Monday, July 30, 2012

Cianciana Life: Saturday Morning – Visit to Santo Stefano di Quisquina

On Friday morning, just as we were thinking about calling Joe, our phone rang shrilly. (It always rings shrilly – I have to figure out how to change the ring tone!).  It was Joe asking us to come down to the My House office.  When we arrived Joe had a counter offer for us.  The owner was willing to settle on €27,000.  We agreed to that so the official contractual offer was made and signed, complete with a list of everything we wanted from the interior of the house (the main thing is the fridge) and we handed over a deposit of €1000 for My House to hold.  And now, again, we wait.  The owner lives in England and so he must agree to our list of what we want him to leave and the closing date and sign the contractual offer by July 26th.  Then comes a whirlwind of paperwork and visits to the municipal office and their notary, and our bank for bank drafts to pay.  Then, on August 8th the final signing is done and we fly home the next day, the owners of a home in Sicily.  But, in the meantime, we wait.

While we wait, I thought I would tell you about a typical day for us here in Cianciana.

Saturday morning I wake to the sound of voices – people calling to each other “Buon giorno!” and “Oggi e’ molto caldo (today is very hot!)” from their balconies – and the sound of the town clock ringing eight times – 8:00.  I can see the sun shining, already white hot, on the wall outside our bedroom window and the shadow of pigeons fluttering outside.  We climb out of bed.  Normally at this time we would be getting ready to head off to My House to do something or another about the house, but it is Saturday and they are closed.  So, instead we have decided to go to Santo Stefano di Quisquina to visit the grotto of Santa Rosalia, a very beloved saint in these parts and the muse for my second novel, which is nearing the completion of the first draft. (If you are interested in my first novel, Greenwich List, you can find it as an eBook on 

Washed and dressed, we stop at the Frutta e Verdura (fruit and vegetable) shop to pick up some peaches and a cucumber that doesn’t look like any cucumber I have ever seen.  It is the size and shape of a large lemon but is pale green in colour and it is sweeter than any of the standard cukes we can find back home.  

We carry our purchases along with a bottle of water (absolutely necessary in Sicily in the summer) and walk down the street to where we parked our car.  Santo Stefano di Quisquina is about 30 minutes from Cianciana and is a lovely, clean little town as is Alessandro della Rocca, which we pass through on our way.  Jaczck, one of our new expat friends who lives off and on in Cianciana, has told us that the towns in the Platani Valley (the Platani River runs nearby) have taken their cue from Cianciana as our newly adopted little town has found some great success with foreign tourists and investors due to the cleanliness and friendliness of the town.  We drive out of Santo Stefano and turn off onto a road that runs through an indigenous pine forest.  We garner curious stares from some workers clearing underbrush from the trees, presumably to prevent fires in this extreme dry heat, and wind our way up the road to a parking lot at the top of the hill.  At one end of the deserted parking lot we find a lovely, demure statue of Santa Rosalia. 

The story of La Santuzza, the affectionately given nickname for Santa Rosalia, meaning the little saint, is a fascinating one.  She was born in the 11th century in Palermo, the daughter of Sinabaldi, a Norman nobleman.  She was, in her early teens, to be married to another rich nobleman most probably to consolidate her father’s wealth and power.  Instead of consenting to marry, she ran away to the forest of Quisquina where she ensconced herself in a tiny cave.  She lived in this cave, eating what she could gather from the forest around her, for several years after which she returned to Palermo where she lived and then died in a cave on the nearby Mount Peregrino.  Approximately 500 years later, Palermo was in the grip of the Black Death. Rosalia appeared in a dream to a woman living in Palermo, telling the woman where her bones could be found.  The woman shared her dream and Rosalia’s bones were collected and carried through the streets of Palermo.  No sooner had that been accomplished then the Black Death completely disappeared from Palermo. 

After the miracle of La Santuzza, a hermitage was built and an order of hermits was established to live there.  We were able to tour the hermitage but sadly, pictures were not permitted inside.  The hermitage is a large stone building and once we left the hot midday sun on the outside and entered the hermitage, it felt like we had entered an air-conditioned building, but this was not the case.  The stone in summer holds in the cool air, making it a very comfortable temperature.  Our guide, however, explained that this stone insulation continues to hold in the cold in the winter making it a very cold building.  The hermits each had a narrow cell to themselves with a bed made up of an iron and wire frame and a straw mattress.  The windows faced north and had no covering over it – no glass, no shutters.  Very cold in the wintertime.  The hermitage was filled with artifacts, some dating back to the 1700s when the hermitage was established.  The order of hermits was ended in the 1920s and the last of the hermits lived out their lives there.  The very last hermit, Fillipo Cacciatore, lived probably 20 years on his own and died at the age of 96 in 1985.  It was at that time that the hermitage was made into a museum with the exception of a small chapel and a small but very lovely church, which is being prepared for a wedding the day as our tour guide explains the artwork to us. 

The last place she takes us to is the small mausoleum.  We enter from the heat outside to a cool dark room and we find ourselves surrounded by skeletons and bones with skulls peering down at us from above.  Our guide explains that these are the bones and skeletons of the hermits that died while living at the hermitage.  The hermits would lower the bodies through a trap door in the floor of the church and then carry them to this room.  At one end of the room is an oven large enough to lay a body in.  The hermits would burn the bodies with aromatic herbs just long enough to dry them out without burning away the ligaments and sinew that held the bones together.  The bodies would then be placed upright in a depression in the wall.  Those that were not still held together were placed in a crypt below the floor.  The skulls were removed and placed along a shelf perhaps two – three feet above eye level.  In doing this, the hermits were reminded every day that death faced them and how important it was to live a pious life in order to reap their rewards after death.

At this point we make ready to leave our guide and visit Santa Rosalia’s cave, but before we leave I ask her how researchers concluded that this particular grotto, or cave, was the one where Santa Rosalia lived for so many years.  She tells us that inside the cave one can see where she carved “EGO ROSALIA SINIBALDI QUISQUINÆ ET ROSARUM DOMINI FILIA AMORE DOMINI MEI JESU CHRISTI INI HOC ANTRO HABITARI DECREVI”.  Or in English, “I am Rosalia, Sinabaldo’s daughter, landlord of Quisquina and of the Mountain of the Roses, and I decided to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.” 

Nick and I approach the entrance to the cave.  It is abundantly clear that the statue in the parking lot of a very diminutive Santa Rosalia must be correct because the cave is truly tiny.  I can’t get farther in than the mouth of the second part of the cave and Nick has to crawl on his hands and knees to get in and see what is inside.  What a cold and difficult life she must have led here.


  1. Hey Diane! This is fascinating...and good luck with the house!! Let me know what the outcome is...I remember, somewhere in the memories of my life, seeing a cucumber like the one you describe...don't know where I was though...maybe it was just a mutant that I grew myself one year! It sounds so quaint over there...and hot! What's it like in the winter? Sounds like you're having a great adventure..drop me an email when you get home..hopefully as the owner of a house in Sicily!! Fingers crossed!

  2. Thanks Eve! I've fallen a bit behind in my posting - not because I wasn't writing, but because we had problems finding wifi access. We are in Paris tonight. Tomorrow morning we head to the airport and will be back in Canada again. Sad to have left Sicily but glad that we know we will have a place to stay wen we return next year. There is only one more piece of paper to be signed by the mother of the owner. The owner lives in London and made his mother, who live in Sicily, his proxy. She isn't able to get to Cianciana until next week but as soon as the paper is signed and the notary hands her the bank draft, the house is ours.


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