The Devil’s Bridge

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Frank and I spend several days in Civita. It is a fab location for hikes, so one day we explore the path to the Ponte del Diavolo. On our way through the village, we chat with a family of bakers who invite us to sample some of their freshly baked goods. The business has been in family hands for generations but the young daughter is not so sure she will continue. What are her interests then? Oh, I don’t know… I like going to the gym… Well who knows, maybe one day, all the ovens, including the wood-fired one out the back of the building, will be shut down and instead there will be spinning bikes, treadmills and rowing machines. She wants to see the big wide world to and for this she wants to practise her English on us. Then again, out there, in the big wide world, she might fall in love with a baker who would love to go and live in a little village up a hill in the middle of nowhere, like my friends Robert and Herlene, she Brazilian and he English, who continuously travelled between Brazil and the UK because each wanted to live in the other one’s country.

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This village still upholds the traditions they brought with them when they fled to Italy 500 years ago, however, the last couple of generations have begun to intermarry with Italians and so the feel of the town changes. Not everybody speaks the old Arberesh language anymore and the young people orient themselves along the dreams and values of the bigger world around them.

 

It is a steep walk down to the gorge from the village, and it is well worth the effort. A beautiful, recently restored bridge leads across a very deep gorge, apparently among the longest canyons in Europe. In Summer, one can go on organised trips up the gorge, kitted out with helmets, rope, wet suits etc. Right now, it’s impossible to go upriver. The water has that grey colour that talks of snow-capped mountains and it makes quite an awesome sound as it gushes through the rocks. Nevertheless, as it’s a hot day, Frank and I walk downriver to where it calms down to a manageable speed and brave the icy waters. Afterwards we drape ourselves over hot slabs of stone to defrost.

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Although we are pretty well hidden from the path, I feel like someone’s watching us. I scan the hills and the horizon but can’t see anyone, only once a furtive movement in the trees near the bridge. Ah well, whatever.

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We complete our walk by following the river downstream, surrounding the foot of the mountain on which the town is perched, then climbing back up through a series of secret gardens and olive groves. We hit the road just 200 mtr below where Emma is – a perfect round walk! Emma is surrounded by sheep when we get back home, and as we chat to the friendly shepherd, he lets slip that he saw us down by the river. I knew I’d felt a pair of eyes on us!

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March 29th in Calabria

It is often with dread that we connect to the internet – what is the latest scandal perpetrated by the likes of May, Trump et al? Each contact with politics these days re-ignites a sense of outrage and frustration, mixed in with an equal portion of dread and helplessness. What will become of the UK in particular and Europe in general? What can we do on a personal level to make a difference? March 29th 2017 will go down as one of those days in history when a die was cast.

 

So what does our March 29th look like? We wake up to splendid sunshine and despite this sense of dread rumbling in the background, we are full of adventure spirit.

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The air is clear and quite cold, there’s a bit of snow by the side of the road – we are over 1000 mtr high in the Silas mountains, by lake Arvo. We head off fairly early to find a place by the lake shore. It is shocking to see how low the water is, even at a time like this when the snow has just melted.

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We drive around the whole lake without really feeling drawn to a place, so we head on over the next mountain pass northwards. On a high plain we stop to cook a brunch and eat it outside. The light is extra bright, with the sun reflecting off the snowy slopes across the valley and bouncing off Emma too. Then we travel on, with the road winding slowly down from the lofty heights. The next time we stop, we are a good 1000 mtrs lower and back in the higher temperatures. Our plan is to cut across eastwards to the sea again, but I discover that we are passing nearby a Terme, so we come off the main road and for a while wind our way along a little river and olive groves. We find the Terme, a dilapidated hotel that is closed for the winter. A farmer cutting grass tells us that it’s not a hot Terme anyway, just mineral-rich water. If we want to go to a hot Terme, we must go to Cerchiara, about 30km from here. And if they are closed, we absolutely must go and visit the gorge at Civita instead, as it’s very beautiful. So on we travel again with Emma. When we get to the Terme, we first get stuck and have to reverse up a very steep and narrow road before we find a good place to park. We meet a woman called Gina who has a herd of goats here. She tells us about her shop in a town a few miles away, selling hand reared meats and homemade cheeses and invites us to come past the shop later. The owner of the house next door where we are parked is very friendly and lets us walk across their land to get to the river. We chat with some workmen too who let us see the Grotta delle Ninfe, normally closed to the general public.

