Prior to our recent trip, all of my travels in Italy had been confined to the north — Milan, Turin, Venice, and lots of little towns in between. It’s easy to paint the north with one broad brush (particularly when comparing it to southern Italy), but there’s a real difference between all of these cities. The mood, the culture. It’s noticeable. Milan is brisk and businesslike, but also a little hipster-ish (where else are you going to find a €30 hamburger and people willing to pay for it?). Turin is romantic and intellectual, with a café culture to rival Paris. And Venice is elusive, secretive…a city so stubborn, not only do they refuse to sink, but they’ve rebuilt the same opera house after it burnt to the ground twice! But compared to these cities and all the little towns sprinkled in between, arriving in Sicily is like landing on another planet.
Italy isn’t very big — it’s just slightly larger than the state of Arizona — so a flight from Milan (in the north) to Catania (on the eastern coast of Sicily) only takes a couple of hours. If you need to take a car with you, there’s a ferry from Genoa to Palermo, which takes a few days, or a road trip down the length of the country that takes you through Rome, which takes about 14 hours. When my husband was a kid, flying was too expensive, so they’d usually drive to Sicily, sleeping in the car on the way down. Fortunately nowadays flights are cheap, which makes a weekend getaway to Sicily totally affordable, especially if you already have a place to stay. In August, when everything shuts down for a couple of weeks, the cities and towns empty out and everyone flees to the coasts or the mountains. If you’ve got roots in Sicily, that’s where you go. Flavio’s parents recently built themselves a beautiful pied-à-terre on the top floor of his grandma’s house, so after we landed in Catania we took a 2-hour bus ride to the port town of Licata.
Licata is on the southwestern coast of Sicily, near Agrigento. The Salso River (so named because it’s salty) runs through town, and there’s also a large fishing and shipping port. Flavio’s family are fishermen, marinari. I can’t tell you how many generations back this goes, but it’s a safe bet that it goes all the way back. Back in the day, in Sicily, if you were a marinaro, you married a marinara. It would have been taboo to marry outside of the seafarer community (this daughter of a prairie grocer is pretty glad that she and her marinaro were born in an age when this rule no longer applies!). So although my husband grew up in landlocked Piedmont, and currently lives in waterless Kansas, the sea is in his blood. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing how starry-eyed Flavio gets around boats, knowing the history of his family and their homeland goes a long way toward explaining his obsession!
Licata is quite small, only about 40,000 people. It’s also very old — according to Wikipedia, some dickish tyrant razed the settlement in nearby Gela and moved all of its inhabitants to a new town named for himself, Phintias, in 282 BCE. Since that time, the city has been passed around to just about every empire sailing within spitting distance of the faro, ending with an American occupation during WWII. Many of the cafés around town have English names that really don’t make sense, like “Angel Bar” or “Bar Fantasy” (I mean, they’re coffee shops, not strip clubs). That being said, I didn’t run into anybody who actually spoke a lick of English.
There isn’t much to do in Licata, and even less to do if it’s raining. And if it’s raining during siesta? Well, you can go to the mall. For such a small town, Licata actually has two shopping malls. The locals seem to be quite proud of Il Porto, the newest one. It’s beautifully built, close to the sea and surrounded by palm trees. Watch out for stray dogs the size of small horses, which roam the city in packs — they’re quite docile, and probably won’t approach you, but you can’t be too careful when it comes to wild dogs. We saw several in the mall parking lot. If you walk around the building, you’ll run into my favorite thing: the Porto Turistico. About half of the storefronts along the porto are empty, but there’s a lovely sailing shop and a wonderful café/bookstore (with an attached gelateria, which was sadly closed for the season). The highlight of my weekend in Licata was sipping a cappuccino on the terrace of Caffè Letterario, looking out at the sailboats docked along the port. Many of these sailboats fly the Maltese flag; the town’s Maltese community dates back to the 16th Century.
On this trip, we bought all of our provisions at the grocery store in the mall (no really, that’s where they keep the grocery store), but next time I’d prefer to shop a little more local: produce from the sidewalk vegetable stands, fresh sesame bread from the guy who drives around the neighborhoods selling it from his truck, and the catch of the day from Flavio’s uncle’s fishing boat. I was disappointed to discover that, although a big part of the local economy relies on fishing, you can’t just go down to the docks and buy fish directly from the fishermen. They sell their catch directly to pescherie. We tried to go to one of these fish shops, but naturally it was closed for siesta. (Fish is the one thing you can’t find at the mall…the grocery store just doesn’t stock it!) I did get to eat some fish (quite a lot of it, actually) when we went out to dinner at Hotel El Sombrero with Flavio’s aunt and her family on our last night in Licata. I think something like ten or twelve different plates of fish antipasti were brought to our table that night. I wish I could remember what they all were! Half were hot, half were cold. All were delicious.
All of this is to say that I’ve fallen in love with this funny little port city. I’ve grown to feel like I have four different towns that I can call home: Lawrence, Wichita, Vercelli, and now Licata. It will probably be a few years before I have a chance to go back, but I have a feeling that this 2,300-year old community will still be there when I do. ;)