In my last post, I described how I have been laid low with back problems. I’m now sorry to report that my progress towards recovery has been extremely slow, and that accordingly I haven’t been doing terribly much in the last fortnight. Although I have learned that there is an upside to Parkinson’s Law: and, since I’ve decided I can’t face the long journey to visit parents, they will be coming to us for Christmas, so I now have a Christmas dinner to plan, which should take up quite a lot of time, and stop my project management skills from becoming too rusty.
In the meantime, remembering the happy days when I could make it further than the local shopping centre (soon may they return!), here is some travel writing for you, an account of an incident from my holiday to Sicily a few years ago:
Sicilian road designers have an approach best described as whimsical. They enjoy creating motorways with no road markings, changing speed limits at random, and leaving important turnoffs entirely un-signposted. And sometimes, they try to kill you.
I was staying in Ortygia, the old town of Syracuse, with my then-boyfriend (since upgraded to husband). We were there for a week to absorb some culture, and it was our last day before moving on to Taormina and the more beach-focused half of our holiday. Before we abandoned ourselves to sunshine and beer, we decided to make one more cultural excursion: to the necropolis of Pantalica. Part of the Siracusa world heritage site, a rocky gorge honeycombed with over 5,000 prehistoric tombs from the 13th to the 7th centuries BC.
Getting to the nearby town of Sortino should have taken about half an hour, if the satnav was to be believed. It actually took an hour, as the satnav sent us on a ridiculously twisty and steep mountain road, while the road layout and signage were up to the usual standards. The highlight was probably the roundabout where all four exits were signposted to the same place.
Eventually we made it to Sortino and had the fun of navigating the one-way system. As in all Sicilian towns, they like to send you down the narrowest streets and cunningly don’t put any signs at crucial points. At one point my boyfriend had to reverse into a blind junction after he realized he’d gone the wrong way.
But once he got us onto the right route, finding the gorge was very easy. The map showed the road, the Via Pantalica, heading southwards out of Sortino and then over the gorge. This is not, however, quite accurate. In fact, the road stops abruptly at the edge, with nothing but a small wooden fence between you and an exciting but messy Thelma-and-Louise-style death.
You can see the road continuing on the other side of the gorge, but the bridge is missing. Evidently they never bothered to build it, but the mapmakers thought it would be entertaining to put it on the maps anyway. And I’m not just talking about out-of-date road atlases; it was clearly marked on the satnav. Fortunately, we spotted this in time to stop short of the cliff’s edge, but in darkness, or heavy fog… I would not be surprised if the prehistoric graveyard contains a few more recent corpses.
As we made our way down the footpath the sky was ominously grey, and soon we could hear rumbles of distant thunder. But sunny weather would have ruined the dramatic atmosphere, for Pantalica is a place both spooky and spectacular. Steep rocky walls on either side, pockmarked everywhere by the tomb entrances, the rushing of the unseen river far below. The tombs are extremely simple in design, just square holes cut into the cliff, each one only just big enough for a couple of bodies and maybe a few grave goods. There aren’t any fancy carvings or paintings or flying buttresses or ornamentation, no cherubs or crucifixes. After the ostentation of some of Sicily’s other sights, like the baroque daydream of Noto, or the mighty temples of Agrigento, they seem stark, primitive, almost clumsy. But there are thousands of them, all over the gorge, whichever way you look, cut into even the most inaccessible-looking bits of rock.
The overall effect is of rugged, primeval grandeur, a memento mori on a grand scale. Further on there is the remains of a Byzantine village. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live in this place, surrounded by the remains of a distant, unknowable culture, a constantly looming reminder that all things must pass.
But Pantalica isn’t depressing, rather deeply impressive, humbling. It touches something inside, with an experience at once remote from everyday life and somehow fundamental.
We didn’t linger long. Not because we were bored, but because the thunder soon grew closer and it started to rain. The kind of rain which starts off light, but then rapidly becomes biblical. We ran back to the car and headed off, enjoying our narrow escape from both death and drenching, determined to find a better route back to Ortygia, and, although we didn’t talk about it, quietly haunted by the ancient necropolis.