Last Tuesday, we left Palermo and drove along the coast to the Western tip of Sicily to visit Erice, (which is pronounced erichee) a medieval town on top of a steep mountain. We heard about the pagan gods, Venus, god of love and the church's conversion of the temple to Christianity after the Norman Kings took over Sicily. We climbed stone inlaid steep streets, heard Mauro sing with a local accordion player who arrives with his horse and cart and performs for coins.
We drove another forty minutes to an Agrotourism restaurant which was an amazing experience. We ate well, drank lovely wine grown from grapes we saw growing on the vines. The veggies were wonderful, grilled and or fried in home grown olive oil. I bought a pint.As some of the group hiked, we put our feet in the swimming pool and let the van driver get us back to the bus. On the way, we passed a Doric columned Greek temple, and the hikers. I got out of the bus and walked the rest of the way down with them..Another 45 minute drive to the hotel in Mazala where we had a so-so dinner and saw the lovely mirror pool, where we will swim tomorrow afternoon after out visit to the Kasbah.
A word about the food experiences so far, before I forget. On Monday in Castelbuono we had a delightful lunch of many different mushrooms, prepared with olive oil and spices. The others had a bread pudding which was the chef's mother's soup recipe, but since it is made with cheese, I did not have any. They had panne cotte for dessert. I had a cinnamon flavored jello.
And now for our experience in Mazala del Vallo. There is no valley, but the name Wadi which means district in Tunisian Arabic was mispronounced and kept for posterity. Mazala has a talented mayor who is a ceramicist and had decorated his city with so many tiles, sephoras and designs, it is colorful and descriptive. We saw the satyr, a bronze statue which was rescued from the sea after so many centuries after the Greek Hellenistic period and now, preserved, flies in a museum here. Then we visited a few of the 100 churches in Mazara before we entered the Kasbah. It was described as a laborynth that kept the early Tunisians, and Moors safe from marauders by its design. Once inside I saw a Via Guidecca and a ceramic design and plaque by the mayor who described a praying wall on the eastern side of the alley where there is now a bas relief ceramic sculpture as well. The plaque insists the Jews desired to live here, they were not forced to do so. Italians have no recollection of ghettoes before the Nazis forced Jewish people to be quarantined in ghettoes. Originally, of course, the king invited the Jewish people to come to their country and provided separate quarter for them, so they felt safe. Remember they were artisans and money lenders, so the fear was always about robbery.
We were guided by Moustafa, a local Tunisian who explained that since the 1960's Tunisians have come across the 120 miles to Mazala to settle in this now depressed area because it is cheap. There are about 1800 Moslems among the 50,000 Mazalanos today. They have a mosque without a minaret or a dome--no political power. We had lunch in an Arab restaurant. We ate cous cous with veggies and sea bass with cous cous, plus appetizer dips with bread triangles and dessert cookies which looked like fig newtons, but were made from cous cous flour and filled with dates. Tonight we have a Sicilian cooking lesson which we then will eat.Last night's dinner at the hotel was memorable for its negative qualities. Not recommended by anyone.Before dinner we visited a ceramic shop where I bought a Hamsa serving dish, which is a pain in the neck to pack in my suitcase, especially since we will spend one night in an agritourisme hotel where we re asked to pack in our backpacks and to leave our suitcases on the bus.
About OAT I have nothing but praise.The trip has been well organized to present the history of Sicily from 872 with the arrival of the Moors, a smattering of prehistoric invasions by the Phoenicians which we will see tomorrow, the arrival of the Greeks supplanting the Moors and the Normans invading from the north conquering the Greeks. We have hints of the Spanish control of the country for many centuries prior to the Unification of Italy in 1860 which did not help the Sicilian farmers who wanted control of their land from landowners who owned it since feudal times. It seems to me the Mafiosa were the middle men between the landowners and the peasants. They ripped off everyone by charging extortion money which enriched them.Meanwhile the peasants were able to make some money on the crops they raised and the absentee landowners collected their rents, minus a percentage to the Mafioso.
About the guide, I have already written my approval and delight. About traveling without a companion I still have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have my privacy which, with OAT I would have even if I chose a friend to travel with. Taking advantage of their "no single supplement " policy is wonderful. I also have responsibility only to myself. I don't have to save someone a seat, look out for someone else' s welfare and at our age, their health. On this trip, however, everyone is paired off except for Ruth and me and Ruth is much younger than I and has no wish to pair with me. I can choose to be with Ann and Lyn whenever I wish or with Louise and Felicia who are New Yorkers and in my age group. Connie and Sam are also possibilities. They sat with me at breakfast this morning.
Dinner with the chef was delicious, but the chef, who imagines himself a actor wannabe was a bit over the top.He pretends not to speak English well, makes jokes, flatters the ladies, etc. but the food we made was good. I was on the thin crust pizza committee, complete with anchovies, pecorino cheese and a tomato sauce which was already prepared. We had eggplant lasagna, mine was made separately without cheese. We made tagliatelle pasta in a hand grinder, the sauce was made with fresh tomatoes, red peppers, onions, blended not cooked . The dessert was made of sheep milk ricotta cheese and almonds. Mauro promises to send us the recipes.
Wednesday was the day for discovering the history of the Phoenicians in Sicily. We drive to the salt collecting ponds at the side of a natural lagoon formed by islands off the coast of Sicily on the westernmost side of the island. On one of these islands, called Mozia, an Englishman arrived, purchased the small island and began to excavate. His name was Whitacre and he found amphorae, small vases. When he died, he deeded his house to Sicily and it has become a museum. Sicilian and Roman teams have dug up the remains of city walls, burial sites, sculptures which document the occupation of this island for several centuries. They were defeated by the Greeks. We also visited the salt collecting museum with its hand operated salt grinder. The boat rides on the lagoon were delightful.