My Very Bad Italian Day
Story and photos by David Lee Drotar

Plans to explore Sicily freely and with no schedule go down the tubes when the rental car decides not to cooperate—soon after it is robbed.

Bad travel trip in Sicily

The brutal Mediterranean sun penetrated my light T-shirt that only seemed to intensify the heat and feelings of doom as the two officers led me into the police station on a cobbled street in Francavilla, Sicily. The heavy metal door clanged shut and locked behind me.

“Please sit here.” The younger Officer Vasile Domenico indicated a chair in front of two desks. A rack of rubber stamps sat atop one desk.

It was slightly cooler inside the windowless room, but I kept sweating. It was a hot mid-September day even by Italian standards.

“Are you sure you locked the car?” he asked for the third time.

filing a theft claim in Sicily

Could I have been so careless as to leave the rental vehicle unlocked? There was no sign of a forced entry in the little, silver Fiat. Backpack, jacket and iPad aside, what I wanted was my passport. My mind retraced the entire day.

The soft pinkish glow of dawn washing over Mt. Etna had surrendered to the golden sun that cheerfully filled the courtyard of Bosco Ciancio, a rustic, stone baglio (country villa) in the volcano's shadow. The twisted, gray trunk of a centuries-old olive tree stood in front of my room. Birds twittered in the crackly leaves of the surrounding chestnut forest and I attempted some chitchat with Pina, the German housekeeper setting out breads, jams and fruit tarts for the guests who came from northern Europe.

travel guesthouse in Sicily

Maps spread across the glass and wrought-iron table, I sipped coffee and planned my excursion. The day was filled with promise and adventure.

My route was circuitous, but that was the fun of traveling around the rim of Europe’s largest volcano. Puffs of gas streamed from Etna’s cone across the cloudless, blue sky. Perhaps I’d be lucky enough to see an eruption.

Like an overprotective Sicilian mama, Etna’s eye was always there, peering over the top of the crumbling castle turrets of Castiglione di Sicilia high above me, or peeking through purple clusters of ripening grapes on the valley floor. She steered me along stone walls with rows of overhanging prickly pear cacti dropping their squishy, orange fruit.

Traveling With a Lighter Load

She must have taken her eye off me, however, when I pulled into the gravel parking lot at Gole dell’Alcantara.

I gathered my camera, sunglasses and hat, and prepared for a ramble through the spectacular gorge formed eight thousand years ago when the Alcantara River carved the hardened lava deposits. The day was already a scorcher so surely I didn’t need to carry a jacket or other bulky items. I tucked them safely out of sight in the car. Or so I thought.

I spent the next two hours wandering around the rim. I descended a trail to the Venus Balcony where I got a closer look at the exotic rock formations. Legend has it that the love goddess bathed here in the river’s warm water. However, one day her romantic trysts with the fire god Vulcan all went wrong and he turned the water into an icy torrent as it entered the narrow gorge.

Sicily Alcantara rock formations

Perhaps I got a little too close to the river’s cruel curse myself. When I returned to the car, my pack was gone.

Limping Back, Over the Mountains

I glanced at my watch. It was 4:00 and I had a two-hour drive back to Bosco Ciancio over winding mountain roads. Darkness would come at 6:30 and transform them into an impossible tangle. There was little margin for error.

My GPS was spotty, at best, taking me through questionable routes and failing to recognize some roads altogether. But I had gotten here somehow and now it was all I had.

There was no way to drive around the public fountain outside the police station. I shifted the stick into first gear and shot straight up the vertical alley as the GPS screen’s bright pink line directed. Barely avoiding people and buildings within inches of my mirrors, I reached the top of the passageway and the engine light started flashing on the car’s dash.

Damn. I would deal with that later. I needed to keep moving. But the Roman gods of fate would have none of that.

At the top of the hill, the engine raced as I shifted into second gear. The car balked, barely gaining speed as I floored the accelerator. Third gear was no better. The car had virtually no power in second and third gears. Nevertheless, I sluggishly looped through the narrow streets and hobbled out of town, making the sour memories of the theft seem trivial now.

rental car driving in Siciy

On the straightaways outside of villages, I down- and up-shifted repeatedly, trying to gain some necessary speed if I were to get home at all. The castle that had looked so quaint and seductive in the brilliant sunlight scornfully mocked me with its creeping twilight shadows. Even Mama Etna cast a disparaging eye.

“You’re having a vehicle breakdown. What are you going to do?” I thought I heard her say.

“Umm, maybe I could get help.”

“You’re miles away from anything and you can’t speak a word of Italian, you fool. Besides, now you’ve got to pee,” she reminded me as only a Sicilian mother exasperated with her mamoni for making some poor choices, would do.

I saw no way out of this. I dared not stop, lest I be unable to restart the car. On the downslopes, I could cruise slightly faster in second, third and sometimes fourth gears. Back in first gear, I began limping up the winding mountain road away from Biancavilla, the last notable village on my route. I sensed that I was gaining altitude and getting closer to home, but after each turn the GPS spitefully changed my estimated time of arrival. First 6:00, then 6:30, then 7:30. Was I going in circles? Houses locked behind rusting iron gates hid in the forest. Then the engine stalled.

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Read this article online at: My Very Bad Italian Day

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