Greeted at Trapani airport by our landlord, Salvatore, my sister and I had a moment of total insecurity when we stepped into this 40 something year old stranger’s car. Used to Southern Italian dialects, nothing had prepared us for attempting to communicate in thick velvety Sicilian. This was my second time in Sicily: back when I was 18 my family took me to Taormina, a luxurious town on Sicily’s East coast famous for its beauty and jet-set residents. This time around we were staying in the raw Sicily, a place almost untouched by the world’s Italophiles.
‘Scusi? Cosa? Um… Non Capisco!’ There are only so many times you can ask someone to repeat something without seeming thick. As this man sped towards Castellamare del Golfo, a good 40 minutes drive from the airport, he drove at times with no hands at all whilst he waved them around in conversation, eyes fixed not on the road, but on us! He had lived in this area of Sicily all of his life. He advised us to skip Marsala, and perhaps venture to Cefalu’. As were neared Castellamare the prospect of spending time in Sicily where our good friend was to marry a Sicilian was far too exciting for words! All of our best friends from London were due to arrive today if they hadn’t already. Luckily we’d found last-minute accommodation in this man’s appartements not far from the port shore of the town.
Green mountains flattened as we arrived in the town, eventually reaching the apartments after a series of narrow winding back streets, high at the top of a hill. His entire family was sitting outside on plastic chairs and welcomed us warmly. They inhabited the ground floor of the building and rented the top floors as apartments in the summer months. Wafts of Ragu’ filled the air and as we took in our surroundings our luggage was taken inside. Shown to our apartment up endless flights of cold stone stairs, we were shown how to work the curtains to give us privacy! ‘We’re very ‘Casareccia‘ here’ he explained jokingly. Casareccia means home-made, simple. When asked about a local taxi service, he laughed and said ‘Taxi?!’ we were in rural Sicily here! ‘Any time you need transport call me, I’ll come and get you don’t worry. If you walk, just follow the steps, always follow the steps.’ he added. Steps? What steps!? From our balcony we had a sloping view of the town and all its ancient stone alleyways. To our left a looming mountain, its darkness interrupted by a bright blue neon cross. To our right the sea. Below on the street the locals gathered outside their doors on steps and chairs, living on the street to escape the heat of their houses.
We soon discovered the steps Salvatore had spoken about after our first boozy night with our friends at the seafront bars. The town was built up on a hill and unfortunately we were staying somewhere up in the maze of narrow streets. There were not one but two steep, endless sets of warped stone steps, as ancient as Sicily itself. By the time we’d reached the apartment all the buildings looked the same, not that we could see anything due to the physical exertion in the throbbing heat of August. Luckily for our friends, they had found an apartment just a stone’s throw from the port, and a local to drive them around, an elderly man also called Salvatore. We arranged a daily pick up point for Salvatore to take us to the nearest beach. Leaving our apartment and walking to a main road was always eventful. Locals stopped and gawked, they had probably never seen natural blonde women such as my sister around these parts.
One evening after a beach trip, whilst Salvatore was chattering away happy to share his life story, we drove through the old town. My mind wandered to the ancient architecture and my eyes wandered out of the window. There, in a little square was a stone fountain. In that stone fountain was a great hunk of a man, with bulging muscles and tight red Speedos cooling off in the spring water, his longish black hair and bright green eyes alike to some kind of Roman God. It was like a shoot from a Dolce & Gabbana swimwear editorial. Unreal! In the panic to soak it all in before we sped away, I jumped and hit my head on the car roof, as I grunted and squealed to try to alert my sister to this unbelievably glorious scene. The God must have just caught a glimpse of me with my nose pressed right up against the car window and expression stricken with longing disbelief.
