Inheriting Sicily

From ancient ruins to architecture: the beauty of Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento and Taormina

By Honor Moore
Isola Bella, in Taormina, is breathtaking at dusk.
Photograph: Photo by: Harf Zimmermann

My wish to go to Sicily began with an image from my grandmother. She described an ancient Greek temple built of pink stone, at the edge of the Mediterranean, set in the midst of “wild stretches of earth . . . dappled & dimpled with small sweet things—valerian—muscari & small sultry poppies—all stridently in bloom.” She was an artist from Boston who painted under her maiden name, Margarett Sargent, and she wrote those words from Sicily in a letter I found while researching The White Blackbird, the book I wrote about her life. She went to Sicily in the spring of 1954; now, 55 years later, Margarett was sending me. I’d embark on a nine-day trip that would start in Palermo, then take me through the temples and ruins of Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento and Taormina.
My grandmother was always a force in my creative life, but the message was decidedly mixed. A gifted sculptor who became a modernist painter, Margarett had nine much-praised one-woman shows in six years, only to stop painting in her early forties. As a young writer I often found myself blocked, and of course my grandmother’s fate came to mind. I needed to know what had happened to her, and one day when she was in her eighties, I got up my nerve. “Why did you stop?” I asked. “It got too intense,” she answered. You can see intensity in her highly colored, angular paintings, but she was also referring to something else, an undertow of manic-depressive illness for which she was first hospitalized in her fifties. No one would have predicted a tragic life for the brilliant young woman who at 17 escaped the suffocation of a Boston Brahmin childhood by persuading her par-ents to send her to finishing school in Florence. She came back “crazy for Donatello” and set about becoming an artist. By the 1920s, she was a young mother of four, exhibiting her sculpture and paintings in New York and traveling several weeks a year in Europe with my grandfather.
When I was a child, the grandmother I knew was often hospitalized for depression, but when she emerged she wrote me wonderful letters on brown butcher paper in odd-colored inks. And every birthday present was unusual: at eight, a red jacket from France; at 13, a green satin evening bag.
I was 20 when I planned my first trip to Europe, and it was only natural that I would seek her out. Even though she was bedridden from a series of strokes, Margarett remained glamorous—yellow sheets, a hot pink coverlet, the walls crowded with paintings and drawings. “Go to Florence,” she told me. “Make sure you see the Donatellos!” My eccentric grandmother was teaching me to travel like an artist, to find in what I saw something I could carry away with me.
Now I was following her lead again. My trip to Sicily would not be about the food, the Mafia or the sea, but about ruins and architecture, landscapes and traces of Magna Graecia, as ancient Sicily was called when it was colonized by the Greeks. It was a familiar feeling, being led by Margarett’s imagination, although I am no longer 20 but in my early sixties, close to the age Margarett was when she went to Sicily. Earlier in my life, it had been easy to identify with a young woman who had her life ahead of her, but how would I, for decades a working writer, connect with the grandmother who had left her art behind?
My sister Rosemary is my traveling companion, and since this is my first trip to Sicily we’re spending a couple of nights in Palermo before setting off to see the ruins. We hire a guide for a day, and as she navigates the narrow streets in her small car, she gives us a summary of Sicily’s history, the indigenous Sicans and Sicels, and the waves of invaders and colonizers Sicilians call the strangers: Greeks, refugees from Troy, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and the Normans who crowned an emperor named Count Roger.
We’re on our way to the Cathedral of Monreale, on the outskirts of Palermo, and as we drive, the landscape opens to a valley that is now part of the city; I’m imagining it thick with orange groves as it was 50 years ago when Margarett’s driver took her up this very road. When she reached Sicily, Margarett had not painted or traveled for 20 years. She was looking for a new life, whereas I, depleted by a year touring for a successful book, am wondering how to make my way back to writing.
Later, driving through farmland toward Segesta, the site of the first Greek temple on our itinerary, I remind myself that I have been a writer for nearly four decades, one of a generation of women whose work and activism have helped make a story like Margarett’s nearly obsolete. And yet I am still always apprehensive before I start something new. Right then the road sign for Segesta interrupts my reverie, and I see it: a flash of pink and columns.
The day is gray, which makes the landscape all the more luscious, and the temple seems to rise like a vision as weapproach it. Its appearance is so unexpected that, in spite of the ticket booth, I almost believe Rosemary and I are the first modern people ever to climb thishill. I still expect a Greek temple to be white, but this one is quite definitely pink, a golden-hued pink. I take my time, relishing forest, meadow and mountain. It’s late in the day, so there’s no one here but us, and there’s a haunting feeling of loneliness. This mountain-side was once the fierce city of Segesta, and the temple, built in the fifth century BC, was first restored at the end of the eighteenth century. The vista changes as I circle, the landscape framed differently by successive pairs of massive but graceful columns.
The next morning we head out for Cave di Cusa, where the stone for the temples at Selinunte, Segesta’s rival city in antiquity, was quarried. My idea of a quarry is a pond in New England cut steeply from granite, and as we walk a meadow carpeted with wildflowers, gnarled olive trees evoking the past, that’s what I look for. And then we come upon a massive drum of stone set in a clearing, which I realize is a section of column. Birdsong and the silence make it seem so innocent in contrast to its enormity—its height and width much greater than I am tall. No excavation has been done here, the guidebook tells me. Beyond the next olive grove, I find a fluted column still within the envelope of stone from which it was being mined. All work ceased one morning in 409 BC when stoneworkers, startled by the thunderous sound of the Carthaginians’ invading army, dropped their tools. The city fell in nine days, sacked and burned to the ground, its people sold into slavery.
It’s hard to summon images of carnage when the bleached golden ruins of Selinunte come into view. Recon-struction did not take place until the late 1950s, so Margarett would not have seen the temple gorgeous against a blue sky on this grassy hill. On another rise, just a few columns emerge from massive rubble, as if the temple were awakening from a sleep of millennia. As we tour the skeleton of a vast city, I imagine crowds of merchants and shoppers and, at the almost intact Sanctuary of Demeter Malphoros, worshippers carrying tiny votive images of the goddess, examples of which we’ll see the following day in the archaeological museum in Agrigento.
At Agrigento, ruins of temples and an ancient garden crown a hill, now a park called Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), from which you can see the modern city, built from the same pinkish stone. Margarett posed for a now lost photograph at the Temple of Concord, the most complete of the structures, and as I approach, I picture her between its columns, tall and dressed in black. I spend hours there watching the light change on the ancient stone.
Our second morning, I rouse myself at five, leaving my sister asleep. “I saw them in many different hours & lights,” Margarett had written of the temples. Driving in the darkness, I am startled when the Temple of Heracles, a sequence of columns at the summit of the hill, blazes into view, still illuminated, orange against the black sky, the moon silvery and small. Leaving the car, I breathe in the cool air, standing there as dawn opens the sky to blue, the hills turn bright green and, their artificial light suddenly turned off, the columns fade to golden pink. If I can just hold this vision—“ever changing temporal geometry,” I write in my notebook, “against an eternity of sky.”
Taormina, said to be the most romantic place in Sicily, was on Margarett’s list, and I have chosen it for our last two days. A legendary seaside resort, it offers a heart-stopping craggy shoreline—one offshore island is called, simply, Isola Bella, “beautiful island.” In the distance is Mount Etna, the still fuming volcano that had its most serious eruption in 1669 and was known to the ancients as the forge of Vulcan, the god of fire.
After settling in at the San Domenico, a hotel built as a monastery in the fifteenth century with a view of the water, we visit the Greek theater, built into the side of a hill, the sea flashing azure in the distance, the columns of the stage framing what would have been a magnificent view of Etna, had it not been fogged in. It wasn’t until dark, when I slipped out onto my balcony to take in a breath of the fragrant air, that I saw evidence of the volcano, the distant orange of molten lava through the dark. “A jagged scribble of fire,” I wrote in my notebook, feeling suddenly the surge that comes when my imagination hooks up to a possible image.
I wondered what Margarett would have been thinking seeing these same sights. She never resumed painting and never had another exhibition during her lifetime. I’ve known that forever, but here, now, after a life full of the satisfactions of writing and teaching young writers, thinking about her life makes me terribly sad. This image of fire may not turn up in my writing, but I know that I will find my way again to my desk and to the wonderful silence that tells me I’m going to start another poem or write another book.
Etna is still fogged in the next morning when we take an exploratory walk down the Via Bagnoli Croce toward the ocean, only to stumble upon an unexpected marvel: the public gardens. Set overlooking the sea, the park is a maze of cedar, palm and exotic plants, and its pathways are a mosaic of multicolored pebbles. Half-hidden are Victorian follies, small houses for picnics or tea parties, constructed of bits of lava, stone and architectural fragments that reprise Sicily’s heritage: the Greek, the Arabic, the Roman. Exotic ducks swim in a tiny pond, and a flock of green parrots resides in one of the follies. When I step out to the palisade, I can almost see Margarett gazing at the changing light of the Mediterranean. “Nothing equalled the day I left,” she wrote, “when the sea looked like a maddened opal—still & wild simultaneously. Everything excites me so superbly here . . . ”
Driving away from Taormina, I know I will someday return to Sicily, if only to see Mount Etna freed of its shroud of fog. As I left the hotel, I asked a man with an iPhone to e-mail me a picture if the mountain became visible. When I arrived at the Rome airport and turned on my BlackBerry, there it was! Against the bluest sky, Taormina in the foreground, was Mount Etna blanketed with the whitest snow, looking nothing like the volcano I’d imagined when I’d seen those flames in the darkness. 

