Back to Rome, 8/1999

Quiet, empty Rome
Stautary at the Villa Borghese
The eclipse in Rome
La Madonna del Divino Amore
Countryside inside Rome
Casina delle Civette
Everyman, the morality play
Music under the stars
Rome returns
New discoveries at the Forum

Back to Rome



Modica Bassa has two small museums in the same building.   One contains archeological finds dating to about 2000 B.C.E.   The older objects include many stone flints and hammer heads.   The other museum contains objects from about 100 years ago:   stone carving tools, blacksmith equipment, ceramics, shoes, clothing, and religious objects.  The sewing implements were of the sort that my grandmother probably used.   She was a seamstress in Palermo.   I pictured her sitting before the foot operated Singer, heating the irons in the fire to press the dresses.   Her son and both of her daughters followed this career.   An employee took us around and we understood nearly everything she said.  Afterwards we took the bus to Catania airport for the flight on Alitalia (L99,000, only about $60 for the one hour flight).  Finding where the bus stop took two visits to the travel agency, as I did not understand anything she said the first time.

From the jet we got a great view of the coast of Sicily as the path took us over Messina on Sicily and Villa San Giovane on the mainland.   We saw the islands just off the coast of Sicily. The view of the dead volcano Stromboli, whose cone was completely blown off, was absolutely magnificent.  The remains of the volcano occupy the entire island.  The other islands are dead volcanoes also, except maybe two of them farther west.   We also flew over the Isle of Capri near Naples and then got another great view, this of the historical center of Rome and the Vatican.   In the latter, the Coliseum stood out, its large bowl unmistakable from above.


Quiet, empty Rome

Rome is on vacation.  The traffic is light, the streets quieter.  Many shops are closed.  They post their vacation times on their doors.  Most places use the official form.  Each form has a letter ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or both.  ‘A’ means that they will be gone August 1-15, ‘B’ means August 16-31.   These forms are issued by the city government.   Many shops and restaurants must apply to the city before leaving for vacation; another line to stand in for shop owners, I bet.

We took long walks in the mornings.  The afternoons are too warm, registering 30-32 (86-89 F), and very humid at around 85%, but overall more comfortable than the past ten summers.    On the sixth we walked to see a section of the Roman aqueduct.   The roof of the channel for the water, on top of the aqueduct, is still intact in many places.  Along the wall people have built single family residences.   Many have gardens.  There are sections of Roman walls, some reaching thirty feet in height, in these gardens.  To me it seems quite a privilege to have an ancient wall in one’s back yard.   Maybe it’s old hat to these folks.

That evening we went to see Everyman, a morality play in English but we arrived just as they were finishing.  “Near the coliseum,” said the big, beautiful poster, but the play was staged 1/4 mile away.  It took us forty five minutes to find it.  The lack of clear or accurate directions is a frequent problem here even on posters that have been elaborately and not at all cheaply designed.


Peg writes:

We took the bus up to the Alban Hills yesterday to visit another of the 13 quaint, medieval towns on the south side of Rome.   This one features a Baroque Square, a beautiful viaduct built in 1854 that is 200 feet high and almost half a mile long, an immense palace built by the Chigi family [Pope Alexander VII, Bernini’s patron and the pope who finished St. Peter’s, was a Chigi]  and the famous roast suckling pig.  For lunch, we had a roast suckling pig sandwich, with olives.

Gary again:

And the views of the coast and coastal plain were beautiful.   They would be more beautiful if the coast was not always shrouded in mist, even in this bright sun.  It is generally cooler and breezier here than in Rome.

In the evening we attended a concert at San Ignacio, this time a chorus from Tampa.  They sang complex pieces, too muddy for this enormous place.


Stautary at the Villa Borghese

Cardinal Scipione Borghese built this magnificent palace, now a museum, around 1600.  It was designed by the Dutchman Jan van Santen.   During the Napoleonic era (1801-09), the French enriched the Louvre with more than 200 statues from the Villa.  The striking opulence of the building and the collection shows how great it could be in the church hierarchy in Scipione’s time.

