In the Footprints of The Leopard

“The coachmen were walking the horses slowly around to freshen them up before watering, the lackeys laying table-cloths out on straw left over from the threshing, in the oblong of shade from the building. Luncheon began near the accommodating well. All round quivered the funereal countryside, yellow with stubble, black with burnt patches; the lament of cicadas filled the sky. It was like a death-rattle from parched Sicily at the end of August vainly awaiting rain.”

The Leopard, Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

 

Bisacquino, Sicily

Sequestered amongst the parched patchwork of Sicily’s barren interior, Bisacquino is the sort of village that can only be stumbled upon. No one ever sets out to see Bisaquino, mostly on account of the fact that there is nothing there to see. Its greatest charm is its timelessness, the sense of its being a place which has slipped through the cracks of modernity.

There are only two bars in the village, which face each other from opposing ends of the central square, Piazza Triona. One to the easternmost side, the other to the west. On the northern edge of the square squats la chiesa madre, an impressive limestone church in the Sicilian Baroque style from 1713; on the south, an unfortunate 5 storey concrete apartment block that is entirely incongruous to its surroundings. In between stands an ornate marble fountain, as if in mediation between two parties of an unhappy and ill-matched marriage.

The village itself is set about halfway up the side of an awkward feature of topography which sits somewhere in the liminality between large hill and small mountain. Accordingly, Bisacquino sits at an angle, as if tilting over the pastureland and vineyards beneath.

The westernmost bar in the piazza, Caffe Triona, is, arguably, superior on account of its slightly greater altitude and the views that it commands of the church, the fountain and the gentle undulations of yellow and green which roll away behind towards the next, prettier village of Giuliana. The easternmost bar, whose name I neither noticed nor remembered, sits for most of the day in the shadow of the piazza’s aberrant tower block. Both are modest, functional, low-ceilinged places; the bartenders carry themselves with authentic disinterest, but maintain the characteristically Sicilian propensity towards acts of absurd generosity. Both offer the standard selection of wine, beer, arancine, gelati and cannoli that seem to be on offer in every other Sicilian watering hole.

The easternmost bar, however, boasts a claim to its own small but certain foothold in European literary history. It is at Bisacquino that Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina and the eponymous Leopard of Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s renowned 1958 novel, stops for the third night of his arduous journey from Palermo to Donnafugata, the grandiose ancestral home of the House of Salina. Troubled by the winds of change as the Italian Risorgimento gathered momentum, the Prince of Salina, nickname The Leopard, realises he must adapt to the times or risk the demise of the established feudal order which had prevailed in Sicily for centuries.

The building which now houses the bar on the eastern end of Piazza Triona had once upon a time been a guest house, and it was here that “the Prince had found thirteen flies in his glass of granita, while a strong smell of excrement drifted in from the street and the privy next door”.

Or so the story goes. This was what I was told by my hosts during my time in the Sicilian interior. They were a genial couple who seemed to take a not insubstantial amount of pride in recounting the one detail of their daily reality which had been caught up in the dragnet of history, their home and way of living fleetingly reflected on the pages of a great work of literature.

In truth, there really is no way of verifying that it was in this building that the great Prince slept and picked flies from his granita. A close reading of the book itself yields little evidence of this being so. To my mind, this is unimportant, a mere quibble, insofar as the story has now ossified into a local truth, and provides yet another layer of varnish to the already thick coating of culture, history and folklore that frames Bisacquino’s ancient landscape. As the Leopard says, “Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily; a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished.” It seems the most natural thing to cling on to vestiges to the past as a source of coherence in the present.

The Long Way Down

I spent 10 torpid days at Bisacquino. We languished through the long afternoons in a large country house beyond the edge of the village. Time slackened under the suffocating heat and blinding brightness of the Sicilian sun, the only audible sounds being the occasional breeze washing lazily over the endless stretches of golden wheat and through the stripped avenues of vines that decorate the gently rippling hills.

Whilst our rented home was not possessed of even a fraction of the grandeur of Don Fabrizio’s ancestral palace, Donnafugata, which was flattened by American bombs in 1943, our journey from Palermo to Bisacquino had been comparable to the Prince’s in terms of arduousness. After touching down at Palermo airport towards midnight, our first glimpse of island life soon became farcical and testing.

