Unprotected Females in Sicily



[...] road on[...]--monte vittorž[...] excursion--nicolosi and its philosophers--a real trial--a sicilian rustic inn--il diavolo--native enthusiasm about ∆tna--queen eleanor--interior of a monastery--do monks flirt?--levying troops--down to syracuse, and back again.

Now the witching time is approaching for ascending this wondrous ∆tna, and a nice carriage with three horses comes to the door. As into it we step, our friends begin to think we are really in earnest; they look solemn and livid, try some farewell advice, and stand in ominous attitudes watching us out of sight.

The road, when once off the lava pavement, is of a fine black sand, fenced in with low walls of the same colour; it is wide and good withal, the gloom taken off by the thick groves of bordering cactus or prickly pear, in full fruit, being plucked by crowds of peasants who for three months live upon nothing else but this delicious nutritious food, which has all the properties of bread, besides furnishing the distiller with a rich brandy to adulterate Marsala for the English market. Here and there a magnificent scarlet flower still remains, crowning the fan-like leaves; above branch the orange and citron-trees, with their brilliant verdure and Hesperides balls; a thousand fragrances float in the mountain air whose delicate sharpness is a stimulant in the dolce far niente feeling creeping over us, as we lean back in the carriage and for three hours live in contemplation of ∆tna, with their hundred craters, rising above Catania's fertile plain.

Two obelisks mark where the road turns off to the mountain, the other part continuing to the various villages on her sides; we had passed through several, all like little Catanias, built of painted lava, and with churches of most pretentious architecture, some quite crooked with earthquake shocks, and one whose bells were obliged to be tolled from the opposite side, for fear of bringing down its leaning tower. The entrances to the various villas were chiefly of the triumphal style; a brilliant rainbow arch inscribed with the owner's name, and a row of columns connected by vines, would lead to a disconsolate yellow or green edifice of uncompromising squareness, save where a knowing little belvedere sprang out of some corner; the unglazed casements filled up with stones, removed only when the proprietor came to pique-nique, as they themselves call a party of friends for whom they take provisions for the day, and perhaps a piano. The Sicilians remain at their Casinos as a matter of duty during the grape and cacti season on ∆tna, the hay and harvest season on the plain; when they send forward a little furniture, and think they are doing a most patriarchal work, the thoughtless ones leaving all superintendence to their stewards, none having the slightest idea of enjoying country life for itself. We passed a proprietor superintending the ploughing of his field in slippers and flowery dressing-gown.

After twelve miles' slow creeping up the road, a church with magnificent plaster dome appeared at the end; we ascended a little lava-paved lane opposite, passed between two bright rose-coloured columns, and entered the Locanda dell'∆tna at Nicolosi. A party were already there, but only for the day, and were setting off to Monte Vittorž,--an extinct volcano, from which those who do not wish to ascend the real mountain can have an excellent idea of its structure, and a fine view over the Syracusan side of the island, with the Lake of Lentini, and a variety of towns. It is a ride of two hours and a half on mules, which can always be had at Nicolosi early in the day. After stopping on their return for a little refreshment, the party can be back at Catania the same evening.

There is a second, and very neat little inn, close to Dr. Gemelaro's house; to that gentleman we now took our letter, and found a fine old philosopher, with brilliant black eyes and grey hair, who began to lecture us most paternally on our ascending ideas. He, having lived at the village thirty years, and the word ∆tnean being always attached to his name, certainly had a right to be considered something of an authority; but he had also not become a philosopher in vain, therefore did not attempt to argue with a young lady,--for I must here exculpate Mamma entirely from any willing share in the adventure; she was always for Monte Vittorž, and it was only by immense perseverance in the process known as "talking over" I got her to try the real mountain. Had she not consented, how much she would have missed, and without any unpleasant consequences! What an awful thing it is for parent to disobey their children!

While the ∆tnean was making preparation for the morrow, and saying that his sixty years alone prevented his setting out with us (the Sicilian idea of "accompagnare" extending as high as ∆tna), we sketched his house with part of the village, which makes a most characteristic little bit, and received an al fresco visit from the Cancelliere, or official authority of the place, who said he had left his young daughter at home praying for us! We watched the sunset together, saw the vines glow purple; a long sharp cloud called the "Serpe" (serpent) stretch across the mountain, and the lovely evening sink into night; made the acquaintance of our two peasant guides; ordered the landlord to pack a basket of all that was required for the morrow; held a reception of village notabilities while supping off cold fowl and goat's milk; then retired to rest on a bed so hard, it must have been of lava.

