Our drive from Agrigento to the next destination was not a long one, so we decided to take a side trip to Villa Romano. It is reputed to have some of the best preserved mosaics in the world. Sometimes it is hard to plan without clear information, and this was the case for this trip.
By the time we arrived, we were at the furthest extent of a massive parking area, radiating heat in the midday sun. We also had all our luggage in the car and had read too many forums about tourists losing everything they owned out of a rental car! We decided to take it in turns.
So I set off first, and realised as I toiled up the first slope that it was a long, steep climb up to the entrance. After a determined effort (without Peter to push me from behind – not elegant but it helps) I made a call and turned back. That’s a world class attraction I will have to pass up!
Peter went up then and verified that it was so big and uneven that I would have found it too much. He was awestruck with the Villa, so I will include some of his photos of what I didn’t see.
In the meantime I went shopping in the souvenir and other shops at the base. Most of it was the usual gaudy Sicilian colours and designs, but I found a lovely leather and jewellery shop where the owners were the artisans. Beautiful options for some presents to take home, and a way to support local artists. So that was my outing.
Back on the road to Polizzi Generosa. After many bends, we came around a hill and there it was, perched on the crest, with a precipitous drop down to the valley. I couldn’t look as we rounded the hairpin bends on the narrow roads, came to a road closure where part of it had collapsed down the cliff, and emerged on the other side to find our accommodation across the valley.
Agriturismo Cuca is one of a series of farm stays that provide simple accommodation for travellers interested in the country and natural beauty. Pietro and his mother look after this one, and it has to be said that it was basic, compared to our other stays. But it had what we needed and the bed was comfortable! Meals were served under the tree with the friendly dogs licking our elbows. Internet was poor and the shower flooded a bit, but it was a unique experience. It wasn’t all bad being off grid for a few days!
Our meals were simple and delicious, created from their own vegetables, and always finishing with ripe figs. We ate very well and it all came out of a tiny kitchen. Fried pumpkin flowers, warm ricotta, grilled eggplant, grain salads, pasta and pesto, omelette with foraged greens, all sorts of cheese, bitter orange and wild cherry jams, varieties of red wine, brewed Italian coffee, and on it went.
Other guests are part of the interest of travel. We met a Dutch couple (a paediatrician and advisor to the Minister for Health). He turned out to be of Kurdish origin, which he revealed right at the end as we chatted about human rights, the Voice and people with no status. Then we met a couple from the Czech Republic who have a business in water service and have come to hike in the Madonie National Park. Such interesting people, and they had enough English for us to talk about everything from the church in communist times to Danish noir series. It was a peaceful stay, apart from a few barking dogs and motor cyclists revving around the bends.
We managed an outing each day, all involving appalling roads, which Peter navigated with skill in low gear (the Panda has six manual gears) and many handbrake starts. I gradually felt less tense and dared to look down the precipices beside the roads. Polizzi Generosa has magnificent views and the usual narrow lanes. We are learning to enjoy what we stumble on, as it is difficult to plan to get to any particular spot, let alone park.
One discovery was a charming little museum displayed underground next to an ancient necropolis. It was full of amazing artefacts, as always, but I particularly enjoyed the children’s toys and belongings from their tombs, including a cup which contained a chicken egg, as a symbol of new life. No one could speak English but the lady there gave us a personal tour with hand gestures and us grasping at the words we recognised. We would learn Italian more easily if we needed to use it!
That effort called for our daily gelato, this time sitting in a lane with cars nearly running over our feet. Lemon sorbet and English vanilla go well together.
Once again, Peter climbed up to recover the Panda and miraculously found me where I was resting on a bench in a lane that looked like every other lane!
Pietro is full of suggestions and he told us that Petralia Soprano is a lovely visit and more flat for walking (looking at me). So we hit the stony hills and rough, narrow, crumbling roads again, only to find that this town looked as steep as any other. Somehow we found parking in the piazza (I can now read and understand the sign which forbad parking in front of the ugly statue – we don’t want the get a fine some months down the track) and set off uphill.
There was a lovely four-sided drinking fountain to refill our bottles, the usual stunning views and a village full of flourishing pot plants. Some sets of stairs had flowering pots all the way up, and balconies trailed coloured pots. Considering the heat and the work to keep them alive, it was amazing and very charming.
We found two huge churches right across the lane from each other, both over-decorated in the glitzy Baroque style. It was as if St Salvatore and St Paul’s and Petrus were in some kind of competition. They are a long way from my expression of faith, but I respect the history of worship and community they represent. Huge bells rang out clamorously at noon and we felt hungry.
I perched on a stone step of an abandoned building (there are lots) and munched my roll and wondered where we would find a loo. The eternal quest! They don’t seem to exist in these towns, so if you don’t buy food in a cafe, it is challenging to find one. (In case you are worried, we eventually found a petrol station that wasn’t a self serve that had amenities).
The gelato for this day was limone again, this time with cioccolato. I’m going to miss them!
Before we left home I had found reference to some hot springs in Sclafini Bagni; the spa is closed but ‘a puddle remains’ said the information. With Pietro’s help with directions and intermittent digital maps we wound our way across the worst roads ever – subsidence around every corner making us wanting to keep away from the edge. The road narrowed to a path and we parked at the abandoned church and spa.
That was when I looked up the hill. It was steep! Pietro had said we would have to walk up for a while, so up we went, wondering whether this would all be worth it.
That was when we smelled it – the sulphur of the hot pool wafted towards us and then we were there! It turned out to be a superb find. The ‘puddle’ was an actual pool with water pouring into it, surrounded by rocks for sitting and a magnificent view down the valley. And we were completely alone. Just magic.
With extreme caution we managed to get in, Peter completely and me on the edge (it would have been a very bad place to have an accident), and we ‘took the healing waters’ as they say. My sense of well-being and achievement in even finding it peaked and we just soaked in the mountainous scenery as we drove home.
Caltavutro has the second highest peak in Sicily after Etna, and the whole Madonie range of rocky, uplifted mountains rose around us. God’s creation is awesome in its grandeur and I felt tuned in to it, in spite of the sweaty palms as we rounded the hairpin bends.
Another wonderful meal and chatting under the mulberry tree in the cool of dusk brought a perfect day to an end, climaxing in a sunset across the valley. I asked how they pick the berries from the huge tree that is at least 120 years old, and Pietro said ‘they fall like white rain’ when ripe. That image stayed with me and may become poem one day.
We will never forget this stay and the kind, hard-working people who are in tune with their environment and enjoy sharing it with people like us.
When it was time to leave and drive down the rough dirt road, we felt as if we had known Pietro and his lovely mum, two dogs and a cat for longer than a few days. Peter did another drawing as a gift, and we hit the hairpin bends for the last time, heading for Taormina and the coast. When the planning we did at home becomes reality, and is even better than imagined, travel becomes very special.