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I test the water and it has only just swimming pool temperatures, maybe 25 degrees. That’s quite disappointing… we can’t go bathing in the grotto anyway, it’s far too muddy in there, I imagine getting in is not the problem, but getting out might be. So we come out of the grotto, walk past the empty swimming pool and go down to the river. We find a secluded spot there and submerge ourselves, imagining it to be hot. It certainly has the right sulphuric pong to it! After five minutes, as we are about to get out and leave, we discover that we are covered in little creatures!!! For a moment it looks like we have been attacked by leeches, but luckily they are just some kind of worm that are easily brushed off. Hopefully this will not have any aftereffects, although I feel itchy all over my body again, just thinking of that moment.

We go back to the van where we have some food Frank prepared earlier, then we set off to Civita, a place we’ve been recommended twice today when asking for directions. We stop off at Gina’s to buy some sausage and hang out in front of her shop with a few other locals, discussing the Calabrese dialect and spanish invasions. When they talk among themselves, we have no hope of understanding what they say, despite the fact that our Italian has improved considerably over the last couple of years. After 15 minutes, we realise we need to get going if we want to arrive before dark, so off we go, with Emma chugging up a steep hill for the third time today. We soon turn off the main road onto a little road that gets progressively steeper and narrower, with fairly strong hairpin bends. When we get to the entrance of the village, I vote to leave the van in the car park rather than possibly getting stuck in an ancient market square. We ask a local who insists we can go through the village with our van, to the start of the path of the gorge. He offers to drive ahead and show us. Several men shake their heads and try to stop us turning down a road as we cross a beautiful ancient market square, but we follow a local, so we just shrug our shoulders and point to our navigator in front. The men in the square are right though; it is indeed very tight, with only a few centimetres short of scraping against a house on one side or hitting a balcony on the other. When we have finished squeezing through the town centre, the place our friendly guide suggested for parking is so steep that we would have to strap ourselves in in to go to sleep! Later, we take a photo of the town from above. Imagine – we tried to drive through this!!!

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We decide to go back to the car park out of town. Once again we squeeze through the town with everyone watching, not unfriendly at all, in fact quite smiley and appreciative of the size and shape of our vehicle. We block traffic in both directions for a few minutes while navigating balconies, but everyone seems to be sweet and smiling. We settle into a lovely off-road car park in time for dusk.

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Civita turns out to be an interesting example of a historic refugee situation. We climb the 177 steps from our car park into the centre of town and are greeted by a ferocious looking bust, definitely not an Italian face or name: Kastriota Skanderbeg.

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Next, we note that all street names are dual language.

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We ask a local what the other language is and he says Albanian. Albanian – like from Albania? we ask. No, not from Albania – Italian Albanian. Aha. Well, we don’t know enough Italian history, that’s for sure. We drop in on the town hall to find out more. Qual’ è la connessione entre Civita e Albania? (what is the connection between Civita and Albania) we ask a woman. Ottima! (great) is her answer. What a lovely answer, albeit not the one we were expecting :-)

The museum has more relevant info: In the 15th century, after 25 years of heroic resistance to the ottoman empire, Albanians (at the time of Christian faith) had to flee from the Muslim invasions, and they came to Italy where they were welcomed due to their military leader Kastriota Skanderbeg previously having supported the King of Naples in the fight against the Ottomans. Civita one of 49 still existing Albanian communities (or Arberesh, as they are called) in Italy, was founded on the ruins of a previously abandoned city, high up in the hills about 15km distance from the sea, nestled into the hillside, hidden from view. For many generations, the villagers kept themselves separate from the Italians, albeit in friendly connection. Albanian identity, customs, language and folklore have been kept alive to this day, but more recently, to the extent that the village has opened to the world, the cultures have interwoven by marriage too.

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I instantly think of all the abandoned villages we have come across in our two years of travelling, in Germany, Spain and France, Portugal and Italy. What would happen if Europe were once again to allow current refugees to inhabit abandoned villages and re-invigorate overgrown agricultural landscapes? Do we really think there isn’t enough space to house more people in Europe? Or am I just naive?

More about this town in our next chapter… meanwhile a few more photos of our journey that day: click here


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Santa Severina

On our way into the Silas mountains, we pass a little village called Santa Severina, perched on a little mountain. A beautiful tree is in flower, we are told it flowers always in time for Easter.

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Click on the photo to view more pictures of this charming village and its castle.


