While the others napped

M IT`I, the Countess, was taking Laura and me to stay with her friend Renata, the Baroness, in the tiny Sicilian hill town of Castellana Sicula. Mit`i had told us to bring sweaters, although it was only September, because the air would be cooler in the mountains than in Palermo. The sky was blazing blue, as it so often is in Sicily, and the swelling hills on every side had been turned to pale mustard in the summer sun. On this excursion, I thought, we were bound to discover the mysterious, antiquated, and exotic Sicily I had long dreamed of.

As we parked the car under the only tree on the only street in Castellana Sicula, a bright orange tractor, obviously new and expensive, was driven nonchalantly by. In Renata's garden, however, was one of those gaily painted two-wheeled carts you see on souvenir post cards of Sicily. It gratified my craving for the picturesque, and I found it reassuring. After we had installed our belongings, we all got back into Laura's turquoise Fiat and drove to Petralia.

What fascinated me about Petralia was the place of honor it holds in the hearts of the Palermo aristocracy (or at least those members of it with whom I was traveling). It seems that since at least the turn of the century barons, countesses, and their friends have flocked there to escape Palermo's heat, to breathe the pure mountain air, and to entertain themselves with an endless timetable of parties, hunting, intrigues, and afternoon naps.

Petralia is a pretty town, with every street sloping to the contours of the mountain, the whole made of the same putty-gray, rough-hewn stone. There is a baroque cathedral with a bulbous dome which greets you proudly as you approach from below.

My first impression, however, as with Castellana Sicula, was that Petralia was a lot like the hill towns of central Italy, but cleaner, neater, and -- to my dismay -- not more mysterious.

We ate lunch on our laps at the house of Renata's brother, the Barone, on a leafy terrace by the side of his small, stern palazzo. The Barone was very charming, but my expectations of a heavy, rather greasy meal with lots of pasta and tomato sauce were destined to be disappointed.

We were served large quantities of beef, veal, and lamb cooked out of doors on a grill, and accompanied by a salad, with fruit for dessert. It was one of those informal gatherings where everyone is supposed to do exactly as he pleases, with no standing on ceremony. Sicilians like their nap after lunch, and moreover there was a soccer game on television, so by midafternoon everybody had disappeared.

This was my chance to go in search of some dark and secretive, truly authentic Sicilian atmosphere. Out the iron palazzo gate and up the first steep cobbled street I went. As I rounded the first curve I was pleased to meet a chicken strutting, sentry-like, in front of one of the stone houses. But, from a wrought-iron balcony above, its owner watched me with obvious suspicion. Why should this stranger be wandering around the deserted streets of Petralia at a time when all respectable people were asleep? She actually made me feel I was doing something I shouldn't. The fun was gone from my little expedition, and I returned, chastened, to the palazzo.

The rest of my stay in Sicily was a delightful round of sightseeing and social gatherings. The people were charming, sophisticated, and warm -- they didn't seem very mysterious or exotic at all.

In retrospect, though, I had actually glimpsed the ancient, tradition-bound Sicily I was looking for on that one brief afternoon walk. I had felt the weight of the centuries in that one glance.

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