Having spent one full year in Cianciana (AG) without going anywhere else at all, it was definitely time for a break. I now had someone to look after the dog and a weekend escape was on the cards. This fell nicely into place when my correspondent friend, Aurora Fatta Meltzer, whom I’d never met before, invited me to visit at her summer residence in Scopello. We had tried to meet up several times previously but circumstances always got in the way, until this perfect opportunity arose.
I would travel by bus from Cianciana to Palermo, then link up with the Autoservizi Russo, taking me onwards to Castellammare del Golfo, where Aurora would pick me up. This all involved four hours of bus travel (not to mention the usual chaos and confusion in Palermo where information is scarce), and in recovering from a back injury the week before, I was a little daunted about making the trip to begin with. An omen of things to come…
On that sunny Friday morning, I was up with the lark, heading for the 7:45am bus to Palermo. It’s a long journey, two-and-a-half hours without a stop. As the bus sailed past my local countryside I sat back to enjoy the ride. Then, I felt something funny in my mouth. I removed something very small from under my tongue. I flicked it away not knowing what it was. Within seconds panic set in when I realised what I had flicked away was the broken side of the wire bracket holding my bottom denture in place. I went into shock. Now the denture was being held by a thread, making it difficult for me to speak and practically impossible to eat. How could I cope with the weekend ahead? I was devastated.
There was no point in getting off the bus so I calmed down and thought about how I would handle this unforeseen disaster. I knew I would not be the only guest, that there would be another woman there, all of us of a similar age, so I told myself they would have to understand my plight. I plodded on. Found the Russo bus, and travelled a further hour-and-a-half through to Castellammare. Instead of being happy and full of beans about this great weekend away, I was embarrassed and mortified at meeting anybody.
When the bus pulled in to Piazza della Republica, I looked around, and soon found Aurora stepping out of her very classy Lancia Ypsilon car to greet me. Her other friend stepped out too. This was Paola di Napoli, a childhood friend from their high school days in Rome. We introduced ourselves and I made an attempt to tell Aurora about my problem, but it was going in one ear and out the other, so I meekly climbed into the back of the car where I had to admire the beautiful cream-and-red leather seats, all covered in the most delightful designer material. Without much ado, I was whisked off to the villa, along the magnificent Zingaro coastline in the direction of Scopello. About fifteen minutes from Castellammare the car turned right, down a pine covered driveway where Aurora parked the car and myself and my weekend case were ushered inside.
The villa was large, beautifully situated above the cliffs on the water’s edge. The grand balcony off the living room was nothing short of a Hollywood movie, set in the 1950s. I could see James Bond and Grace Kelly down below on their speedboat sipping Martinis in my mind’s eye. The sea was crazy-blue and the jagged rocks below baked in the sun. I was swiftly awoken from my dream however, when I was informed that the two of them were going for their afternoon siesta and that I must be tired… Well, I might be tired I thought but I’m not tired for sleep yet, I just got here. I soon learnt that this is the lifestyle of the ladies who lunch.
I was shown to my room, dumped my case, needed a cigarette and enquired as to where I could smoke. I was informed that because of a fire hazard, it was very important not to allow any hot ash to blow anywhere, especially since we were surrounded by pine trees and other vegetation. This I understood and was handed an ashtray with some water in it and headed outdoors to admire the grounds. The villa has many levels, both inside and out, and I kept getting lost and unable to find my room! It was funny. While Aurora and Paola slept, I decided to head down the private trail which leads from the house to the sea. I was a bit concerned at first that walking down so steep a path might be bad for my back but I figured if they could do it, I could do it, very gingerly. This is where they swim so I needed to see it.
Off I went from the back of the house, holding on to all the branches sticking out in front of me. I had to climb over rocks, cross jagged steps, one wooden staircase, more jagged steps, until finally I landed on the man-made cement ‘platform’ used for the purpose of sunbathing. It was a fabulous spot but dangerous as hell as far as I was concerned. I stood for a long time trying to figure out how I could possibly enter the water without getting killed. Try as I might, I could not even solve how to wet my feet that afternoon! It wasn’t like wading in from the shoreline. Oh no, this was into the deep crystal clear straight away. Even if I could get in, I could see absolutely no way of getting out without another back injury, not to mention being cut to pieces by razor-sharp rocks. I sat down for a while, had another cigarette and wondered how I was going to survive all of this. Like they say, it’s tough at the top.
