You can’t spend any length of time in Sicily without a day at the beach. One of my favorite places to visit is Cefalu, with its historic past and beautiful beach. We ventured out early on to the auto strata to head east into the rising sun. What joy traveling on the highway that circles the parameter of Sicily! There are times when I feel disappointed about the ineffectiveness of the Sicilian government’s ability to provide adequate services for its citizens, like garbage removal, for example. But, the freeways are a different story.
I am amazed at the structures that hold up this freeway in the sky. Constructed to withstand earthquakes and span long distances, Sicilian bridges are beautiful to look at as well as drive on. The tunnels that cut through the rock and mountain sides, seem to go on for miles. One must think just how difficult it was to complete such a series of tunnels. As you travel through them and come out the other end, your eyes adjust to the bright Sicilian sun sparkling on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, which is often visible from the freeway.
Now, if you ever want to visit Cefalu, I highly recommend you avoid the month of August, the busiest month of the year. Car after car line the road leading into town, and you’re up for a challenge, just try to find a parking space! Fortunately for us, we were invited to my cousin Luciana’s cousin’s house by the sea for a day at the beach and a Sicilian style barbecue. Our delightful hosts, Valaria and Nunzio, escorted us to the beach, and then later into town.
Cefalù showcases perfect examples of Sicily’s past. The surrounding area and town still possess many of the architectural structures that were resurrected in the 9th and 10th centuries, by the Arabs, and 11th and 12th centuries by the Norman occupation. A laundry where people brought their garments to wash more than 1000 years ago, sits in the center of town. This interesting artifact is tucked down into a cave-like area and looks pretty much like it did 1000 years ago. The Norman cathedral is just another example of the mosaic Bible story-telling beauty that is typical for Norman Sicilian churches. Again you wonder how such a magnificent work of art could be constructed back then in such a remote place in the world. When they were constructed the majority of the people could not read and therefore these mosaics had to tell the stories from the Bible.
Shortly after our arrival, Nunzio put me on the back of his Vespa with our beach paraphernalia and we headed to a more secluded area for swimming. Aqua and glistening in the sun, the heavily salted water provided the buoyancy for a mind-and-body escaping experience.
On our way home we stopped at the market to pick up our fish reserved for us, certain to be the freshest fish possible. Somehow Nunzio managed to get our Seabass (branzinno), for the same price as the lower-priced salmon. It was some sort of Sicilian way of negotiating a better deal. I once witnessed this skill on a visit with my grandfather, when he purchased a guitar when I was a child on a visit to California.
Back at the villa near the sea Valeria was busy making a tomato-based zucchini soup, with potato and carrots and paired with a wonderful salad. As soon as we arrived, Nunzio fired up the charcoal barbecue in the outdoor kitchen. He simply put the fish on the hot fire for about seven minutes on each side, then he combined olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper and some Italian herbs to create a seasoning oil. It was amazing, dipping the fresh tasty Sicilian bread into the soup, then eating the fresh Seabass. Fruit followed, of course, and dessert.
Over lunch we discussed my desire to visit the town of Gualteri Sicomino’, the birthplace of my mother, to find any recorded documentation of her birth. Nunzio delighted in helping me, and even offered to drive to this town, about an hour drive away.
The next morning, we arrived in Gualteri Sicomino’. Small, and situated against the Mediterranean, it looked quaint and pristine, like a train-set town. We first visited the church to find any baptismal records. A priest asked for my contact information and he said they would try to email me anything he could find. We had much better luck at the City Hall where we met a very nice lady sitting at a desk, surrounded by several book shelves containing birth records dating back over 200 years. And, there it was! On a shelf, the year 1925, the year my mother was born. As the clerk turned each page I was excited to see if indeed my mother’s birth was recorded. Sure enough, she was listed as the the 61st child born that year in the month of October. Not only did it describe my mother’s name, but listed her parents’ names and offered other information pertaining to my mother’s family. It also said the child was not present during the recording. But, everyone in town pretty much knew Rose Mannino was expecting and saw the baby was born.
What a special gift this was and I thanked my host, Nunzio, profusely. We took pictures, received a document certifying my mother’s birth, and then drove down the street where my mother was born. Pretty much all the homes on this street and many others were rebuilt. The fact is, those former homes where so old and the standards were so poor they could not have survived the years. Some new buildings but mostly old structures on a hill with views of the sea, make up this beautiful village.We celebrated our experience with some granita, a dessert of slushy flavored ice famous in this area.
I can only wonder the pain my grandfather had endured the 11 years he was separated from my grandmother and their children before my mother’s birth. They were immigrants, raising a family in the U.S. But, then Grandfather sent his wife back to Italy with the intent of following her. Finances and the First World War made it impossible for him to travel back to this little town. The family was reunited in Italy. My mother was born there before they finally had settled in New York. My grandparents made great sacrifices to build a life together, and begin the dynasty that became our growing family. I’ve been blessed with the life and standard of living I had growing up in America, as a result of that sacrifice.
For many years, upon my return from Italy trips, my mother would ask me if I visited Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan religious order in 1208. “No mom, I wasn’t near Assisi,” I had replied. For a Catholic, this little town is a big deal. On this past trip with Frannie, she suggested we stop in Assisi on our drive through the south part of the country. I was amazed to see the amount of tourists visiting the town during the off season. After visiting the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi we found a small artist’s shop where there was an old man making jewelry. We picked out a rosary to bring back to my mother.
It would be just a few months later that my mother passed away. But, I had visited her, brought the rosary and showed her the photos of her birth record. I can’t help but think she waited for me to return before she died. This year we had a long conversation via FaceTime while I was in Tuscany. She was with me looking and speaking with me through my IPhone on the kitchen table as I worked to prepare dinner for our guests.
I felt so fortunate to have had the opportunity to walk the streets of the town where my mother was born and then shortly after, by her side the day she left this earth. I know she will be with me as I travel back to Sicily with her rosary close to my side.