DAY 1 (04/08/2017) – Around Sicily in Eighty Days
Featuring one of Sicily’s most scenic (and least known) coastal roads, three capes, including the easternmost and northernmost of the whole island, and Sicily’s greatest fortified citadel, our Day 1 itinerary was a sobering reminder of how many wonders may lie just behind the corner of one’s house.
STORY BY TOMMASO RAGONESE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARCO CRUPI
“For my way of feeling this journey is beneficial and even necessary. Sicily points me towards Asia and Africa and to set foot oneself on that prodigious point on which so many radii of world history converge, is no small matter.”
J. W. von Goethe
Prodigious is the place where Marco Crupi and I were born. Prodigious is the place where our voyage, for us beneficial and even necessary, is about to begin. Cape Peloro is that place, whose name comes from the Ancient Greek word pelòron, which means indeed “prodigious thing“. Home to sea monster Charybdis in Homer’s Odyssey, it is Sicily’s easternmost Cape and marks the northern entrance into the straits of Messina. This is where we end three months of reading, itinerary planning, gearing up and reaching out to dozens of people; from here we set off to experience and report our own native island like very few Sicilians will ever be able to. “This – to quote a local geographer, is where Sicily begins“.
Looking landward, the Peloritani mountain range thrusting up to the south-west is indeed no less portentous (the etymology of ‘Peloritani’ is analogous to that of Cape Peloro) a sight than that of the treacherous waters of the straits. These are among the steepest mountains in Sicily, making human settlement and passage harder. This area, with its lush valleys and remote towns, is still one of the least explored in the whole of Sicily. More than 2000 years ago, to travel from the greek settlement of Tindari, on the Tyrrhenian side, to Taormina, on the Ionian side, the preferred route cut across the mellower slopes of the Nebrodi Mountains, instead of circling around the Peloritani, by Cape Peloro and then veering south. Today, our Day 1 itinerary takes us west along the coast, towards another former greek trading post: Milazzo.
There is a reason why our 1928 Italian Touring Club guide to Sicily tells readers who are on a train journey from Messina to Palermo to “sit on the right”. Leaving the straits behind, the first few miles of the coastal SS114 road will leave you with a sore neck, as the marvellous sights of the turquoise waters between Mortelle and Casabianca to your right will demand your full attention.
Riding past a windy stretch, as the road takes you by the small fishermen settlement of Acqualadrone, one can catch the first breathtaking vistas of the Aeolian Islands. When I grow hazy about the eyes, I myself often head down to Acqualadrone to swim on a large sand bank over 600 meters long and 4-5 meters deep. Until a few years ago, lying there in the sand was a rostrum of a roman trireme, so well preserved that you can watch the 250kg block of metal with splintered wood from the prow of its mother ship at the Regional Museum in Messina. There are only seven of that kind left in the world.
After a gentle climb, we come to a little high plain blessed with such agreeable climate and fertile countryside that many rich merchants of Messina built, according to our own reconstructions, over 50 between hunting lodges and vacation houses . This is where I live: with the intention of saving it from falling into pieces, my parents and I bought one of these XIX century estates, once owned by the Morillo dei Baroni di Trabonella, a noble family from Caltanissetta. The high plain stretches seaward to form Sicily’s northernmost cape: Capo Rasocolmo. With its imposing, partially sandy cliffs and iconic lighthouse, this cape was known by the Greeks as Falacrio and, until the beginning of the XX century, was home to vineyards and renowned for hare hunting.
Following the SS114 west, several roads stretch up onto the Peloritani towards Castanea delle Furie, Salice and Gesso. Entering Villafranca Tirrena, we lose sight of the sea and the road is trafficked as we ride past the coastal towns of Saponara Marittima, Rometta, Spadafora and Venetico. Heading straight to Milazzo means we are missing further opportunities to climb to Calvaruso, Rometta Superiore, Monforte San Giorgio or Santa Lucia del Mela, but we must stick to the itinerary. We will be sure to catch those opportunities later on. Entering Milazzo from the east on the SS114 means riding past the oil refinery: not a pretty sight at all and a particularly bitter one considering that studies carried out at the University of Messina repeatedly found cancer incidence around here to be significantly higher than elsewhere in Italy.
An opulent, strongly fortified town, among the noblest and most beautiful, equalling the greatest cities of our world with its agriculture, industry, markets as well as life’s delights and comforts. It lies by the sea, surrounded by it on all sides except for one, where its entrance is located. Travelers come here by sea and land. Fine linens are exported, the fields are fertile, fresh water abundant and many big tuna fisheries.
There were indeed between six and ten tonnare, traditional tuna fisheries, in Milazzo until well into the XX century, before fish numbers started to dwindle leading to the irreversible decline of one of the staple activities of the sicilian economy. Welcomed by Mr Salmeri in the village of Vaccarella, at the foot of the hill marking the beginning of Cape Milazzo, we notice only a handful of boats used for coastal fishing.
Mr Salmeri bears a local fishermen family name. The Salmeris, the Paesanos and the Cambrias, much like Giovanni Verga’s fictional Malavoglia in Acitrezza, have been fishing out of Vaccarella for generations. Noticing our keen interest in things past, Mr Salmeri is keen to introduce us to don Stefano, one of the last tonnaroti – fishermen who took part in the mattanza , the traditional tuna fishing carried out by the tonnare along the sicilian coast. Intercepting schools of big tuna on their way to their Mediterranean breeding grounds, the massive nets of the tonnare forced the fish into chambers where it was harpooned and loaded alive onto barges by the tonnaroti.
Resuming our ride towards the tip of Cape Milazzo, we climb across the old borgo, Milazzo’s historical centre, ending up at the castle’s feet. Stretching over a surface greater than 7 hectares (70.000 square metres), the Castle of Milazzo is not only the biggest fortified citadel in the whole of Sicily but also a monumental display of 10 centuries’ worth of military architecture. From the old keep, built presumably in the XII century, to the Spanish belt (Cinta Spagnola), edified in the XV century, the castle lost all defensive purposes in the 1880s, when it became a prison. The complex is home to buildings whose total surface exceeds 12.000 square metres, including a Benidectine monastery dating back to the 1600s.
As the sun descends towards the watery horizon, we leave the castle behind and resume our ride towards the lighthouse. We make frequent detours into narrow, unpaved roads, proceeding between olive trees, prickly pears and agaves, jumping dry walls and brambly shrubs of wild blackberries. A door appears, in the midst of the countryside, bearing the signs of time, signalling the entrance to a once presumably prosperous estate by virtue of its fortunate whereabouts: idyllic vistas of the castle and the bay open up to the South-west, of the sea and the Aeolian islands to the North.
The air is still and there is hardly anyone around by the time we step off our bikes in the vicinity of the lighthouse. The last rays of the sun confer a warm, golden colour to the dry weeds and the pale rocks dropping down to Cape Milazzo’s pebbly western shores. Descending towards the tip of the promontory, amidst patches of mediterranean shrubland, we catch sight of the small, infamous pool at Punta Messinese (which many – quite inappropriately – refer to as “Venus’ Pool”). Finally devoid of clothing and of the tension accumulated before today’s much-awaited departure, I dive into the pool, emerging only as the sun has already disappeared and the rocks all around us look like a dark body resting above the warm, calm waters of Ponente.