Next morning at four, we rose, dressed, went out in to the air; saw dark clouds hovering above, and, just as I put my foot into the stirrup of the saddle on a fine fat mule, a drop of rain fell ..... My heart sunk, like a thermometer, below zero. Despite the assurances that the sky would clear immediately, an impudent drizzle began; we returned indoors, and understood what blankness was ..... Did you ever hear of such a disappointment? Kind reader, do sympathise with us!

After sitting in a state of vacancy till daybreak,--when we felt so angry with the dull foggy dawn that we took to bed again not to see it,--we awoke in somewhat a better frame of mind, and I may as well tell you the proper preparations for this expedition,--when one is not disappointed. Ladies should take a guide and a mule each; the price of the former is one piastre and a half, of the latter, one piastre, including the man who attends the animals; so that for us two, the expense was to have been seven piastres, including the guides' mules, which they always require, but do not expect a buona mano, unless they give extra satisfaction. The strangers' book contained some complaints of their conduct--for example, declining to go on; but more likely the travellers were unreasonable, as the six appointed guides are all picked men who take a pride in counting the times they reach the summit, and Dr. Gemelaro ∆tnea has them under his strict superintendence, himself feeling an interest in every pilgrim, whether they bring letters of introduction to him or not, and, if at all nice intelligent persons, he is delighted to see them without, being himself a perfect gentleman.

The provisions necessary for the expedition are strong bottled tea or coffee (much better than wine or spirits in that temperature and altitude), cold meat, a little cheese, bread, and some refreshing fruits, such as cacti; and of all together about as much as would be sufficient for a long day's excursion in the Westmoreland hills. The landlord has baskets, glasses covered with wickerwork, and a little apparatus for making a charcoal fire. He understands packing everything up, though the traveller had better superintend, and also make a point of paying the guides himself, as he is not quite to be depended on; we told him on the wet morning to give the men each a bottle of good wine to console them a little in their disappointment, which wine he charged us for, and we found out afterwards they had not received; excepting this bit of treachery his conduct was very good and attentive, with all the civility consequent upon the vicinity of a rival establishment.

He is just now entering the room to ask what is to become of the carriage and horses; our friends had arranged we should keep them three days; one to go up, one to rest, one to come down, for eight ducats and a half; a very bad bargain, as we afterwards found any carriage was willing to go off the stand for twenty tari (two ducats), and the landlord sends for one at the same price when the traveller wishes to return, or he can descend on a mule. We thought the man would have claimed the whole sum under pretence of being willed to wait another day, but he compounded for six ducats, and went down. For do you think, reader, I had relinquished or was at all doubtful about the ascending project? no, no, more determined than ever! and persuaded mamma to wait till the weather cleared up.

Though it poured for five days running, we never spent a pleasanter time, going out between the storms, and thoroughly exploring the characteristics of ∆tna; indeed, a residence in the mountain is necessary to fully appreciate its charms; but before saying more about them, let me finish telling you of the proper preparations for conquering them all.

As to toilette, it should be warm but light, with extras for slipping on and off according to temperature. The snow is deep, so the petticoats must be short, and as the feet will get wet through, it is useless wearing heavy goat-hair stockings, as when damp they are a very great weight to lift at every step. Ordinarily thick boots and woollen stockings are sufficient, with an extra pair to change on the mountain. Mamma had gutta-percha goloshes, but the snow got inside, and she does not recommend them. In summer people ascend during the night, see the sun rise, and descend before the violent heat of the afternoon commences; in winter this is impossible, even with a bright moon, owing to the severe cold, and is also less interesting; so that two or three hours before sunrise is a good time for starting, arranging both on going and returning to sleep at Nicolosi, which is an easy manner of breaking the distance, always opposed at Catania, where it is said to be a dreadful place, affording nothing to eat, while on the contrary we found such nice things, they made us regret having taken the trouble of carrying provisions up. As to internal arrangements, I think I may pronounce it clean, but do so very cautiously, as perhaps our views had become less orthodox on that point. The absence of the furies and all screaming, for the first time for three weeks, was an immense relief; there was no one to squeak but a pig, and as pork appeared upon the table two hours afterwards, that noise was done away with. The landlord waited at table: a very meek spouse cooked, and added up the moderate expenses every evening to save arguments. An immense room with bright brick floor and arched ceiling (of light paste and paper against earthquakes), and an inner vault for bed, were four tari a night, including immensely long church-candles in black bottles. This was the only regular room in the house; five or six natives slept in an outhouse; and positively at that altitude, constantly exposed to snow storms, there were no fire-places in the whole village! Being damp and chilly with the rain, we were obliged continually to have fresh pans of burning charcoal brought in, and had it not been for the various cross draughts from the three windows and four doors, should have been smothered over and over again. Nothing is so aggravating as not to find the least preparation for winter in Italy, where it is always so bitterly cold except in the heat of the sun; the Sicilians have no excuse, as coal can be had in the island for the digging, and it makes the women extra slatterns, being tied up in a dozen shawls all day, and their fingers encased in old gloves with the tips cut off.