Soon, word spread around the town about this group of foreigners visiting Castellamare del Golfo for a wedding. Our friends group was made up for every race and colour you could find in London, a concept so unfamiliar to rural Sicily. There were Blonde haired and blue-eyed girls, Latin American ones, Jamaican ones and some Turkish ones, although their colouring really blended in with the Sicilians. We glammed up for our evening drinks, with oversized sunglasses, tottering from restaurant to bar trying not to get our heels caught in cobbles. Words spread there were celebrities in town (!) and locals gathered to watched us. But it wasn’t threatening, it was pure fascination. If only the Fountain God made an appearance! There would have been handbags at dawn trying to get his attention. We ate typical Sicilian dishes of Caponata, Maccheroni con le Sarde, and Casatella in Forno, savouring every mouthful of Mediterranean deliciousness. The day before the wedding, another two friends arrived who we’d found accommodation for, just slightly further up the hill in the maze of the old town. We decided to explore and found a Salumeria, where we spent a good hour talking to the shop owner about Sicilian food. He gladly offered us bits and pieces of cheese, we gladly bought different types of cheese, salumi, bresaola, and his giant home-made pecorino stuffed dried tomatoes. The perfumed greengrocer next door boasted Aubergines as big as footballs. It’s amazing how fruit and veg actually have smells! We’re so used to buying our produce suffocated in plastic wrap from refrigerators. On our way back, we directed our friends back to their apartment then arranged drinks later on. Five minutes later, when we realised we’d given them the wrong directions we were soon running around the streets looking for them. They had no phone, no money, and absolutely no knowledge of Italian. ‘Aylinnnn!!! Aykutttt!!!!’ we shouted after them, fearing we’d directed them up the hill. The sun had set and there were no street lamps in the back streets of this town. At this time of day the locals disappeared, not that they spoke any English anyway! Who knows what would happen to them! Out of breath and panicked, we asked the only people we found if they’d seen a lost couple. We were met by bemused looks ‘They’re disoriented’ one said to the other. All was well, thanks to Aykut’s natural ability to get orientated. They had been sitting on the balcony while my sister and I appeared thankful they were alive! How could he have known where to go? All the streets here looked the same here! Later on, on the same night just before we were about to tuck into the cheeses we’d bought earlier, the four of us managed to lock ourselves on a balcony. After initial nervous snigger, and lots of door tugging, and a near panick attack from me, there was no more sniggering as we realised we could be trapped for the night. Worse, there was a feast on the table and we were starving! At least we had cigarettes! We managed to fit Aylin’s tiny hand through a crack in the shutter just before Aykut threw himself off onto the hard slabs of stone below to fetch help!
The day of the wedding arrived and about 30 Londoners gathered at the port ready for a coach to take us to the church. As we left our apartment, Salvatore’s mother said ‘Who gets married in Sicily in August?’. She had a point, it was almost 40 degrees! It’s the kind of weather where you give up on your hair, and let your make-up slide. There is just nothing you can do about it so there is no point being vain. As we waited in the boiling afternoon, we fanned ourway out of the stifling heat, helped also by icy Aperol.
The bus climbed mountain roads, leaving the town behind us. Suddenly, we arrived at a church in a village which I can only assume was ancient as it was beautiful. As we alighted, an old man sat outside the village cafe stared with amazement at this unannounced arrival of glamorous gaggle of wedding guests. As we gathered waiting for the bride, more old men appeared. He had called his friends, who in turn called their friends. The interior of the church was celestial blue and gold, and offered welcome shade from the sun outside. So overwhelming was this whole experience, I and many others burst into tears. Here we were, best friends, in the most beautiful church in the middle of nowhere. During the wedding, all the locals gathered at the back of the church, eventually creeping their way forward to catch a glimpse of the beautiful bride. By the time we had left the church, the entire village had turned out. There was even a girl who nobody knew that had managed to slip into all the wedding photos. In the middle, at the front next to the happy couple!! How this stranger in a bright orange t-shirt had managed to do that, remains a mystery!
There was just time for a much-needed drink from the village bar before we were whisked off again to the reception. Bingo! The bar had freshly made Granitas! And even better, almond milk granitas, possibly the most refreshing icy slush any of us could have wished for after a good two hours sweltering in wedding clothes. Once mine was served, most other wedding guests followed suit. Then we were off again, having been bid farewell by the village and his wife. Another bus trip enused, leading us far away until we were surrounded by thick luscious vineyards. Climbing to the top of a hill, we reached an old house, crumbling and rustic. Casareccia, as with most things in Sicily. The atmosphere was charged as the holiday had reached a joyous (and rather emotional!) peak. for everyone. The bride and groom arrived, posing for photos with a back drop of the sunsetting over luscious vineyards. A feast was laid down for us in a lantern lit courtyard under the stars, all foods locally produced. Fresh ricotta, prosciutto cotto, a fish and meat barbeque, a hundred types of cheese, vegetable antipasti and cakes galore. We danced, we sang, there were emotional and funny speeches. Miles from anywhere, seemingly in heaven.