In Parts I and II of this series, I related some of the odd insights and unique landscapes my wife Melody and I experienced during research trips for my novels Time of Departure (2015) and Storm Rising (2016). This instalment—and the one to follow—will focus on our travels around Sicily in pursuit of key settings for my next novel, Killing Pace, which is due for release by St. Martin’s Press in November.
But, as you will see, Storm Rising was also haunting our movements.
When it comes to the weird, the wonderful, and the uncanny, Sicily is in a class of its own. All of those descriptors certainly apply to our visits to the two locations I will describe below. But first, a few words about perceptions. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to visit Sicily, let me just explain what that storied island is not: It is not The Godfather. Yes, many of its souvenir shops exploit the old stereotypes, offering tawdry souvenirs like mugs and fridge magnets featuring Marlon Brando’s brooding visage. But over the many weeks Melody and I spent crisscrossing the island on three separate visits (once in 2013; twice in 2015), we never encountered any of those dudes you saw guarding Michael Corleone in the film. You know the ones: hard men wearing cloth caps, slouching along dusty backroads with luparas slung on their shoulders.
Luparas? I’m talking about these little beauties:
What we did encounter, every day, were the most uniformly welcoming and openhearted people you could ever hope to meet. People we came to love.
Having said that, our first location is a place where we never met a single human being. Reserva Naturale Integrale Bosco Finestrelle is a mountain park in west-central Sicily situated about six kilometers from the small town of Santa Ninfa. Now, I agree that the access road isn’t exactly a superhighway:
But it isn’t a goat track either. The rental car had no trouble getting us to our destination. Which leads me to the first mystery about the Monte Finestrelle Reserve: both times we visited, during trips two years apart, we found ourselves alone.
Completely and utterly alone.
Both times, the parking lot was deserted:
And both times, the park was empty of people. No locals. No tourists. Not even a park attendant. Our sole greeter, on our first visit, was a puppy—a smiley, tail-wagging bundle of well-fed Sicilian sociability, whose owner, if he had one, never made an appearance.
We were completely alone in a regional nature preserve that features a unique museum dedicated to the history of agro-forestry in Sicily—on an island with a population of 5.1 million people.
Melody and I spent both visits wandering through unspoiled forests and meadows. We encountered multi-hued lizards (otherwise known, I later learned, as Lacerta bilineata chloronota):
And we marveled over tiny wild orchids, smaller than a fingernail. But a closer examination of the ground under our feet led to a second mystery about the Monte Finestrelle Reserve: we were walking on crystal.
As our friend Dr. Enrico Curcuruto (a geology professor you’ll meet in Part IV) later explained, Monte Finestrelle is a mountain of pure selenite.
A “Crystal Mountain.”
Here I was researching for a mystery novel, and I found myself on the set of one of those fantasy movies. You know, the ones with witches and dryads and unicorns and slumbering dragons.
According to various metaphysical blogs and directories that are searchable online, selenite is a form of crystallized gypsum. It is highly valued by New Age adherents as a healing crystal. One source I consulted asserts that selenite crystals can be used to “overcome” age spots, wrinkles, epilepsy, and deformities of the skeletal system. All of which leads me to ask:
Why was that mountain so completely deserted on both of our visits?
Where were the natural medicine practitioners and their patients?
And, hey, where were the fantasy novelists?
(After our second visit, I checked the mirror before we drove away. Nope. The wrinkles were still there.)
Our next stop is Città di Caltagirone. Caltagirone is a city in the southeastern interior of the island. It is widely known as a production center for artistic ceramics and terra-cotta sculptures—a local industry that dates back to at least 1000 AD, and probably earlier. Today, the city is also famous for the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, a stunning 142-step, ceramic-faced staircase that leads the energetic visitor from the lower (and newer) precincts of the city to the Church of Santa Maria and the remains of the ancient town on the heights above.
Here is the Scalinata. This photo was taken from about one-third of the way up:
And here is the view from the top:
“Very interesting,” I hear you saying, “but what does this have to do with researching Killing Pace?”
Answer: Strictly speaking, not a lot.
But on this trip, I wasn’t in Sicily solely to do research for Killing Pace. I was also there to put the finishing touches on the final draft of Storm Rising. And what Melody and I found at the top of the Scalinata gave both of us (and later, my editor Daniela Rapp) an eerie, phantasmal chill:
If you’ve read Storm Rising, you’ll understand.
To learn more or order a copy of the upcoming Killing Pace, visit:
Douglas Schofield is the author of Time of Departure and Storm Rising. He was raised and educated in British Columbia, where he earned degrees in history and law. Over the past thirty years, he has worked as a lawyer in Canada, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands. Douglas and his wife, Melody, live on Grand Cayman, along with their most excellent and amazing talking cat, Juno.