Selinunte to Mazara

We left Agrigento early, about 8:30 am after a breakfast that matched yesterday’s, and drove to Selinunte.

Selinunte is an archaeological park enclosing an area of several square kilometers, which contains the remnants of the ancient city of Selinus. The Acropolis is 50 meters above the Mediterranean Sea, and it’s about 500 meters long and 300 wide. To the west and east of this high plateau are the outfalls of two rivers, the Selinus and the Hipsas (today the Modione and the Cottone). Atop the acropolis, twelve east-west streets and three main north-south streets divide the city into insulae or blocks. Around 200,000 people lived here, with slaves forming maybe a third of the population.

Within the remains of the acropolis walls are the bases of four temples. Another three stand outside. One, I’m guessing, was dedicated to Artemis. The biggest one, and the most complex, was dedicated to Apollo. One other, they think, was dedicated to Hera. Some of the others are not so clear. I wound up reciting the hymn to Apollo in the ruins of his temple, and met a simply gorgeous German girl on the way out. Thank you, Apollo.

Wandering around the ruins got tiring for Dad and me. It was cold, it was raining part of the time, and it was very windy. We wandered down to the temple of Demeter, and to the shrine of Zeus. I think I know now how to assemble a temple for Demeter, should anyone ever want one. At Akragas, at Eleusis, and now at Selinunte, I keep seeing the same structures and the same formations and the same ideas, iterated in many different ways but formalized nonetheless. The general shape of the rite becomes clear from seeing the spaces in which it is performed.

Dad reminded me that Sicily is the Island of Persephone. She is reputed to have emerged from the underworld and risen out of a lake here in Sicily, and she made this island her kingdom in the realm of the living — the living home of the Queen of the Underworld. How’s that for a description of the tremendously fertile place where the Mafia began? Hmm? Maybe the Greeks got it right. At what point, however, does one become an initiate, even after observing the outward sites but not knowing the inner mysteries? It bears thinking on.

We ended the day in Mazara, a tiny town with a bizarre arrangement of streets. The new town is laid out in a radial grid, from the Mediterranean in the south to a river on the east side of town; major streets radiate out from the center, and then streets form a grid built on and around those radiating streets.

At the center of the town, though, is the old town, the citta vecchia, which was once — and clearly — a north African souk, with incredibly narrow streets, tiny squares, multiple dead ends, and lots of one-way routes that appear to arrive nowhere. Dad decided he wanted to go to a restaurant called La Tavernetta, in the center of the old quarter. We drove in from the hotel, and proceeded to navigate the dangerously narrow streets, with a mixture of confusion, caution and worry. Dad nearly lost the side view mirrors a couple of times. Twice I had to get out of the car, and guide him around a particularly difficult corner.

After much difficulty, we found ourselves in a square wedged between a church on one side, a quartet of crumbling houses with balconies and shutters, and a school. Five streets led into the square, and four of them were labeled “no entry”. There were two Carabinieri, who Dad and I think are basically the Federal police force, chatting and smoking next to their squad car, so we asked them for directions. They chatted with each other for a few minutes in Italian, and then fished out a map and tried to give directions. Then the younger officer gave up, pulled on his colleague’s sleeve. They got into their car, and gestured, “follow us.” So we followed them around several twists and turns, through several tiny piazzas, and arrived back in the same square where we had started. The two cops argued with one another for several moments. Here they were, the two officers assigned to this city, and they had no idea how to direct us to a restaurant they both knew. It was like being in that episode of Doctor Who when they’re in the town built inside of a tesseract, and the doctor can’t figure out how to escape from the place.

At this point, school is out, and the cops grab half a dozen of the school kids — two girls and four boys, imagine that. Remember what I said earlier about gender roles in Sicily? — and one of the cops helps us park the car. The kids, apparently, are going to walk us through the alleys to the restaurant. It turns out that the restaurant is only 150 meters or so from the square where we met the cops, but that the streets are too narrow for cars.

The restaurant is closed. We make reservations for 8:30 pm, when we will, it turns out, be the only customers eating so early. Walking back out of the souk, this time without guides (the children have run back to the carabineiri to inform them of their success as guides), we pass a plaque indicating that Giuseppe Garibaldi, the uniter of Italy, once slept in this particular house. Garibaldi was uniting Italy in the 1870s, I think, and his arrival in Mazara basically confirms that northern Italy and southern Italy (minus Rome, which I think was the last part added) are now one country. This house marks the place where Sicily joins Italy in the modern world, then. And it’s just here.

We discovered later that had we misdirected ourselves from the restaurant by only a left turn instead of a right turn, we would have arrived at a piazza which is home to the Museo di Satiro, “the Museum of the Satyr”. In 1998, some Mazara fishermen dragged up a V cent BCE bronze from the floor of the Mediterranean. It’s a sculpture of a satyr dancing, and it was probably intended for the pediment of some temple — or perhaps it was robbed by a Roman general from some temple pediment. In any case, from the photographs, it’s yet another fifth century Greek masterpiece. From the photos, I’d rate it an 8 or 9 out of ten, right up there with the Riaci Bronzes, or the Kitiros boy. Both Dad and I are sorry we missed it. We did get to see the sculptures on the facade of the Cathedral, though, and see the Chiesa di San Niccolo, which is a masterpiece of Norman architecture; clearly king Roger II built it here as a way of affirming Mazara’s identity as a Christian port in a Christian kingdom.

Dinner was spectacular, though. La Tavernetta delivered, when it was open. I started with a tray of fish specialities: stuffed mussels, roasted octopus, dried mackerel, and a fish salad that was probably branzini, a mediterranean fish similar to trout. For the second course, the chef brought out a plastic bucket with about forty fish caught that afternoon, and we picked the fish we planned to eat. We skipped dessert, opting for a plan to grab dolci, or sweets, at a caffe on the way out of town, a place we’d seen on the way back to the restaurant. Sadly, it was closed by the time we were done with dinner. Even so, it was a spectacular day.

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