What a brilliant Sicilian morning we arose to! Quite possibly the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean pours itself into the skies above, thus creating the azure canopy that greeted us. Whatever - the morning sky was mesmerizing!
Just as we finished munching on a fine array of breakfast choices provided by the hotel (and shared with about 1,000 bees out on the deck -- "So that's why no one else was out here!!"), our friend Rossana from the northern Italian town of Cremona, her niece Greta, and Greta's boyfriend Alessandro arrived. They would be joining us for this week of exploring a slice of Sicily: the first time here for them, as well. Greta and Alessandro spoke little, if any, English, so our acquired Italian would sure get a welcome work out!
Sal and Winnie joined us shortly thereafter, and a little caffè and chat concluded with plans to journey southwest to the ancient theatre and temple in Segesta.
Segesta's recorded history begins in 500 BC, but archeological evidence points to an earlier settlement called Egesta which was established by the Elymians, one of Sicily's indigenous cultures. Experts believe they arrived on the island from Asia Minor somewhere around 1200 BC. By the time the temple was built pre-460 BC, the Greeks had assimilated themselves with the Elymians.
Author Vicenzo Salerno writes a great little article on this topic, which also includes an interesting blurb (at least to us history geeks) on a DNA study tracing the origins of 21st century Sicilians.
The arrival area for visiting the temple and amphitheater provides free parking, the usual row or two of souvenir hawkers, and ticket sales just outside the building hosting a pretty nice snack bar and gift shop.
Getting to the amphitheater is the more challenging journey that requires a somewhat steep hike up Mt. Barbosa where the theatre is perched. Our group split into hiker and bus rider factions to work our way up, and I must say that the hike was well worth the sweat and cardiac output.
Views were spectacular as we wound the curving gravel trail upward -- occasional palms stood guard over a variety of grasses and ground coverings, all sporting the golden tan of late summer. The "eeeee-eeeee" of the cicadas sang marching songs as we gazed and awed at the changing live mural of cottony clouds making shadow puppets on the hill sides. I stopped to take a close-up look at the small white "buds" that decorated the grasses like pearls on a choker. But wait! They were snails - thousands of small white snails, or babbaluci, clinging for life to every piece of plant they could ooze their way up on! Sal later told me that they ate a very similar snail during his growing up years in Brooklyn. "Mom'd buy baskets of them, then boil them. She'd make an oil and garlic sauce and we'd pull them out with toothpicks and pop them in our mouths. I never liked them too much, though."
I took Sal's word for it, quickly canning any notion of snail sushi as an added "experience".
Marveling at the ground my feet trod over, I couldn't help but think of the millennia of people who'd walked this very path 500 years before Christ entered this world; an establishment of souls lived here, worked here, fought here, died here. Other than buildings now melted into time, was it much different on an early fall day? These experiences humble me; our time to be present on this earth is a mere moment, and these actualizations ignite a vividness of this in such a remarkable way.
As we crested the mountain top, various ruins lay about, well marked with signs explaining the known portions of their existence. It's believed the Elymian-Greek culture gave way to Roman rule, which eventually gave way to Arab, then Norman rule. Finally, what was left of the town was abandoned in the 13th century, and historians believe many of the occupants eventually wound up in Castellammare del Golfo, a then-thriving port town (and a current really cool -- and still pretty thriving -- marina town!).
Stepping over the edge of the mountain that doubles as the back of the amphitheater, I was taken aback with a sense of wonder, for lack of a more descriptive word that might come to me later. This beautifully preserved theatre, smallish by Greek theatre standards, lay like cupped palms, beckoning the traveler to sit, to partake in the moment, whether it be 400BC or October 2014. The Mediterranean sky for its ceiling and a dramatic landscape panorama for its backdrop, this theatre cradled multitudes of moments that celebrated humanity. And here I stood, later I sat, in the very place, under the same sky, enjoying the same vista of land and sea. I could almost hear the ages unfold - music, comedy, tragedy, laughter, applause - people celebrating being alive.
And yes, I walked to the very center of the stage and stood, imagining the players that shared this spot. I twirled once or twice. I so wanted to burst into song, but managed to contain my enthusiasm, as well as spare the embarrassment of my friends!
I overheard a little boy who summed it up quite well for all of us present; "This place is so cool! Can we stay a long time?"
The day was wearing long, so we made our way back down. Opting for a bite or two before we headed to the temple, the temptations found in the snack bar were multitude! Where to begin??
Alessandro was nearby and gave me some advice on the purchase of a traditional Sicilian munchie called anrancini , which actually means oranges. There's nothing remotely citrus about these delicacies other than their shape and color, but they certainly bring a Florida sunshine smile to my face. I chose the ragu style arancino - a nice little scoop of ragu (meat sauce) tucked inside a ball of rice which is then blanketed in breadcrumbs....and fried. Not found on the Adkins plan most likely, but really delicious! We also split a hunk of pizza, then nibbled on another new-found local food called caponata - a kind of relish made with eggplant, tomatoes, celery, olives, pine nuts, and maybe some basil. It's Arabic in origin, and no one will look at you funny no matter what you slap it on. It was even a staple at our breakfast buffet!
Sinfully full, it was time to take the trek towards the temple of Segesta. Not nearly as long a walk, the path upwards again evoked the "those who went before" thoughts and feelings that seem so tangible in places such as this.
Erected some 450 years or so before Christ, this temple was never completed. The columns were never fluted; a roof was never added; the juts of stone that were used to support putting blocks into place were never removed. Why? No one knows for absolute certainty, but the abiding theory is that the townsfolk wanted to impress the Athenians, who they hoped to gain military assistance from. They figured they'd better make good on their claims of being a wealthy city; thus, we need a big, bad temple, dude! I don't think it worked, however, and Segesta was ransacked again by the next wave of ner'do-wells.
However, the builders of this majestic temple have been vindicated in the end; this is the finest and most complete example remaining of a Doric style Greek temple. All 36 original limestone columns are in place, and the collective grandeur truly awes the beholder.
We were struck, too, by the pristine and natural surroundings of this place. Surely it sits as it must've upon its introduction to the ancient world. Elegant flora, choruses of birds, whirring bugs, and a wafting breeze are the backdrop for the visitor today just as they must've been for visitors in antiquity. It's a moving experience.
Paula A. Reynolds
Lover of travel and life's many other blessings!