Went back to my room, lay on the bed and snoozed a bit. We all arose around 5pm and Paola made coffee. Paola was a smoker too, so she and I had fun carrying around the ashtray we found which had a lid to prevent hot ash blowing anywhere. Aurora hates ashtrays, keeps taking them away, washing them. I spent a lot of time following the ashtray around! Aurora likes to keep busy, always ‘working on a project,’ puts her all into everything, especially cooking, and even puts a lot of energy into singing! Paola and I had a few more things in common, such as relaxing, taking it easy, smoking, drinking coffee, the things one should do at one’s villa, no? That evening, Aurora took us to Castellammare for a bite to eat. We settled on a little cabin-type fish place where it was recommended that I have cous-cous di pesce and they made sure mine only contained soft fish. I slipped the denture into my bag and ate with gusto! It was very good. Castellammare looked beautiful by the port, which immediately reminded me of Marseilles, on a smaller scale. We had a stroll around by the port, ate ice cream then headed back to the villa for the night.
I discovered, to my horror, that there would be several other visitors to see Aurora over the weekend. Normally, this would have been a marvellous treat but in my uncomfortable position, I simply dreaded the thought of eating with company other than the two ladies. The first visitors on Saturday were Aurora’s sister, Francesca, her husband Tony and their large handsome Dalmatian dog, Dudu. Francesca is the Dean of the University of Calabria and a total career woman who loves her job. She travels endlessly and looks great. Aurora studied political science and became an interpreter (since she lived in the States for a long time and her English is fluent), and Paola is a retired marine biologist, able to tell when the weather will change and knows every herb and plant growing on the island. Paola brought her dormant English to life for me and we were able to chat which was great. Otherwise, I felt rather the dummy in front of others who spoke no English at all. Tut-tut.
Before the sister arrived Aurora had a major project to achieve (and this could be a story unto itself!) You see, in order to be able to get into the water to swim it was necessary that the ‘ponticello’ (the piece of steel used to connect the platform with the rock, i.e., the little bridge), had to be repaired and covered with a spongy mat, and bound by tape and affixed to its resting place with a thin cord. This exercise, which took hours, would have made a video the world would have enjoyed! However, thanks to her hard work, and the attachment of a rope to help get in and out of the water, it was well worth her time and effort. Without these amenities, I could never swim at all. Finally, I could reach the water and with a lot of encouragement from the two ladies, I learnt not to be so afraid. It was wonderful after that!
Saturday’s lunch was a painful affair for me because while the food was superb, there was no way I could eat any of it. I just used two pieces of bread to mop up the tasty juice and ate that. Aurora almost took offence that I didn’t eat her food, but try as I might, I couldn’t really explain. I remained very quiet with the broken denture wrapped in a napkin on my lap and I just wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. I could not participate in chatter, nor could I be my hurt self at all. In fact, I wasn’t me, at all.
That evening, myself and Paola went for a walk to visit the famous old Tonnara di Scopello, whose tower is visible from the villa. The tonnara is finished now, no more tuna in the sea and instead, it’s a museum, a fabulous B&B and a place where people get married. There was a wedding that evening but we arrived 20 minutes before closing time so we left and walked the further distance to the little town of Scopello itself. Very small, very pretty, very popular with the tourists. Paola wanted me to see the Baglio, an enclosed courtyard within a courtyard, where stands a huge eucalyptus tree in the centre, now surrounded on all sides by cafes, boutique shops and restaurants. Aurora joined us later and drove us home.
Sunday, and a big lunch is planned for the five already present and the arrival of two more guests. By now I didn’t care if the ground did actually swallow me up. I was starting to get bold… It was now known by the two ladies that I couldn’t eat what they ate, so I was served pastini, a pasta for babies, boiled to death (or as the Italians say, turned into ‘glue’). I had to fumble around in the kitchen to get it into a dish, had to add to it whatever I could find (Aurora made fantastic tempura vegetables, soft), so found some of those and joined the table keeping my head down.
