Friday, 19 February 2016

The multiple realities of Marsala

Tuesday, 16th February 2016

I've been thinking a bit about motorhoming as a mode of travel. I can see why people either love it, or would hate it. You could take a cruise, it would certainly be more luxurious and more relaxing, everything would be done for you. There are definitely more stylish ways to have a holiday, you could rent a beautiful villa or stay in a 5 star hotel somewhere fabulous. If getting into the wilderness is your thing, then unless you invest in a 4x4 beast of a van, then you are never going be more than a 10 mile trot from the nearest asphalt. Whole swathes of planet Earth will be inaccessible to you, due to political unrest, peculiar vehicle import restrictions, mud roads or the limited availability of Thetford Green toilet solution. 

So, given all these provisos, why do people love motorhoming? Well I can only speak for myself, and I think it's the variety of the experience that I like and the strange mixture of the marvellous. mundane and mysterious that each day brings.

Take today in Marsala, the historical centre is marvellous, remodelled in the 18th Century like so many Sicilian towns. The Baroque towns to the east, Ragusa, Modica, and Noto, were rebuilt in the years following a devastating 1693 earthquake. The buildings are outrageously curvaceous, it's as exuberant a version of the Baroque as you can imagine. Here, in Marsala, the style is a little more restrained, with a classicising tendency. Some of the palazzi on Via Undici reminded me of French aristocratic town houses like you find in Montpelier or Nancy.

A Baroque church, but not so curvaceous as those in the east of the island
The Palazzi  are quite classically proportioned.

The balconies more restrained.

I loved the shadows and the sparkling water, and the lovely Gill!

Gates in the style of Triumphal arches guard the ancient city.

Within the gates, narrow streets lined with grand palaces

Not everything is from the Baroque era - this fabulous 1930s cinema stands just beyond the wenst gate.


Marsala's wealth results from the discovery of its robust wine by an Englishman, John Woodhouse, in 1773. He realised that when mixed with Brandy, it could rival Sherry, and provide an alternative supply to provision the Royal Navy whose officer class could only rule the waves if suitably fortified by an after-dinner digestif. This led me to construct a hypothesis that these Northern orientated mercantile influences were responsible for classicising elements in the architecture, whereas, elsewhere in Sicily at the time, Church and Aristocratic patronage predominated and produced more energetic Baroque buildings in line with Counter-Reformation orthodoxy. It's a neat theory, but then I realised that most of these 'restrained Baroque' edifices actually predate Mr. Woodhouse's discovery of the wine. However, why should awkward facts get in the way of asserting a tin-pot theory? Politicians and Murdock journalists never seem to be troubled in the least by having to base their assertions on actual evidence.

Anyway, the charms of Marsala are not really about its impressive buildings. The bus service from Camping Villaggio Lilybeo is somewhat infrequent, consequently we found ourselves on the only morning service at 8:50am and wandering through the ancient heart of the town a few minutes later. At first the streets were semi-deserted, then they filled with elderly men who stood around in groups chatting - as much with their hands as their voices. Many, I realised, were only a little older than me, but dressed soberly, and somewhat formally, with perfectly polished shoes and beautifully knotted ties. The scene in Piazza Della Republica as morning Mass spilled-out took on a cinematic quality. I felt like an interloper from a different age in my somewhat scuffed jeans and a Fat Face hoody.


The louder the chat, the more animated the gesture.


The congregation following morning Mass takes time to put the world to rights afterwards.
A sign by the Fish Market tells you they have been selling the daily catch here since the 1560s. You sense tradition is taken very seriously around here, at least by the older generation. 

Fresh fish here everyday since 1569!



A group of girls, perhaps in their mid teens, passed-by. They were raucous and fooling about, dressed no differently to other young people across the West. I suppose we are of a generation who tried to shake-off parental restraint and think about things anew; that, and a working life spent among older teenagers means I am drawn to a bit of healthy rebellion. Certainly the graffiti in the archaeological park asserted a distrust of the status quo. 

