired is empathy. I estimate that in the Piazza Armerino 33,177,600 tiles were used to represent all those lions and tigers and bears, venery, ballerinery, the labors of Hercules. No wonder Hercules was such a popular subject. It took 4,000 Elymians five years just to raise a middle size temple, the Temple of Concord. What about the Temple of Zeus which was twice as big and with 50 foot high walls and god knows how many telemons? The guide says it took 20,000 workers what? Ten years? In every city we drive through there are at least ten electric cranes sitting around waiting to lift something. I try to imagine the existence of a laborer 2500 years ago. His entire life must have been devoted to stone, finding it, hauling it, lifting it and dying the stone worker's version of the miner's black lung disease. In Ozymandias, Shelley says:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
"Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
To hell with Ozymandias. What about the poor souls who had to lift him onto that pedestal?
The mosaics are, of course, too much to take in in a single visit. They are among the two or three best preserved in the world. To remember them I buy an artistic guide to the mosaics. On page 19, the legend for a picture of the aqueduct that brought water to the thermal baths reads:
The high walled structures of the acqueduct (sic) which
directly supplied the fools of the thermal complex.
I suppose laying 33,177,600 tiles is not in the same league with lifting a two ton block of stone. After all, a tile doesn't weigh all that much. Even so, I owe the unknown artists of Armerina a kind thought. I give it to them here. Your knees (or your backs) must have killed you putting this floor together, you who had no idea that your real audience was not your indenturers, but rather the hundreds of thousands of school children who flock to see your handiwork and, between the squeals and squirms of a classroom outing, perhaps catch sight of a bleeding boar, a navel, a lion's bloody mouth. Some will remember. You, whoever you were, could have done worse.
We drive to a picnic lunch in a wood overlooking Lake Pegusa, the lake where Pluto came up out of Hades, abducted Demeter's daughter, Persephone, and hauled her back to the underworld where she reigned as his wife. It must have been in these woods that Demeter heard her daughter's screams and came running too late.
We are sitting at tables set for us by a local restaurateur. The table cloths are white. Bottles of wine and cold water are waiting. We start with a simple antipasto and then a main dish of chops, sausage, steak broiled on the spot. For dessert there is local fruit.
The lake is just down the hill. The setting is perfect. I want to imagine Pluto rising up out of the water, seaweed matted in his hair, water streaming from his body as he rises to the surface. I want to imagine his wild eyes searching the shoreline for the young goddess bathing there and then, finding her, I want to imagine her cries ringing through the trees. Instead, I hear the drone of a million mosquitoes trapped inside a jar. A bright yellow and red Formula 2 racing car whizzes by on a half-hidden race track at the foot of our hill, followed by another and another and another. For godssake, someone's built a race track around the lake where Pluto raped Persephone. I'll bet whoever thought of the idea has been re-elected.
Fabbio tells me he likes Antonio as a guide because he is so serene and unflappable. I tell him that the same goes for him. He has maneuvered our whale of a bus through some of the narrowest streets and country lanes, endured drivers unlike himself, who honk and want to pass when it is clear he has his hands full trying to keep the bus free of overhanging branches and threatening fence posts.
Fabbio, who is from Palermo, is as unflappable as the Catanians I see along the street as we enter the town calmly drinking coffee, chatting, window shopping, sucking on gelati. Apparently they couldnt care less that just up the road about a mile is Europe's largest active volcano, that over the past month it has been belching like a giant with a sour stomach. I mean, if I lived a mile away from an active volcano, I would want to have my head examined, not ask for another latte.
Sicily was a virtual Times Square of the ancient world. At one time or another practically everybody who was anybody came here, albeit with blood in his eyes. It seems as if everybody and her brother had won or lost a piece of Sicily.
Syracuse is as good an illustration as any. Founded as a Corinthian colony in 734BC, within a century it rivaled Athens in power and prestige. That, of course, meant enemies. Threatened alternatively and sometimes more than alternatively by the Athenians, the Carthaginians and the Romans, its early history was one war after another. What made it war worthy is reflected in its celebrities. In the fifth century, Aeschylus and Pindar worked here. When the city fell to the Romans in 212BC, Archimedes was killed here. St. Paul slept here.
The presence of Archimedes in Syracuse made it all that much harder for the Romans to conquer the town. One of Archimedes inventions was the "Architronito" or "steam cannon." At one end of a barrel was a chamber filled with rocks. When the rocks were heated, steam generated by dousing them with water propelled a stone ball the length of six football fields.
The centerpiece of Syracusan ruins is part of the Regional Archeological Museum. An amphitheater 453 feet across and, at its largest, 59 rows high, it is a Greek theater, built in 475BC and enlarged in 230BC. Aeschylus' Persai (The Persians), an account of the Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis in 480BC, was probably performed for the first time here in 472BC, a play about a battle a mere eight years old. Were he alive today, Aeschylus would beyond question have been in television.
At the top of the amphitheater a mountain stream brings fresh water into the upper reaches, the third balcony as it were. One can easily imagine the Syracusans moving back and forth between the fountain and the play. Like the Japanese Noh theater, these spectacles went on for several days.
Behind the theater is the stone quarry used to build, not only the superstructure of the amphitheater--its seats were carved out of solid rock, which is why they have survived until today (you can't steal a mountainside)--but used to build everything else in the vicinity, the houses, temples, administrative buildings. It was also used as a concentration camp. According to Thucydides at one time 7,000 Athenians were imprisoned here. They would have been herded into a black hole hewn out of the rock by stone cutters. Today, the roof having caved in, it looks like a rock garden for giants.