The Villa contains magnificent ancient sculpture, originals and copies, reliefs, third century floor mosaics and  paintings from the middle ages through about the 18th century.   Most of the best pieces are on the top (main) floor.

Painters on display include Raphael (including the Deposition), Bernini, Lorenzo di Credi, Fra Bartolomeo, Durer, Domenichino’s Diana the Huntress, Carravaggio’s Madonna Dei Palafrenieri.  This last painting was commissioned for the Vatican but the figures were too realistic for that holy place.  Caravaggio also shows us David Showing Goliath’s Head, St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome.  Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love hangs here.

Bernini shows David slinging the stone at Goliath, a reminder to me of how long the Jews have been fighting to survive; perhaps Hitler was Goliath’s revenge.  Also in the collection are The Rape of Prosperina, Aeneas Carrying Anchises, and Truth.   The last sculpture he did before he died, a Jesus, is uncanny, so alive, so expressive, it just about made a believer out of me.   The Queen of Sweden wanted to buy it, but she could not afford it, and turned it down.  Bernini willed it to her upon his death.

Everywhere you turn in thei building Beauty invades your being, saturating you with its mighty but subtle rays.


The eclipse in Rome

The eclipse in Rome is on the order of 95%.   The sunlight is noticeable reduced but the effect is not as dramatic, of course, as you would find in the path of total coverage.   We watched television coverage (televisione or tee voo, as ‘t.v.’ is pronounced in Italian) with Speranza and her friend Elizabeth, also from Colombia.  Elizabeth is on her lunch break.  The Italian stations have sent cameras to English and Germany, and provide an excellent view of the sun’s eclipse which we watch on Speranza’s ‘tee voo’.   In the persistent lingering of mythopeic thinking, Muslims pray, because Mohammed did so during eclipses.  This was a good run up for those millions who believe that the year 2000 has an apocalyptic significance.  Jews, Muslims and others have entirely different years, of course, but this does not factor in the accounting for those enamored of the Christian calendar.


La Madonna del Divino Amore

To get to the sanctuary La Madonna del Divino Amore (Or Lady of Divine Love) is a local bus ride but you feel like you are far away from Rome.   The countryside is peaceful.  The sanctuary is perched on top of a hill with simple, but pretty views of the surroundings.  The small complex makes a delightful retreat center for the faithful.   In one of the halls there is an exhibition of images of Mary.   There must be 200 of them from all over Italy and the world.   Black Marys, oriental Mary’s, Mary in many poses, most of them the meek woman averting her eyes, submitting to God’s will.



Bracciano is a medieval town although it dates back much farther.   About forty miles north of Rome, it boasts an incredible castle owned privately by the Odescalschi family. All tours are guided.   The castle was built between 1100-1500 or so.   The oldest part is still standing.   In the 1400’s the additions by the Orsini family transformed it into a comfortable palace.  Now it has five towers.  One of the towers is from the 12th century castle, which still stands but incorporated into the later additions.  The fine views of Lake Bracciano and the surrounds alone make the visit worthwhile .   The Odescalschi family bought the property in 1695, and still pays taxes on it.  Two members of the family live on one of the lower levels.  The castle is in marvelous condition.  Kenneth Branagh’s Othello was filmed there.   The guide spoke in Italian, but later answered our questions in good English.

After the tour we walked down to the lake, about a mile and a half, on a steep dirt path.  We passed villas and gardens stuffed with tomatoes, figs and other fruits and vegetables.   To get to the lake, we entered the grounds of a summer club.   The club has a small beach, a cafe and a boat yard.   The boats include small sailing vessels, canoes and other small craft.  The vacationers lie on the beach, splash in the cool waters, chat with summer friends, and purchase meals and drinks which they consume on the terrace a few meters above the lake.  Sailboats and wind surfers here and there spot the lake.


Countryside inside Rome

The two mile walk through the Cafarelle Parks is a walk in the countryside.   However, we are in Rome, less than a mile from our apartment, entering the park off a side street extending from the ancient Via Latina.    This area contains uncultivated and cultivated fields, family gardens, tall reeds, and trash burned by the few families who live here.   Some live in beautiful villas surrounded by high walls, and the road there is paved.  These are nearer the main road, Appia Antica.  The houses farther in are more modest.  Some of the residents in the interior part have chickens.   We passed a man herding goats.

