Organised Grime

I’d been to Sicily once before, when I was young, naive and, for the duration of the entire trip, drunk. It was a university hockey tour, and probably not the best way to explore Sicily’s culture, geography and people. I look back on the trip with a bit of a shudder, but try to remind myself that everyone does stupid and reckless things when they’re young.

This time was going to be very different. Me & Mrs E wanted to walk the Magna via Francigena, which is a pilgrimage path running from Palermo through the centre of Sicily to Agrigento, and we were promised that we’d (and I rather obviously quote…):

  • Roam the pure natural landscape of Sicily’s rural backcountry
  • Stay in villages full of history, such as Sutera, with its Arabic maze of alleys
  • Experience the enthusiasm, hospitality and pride of the Sicilian people
  • Try traditional Cannoli pie filled with ricotta, pistachios and candied orange

That sounded like exactly the sort of things that we should be doing in March, so off we went.

Our arrival in Palermo was a bit less idyllic – it’s a big city, and the airport train took us to the centre through some fairly ropey areas, depositing us outside the central station, with Google maps assuring us that we had a 10 minute walk across to our hotel. Half an hour later, having wheeled our cases through cobbles, kerbs and lots of litter, we found the hotel, checked in, and wandered around Palermo looking for our dream candlelit trattoria. One brightly lit vegan burger later, we found a bar that served Mrs E some weapons grade Aperol spritzers , together with huge plates of bruschetta and chips, which were, apparently, a gift from our host, who must have thought that we looked hungry. Our Italian is very limited, so our conversation was a bit stilted, but it did allow him to say “Hello Baby” a number of times at various volumes, and to establish that Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger were both still alive, and that he’d like to visit us in Liverpool at some point. We made arrangements to come back after the walk for further entertainment.

We had a taxi pick us up in the morning to deliver us to Santa Cristina Gela to start the walk. Again, a challenging conversation but we did establish two important things. Firstly we should always follow the red and white path markings. And secondly that GPS was a very good thing indeed. There was some other stuff that may or may not have been about Mussolini and railways, but that was much harder to follow and probably best ignored.

Our walk to Corleone started gently on undulating, soft green grass tracks, shortly giving way to a bit of mud. The first 10km was fine, but then the mud started getting wetter and wetter and turned from mud to clay, and before too long was adding a couple of pounds to our boots.

We heard a couple of days later that Sicilians call people from Corleone ‘Men with feet of clay’, which I don’t think is intended as a compliment, but maybe we were acting like natives with our stupidly heavy boots. We discovered that many of the paths that we took doubled as streams, and quite enthusiastic streams as well, as it had started raining just as we’d started the walk. This meant going down was really scary, and going up was even worse. At one point, we went down a steep muddy path/river bed for about 2km, all the time looking at a river below which our notes said should be crossed carefully, and a grass/mud climb the other side that looked almost vertical. We managed to get across the river, with very fast water coming up to our thighs, and just about got to the top of the other side, despite picking up clay on our boots with every step. I tried to reassure Mrs E that not every day would be like this. I had absolutely no reference point to be able to say this, other than my sunny optimism, which was getting a bit of a soaking of its own. Mrs E was also less excited than me on the result of the Norwich game (a 3-2 win away at Millwall) which came through about half way up the climb.

Finally made it into Corleone, which most people will associate with The Godfather. Don Corleone is fictional of course, but there’s quite a lot of early mafia history which emanates from Corleone, and if we’d not been covered in mud and arriving two hours after it closed then we would have had a wander around the mafia/anti-mafia museum.

Instead, we trudged to the hotel, where we were greeted by power cuts and some firm instructions that we should be taking off our boots, after which we were directed, freezing, barefoot and outside, to the room furthest away from the main building, presumably because we offered a health hazard to other residents. Between our room and the main hotel there were an astonishing number of lights on every tree and every wall, and possibly giving a clue as to the source of all the power cuts.

