Tuesday 18 August 2015

Tonnara di Scopello

'When I first came to Scopello I thought only that it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen,' wrote Gavin 'Ring of Bright Water' Maxwell in the first chapter of The Ten Pains of Death. When we first came there in June, I knew nothing of his time at the tuna fishery headquarters just below the settlement of Scopello di Sopra, Upper Scopello, in the north-west of Sicily. What drew us were friend Cally's lyrical paeans to the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro, just under two kilometres from Scopello along a dead-end read and a natural paradise with seven kilometres of coastline undeveloped save for a line of pylons and several simple settlements (plus a good deal of land behind it). Of which more anon, though I want to declare, and show, immediately that from the upper coast path, that certainly is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen (but there are so many!)

In the long term, the knowledge of Maxwell's time in Sicily during the late 1950s triggered off a fascination with a notoriously difficult and complex individual, one certainly worth reading about in Douglas Botting's biography, with its prose as clear and eloquent as Maxwell's own but also an excessive coyness about its subject's homosexuality (time for a new study). Now is not the place to write about it, except to note that one of this infuriating but - if only at the end of his life as recounted in the biography - rather lovable man's many dishonesties was not to so much as mention his key to the wonderful series of locals' narratives of which The Ten Pains of Death consists.

You'd think from it that Maxwell was a fluent Italian speaker; he wasn't, and even if he had been, he wouldn't have penetrated the Sicilian dialect. His lifeline was a young barber's apprentice referred to in Botting's biography only as 'Giuseppe M' - why? For reasons of political safety? - 'who with Gavin's support and encouragement was to rise to become a radical political leader in...Palermo'. When this brilliant supporter - and lover, perhaps? - needed Maxwell's help the most in later years, taking the brunt of the offence they had caused the powers backing the Mafia in their first book together, the writer - beset, it's true, with more than his usual tranch of self-made troubles - cut him off.

What needs to be asserted, then, is that 'Giuseppe M' wrote most of the book, or rather that it is his interviews which were translated into English, and yet he gets not a mention; the dedication comes 'with profound affection and sympathy to the common people of Western Sicily, who know the ten pains of death'. It is their chronicle of suffering and courage, a common portrait in which the church and state come off very poorly indeed (in what I presume was Maxwell's ordering, the immediate contrasts between the prostitute and the nun, interviewed no doubt by Giuseppe, leave one in no doubt which of the two is more honest).

No doubt Maxwell's sympathy with the people was genuine, and his book - along with its predecessor, God Protect Me from My Friends about the bandit Salvatore Giuliano, which I have here to read next - gave a richer and more frank portrait of Sicilian peasant life than any other.

How things have changed since then, first with the economic boom of mainland Italy finally reaching southwards in the 1970s and '80s, then with European Commission funding transforming towns and villages, and the fear of the Mafia finally lessened (though of course that spider is far from extinct). Scopello is a case in point (above: a table in the main square. The main Bar Pasticceria, which bakes its cakes above the shop, is so perfect that one wonders how the sad bar opposite ever does any business). When Maxwell visited it Scopello di Sopra was semi-deserted:

Until a very few years ago there were some three or four hundred people living...[there], but because they nearly all had relations in the United States, or Canada, or Brazil, or Australia - (and, if the truth be told, because many of them had bettered their lots by smuggling contraband into Scopello tonnara) - the greater part of them decided to escape from the squalor of life in Sicily and have emigrated. Now there are only some 50 people left, and they too dream for most of the time of escape [later Maxwell explains that most houses are deserted because the emigrants never sold them, hoping to come back one day - which, it seems, many did].

There is a little piazza of crazily uneven paving-stones and loose boulders, with an unadorned stone fountain at its centre [the fountain, against a wall, was being renovated and under wraps when we visited]; above, the bare stone mountains climb steeply into the sky [night shot from the village follows]

and below, the land tilts abruptly seaward. Already, when one leaves the last of the scarecrow houses and begins twisting one's ankles among the big loose stones of the track, one is on a gradient of one in four; looking back, one is aware of having skirted a cliff upon the very lip of which Scopello di Sopra is built (below, the crag above the Tonnara boathouse).

And immediately one is looking down on the sea a mile below [sic: surely much less than a mile - that would be Ravello to sea level on the Amalfi coast, and that takes hours to reach from the coast], a sea of purple and blue and peacock green, with a jagged cliff coastline and great rock towers or faraglioni thrusting up out of the water as pinnacle islands, pale green with the growth of cactus at their heads.

Now there's a ticket office in the daylight hours at the top of the track leading down to the tonnara. I couldn't work out from my ticket whether it's privately or state owned, but you can stay in the palazzo where the owners lived. The tonnara, used by the Arabs thousands of years earlier, ceased functioning in the 1980s, and when Maxwell stayed here, the season was the worst for many years, forcing him to change the theme of his book. I'd love to return and stay right on the sea in May or October, but even on a mid-June weekday the place was very busy with bathers and swimmers.

I still loved it, and the bathing in the brilliant blue and emerald water was a delight, because you just lower yourself in from the harbour and there's no need to wade out for further depth. J didn't want to with so many folk about, but snoozed pleasantly in a deckchair under the solitary tree with one of the many cats for company.

Later we both swam at another beach along the coast. It was the end of the day so the rather hilarious Italian pop blaring from the beach hut soon left us in peace.