Honor Moore’s Sicily
Getting there I flew to Rome, and from Rome to Palermo on Air One, then returned via Catania. To get around Sicily, I rented a car (europcar.it) in Palermo, returning it at Catania.
Where to stay In Palermo, check out the Grand Hotel et des Palmes (despalmes.hotelsinsicily.it). Wagner completed Parsifal there. It has just been renovated, and it’s an easy walk to restaurants, shops and sights. If you go to Selinunte, consider Villa Sogno (sicilybedandbreakfast.villasogno.it). Rooms are small but amusingly decorated, and there is a pool in a lovely garden of olive and citrus. In Agrigento, we stayed at Fattoria Mosé (fattoriamose.com), an organic farm complete with a beautiful chapel. The farm harvests olives, citrus, pistachios, almonds, fruits and vegetables, and has been in the same family for 200 years. When in Taormina, book the San Domenico Palace Hotel (sandomenicopalace.hotelsinsicily .it). But note that food there is not as good as at the profusion of local restaurants.
Where to eat Even though my trip wasn’t about the food, eating in Sicily is an experience not to be missed—the fish and produce are spectacularly fresh. In Selinunte, reserve a table at Baffo’s Castle, Castelvetrano. I had delicious “pesto Siciliana”—basil, tomato, olive oil and a touch of tuna. If you visit the temples of Agrigento, check out Kókalos, a lovely restaurant that serves wonderful fish. In Taormina, try La Botte Trattoria, which is a short walk from the San Domenico Palace Hotel, and order the delectable pasta con aglio e olio, which is accented with very thin slices of red and green pepperoncini. —H.M. 
 
Honor Moore’s book The White Blackbird is now out in paperback, as is her memoir, The Bishop’s Daughter.  

For pictures from her trip, click here.

First Published Wed, 2009-10-14 12:48

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