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Good bye Sicily, Hello Italy

(written on March 28th)

The time has come to leave Sicily and take the ferry to Southern Italy. We’ve heard good things about Calabria, so we are quite excited. Rolling off the ferry, we turn right to go along the Southern coast. We drive about 25km and then attempt to get down to the sea and find a little beach for the night. But our plans are scuppered by a railway line. In the following days, this railway line accompanies us for the next several hundred kilometres or so, and it’s really difficult to access the sea. There are many underpasses but rarely are they high enough to allow Emma to pass. It seems that this part of Italy is not prepared for the likes of us in campervans who might like to spend time on the beaches and watch the sea. But also the locals seem to have a curious indifference to the sea in some places: we even find benches along a promenade that are placed with their back to the sea, facing the promenade and the road instead!

Eventually, we do find a lovely little fishing village and settle down to a romantic, candle-lit BBQ on the beach with fresh fish.

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We struggle to get the measure of the people here, they are very different to Sicilians. Everyone is incredibly nice and helpful, much sweeter than what we’ve been used to. Not that the Sicilians weren’t nice, but here the people really go out of their way to help you if you ask, and often even if you don’t ask. One evening, we meet a farmer who invites us to take water from his land if we need water. Frank goes over to see where the tap is and comes back with handfuls of food. It’s bean time in Calabria, we’ve seen them already by the side of the road, neatly heaped up on the little three-wheeler pickups, next to the last oranges and artichokes. Michele the farmer says it’s nice to share food, to give food to people, and he pulls several fennels out of the earth for us, some garlic, spring onions, lettuces, lemons, fresh mint, sage, rosemary and celery.

We regale him with one of Frank’s home made Sicilian Lemonade Marmalade before setting off again.

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Another time we stop when we see the first farmer picking Medlars, to ask if we can buy some off him. He fills a plastic bag, practically depleting his tree, but absolutely won’t take any money for it. We give his son a football instead. It seems like you have to be careful what you talk about – anything you point out, anything you mention, they give to you.

Usually, we find the less touristic places nicer, but here there is no infrastructure for travelling people. It’s hard to find drinking water, postcards, and there are very few shops that sell what we would like to buy, we have to hunt for an internet cafe, and there are only a few nice places to stop and go for walks or watch the sea. So we drive on and decide to try our luck inland instead. The evening of the third day finds us  1400mtrs up in the Silas mountains, surrounded by fir trees near lake Arvo, and a view of the last remnants of snow.

That night, both Frank and I feel unsettled, dépaysée, he calls it, and we wonder if it has to do with having travelled a lot in the last days and not really made that much contact with people. Or does it have to do with needing to make a decision about the next few months, whether we return to the UK in May or mid-July…

It is only in the middle of the night that I realise, tomorrow is March 29th, the day when our unelected prime minister actually invokes Article 50 and sets in motion the B word. We’ve been so out of touch with the internet and with current news that the whole debacle has somewhat receded into the background, but of course it’s nevertheless affecting us.


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Lucky Escape

Frank does his routine water and oil check on Emma before we head back down 2000 mtrs towards the sea. Curiously, Emma is completely out of water. Was the steep ascent out of her league too? We fill up with water, top up the oil and get going. We pass through Zafferana where we stop off to visit the local administration one more time, to lean on everyone we can get hold of to proceed with the cleaning of the dry torrent near Passopomo. We get yet more stories as to why nothing’s happened so far, bar closing the bridge, and we do not divulge that we are leaving, instead we make them believe that we will be back to check on them.

We roll on down the hill. In Santa Venerina, we happen to pass by the amazing Riccotta shop, so we stop off there too and get some baked Ricotta as well as a leg of lamb.

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When we get back to Emma, we see a tell-tale little rivulet emerging from under the van, running down the side of the road. Uh-oh, do we have a leak in the radiator?

As it happens when you travel, there is a garage just 50 mtrs down the road, and although they only work with cars, a friendly mechanic goes and rings the door bell of the house we are parked in front of, which turns out to be that of a lorry mechanic. They don’t have time to fit us in but recommend someone else 5km down the road. We load up with more water and roll on down the hill.

Emma at the ‘dentist’ – open wiiiide…

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uh -ooohhh…

 

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Luckily, Frank had plans to make marmalade and I needed to do a lot of writing, because we are marooned for the next 24 hours while our radiator is taken out and replaced with a new one. We leave 600 Euros lighter but so glad it happened exactly when it happened and didn’t cause more damage. We could have been stuck on the top of Etna with a blown gasket or worse, a seized engine.