It’s less surprising to find yourself in the middle of an entirely rural area when you realize that Rome is surrounded by farms that supply the city with fresh fruits, vegetables, and grain, corn at least, since we have seen it growing in the nearby fields.  This is the only city of this size that I know of that makes you feel like you are eating fresh off the farm.  Suburban areas are mainly limited to the Alban hills to the south and similar small villages to the north.  On the west, coastal villages, largely vacant except in the summer months.   To the east many small towns dot the landscape, and on the east coast you face the sea.  From this coast you can get to Greece on ferries.



Ladispoli is a coastal town on the Tyrrenian Sea.   In this area the Etruscans built their empire, formed their pottery and fine jewelry, imported Greek pottery, built temples to the gods and provided the Romans with guides to the keeping the gods happy.    The town is a narrow strip.  The beach is black sand.  It is lined with bodies soaking up the sun.  Small boats are sitting on the sand, waiting for their owners to launch them onto the waters.  There are not many takers today, as the surf is rough.


Casina delle Civette

The Casina delle Civette is in the Liberty style.   ‘Liberty’ here means ‘art nouveau.’   The house-as-museum is most famous for its stained glass made 1908-1930, added 60 years after the house was built.   There are innumerable windows and doors with these Rene Mackintosh-like decorative glass (see the Scotland journal, July 1997 for more on Mackintosh).   Decorative owls appear throughout the building. The house has many roof peaks and arches.


An exhibition of Bernini’s works fills many rooms of the Palazio di Venizia.   There are sculptures, paintings, furniture, designs and models for many of Rome’s most famous and fabulous public places.   The building spree represented here was done under Pope Sixtus V.

A prolific and multi-talented man, Bernini began his career as a child under his father’s guidance.  His father Pietro (1562-1629) was also famous in his time, and worked in Rome for the Church.

I wish I could say more something more impressive about Bernini’s work.   It’s way beyond me to do so.



The morning was turned over to another Michelin Guide walk, this one labelled “Montecitorio.”  This takes us near the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona and again to the Fiume Tevere (Tiber River).   This section once housed enormous tombs and the funeral pyres of the Roman Imperial families.  There were theaters, amphitheaters, and sports facilities.   Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) renewed the district to impress pilgrims on the way to the Vatican.

The Piazza di Montecitorio has an Egyptian obelisk from the 6th century BCE.   Augustus had it brought to Rome around the time of Christ, while Pius VI is responsible for its current resurrection (1792).    It once served as the pointer for a gigantic solar clock.

The Palazzo di Montecitorio (1650-97) is yet another Bernini project. It is home to the Chamber of Deputies of the national government, which convened here starting in 1870.   Some windows have roughly hewn ledges, giving a cave-like appearance to the opening.   The building is slightly convex, making it look bigger than it is, though it’s big enough.  Since everyone is on vacation, the plaza is empty, the guards relaxed looking, and the nearby cafes either closed or nearly empty.  A major newspaper is housed nearby, allowing convenient coverage of daily events.

The Piazza Colonna, near the Palazzo di Montecitorio, would normally be crowded.   It is being renovated and the workers are busy today.   The Piazza sports a carved column conveying, like the Trajan column, the exploits of an Emperor, in this case, Marcus Aurellius (161-80).   He warred on the Danube, and died there of the plague.   You can see the scenes better than on Trajan’s column, as they are bigger and in higher relief.  Sixtus V replaced the statue of the emperor with Paul in 1589.

The Torre della Scimmia (Monkey Tower) was named as a result of the exploits of a devious monkey.  Said monkey took the family’s young baby to the roof.   The father prayed to Mary, and then called the monkey to him.   I imagine Mary said, “Hey!  You over there.  Try calling the monkey, you idiot.”  Ok, maybe not the idiot part, but you must admit, it is an idiotic story, but such were the times and the beliefs of men, to which we are all still subject.   The monkey came down with the baby intact.   A lamp still burns on the roof commemorating the event, and an image of the Virgin who looks out for all babies carried to rooftops by monkeys.