One cavern of the quarry remains undamaged. Called Dionysius Ear because of its remarkable acoustic properties--you can hear a whisper at one end when you are standing out of sight at the other--the guides are filled with complicated stories about the genesis of this cavern. They call it the amphitheaters sounding board and explain that it was left this way in order to amplify the voices of the actors in the amphitheater outside. I am dubious. When we visit the amphitheater, workmen and pounding away with hammers and nails as they board up the stone seats to protect them during a coming theatrical. We are lucky to have arrived before the amphitheater was completely covered by this wooden carpet. But standing where we are, in the center of the cavern, you cant hear a single workmans hammer blow. Pointing this out to the guide would not, I think, be perceived as a friendly act. But there is a lesson here. Take everything a guide says with a grain of salt. Much of it has been fashioned in the spirit of the midway at a carnival--to entertain the rubes.
There are two things about this island that have surprised me. The first, of course, are the ruins themselves; they are ubiquitous, suggestive, sad and, in many instances, incredibly beautiful. The second is the ruinous metropolises that have grown up around them. Palermo, once one of the most beautiful cities in the world, has been obliterated by the mafia-inspired building surge that is remarkable as much for its origins as it is for its execrable taste. In Agrigento a revivified Mafia has done the same. Ditto in Catania. Ditto Syracuse, another city overrun by a scabrous architecture.
Only Ortygia seems to have emerged unscathed. This gorgeous headland at the tip of Syracuse, in fact, the site of the first settlement 2700 years ago, is a beautiful oasis in a sea of cheap cement. In its center is the Syracuse Cathedral, built on the site of a Temple to Athena erected in the 5th century BC. In the 7th century AD it was converted into a church by Bishop Zosimus, perhaps to celebrate the defeat of the Carthaginians in 480BC by Theron of Agrigento and Gelon of Syracuse. The columns of the original temple are visible. The stonework of the church has simply enfolded them. It is a remarkable example of how, in order for a temple to survive, it had to become a church. It was this transformation that saved the superb Temple of Concord in Agrigento.
Our visit coincides with a wedding. The guests are well-dressed, the men in cool black and white outfits, the women in tight-fitting dresses and high heels. There are no shawls. It is too hot. There is the ever present young girl dressed to look like her elders and then there is the car designated to take the bride and groom to a beautiful spot for a honeymoon. If you are married in Ortygia because you have the great good fortune to come from there, where, I wonder, do you go on your honeymoon? I would dearly love to ask but it would be an unwarranted intrusion. Ill just have to guess. Palermo?
Ortygea has barely been touched by the mafia generated building blight and now it looks as if it won't be. The boom has stopped. This is not because Sicily has run out of people to build houses for but, I suspect, because the French connection collapsed in 1970. The Sicilian mafia picked up the heroin trade when Marseilles was busted. Here is a corroborating statistic. In 1974 eight people OD'ed on heroin in Italy. By 1980 there were 200,000 Italian heroin addicts, hundreds of which died each year. In 1989, for example, the number of deaths was 951.
So the mafia is getting out of the house business and into drug trafficking. Good for the città, bad for the cittadino. How is it good for the città?
Earlier today Nancy and I walk to the park in the center of town. It is five o'clock. People are pouring out of work. The day is hot, the fountain appealing. The park is built on a hill. It is easy to see why. At the top a gentle breeze makes a 10° difference in the temperature. The hill itself is decorated with a floral clock that keeps good time. Today's date--in plants no less--is inscribed at the top. Long curlequed shrubs wind around the trees and bushes like stitchery. On the side of a nearby hill Bellini's name in topiary, a treble clef on one side and the town's symbol, an elephant, on the other, overlooks a playground where children play while mothers watch.
The park and the hillside attest to a sense of style that lies just below the surface of Sicilian life and is, I think, bursting its seams. There hasn't been much opportunity since the war, but here and there, like flowers growing out of the cracks in concrete, you can see it, mostly in the outlandish dress of the young, skin tight lavender slacks, purple lipstick, shoes with five inch soles that give them a Frankensteinian gait. It is grotesque. But it is the start of style.
On the way back from the restaurant this evening I saw a motorcyclist drive his bike up onto the pavement and leave it in the doorway of a clothing store. Why not? The store was closed. There was plenty of room for us to get by. A little farther on, a car had backed into a parking place too small for it to fit normally. The back wheels were on the sidewalk. Why not? The car was out of the road. There was plenty of room on the sidewalk. This is also a kind of style. When it is freed from its tethers, perhaps the real Syracuse will rise again.
I have always been struck by the need for people to go to extremes. I don't mean this in emotional terms. I mean it physically. If there is a harbor, people will invariably be at the very end of its breakwater. If there is a mountain, people will find its top. Why? I suppose if you are afraid of your neighbors and want to protect yourself, you will go for the heights. But that is only part of the story. Getting as far out, as high up, as deep down is a human impulse. Why else would we put all that effort into going to the moon? Mars? The nearest star is four light-years away, for godssake. There is no place to go. But that doesn't bother us. We act as if there is a "there" in space to go to.
An incarnation of this impulse is what strikes you when you come around a corner on the road to Taormina and look up. That really is a town up there, about as far up as you can get, perched atop Mount Tauro, 676 feet above the sea. Like most other towns we've visited, it has a pedigree. Founded in 403BC by Dionysius of Syracuse, the Saracens destroyed it in 902. In 1078 the ubiquitous Roger I retook it. In 1410 the Sicilian parliament met here to select a new king when the line of Peter of Aragon petered it. At the beginning of this century it became a watering hole for royalty after Kaiser Wilhelm's visit in 1896. Since then the list of visitors reads like the syllabus for a survey course in twentieth century literature: D.H. Lawrence, Osbert Sitwell, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams.