 

 


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Etna

On March 17th, 10 people got injured while watching the flowing lava, amongst them a BBC film crew. Red-hot lava had flowed onto snow or ice and the sudden cooling precipitated an explosion, which covered people in boiling rocks of varying sizes.

We hear more details from a tour guide some days later who, typically for local folks, talks of the volcano as of a person. There were two smaller explosions first. Twice mother Etna said ‘go, leave!’ but the people didn’t react, so then the third time they got caught in a big explosion. They were too close to the lava and no-one had  helmets on!

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Nevertheless, Frank is very keen to get a bit closer to the action, so one late afternoon, we take the winding road up to the southern slopes. As our Emma is carrying us slowly but steadily up, 18 km through lunar landscapes, I’m thinking how crazy are we, going up an active volcano, look around you Ruth, there’s lava all around you here, and who’s to say that the explosion now is not suddenly going to be as big as the one that brought all the lava that is visible around me? I feel out of my comfort zone, also about the thought of spending the night on a mountain that is practically alive just under the surface, bubbling away with a ferocious energy. But then I remind myself that I like to move out of my comfort zone every now and then, so I say nothing about it as we wind our way up and up.

When we arrive, the funicular at Rifugio Sapienza is closed. While we amble around the deserted car park, a group of about 20 people arrive and get ready for a night time hike. It turns out they are heading up the mountain to see the lava. A quick look at the group (age range from under 10 to over 60, one person without hiking boots – we think we can keep up with them) gives us the courage to ask if we could join them.

It is about 8pm by the time we start walking up the hill into the dusky landscape. It turns out they are an alpine hiking group, based in Syracusa, who meet every Sunday to tackle some slope or other, so they are all well trained! We soon lose the one person without adequate shoes (she turns back home after about 1km), but we feel we want to stick it out. Soon we have to stop chatting to people, because we need all our attention and energy just to keep up with them as they scramble up the steeply ascending path, across snow and ice, like a herd of mountain goats! When we reach the first plateau, I’m gasping for air, regretting having drunk a pint of water just before leaving, thus causing me a side stitch. The world is not as steady as it normally is; everything is slightly spinning around me in the thin mountain air and Frank’s legs look like they are made of rubber.

Luckily the heard of goats slow down on the flat and are now leisurely strolling towards the next incline. Meanwhile it’s getting quite dark too, so we really need to stay with them as we don’t have any lights with us. How much further are they going to chase up the mountain??? There is no turning back now, we wouldn’t know or see the way! But the view compensates for all troubling thoughts: Catania spreads out below us, a thousand lights shimmering in the distance like sparkling jewels.

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After another steep (and equally fast) incline and another leisurely stroll across a windy plane, we head around the corner and the view opens into the Valle dei Bovi. Here we can see the lava flow, although not as much as when I saw it from the airplane. But nevertheless, we are now within about 800 metres of flowing lava and it feels awesome! There is no snow here, so we are safe from the aforementioned explosions.

Here’s a photo of the group. If you look closely you might see a red dot above the heads of the people in the middle. That’s the Lava!

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It is very cold and windy though, so quite soon, we turn round and everyone scrambles back down the hill. At 9.15pm, we reach the road again. I think if Frank and I had done that tour on our own, we wouldn’t have been back before midnight! This hike was way out of both our comfort zones. We are absolutely knackered, barely standing straight and not quite sure what has hit us. But it was worth it!

Sadly the photographs don’t give the full effect.

 

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German Interlude

Much as I dislike spending time away from my lovely man, I am looking forward to my German interlude – teaching Tango, spending time with my daughter Yolanda, my niece Rebecca and other friends, visiting new Tango scenes and my sister and her family.

On March 3rd, I board the flight from Catania to Berlin. As soon as I step on the plane, I start sneezing. It takes me 12 hours to accept that it’s not an allergy but a full-blown flu, when I start to feel faint walking up some stairs during the shopping spree that Yolanda and I had embarked on to find a costume for the themed Tango party the following Wednesday. With Yoli’s help, I drag myself to Ines’s where I fall into bed for the next couple of days. What a bummer, but the Tango Lab will just have to start without me…

Monday morning, I pack my bags and take the train to the Wendland, where the Tango Lab is in an old water mill, in the middle of nowhere. After a day’s rest there, I’m back to normal and immerse myself in the flow of group- and private lessons and dancing in the evenings. The themed party (the 1920’s) is a great success with everyone making a big effort to dress up imaginatively.

