Sicilian Easter II [central]: ruins & ruminants, catacombs, spelunking my gracilis, Graves' I, Claudius & the virtues of weaklings

cows olive mt etna

cows & olive trees below Mt Etna


23.04.2011. Resuttano/Caltanissetta, Sicily

after observing the Good Friday processions in Trapani & Erice, we woke up on saturday & drove south by southeast. we stopped in some town called Sciacca to get a coffee in a bar on the harbor, then walked & chatted with some fisherman.

Sciacca harbor

harbor in Sciacca

continued on to Agrigento, the site of the old Greek city of Akragas [& also hometown to Luigi Pirandello]. walked around the old Greek temples admiring the doric columns.


Akragas [Agrigento]


tempio concordia

tempio concordia [polarized]


tempio gionone

tempio giunone

after that we headed inland northeast, towards Caltanissetta, then to a town called Resuttano where we had lunch at the only ristorante probably for miles around. then to our azienda agrituristica [Monaco di Mezzo] which i'm not sure i'd recommend unless you have kids. it's in a great location in the middle of nowhere, which was the idea—we had high hopes of getting away. when we were shown our room it was dark & dank with no windows [nothing like the pictures online], with our door opening right onto a playground full of screaming children. we asked to change but no such luck, it was the only room left. i'm sure me saying «non mi piacciono bambini» didn't help, they just stared at me with horrified looks, like how could anyone not like kids? so we dropped our bags in our dungeon near the playground & took off walking. they didn't really have any hiking trails, so we just bushwhacked through fields of orzo & fennel & wild mustard & as in the rest of Sicily—wildflowers galore.


straight out of the sound of music


flower fields

wildflowers [central Sicily]

we tried to catch some shaggy sheep with little success, so on the way down stopped to visit the farm animals at Monaco di Mezzo [horses, goats, rabbits, chickens, etc.]. this whole idea of agrotourism is something that seems to be abused in Italy. it seems every rural hotel these days flies the banner of agriturismo, when all it often means is 'tax shelter'. there are probably some true agrotouristic places in Italy, where you participate or at least get educated as to the inner-workings of the farm that it is supposed to be operating under the auspices of, not to mention having meals that reflect foods grown or raised on the farm [the food at Monaco di Mezzo was truly marginal, & if anything came from the farm no mention of it was made to us]. & if there are farm animals, it is more likely akin to a petting zoo for children.

goats in chair

armchair goats [more goat pics & video on Goat Rodeo]



a horse, of course


a horse of course


demonic sheep noose

demonic quarantined sheep & noose

my habit of sticking my camera into dark seemingly abandoned structures & flashing photos led to this last one, that i didn't realize until after had some sort of strange devil creature looking back at me, not to mention a noose dangling from a rafter. perhaps this was to be our dinner. thinking the kids might be done playing by evening, we went back to our dungeon to veg out & read but alas the kids were screaming until dinner time, at which time they merely shifted the chaos to the dinning hall. of course we were seated next to the worst of them. not only were the kids screaming & running amok, & the parents yelling back & hitting them, but the table next to us were all coughing & sick. the angry mother kept pacing back & forth behind my chair, both her & her ugly sick child coughing all over me, making no attempt to cover their mouths. it was a living hell & here we were in the middle of nowhere in beautiful Sicily, our immediate space invaded by sick & shitty parents & their out of control kids.

sheep freeway

23.04.2011. [Easter sunday]

headed out on SS120, which used to be the main freeway from Palermo to Catania but now is the scenic route. lots more hilltowns, shaggy sheep, crags & green fields of wildflowers... thru Petralia & stopped in Sperlinga for a coffee. explored the cliff dwellings carved into the rocks [the name Sperlinga deriving from the latin 'spelunca,' which for anyone that's spent anytime caving knows what it means] & climbed up to the castello.


sperlinga castello steps

castello in Sperlinga


sperlinga grotto

cave dwelling


sperlinga view

view of Sperlinga from top of Castello

then to Nicosia, which was a madhouse because of Easter celebrations, nowhere to park. found a restaurant outside of town [la Cirata] where locals & families in their Easter best were gathering for an Easter feast, making for some great people watching. one table had a giant penis sculpture [at least it looked that way from our angle] that people were putting presents under. i forgot to get a photo of it as we were leaving.