The car hire centre was due to close twenty minutes after we landed, and on arrival we discovered that there was an unavoidable deposit of over 1000 EUR; more than the combined bank balances of three hapless and unemployed recent graduates. As we grappled with the horrors of Sicilian bureaucracy in a bid to prise the keys of our rental car from the tight fist of the surly padrone behind the desk, we were to receive an ominous foretaste of our nightmare journey from Palermo to Bisacquino.

A few emergency phone calls later, our dues duly paid, we were handed the reins of our noble and intrepid steed; a three door FIAT Punto. With only the large scale map printed on the back of the car hire centre’s leaflet for reference, we struck out for Bisacquino under a brilliantly bright Sicilian moon, cruising down the coastal highway with the familiar surge and rush of freedom charging the air, along with the beauty of knowing that we didn’t know where we were going.

The road to Bisacquino stopped being a road a few miles after we left the motorway. As it turned out, we were underprepared for what had nominally seemed like a two week holiday in the sun, and we had greatly overestimated the quality of Sicily’s infrastructure. Whilst the Leopard had had only a horse and carriage to contend with roads of a presumably similar state of disrepair, he had also had the benefit of local knowledge, of which we shamelessly had none. The combination of heavy rains and the hardness of the heat-baked soil meant that whole sections of the one lane road we were following through the mountains had been washed away. Left behind were uneven stretches of gravel and dust that our little car was woefully ill-equipped for.

At first the road had been a dream, a smooth, winding pathway across a landscape lit by cold moonlight. We didn’t really know where we were going, but so long as we were heading south and were guided by the occasional signpost, it didn’t really matter. So long as the road was like this for the rest of the way. But as the journey dragged on and the road deteriorated, it became necessary at regular intervals to jump out and guide our nominated driver (the only one of us with a valid driver’s licence) through the least treacherous route across each gargantuan pothole. And with each pothole that became harder to traverse came the rising anxiety; at some point we would reach an impasse, a stretch of road that our Punto would simply refuse to cross. Then we would be stuck somewhere in the Sicilian hinterland, in the heart of mafia land, miles from the closest settlement, no phone coverage, no water, no food, no map. So much for a holiday in the sun.

Arrival party

We made it out alive. Apart from the familiar sound of the Punto’s underside scraping against the tarmac and gravel as we bounced over the rough terrain, and an incident where we reversed squarely into a stone wall, the melodrama soon subsided and we reached Bisacquino without our fears of being stranded rearing its ugly head. What Google maps had told us would be a two hour journey had taken five. In our minds, we had already forfeited our deposit on the rental car, regarding it as little more than a justifiable Sicilian tax on the stupid.

As we pulled into Piazza Triona at five in the morning, we were greeted by two Carabinieri clutching uzis, duly demanding to see our passports and to know what we were doing there. Their attempts to carry themselves with aloof and commanding officialdom soon crumbled as it became clear that they couldn’t control their curiosity towards us, these three twenty-something Englishmen pulling into their sleepy little village in the early hours of the morning.

They began to ask more and more questions about who we were and where we had come from, I replying as best I could in my halting Italian. Where did we live in England? Had we been to Sicily before? Why had we chosen to come to Bisacquino? As one of them was telling us with pride of his brother, who worked as a chef in a restaurant on Piccadilly, our hosts arrived in the piazza. They had graciously agreed to meet us despite our delay in order to give us the keys and to guide us to the house we had rented. We said our goodbyes to our carabinieri friends and drove the five minutes to the house. On arrival, we each crawled into bed, cutting loose the excitement and novelty of our new surroundings.

The Sin Which Sicilians Never Forgive

Our time at the house, as mentioned, was characterised by inertia and a sluggish decadence. The days soon took on a familiar rhythm, as they will when you have nothing to do, centring around wine, food and the parching intensity of the sun, the absolute monarch perched on his throne.

This was a time of total uncertainty for me. I had recently completed my degree and was now poised like a diver on a precipice, preparing myself to take the plunge into the real world of routine and work after four years of suspended reality. The horizons of my little world were shifting dramatically, and I had very little idea what I wanted to make of it. I simultaneously craved the validation of a ‘successful’ career and the freedom that comes with having little to no responsibility, the possibility of being on the move rather than chained to a routine. Above all, I wished I could crawl back into the warm womb of indulged studenthood.