The two other guests were actually tiresome, despite one being a famous artist originating from a place called Menfi here in Sicily, but now living in Caracas, Argentina. Plus, her cousin, now living in Los Angeles. The cousin could speak English of course, but the artist couldn’t. I suddenly found myself wanting to scream!!! Aurora made a fabulous lunch that day and all her hard work came into play. I learnt a couple of secrets from her – put Malvasia wine into fish dishes! Cook tempura vegetables – flour and fizzy water for the batter – yeah! She kept saying: ‘Layers of flavour, layers of flavour…’ True, true. She worked hard that day and exhausted herself, as only she can do.
No sooner was the meal over when the sister and husband and dog departed. It seemed very sudden to me on what should have been a lazy Sunday afternoon.. What I did notice about the family members was that none of them could sit still. They had to be on the move all the time. Tony, it turns out, is a great cook and helped Aurora along the way a bit, I think. He made a lovely supper one evening, which I could eat – yippee – he was listening!
Once everybody was gone, by Sunday mid-afternoon, and my last night there, I had no cigarettes and insisted that Aurora drive me to Scopello to get some. Besides, it was Paola’s nameday and that was important to her. Aurora said she didn’t care about namedays, that they meant nothing to her, but I simply whispered in her ear that it meant something to Paola, and she heard me, and agreed to go. We all got dressed up for our last evening out together and headed for the Baglio.
By the time we got there the sirocco wind was beginning to blow a storm. It just got wilder and wilder, until everything nearly blew off the table. However, I ran to the store to buy a pen and pad, because I needed to make some notes. In the middle of a bloody hurricane, I found out the following: The villa was built in 1963 by Aurora’s father, Orazio Fatta Barone della Fratta. Apparently, he and three other Knights decided to colonize the Zingaro coastline. They bought the land, they built the villas, they lived the life. But that was fifty years ago, and by now, the scene is different, life forces us to move on, and the only thing constant is change and decay. This is the battle.
The one big great surprise over the whole weekend was when Aurora’s 90-year-old mother called Paola one day and Paola told her that I was visiting from Cianciana. Before this, nobody knew where Cianciana even was. But, apparently, the mother exclaimed: ‘I know that place. I stem from there, originally.’ This was a piece of news even Aurora didn’t know about her own mother. The mother’s name is: Virginia Arcuri. From Via Arcuri Cinquemani. I thought to myself, yes, I know exactly where you are from. It is indeed a small world. Aurora was quick to pipe in that the current Mayor of Palermo is called Arcuri…
The connection between Aurora and I lies with Saverio Carubia, the resident actor/artist living in Cianciana (you can find an article about him written in Times of Sicily recently: https://timesofsicily.com/saverio-carubia).
By Sunday evening a couple of fires broke out causing a bit of alarm. The biggest fire rose on the hills near Castellammare and a second, smaller fire lit the hills closer to the villa. Aurora began to make plans to evacuate the area. Paola and I sat on the balcony keeping an eye on the hills through binoculars. However, we were all saved thanks to a lightening storm which helped dampen the flames.
Upon my departure from the villa early next morning, I only had one thought, that akin to the conversation entitled: ‘Father Pirron Pays a Visit’ from the book entitled: ‘The Leopard’ by Tomasi di Lampadusa:
‘Father Pirrone’s origins were rustic; he had been born at San Cono, a tiny hamlet which is now, thanks to the autobus, almost a satellite-star in the solar system of Palermo, but a century ago belonged as it were to a planetary system of its own, being four or five cart-hours from the Palermo sun.’
Aurora and Paola dropped me back at Piazza della Republica where I caught the Russo bus back to Palermo and so began the long journey home.
I shall always thank Aurora for having me, bless her heart. I shall always thank the Gods that I met Paola, an inspiration to me. The weekend in Scopello was a marvellous experience and one I shall never forget, despite all the bumps!