Leaving Trapani proved a little more troublesome than we’d anticipated, mostly because of the downpour that drenched us minutes after leaving the wonderful little Cantina Siciliana, where we’d refuelled in anticipation of an afternoon packed with activity. Just before the deluge began, Monsieur and I had been happily photographing Trapani’s buildings. We dashed between dripping awnings all the way back to the car where we sat for some minutes dabbing at wet faces with inefficient paper napkins. No, we wouldn’t be going to Segesta today. Greek ruin complexes + rain = mega-uncomfortable.
“So what next?” asked Monsieur, somewhat unhelpfully. You see, Monsieur books the flights and I come up with full itineraries of where we go and what we do, including plan Bs in case of uncooperative weather like today’s. I didn’t really have a plan B. Yet. But in a place like Sicily, teeming with interest and culture (and gelato), how hard could it be to come up with one?
This wasn’t to be as easy as I thought. The nearby town of Erice, on cliffs overlooking coastal Trapani (where we now sat steaming up our car windows for all the wrong reasons), would have been an obvious alternative to Segesta. Our guidebooks raved about a couple of pasticcerie, and strange rituals of ‘sacred prostitution’ once practised in the Venusian temple now buried beneath the castle ruins, made us intrigued to visit. Alas, the best part of visiting Erice, which sits 750 metres above sea-level, is the view. Usually, you can see Erice from Trapani. With the current rainfall, the town was completely obscured by low, grey cloud. There wouldn’t be a lot to see in Erice today, besides which we’d eaten far too recently to take full advantage of the town’s renowned cannoli. In summary? Plan A – abort. Plan B – ditch. Plan C? Crikey. Whatever could we come up with now?
In the end we settled on a drive down the west coast to Marsala, home to the sweet Marsala wine. The drive was unexpectedly interesting, taking us along the SS115, which follows the line of the sea. It is here that the salt with the best reputation in Italy is produced, big, white piles of it lining the road, the salt pans lying flat to either side.
Around this point I started my own game of Count the Ape. An Ape (ah-pay) is a small three-wheeled workhorse of a vehicle much favoured by Italians, especially those in rural areas. The typical Ape is a flat-bed in miniature, with room for one person only at the wheel. En route to Marsala we spotted so many Apes that I had to stop counting. Piaggio, the Ape manufacturer, must really like Western Sicily, and I ‘m sure the local salesman does, too.
It was pouring in Marsala by the time we found our way into the town. Some local chaps at a stationery store kindly helped us do our scratchy parking card, before we set off in search of interest. We were only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral, yet getting there took a while in the rain. As we dashed along the side of the Cathedral towards its front entrance, a gush of water from the overloaded gutters above splashed directly onto our heads. Monsieur looked at me with that “Are you okay?” frown, but he needn’t have worried. I was completely sodden now, as was he. All we could do was laugh like a pair of bedraggled hyenas.
The Cathedral itself was a bit disappointing. It was so large and cold that it felt unwelcoming and empty. No, we wouldn’t stay here. Running past the twinkling Christmas tree in the piazza outside, we sheltered in the Caffeteria Grand Italia, in spite of its reputation as a magnet for octogenarians. Apparently all the octogenarians were wiser than we were, sat safely in comfy armchairs at home. A couple of espressi were now required, as was gelato, a small reward for braving the rain.
Once we’d dried ourselves with yet more malabsorbent table napkins, we set off to visit one of Marsala’s museums, but in spite of the posters stating that it would be open, it was firmly closed against us and we were wet once more. So we dashed from shop to shop in an attempt to stay dry. I bought a Tiziano Terzani book in a small libreria, where we were treated like unwanted foreigners until I asked the right question about the right author. Then the shop clerk couldn’t do enough to help me.
The next shop clerk we came across was even more unpredictable. We’d run into a Marsala wine specialty shop, disturbing the sole proprietor who had the malady of mobile phone permanently attached to ear, as shown by the fact that when we’d passed him earlier, he was chatting away and was still now in the state of permanent chat. It must have been a slow afternoon for him because when we entered, he cut the call short and focussed his full attention onto us. Bearing in mind that he looked strangely like Hutch from Starsky & Hutch, only with the deep orange skin of a fake-tan addict, it was difficult to take him seriously. First he tried to steer us away from the Marsala wines which are now owned by big liquor companies, thereby losing their seasonal variance in favour of the supermarket shelf-friendly reliability of mass production. Then he allowed us to taste three or four different breeds of Marsala, feeding us morsels of bread with some of his cupboard wares – tapenades heated in a terracotta bowl over a tealight and a creamy garlic sauce. Our new curly-haired friend was a little too attentive to me, however. He asked me how I knew Italian, so I explained that I’d lived in Venice for a while.
“Ah, Venice. Beautiful place. Have you been anywhere else in Italy?”
“Yes, all over,” I answered,
“So if you love Italy so much, then tell me, how come you are with this Frenchman?” he asked, grimacing unsubtly in Monsieur’s direction.
“Because I love France, too.” I replied, keen to get Monsieur away from perm-head as quickly as possible, in case he’d understood.
We left leery Mr Hutch with a bottle of Marsala, some tapenade and garlic sauce, which we’d started to assemble just before his studliness got out of hand. Paying up we wasted no time in getting out of there. The rain was now subsiding, but we dashed away from that shop and Mr BadFakeTan almost as if the rain were still torrential.
It was completely dark, the roads slick with wet. Now we just had to get back to Palermo. Our map looked straightforward enough, but the route was far from. With a combination of impossible signage, lousy back roads, windy ways and a lack of street lighting, the next couple of hours were to be the most stressful of our Sicilian adventure. When we finally found the way to a decent autostrada, the relief of being back on a well-lit road was truly something else. We wouldn’t be taking the Sicilian motorways for granted again.