The Greek theater built first by the Greeks and then rebuilt by the Romans couldn't be better situated. First, there is the amphitheater itself, carved out of rock and just slightly smaller than the theater in Syracuse. Then, there is the view of the Ionian Sea beyond the stage, a deep olive green in the distance. Finally, there is the eminence gris of Mt. Etna, smoking this afternoon like some great uncle after a heavy lunch. If nature can be too perfect, she has managed it here. The weather is fine. The sky is a soft, robin's egg blue, the air is warm but not hot and there is that swathe of white smoke from Etna scrawling across the sky like a pennant. Orson Wells visited Taormina as well. No wonder. The place feels like a stage setting for a Busby Berkeley musical.
Standing at the very back of the amphitheater and looking the other way from Etna, the house tops of Taormina are just below me. Beyond them is the sea. The vista is abnormally beautiful. I scan the houses down below with my binoculars. A woman is feeding a flock of chickens on her roof. Theirs has to be the best chicken coop in the world.
A fellow traveler takes one look at Taormina and says he wants to live here. He talks like someone in love at first sight. I am dubious. For one thing it is only a matter of time before human beings begin to take things for granted. I can remember when television was something exotic, liking having your tongue pierced. Now a world with television is about as ordinary as toothpaste.
Think of the Sicilians who sit at the foot of Etna, a smoldering giant, and give it about as much thought as they do tomorrow's laundry. We crane our necks to catch a glimpse of the volcano, are disappointed when it is covered in cloud and then, when we see it from stem to stern, its smoking plume lying around its neck like an ermine collar, we casually lunch in full sight of it and hardly give it a second thought. How long did it take for us to become blasé? Two hours? Though, at least with respect to the volcano, I am certain denial plays a role. As recently as 1991-92 a serious eruption threatened the town of Zafferana Etnea. In the last twenty-one years, eleven people have been killed by eruptions. Antonio tells us over and over and how safe, how benign Etna is. And yet, as we drive toward Messina and he sees a sudden explosion, his voice catches and he speaks with an urgency we haven't heard before.
At four thirty in the afternoon the first half of our trip comes to an end when we board the 250 foot square rigger, the Lily Marleen, and say goodbye to Fabbio and Antonio. The crew, mostly young men and women, in white shirts and black pants or skirts, couldnt be more attentive in welcoming us aboard. They are obviously proud of their vessel, a three masted, steel-hulled schooner, with a full array of jibs, mainsails, topsails, mizzens, 3937 square feet of sail, enough to sheet a medium size hotel.
The boat, only six years old, has two motors, a 660 horsepower diesel and a 280 hp auxiliary. It is 249 feet long and 29 and a half feet in the beam. It weighs 704 tons. The public rooms are lush, a lounge. a library, a dining room that can seat 50 comfortably. There is a purser, a safety officer, an assistant purser, a ship's doctor--he is an orthopedic surgeon from Munich--and a crew of thirty. Our cabins are more luxurious than most of the hotel rooms we have stayed in. It has its own desalinization equipment and its own bacterially charged waste system. When the microbes have worked their way through its four chambers the end product is clear enough to be pumped out with the bilge water.
The first official gathering is the safety lecture. The safety officer talks about the dangers of fire, storm, falling overboard, and the possibility of a hole in the hull. That, he says, is why we must master the art of donning our life jackets. He tells us not to sit on the railing, not to throw cigarettes overboard. The turbulence of the wind could lodge them in a sail. He tells us not to put anything but food and paper in the johns and to be aware that our smoke detectors are so sensitive the steam from the shower can set them off. He is right about that. I manage to do just that the first day. All in all his lecture makes me feel as if I am embarking on an outward bound adventure, not a six day holiday of sea and sun.
Standing on the pier waiting for our departure, we lift complimentary glasses of champagne in the captain's toast to a pleasant voyage. We are still tied up to the dock and a crowd of local Messinans watch as we eat canapés and drink champagne. A companion says he feels a bit uneasy about being watched. He says he can imagine himself standing on the dock and wondering who all these well-heeled people are. He admits to feeling a bit guilty, asks me how I feel about it. The safety officer's concerns are still in my ears. I tell him I think they are incredibly lucky.
This morning we dock outside Lipari, one of the Aeolian islands. Last night one of us had the good sense to get up at 2am and watch Stromboli erupting. She said there was a crimson halo hovering at the peak of the volcano that was rent every now and then by a column of red fire. Nothing so spectacular at Lipari. In the distance one of its volcanic peaks is smoking and toward mid-morning effluvent from a fumerole makes its slow, smoky way down the mountainside.
Volcanoes are not pleasant backdrops. The island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea contains the infamous Santorini volcano. Its walls rise 300 meters from sea level to the top where it drops down inside the bowl to a depth of 430 meters below sea level. The caldera, 83 square kilometers of it, was formed when the top of the Santorini volcano blew 1 cubic mile of dirt 17 miles into the air. The gaping hole created by the volcano was instantaneously filled with the water of the surrounding Mediterranean. The water rushed in, met in the middle and rose to a height of a 100 feet and then out rushed out in waves almost twice as high, travelling at a rate of 350 miles per hour. The tidal waves produced by the Santorini volcano were enough, many archeologists think, to destroy a civilization, the Minoan civilization of 1500BC. Stromboli and Mt. Etna are not diversions. They are catastrophes waiting to happen.
The walk to the duomo takes about fifteen minutes, all of it straight uphill. The duomo is yet another of the starts of the ubiquitous Roger I, who first built on this site in 1084. Now the church has been completely redone, including 18th century frescoes on the vault, one showing a healthy young woman planting a chisel inside the temple of a young man flat on his back. Her hammer is raised for the next blow and there is a quiet smile of satisfaction on her face. Church frescoes of the middle ages and beyond, especially those that depict the damnations of Hell, were the Action Comics of their time.
