On a cool Tuesday evening in May, I stood on the sidewalk outside my home waiting for the airport shuttle to arrive. The euros were tucked away. My passport was ready for its first international entry stamp. The front door was locked and I was ready to go. I flew out of Boston on Alitalia Airlines just before 11 p.m. bound for Sicily. This was my first trip to Italy, and with the help of friends, travel forums, guides, and a lot of dreams, I landed in Catania the next day. I travelled around the island for two and a half weeks starting in Taormina and ending in Palermo. I sorted out most of the itinerary myself, reserved lodging, and secured transportation with a local driver service. The majority of the tour was self-guided, I needed help getting from place to place as the only thing outside my comfort zone would be driving in Sicily. I am so glad I did not sign on with an organized tour. The few Americans I met along the way were all attached to a tour and on tight schedules. Some travelers prefer to let someone else manage all the details, I like to go along at a slow pace and have one or two excursions a day. The tour guides told people where to sleep, where to eat, and what to do every minute. Well, that’s just too controlling for my nature. If I figured out how to get there on my own, I could figure out how to fit in and get along as well.
On the tenth day of my adventure, I was in San Leone at a seaside cottage rented through Airbnb. I had planned a five day stay in Agrigento Province and liked having a home base to go to at the end of each day. I am a home body by nature so a quiet start to the end and beginning of each day is best. On this morning, I had gone to the natural wonder of La Scala dei Turchi in nearby Realmonte. It is a massive cliff of marbleized white limestone and clay, carved for centuries by the wind and water forming steps climbing out of the sea. The footing is excellent and with a good pair of shoes and a little daring, the average tourist can safely climb quite far up the gently sloping rock face. I spent some time in the presence of this great beauty. Now I understand how myths are formed. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that on moonlit evenings, there are sea nymphs lounging on the steps. After a lunch break and a little rest, I headed into Campobello di Licata to meet a friend I had made via social media. I was excited and expectant as to what this meeting could bring. We’d not met in person and I took it on a leap of faith that this could be fun.
This small town is tucked away in Agrigento Province about one hour’s drive from the coast. The drive along the graceful winding roads is completely charming. All around are cultivated plots of grain, olive and citrus trees, grape vines, and vegetables. The day was light and airy with fresh breezes ruffling the meadows. Campobello in English means beautiful field. The day before this visit, I had been in Naro, a neighboring town steeped in the medieval and baroque. My notes from that day reflect that Naro felt positively ancient compared to Campobello di Licata. The streets were wider. The buildings were constructed of honey colored local stone with a fine stucco of light butter cream. Relatively speaking, the town actually was newer than Naro. The town had been moved away from the original location as the water source was low lying and a breeding ground for malaria. Before one stone was moved, a steady spring of clean water was found. The town was built around this location. The well in this picture was built in 1056. This had been the center of activity for centuries and the place women walked to daily to gather water for cooking and washing. Now, it is quiet, if only this well could talk, the stories it could share. The photograph of the statue was taken in the main square some distance from the well. A tribute to the days when this task was part of daily life.
The commune’s formal name is Campobello di Licata Citta d’ Arte or the City of Arts. I was soon to find out why. My social media friend, Giovanni is a physiotherapist with a private practice on Van Gogh Street. We met at his office which is also the headquarters for IL Volo Campobello di Licata Fan Club. Right away, I was at ease in his company. He had a quiet way of moving about the office and took pride in showing me his business and accomplishments. He is intelligent, soft-spoken and generous. I got the impression this guy has a funny bone that given more time, I would have come to know. After we exchanged greetings, and gifts, he quickly introduced me to another artist of prominence associated with the town named Silvio Benedetto. We spent quite some time in exploring his art and in my education about this man. Giovanni was kind enough to arrange a tour. I was joined by his delightful daughter, Francesca, Piera, and Giuseppe Rotolo. Signor Rotolo had lived in the United States and spoke English. My spoken Italian is weak but I could read and understand simple conversations. Between the two of us, we managed to exchange quite a bit of history about the town.
One of the reasons I liked this town so much is that the main square was so wide open and flat. The walk into the Chiesa Madre San Giovanni Battista or St. John the Baptist, was only a few steps and not a dramatic 50 or 100+ easily encountered in Sicily. Many of the cities are built right into a hillside and terraced like the cultivated fields. The church had been built by the Baron of Campobello di Licata, Raimondo Raimondetta who bought the village in 1681. The family emblem of the rose was visible inside the knave and outside in the sidewalks around the square.
We toured Piazza Aldo Moro with its lively, large fountain splashing around children and stones. We went into La Fenice café for a gelato. My favorite flavor is nocciola. This is hazelnut ice cream blended with Nutella. Gelato has a creamy, smooth texture on the tongue. The basic recipe includes eggs, heavy cream and whole milk. It’s not too sugary, just naturally lovely and satisfying. While we were being served, I noticed everyone sitting down in the café were men. There were photographs of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn on the walls. I asked Piera where all the women where? At home she said. This is a pattern I noticed in every Sicilian town. The men congregate and chat at cafes, barber shops, and the bar. I must have given them something to talk about for days. I don’t think many Americans visit Campobello di Licata.
The main corso was unusual in it had trees growing along the walkways for shade and beauty. Apart from flower pots and balcony gardens, trees in most cities I had been in where uncommon. There were children drawing with chalk on the main square preparing for an art exhibit. The town municipal buildings are painted with several murals by Silvio Benedetto. He is a popular artist in Italy known for painting grand murals on public buildings in several Italian towns. He is a sculptor, illustrator, photographer, poet, dreamer, and visionary. Silvio also has a keen eye for town planning. He came to Campobello di Licata during the 1980s and assisted with the major restoration of the downtown area. He brought a conceptual design to the squares, monuments and sculptures. The area surrounding the Chiesa Madre flows from one outdoor space to another. Silvio likes curves and I tended to experience everything in a round shape. His art is so important, that he was given the entire municipal building as a canvas to paint on. Here is a photograph of his work. Clearly, the town embraced his vision and art for generations to come.
I was taken to view the Parco della Divina Comedia currently under construction. There are 102 stones all with characters and scenes from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The exhibit had been on display in Rome and was now being permanently placed right in Campobello di Licata. Dante is so well admired beyond Italy, that I can well imagine this becoming a destination for both fans of Silvio and Dante. Giovanni talked about a museum for Silvio Benedetto at, Le Gole Alcantara Parco Botanico e Geologico near Taormina in the Province of Siracusa. I had been in Taormina earlier on my tour. When I return, this will definitely be on the next itinerary for places that must be seen.
All in all, I had a wonderful visit to Campobello di Licata, and like everywhere I had been in Sicily, there was more to see and appreciate. I promise myself to return with better language skills and to devote more energy to exploring these quiet corners of Sicily. I wanted most to stay in Agrigento Province with its rolling hillsides, cool evening breezes, and soft sunshine. I am grateful to the Nigro and Rotolo family for taking the time to fill me with precious memories of a wonderful day.
As written by Frances Ann Wychorski