On a still, muggy morning in the first week of August, we crammed the car with bags and suitcases and set off down the autostrada, direction South, just as the sun pushed its way over the horizon.
We had somewhere in the vicinity of nine and a half hours on the road ahead of us – more if we factored in all the inevitable Autogrill coffee stops and greasy panini wolfed down in parking lots and that hour we spent stopped, bumper-to-bumper, just outside of Salerno – an entire day where we would do nothing but watch the scenery evolve as we inched our way down the map. Out of Lazio and through Campania (Vesuvius looming on the horizon, fresh mozzarella di bufala for sale outside gas stations), through a tiny slice of Basilicata (tree-covered mountains, feeling of wilderness) and into the depths of Calabria (indecipherable accents, intensely spicy salami for sale in the Autogrill), all the way down to the town of Villa San Giovanni where ferries leave day and night to cross the Straight of Messina over to Sicily.
The line to get onto the ferry, accessible only after zig-zagging through the entire town, took many, many times longer than the actual crossing, which was so short that there was barely time to get out of the car, file up towards one of the passenger decks and catch a glimpse of Messina’s sun-baked tangle of concrete looming up directly in front of the boat before turning around and heading down to the car.
And then we were on land again, back on the road, curving our way down the coast towards Siracusa past the combination of gorgeous towns, decrepit 1970s concrete developments, glimpses of ridiculously blue waters and sweeping views of grim industrial complexes that, packed together like this, could only mean one thing: Sicily.
That’s the thing about so much of Sicily: It’s incongruent. It’s confusing. It’s the beautiful layered on top of the ugly; the sublimely stunning next to the stunningly unsightly. If you’re not careful, if you go in without knowing what to expect, it will give you whiplash.
Our arrival in Siracusa felt like a study in stark contrasts. To get to its beautiful historic centre, Ortigia, isolated on its own little island, we had to penetrate the urban sprawl surrounding it, navigating through narrow, cracked streets and nonsensical traffic circles with exits protruding at strange angles, all clogged with heavy traffic. The buildings all looked dusty and dated – not dated enough to be historic or even old, just dated, the worst of the mafia’s control over the building industry left to age poorly under the harsh Sicilian sun – and there was nothing about the place that would convince you that it was actually one of the most well-known, sought-out parts of Sicily. And then, suddenly, you’re hurtling over a low-slung bridge, fishing boats are bobbing on either side of you and the briny sea air is coming in through the windows, and there it is: Ortigia. The historical centre of the city, the part that makes up for everything else surrounding it, the part that makes you go, oh, I get it as you take in the soft textures and graceful decay that make up the city.
We stayed for a week, renting an apartment on the top floor of a building just a few metres away from the sea. From the terrace, I could look out over the jagged orange-tiled rooftops until they met up with deep blues of the Mediterranean, and I could also look down into the narrow street below, a quiet street, the kind that gets more old women dragging market carts as traffic than scooters or cars. Across from the apartment there was an abandoned building, centuries old and sprouting greenery from odd places, missing all of its floors inside and the railing from its balcony but still somehow looking graceful. Next door to it – those Sicilian contrasts at work again – was a luxury boutique hotel, windows gleaming, stone scrubbed until it looked uncomfortably new.
Every morning – early, before sunrise, before the heat and humidity could build themselves into something intolerable – I ran a couple of loops around the island, passing the sleek row of massive yachts docked in front of a stretch of swanky bars, then, a few metres later, the rough jumble of wooden fishing boats and ropes and nets; a bunch of guys yelling in Sicilian and selling seafood out of plastic buckets on the sidewalk. By the time I reached the apartment again, the sun was pushing its way over the horizon and flooding everything with gold. Later, showered and famished, I’d head out again; a couple of passes through the city’s small but vibrant outdoor market (because I visit markets the way an art lover might visit an important museum), then off to a nearby bar to sit in the shade with a coffee, a still-warm brioche and a glass full of icy, slushy almond granita while the city woke up around me.
And then the day would progress, and, because August in Sicily is no joke at all, there were really only two options: Find an air conditioner and stay under it for as long as possible, or decamp to the beach. Because we did not drive nine and a half hours to sit under an air conditioner, the beach won easily. Alessandro’s friends – a handful of Sicilians and a couple of Romans, all very well-versed on the beaches of this particular corner of Sicily – took care of the details; the booking of fleets of lounge chairs and umbrellas as close to the sea as possible during a time of the year when everyone in Sicily wants to be as close to the sea as possible.
Although the coast near Siracusa is dotted with beaches – perfectly acceptable beaches; nice water, nice facilities, nothing wrong at all – we somehow found ourselves driving for the better part of an hour each day to get to the beach, a spot that ended up being so far-flung that it felt like we dropped off the map entirely. Leaving Siracusa, after the tangle of traffic and too many roundabouts, after the city eased into low-slung concrete-heavy outskirts and then faded away entirely, there was the autostrada, which amounted to less of a freeway than a poorly-paved strip of increasingly large potholes and the occasional skeletal-looking abandoned toll both. Leaving the autostrada, the road swerved down towards the town of Pachino, dusty, strangely empty and almost incomprehensibly ugly, and then cut through a long stretch of agricultural land, parched fields and metal-framed greenhouses (for those famous Pachino tomatoes) whipping past the windows and old farm outbuildings dotting the horizon. Nothing about the area inspired confidence, nothing suggested that a beach worthy of an hour’s drive was lurking just over the horizon.
But just as I thought we were thoroughly lost or destined for disappointment, the car made a series of sharp turns that took us farther and farther away from the main road; past towering fences spray painted with faded little arrows, onto a sandy lane barely wide enough for a single car (giant prickly pear cactuses closing in on either side) and into a makeshift parking compound manned by a very chubby child authoritatively wearing a very fat money belt. And then, trudging over a searingly hot sand dune: paradise.
The scene felt like a mirage – golden sand, a few neat rows of lounge chairs with thatched-roof umbrellas, a bar, hammocks… and the most alluringly transparent blue-green sea, the kind of water that compels a person to spend hours on the road. The southernmost tip of Sicily, where you can gaze out over the Mediterranean and imagine Africa just over the horizon. The extreme south.
And as I stood there with my feet in that incredibly transparently water, taking the scene in, I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing seemed that much better not despite its surroundings but – at least in part – because of them. That the beach seemed more exotic, more appealing, after navigating through sun-baked nothingness, that Ortigia seemed that much more spectacular and that much more relaxing because you had to break through a layer of cement and confusion to get to it. The beautiful parts of Sicily would be beautiful on their own, but against their worn, broken backdrop they stand out just a little bit more. Extreme south, extreme contrast.