This church is notable for a couple of reasons. First, there is a silver statue of Saint Bartholomew in one of its chapels that is taken out and carted around the town four times a year. The statue is accompanied by a silver boat rowed by angels which sits next to it. Presumably the boat commemorates the miracle of St. Bartholomew, who according to the Roman Martyrology, was flayed alive and then beheaded by King Astyages on the west coast of the Caspian Sea. Despite these evident handicaps he managed to return to Sicily, floating in on a marble casket.
The church has a lived in look about it, a working church look. In the west transept there is a table and chairs. A water bottle sits atop the table, along with a gavel, several sheets of paper and some gowns. It looks as if a meeting has just adjourned. This is the first cathedral Ive ever seen that showed signs of something other than prayer taking place in it.
The most spectacular part of the town, aside, of course, from the town itself, is the Archeological Museum. The collection ranges from Bronze Age Ausonian artifacts through superb examples of Greek pottery. There are re-creations of necropolises, carefully reconstructed from the real thing, including large jars with flat stones for lids in which the dead awaited the next life in a crouch, like Chinese workers waiting by the roadside for a local bus.
We have just a few hours here before the launch comes to pick us up and take us back to the Lily Marleen, lying at anchor just inside the harbor and I feel pressed. There is too much to take in at one sitting and I don't know what the highlights are. I follow Thomas Hoving's advice. I check out the postcards. Whatever is pictured, that's what I look for. Nancy and I find the huge vase by the Painter of Antimenes, with the labors of Hercules around the outer rim and ships along the inner rim. Done between 540-30BC, this vase for mixing wine and water alone is worth the trip.
The island was coveted from the very beginning because of the obsidian found here, the glass due to volcanic eruptions several thousand years ago. The first known inhabitants were stone age craftsmen who were able by the technique called napping to fashion tools from the volcanic glass. The process is identical to that of Homo Habilis in Africa, who did exactly the same thing with granite, making stone axes by chipping away at the edge of the granite until a razor's edge sharp enough to dismember an elephant was produced. Homo Habilis has to be at least 1,500,000 years old. And here we are talking about a culture in place between the fifth and the third millenium before Christ. Talk about long-lived technologies. In the past I have thought of neolithic and bronze age cultures as hopelessly primitive and of little interest. What a misconception. These people were able to work with stone and glass and bronze because of eons of hominid trial and error that went before them, most of it lost in the pitch black caverns of an unrecorded past.
The artifacts of this museum have focused me on the incredible acts of unrecorded bravery that brought homo sapiens out of Africa and across the sea to Lipari. What was the route? Across Asia Minor and down Italy to the toe of the boot and then out onto the water? Did they come straight across? How did they do it? With sail? Oars? How did it feel to set out on water not knowing what you might find once land dropped below the horizon?
I wouldn't mind a year in the museum instead of two hours contemplating these questions. But it is perhaps just as well. The worst questions to think about are the ones for which there are no answers. Lipari has been the highlight of the trip for me. The reason, I think, is the promise of that museum. If the Italians took as much care with their present and they have with their past, this country would be as close to Paradise as one can legally come.
When I get up this morning and go out on deck, all I see is sea. This troubles me. Of the four ancient Greek elements, earth, air, fire and water, I'll take earth any day. It's not that I get seasick. I don't. It's just that I have no intuitions about the sea and a person without intuitions is like a balloon without air.
The sea we are floating on at the moment is the Mediterranean. Its name means "middle land," that is, a sea in the middle of land. It is virtually an inland sea. It's color is a deep blue that I've never seen before. If I were to name it, I think I'd call it The Obsidian Sea. About 50,000,000 years ago the Mediterraneans ancestor, the western end of the Tethyan Sea, went between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. It was 3899 miles wide. It was the time of Gondwanaland, when Africa, South America, Peninsular India, Australia and Antartica were a single continent. But as Gondwanaland began to break apart and the Indian plate began its inexorable creep beneath the underbelly of Eurasia, the Tethyan Seaway started to change. 22,000,000 years later the confluence of Africa, Arabia and Eurasia cut it in two. The western end of the Tethys became the sea we are sailing on today.
Geologists taking core samples of the floor have found a layer of salt deposits several kilometers thick. That was about 6 million years ago. The Mediterranean had dried up. Back then the land beneath the sea we are on top of resembled present day Death Valley. What brought it back? The Straits of Gibralter.
About 500,000 years ago this narrow isthmus of land was breached by the waters of the Atlantic and the huge canyons of the Mediterranean--8,858 deep--filled up. I cant begin to imagine what this catastrophic event looked like. Today the Straits are 25 miles across. Back then there would have been no Straits, just a narrow dam of land whose top would have been close to sea level. The tides of the Atlantic would probably have created tidal flats across the top of that narrow strip, ebbing and flowing, the gigantically deep canyons of the Mediterranean on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other. And then, because of the tidal movements, the earth would gradually wear away, as if the earth were a board and the Atlantic a carpenters plane. Once it had been planed thin enough, nothing could hold back the Atlantic. At first the flow would have been a trickle, a tiny fall of water. I asked a colleague whose specialty is the geology of the region to calculate how long it would take for the Mediterranean to fill up once the Straits were breached. She assumed a rate of water flow of 60 miles per hour. At that speed it would have taken fifty days. If we cut the speed in half, it would take three months. In either case it had to have been one of the most massive falls of water the Earth has ever seen, huge cascades of water dropping 8,500 feet to the bottom of the Mediterranean Canyon. I asked her if she would be willing to give her life to see such a thing. She said, "No. Would you?" I said, "Im thinking. Im thinking."
It is possible that the shifting African and European plates will reseal the Straits of Gilbraltar and the process will start all over again. Next to the idea of infinity, the ticking of the geological clock has to be the hardest on the psyche.
