I arrived in Sant’Ambrogio yesterday after spending the day in Cefalù, researching hotels for our upcoming tour. Carmelina picked me up and we made the four-mile drive together. It was beautifully sunny and almost hot, a welcome change in this generally disappointing month of March.
The towns in Sicily are small with windy streets and I had never really seen Cefalù from the other side of the dominant cathedral and La Rocca. My head turned back and forth. The Madonie Mountains rise up as sharply and spectacularly as the flat sea stretches out. Yellow ginestra flowers, white tree blossoms and wild fennel fronds were everywhere. March may be unpredictable, but the beauty of this spring landscape has lightened the hearts of people for millennia.
The village of Sant’Ambrogio sports a population of roughly 250 people. Many have lived there a long, long time, but not all. It’s an involved story how Sicilian Carmelina with the Australian accent ended up there, but she reigns supreme in this town. As the unofficial mayor, the grand mentor, and the nurturing mother, everyone knows and loves her. With visible sincerity, she is taken with every story, situation and beautiful face she encounters. Carmelina has singlehandedly brought the townspeople together to recognize the value of the traditions they keep, and that still contribute greatly to their livelihood. She has helped these friends take care of their lovely town with a more modern focus on environmental concerns; or maybe it’s actually not so modern. Maybe it’s a reflection of an older time when there was greater reverence for the land.
The town is pristine clean – no garbage and no graffiti. Garbage bags dangle from ropes outside homes ready for easy pick up. The residents pool their money to improve the town like, for example, buying the benches that overlook il mare and planting flowers in front of the newly painted fences. It’s tranquil with killer views. Without moving an inch you can see the sea and the mountains in all their radiant glory. Many of these people are on pension or unemployed – the economic reality is kind of grim, yet they have tended their homes with high standards and she helps to rent rooms to tourists looking for a quiet and inspiring visit. Carmelina said that one guest came to write and stayed for 5 weeks, another to photograph. I understand. What a perfect spot. She’s worked to bring in tourists to see this simple yet storybook place, to observe the traditions and make money for the locals. Carmelina is not a not-for-profit organization, she arranges tours and such, but she sure acts like one.
We wandered around the small streets and, of course, she knows everyone, so I was introduced. We sat in the bar, Pippo’s bar, and had a Prosecco. The two gentlemen ensconced in the room now run the Pro-loco, an organization that she initiated to deal with civic, government and other assorted issues both in Sant’Ambrogio and in the Comune and Provincia. Even a town of 250 people has politics. Then we went to the trattoria next door, had a pork cutlet for dinner and chatted with the younger generation who were lounging about laughing and enjoying each other.
My room was up many stairs but was immaculate with embroidered crisp white sheets that I imagine hung in the warm sunshine after the last wash. The terrace overlooked the magnificent blue sea and a sea of copper-colored roof tiles. The strong Scirocco winds had picked up and all night long it rattled the windows making me feel like Armeggedon was approaching, but by morning some calm had returned, and the warm sun was there to greet me.
We came together again on the small street and like farmers from another era, went walking uphill into the mountains on ancient dirt-packed paths. This is preserved park-land, Madonie National Park. We arrived at Giulio’s farm. The young goats, romping on the giant roots of the wild, old olive trees against the piercing blue sky was a photographer’s delight; pastoral to say the least, peaceful and lush. Giulio had gone to his mother’s with the morning’s fresh ricotta but two townsmen were on ladders building a larger lean-to for his cheese-making practice – a mini barn-raising. Friendly support. Naturally, we stayed for a bit and chatted.
Back in town, we stopped for a coffee at Saro’s little Tabacchi store. Saro, is an older resident gentleman who had much pride for his little addition to town. I had heard about his “famous” granita and I inquired. We spoke in Italian and I learned about his passion for making liqueurs. With a wink, he told me about his special wild fennel liquor (wild fennel!), retrieved an unmarked bottle and poured some for me. It was so green and incredibly smooth. I’ve never tasted anything like it. Feeling proud and happy with my reaction he brought out a very deep purple bottle and a leafy branch. He asked me to guess what it was. Very fragrant, but I couldn’t identify that which I then tasted, mirtello – blueberry. Wow. I kept engaging him since this was as much fun for me as him. He gave me the recipe and told me I could use any fruit or anything really to make the liquors. Then he gave me 2 large lemons from his grove, as a gift. Nature is something they hold in the highest esteem. The lemons were exquisite. Another bottle appeared. It was limoncello – not normally a favorite of mine. Aspetta, he said (wait). He sliced off a piece of rind and rubbed it on my hand and told me to smell it. The fragrance was rich and fresh. Then he sliced the lemon open and passed the lemon over my skin. I smelled and found very little smell. That’s the secret. The rind. So he poured the limoncello and I drank. 35% alcohol, my third drink and it was 10:15 in the morning. But it was fabulous. I’ve never tasted any so good. I asked if he sells the things he makes and he quietly nodded. Out came an empty bottle and a funnel and he filled it for me. 6 Euros and I made him so happy for which I would have paid a lot more to accomplish.
I was taken to the home of a woman who is known for her thread-work. I have always had a weakness for lace, embroidery and stitching. We talked and I photographed the old wooden chair next to the table where she actually made the thread she used! The room was very small and soon she disappeared. Out of a back room she came, arms laden with her accumulated work. In white, ivory and tan threads, she had doilies, tablecloths and placemats. Her husband very proudly helped her unfold her masterpiece, the bedspread. Each item was delicate and beautiful. Years of work. I asked if she sold any and she looked surprised, as though the thought hadn’t entered her mind. I told her she should and I became her first customer. I asked if she would sell some at the festa for the chorus. She was elated. She and her friends are mounting an exhibit for us to see some of the older pieces of linens in their personal collections.
These people are very excited that we have chosen their town for such a celebration. Many of them are involved in the preparations. They will cook for us with local products and we will drink Mimmo’s wine. The locals will attend the party and local musicians will entertain us. Saro will be there and perhaps sell you some of his wild fennel liqueur. I hope you as charmed by all of this as I was and still am.
Karen La Rosa
See few pictures of the town of S.Ambrogio here