Washed most of the mud off and opted to eat in the hotel, partly as it was still chucking it down and partly as it was the only place open in the town. An interesting experience, and again not quite the rustic candlelit trattoria that we’d hoped for – I don’t think I’ve ever been in somewhere so brightly lit, except when the power went off. We were ushered into the main eating area, and took a seat near the middle, and just as we sat down Mrs E asked if we could move – there was a smell coming from the middle of the room that was going to impact her dining experience. The smell came from the centre table, where a man in dungarees had sat, and Mrs E was absolutely right – he absolutely stank of urine, which appeared to have made its way onto the yellowing hoody that he wore under the dungarees. Feeling a bit more charitable than Mrs E (Norwich’s away win was still making me very upbeat), I suggested that he might be a local farmer, and that we shouldn’t judge, because it “might not even be his own piss”. This reasoning wasn’t really appreciated, and we noticed that the many other diners were also moving tables, so that we created a kind of neutral doughnut around the poor smelly bloke.

A succession of waitresses came to see us, our attempts to point at things on the menu and ask for them didn’t seem to work at all, and eventually the third waitress agreed that the point and say “Si” approach was acceptable, despite her attempt to upsell us the risotto. All of the staff looked as if they would much rather be somewhere else, but it may be that they were undergoing some sensory deprivation testing. In addition to the assault on their noses and the blinding lights, there was a sound system that would have done justice to one of the larger Ibizan clubs. It was mainly tuned into a local radio station, but at one point managed to mash up the radio with the football commentary from the huge TV screen in the bar, together with some romantic ballads on the restaurant speakers. A special mention for the only male member of staff, for whom the name ‘Lurch’ might well have been invented. Wordlessly and aimlessly he wandered between tables, occasionally picking something off one table to put it down somewhere else. His bow tie, which presumably had begun the evening at a steady East-West setting, had begun moving around of its own accord, a bit like a revolving tie with a very flat battery. Halfway through our meal it had gone from ESE-WNW to a jaunty SE-NE, and by the time we left it was creeping gently towards true north. Maybe that’s how you wear a bow tie in Corleone. But it’s Corleone so maybe best not to ask.

Up early the next day for the next leg, a 21km trek into Prizzi, which would have been stunning if it hadn’t been tipping it down with rain again. We’d had a hasty breakfast, sped up by the surprise arrival of Urine Man, who popped into the restaurant for a coffee and left behind a distinct reminder of the night before.

Walking up and out of Corleone past olive groves and broken down farms, an idyllic walk spoilt only by the amount of fly tipping on the side of the paths. Fly tipping feels like it’s something of a national pursuit round here – whole bathroom suites and tiles at one point, collections of kitchen contents next, clothes thrown onto the road, a bin liner which was split open and was spilling out human hair, and loads of plastic bottles and cigarette packets, often with branding that I’d not seen for years at home. I mentioned to Mrs E that there were loads of Chesterfields on the road, and she told me about an hour later that she’d been impressed that I could tell the type of sofa that had been dumped, just from a few springs and cushions. Alarmingly, there were lots of disposable gloves on the side of the road as well – now why would that cause any concern?

We saw no one else walking, but a couple of drivers took a bit of interest in us. The first one stopped his car so that he could shout a long and enthusiastic message of support, complete with lots of positive hand action. We decided that, as this was clearly a great place to waste enemies, that he was using us as potential alibis. He might well have been responsible for some of the disposable gloves. A few km later, a jeep overtook is up a hill and the driver jumped out, asking if he could take our photo, as his web site publicised the Magna Via Francigena pilgrimage. Or at least, that’s what we thought he said. There was definitely something about his web site in there, but it would have to be really specialist for a picture of two muddy tourists in walking gear for us to be the March calendar picture.

We saw a bit of wildlife, in the form of giant frogs, most of which had been flattened on the road, and vaguely domesticated dogs, many of which decided that we were deserving of a lot of attention.