Sicily is not all about adhering to tradition!

We stopped for a coffee on a street running between the central square and the market. Having just poured a bit of scorn on traditionalism, then I stopped to celebrate the steam punk espresso machine in the place. Revolution is OK in the political arena, but we can't be having an outbreak of modernity where it comes to macchiato. Just because we need to change the world for the better does not mean that nothing is sacrosanct!

Great coffee

Made with pride on a venerable espresso machine

We took his photo - he took ours.

A stylish lunch of local delicacies in  a car park...we know how to live the high life!
However, the marvellous is always couched within the mundane. The area around Marsala is highly populated. One somewhat tawdry village sprawls into the next interspersed with patches of intensive agriculture, not just the famous vines, but all kinds of market garden produce grown in small fields separated by mud-stone walls. These, and the boxy single-storey houses overshadowed by the occasional tall palm give the area an exotic, Levantine look. It was Arab rulers that gave the town its name - Mar'Allah - harbour of God. 

Moving on from the mundane to the mysterious - the no. 6 bus that passes the campsite does a circuit. The mystery is, why does it take 10 minutes to get into town, but more than 45 minutes to return. We tracked our progress back using GPS on Gill's phone. We would approach the vicinity of Camping Lilybeo, get within a few hundred metres, then take off suddenly in a different direction from our destination in Terrenova Bambini, embarking on a journey of discovery through the many delightful agricultural hamlets that comprise the Fractione di Marsala. So extensive were our wanderings that I could have written a short paper for the geography department of Palermo University titled, 'Recent Trends in asparagus cultivation in the Agro-industrial SME sector of Northwest Sicily'. In fact we could have thrown in an extra one on psychology for good measure: 'Suicidal ideation among Italian hatchback drivers, with special reference to the ethnography of acquired capability'. Having both completed our doctorates we were deposited at the campsite gates a little before nightfall. 

After 40 minutes we were almost the only people on the bus

Inscrutable behind his shades, the driver determinedly continued his tour of every agricultural village in the vicinity.
The campsite itself is not without its mysterious aspects too. In many ways it is one of the better simple sites we have stayed on in Sicily. It is clean and well maintained and the service point easily accessible. The pitches, among well pruned olive trees, are big by Italian standards. The owner, Maria, is very hands-on and attentive and is investing in the place. While we were there a mini-digger turned up to start the ground works for a new swimming pool. All positive stuff. The mystery concerns the sanitary block. I have come across showers in the south of Europe before that require developing something of a Scandinavian attitude towards stripping-off in public, with hooks provided outside each shower, and small cubicles curtained off. I don't like them, but I can cope, albeit somewhat reluctantly. 

Curtained cubicles in the communal shower block - not ideal....
Our campsite has taken the curtained cubicle concept to a whole new level, and applied it to the toilets as well. In forty years of camping, that's a new one on me. To appreciate the true awkwardness of this arrangement you need to be a seasoned Mediterranean traveller and understand a little of the region's meteorology. What happens in the early afternoon is that a sharp breeze blows off the sea - they have been given romantic names, like Scirocco, Tramonte and Mistral. Now you can guess what happens in the campsite's curtained toilet cubicles if you happen to be struck by the urge between noon and three. Yes, your enthronement will be in danger of being generally revealed as a sharp gust blows through the block and the cubicles' jolly blue striped curtains begin to waft violently. The cubicles are small, and you might endeavour to maintain some decorum by clutching the lively curtains, but then you are left harbouring an anxiety, 'how exactly am I going to stand-up and adjust my attire?' Maybe you will be in luck, the site is half empty and you may be the solitary user of the facilities....or not.

Nooooo!
As I said at the outset, travelling by motorhome is to embrace the unexpected; will the next moment be marvellous, mundane, mysterious or simply bizarre? Who can tell, and one more thing.. why does the heraldic beast atop Marsalla's ancient gateway resemble a psychotic chicken?

Why?
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