Zisa tales

Visit to the lighthouse at Capo Zafferano

gita al faro gabbiani_FotoSketcherEvery year, at the beginning of the summer holidays, Zisa and Grandma would start down that narrow and winding road. Seagulls would accompany them, swooping in closely to then take off into the gulf launching baby-sounding moans. Finally, they’d return to the dejection-whitewashed wall to let everyone know that this is their kingdom.

– Careful Zisa dear, give me your hand. In some places the parapet is broken and you could fall. –

– Grandma, they repaired it years ago! –

But Grandma continues giving her advice, mechanically repeating patronising words about the dangers that surrounded them when she walked the narrow road, tightly holding hands, 60 years ago.

Like every year, Grandma and Zisa are talking “the walk to the Lighthouse” – their “Lighthouse” – which is actually the one at Capo Zafferano, a stone’s throw from the family’s holiday home. Every year the walk is a pleasant moment. You can smell the wild herbs – garlic, mint, chives and rosemary – and with a little luck you can also see one of the orchids that are unique to the area. But when they approach the lighthouse gate, Grandma begins to sadden.

– Every year it’s always worse. Look at this state of ruin, what a disaster! –

The vision of the lighthouse that towers over them is always breath-taking but, once again, Grandma only notices the recent graffiti as she stands in front of the gate. Graffiti with no pretence of art: they are either obscene scribbles that Zisa and Grandma pretend not to understand or promises of love rudely shared to the whole world.

The complex surrounding the Lighthouse has been abandoned for almost forty years, since the guardians who used to live there with their families became obsolete. In fact, a system was installed in the 1970s to control the lights remotely.

This time, however, Grandma wants to do an experiment. She’ll tell Zisa what everything looks like through the eyes of her memory, starting right from the gate. In the 1950s, there would be a little family waiting to get in: Mum, Dad and two little children (Grandma and her brother) …

…they’ve just bought a little house nearby and are the closest neighbours the guardians and their families have. The guardians are in fact two brothers who take turns every six months moving to the Lighthouse with their families. Grandma’s family has arrived on foot, just like Zisa did now. Here is the guardian who comes to open the gate and welcome them, while in the background you can see the women busy with their embroidery. The visit to the guardians is a festive event for everyone, a bit of sociality in an isolated life.

From the gate you enter a courtyard, which seemed immense to Grandma as a child. At distance there are the remains of a well made of sandstone blocks, now dilapidated like the parapet and the surrounding buildings. Not to mention the torn fixtures and that stupid writing on the walls,  the ultimate insult for Grandma!

Gita al faro 10_FotoSketcherIn keeping with her new plan, however, Grandma closes her eyes; she sees the courtyard as it was in the fifties, and begins to describe it to Zisa. Her words help Zisa imagine the way things were, as though it were her own memory speaking. She sees Grandma as a child happily skipping rope with the  guardians’ daughters. She sees the beautiful well standing out in the background, the parapet intact and safe, and the smoothly stuccoed buildings with their doors, windows, roofs and eaves; she even sees terracotta pots with basil, geraniums and succulents.

To the lighthouse, courtyard with children.jpg

– Grandma tell me more… what was it like for those children to live here? Did they go to school? How did they reach the neighboring villages? Was the road this narrow back then?-

– The road was opened to allow a cart to pass; in some places it overhangs the cliff, and they only dug out what was needed. Of course there was only one lane, since only the guardians used the road. Every six months they loaded all of their things in a cart and went to change guard with their relatives. I suppose that from time to time they also used the cart to go to the village for supplies. –

– But did the children go to school? –

– I think they started to go to school when the guardians were given a car (a tiny one!) … or maybe even earlier, with someone coming to pick them up … I don’t remember. I know for sure though that the children I met in the fifties went to school in Bagheria every day. –

the lighthouse keepers family in the cart

To the right of the courtyard there is an amazing room, the top floor of the sighting tower used by the Navy in the two world wars. Windows on three sides look out over the sea: what could be more beautiful and relaxing! There is no reading of stories about the sea that Grandma had not set in that room. Even Zisa thinks that room is the ideal set for movies about sailors and pirates!

grandmother and Zisa scrutinizing the sea

Grandma does not remember entering this room when she was a child, so what she sees is how she imagined it must have been: a telescope and several binoculars, oil lamps, sea registers, accessories and tools to maintain the lighthouse lantern … maybe some ropes to save fishermen and a robe hanging on the wall. And certainly in such a clean and tidy room, those windows looking out over the sea on each side must have been spectacular!

Lighthouse, sighting room as it was

– Grandma the lighthouse itself is well kept and has been painted a nice white. Can you go inside? Have you ever been in there? –

The Capo Zafferano lighthouse, inside
The Capo Zafferano lighthouse, inside

– The lighthouse is still in operation as a military garrison, so only special staff can enter it. They come every once in a while, since they don’t need anyone to turn on the light every night. In my days, there was a big lantern with mirrored glass that used carbon acetylene (the chemical used in miners’ lamps); at the time there was no electricity here; we didn’t even have it at home! Once, my dad climbed up the lighthouse with the watchman and saw how they lit the acetylene lantern. He told me that there was a circular staircase going up three floors, and at the top there was this huge lantern and all the brass tools for lighting the lantern that the warden treated as if they were precious silverware, constantly polishing everything. The lighthouse used acetylene until 1970, when it was equipped with an electrical system. In 1980, the remote system was installed and the building complex was abandoned. Today, the lighthouse only uses batteries and a sensor-based ignition system. –

Lantern reflective lenses

Across from the watch tower there are the remains of the dwellings.

