Anne Notations

Monday, July 05, 2010

One enchanted evening

A friend posted on her blog about a "single, perfect evening" she experienced a few years back. It got me thinking about perfect evenings.

My all-time favorite evening took place 25 years ago on June 28, 1985, in the seaside city of Agrigento, Sicily. Even the name enchants me to this day.

I was, unbelievably, in Sicily on a magazine assignment, covering an archaeological dig unfolding on La Muculufa, a barren, "razor-like crest" in a remote Sicilian plain. The dig, which was excavating the site of an early Bronze Age Castelluccian village dating to the end of the third millennium B.C., was directed by a popular Brown alumna/professor and staffed by her students, both undergraduate and graduate.

I had never been anywhere quite so different from my world of the American North. Much of the island of Sicily is desert-like, with scrubby vegetation and reddish soil, although crops such as olives thrive in thickly clustered rows. In the cities and villages, everyone pulled down heavy blue metal window blinds at the sun's first light to keep their houses cool until evening. Like typical dumb Yanks used to onshore breezes, we kept trying to leave the windows in our hotel room uncovered when we left for the day, but the determined chambermaid put a stop to that.

Michael was along for the ride, and he did his part by getting deep into the dig trench every day and carefully unearthing gorgeous shards of terracotta-colored pottery decorated with black designs. The site was loaded with these treasures, some featuring amazing artistry and suggesting that this was perhaps an important destination back in the third decade B.C. – maybe a shrine? As happened frequently during our month in Europe that summer, I got shivery – despite the choking heat – from brushing up so close to truly ancient history.

Here I am (left) digging alongside Martha Joukowsky, the dig director, and a handsome Sicilian worker (and rugby player!) named Giuseppe. Please note that I represented Louis' Restaurant on College Hill by wearing my "Lou and Dom" tee-shirt!

We were with the crew for five days, and on our last evening together La Profesora escorted us and a handful of the students to the Valle dei Templi in Agrigento. This splendid succession of seven ancient Greek temples reflects Grecian occupation of the region in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. At night, the temples are illuminated with floodlights, creating a stunning panorama from many vantage points in the city.

Here, then, is my perfect evening: With my adored Michael two weeks before our 10th anniversary, on a gorgeous, historic island in the Mediterranean among affable, smart art and archaeology scholars of varying ages. We went from the temples to an outdoor rooftop restaurant, which I think today may be known as the Hotel Villa Athena, and proceeded to have one of the most delicious meals of our lives. Better yet, the night was magic.

I kept a travel journal that month, and here is what it says about the evening of June 28, 1985:

"Mom" [Professor] Joukowsky has worn everyone out with her exuberance as hostess and tour guide. After a grueling 10-hour day at the site in hot sun and murderous wind, we had time for a shower at the hotel (ah! the exquisite pleasure of rinsing layers of grime). Then John, Martha, and Misha picked us up in Gertrude, the old Renault, for the hour's ride from Canicatti to Agrigento.

Compared to dusty little Canicatti, Agrigento seemed like a resort, like a Newport. It's a sizable city, and the temple area is a long compound on a high ridge. Most of the temples survive only partially; some are simply columns standing in centuries-old vigil.

Martha (right) and me near the Temple of Concordia, Agrigento.

We bought postcards at the kiosks in the parking lot, then walked up to the best-preserved building, the Temple of Concordia. It glowed a luminous reddish-ochre in the setting sun's rays. From our perch next to it, we looked off a bluff at the dusty-blue smudge of the Mediterranean in the distance, beyond which lies Africa. Africa! A larger-than-life half-moon hung above us as the park began to close for the night. Martha took us posthaste to see the Temple of Jupiter, locked behind an iron fence and in great disrepair – but even a glimpse of one great column and capital was amazing, the latter big as an elephant.

We met the rest of the dig group for a late dinner on an outdoor plaza overlooking the Valle dei Templi. Half-moon above the terrace … Elegant service by a tuxedoed maitre d' … Directly in front of us, now aglow with lights, the magnificent Temple of Concordia. Martha told us it is one of the best preserved of its era in the world. It is a view I will never, ever forget.

Drinks and aqua minerale all around … delicious appetizers or first courses of pasta or risotto – my pasta had meat, eggplant, tomato, and spices on it … Brilliant purple bouganvillea spilling in profusion over the stone railing and still glowing in the near-dark … Tall palm trees with bases that looked like monstrous pineapples … Gentle, often funny conversation. Michael, with his knack for drawing people out, had Martha telling the story of her courtship and marriage to Artie. She is one of the loveliest, most generous and intelligent women we've ever met.

For dinner: veal saltimbocca. Usually I boycott veal, but when in Sicily …

After this prolonged, civilized dinner, Brian drove us in Gertrude from Agrigento to Catania, where our flight to Rome would depart early the next morning. The moon rode above our little car in the black velvet sky as we passed exit signs for Canicatti, Enna, and other now-familiar towns. I dozed in the back seat, sated and feeling blessed.

That, my friends, was a night.


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