Bisacquino gave me ample space to ponder these things, as the Leopard had pondered the advent of a changing social order in Italy. I concede, of course, that there is only so far I can make comparisons between my having to grow up and get a job, and a Sicilian prince reacting to the reality of political change, but the parallels struck me nonetheless. Above all, one line rang out clear and true to me at that hinging point, as true of the personal as it might have been of the political; “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Departure

Time vanished, like water evaporating under the midday sun. On the last day, our host, Francesco, a kindly maths professor at the University of Palermo, offered to take us into the centre of the capital to see the town before our flight back to London. We eagerly accepted his offer and departed down the inland highway in close pursuit of his large Jeep.

Francesco had assured us that he would take us back via a different, more circuitous route, using only the tarmacked main roads, rather than the dirt tracks by which we had arrived. As it turned out, his conception of a main road was at odds with our own, and we still found ourselves contending with long stretches of gravel and pot holes that resembled bomb craters.

Yet anyone who has ever found themselves in a car in central Palermo at rush hour will know that grumbles about the quality of the roads are laughable in comparison to the  chaotic fury of that coastal city. A daily commute must somewhat resemble a head long dash through a rock fall, such is the intensity of the traffic and lack of coherence to the eyes of an innocent and unsullied Brit. Francesco seemed unfazed by it all.

Again though, we made it; we even made it without a single scratch to the car. Parking in the courtyard of Francesco’s apartment in the centre of the city, we set out on foot and spent a few hours doing what tourists do – marvelling at magnificent baroque cathedrals, eating granita in the sun by the harbour, those kinds of things. Hot, dirty and hectic in a charmingly Mediterranean way, Palermo’s allure is in its unending frenzy, in the very same way that Bisacquino’s is held in its backwater tranquillity.

The hour to leave was fast approaching and we decided to head back and complete the last stretch to the airport, perhaps leaving enough time for a couple of beers to calm any pre-flight nerves. But we soon realised that Sicily was not prepared to give us up that easily; the island had us in its grip and was holding on. Some slapdash Palermitan had chosen to park in the narrow entrance to the courtyard of Francesco’s apartment building. We were, for the foreseeable future, blocked in.

Laidback Francesco, realising that this could potentially cause some trouble, quickened his pace slightly. He began to ring the buzzers of the apartment building, speaking in a hushed and rapid tone into the intercom. A couple came out hand in hand, glanced at the car and shrugged, before strolling out into the busy street. Francesco’s attempts to track down the owner of the offending car were becoming more and more frantic with each passing minute.

Finally, after an hour of phone calls and tortured waiting, a man emerged from the building, strolled up to the car with indifference and disinterest, hopped in and sped away. The exit to the courtyard was now open to us, but Palermo’s streets were thick with traffic like arteries clogged with cholesterol. Our departure from the city was becoming painful, and the possibility of missing our flight becoming a critical reality. After two weeks of torpor, time tautened again and became urgent.

We eventually broke free from Palermo’s pull and found ourselves speeding up the coastal motorway in the direction of the airport. Less than an hour remained before our flight departed. As a vivid sunset of orange and magenta lit up the sky over the sea to the west, my mind wandered and I assessed the potential options open to us should we miss the flight. Perhaps Francesco would put us up for a while. Money would be a problem. Would it really be a problem? Wouldn’t that be what I wanted? An adventure of some kind? It would be more desirable than the desk job that was surely awaiting me at home sooner or later, but it wasn’t sustainable. I realised that I would have to adapt or decay, and accept present realities. I found myself hoping I’d catch our flight.

We reached the boarding gate with ten minutes to spare. It hadn’t quite been the mad sprint I had envisaged an hour before, but there was some frayed nerves nonetheless. I’d like to say that I felt quiet and pensive, that I was solemnly preparing myself for the uncertainty that was waiting for me at the other end, for the challenge of finding a job, of adapting to a changing world.

But I wasn’t. What I was really dwelling on was that despite our cross-country adventures, our faithful car had made it to Bisacquino and back, and despite a collection of bumps and scratches, the real miracle was that the car hire centre had returned our deposit in full. As I boarded the plane I promised myself that next time – and I hoped that the next time would be soon – I’d at least buy a map before I arrived.