After a day of downtime, we drove up from the caravan park on the coast to Linguaglossa, north-east of Mount Etna, where we were to meet up with Nuccio and Carmelo. We parked Nettle by a park in the town, and were shortly joined by Nuccio, with warm greetings all round. Nuccio drove us around the corner to pick up Carmelo from his car dealership premises, and we headed off (feeling strangely low to the ground in Nuccio’s car, incidentally!).
We drove north-west through some beautiful scenery, and by some amazing ancient towns perched on hillsides, buildings almost sitting atop one another. We headed into one, edging along the narrow cobbled roads by very old stone buildings and stopped for a quick espresso.
Our first destination was by an ancient bridge on the beautiful bright blue Alcantara river. Only one arch of the original bridge remains, the rest having been destroyed in WW2 (by the Americans, of course — interesting being in a country that was originally on the other side!). The remaining bridge segment was built of hand-hewn chunks of lava in an Arabic style — an example of the influence of Arabic culture here.
Nuccio and Carmelo took us on a walk upriver a little, Nuccio translating into English for Carmelo, pointing out plants along the way and explaining how they were used — an aniseed-like plant that was in the sausages we had the other day; a plant that makes a good cold remedy when brewed as tea.
The river itself runs down a bed of lava: A long time ago, lava from an eruption ran all the way down the old river bed to the sea. The river has once again claimed its course, and has eaten down into the lava leaving some impressive formations.
We drove on for a while, and stopped by some run-down looking residential buildings. Nuccio pointed out an abandoned, empty lot, fenced off, with some rubble, and explained one of the more surprising issues the locals face, and one which answered a question we’d pondered for a while.
They way I understand it, the Italian government have a law that says if anything of ‘historical interest’ is discovered on a property — and around here, you only have to scratch the surface almost anywhere to find something of historical interest, such is the rich history of the place — then the property must immediately be relinquished into the custodianship of ‘the people’ (the Italian government), for the protection of whatever’s there. There’s no compensation to speak of for the now ex-owners: they lose their land and that’s that, even if it’s been in their family for generations.
That’s bad enough, but regulations state that before any alteration or development is begun on a property, the property must be first inspected for historical significance. Given the huge risk involved to a property owner — the loss of their property without any kind of compensation — of course, the result is just that no one alters or develops.
Renovations, building, and maintenance are all included in this law, so even if you want to repaint the door, you have to go through this process. During the earthquakes that came with Mount Etna’s 2001 eruption, Nuccio’s mother’s ancient house was damaged and in danger of collapsing. With the house in danger, and without time to go through the bureaucratic process, she quickly organised some local builders to reinforce sections of the house. Just a couple of days later, the police appeared and demanded that the ‘illegal’ reinforcements be removed. With no other choice, she complied, and the house was destroyed soon after in the next earthquake.
The less-extreme effects of this law are apparent everywhere — run-down buildings, desperately in need of painting or reinforcement, derelict blocks of land, abandoned buildings. Because renovation or maintenance comes with the fairly high likelihood of losing one’s property, no one does it, and so historical buildings fall into disrepair and many towns have a poverty-stricken look. Remarkable.
Nuccio and Carmelo led us down a path that led by olive groves and past many enormous cactus plants. They explained that the cactus leaves make a good haemorrhoid remedy; Apparently, quite frequently Nuccio will write a prescription, and his patients will laugh and say no thanks, they have their own remedy.
Carmelo pointed out a plant called ‘Bagolaro’, an Arabic tree highly valued by the locals for its ability to break up lava. After a lava flow claims some land, one sprinkles Bagolaro seeds over the lava, waits for a surprisingly short time (I can’t quite remember if it was a couple of years, or even just six months — but not long), and the fast-growing plant will put out roots through the lava and break it apart, eventually making the land usable again.
We were continually amazed and impressed by their knowledge — traditional expertise the like of which we just don’t have in Australia unless you’re Aboriginal.
Carmelo spotted a tree that bore large red fruit that he thought we should try, and Nuccio hurtled into the bushes to pluck a couple for us — ‘royal fruit’, which were very juicy and sweet.
They led us back to the Alcantara river, a different stretch where the river has widened out, broken up by a series of falls and rapids, and bordered by greenery.
On the way down, Nuccio was telling us about an incident towards the end of WW2; the finer details escape me, but the crux of it was, German soldiers in the area had demanded to be fed by the impoverished locals. Embattled, the locals barely had enough food to feed themselves, and when they were not sufficiently forthcoming for the Germans, the Germans started massacring men, women and children. The things people do during war…
So, we crossed a footbridge over the opaque and startlingly blue water and rock-hopped our way upriver a little. Carmelo’s wife had considerately made some delightful cake that morning, and he had brought some along — so, we sat on the rocks and ate cake, while Nuccio pointed out a chasm in the side of the riverbank, down which water flowed to no-one-knows-where.
On the walk back up, Carmelo spotted some fruiting cactus by the path, and cut some fruit off for us to try — mildly sweet and with a texture a little like honeydew or less-juicy watermelon.
They took us next to the Alcantara ‘throat’, a gorge through which the river ran, lined with a strange rock formation that reminded us strongly of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and was probably formed via a similar process. Unfortunately the throat was closed since some earthquakes rendered it unstable, but with a little scrambling up rocks aided by Nuccio, we were able to get a look in. Were it still open, it would be a great place to swim during the warmer months.
With time getting away from us, and with Nuccio needing to start a shift at the hospital soon, we headed off. On they way, they pointed out a number of impressive ancient churches, several in the Spanish style, and even Arabic-esque designs. One was actually built into a cave in the side of a cliff.
The number of different cultures that have had their impact on Sicily are very apparent — everyone who was anyone has invaded this place at one time or another: The Greeks, the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Arabs, the Normans, the Spanish…
There was still time to take a quick driving tour through Giardini Naxos on the coast, through — that would be the influence of the Greeks, this time — and past Isola Bella (“Beautiful Island”, of course).
There was a car rally coming up later in the week (the Taormina-Messina rally), and Nuccio invited us to join him — we delightedly agreed, and made plans to catch up then.