as we continued on SS120, Mt. Etna became more & more prominent, snow-capped with an ever-present plume of white smoke coming out of it. we stopped here & there to take in the views. we stopped at one complex of abandoned buildings & were walking around when i saw a loophole through the fence keeping people out. there was a stone wall with a hole in it, that i was able to climb through head first to see what cool ruined buildings lay in the interior. problem was, it was a long & awkward way down through the hole going head first. maybe i was feeling frisky from climbing around the numerous crags, feeling nostalgic as the landscape of Sicily reminded me of places i used to climb in the southwest U.S., or maybe it was a spelunking bug triggered by our stop in Sperlinga, but i decided to try climbing [feet first] through the hole. i high-stepped with my left leg then went to pull myself up when i heard a pop in my groin, like a cable snapping, followed by a hot pain. my first reaction, as is normal for me, was that i felt like throwing up. i walked over to j in a daze, confused as to why i was still walking, not sure if it was shock, or what. then i felt like i was going to pass out. stood around for a few minutes letting the feeling pass, then got in the car & drove on. continued on to the base of Mt. Etna, but i was sort of in a funk the rest of the afternoon.

crime scene

crime scene [ends up you could walk around the fence—needless to say i didn't poke around inside the buildings]


etna farmhouse

another view of many of Etna


thistles & mt etna

went back to the screaming children at Monaco di Mezzo [even more guests because of Easter] & of course we were seated next to the worst family imaginable, not just the sick, screaming kids, but the vile parents that spawned them & let them run rampant like chimpanzees. my immune system was compromised by allergies & now this thing with my leg [by this time my groin was so swollen i looked like i had two crotches] & to make matters worse i felt like i was getting whatever headcold was afflicting these brats. maybe the fact that i was reading I, Claudius had something to do with all these pathetic ailments.

in the historical fiction epic, I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius by Robert Graves, Claudius is written off as a weakling & idiot by all the tyrannical & paranoid members of the royal lineage he was born into. it is this physical frailty, his limp, his stammer & his [perceived] idiocy that enables him to survive all the poisonings & killings that marked the reigns of the first three Roman Emperors: Augustus, Tiberius & Caligula. he wisely uses these physical infirmities & self-conscious patheticness to his advantage, perpetually biting his tongue & playing stupid, allowing himself to be the brunt of the jokes, until he's inevitably dismissed as harmless.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves

& the fact that it's written as an autobiography told from Claudius' viewpoint makes it even more engaging dramatically. reading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a tedious chore & at times a bore. granted unlike Gibbon, Graves has the liberty to embellish & much of it [the details anyway] are perhaps made-up or inaccurate [for example there are numerous references to corn crops in Egypt through the book, when i think he meant to say grain [corn is a new world crop not grown in Egypt or Italy until well after the Roman empire had collapsed]. from what i remember reading The History of the Decline or elsewhere, or reading the Claudius wiki page, most of it seems pretty accurate though. whether certain descriptions of people are accurate whose to say. for example, about his first [arranged] wife, Urgulanilla, Claudius [through Graves] says:

Well, in my life I have had many cruel bad jokes played on me, but I think that this was the cruellest and worst. Urgulanilla was—well, in brief, she lived up to her name, which is the Latin form of Herculanilla. A young female Hercules she indeed was. Though only fifteen years old, she was over six foot three inches in height and still growing, and broad and strong in proportion, with the largest feet and hands I have ever seen on any human being in my life with the single exception of the gigantic Parthian hostage who walked in a certain triumphal procession many years later. Her features were regular but heavy and she wore an almost perpetual scowl. She stooped. [...]

i can't find any depictions of her online except for this seal, & judging from this, perhaps the description is not fiction.


from birth Claudius naturally [& smartly] gravitates to a life of feeble subordination. Polio [an old writer/philosopher that Claudius befriends] is the first outsider to recognize this & encourage him to exaggerate these traits to his advantage if wants to lead a long honorable life: «... exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch your hands on all public of semi-public occasions.» as Calpurina tells him later on: «... people don't kill their butts. They are so cruel to them, they frighten them, they rob them, but they don't kill them

under this guise, Claudius manages to stay out of harm's way, writing history books, virtually unnoticed as Augustus [at Livia's conniving prompting] leaves a trail of poisoned & slain adversaries, including Claudius' own parents & siblings, & then again during the even worse reign of Tiberius. Caligula is a bit more savvy to or suspicious of Claudius' ways though & appoints him consul, keeping him close at hand. Claudius has to become even more clever, obediently allowing Caligula to completely strip him down to nothing, using his wits, quoting the right Greek philosopher at the right time to avoid death, or by inducing Caligula to think of his life-saving ideas as his own, appeasing Caligula in all ways in complete submissiveness, letting the insane Caligula believe that he was a god even. when the masses became restless at the gladiator spectacles Caligula would host, he would leave Claudius, in his quiet stammering voice to resolve the situation, by turning their demands around into confusing philosophical questions to make them forget, time after time using his wits & wordplay to always save the day.