Full of gold and marble, and stuffed with paintings, Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi (St. Anthony of the Portuguese) is yet another of an astounding number of stunning churches of museum-like quality.   The facade is Rococo, the complex baroque decorative style.   Down the road and round the bend a bit is the Bear Inn.   Buildings in this area were mostly inns from about 1400-1600.   Bear Inn is still open for business, just a few yards from the walls of the Tevere (Tiber), whose sluggish waters pass far below.

Sant’Agosto, the famous Saint Augustine who dwelled in North African, has a church dedicated to him in this area.  It was built in late 1400’s.  It has a rose window, not common in Rome, though they are everywhere in France.   The interior was redone in 1760 and additions made in the 19th century.   The “Madonna del Parto,” sculpted by Sansovino in 1521, graces the entrance, despite being surrounded by burning candles.   A fresco by Raphael is also here, this one of the Prophet Isaiah.    A Caravaggio, the Madonna of the Pilgrims (1605), is marvelously executed, although Mary does not have the usual humble look.   She is looking at a worshiper on his knees, and seems to be saying, “Ok, enough of that.  Just call the monkey down.  Geez.”

Santa Maria Maddalena, the 12,000th church I would have seen here in Rome, was on this walk, but we did not get to it.


Everyman, the morality play

“Everyman” is a medieval morality play.  He is visited by the Grim Reaper, then sets about getting his life in order.  Fellowship, Strength, Knowledge, Riches and everything else abandon him and he is left only with Good Deeds to stand with him as he meets his fate.   This thirty minute play is performed predominantly in medieval English with the Roman Forum as a backdrop.  The actors are local native English speakers, except the Iranian.   Peg talks to Everyman afterwards and gets the name of the woman who heads the production of local English language theater.   Another of the actors is Australian and participated in a three year theater cruise of the Mediterranean.   The troupe outfitted a rust encrusted boat to carry them to many ports, where they performed mime and other language free acts.


Music under the stars

Guitars and mandolins skillfully perform in the piazza in front of the Basilica Santa Maria di Trastevere, dating from the year 217.   The campanile strikes every 15 minutes as it has since the 12th century.   The crowd murmurs as crowds have since crowds began to form.   All this passes below the holy family mosaics, whose figures gaze down as they have for the past 1000 years, like one would from a height overlooking a river.  To the holy family, We are like tiny boats passing never to be seen again onto the vast seas.   But no matter.  More boats shall come along, and they too shall be the object of the mosaics’ passing scrutiny.

Rome returns

The streets of Rome are busier as the Romans begin returning from vacation.   More cars.  The buses are filling as not only tourists ply the bi-ways.   Parking is no longer easily obtained.   More shops and restaurants are opening.   Pietro’s Trattoria and Pizzeria, near our apartment, opened when they said they would, but were not ready for business until the next day.   Romans are not quite ready to be back.

We saw two accidents today, one involving a motorino (scooter) which probably had been crazily careening between cars and buses.    The motorino was on the ground, its plastic windshield fractured, the driver already on his way to the hospital, the police collecting witness reports.  On the major highways leading to Rome, the carnage will peak as speeding drivers ignore the substandard signs that the highway department places to control the bedlam.   Everyone here seems to envisage himself or herself, especially the himselves, as A race car driver; authorities say that excessive speed is the major cause of accidents.  They not only travel well above the speed limits, they tailgate and weave like Mario Andretti.

Workers are making notable progress on the streets, buildings and monuments.   Scaffolding is coming down at a frenzied pace.   Streets are paved with macadam or laid with black stones day and night.  Rome will be gleaming as it has not for many years.  The fifth largest economy in the world is cranking away.

New discoveries at the Forum

At the imperial forums, archeologists continue to unearth new finds. These most recent discoveries were last exposed 1200 years ago but lost to history.   This summer they found:  1)  a courtyard they never expected; 2)a paleo-Christian church; 3) the base of the famous equestrian statue of Trajan, but the statue has not been found.   Also they found: 4) an entire medieval quarter; 5) an oblong hall with three vestibules, not yet understood.

