Marcello shut the door to the shop and hung a sign reading “chiuso” – closed – from the doorknob.
“Follow me. Signora Lo Bianco lives in the caves. We have to walk. Your car won’t make it there.”
Elena stopped abruptly. “She lives in a cave?”
Marcello called over his shoulder “Si’. She’s only one of two people left who do.”
Elena ran to catch up with him. “What do you mean she lives in a cave?”
“You don’t know about the caves?” Marcello asked quizzically, as he slowed his pace to allow her to come abreast with him. Elena shook her head.
Marcello chuckled. “Most foreigners who come here do so because they have read about the caves.” They turned a sharp corner that led onto a street affording them a view of the hill to their left. “Look up there.” Marcello pointed.
Elena’s eyes followed his gesture. As she gazed upon the side of the mountain she squinted in the bright light. She could make out what seemed to be rows of… “Doors? Are those doors in the side of the mountain?”
Marcello laughed out loud at her astonished look.
“Si’. The people of Sperlinga have lived in caves for generations. I heard from my grandfather that before there were the caves there were houses that were demolished in an earthquake. To make safer homes, they dug into the sandstone and built the caves. My father says that it was to hide from invaders – Greeks, Carthaginians, Normans.
Elena was staggered. If that were true, the cave homes had been there since before the time of Christ!
The steep hill that Marcello was following soon precluded any conversation. Sweat ran down Elena’s back and she wiped her forehead with the back of her arm to keep the salt from running into her eyes. They wound back and forth up the hill until suddenly Marcello took a sharp right turn and stopped. Elena found herself standing, panting, on the precipice of what seemed to be a cliff edge.
“Careful. If you trip here there is no way to stop yourself from falling.”
Elena’s stomach dropped as she looked over the cliff and out across the valley, Marcello stepped forward. Elena gasped, sure he was stepping off the cliff. Instead of falling to his death, as Elena was sure he would, he turned back to her with a quizzical look. Elena realized that, hidden from her view were steep stairs traversing the edge of the mountain, taking them down to what she could now see was probably a ledge below. Elena gulped in a deep breath and edged her way closer to the steps. Marcello offered his hand and Elena very gratefully accepted it. Slowly, step-by-step, they made their way down the stairs until finally they stepped onto a wide ledge. Elena’s mouth dropped open. What she couldn’t see from above was a trellis covered with vines – wide flat leaves and the beginning buds of green grapes. Flower boxes filled with plumeria and snapdragons brightened the sun-bleached stone with amber, pink and red. And next to the weathered boxes was an equally weathered door flanked by two open windows from which crisp, white curtains fluttered. Along the ledge was another door – this one propped open but with a wide wooden board leaning across the lower section. From the open door Elena could hear…chickens? She shook her head, trying to clear her ears, thinking that she must be hearing things.
Marcello grinned at her. “Chickens” he said. “Chickens, two goats and maybe a pig.” He gestured towards the door. Elena walked over and peered into the darkened space. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust but when they did, Elena was dumbfounded. Carved into the stone was a cave, easily 20 feet deep and 15 feet wide. The walls had pictures painted by a childish hand but most startling were the placid eyes of the two goats staring up at her and the soft snoring of a sleeping sow with eight little piglets quietly nursing. The pungent odor of the pigs however, brought her back to her quest and made her step back slightly from the door. She turned back to Marcello who stood watching her and grinning. From behind him the door in the stonewall creaked open and a slight, elderly woman, back bent forward – a sign of decades of hard work and osteoporosis – stepped onto the wide, flat ledge.
This is a short excerpt from the novel that I am currently working on. I have a publisher and I am hoping it will be out next year.
The village with the cave homes actually exists. It is called Sperlinga and there are dozens of caves in which people used to live. When I visited in 2010 there were only 2 people still living in the caves however when Theresa Maggio, author of The Stone Boudoir, visited Sperlinga several years ago, many of the caves were inhabited.
My husband, daughter and I were able to visit several caves that had been left as they were before their inhabitants left. It was certainly in the top five of things that surprised me when I was travelling in Sicily.
Have you found something particularly surprising when you have been travelling?