Saturday 3 April 2010

An Enchanted Afternoon

Souvenirs from Sicily, part IV

On this beautiful day in October 1987, we intend to do our sightseeing in a safer manner and stick to the tourist routes.

Brigitte and I both have a thing for Frederic II, known in German as Friedrich II or Friedrich der Staufer. The Staufers were a Swabian dynasty of kings who, from the year 1194 onwards, also had the crown of Sicily. "Our" Frederic, the II. (1194 - 1250), was the grandson of Frederic I who is more widely known as Frederic Barbarossa, for his red beard.
Both ruled and lived in Palermo for the best part of their lives; from what I remember having read in his biography, the younger Frederic hardly spoke German and only went to Germany when his personal presence was requested for political reasons. The centre of his life was Sicily and Southern Italy.

In his day, Frederic II was known as "Stupor Mundi" - "The Wonder of the World". He spoke five or six languages and was very interested in science and art; rather uncommon for a monarch of those times. Also (not uncommon for a monarch), he was at odds with the church, to the point of actually going to war against the pope and being accused of heresy; partly because he was more tolerant and open-minded than many of his contemporaries and admired the scientific and cultural achievements of the Saracenes, who, as Muslims, were automatically considered enemies by the pope and his allies.

Frederic's tomb is in the cathedral of Palermo (the sarcophagus is made of red porphyry), and so our first stop is the cathedral. Other than the tomb, I remember little.

We then go on a guided tour of the Palazzo dei Normanni, of which I mainly recall that there is a lot of gold on the walls, and the vaulted ceilings are so high it is really dark up there.

Our next stop is a place that becomes one of my favourite spots on the whole planet: the cloister of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, an overgrown, forgotten inner court where hardly anybody goes because there is actually not much to see, but where I instantly feel like I never want to leave again.

Brigitte and I spend the whole afternoon there. We sit on the crumbling stone walls in the sun, drinking water from the bottles we bought on the way here, and feeding half (if not more) of our panini to a very skinny sand-coloured cat who has three or four equally skinny little ones.
The sky is an intense blue, and the old stones warm in the golden afternoon sun; time stands still and I feel calm and at peace, a state of mind I achieve rarely enough.

Had it not been for Brigitte reminding me of our appointment later on with Gianni and Luca, who wanted to take us to a restaurant in Mondello (which back then was little more than a fisherman's village just North of Palermo), I think I would have stayed until nightfall or beyond.

Instead, we make our way back to the hotel, which is not difficult this time because we only have main roads to walk along, and a map to follow. We shower (sitting on old stones in the sun really gets you quite dusty) and change into clothes more suitable for a restaurant, and wait for our two teachers to pick us up.

Of Mondello, I do not remember much; I don't remember the name of the restaurant nor what we ate, but I am pretty sure we all had fresh fish, since it is the specialty of the place.
Gianni and Luca are pleased that today we behaved like normal tourists and good girls, they smile a lot, and Brigitte does not need to translate all the time; slowly, I seem to be getting the hang of the language, although I am still far from being fluent in conversation.

No meal in Italy (or Sicily, for that matter) is complete without an espresso afterwards, and we take ours in a small bar at the harbour. Bars in Italy are not the same as a bar in, say, Germany; here, most people go to have coffee, not for alcoholic drinks, and a barista is someone who specialises in serving coffee in many different ways, not a bartender who knows how to mix cocktails and such.

Before we head back to Palermo, where Gianni and Luca take us straight to our hotel and make Brigitte promise that we will not, under no circumstances except for a fire, leave the hotel until it is daylight, they suggest a trip to Monreale on the following day.

By now, we are so tired - full of excellent food and lasting impressions - that we just nod our agreement, thank them for the evening, and retreat to our modest room, where we both sleep soundly, looking forward to tomorrow.

Sadly, I have never returned to the place, but maybe it is for the better; to recreate the enchantment of one afternoon when you are not yet twenty years old is probably impossible and would only lead to disappointment.

(To be continued. Again, the pictures are not mine.)

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