Sicily has a number of dog breeds, but we mainly drew the attention of the Maremmano-Abruzzese sheepdog. These dogs, which look like oversized white labradors, are bred to protect sheep, and to bark if they see anything out if the ordinary, which definitely included us.

Apparently they’ll also attack, if provoked, and will only stop once the shepherd calls them off. Frustratingly, we saw a great many dogs, and no shepherds. Mrs E read up about the dogs later and found articles suggesting they weren’t recommended for keeping as pets in towns and cities, as all they did was bark all the time. Which led, naturally, to a conversation about Solomon, a dog who we will always miss when we go away, but will wish he could shut up within minutes of getting home.

Finally started the long climb into Prizzi, and with about 1km to go a car pulled up and the driver jumped out, addressing us by name, which was a bit unnerving, until it turned out that it was Salvatore, who owned the Airbnb that we were staying at that night. He’d noticed it was raining and asked if we wanted a lift for the last bit, but we took a look at the state of each other and the cleanliness of his car and thought better of it.

We met up with him later when we’d arrived and it turned out that he’d been a driving force behind the Magna via Francigena route – he assured us that the worst of the mud climbing was behind us, and pointed us to the only restaurant open in Prizzi that night, a very brightly lit Pizzeria which turned out to be staffed and frequented entirely with cast lookalikes from The Sopranos. At one point, Christopher’s double came in for a takeaway, while Uncle Junior held court with dozen of his family. Truly bizarre.

Prizzi is one of the towns that had offered houses for sale for €1, to anyone prepared to live in them for a couple of years. In some areas you’d also get a grant of up to €30k to spend on the property, again if you committed to live there. Cammarata, where we were walking to next, had made headlines a couple of years ago by waiving the €1 fee. You get the dilemma when you go through the towns – these are idyllic places to live but there’s no work about, and an aging population. There’s some indication that the incentives might have drawn some younger people back home, but from what we saw, probably 90% of the houses were shuttered up, and of the few people we did see, they were even older than us.

Not that we actually saw any people on that day’s walk. We did 25km on a very hilly path, mainly through the Carcaci nature reserve – more beautiful views over the mountains and deserted forest roads as we climbed up to just under 1000m. All was well until the rain kicked in again, this time with some added wind, which soon turned ridiculously strong. By this time we were descending along a cliff road, with vehicle detours in place because of falling rocks. It was probably the only really scary part of the trip, and we arrived in Castronova, making quite the bedraggled entrance into the only bar in town, and immediately being ushered into a side room for the sake of the public good, where the barman brought us hot chocolate and cannola, and suddenly all was right with the world.

We were half way through the walk now, and were in fairly good shape other than Mrs E’s blisters, which hadn’t been helped by having the previous three days walking in soaking wet socks and boots. The next day was to Sutera, another impossibly pretty town surrounding the Monte San Paolina, and it was only 15.5km, so we thought we were in for an easy hike. In reality, it was another tough one, the initial climb up to Aquaviva Platini was a challenge, then followed by a long and very muddy ridge walk to the long road up to Sutera.

Worth it for the views alone though, and we were sustained by a long round of ‘Finding The Band In The Hardware Shop’, with winning entries including Sister Sledgehammer, Sheryl Crowbar, Paint Guns and Hoses, Barbecue Streisand, U Bend 40 and Earth Wind and Firelighters.

We stayed a couple of hundred metres downhill from Sutera, and again, there was only one restaurant open, which was a little way away. Our B&B host was appalled at the idea that we might want to walk to it in the dark, so she called the owner, Franco, and arranged for him to give us a lift. Don’t think we’d get that sort of service at home. Anyway, we got picked up in a knackered Fiat with no suspension left, and we’re despatched at breakneck pace to Franco’s restaurant, where we had the best antipasti we’d had all week, then the best pasta we’d had all week. We both almost fell asleep at the table, as we had to wait for Franco to finish his pizza deliveries and lock the restaurant up, but well worth it nonetheless, and to get us home at a reasonable hour, Franco went for a PB on the way back.