We were just beginning to pout, when the ∆tnean philosopher's servant arrived with a basket of good things; fruit, sweets, and a very peculiar wine called "The Queen of England's." The cacti were all peeled and wrapped separately in white paper, which is the elegant way of presenting them. Soon the donor arrived himself, and as he had of course heard of our misfortune immediately (a Sicilian village, for the speedy transmission of news, being very like an English one), brought books, drawings, fossils, and lava enough for a week's rainy days. He paid us a pleasant visit of information, condolence, and admiration, with a spice of flirtation to be true to his country; this visit he repeated twice a day, never waning in his kind attentions, really putting himself at our service; and even, to do everything in proper style, managing to get up two tiffs with rivals, so that there could not have been a more cheerful companion. Talking of the independence of English ladies, he said nothing in his life had made so great an impression on him, as the first he had ever seen having been one of the daughters of Lady Charlotte Bury, as he landed from one of H. M's men-of-war (in whose service he was), at Nice. She was running about catching butterflies in a net, between that place and Villa Franca; and with whom, when he had dared to think her mortal, he ventured to expostulate by saying, "Ma Signora, sola in questa solitudine?" ("Ma Signora! alone in this solitude?") she tossed her head, and ran off here and there with her net, not deigning to answer his remark.

The first walk to take from Nicolosi is one of about an hour, to Monte Rosso, the higher of two craters thrown up the last time Catania was destroyed, and which stand together like twin soldiers, of a brilliant red, save where the vines clothe their steep sides. Arrived at the top, on looking down the concave craters, beautiful trees are seen to grow from whence the consuming fire once issued. Looking around, endless other volcanic hills appear crowding together over ∆tna's sides, to the number, it is said, of more than a hundred, which peculiarity makes her so different to other mountains. They are turned into vineyards, and everybody in the neighbourhood who can afford it, has his own pet crater, and drinks the wine. When fresh lava streams meet one of these hills they surround it, and gradually melt it down until it joins their course by fusion.

The number of eruptions of ∆tna which have taken place is tremendous, according to its children's account,--seventy-seven after, and eleven before the Christian era. Their adoration for their mountain is most exalted. "Within the 160 miles around its base there are the productions of a dozen nations." say they, "besides the towns happy to rest at the foot of the fair object. Does she not bring us, in her second zone, corn, wine, oil, silk, spice, fruit; in her third and sylvan one, wood, flocks, game, tar, cork, honey; and while her spotless summit bears snow to cool our scorching tongues all summer, in her foundations you will find burning sulphur, mercury, alum, nitre, vitriol..... What nation is so liberal to her children as out mount?" To mention eruptions or earthquakes, only makes them add, "No spectacle in the world is so grand ad her blazing lava; her convulsions also supply our cravings for deep emotions; all the poetry left with us comes from her." Such enthusiasm (they are even angry with Homer for not mentioning her smoke) would animate an indifferent rambler;--how much more one to whose childhood ∆tna had been a fairy queen, adorning with all charm a tender imagination knows so well how to muse on, whose presence realised every wish, and round whom hangs all the romance of mythology? Yes, the ascent of ∆tna is a refined pilgrimage, gratifying mind, memory, feeling, education, heart.

Nicolosi had once been overwhelmed by lava; the present village is built in view of the ruins of the former, as the survivors felt sure the stream would not come the same way for a long, long time again. The last eruption in 1854, a very fine one, made the crater called "Antenario," on the eastern side of the mountain; people were able to read by its light on the western side. They quizzed an English family who happened to be ascending at the time it broke out, and who, though on quite a safe part of the mountain, hurried away dreadfully frightened, from the scene all were hastening to see, and not content with descending pell-mell, immediately drove away from Catania also; pale, haggard, and trembling. "Ha! non orano volcani al pare di noi!" They were not volcanic, like the Sicilians.