My travelling friends think I am too timorous. Sometimes I think perhaps they are right. Then something happens to bring me back to my senses. Yesterday, I spoke to the captain of the Lili Marleen. Immo von Schnurbein, Captain "Cordleg," is a tough, wiry man who was brought up on a farm. His family, including several brothers, are farmers. He worked for a time as a farmer himself before he went to sea. I talk to him on the bridge, a sleek, modern room with every electronic device you can think of. The ship is constantly updated with faxed weather maps. The local weather is broadcast continuously over the short wave radio, the reader speaking very slowly so that listeners whose English or Italian or German is not that good can understand. The radar sweeps the horizon every second. The automatic pilot is on and the chief mate looks at me and says, "I am a watchman."
The captain takes all the equipment in with a sweep of his hand. "This," he says, "is supposed to be for safety." He shakes his head. "It's not. Its for management. For them more machines means fewer crew and fewer crew means more profit. I have two engineers. That's all, to run, maintain and repair the engines. They work constantly." Now let's see if I understand all this. The captain has just told me that the ship would be safer with more crew and fewer computers. Lipari is somewhere astern, the bottom is a little under two miles down and some people think I'm timorous. You damned right Im timorous.
There isn't a lot of wind this morning, which suits me fine. Not so my companions. They want to see the sails up and the sea roar. The captain gives them one of their wishes. The sea obliges me by staying calm. For the square sails there are six yardarms and, I presume, six yard sails. Behind the square sail mast is a main mast and a mizzen mast, each with its own set of triangular sails. Two men are up in the yardarm rigging, one about five stories off the deck, the other three stories. The one higher up is the older of the two. I'd say he was in his early fifties. He is wearing shorts and his legs are like pistons. He wears a bandana around his head, narrow steel-rimmed sunglasses tinted purple. He has a barrel chest and is the color of a caramel sundae. His job, and that of his younger helper, is to make their way back and forth along the yardarm, balancing themselves on a rope while they unfurl the sails. Whenever this elder seaman is not rigging, he is making a macrame tote bag. I ask him who for. He says he hasnt met her yet.
The ship's safety officer barks orders good-humoredly, beginning each German instruction with OK? All of us watch from every vantage point we can as one by one the crew hangs out the laundry. It is an exciting moment to see this beautiful ship under almost full sail. However, there is not enough wind to sustain us and after three hours or so, the captain orders the sails furled and we are under power again. We need to keep to a schedule to reach Sardinia by nightfall.
The third mate's name is George Kahn. He is thirty years old, has been to sea since he was seventeen. He is married and has a three month old baby. Her name is Jeannette It is George's watch at 10am and I ask him if I can steer the ship. He says of course. He tells me to keep the ship on a 266° degree course. He shows me the wheel. It is a round circle about the size of an oreo cookie with five evenly spaced indentations for the finger tips. Very dainty. I insert my index finger in one, give the wheel a slight turn counterclockwise to adjust our course from 268° to 266°. I think of the Pequod and Captain Ahab.
This afternoon, during an official visit to the bridge, someone asks the Chief Mate, Stefan Lerner, what was the most dangerous situation the Lili Marleen has ever been in. Surprisingly, it was not the Beaufort 9 storm that caught the boat unawares on a trip from Nice to Corsica. With winds of close to 50 knots and the port rail well under water, with 80% of the passengers sick as dogs and three of the kitchen staff as well, it still didnt qualify. Something much more insidious came to mind: crossing the Red Sea. The water temperature is so hot, 86°, that the engines have to be run at very slow speed. The wind is even hotter. Soon the ship is covered from stem to stern in desert sand. You have to take care when you cross not to slip into the space of an unfriendly country and when you sail south, you need to sail close to the Yemeni shore because of pirates. So much for the romance of high wind and towering waves.
Around six o'clock the ship's purser alerts everyone to the dolphins off the port bow. As many as twelve in groups of one, two and four are skimming along just below the surface of the water and within an arm's length of the hull. They leap out of the water, often four at a time, and are back at the prow of the ship again without missing a beat.
Dolphins are seductive. They appear to be entertaining us like so many Esther Williamses in an aquatic ballet. But I know enough about animal psychology to doubt it. There is probably some very mundane reason behind the behavior, like protecting territory, challenging dominance. I wouldn't be surprised if the dolphins were waiting for the Lili Marleen to leap out of the water and when it doesn't, they swim off disgusted at the poor performance of what they had taken to be a promising dolphin.
This afternoon we visit Sardinia. I am looking forward to land after two full days at sea. Before we go ashore the captain briefs us in the lounge. With transparencies and a pointer, he tells us where we have been, where we are going and what the weather is likely to be. He informs us that offshore Nice is the most active storm area in the world, its engine an Atlantic high and a European low. Air flows from one to the other, is funneled between the Appenines and the Alps, picks up speed and hurls itself out over the Mediterranean, playing havoc with the sea and its flotsam. We are headed into the maw of the system. The fact that storms are a winter thing and that it is now late spring doesnt phase me. I still think somebody's elevator does not go all the way to the top.
The trip to Porto Cervo is more like a short subject than a main feature. Think of Sardinia as a large rectangular piece of toast, 220 miles long and 50 miles wide. We will have taken the daintiest bite out of its northeastern corner.
We pass through the sumptuous villas of the town, built since 1962 by the Aga Khan who, shortly after graduating from Harvard, put his business school training to work and invested a billion dollars turning the Costa Smeralda into a paradisiacal playground for the rich. The starting price of a villa is $2,000,000. For the price of the Lili Marleen, $15,000,000, you might pick up something decent. The harbor, its water as green as its name, is as gorgeous as the travelogues say. There are berths for 600 boats, though most of them are still empty.
The most impressive boat we have seen thus far is the Sea Cloud. It was anchored just outside the harbor as we came in. A three-masted barque originally built for Merriwether Post, the cereal heiress, it now belongs to a travel consortium that advertises in The New Yorker. It dwarfs the Lili Marleen. No matter. It is a law of boat ownership that however big your boat, there is always one bigger. The Sea Cloud will sail out into the Mediterranean this evening, but only to meet its match.