Then from his anvil the lame craftsman rose.
Wide, with distorted legs, oblique, he goes, 

reading I, Claudius was making me question the virtue in being fit or strong, perhaps wearing down my resolve. not that i've ever had strong leadership qualities, mental confidence, or even wit, but i've always prided myself with being physically healthy. i don't usually get sick, but i let these agriturismo sick children get under my skin & infect me. & i've never broken anything in my body [fingers & toes don't count as you can never be sure with digits] but here i was limping around, coughing, snot streaming from from my nose—a pathetic sight. i would've never imagined that you can bruise without even physically hitting anything, but this is what was happening to my leg, leading to the only conclusion that something snapped internally, bruising or hemorrhaging my muscle from the inside out. i have bruises in three spots, in my groin, where i first felt the pain, in a sweeping L-shaped pattern on my inner thigh/hamstring & on the back of my knee. self-diagnosing with Gray's anatomy pictures online [real scientific i know, but i detest doctors] i can only conclude that it was my either my adductor magnus or gracilis that ruptured or was damaged. here's what's left of the bruising [8 days after the fact]. the bruising on the pit of my knee has since faded [again, mind you the bruising or hemorhagging is all from the inside out—my leg never came into contact with anything].

gracilis bruising

if anyone has ever heard of anything to do with this & has advice to give, let me know. from looking around online, it seems the gracilis tendon/muscle is often used for replacement surgeries of other tendons, so i can't imagine it's terribly important in the scheme of things. another reason i think it's either the gracilis or adductor magnus, is because when they describe it's daily use of «pulling the second leg in the car» this aptly fits the one action i have trouble with, like pulling the second leg into bed. i suppose i could switch sides of the bed with j. my main concern is running. i ran yesterday for the first time in a week, though it was more like jogging, with short strides. i am advocate of running through injuries, but also think that if you can't maintain proper form you shouldn't be running. so running injured is fine as long as you stay focused & in no way compromise your form, otherwise you will just do more damage or develop bad habits.

i say all this because these were the things affecting my headspace on our last day in Sicily: the penance of the Good Friday processions we'd witnessed, & now it was Easter [with all it's implications], perhaps this was penance for my hatred of kids, this injury to my previously invincible body, & reading I, Claudius. some days it surprises me how people can get on day to day not sustain more injuries than they do. other days i'm convinced that humans & this planet we live on are invincible. we are at once fragile & resilient. these were things running through my head on the last morning. & we definitely saved the best for last. we circled back to Palermo & stopped at the capuchin catacombs before going to the airport. i first heard about the Palermo catacombs when i was checking out the Paul Thek exhibit at the Whitney last December. evidently Thek was at a crossroads artistically & travelling around aimlessly found himself at the Palermo catacombs. all his Meat Sculpture pieces were inspired from this visit, as well as his ephemeral Hippie [of which now only exists in photos]. his art went through a dramatic shift from that singular event. & to think when he died of AIDS in 1988 he was relatively unknown outside of his circle of friends & very few attended his last exhibit of drawings he made as he was dying...

Paul Thek Death Hippie

The Tomb-Death of Hippie (1967)


Paul Thek at Palermo catacombs

Paul Thek at the Palermo Catacombs

the catacombs that so inspired Thek are housed in an unassuming building in a random suburb of Palermo. first we got a cornetto & cappuccino [they were the capuccin catacombs after all] which in Sicily they make after you finish your cornetto, not with it. but unlike the rest of Italy you can sit down & take your time drinking your coffee. even if you're expecting it, the sensation of walking into the Palermo catacombs is jaw-dropping. words can't do it justice. hall after hall lined with neatly stacked or propped up corpses, all dressed in their best clothes, since decayed to tatters. it puts all zombie movies to shame. you almost feel you should be on your knees in respect. some corpses are categorized—the hall of professors, of kids, of women, etc. & each corpse tagged like it's some sort of natural history museum. there's nothing stopping you from reaching out & touching the corpses & some seemed rather delicate & precarious—i imagine some must fall apart right in front of visitors. the tradition started with the capuchin monks [who also have catacombs in Rome which i've blogged about before] but then regular Sicilian folk wanted to be entombed there & then it just became the thing to do. it might seem morbid but it beats staring at a chiseled name on a sterile granite tombstone when thinking of your departed loved one—at least in coming to grips & accepting their death. even after 100s of years you can still get a sense of the person looking at what's left. they don't want you to take photos in there, which we respected, but here's some from postcards or that i found online.

arched hall


catacomb bunks



the bambini section


dead cowboy


dead man


catacomb bearded man


leathery skin


Rosalia Lombardo

the most famous Palermo catacomb occupant & the last to be entombed,
heart-breaking how well-preseved she is


hooded ghoul


palermo catacombs


dead couple

j & i in 200  years





©om.Posted 2011 Derek White