Trajan’s Forum was intact until the 8th century.   Removal of its materials began to be were removed for use elsewhere.   From the 9th through the 11th century a new quarter was built.   Within it are traces of the vanished church, San Urbano.

In the works is a plan to restrict traffic on Via dei Fori Imperiali, built under Mussolini, running right through the forums and past the Coliseo.   It will be narrowed, and much of it will be a pedestrian zone.   They will allow only public transport on the boulevard.   The forums will be linked by an underground passage, which in the 17th century served as a drain for water.   This is due for completion in early autumn, whose coming time we can feel in the now sometimes chilly, breezy mornings.   There are new, large boards briefly explaining the sites to visitors.   The translations are excellent, much better and more detailed than those there previously.


Another visit to Caferelli Park

Around 8 a.m. we entered Caferelli Park from Appia Antica, near the Porta Latina.  This port and the connecting walls will later become a favorite spot for me to draw.

We came across a house in a valley set against a hill.   It looks quite old.  An old woman was burning trash in the front yard.   Peg, in her best Italian, asked her how old the house was.   The woman said it was older than Rome.   Another woman, whom Peg said was apparently a gypsy, said ‘500.’   They often leave off the 1000’s so this meant that the house was built in the 1500’s.  That’s seems entirely possible.  It looks run down and it seems that these people are living as if they were in the 1500’s.

Malta 8/1999




Arturo, my host, kindly drove me to Pozallo to catch the ferry.  The agency that sold me the ticket told me to go to the office in town.  It took a bit of convincing to get Arturo to drive there instead of directly to the port.  Once there he treated me to driving the wrong way on one lane alleys and running stop signs.  Only because the driver of a large truck was paying attention did I avoid being severely injured.

Harbor in Valeta
The harbor in Valetta, Malta

For reasons I never learned, VirtuFerries took passengers to the port from their office, rather than having passengers go directly to the port.   Maybe this applied only to people taking the package tour.   About ten people were waiting in the van, placed for maximum discomfort in the hot sun.  The driver did whatever drivers do in Italy when they could be transporting people.   I did not want to wait in the sun, so I stood about fifteen yards away.  He pulled away without me.   I pounced on him before he got away.   He said he’d be right back, saying “Dopo, dopo.”   (After, after.)  While I waited I enjoyed the splendid, shaded view of the port and the Mediterranean splayed to all points south.  He returned ten minutes later and transported just me to the port.   I guess Italians are worried about getting left behind, or maybe they just like the feeling of being crushed and roasted; there must be a reason why they all sat there, squeezed together, sweating in the sun.

After a passport check, I boarded the catamaran, which departed at the time scheduled.  Seating is airplane style.   There are seat belts only for the passengers in the front row.   You cannot go outside.  Fortunately the cabin is air conditioned, and the a.c. is strong enough to keep you cool.   The windows became fogged and splashed by the sea as we got underway, limiting visibility and pushing me toward seasickness.   I managed to see just enough of the horizon to avoid becoming ill.   In the past I have found going by slow ferry to be much more enjoyable.    You can go outside for fresh air, there is more room to walk around, you can visit the bar, and the like, but the ferry takes twice as long.   Of course, you can get seasick on a ferry.   I did once, despite seeing the horizon, on the route from Scotland to Ireland.  The waves were huge, and we were free falling between them.


As we enter the port you can see portions of the harbor in Valetta, Malta’s capital. Many historical figures, from Ulysses to St. Paul to Napoleon, have enjoyed this view.

After clearing customs, we got on the tour bus.   There were two buses and I was told to get on the bus for the tour in English.  However, most of the tourists were Italians, and only two were Americans besides me, and they spoke Italian, so the guide dropped English after about twenty minutes.   The bus dropped us off outside the old town, a pedestrian only area.   Local passengers boarded very brightly painted buses, of 1950-early 60’s vintage.   Some of them (the buses, not the passengers) have tail fins that look like 1959 Chevrolets!
Many Maltese, our guide explained, speak English but most of the time they speak Maltese.  The language came from the Phoenician, with significant Italian (she said ‘Latin’) and Arabic influence.   All the street and shop signs are in English, and they drive on the left like the in the U.K.   The population is mostly Catholic.