We leave the Lili Marleen at 2:30pm. We must be back by six. Our bus takes us to two sites. The first a Nuragic roundhouse. The second a Nuragic burial ground. The first dates from 1500BC, the second three hundred years earlier. Archeologists have found evidence for 30,000 such constructions, of which only 7,000 now exist with some elevation, as they say, meaning there are still some stones left above ground. Of the 7,000 only 100 are in good condition.
The evidence suggests that Sardinia was inhabited 150,000 years ago by Stone Age people who probably crossed into Sardinia by way of a land bridge between the island and Tuscany. Around 9000BC a new wave of settlers came from all around the edge of the Mediterranean. By 3,000BC they were forming themselves into tribes. The 30,000 nuragic roundhouses of 1800BC points to a large number of small tribes. The structure we visit looks as if it could support no more than a hundred souls. This may mean that around 2000BC Sardinia was populated by 3000 separate tribes. The reason for the large number of small tribes may have been fractiousness, but, as with the aboriginals in Australia, the tribes may have been limited in size by what the land could support.
The land we see today is hard-scrabble, granite with a thin layer of soil barely thicker than a doormat. The Mediterranean maquis it is called, a scrub land of juniper trees, rock roses, myrtle, laurel, prickly pear, dwarf oak. Lacking humus, the soil is bad for farming. If that weren't enough, it only rains seven months of the year.
Forty years ago, the Aga Khan offered the 250 shepherd families who lived on the Costa Smeralda ten times the worth of their land. They must have thought him a fool. Now that the value of the land has soared, they claim they were swindled. The Romans conquered the nuragic people of the 3rd century BC. Two thousand years later the Aga Khan does the same. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
The Tomba di Giganti, the Tomb of the Giants was built between 1800BC and 1600BC. It consists of little more than a stone corridor maybe twenty five feet long. It has sides and a roof of flat stones. A large central slab with frontal carvings that suggest it was meant to look like a door was added somewhere between 1600-1200BC. At the base of this large 12 foot high slab is a small arched opening big enough to admit a German shepherd (the dog) into the corridor behind. No one seems to know what the stele is for or what the small door is for. The only certain thing is that it was a necropolis, tiny by Greek standards, connected to the roundhouse we saw earlier. This may have been that villages cemetery. An army of ants crawling across the face of the stele, each ant carrying a grain of what looks like granite, insures that I won't forget what went into the building of these stone structures almost 4,000 years ago.
On the way back to the ship we stop at a small town, San Pantaleo. There is a tiny square and a small church is open for an afternoon service. Two young village males sit in chairs in front of the only open bar, facing out. Just around the corner, five old man do much the same thing, sitting on a stone bench on one side of the main drag. They had started the day sitting on a similar stone bench on the opposite side of the street. But when the sun did away with the shade, they crossed over. Apparently they do this every day.
We return to the Lili Marleen just barely before 6pm. The captain has been pacing back and forth impatiently, anxious to leave, perhaps because of the tide. I can see the Sea Cloud in the distance already well under way. No sooner are we on board but the boat lifts anchor. In less than five minutes the villas of the super rich, the Aga Khan's among them, are slipping astern.
I have never met the very, very rich, at least not the very rich of the Costa Smeralda variety. In my mind I have invested them with an aura, a mystique. I think of them the way I think of great actresses like Meryl Streep, or great trombonists like Carl Fontana, or great poets like Wallace Stevens, i.e., as larger than life. I am probably mistaken. It is more likely that were I to meet an inhabitant of one of those Costa Smeralda homes, I would discover, to borrow Hannah Arendts phrase, "the banality of the super rich." After all, there is something banal about these homes. If the super rich were really superhuman, surely they would have come up with less of a cliché than the Costa Smeralda to live in.
We have motored away from Calvi, our first stop in Corsica, so that we might sail toward it. It makes no sense to be on a barquentine, I suppose, without some time under sail. Personally, I am happy the way things are. But there are sailors on board and I know they would like to see the Lili Marleen perform. The wind is Beaufort 2, a zephyr at best. I'd be happier with 1.
Just before lunch David Kertzer lectured on the state of contemporary Italian politics. The overall impression I got was that it was like one of those circus acts where a tiny car stops in the middle of the ring and twenty clowns come piling out and begin to hit one another with styrofoam baseball bats. In response to a question, he acknowledged that things were getting better over the past quarter century.
There is a large and stable middle class. High taxes work to prevent excessive accumulation of capital. There is a national health service. The people are combative and happy. They are not violent. They are appalled that in our country one may buy a machine gun legally and then use it to mow down five year old children. I remember a bumper sticker that said: IF GUNS WERE OUTLAWED, ONLY OUTLAWS WOULD HAVE GUNS. Exactly, I thought. That is the way it should be. I was surprised to find the bumper sticker was meant to be pro gun ownership.
The captain orders the sails set and, before we go into lunch, we watch the crew going about it. Suddenly, one of the mates whispers something in his ear. The captain rushes to the port side. A thick cloud of orange smoke is billowing out over the water. I don't think anyone else sees it yet. I dont say anything. I think that if this is the end, I'd just as soon go quietly. The captain orders the sails lowered. I ask George, the third mate, what is happening. He says a man-overboard flare has accidentally been flipped into the sea. The flare is finally snared, but just before the crewman dunks it in a pail of water, I get a good look at the round, black smoke pot and the thick, churning orange smoke rolling out of it. It is like Aladdin's lamp. I expect an orange genie to appear in the sky above me. It is only Nancy with her camera on the upper deck.