The distance to the crater from Catania is from twenty-four to twenty-eight miles, according to the way chosen; to get over twelve of these in a carriage must be great help to any one, except they are like an Irishman, who a year or two since arrived at Catania in the morning, walked the whole distance to the summit, came down without stopping, and rode off to Syracuse the same evening,. He has been known as "Il Diavolo" ever since.

On Sunday morning the women came out in their elegant "Manti;" bonnets, even on the daughters of government officials at 20l. per annum, being unknown up there: they went to church alone. The effect of the kneeling black figures along the aisle was completely Spanish. The men have separate Mass, which was the cause, once upon a time, of them all being buried together in one of the earthquakes, when the church was thrown down, while the absent women escaped. Sunday is also the day "charity" is distributed from the Benedictine convent, the last building on ∆tna, admirably placed for the painter midst magnificent stone-pines, surrounded by extinct craters, which supply the generous wines that make the monks so radiant, and which the poor around say were intended to make them radiant also, with corn, and other good things bequeathed. However, they are now put off with each a halfpenny roll, and we saw them walking miles for this tit-bit.

Way having been made midst the crowd collected at the monastery, we passed into the "cell" (a pleasant sitting-room with balcony) of one of the monks, a gentlemanly person, attired in plain clothes, except the black silk legs and rosetted shoes. He spoke English fluently, and with great animation told us that his having been in our country was the reason for sending him up to say Mass in Sundays at that altitude, the other monks always shifting their turn on him, saying "he ought to be able to bear extreme cold;" their idea of the temperature of the British climate, which, coupled with perpetual darkness, is the same all over Italy. The monks merely make a "villeggiatura" place of their cloisters in summer, when the coolness is delightful. A captain's wife of one of Her Majesty's ships stationed at Malta was brought from thence in a dying state, carried up in a hammock, and recovered in a week. She was not the first lady who had had quarters in the convent. Queen Eleanor of Toledo, wife of Roger, one of the early Norman kings, was so overcome by the sight of the piety of the monks who then resided there, that when much depressed by her husband's death, she decided to live always near them. As then the rule not to admit ladies was adhered to, she ordered a little hut to be built by the side of the chapel, and which is still standing, where she spent twelve years, carrying water from the cistern between her prayers. One reads so often in history of kings, queens, and other people retiring from the Vanity-fairs of their day into cells, that it was most interesting seeing one that had actually sheltered a romantic sovereign.

After a lunch of fruit and wine, an exploring expedition was proposed, and the gentlemanly mink offered me his riding horse, an animal which seemed to delight in galloping about in all directions. His master ran after him as well as he could, and joined him when on the lava rocks, which lie about in picturesque seaside-like confusion. We sat on the top of a cave, where Ceres lighted two "Tannen torches," and went underground in search of her daughter. Having heard so much of the monks' gallantry, I had the curiosity to try very mildly if they really could flirt a little; and having cleared up the point, no young ladies need in future take the trouble of trying the experiment. On returning to the village, the peasants, who had never seen a lady galloping about before, came out in a body, looking rather nice in their Sunday clothes, so I formed them into a square as soldiers, and made them march back; the aide-de-camp at my side saying, "Ha! Signora, could we really have you as queen of our armies for only three years, how we could conquer and be free!" With a sceptre in prospect, nothing but the recent visit to Queen Eleanor's cell kept me from wishing a revolution would break out immediately.

Of course, from this day Dr. Gemelaro and the monk were mortal enemies. I have just had a letter from the philosopher, saying he still never sees him without a wish to assassinate him, and that his only comfort is that he never recovered the violent running after the horse, having been comparatively thin ever since. Poor fellow! Yet we let him finish the whole of the "Queen of England's sweet wine" before going down to Catania, where he was obliged to be at the Ave Maria.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday were still pouring days. We had mended all our clothes, finished off all our sketches, skimmed all the books, so sent for a carriage (the traveller must take care to order a close one if it be wet weather), and drove down in the bed of a cascade to Catania. After hanging about thirty-six hours only, waiting for the Palermo courier, stopped by the swollen rivers, we set off to Syracuse, spent a day there, saw the sky clearing and ∆tna appearing through the clouds; went instantly on board the steamer, returned to Catania, took a carriage, and arrived at Nicolosi by ten o'clock at night; were met by the watch-dog, who barked up the people,--put everything in order for the ascent on the morrow:--I will tell you all about Syracuse when we come down. Good night!

This digital version prepared by Martin Guy <martinwguy@gmail.com>, october 2001.
Last revision: 24 April 2004.