St. John’s Cathedral (1573) is the major architectural attraction.   It is in the Baroque style.  Every inch of the interior walls is intricately carved, except where there are paintings or emblems.  The floor is marble.  The museum has two excellent Caravaggio’s, but I did not have time to go in.

We walked through the narrow old street to a fine vista of the harbor and surrounding countryside.  The harbor opens directly onto the sea.  The basin is large and is easily navigated.  Large ships and buildings dominate part of the harbor, but the overall beauty has not been destroyed.

It is in part for this and the other harbors (two in Valetta alone) that the British defended Malta, then a British colony, so vigorously in WWII.   Also, Malta’s location between the coast of North Africa and Sicily made it strategically important, allowing a base for attacking ships attempting the passage through the Mediterranean.  Malta became independent after the war.  It remained in the Commonwealth until the 1960’s or 1970’s.


On the way to Mdina (meaning ‘Fortified City’ in Arabic), the guide told us that the local building stone is calciferous and easy to work.   The temperature can reach 40c (100F) in the summer.   It can be rainy in the winter, with temperatures of about 10C (45F).   Prices for hotels plummet in the winter.   She told me that I could rent an apartment in the winter for about $75 a month.  I asked her twice to see if I heard right.  I still don’t believe it.  The Maltese make a liquor from prickly pears, which are abundant and now nearly ready to pick.

We stopped for lunch in the countryside between Valetta and Mdina.   They served buffet style.  The food was Italian.  The choices included an excellent antipasto selection, veggies (including broccoli with big, white beans), fish and beef.  Everything was very good, especially considering how inexpensive the tour is.  I sat across from a young couple from Palermo who spoke no English.  They were not very talkative.  I asked them the names of things and they responded but never initiated any conversation.   I asked if unemployment was high in Palermo.   She said officially yes, about 15% I recall her answer being, but many of them were working under the table.

After lunch we completed the short trip to Mdina.   Mdina has a beautiful stone main gate.   Walls encircle the city of 50,000.   I felt like I was about to enter a village in the Holy Land.   Mdina is made entirely of stone, a beige, ok, a khaki color, which is altogether harmonious with the desert-like landscape.   The town is full of balconies, for which the Arabs are well known.   The cathedral is well worth a visit.   The marble floors have chiaroscuro portraits, or other topics, made from marble, and then inset. These are skillfully done and not commonly seen.

The afternoon has quickly passed.  There is much that we have not seen on Malta, and the other five islands have not even had a mention.   Onto the catamaran, and one final view of the beautiful harbor before spray covers the windows and nausea returns to haunt.

late 1950's vintage buses
Late 1950’s vintage buses


Sicliy, Part 2 July 1999

Figs everywhere, and all to eat.

General observations

Sicily, cont’d

“They [the Sicilians] built as if they would live forever, and ate as if they would die tomorrow.”



To Pozzallo, another of the beach towns reached by driving through the khaki countryside in the khaki Renault.  This road, like most in the area, is barely two small vehicles in width.   The road is squeezed between stone walls, rounded at the top, finely

chiseled by hand from the area’s quarried stones, built without mortar.   These walls delineate not only the roads but the fields as

well.  With a fine, long view you can see these walls climb up hills, straight as an arrow and over the top.

The fields are filled with olive trees, vineyards and orchards.   Peaches, apricots, figs, black pepper trees (one just outside the gate

to the villa), and ‘fichi d’India’ (literally ‘figs of India’, ‘prickly pear’ in English), beans, wheat.  My Sicilian grandfather, Giuseppe, extolled the virtues of the prickly pear.   The big cactus grows everywhere in this area. I guess that they are very good when

ripe.  I have never had a good one.   They are not yet ripe here but will be soon.