Our accommodation started badly: the warmly-recommended La Tranchina was full, and I'd found a small pensione in the village. It would have been fine, if a tad cramped, had the air conditioning worked. But it was broken and who knew, said the slightly melancholy but pleasant owner, when the engineers would come from Palermo. Since we'd had a sleepless (until 4am) night sweating with the small window shut because, when opened, the noise of other air conditioners was even worse, we moved headquarters to the simple and spacious hotel round the corner, the Torre Bennistra, one of two with magnificent views along the coastline. The other, La Tavernetta, had a charming hostess and our favourite restaurant, looking both ways, not least towards the celebrated bakery where we bought our rich lunches for walks in the Zingaro, Pane Cunzatu.

Its neon sign below the crescent moon is rather flash for Scopello, which is mostly rather quiet and fortunately unexpandable (I hope and pray, but the geology surely wouldn't permit growth). Though things were livening up, and the cafes filling with Italian men in Godfather-style black suits,  for two weddings on the afternoon of our departure.

We managed two big-ish walks, hikes, call them what you will, in the Zingaro. On a morning when the few spots of rain and grey skies, seen here from the hotel room balcony (so yes, we finally got a sea view),

quickly cleared, we made our way to the park entrance. The history is an unusually heartening one for Sicily, especially in the 1980s when I first visited on an Interrailing trip - east coast, Lipari and Stromboli - and found everyone so dour compared to the mainland Italians. A coast road was proposed from Scopello to the bigger resort of San Vito lo Capo on the northernmost tip of the peninsula. Six thousand environmentalists showed up to protest in May 1980 and the result was Sicily's first national park, opened the following year.

The lower path, even in mid-June, was as busy as the standard Cinque Terre route. Compared to the upper route, its sea views were modest, but looking upwards past the small palms to the heights gave it a different grandeur.

It was a fiercely windy day, so much so that I didn't notice the sun getting at parts which I hadn't suncreamed up properly (result: burnt upper arms and legs). So the sea off the many idyllic little beaches which should provide stopovers was too rough to swim in. I loved the dramatic (and deserted) Cala Marinella where we had our Pane Cunzatu and fruit, though.

Limited geological knowledge gives me only very basic information about the folds and striations which make yet another case of nature outstripping art: the fundamental rock formations of the Zingaro are dolomitic calcareous of 'mesozoic limestone'.

Several lizards with green backs, fearless and obviously on the hunt for tourists' breadcrumbs, added to the wonder of the composition:

After lunch, J made his way back along the lower path and I climbed towards a collection of refuges in a nicely greened zone called Sughero. The ascent was gentle, opening out on to highlands with outcrops of calcereous rock contrasting with what I assume was reddish sandstone.

The vegetation was sparse, and tantalising route markers illustrating a wide variety of orchids suggested it would be good to come a month earlier, but still I found quite a range of plants I could identify and many I couldn't. On the rocks, spotted or clustered with orange lichen, were a type of sempervivum

and some of the lichen was plant-like in itself.

Cistus still flowered in between the sporadic holm oaks

and once descending past the outcrop of the Pizzo del Corvo at about 400m

those strikingly blue eryngiums I've also seen on the dunes of north Norfolk began to appear.

To complement the colour, it was here and only here on two occasions that I came across a number of exquisite small blue butterflies. You only see the eyes, not the colour, when they're at rest on plants:

I think this is angelica flowering with a view up a valley which would make a good start to a different circular walk on a future visit

Now the views back towards the Scopello peninsula open up

and you pass a farm with beehives

before the long descent back to the visitors' centre, with farmland the other side of the boundary fence beyond the park (which of course had also been cultivated as far as it could be before it became a reserve).

Lower down there's Euphorbia arborescens, which is supposed to have shed its last red colours in April, but here they still were.

and the long thryrsi of agaves formed the occasional strong foreground to the coastal scenery.

The walk along the tarmac-ed road is no great hardship, since some of the villas are nicely planted with the oleanders you see everywhere in Palermo

and wilder nature still makes itself felt.

So to the delicious evenings of showering and supping, with the lights changing from pink on the mountains over the bay

to a deeper sunset looking towards Monte Passo del Lupo in the Zingaro heading towards San Vito lo Capo.

Romantic, yes, very; and this wasn't a bad choice for an umpteenth honeymoon, a very specific one just after the wedding on 15 June. I know now that Sicily is a project to explore for the rest of my life. I'd already caught the bug on our last visit, after many years away; now it's truly biting. But then there's Iceland, and India, and...


Susan Scheid said...

Truly spectacular, and I am saving it for future reference in hopes we can make our way to Sicily before too much more time goes by. On the subject of coast walks, what a fairy-tale story you related, and so heartening: "A coast road was proposed from Scopello to the bigger resort of San Vito lo Capo on the northernmost tip of the peninsula. Six thousand environmentalists showed up to protest in May 1980 and the result was Sicily's first national park, opened the following year."

David said...

Spectacular it was, and going through the photos restored peace to the soul, as well as making me realise how much we took for granted at the time. Just to let other readers know that Sue has been blogging about the dismal lack of access to the shoreline in Maine. We agreed that we're very lucky in the UK. And of course the Zingaro is the exception rather than the rule in Sicily - the road from Palermo runs right by the water's edge, and there only seem to be undesirable shacks lining it for the most part.

Simon Bell said...

David – this is absolutely fascinating. Really makes me want to go! Very compelling descriptions.

David said...

And I return the compliment by repeating how much I still want to go to your Moroccan retreat at the foot of the Atlas Mountains.

Mary said...

Wonderful, David. Your descriptions and the colours are mouth watering. That sea.........

David said...

Grazie, Signora Amorosino. Ponza sounds like a must too, though I'm getting too exclusively devoted to Sicily and planning more excursions. Might get round the island in two decades or so.

I wonder what makes the aquamarine patches that colour. Plankton? A certain type of sea grass was one suggestion. Or just sand between rocks?