We’re staying in the Old Town here in Cefalu, and it’s exactly as you’d expect: a maze of tiny cobblestoned streets leading out from the fine Duomo; warm, earth-toned facades and terracotta tiled roofs; crowded rows of compact terraces and sagging apartment blocks with central courtyards. Washing hangs over the street from suspended lines, bread is delivered to the higher floors by rope and pulley, men sit in doorways on hard-backed chairs and miniscule wrought iron balconies afford the lucky few a place from which to survey and interact with the street.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how a load of drying domestic laundry can look so charming and picturesque flapping in the shade of these old Sicilian streets, how even someone’s pretty dodgy worn bath-towels can take on a poetic quality as they rhythmically slap against the side of a crumbling building… But the second you go to the new part of town, where the architectural continuity is present only in the inadequate size and external colour palette of these extraordinarily mediocre dwellings, and you spy the exact same load pegged to a plastic clotheshorse, all you can think is, “Sheesh – these Italians! Are they ever going to get their shit together…?!”
It’s very close living here, so not a place I’d necessarily recommend to privacy freaks. You can’t really move without everyone in the block knowing about it, and that makes for some interesting insights into the lives of its permanent residents. It’s one of the things I have most loved about renting apartments during the Grand Tour: the way it dumps you into a place where people actually live. You just don’t get the same immersive quality staying in hotels – certainly for us this style of travelling, thanks to the explosion of apartment rentals through websites like AIRBNB, has added a substantial additional pleasure to our adventures.
Here on Via Mandralisca, for instance, we were instantly enchanted by the entrance to our courtyard because the short tunnel was lined with paintings by the artist who lives and has studio space in the block, Antonio. What a delightful welcome mat – I can’t think of anything better. His rich oils capturing Cefalu’s ‘locals’ beach’ (the small one we frequent, away from the resort-style new end of town), mingled with religious paintings (he is Italian, after all) and perfectly rendered streetscapes all captivated the Touring Toddler in particular, actually succeeding in slowing him down for a precious few seconds every time we entered the courtyard from the street.
We have greatly enjoyed our instant rapport with Antonio, and it was probably on Day 4 when he called out to us as we were leaving for the day that he’d begun a painting of an angel, and who did it resemble but our own Touring Toddler? Well, clearly there’s been some kind of mistake, we laughed. Unless it’s his alter-ego? Antonio fetched the unfinished painting from inside his studio, and sure enough, the likeness was undeniable, especially around the eyes and bone structure. We were touched by his immediate affection for and interest in the Touring Toddler, the way he always calls out his name with a warm, “Ciao!” For his part, the Touring Toddler is equally enthusiastic, seeking out Antonio and his paintings every time we enter the communal space.
It was at the end of Week 1 that Antonio told us he was moving to another apartment in the block.
“My landlord,” he said, “hates the paintings.”
“Who could hate the paintings?” we said. “They make the whole place!”
“You say this,” Antonio continued, “but he, he walks up and down, up and down, every day he says ‘la galeria…la galeria…’ I cannot stand it anymore. Nobody else has this problem but him. It is not good for me. So I move.”
The landlord in question doesn’t own Antonio’s studio space, so there was no problem with ‘La Galeria’ continuing, until, that is, an official looking notice appeared on the main front doors.
“I wonder what that’s all about?” I asked Llew, as it had a tear sheet down the bottom for residents that looked very much like a ballot.
We soon found out when all the owners and residents conducted their strata meeting on the landing immediately outside our door. How anything was decided I’ll never know; Llew walked in at one point shaking his head and said, “That is just a roomful of people shouting over the top of each other.”
Afterwards, we saw Antonio. The landlord’s motion to have the courtyard gallery removed was defeated. He was the only one who voted in favour of shutting it down. We cheered, and were happy when Antonio moved apartments last weekend because we thought he’s escaped his own little Mussolini once and for all.
But then, nothing. The paintings resting on their easels – our guard of honour in oil – never reappeared downstairs. We didn’t see Antonio for days. Then one morning we discovered black plastic pot plants of ungainly, unlovely cacti replacing Antonio’s work along the sides of the narrow tunnel. Our hearts sank – what was happening? We knew he’d decided to move back to Rome, but now? Without even saying goodbye? Suddenly trudging through the bare tunnel had us all feeling more than a little glum.
“Where are the paintings?” I’d ask the Touring Toddler. “Where did they go? Where’s Antonio?”
And the Touring Toddler would stop, take a sweeping look around and helplessly spread his hands.
“I know,” he’d say. “I know.”
And then lo and behold, Antonio reappeared, explaining he’d been away visiting his parents north of Palermo. We were so happy and relieved to see him, not least because Llew’s parents had commissioned him to do a small painting of the Touring Toddler, which we’re due to collect and pay for, but also because we’ll at least be able to exchange numbers before we leave, and hopefully keep in touch.
“But the gallery?” I asked. “What’s happened to the gallery? We really miss your paintings.”
Antonio shook his head.
“No more. I have had enough.”
“By the end of the month.”
“Wow,” I said, “there’s no point even unpacking.”
Antonio agreed. So while we’re still fascinated by the communal life of this old block, trying to make every day count, this long-term resident has had a gutful. I’m sorry to say La Galeria is no more – and I didn’t even manage to snap a photo for the Touring Toddler to remember it by.