Tuesday, July 31

wwoofing in sicily

Born with one foot in the paddock, I was keen to spend some time working on a farm in Sicily as part of the WWOOF Italia program (willing workers on organic farms). In return for a day's work, volunteers receive food, accommodation and a chance to experience regional family life.  From a varied list of small to medium farms I selected a five hectare property called La Casa delle Acque  (the house of the waters), in the fertile foothills of volcanic Mount Etna.  Like most farms, it has its share of rusty "treasures" in the yard and ongoing projects in various stages of completion. An old brick kiln is waiting to be restored and the shed is half finished, but the original villa has been brought back to its former splendour, and is a majestic pink landmark against the backdrop of deep green orchards and a smoking Mount Etna. 

Summer is quiet time on the farm, with only myself and two Italian male woofers in residence. The days were hot and dry, with the solstice dusk stretching long into the evening, encouraging the ferocious mosquitoes to linger. During the winter citrus season, at least 15 volunteers chip in to help harvest oranges, mandarin, lemons and grapefruit varieties that are exported throughout Europe.

The owner of the property, Nirav, is the president of the Sicilan arm of wwoof Italy and a passionate advocate for organic and biodynamic agriculture principles.  The kitchen produce garden follows a "wilderness" model where weeds cohabit with mixed herbs and vegetables, and one of my jobs was to help Nirav lay new irrigation pipe around the vegetable beds.  Each evening I would pick a bowl of lettuce, rocket, basil, tomato and figs, and toss a big salad to accompany pasta, home pressed olive oil, and fresh wood fired sourdough bread.  The boys would have a tumbler of wine and several chunks of cheese at dusk, then start to prepare dinner at 10pm, sitting down to their meal around 10.45pm; a schedule I found hard to mirror. 

From late nights comes a sleep-in, and the fellas would wander into the kitchen just before 8am to grope for the coffee moka pot and tear off a hunk of fresh bread. Daily chores would follow - feed the assorted fowl, weed, sweep, clean - with Nirav giving directive for specific jobs. The main program for my stay was clearing the weeds from the citrus grove and re-establishing irrigation gullies to each tree. 

The slopes of Mount Etna are terraced to the valleys below, and permanent water flows in a time-honoured system of concrete and terracotta channels over 800 years old. Each farm is allocated a watering day and via a series of movable floodgates, the flow is diverted to flood each individual terrace. To assist the passage of water horizontally from the central channel I had to hoe a ditch to each tree, then watch with satisfaction as the trickle widened to quench the soil and inundate the terrace. As one level was flooded I would move upwards, closing the gates behind me and effectively pushing the water backwards. No sprinklers required.      

Thursday, July 26

castelmola, sicily

Hovering above Taormina, and wrapped around the summit like a nest, is the quaint village of Castelmola. It is crowned as one of the "most beautiful villages of Sicily", and it certainly indulged my vision of the quintessential Italian mountain town.  My life in the flat lands may provide fine beaches, palms and vineyards, but it is sorely deficient in castles and contours.  I arrived from Taormina on the first bus of the day and was free to amble about the lanes and climb over the thirteenth century castle ruins before the day trippers arrived. My top tip is to bus up and walk back down hill; don't be fooled into the reverse on a summer's day.  The view is impressive, there are wild figs along the way, and if you are lucky you will round the corner and be met by an empty coffin.   

Wednesday, July 25

taormina, sicily

Taormina, in the eastern Sicilian province of Messina, has been inhabited and fought over for millennia and the present town  is a tourist hot spot for good reason. Its beauty, climate and history has captured the paint and pen strokes of many prominent figures over the centuries; Goethe exalted its beauty in his book Italian Journey long before Lonely Planet, D.H. Lawrence found poetry in its cobbled lanes and Truman Capote was inspired to pen prose one fine autumn.  Krishnamurti may have felt the magnetic resonance of the mountain's lei lines, but I was pulled by the lure of the patisseries, cafes and flower boxes in the steep pedestrian only side streets.   

I stayed at B&B Agon; very convenient and friendly accommodation opposite the train station on the southern edge of town. 

Tuesday, July 24

sand castles in the air

The steep terrain of Taormina dives into the clear water of the Ionian Sea, and at a narrow neck of land joining the nature reserve of Isola Bella to the Sicilian mainland is the free "beach" zone. The calm water and rocky shore is more reminiscent of a salty lake than an ocean experience, and the water was on the frigid side of tropical. Childhood fun is more about building cairns than sandcastles. Nearby are a number of sandy lido complete with the necessary paraphenalia for an Italian beach outing. I was yet to be versed in the etiquette of such formal beach visitation and so stayed clear for fear of committing a social faux pax.  I have since learnt that even on a paid beach the narrow strip of sand along the high water line is fair game. The Italian Union of Bathing Establishments (yes, there is such an organisation) states in the beach code that fat and ugly women should not bathe topless, that mobile phones should be silent to avoid waking napping neighbours, and that children should not take up "half the beach" with their sandcastles. So sit down on your rental chair, be quiet and look pretty. 

vespa love

I have an enduring love for Vespas and had visions of cruising the back roads of Italy on a smooth red number, with a spotted scarf trailing in the breeze and the cares of the world far behind me. Considering I spent half my time in Venice this was perhaps an unrealistic dream.  I only saw one for rent on my travels, and as I'm used to paying a paltry $5/day to rent a scooter in Bali, the €60/day fee put me off. I decided to settle for a Vespa hat pin and a few photos.  But next time...the scarf is ready.

Saturday, July 14

free hugs & sicilian bananas

Lonely Planet opens by saying : "More of a sugar-spiked espresso than a milky cappuccino, Sicily will reward you with an intense bittersweet experience rather than anything lightweight and frothy." This is an apt description of my introduction to Catania.  Many elegant baroque buildings are neglected and worn; their muted render scarred by graffiti and black grime.  It's a city that is lived in; a working, breathing centre that merges history and modern commercialism without pretence. 

I stayed in the Globetrotter Bed & Breakfast and can recommend it as a quiet, central and comfortable place to stay.
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