Dressing up is not my forte. It usually estranges me from myself, and I don’t like it. This time it had the added weird spin of suddenly feeling like a man in women’s clothes. I’ve never felt masculine, despite people mistaking me for a boy in childhood and even now sometimes address me with ‘can I help you, sir?’ in shops (can you believe it? I mean how big must boobs be before they are noticed???). But wearing this strange wig, and make-up too, somehow catapulted me into a different mode. It was very disconcerting and I was glad to return to myself when I went to bed!

 

Here is a Facebook photo of the Tango teacher team, taken by Elzbieta Petryka. I’m the one smoking a cigarette, in case you don’t recognize me!

I love the work at Proitze, the series of private lessons are always a real treat, with people opening up and working with great concentration. Thank you to everyone who gave me their trust :-)

 

We had one calm and quiet day after the Tango lab, before Ines and I set off on a Tango road trip through Germany, from the very north (Lübeck) to the very south (Staufen). We were surprised to find so many people in our workshop in Lübeck who we knew already from teaching at the Tango Lab – it was like coming home! We were hosted and taken care of beautifully, and we even had some time to stroll through Lübeck for a few hours the following day.

 

Our next stop was with my sister’s family in Köln, where we caught up with news, admired how tall my nephews and niece had grown since I last saw them, and spent a day sightseeing in the city where I grew up. We cycled along the Rhein to the cathedral, scrambled up all 533 steps to the top of the tower and amused ourselves over lunch in an old pub in the city centre.

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(Spot the mistakes!?!)

 

The following day, we set off for Staufen, a picturesque little town near the Swiss border, which has a very rapidly expanding Tango community, only in its third year. Through a serious of coincidences, they had come in touch with a collector of Bandoneons who had run out of space in his own house and was in search of a town who would like to host a Bandoneon museum. Within a short time, the bureaucratic hurdles were jumped and the town provided a room. An enthusiastic Tanguero laid a dance floor, others made shelves etc., so now they have a home for their Tango club that doubles up as a Bandoneon museum!

Those who know how to play a bandoneon are allowed to take instruments off the shelves and play them. So I have the incredible privilege of playing ‘La Amiga Negra’, the Bandoneon that Astor Piazzolla used to play when he came to give concerts in Kirchzarten from 1984 onwards. Her bellows are a bit wheezy, but the reeds have a sweet sound and there are more buttons than on my bandoneon. If I can’t produce Piazzolla’s sound, maybe at least I can imitate his facial expression?

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In a town of under 8000 inhabitants (about the size of Totnes), with four regular evenings of Tango plus weekends with visiting teachers, the dance scene reminds me very much of the beginnings of Tango in Totnes. In addition to that, the Staufen Bandoneon Museum is a must for every Tango dancer and musician on their way down South through Germany!

We have one more day left before my flight leaves from Basel, so we make a spontaneous decision to visit Guggi and Pascal an their son Aurin on their newly acquired piece of land right on the swiss/german border. A little one-roomed house and a couple of sheds were already on the land, and they now painstakingly restore them. Pulling them down completely would lose them the right to have a dwelling there, so it has to be done one wall at a time. We spend the afternoon pottering in the tentative spring sun, playing with Aurin and helping a little with building work, before heading to their flat in the centre of Basel for the night.

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All through my stay in Germany, Etna has been bubbling away, and this week with some rather large eruptions, so that it’s a bit touch and go whether I will get to Catania or be diverted to Palermo instead. The day before, Catania’s airport was closed in order to clean the runways from the volcanic ashes…

But all goes well, we see the flowing lava from above as we pass the volcano. With only one hour’s delay, we touch down on the second attempt and I’m back in the arms of my special man :-)


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Honesty, Courage and the transforming power of Anger

This chapter will bring a concrete, real context to these three lofty concepts.

 

We’re in search of good quality Olive oil and this leads us once more back to Alcamo, where we meet Vincenzo, a permaculture farmer. Alcamo is a city perched on the side of a steep hill and narrow streets abound, so rather than finding his garden in our Emma, we arrange per telephone to meet him in a convenient car park. Vincenzo arrives with 10 litres of Olive oil strapped to the back of his bike. This is how he likes to distribute his produce. He’s got a car but hasn’t even bothered to renew the insurance because he doesn’t use it.