From Sutera to Racalmuto then – another long day punctuated by stunning views, and very lively dog interactions, the scariest one being with six loud and lively sheepdogs at once who seemed to be keen on herding us toward their sheep, then immediately away from them. More stunning valley views and with the bonus of decent weather, the walk took around 7.5 hours – Mrs E concluded that her cut off point, for future reference, was six hours, which I look forward to forgetting when we plan future trips. Todays best game was ‘Famous People In Hospital’ and winning entries included Urinary Tract Geller, Cancer Ian McKellen, Jennifer Canestan, Rib Separatori Amos, Gina Lolladentalbridgeida, The Monty Burns Unit, and my personal favourite, The Brighouse and Gastric Band.

As ever, it was another climb into Racalmuto to end the day’s walk, but this time into a town centre with loads of pedestrians and cars. We managed to find somewhere to sit and watch what was going on, as we’d not seen so many people in one place since Palermo. It turned out to be a funeral at the church in the town square – we were assured later that it was normally much quieter, and sure enough, when we sought out the only restaurant open a couple of hours later, there was nobody around. There was a bit of confusion at the Airbnb that we’d booked before then though – we assumed that when we’d been let in, that we had the whole flat to ourselves, and so set up camp in the kitchen. I offered to get our boots cleaned, as the next day was the last day of walking and was mainly on the road – we didn’t want to trudge a load of mud into our last hotel in Agrigento. So I set to, cleaning hopefully the last bits of clay in the kitchen sink, which took a lot more time than I thought. Just as I was getting to the end, there was a loud Ciao Ciao downstairs, and into the kitchen stomped a vision in leather trousers, leather waistcoat and a very stern expression, which turned pretty thunderous when she saw what I’d been doing in her kitchen sink. Going ballistic is an overused expression, but completely valid in this case, and for the first time since we’d landed in Sicily, I was very glad that I couldn’t understand Italian. I did, however, get the gist, and apologised as much as I could, and also established that there were two other parties taking rooms in the apartment and that the kitchen was only to be used for breakfast. Cruella, who Mrs E had named within seconds of meeting her, was in charge of breakfast, which unsurprisingly the next morning turned out to be a rather spartan affair. But completely served us right.

And so to the final day, a short (11.5km) hike up to Grotte and then largely downhill on roads into Caldare, where we got a train into Agrigento. Still beautiful, particularly the start, but more houses, (mainly) chained dogs and litter as we headed towards the coast, so we were pleased to be able to get the train. We got into Agrigento and walked what Google maps had told us was 20 minutes to the hotel, and which ended up as 45. We really wanted to see the Valley of The Temples and were told at reception that it was a 15 minute walk, so Mrs R bandaged up her blisters and off we set for the last trek of the holiday. Unfortunately we took a wrong turning, ending up 45 minutes later at the wrong entrance, but that mattered a lot less as soon as we started to hike up the hill to see the temples. It would be worth going to Sicily just to see this archaeological site – it’s over 2,000 acres in size and is brilliantly preserved – The Temple of Concordia is the most stunning, and the one that you’ll see on the tourist sites – built in the 5th century BC and still looking pretty good:

We were knackered and ideally would have got in a bus back to the hotel, but there weren’t any buses or taxis, so we trudged up the hill back to the hotel, packed away our walking boots, popped Mrs E’s blisters, showered, and went into the restaurant to celebrate. It ended up being a bit of a muted affair, as we were both so knackered, but we still had a couple of days ahead in Palermo where we could get the right side of an Aperol spritzer or two, so we looked forward to that instead.

Next day, to the station and the train back to Palermo. Slightly demoralising to take 2.5 hours to cover slightly more distance than we’d taken six days to walk, but I guess the train had a lot less mud to contend with. And Palermo in the sunshine was lovely – really stylish and as effortlessly cool as many of the other Italian cities we’d been lucky enough to visit. An afternoon at the No Mafia Memorial was suitably sobering, but the Aperol was calling, and it was only a short walk away…


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