Once you’ve been to paradise, should you go back?
“It’s a very beautiful place, a magical place. I remember when we were looking for locations with my scenographer…We arrived here and looked around and immediately we knew…” — Giuseppe Tornatore, Director, Cinema Paradiso
Giuseppe Tornatore is talking about Cefalù, a jewel of a town on the north coast of Sicily that provoked a similar reaction in me when I came here — to practice my Italian, not to scout film locations — for the first time in 2004. It was the closest I had ever come to paradise on earth.
Burned out after finishing my book, wanting to return to this remembered paradise, I made the mistake of going back to Cefalù last month. Unfortunately, I have nothing original to say about the passage of time, nor about the inevitable transformation of an unassuming coastal town into a ‘best-kept-secret’ destination that exploits its beauty largely on behalf of people who don’t live there.
There is no perfect place, I wrote, at the end of my trip, while I was waiting for the train that would take me from Cefalù to Palermo to the airport then back to Berlin. There are only perfect instants. There’s only the vanishing moment and it takes a lifetime to comprehend its dearness. Cefalù is no longer that pearl. I should have left it alone. But I was greedy. I wanted more…
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Come with me, just for a sentence (but feel free to scroll down if you’d prefer to skip ahead to the taxi adventure part of this story), to Cefalù, in October, 2004, where Italian is the only language on the streets, where we’ve had hand-made seafood tortellini with tarragon for lunch, where we’ve hiked a deserted trail above the town to the Temple of Diana, where we imagine some kind of feminine power in the ruins and gaze down at tile rooftops of the old city and the cinematic blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea, where at nighttime we sit on the steps of a stone alcove on the seashore, listening to the water meet the pebbles with a sound that resembles the swish of tango shoes on a marble floor, talking about opera under a full moon with a beautiful brown-eyed man named Massimo, whom we’ve just met, whom we’ll never see again.
This was the sort of scenario I was hoping to repeat when I went back to Cefalù. But as I dragged my suitcase over the cobblestones from the train station to the apartment I was renting in the old city, I wondered if I’d been wrong to revisit this place. The town was as gorgeous as ever, but there was an air of self-consciousness in its beauty now, a forced luxuriousness in the shops along the Via Matteotti, resignation bordering on disdain in the eyes of the men waiting on French tourists in the sidewalk cafes.
The next day, I was still feeling uneasy (Whatever my intentions, I was also contributing to the commodification of this place) when I walked back to the train station and struck up a conversation with a tassista named Vincenzo, who has been driving a cab here for twelve years. As kind as he was — giving me a map of the city center and marking his favorite restaurant with big blue ‘X’ — he seemed as world-weary, or as tourist-weary, as Cefalù itself.
“Don’t order pizza,” he said, in a fatigued drawl that suggested he’d repeated the words many times. “What you want is fish.”
Hungry as I was, my heart wasn’t in it as I followed Vincenzo’s directions to Locanda del Marinaio, a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant that’s been open for 18 months, where a bookstore used to be, next door to the Casanova Bed & Breakfast.
And as I sat alone at a table in the shade on the patio outside, I couldn’t help but feel like an intruder in the scene, watching clusters of Italian teenagers chattering away, eating pizza from the box as they strutted down the middle of the street, and groups of white-haired Germans wandering past, some in Panama hats, some in Tevas, all wearing backpacks, some with teddy bears tied to the zippers.
I tried to muster some enthusiasm as I admired the waiter — who had a Roman nose that looked so spectacular in profile it belonged on a coin — and studied Locanda’s menu, extrapolating on the ingredients of each dish, deciding to splurge on a primo and a secondo, hoping excess might trump melancholy.
And while a plate of hand-made noodles called strozzapreti (priest stranglers) with clams and fronds of mild white fish and cherry tomatoes and deep-fried parsley (12 euros) did cheer me up, the synergy in the pasta was missing: though all the ingredients were perfectly cooked (noodles al dente, clams tender), I was wanting to taste more of the sea — more of this sea.
But there was a little bit of genius in the baccalà e patate in tempura di ceci con confettura di cipolle rosse (salted cod and potatoes in garbanzo bean tempura with red onion jam, 14 euros) that came afterwards.
Taking a bite of salted cod with some (bitter) broccoli rabe and a smidge of (almost too sweet) onion jam, I started to understand how Locanda had earned its Michelin star — and I knew I’d never be able to repeat that moment, as much as I might have wanted to.
Locanda del Marinaio via Porpora, n° 5 Cefalù — Sicily (Italy) Tel. +39 0921 423295 Open: 12:30–15:00; 19:00-midnight (Closed Tuesdays)