We are intrigued. In many of our previous blogs, we have talked about our ‘fights’ and efforts to persuade the Sicilians we meet to change their habits if not their views on unsustainable farming or rubbish removal systems, more often than not to be met with a hard rock of resistance, if not derision of our ‘crazy’ ideas. We’ve come to understand some of the obstacles that are in the way of change here and we realise that life in Sicily is hard, especially inland. What brought Vincenzo, who used to live down by the sea, back to his town, and what made him a permaculture farmer, and how is this received by his community? Vincenzo starts to tell us his story….

 

At age seven, Vincenzo lost his father, a well-known public figure in Alcamo and a respected Endocrinologist, due to cancer of the thyroid. Even though he was an expert in his field, he didn’t relate his illness to the pollution of this town, Vincenzo says. Come and visit my garden and I will show you what I mean.

He leads us down a couple of back streets and suddenly the tightly packed houses give way to an open space right in the heart of the town (not unlike it used to be in Totnes when Heath’s nursery still existed, unfortunately long since turned into car parks and, I believe, now up for grabs to developers). We come past a marble cutter’s place where a man quickly climbs into a white flashy car and shoots off past us. This is my worst enemy, says Vincenzo, with a smile on his face. I instantly feel so uncomfortable that I avoid looking at the man’s face, but Vincenzo looks him straight in the eye. See, when he needs to get rid of used oil from his machines, he just pours it into the ground, and his property is right next to mine. I had my water tested and it is full of oil, amongst other bad substances. I cannot use it on my fields, let alone for drinking. It turns out that testing the water made him realise he had to turn to a farming method that didn’t require regular watering of his fields. We pass the marble quarry, now almost shut down, 50 metres of a sheer cliff, with houses perched on the top. Alcamo has no sewage system. The whole town is built on a porous rock, and people just dig holes in the ground and let their black water seep away underneath their houses, Vincenzo says. Look, you can see where the black water runs down the sheer rock, and then compare it to this place, where clean water comes out of the rock. The colours on the rock are indeed completely different. And look at these long concrete pipes that come down from the houses outside, along the rockface. They are sewage pipes, but they are more than 30 years old and they are breaking, look how they leak. I have called the man from the council who installed these, I took him round on a walk to discuss what can be done to this but he simply shrugged his shoulders. We walk up a couple of steep hairpin bends on a rickety road. When I started farming my land, first I only cared about cleaning my own property but I soon realised that I needed to clean the space around it too, as no-one else was caring for it. This part of the town used to be full of rubbish, abandoned cars, plastic, Asbetos etc. Everybody just came and dumped their stuff here and the area was frequented by drug addicts. But it is the road to my land and to my house, my grandfather’s house in fact, so I started cleaning it up and patrolling it every day. I would interrupt people who were up to no good and just made them realise they couldn’t do things unseen. So gradually they disappeared from here. A couple more turns in the road and we have an overview of what must be the blackest, murkiest pond I’ve ever seen, wedged in between the marble quarry and Vincenzo’s land. This water is so polluted, at the moment only goldfish and guppies survive in it, I have to think what can be done with it to clean it, what plants I can put in it to help it regenerate itself. Just two weeks ago, the mafia boss of the area has been caught and put into prison and Vincenzo hopes that this will open some doors for a more sustainable town planning. This place could become a green lung of the town, once the quarry is properly shut and if the right decisions are being made about this open space. It might of course just be sold to developers, but I have a hope, a great hope, that we will fight for a better solution.

The road arrives at the top level above his house, where we pass a high wall. Vincenzo tells us that behind this wall is a yard full of chemicals – a depository for herbicides and pesticides (later we catch a glimpse from the first floor of his house onto hundreds of plastic sacks full of chemicals, just lying around in the open air). Before we enter the courtyard of his house, Vincenzo points out one more thing: a neighbour has built a house from plastic. With every rain, plastic beads wash off this house, down my road and into my garden. And indeed, we can see thousands of tiny plastic beads in the muddy ruts on the road.

In the ten minutes that it took us to walk from our van to his house, Vincenzo, with a smile on his face, has described his situation and it’s breaking my heart, moving me to tears. He’s trying to create paradise in the middle of hell!