– Here’s what’s left of the kitchen, you can still see the white tiles on the walls! Here the vandals really had fun smearing the walls! –

Gita al faro 1_FotoSketcher

And Grandma goes on: – I remember this kitchen very well, it is one of the clearest memories I have! – She closes her eyes and tries to work with her imagination. The white tiles come to life; over here is the cook stove, the first she had ever seen, with the fire always lit. And more memories: the concrete sink, the 50’s sideboard, the aluminum pans hanging above the stove, and the wooden plate rack.

Kitchen, as it was, resized

But Zisa’s grandmother also remembers the smells and flavors: the freshly cooked ladyfingers made with fresh eggs from the hens, and then the sourdough bread, the freshly picked figs, and the women busy in the kitchen making such good food. She also remembers the Petromax hanging from the ceiling, the only source of light in the evening.

– Grandma what’s a Petromax?

– The Petromax is probably the most well-known and indestructible camping lamp in the world. For more than 100 years, it was used in the war and rescue operations, and fishermen used it for night fishing. You can still buy one online; it has a strange compression operation, a kind of sock soaked in kerosene and paraffin that becomes incandescent, making a strong light, the equivalent of 400 Watts; We also had one at home, because in this area there was no electricity. –

The lighthouse kitchen, as it was

– However, what I remember most was my admiration for this self-sufficient community. Almost all the food was produced on the spot. This was the Lighthouse philosophy, because normally lighthouses are in isolated places where it’s difficult to get supplies. So this one followed the same rule, even though it wasn’t that isolated from civilization. – 

Orto e pollaio
Orto e pollaio – Vegetable garden and henhouse

There was a vegetable garden, there were free-range hens that gave fresh eggs every day, and there was the bread made every week in the wood-burning oven. Fishermen brought fresh fish to the sea landing every day, down where the guardians’ families used to bathe. The well in the courtyard collected rainwater, but when there was a drought and the well was empty … a ship from the Navy arrived to refuel it. The ship anchored offshore and connected to the well with a long tube; the operation lasted all day.-

“But couldnt they bring water through the same pipes you used?”

– Absolutely not! You see, the lighthouse was a Navy garrison, in case of war they couldn’t risk that enemies could cut off supplies, so they needed their own ship. –

To the lighthouse, refueling

– Grandma, but what will happen to the lighthouse? Mom and Dad say it was licensed to a restaurant … couldn’t they bring the guardians back to live here? –

– And take technology back 50 years? With the acetylene lantern, the Navy ship and maybe a war to justify the sighting tower? No, time can not go backwards and progress is a good thing, at least most of the time. I would have preferred a museum of life at sea, but museums unfortunately are costly and do not bring in money like a restaurant. Anything is better than this mess. –

So Grandma and Zisa walk back down the Lighthouse’s narrow road, this time imagining the future: the courtyard full of elegant tables and chairs, a sign on the wall, a buffet full of good food and an old waiter in white gloves welcoming them.

The restaurant, as if maybe will be

text and illustrations by Maria Adele Cipolla

Capo Zafferano lighthouse

The Capo Zafferano Lighthouse

Built around 1880, on the NE side of Capo Zafferano, at 34 m above sea level, the Capo Zafferano lighthouse can be reached via a paved municipal road about 2.20 m. wide that allows the passage of only one vehicle at a time; the narrow winding road follows the wall of the rocky cliffs, crossing a small gorge with a brick bridge.

Registered in the Italian Navy’s Book of Lighthouses as no. 244, with the identification code E2023 (38 ° 06’7 ” N – 13 ° 32’3 ” E), the Capo Zafferano lighthouse was a military garrison during the last two world wars; for this reason it was equipped with a dwelling complex and a sighting tower. The lantern was fuelled by carbon acetylene until 1970, when it was equipped with an electrical system. In 1980, a hundred years after its construction, with the transfer of its last guardian, the last of two generations, the complex was abandoned, with the lighthouse now functioning only as a warning light with batteries and a twilight sensor switch.

The Capo Zafferano Lighthouse is an important site for navigation along this stretch of coastline. It commands a stretch of sea that, from Capo Zafferano to Solanto and Termini, has been the scene of historical events and renowned cities. Today’s Solanto, in fact, was the port of Selaim, one of the three most important Punic colonies of western Sicily together with Mothya and Palermo; later the port of the Hellenistic-Roman Solunto, it was the site of the furnaces that produced ceramics on the overlooking plain of San Cristoforo.

Capo Zafferano was on the trade route between Palermo and Himera and between Palermo and the river mouths (S. Giovanni, S. Michele, Cefalà) that brought water and wood from the mountains of Misilmeri and Marineo. Passing the Cape, one reached  Solanto, the seat of an Arab-Norman tower that later became a castle with one of the most renowned tuna processing plants of the Sicilian Middle Ages, also housing a granary.


from: La terra di guttuso

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