The beach is typical of those in the area.   The sand is white, the waves gentle most of the time, and there is plenty of room.  Most of the coast in this area is perfect for swimming.  There are many secluded spots and there is lots of fresh air.   I have not seen a life guard, nor any warnings about undertow.   People of all ages come to the beaches, often whole families from babies to grandparents.  Some of them own beach houses in the tiny beach towns.   They use them for a month or so and the rest of the year they are vacant.  They come back year after year to the same town, same beaches, same next door neighbors, same surf, same food, same khaki, desert landscape.   Nonetheless, the young teenagers enjoy meeting old friends, making new ones, experimenting with romance.  This experimentation is often conducted on the beach, on the benches, in the cars, for all to see.

Pozallo has a port and a marina.  From the former a catamaran takes passengers only to Malta in about and hour and a half.  A ferry also makes the run, in three and one half hours.  We drove to see the port, but you cannot get close as this is an immigration check point and access to the boat quay is only for ticketed customers.   The pleasure port is next door.   Large and humble boats share the quiet waters.   We ask at the harbor master’s for a price list, but he is gone and no one knows where anything is.

To get back to Modica, we took route 194, which takes us to Modica in half the time the local roads take.  Route 194 crosses Modica Bassa on a trestle that towers above the canyon, affording a spectacular view of the town.


Figs everywhere, and all to eat.

You do not getting much exercise living here.   I feel like we are back in the U.S., obliged to use the car, nor our legs, to go everywhere.  However, we got some exercise today climbing the steps to the baroque San Giorgio in Modica Bassa.  The vertical lift is approximately 50 meters (150 feet).  It looks immensely tall from down below.

Afterwards we drove out of the lower part of town to the cliff overlooking Modica Bassa to take pictures.  As we were about to leave,  I dropped my sunglasses over the side.  Fortunately I could climb over the wall and push my way through some branches to where the glasses landed.  This is when we noticed that the tree was a fig tree and it was bearing black figs.   We tried one and it was delicious.   We picked all the ones we could reach and shared them with our hosts for desert.  Over the next week we stopped several times to pick figs from fig trees growing free on the roadside.

Later Diana sautéed some small fish.  We ate outside, just beyond the kitchen.   The moon was bright, a few stars were out, and the evening breeze made everyone comfortable.

On the 29th it was breaded veal and excellently prepared and home cooked fries for lunch.  She said the veal was ‘alla Palermitana,’ I think I have that spelled right.   It means ‘Palermo style.’  For dinner we ate steamed veggies, at our request.    There is lots of fresh mozzarella in the diet, and Parmesan, eaten whole as well as grated.

The weather continues to surprise.  The morning sun is bright and hot, but we feel cool in the shade.    Late in the afternoon the temperature reaches about 32 C (90 F).   Evenings cool to about 22 (72F).   Most nights we sleep with the windows closed and the ceiling fan on.  If you don’t close the windows, a mosquito will surely wake you.  We have

had one living with us since we got here.   His name is Adolph.  I bought him a collar but he won’t wear it.

General observations

There are few street markets, but fruit and vegetable stands dot the area.   A large melon is in season.  It appears to be a kind of honeydew.  Watermelons, peaches, apricot and plums are also in.

Because Diana speaks little English, our Italian is progressing.   She is patient, pronounces clearly, and speaks standard Italian.   She insists on having no help at mealtime.   We put an end to that.  I made a pizza, Peg made some stuffed zucchini, on the 28th I made stuffed shells.

Cozze (mussels) and vongole (clams) are in.   They are local, very fresh and inexpensive (L5000, $2.50 per kilo).   We bought them at an outdoor fish market in Donnalucatta, another beach town.  I made paella with some of each.  Diana told me that you have to soak the clams in fresh water for about three hours so they expel the sand.    Salt water shell fish die in fresh water, I was taught, but these didn’t.   I added salt but I have no idea if that helped.   Diana went

to get saffron for the paella.  I was ready for it by the time she got back, but she could not find any.   You can substitute paprika, but there wasn’t any in the house and it was too late to go get some.  She told me to use curry instead.  She had some.  I had no clue what this was going to taste like.  To my surprise it was very good.  Arturo

said if I wanted to cook like this, we could stay as long as we wanted.   When Diane prepared mussels one afternoon, she used a little tomato, garlic, and olive oil to make the broth, which was good enough to drink!