Vincenzo opens a metal door and we are greeted by Vito, his lively dog, a mixture of German shepherd and husky, maybe a bit of wolf in there too. It’s the kind of dog you would not like to be enemies with, but to us he’s friendly and eager to be stroked. Six years ago, I was very depressed about my situation. I was angry about everything. I decided to go on a long walk. Together with Vito, I walked from Alcamo to Petralìa Sottana. He is a difficult dog. Before I got him, he’d been tied to a tree for the first year of his life and he was frightened and angry. When we went on this walk together, he was on a rope that wrapped around my waist, so for several months he was connected to me as if through an umbilical chord. We fought a lot of fights together, he wanted to attack people and animals so we had a lot of arguments. Now he is a lot better.

 

To me, it seems as if Vito is the personification of Vincenzo’s inner state and their journey together says as much about the transformation of the dog as it does of Vincenzo. I am amazed by the sheer persistence of this young man in the face of all these intractable problems around him and of the softness he has acquired, which nevertheless is unremitting and persistent in pursuing a change for the better of the environment in general and his land in particular.

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The yard of his house is a little oasis with a beautiful view down the hill, overlooking his land and towards the sea. A giant mulberry tree spreads its branches. It’s taken me some years to understand why Mulberry trees are always right by the houses in Sicily. It’s not ideal – the berries make a mess on the ground – but if you plant them away from the house, the birds will eat all the berries before they are ripe and you have no chance to harvest them. Near the house, the birds are scared off by cats and dogs.

In permaculture terms, the house is zone zero and the courtyard is zone one. Through a little gate, Vincenzo leads us down into zone two, the food forest. Here are olive trees and almond trees, but above all, a richly varied undergrowth of wild herbs and plants, most of which are edible and have planted themselves here, and he only gently encourages some and discourages others. Last year, a sheep grazed here, helping to spread the seeds through carrying them in its fleece from one place to the other, all the while fertilising the land with its manure. After the food forest comes a stretch of land that doesn’t belong to Vincenzo but to a cousin, someone he has battled with over the years to prevent him burning plastics on his land. I used to get very angry with my cousin. One time I even threatened to kill him with a pickaxe if he didn’t stop killing others by burning toxic rubbish. But slowly, slowly over time, we have come to agreements with each other and now we even occasionally help each other, sharing machinery to remove rubbish etc. It’s been hard work fighting with each other, but I feel good about the changes.

We have arrived at his land, zone 3 in permaculture terms, where we are greeted by an orange tree veritably dripping with fruit. Vincenzo is convinced that the only reason this one is so rich in fruit compared to the others further down the land of his cousin’s, is that he planted a companion plant right by the tree which flowered exactly at the right time and attracted many bees who in turn pollinated the orange tree.

Further down along his land, different herbs are planted in the shape of a large spiral, and everywhere we see the wild versions of cultivated plants, such as the wild beet.

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Vincenzo explains that when he sees that another plant has ‘arrived’ on his land, he frees the space around it for a while, to give it a chance to grow, but that is all. This part of my land is still very much in progress. In the long run, I’d like it to be a food forest too, like the one near my house, says Vincenzo, as the three of us pick a huge piece of fluttering plastic out of a hedge, something he says just flies in on the wind, on a daily basis.

We slowly return to the house, meanwhile picking lots of different wild herbs and sampling the various tastes. Vincenzo also cuts us some of his more deliberate produce: a large leaf of Aloe Vera, which, he explains, needs to be about 5 years old before you pick it to have developed the more than 200 different curative ingredients; artichoke leaves, which you can also steam like the fruit (we try this later but omit to peel the stems so it’s really bitter, but still very tasty!); some remaining almonds from the trees, and a bag full of oranges. Apparently an infusion from olive leaves is also very curative…

Vincenzo comes back to the van with us, bringing Vito with him. As we come past the marble cutter’s property, Vito becomes restless, straining at the leash. I’ve made it part of my daily routine to come past here and have a look what my worst enemy is up to. I like to create a presence, so he knows I’m watching him. I could denounce him, I have proof of the pollution in my water results, but I prefer to try and make him see that he is doing wrong and change his habits of his own accord.

This is the part I am most impressed by. There is such creative determination in Vincenzo to not just do his own thing and produce vegetables but to make people see things in a different way. I used to plant vegetables in this patch, he says, pointing to a part of his land, where after a rain black water from the town and otherwise polluted water gathers and builds a fertile if toxic ground, and then I used to go and offer them to my neighbour telling him that if he thinks it doesn’t matter what he puts into the ground, at least he can buy the toxic vegetables from me and eat them. One day, he even takes his toxic vegetables to a large bio market, and, by clearly advertising them as ‘Toxic Vegetables’, raises a lot of discussion and conversations with buyers and producers alike. But now I have stopped planting produce there, this part of my land needs to regenerate itself first. On the other parts of my land, my produce is as pure as it can be in this area.

