Who would want to live in a cave? Cold, dark, inhospitable, perhaps. But generations of Sicilians and Materans lived in caves, up until the 1960’s. About a month before our Sicily trek, I read in The New Yorker about the grotte, primitive limestone cave dwellings in Matera, a town in the boot of Italy. in the 1920’s Mussolini tried to move the cave dwellers of the Sassi (“rocks”, or “stones”) into the “green countryside,” but he wasn’t successful. After World War II, well-meaning city planners who moved residents found into standard shoebox apartment complexes. The empty caves became havens for low-level criminals—sex workers, drug dealers. Then the artists began to move in, plumbing and electricity were installed, Sassi became a UNESCO world heritage site, and today, the caves house fancy nightclubs and trendy restaurants.
I was so caught up in reading student essays and portfolios and computing final grades, that I failed to pay close attention to our Sicily walking tour itinerary. I’m surprised to learn that Sperlinga, the locus of our Day Three afternoon walk, features grotte, too, though not as complex as those in Matera—no common courtyards where residents of the caves congregated, baked bread in a common oven, no hours-long walks down the rocky hills to work in the fields. And certainly no nightclubs or chic bistros—at least not yet, and not likely in the near future.
After lunch on Day Three, we climb into the white van. The three overflow trekkers ride along in the Skoda station wagon with Martina, and we drive from the Villa Raino to Sperlinga, a distance of 20 kilometers. We’ve been promised a tour of Sperlinga’s eleventh century castle, but earlier in the day, back in the Gangi café, our tour leader Stephen learned from the barista that the fortress was closed to visitors due to falling rock. When we approach the fortress, we see construction tape laced up and down the walkways carved into the rock. Like many of the Sicilian roads, this structure is either under repair or scheduled for repair someday— and access is impossible. All we know is that the site is chiuso per frana— which translates as “closed due to a landslide.” Stephen tells us a bit about this castle’s history—a fortress thousands of years ago, tunnels and catacombs used by early Christian sects, the Angevins sought protection there during a siege by the forces of Aragon, in the thirteenth century Vespri siciliani; the Sicilian Vespers. Though most of Sicily rejected the Angevines, Sperlinga protected them. Thus, the plaque near the castle entrance, in Latin: Quod Siculis placuit sola Sperlinga negavit (Sperlinga alone refused what pleased the Sicilians).
The siege of Sperlinga lasted 13 months.By the early fourteenth century the castle had come into the hands of 1324 by the Ventimiglia family—whom we remember from our earlier walk around Gangi.
Martha Stewart might not find the caves hospitable environments for easy living. We climb up worn stairways hewed into the side of the sandstone. Near the top we steady ourselves by grasping the old iron railing on the edge of the narrow walkway, then it disappears. I have a bit of vertigo as I hug the side of the path nearest the cave doors. I try not to look down into the small yards of houses beneath us, but cannot ignore laundry hanging out to dry, potted plants, rubbish bins, old tools leaning up against houses. I look back to my right as we come to the first dwelling. The battered wooden door stands half-open, and inside are fragments of old furniture, cook pots and crockery. I peer inside where the ceilings and walls are blackened from smoke, and we notice the chimney near the front of the room. The cave is small—tight quarters, about three meters on each side. A bit of light comes through the door into the first room, but the second room is almost completely dark. Most of the rooms have a single light bulb strung up in the ceiling, but one imagines more elaborate setups when people still lived here. One author recounts a cave home complete with functional microwave, wainscoting, wood paneled walls and even wedding crystal!
As we move along we peer in to each cave, seeing the sparse detritus of those who last lived here in the 1960’s: a mattresses, a coffeepot, a lone chair, a rusty tool. The commune of Sperlinga purchased the cave homes a few decades ago, and relocated the holdouts to cinder block apartment houses. But a few intrepid folks might have camped out here not too long ago, perhaps for a tryst or an overnight anthropological adventure.
I think about the generations of those who lived in these caves, from recent memory back through the centuries, from different cultures, under different flags and crests, ruled by different absentee royalty and churchmen who traded Sicily back and forth while people cooked their meals, had their babies, made love, quarreled, and left their caves to their children as an inheritance.
One of our group who has walked on ahead calls out to the rest of us, “This one has a lovely terrace!” We follow the found of her voice through a two-room cave and onto a stone balcony almost the size of the second room. We look out from our perch onto newer structures, cheek by jowl with the caves. Perhaps I’ve been in the caves too long today, but to me they’re a far better sight than the boxy yellow apartment building in the foreground from the cave terrace. I bet Martha Stewart would agree.
We walk around the village a bit but it begins to rain, the day grows cooler and by the time we return to the Villa, all we want is a cup of tea. The young woman who works at the desk brings us glass pitchers full of hot tea with lemon and a plate of warm vanilla cookies the mama has baked. We relax on our easiest day of the trek, a mere 9.5 kilometers, and gird our loins for tomorrow, a demanding hike through the Parco della Madonie.
Day 3 ends with a fine supper: two primi, pasta with broccoli and salsicce, and spaghetti with basil and tomato sauce; a secondo of thinly sliced grilled lamp chops and more salsicce. The dolce is fruitti—local strawberries, cherries and apricots—and chocolate cannoli. We eat heartily, because tomorrow we will walk 23 kilometers to our next accommodation in the mountains of the Madonie Park.