At four o'clock we dock in Calvi and are free for the rest of the day. Calvi is two towns, a chic chic marina and promenade at the water's edge, tied together by a 4 kilometer strip of sandy beach. Towering over the water, inside a massive 15th century Genoese built fortification called the Citadel, is the other town. It is a town of tenements surrounding three churches. The citizens of the town live here, those who work in the shops, the garages, the restaurants. An old woman dressed in black, her hair pulled back into a tight bun leans on her elbows as she looks out of her third floor walkup over the marina and the turquoise gulf 300 feet below. She will probably die not knowing that elsewhere the view from her window is worth several million dollars.
Every so often a jeep goes by with soldiers dressed in combat fatigues. Their faces are immobile, as if they wore cardboard masks. These are members of the French Foreign Legion, a division of which is garrisoned in the old Palais des Gouverneurs Génois built by the Genoese in the 13th century. I had expected to see them in white trousers and blue jackets, with swords like Gary Cooper in Beau Geste. It is a disappointing.
At the top of the Citadel is l'Eglise Saint Jean Baptiste. Another 13th century church, it has two notable statues. One is an ebony Christ on the Cross clad in a silver loincloth. When the town was besieged in 1553, the statue was paraded through the streets. The mere sight of it from the harbor routed the besiegers. The other statue is of the Virgin Mary. She is wearing a gold and gray brocade gown, her normal every day dress. Dressable only by women she will wear a black robe on Good Friday, a purple one on Ash Wednesday.
Having walked the length and breadth of the Citadel, Nancy and I descend to the harbor and find a cafe close to the water where we sip wine and watch people. It is late afternoon. A regatta that began the day before in Toulon has ended in Calvi this afternoon, bringing a bevy of 32 foot sailboats into port. Their racing numbers in big red figures dangle from the stern railings. Intermixed with these modest craft is a sleek 105 foot fiber glass motor launch, white with blue markings and beyond it an even bigger boat that looks more like a small ocean liner than a private yacht. Its rear deck is taken up with two sofas and a table large enough to seat 10 and this is just on the rear deck. Behind it are swinging doors inset with a thick crystalline glass that makes it impossible to see the appointments further in. I don't have to. I have seen this boat before in a James Bond movie or perhaps it was the Thomas Crown Affair. One thing is sure. The boat was owned by the villain.
People watching is wonderful from our vantage point. Halfway out on the stone pier, a tall, thin bronzed man wearing a swimsuit with hardly enough material for a tie showers himself with a hose. He takes a very long time about it, holds the hose over his head and smoothes back his hair as the water cascades over his sleek torso. He goes about all this very slowly to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to admire him. In a nearby boat a young woman in a lime green bikini lies down on the deck of her boat, settles herself carefully on her towel, sleeks back her hair, lifts one leg and having found the perfect pose, holds it for less than a minute. She jumps up, talks to someone in the next boat and then disappears below deck. I think how lucky I am not to have an attractive body. Otherwise, like them, I would be compelled to devote a good deal of time displaying it.
The Calvi of the lower town at night is a place of primary colors, blue and yellow signs on the bars, flashing red lights on the buoys. By day the Mediterranean sun and the turquoise sea them into Carribean pinks and oranges and robin's egg blues. Calvi is like a postcard in more ways than one. Beautiful, but very small, one very quickly runs out of space in it.
Our last day, many of us, myself included, are not even sure what day it is. I know it is Friday, but that is only because I stopped to calculate, counting forward from the last Herald Tribune I saw. This is an indication of a successful trip. Time has slipped a notch in our priorities.
A bus takes us to some of the high towns of Corsica. The trip is as nerve-wracking as it is breathtaking. From my seat I can't see the shoulders of the narrow road beneath us. We may as well be on a tightrope. The twists and turns and encounters with oncoming cars at points where a drop will take the bus a 1000 feet down the mountainside make my stomach hurt. The views are spectacular, long sweeps over the Mediterranean maquis, rock roses, myrtle, tree heather, mastic trees, asphodels, olive trees, pine. On either side mountains drop down to the sea. Behind and above other mountains disappear into bottoms of clouds.
Mountains are the ringmasters of Corsica. They determine where the villages will be, either sitting atop them like skullcaps, or nestled between their skirts and the sea where a sudden incision in the shoreline limns a perfect harbor. The mountains are 30 million years old, formed when the African plate began to sink deeper into the Earths mantle, stretching the sea bottom as it sank and breaking the Corsica-Sardinian land masses off from Province. The descent of the plate slowly twisted the islands into place in the middle of the Gulf of Genoa. The western and southern parts of the island preserve the original continental base. Calvi and the parts we have visited are more complicated, the result of sedimentary build up, layer by excruciatingly slow layer, until the platform broke the surface of the ocean and was transformed into the postcard views that needed people to be appreciated. Somewhere higher up on this island are pieces of the Austrian Alps, deposited here by the sinking action of the African plate, which not only fractured the Alps but produced the Tyrennean and Ligurian Seas in the process.
There is something very sobering about geology. Nothing is as it seems. The surface that we dwell on so lovingly, the islands, lakes, seas, outcroppings that have been whittled down to size by manmade roads and scenic overlooks, this surface is nothing but a snapshot in the life cycle of a cataclysm.
People probably came to Corsica 150,000 years ago in the paleolithic age, though the first genuine bones belong to the 6,570 year old Bonifacio Woman of the Neolithic Age. The first indications of an organized civilization date from 6000BC when a new wave of people arrived, probably over the same land bridge that brought Tuscans to Sardinia. Then came the Greeks, and then the inexorable Romans, who ruled Corsica for 700 years, from the 3rd century to the fall of Roman in the 5th century.
Corsica has two internationally known native sons. The first is Napoleon Buonparte, though he and his family were thrown out in 1793 by Pascal Paoli, Corsicas "George Washington." The second is only dubiously Corsican: Christopher Columbus. A plaque in the Citadel in Calvi claims Columbus was born somewhere in the pile of stones just behind it. Several other cities, including Genoa, also claim him. There has been some talk recently that Shakespeare may have been Corsican. I think my uncle Max was, too.