This of course raises the big question of how clean anyone’s vegetables are, anywhere in this world. One can grow as ‘organic’ as one likes, but what do you do if tap water is too polluted to use on your produce, and even a squall of rainwater brings its problems in the form of microbeads and black water from untreated sewage. As a consumer, how do we know what is in our food? Should we enquire further, or contend ourselves with looking at the label on the supermarket shelf, possibly lulling ourselves into a false sense of security? And if we do enquire further, how do we support those who lobby for a cleaner environment? How do we protect and nurture courageous individuals like Vincenzo who are fighting battles on our behalf?

I could of course sell my house and this piece of land – as it’s in the heart of the Alcamo, I’d probably get a good price for it – and move to a place that is cleaner, where I have more likeminded neighbours and where I could grow ‘cleaner vegetables’ in peace. But this is my family’s land, my grandfather’s house, why should I leave? Besides, this place needs me, it is here that change is most needed.

I take my hat off to you, Vincenzo. I have a huge respect for what you are doing. Thank you for showing us your place and giving us a glimpse of your life with your story. You are truly inspirational.

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La Riserva Naturale di Zingaro

On our way through to the nature reserve, we stop off in San Vito lo Capo to stock up with food and water. By the time we get going again, darkness has settled so we can only guess at the beauty surrounding us as the road snakes up and down and in and out, 8km along the coast before coming to a gravelly halt on the gates of the reserve. We are the only ones there, apart from a car with locals who seem to be up to some naughty night fishing (fishing is not allowed in the reserve), but we chose to ignore the obvious fishing rods in their packs and focus instead on the two dogs who seem to have crept out of a hollow under a bush by the side of the road, wagging their tails and looking rather hungry and dehydrated. We offer water and some food, which they lap up gratefully. It is a beautifully quiet and starry night and we all settle in for the night: The female dog slinks off to somewhere, to male curls up under the engine of our Emma and Frank and I tumble into bed after a round of Canasta.

We are blessed with a  beautiful sunrise.

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The minute we come out the next morning we are greeted excitedly by our newly found friends. As the female looks like she might be a feeding mum, I decide to check on the spot where I saw them emerge the previous day, and indeed, there are five beautiful pups.

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In the time that it takes us to do our morning things, Yoga, make food for the day, practice the violin etc., several local cars have arrived and on their way, they stopped and looked at the pups and possibly gave some food to the parents. Someone even tips out half a big sack of dry dog food, but the dogs don’t seem to want to touch it, preferring our protein mix of tuna, chick peas and oat milk instead. Perhaps dry dog food can only be digested if the dog has sufficient access to drinking water, which must be difficult here.

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Sicilian strays have a much better life than their counterparts in Spain or Portugal. Here, they seem to belong to a place, like for example to the entrance of this nature reserve, and they seem to be looked after by anyone who happens to come along. Generally, they are quiet and friendly, and in this case it was surprising to see how involved the father of the pups was – he seemed to be more protective of them than the mother!

We pack a picnic and set out into the nature reserve. The mountains rise out of the sea and up to over 1000 mtrs, and there are many paths to explore. We spend a day making a round trip including a museum village and only cover about half of the distance to the Southern entrance. One could easily spend a few days here to discover the different paths, villages and caves, and chill out on the beautiful beaches.

After a late afternoon swim on an almost tropical looking beach, we return to our van in time to take my bicycle to the repair shop in San Vito lo Capo. This is a shop that opens at Sundown, as its owner, Daniele is an outdoorsy kind of person, heavily involved in the local climbing scene.

This was one of the most beautiful days we’ve had in Sicily, stunning views and beautiful smells. It was also a really good physical challenge, including climbing up the mountain for about 2hours to get to the museum village. The day was only slightly marred at the end by Frank’s fall backwards against a rock when he tried to find a short-cut through the undergrowth…

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Do visit this link to see all the photos of this day. It is worth using the slide-show function by clicking a little icon on the top right hand side of the display!


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Macari Beach

On our way towards the most western point of Sicily, we stop off at Macari Beach.

The photos speak for themselves!!!

Do visit this link to see all the photos of the beach. It is worth using the slide-show function by clicking a little icon on the top right hand side of the display!

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