The wild West

Once safely settleed in Castellammare, we set off to explore the town on foot the next morning, realising in the daylight that our street ends in a gorgeous viewpoint over the port! The narrow streets are hung with colourful washing hanging from balconies, there are little three-wheeled trucks and mopeds parked higgledy piggledy everywhere, skinny cats run around and a woman in a dressing gown is shouting after her escapee dog. Italy!

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Going down to the centre of town, we pass several imposing churches, a park with a huge tropical-looking tree overlooking a dramatic WWII memorial, a few cafes with chatting locals, and we find ourselves overlooking a crystal-clear, blue sea from a massive fortification wall. We follow this towards a ruined fortress at the tip, take a covered passageway and find ourselves on the harbour, where fishermen are chatting over piles of nets. In the background there are high green mountains on which the ochre hued houses are set off beautifully, so that the ugly cubic construction style doesn’t in fact look ugly at all in this context.

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We select a quayside terrace and sit down, to be met by a slightly worried waiter who tells us that it’s too early for lunch, the staff are eating, but do we want to enjoy an antipasto (starter) while we wait? We sure do, so he comes back beaming with a spectacular display of fish-based appetizers – swordfish, anchovies, little cuttlefish, octopus, sardine croquettes, it’s all completely delicious and for most dishes, we’ve never tasted anything like it. The waiter then offers to split a pasta dish between us if we’re not too hungry, and comes back with it presented on two separate dressed plates; as if that’s not sufficiently adorable, he then directs his mates from the kitchen to walk the glass bins to the collection truck which is coming round the corner rather than wait for it to pass, so as to avoid bothering Zaza! We leave ecstatic and content.

Having found out that the only boat tour willing to leave that day to visit the nearby reserve of Zingaro will only do it for a hundred euros (erm, no), we decide to bravely take the car there in the afternoon (this is brave because of the risk of demon baby). Demon baby is not in residence! We enjoy a cry-free journey over to the tiny village of Scoppello, passing the most gorgeous vistas of blue seas and hazy mountains. We reach the nature reserve of the Zingaro, and we still have no idea how glorious what is to come actually is.

Zaza’s popped in the sling, I’m covered in factor a million sunscreen, and we set off through a dark tunnel in the rock on to the path into the reserve. The tunnel was actually the start of a coastal road which was planned here in the 1970s; having dug this tunnel, the road makers were confronted with a march of several thousand people who had come to protect the area for its beauty and value as an ecosystem. It worked! The road was abandoned and the first nature reserve of Sicily was created in 1981. How fortunate that this happened – the place is literally jaw-dropping. On one side, tree-topped grassy mountains disappearing in the mist. On the other side, an impossibly blue sea, and all around the most bewildering diversity of plant life; tree spurges, dwarf palms, many kinds of orchids, flowering broom, and countless other flowers and grasses. The smell, friends, I wish we could bring you the smell in writing – the smell of those flowers permeates the air all around, and all afternoon I sigh and exclaim about it over and over again. The path runs high above the sea, and in the distance the coastline runs, a succession of deep green mountains dropping into the sea, and small villages clinging to the slopes with larger towns on the seaside far away.

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From time to time, as we glance down a turquoise cove is revealed below. We walk and walk until it’s time for another installment of “breastfeeding with a view”, after which we clamber down to one of the coves where Heather wants to snorkel (she’s been carrying wetsuits and snorkeling gear all this time in prevision of this!). Unfortunately, the sea is not as calm as it looked from above, there are quite vicious looking waves crashing all around the rocks, and as the afternoon is getting on, the sun is behind the hills now, so Hev relents, there will be no snorkeling after all. But not even this little disappointment can sour the glory of this place, and we contentedly watch the waves while I describe everything to Eliza and she tries to stick every pebble in the world into her mouth. After visiting a second cove which is even more beautiful than the first one we return to the car and I cannot shut up about the place we’re just leaving – it truly is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen – if you visit, go in the Spring, too, because it’s the flowers that truly make it magical.

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Back in Castellammare, after Zaza enjoys her well-deserved nap (not a peep from her the whole time we were trundling around the reserve), we set off for dinner down at the harbour again, marvelling in passing at the night time view of it from the heights, and settling into another little restaurant to have  selection of Sicilian antipasti from the land this time (mostly based on peppers, tomatoes, olives and chickpea flour) and swordfish rolls. Seeing Eliza passed out across Heather’s lap, the waitress offers to make her a makeshift cot out of two chairs, extra cushions and bits from the restaurant’s high chairs. Unfortunately this wakes her up and she’s not pleased, so the waitress takes her for a little turn around the restaurants, stopping by each table for a greeting, and going through to the kitchen to get some worship there too. Top tip: travel with a baby and enjoy everyone’s most adorable behaviour!

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In the morning it’s time to check out, and the AirBnB host is outside the door knocking, he has to clean for the next customer, and by the way could we please remember that he’s come out to let us in at 4am, thank you please. Because it is the third time that he reminds us of this fact, we leave him a tip as we leave and everyone is happy. The car fully rammed, it’s time to hunt for some breakfast! We depart through the now familiar streets of Castellammare when suddenly we’re intrigued by some singing coming from another street – it’s a crowd of people in procession. Darting through the streets to catch them up, we arrive in the midst of the procession of Palm Sunday; there are hundreds (thousands, perhaps) of people walking behind a quatuor of choir boys swinging incense and the priest, holding olive branches and plaited palms with fabric bows, singing softly on their way to church, under a canopy of colourful ribbons. As a complete atheist, I still find it quite moving and the sense of their community is lovely to behold. We follow them around for a while, attracting many stares (they’re all dressed up and we’re wearing our most casual summer travel attire), until they disappear into the church and we resume our search for baked goods like the godless souls that we are.

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And baked goods we find, in the form of fried pastry with sweet ricotta cheese, and a pistacchio paste filled croissant. Patrons have lengthy chats with Zaza while we eat, and we finally depart Castellammare which we have found to be, not a crime capital, but a truly charming and beautiful town.

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