Father Lazarus, of the Monastery of Corbara, claims that as a child Columbus came to the mountain on which the monastery is situated and looked dreamily over the hills to the ocean beyond. I thought: what a long way to come to moon over the ocean. The trip from Calvi being incessantly uphill, it would have taken him five days minimum. I am dubious. The view from Columbus alleged bedroom would have done the trick.
A Canadian, Father Lazarus belongs to the Brotherhood of St. John, founded just twenty five years ago. Currently, eight brothers are staying at the monastery. Father Lazarus is an outwardly friendly man of 60 years with a Santa Claus beard and flowing white hair. He is dressed in a gray cassock with a black belt into which he hitches his fingers as he talks. He has an easy patter and answers questions with a polished good humor. In another life he would have been a game show host. He tells us the monastery was originally Franciscan but was abandoned for several centuries before the Dominicans rebuilt it.
In 1905 it was forced to close as a result of anti-clericalism in France. According to Father Lazarus, the French came and offered the Dominicans a choice, leave or be guillotined. They chose beheading. He points to several white squares on the church floor, beneath which are the bones of prior monks. Their presence gives him comfort, he says, when he prays on the church floor above them.
The cloister is unlike any cloister we have seen so far. There are no carved columns inset with black and white marble ribbons, no capitols depicting Adam and Eve cast out of Eden. Rather, it looks like the inner court of a seedy Caribbean hotel. There is a pool in the center, thick with green algae so the goldfish are barely visible. A dusty palm tree grows in one corner, myrtle in another. Thirty turtles live in the cloister. One of them, Margaret, another, Mary Kay, are named after Father Lazarus' sisters. As he stands in the middle of the courtyard, talking to us about the church, the turtles mill around in the garden behind him like surrealistic punctuation marks. The plaster walls of the cloister are peeling flakes of pink and yellow, petals falling from a dead flower.
As we walk around, there are signs of non-monkish residents, a baby carriage in a hallway, a woman with a young boy on her knee eating cereal in the refectory. In fact, the only monk we have seen is Father Lazarus, who appears to have been here for the express purpose of receiving us. I fight off the sense of being on a Hollywood set.
The monastery, set high up on a mountain about a fifth of the way down from the peak, has a magnificent view of the Mediterranean, especially from the doorway of the church. If you are a believer, I should think leaving church through that doorway is as religious an experience as the Sunday service itself.
We are now halfway across the Mediterranean heading for Nice, having left Father Lazarus five hours before. It is close to six oclock. We are on the last leg of our trip. Soon the memory of the monastery and the good father will flatten like a photograph, ready for storage.
It is the captains practice to raise the sails at least once a day. He did earlier this afternoon just after we left Calvi. I ask the Chief Mate if I might help. He says I must find others to join me, that it is not a one man operation. I travel back and forth along the top deck looking for partners. No one seems interested. Even so Stefan relents. He is a good humored person. He appears to be very stern and stiff-necked, with a constant three day growth on his round face. He is anything but. He tells the crew not to use the winches but to haul the square sails manually. They do a double take and hand me one end of a line as thick as a silver dollar. Stefan is standing on the top deck. On his order we pull on the line. I am taken aback at how hard it is to raise the damn thing. The crewman I am working with confides in me that in sailing school it took twenty cadets to raise a mainsail. George, the third mate, says in the old days when seamen raised sail, they would haul the line forward until they ran out of deck room. Then they would release their hold on the line, run back to where they had started and begin to haul again, making circle after circle on deck until the sail was up.
Stefan orders us to stop. The crewman motions for me to wrap the line around the deck winch. When Stefan gives the order, I start the winch with a foot pedal. The difference between hauling by hand and by winch is why the Lili Marleen can make do with six deck hands rather than thirty.
At 7am Nice is off the starboard bow. We have motored all night. The early risers of the town will be deprived of seeing the ship approach at full sail. We circle outside the harbor until the pilot arrives. Then we make a beeline for the dock.
The trip ends not with a bang but a whimper. Everyone stands about waiting for baggage to be transferred from the boat to the tour bus. The entire crew pitches in to speed the transfer. My own garment bag is taken ashore by the captain. We are herded into two buses and after a brief ride along the twelve mile long English promenade, built in 1822 to service the British, we arrive at the airport.
At the end of the last century when Queen Victoria holidayed on the Cote d'Azur, she would lease 300 rooms, one for each day of sunshine Nice experiences each year. Many of the rooms were outfitted with furniture she brought with her. The British continue their opulent pursuit of Nice. At the top of the mountain behind the city is a radio tower. A quarter mile to its right is an isolated house, commanding the entire harbor and, probably Monaco as well. The guide tells us it was recently purchased by Elton John for $29,000,000.
In Siren Wind Norman Douglas describes the Italians as blind to the beauty around them, a blindness that arises from an excess of realism. For them the turquoise waters of Porto Cervo are a source of fish, the silvery leaves of the Tuscan olive trees merely a source of olives.
I don't think realism has anything to do with it. Travelers do not have the burden, day in and day out, of seeing a remarkable harbor surrounded by towering mountains, a picturesque monastery perched atop a far off peak. No one can do that and still retain the freshness of the moment, that moment when one sees the thing for the first time. Immediacy fades as quickly as an echo.
Every so often someone expresses a wish to return to one of the towns we have visited, Porto Cervo or Taormina, Erice or Calvi. How wonderful it would be to live in such spectacular surroundings for a year, they say. One needs to take care what one wishes for. How many times can you return to the top of the Citadel before the Calvian sea becomes for you what it is for the Calvian? Because the experience is fleeting the travelers moment is possible.
Its best to leave it at that.