Can a hike be described as sexy?
In Sicily, yes.
Like the hike up Monte Venere, named after Venus, the goddess of love, beauty and pleasure. Where the German baroness Frieda Von Richthofer had affairs with her mule driver Peppino D’ Allura, a romance her husband, the English writer D.H. Lawrence, fictionalized in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Where prickly maquis intermingle with the scent of wild thyme and vivid wildflowers. Where ruins are romanced by panoramas of the sea and the volcanic Mount Etna.
Magellan and I were cursing the pervasive entanglement of overgrown vegetation that, in many places, made the trail difficult for us to find. From recent reviews, other hikers are having the same experience. “WEAR LONG PANTS. Hike is closer to difficult and near the top tons of thistles. Multiple people on our hike bled.” (As you can see from our photos, we were blissfully unaware of this.) And “Route gets tricky as you make last ascent to summit because path is not obvious.”
The 9.2 km loop hike starts near Castelmola, a town above Taormina. We combined Monte Venere with the loop from Taormina to Castelmola, a hike we’ll share in another blog.
Many of us studied D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers in English 101 in first-year university and privately read Lady Chatterley’s Lover to see what the controversy was all about. ( D.H.=David Herbert)
Remember the story? The novel banned for three decades for its explicit sex? And for its incendiary depictions of upper and lower classes, industrialization and nature, mind and body?
In a sympathetic light, Lawrence portrays Lady Constance Chatterley, starved of physical love after her husband is paralyzed in WWI and turning to a village groundskeeper named Mellors to satisfy her sexual appetite. His compassionate treatment of Lady Chatterley taking up with a brutish working-class man (Lawrence initially titled the book Tenderness) was viewed as more scandalous than the adultery!
The model for Mellors was a twenty-four-year-old mule driver, Peppino D’Allura from the village of Castelmola, who Frieda seduced when he took her up to Café Monte Venere to visit her friend Betty. (Where but in Italy would one have such a suggestive last name as D’Allura?)
Because Lawrence was suffering from tuberculosis, he and and Frieda rented a house for three years in Taormina, an area known for its healthy air. Frieda told her husband about her promiscuity with Peppino, which Lawrence used in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, ascribing Frieda’s uninhibited thirst for love and companionship to Lady Constance and his own emotional neglect and indifference to Sir Clifford.
Our guidebooks to Sicily provided some of this info, enlivening the hike. Parts of the story we didn’t discover until writing this blog, deepening our experience of the Monte Venere hike.
Like an article in The Guardian that provides excerpts from the book the Italian journalist Gaetano Saglimbeni wrote about Frieda and Peppino’s affair, a book published after Peppino’s death:
One day the two were caught in a summer storm and sought refuge in an abandoned mill in the middle of a vineyard. According to Saglimbeni, Mrs Lawrence shed her wet clothes and ran naked through the vines, inviting her companion, who was 19 years her junior, to do likewise.
“She took his clothes off herself, violating his timidity. And Peppino also went wild. It was the August of 1922. That mill became their alcove for more than a year…
“My father, who was from Castelmola, told me the story when I was a child. Everyone in the village knew about this boy who had talked of his adventures in the vineyard with the wife of DH Lawrence…
“He used to tell the story in bars and hostelries, but he never spoke about it to journalists. He said that would have been unfitting for a Sicilian man of honour…
“Saglimbeni said the mulekeeper bore a remarkable physical resemblance to Mellors—one of the world’s best-known literary characters.
I didn’t know that Lawrence privately published 2,000 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, first in Italy and then in France, in 1928 and 1929, respectively. He mailed copies abroad. However, governments in the UK, Canada, the US, Australia, India and Japan banned the novel and some booksellers caught selling it were jailed. Pirated copies circulated for decades.
Not until June 1959 (29 years after the death of D.H. Lawrence) did the New York court of appeal overturn the ban, ruling that Lady Chatterley’s Lover, his last of eleven novels, was written with “a power and tenderness which was compelling” and justifying its use of explicit four-letter words. It was heralded “a victory for moral relativism and sexual tolerance, as well as for literary freedom.”
On November 2, 1960, that same conclusion was reached at the Old Bailey in London.
The British poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem that begins with a reference to the trial:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Later that month when Penguin Books in Britain printed the full unexpurgated edition, all 200,000 copies sold out on the first day of publication. That same November an Ontario panel of experts also found the novel “not obscene” according to the Canadian Criminal Code.
For what felt to us like an obscenely long time, Magellan and I followed the north route up a precipitous narrow track through the maquis. At times when there was no sign of a trail, the thistles were tall as Peppino and guardrails had long ago fallen down the mountain, we felt like giving up and turning back, as I expect those fighting for the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover did, too. It’s about a 450 metre climb to the top of Monte Venere, 884 meters above Taormina to the west where we started earlier in the day. To the east is Peppino’s village, Castelmola. To the north the Strait of Messina and southward, the Bay of Naxos. Even that day, with the sun’s dazzle dulled by atmospheric sands from the Sahara, we could sense the area’s seductive attraction.
Peppino worked for a wine merchant, muling kegs to Café Monte Venere where we stopped to enjoy the historical ruins. The Greeks may have had a Temple of Venus here; it’s uncertain. But it’s known that royalty and wealthy foreigners came for coffee during the Belle Epoque, more than a century before Peppino and Frieda’s erotic escapades up here. Today, it’s a ghost café, making it even more romantic, even though we would have liked an afternoon cortado and a handful of biscotti. Or a glass of wine to toast this amazing world and its many stories.
UPDATE: December 31, 2022. A book of historical fiction on Frieda: her life and influence on Lawrence—it’s titled Frieda and is by Annabel Abbs, printed in Great Britain in 2018 by Two Roads.
UPDATE: December 5, 2022. Westenfeld, Adrienne. “Inside the Game-Changing Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Esquire, December 5, 2022.
UPDATE: November 30, 2022. Walters, Meg. “In Netflix’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a Controversial Classic Becomes a Glossy Love Story, But Yes, There’s Still Plenty of Sex.” LitHub, November 30, 2022. This film is now available on Netflix–the costumes alone make it worth watching.
Panter-Downes, Mollie. “The Lady at the Old Bailey.” The New Yorker, Novewmber 11, 1960.
Sicily Car Tours and Walks. London: Sunflower Books, 2016.
Willan, Philip. “Lady Chatterley lover unmasked.” The Guardian: Nov 12, 2001.
Valloni, Giovanni. “Cafe Monte Venere.” Splendid Sicily: May 2020.