Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tahiti in Sicily? The Islands of Lo Stagnone

View of Motya from the lagoon
There are four islands in the lagoon of Lo Stagnone. Archeologically speaking, Motya (pronounced and often spelled "Mozia"), is the most intriguing.  The official name of this island is San Pantaleo, but it is rarely called that.  The largest island in the lagoon, Motya's significance in the Mediterranean world began in antiquity,when sea-faring Phoenicians chose it as a trading outpost sometime around 800 BCE.  Motya was of such significance to the Phoenicians in western Sicily, that I will dedicate a separate entry to it.

A view of the Stagnone with Motya in the background
taken from the top of the Windmill at the saltworks Ettore e Infersa
Among the most fascinating sights of Motya is an ancient underwater stone road leading to it from the Sicilian mainland.  It emerges at low tide and is swallowed again when the waters rise.  When my paternal grandfather was a boy, goods were transported between Marsala and Motya on  horse drawn carts via this underwater road. Occasionally, tides would rise and carts were abandoned until the tides receded once again. 

Schola, the smallest island, a mere 80 by 50 meters, gained prominence during the Roman empire when it was a school in which young Roman men pursued the final stages of their education through the study of Rhetoric. After Rome annexed Sicily in the early 400s BCE, Rome had greater access to Greek influences because Sicily at that time was a Greek colony, having been ruled by Dionysius the Elder and later by his son Dionysius II.  The Rhetor level of education, I am told, was of Greek origin and common in Greece, although it took a long time for the Roman empire to adopt  it. Few Romans went on to this level of education.  I have always found this detail so fascinating-- the ancient equivalent of a high brow graduate education!                                           
More recently, in the 1930s, Schola was used as a sanatorium, most likely to house patients with tuberculosis. A few small building were constructed for this purpose, and although they are now abandoned and overgrown with foliage, they remain surprisingly and eerily intact. My sense of Schola has always been of a Saint-Exupery-esque world. One can walk the entire circumference of the island in minutes.  Despite its size, or perhaps because of it, there is a lingering and unmistakable sense there of its ancient inhabitants.

My son Carlo
 heading toward Tahiti by inflatable motor boat

Santa Maria, whose name comes from the Santa Maria Vallverde Sanctuary, is a privately owned island.  I visited the island only once with my uncles and grandparents when I was a young girl and remember a lovely estate house, likely dating to the 19th century and its genteel caretakers, an elderly husband and wife. .
 Isola Grande, called Isola Lunga by locals (which translates to Long Island) is the fourth island in the lagoon.  It is believed that this island is really two islands that merged at the time of the formation of the lagoon. The island is separated from the beach of San Teodoro on the mainland of Sicliy by a small stretch of water which can be easily crossed on foot.  This island is a paradise and it’s no wonder that one of the most beautiful beaches in the area is on Isola Lunga. This isolated paradise-lost with golden sands and clear turquoise waters is known locally as "Tahiti".   Large scale tourism on Isola Lunga is discouraged in order to protect the fragile ecosystem and fauna. The regional government accomplishes this by leaving the island in an untouched state.  Sea grasses wash up on the beaches and are left to accumulate year after year, making entrance to water from the beach very difficult.  The best way to reach Tahiti and enjoy its golden sands and crystalline waters is by boat, and the effort is very worthwhile.
San Tedoro Beach
on the main island of Sicily adjacent to Lo Stagnone

Ciao a presto!

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