Sicily – down on the farm

The guy at the car rental desk didn’t say ‘forget about it’ once, which was disappointing. This was, after all, the land that spawned mobsters and, ultimately, The Sopranos. We’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and, on occasion, been victims of the minor scams that proliferate in and around car rental agencies. Sometimes it’s been difficult to shield oneself from the national pastime of adding little ‘extras’ to the bill like refuelling, booking or administration fees, drop-off charges that weren’t mentioned when you made your reservation or, as I’ve just read in an exasperated forum post, the cost of two replacement wheels. In Sicily it was autostrada tax, which isn’t a great cost and wouldn’t be so bad, I guess, if the money was spent on improving the roads. It’s not, of course. But the island is huge so despite there being a cute rail system between the main points you need a car if you want to get off the beaten track.

We had rented the smallest car available – an essential asset where streets are narrow, parking is impossible and most of the oncoming vehicles are on your side of the road – before setting-off for a little agriturismo near Siracusa. The route from Palermo through Termini Imerese and Catania is autostrada all the way to Cassibile. There wasn’t a lot of traffic but as we bounced and swayed our way down the uneven surface I became increasingly convinced that either one of the distracted drivers hurtling past me – I was driving at 130kph or so – or a hidden pothole would inflict catastrophic damage on our already battle-scarred banger. The roads really are in a very sad condition, but then a lot of Sicily looks a little threadbare. I read that public works tendering is unprincipled in Sicily; that once a contract is let for a road project it’s sold on to a lower bidder then sold on again so that the work eventually ends up being undertaken for a fraction of it’s real worth. The autostrada felt and looked like it had been constructed with cheap cutlery.

Once I’d lifted my eyes from the road, however, the landscape provided expansive, sun-bleached vistas. It was parched and pretty much given over to cultivation so it was interesting and not interesting at the same time, so to speak. Then, as the terrain broke up and became steeper, the hill towns of Enna and Calascibetta came into spectacular view; a perfect place for a break and a perfect chance to take in, for the first time, the unique essence of Sicily. We drove up to Calascibetta and sat in the square beside local residents – Enna gets the tourists – and lunched on panzerotti [bread filled with vegetables], a glass of vino rosso and our first gelato. It was so pleasant in the shade of the huge trees – I didn’t realise at that early stage of our trip just how rare an experience that would prove to be in Sicily – that I barely stirred as a Short-toed treecreeper paraded in front of us.

Andrea Corso had recommended we stayed at Pozza di Mazza and we got there just as the afternoon turned golden. It was all pan and barrel tiles, stone walls and terraces in the open. The rooms were airy, the pool excellent and the quiet, green garden immediately delivered a Black-eared wheatear.

 

 

I am just going outside and may be some time…

…or a walk around the village…

After mild weather in Scandinavia that produced only a token dusting of snow I expected to find England balmy, full of birdsong and our woodland carpeted in snowdrops. And so it was for a few days before tentative forecasts of snow began to surface. Despite spring being in the air we were told to expect arctic conditions that would bring life as we know it to a frozen and ice-bound halt. I’m a sceptical sort of chap and take such warnings – the Met Office issued an Amber alert – in my stride but found myself glancing at the horizon to see if the distant spires of Cambridge were disappearing, Mordor-like, under dark clouds.

As the weather front approached us Heathrow Airport cancelled first a third and then half its flights; the BBC warned of icy conditions, road closures and probable accidents; concerned spokespeople wrung their hands in angst during hastily-arranged interviews as they implored us to pay extra attention to our elderly neighbours and the wireless advised us to stay tuned to our local station for weather updates. The tension mounted and the weather dominated the news – reporters ‘live’ at a silent Heathrow and various points around the country gazed upward into clear skies and down at deserted roads as they explained how serious it was going to be. When temperatures began to drop I wondered if I should I head over to our 24-hour Tesco store and stock up with essential provisions but worried that, if the snow hit, I might become trapped in a nightmare world of clueless staff, special offers and tasteless cheese. As Sky News reported that the snow had started falling in the north and was moving south we lit candles, turned up the heating and drew the curtains in what were probably futile gestures against the forces of nature.

It snowed during the night. At least 10cm lay on the ground and the biggest problem I faced was negotiating around the neighbour’s kids’ snowman on the way to pick up my croissants. Ben and Emily came in for hot chocolate later and, somehow, against the odds it seems, we all managed to survive without the aid of the emergency services.