During our visit, we bought white wine from the gigantic metal containers (red is in barrels) at the wine store close by, L2000 per liter.

There is no sign I can perceive of organized crime in the area, but corruption and cheating the government is a problem.   Arturo pointed out several large, incomplete houses.   The owners were caught building without a permit and were not following code by using substandard concrete.  They could not pay the fine so they abandoned the project.

More commonly you bribe the official to look the other way.   Some of these officials must be so busy looking the other way they can’t see anywhere at all.  This problem is not confined to Sicily, and is not particularly worse than in other parts of Italy.  But it is certainly worse than in most if not all other parts of the European Union.

The towns in the area are extremely clean.  Rome is not bad for a big city, but you could eat off the streets here.

The tourist bureau produces a food and wine guide for the province of Ragusa.   It tells us that Epicarno Siracusano (485 B.C.) was the first to write about gastronomy.  ‘Epicarno’ sounds like ‘epicurean’ but I do not have a dictionary to check the etymology.   Another Siracusano, Terpsione 380 B.C.E., had a cooking school.   Archestrato 320 B.C.E. is

famous for his recipes, some still in use today.   The Sicilians were famous among the Greeks for the cuisine, and of the citizens of Agrigento, the Greeks said,   “They built as if they would live forever, and ate as if they would die tomorrow.” (Agrigento has many fabulous remains of ancient Greek temples.”   This is not to be missed!   We went there five years ago).

In Sicily in the ninth century rice was cultivated for the first time in Europe.   Vermicelli was invented in Trabia around 1150, macaroni around 1250.   Sicilian Procopio de Coltelli invented sorbet, the forerunner to ice cream (no date given).

Each conqueror gave something to the cuisine.   I bet canoli came from the Arabs, along with most anything else made with almonds.  From the Spanish, paella, the Greeks many things but surely the olives and perhaps some eggplant preparations, the Americans, the mighty burger; even here McDonalds flips away.  From whence came the Almighty Pizza, the tourist bureau dares not say.   Kollura (Greek) was a bread offering to the gods, now called cuddura, apparently a bread shaped like a doll; the French ‘glacer’ became “agglassato,” a boned, stuffed meat roll.  The Arabic “quas’at” became the sweet ricotta ‘cassata,’   which the Michelin  says is an ice cream cake.

I have never seen so many ice cream cakes in my life as I have in this area.   In many cafes they are on display in glass?door freezer cases.   They are beautiful.  We had a piece.  It was fabulous.   Speaking of cream, they are not bashful about adding huge dollops to cappuccino or ice cream; cream mountains clutter the cafes.

Despite all this wonderful food, the people are not fat.   The young women have invariably stunning figures, and their middle age moms hold their own;  I wish some of them would ask me for a little help.  There are the plump ones, men and women, of course, but obviously they don’t each tons of the incredible variety of calorie rich food served everywhere.

The area also boasts significant wine production and is planning road trails so you can see, perhaps visit the wineries.

Our hosts go for coffee every morning.  I don’t think they ever made coffee at home.   Often Diana would have a granita mandorle, an almond flavored drink blended with crushed ice.  She said it is too hot to drink coffee in the summer.  This is such a common practice that many people double park in front of cafes to go in for a coffee.   They are usually done in less than five minutes.

On Monday the first, I head to Malta alone for the day.   The trip costs L130,000 round trip, about $72.   However, for L20,000 ($11) more you get a guided tour and lunch.  I went for the full monty.

Sicily 7/15/1999

Stone village
Unspoiled beach towns
The baroque town of Noto
Translation difficulties
The Excavations of Camerina, 900 B.C.E.
Marina di Modica
Chiaramonte, Akrai, Tombs from 1800 B.C.E., Noto Antico



We left Rome at 8:10 a.m. bound for Sicily.     Peg has a job to do for Arturo, which will keep us away from Rome for at least several weeks, with plenty of time to tour about the island.

The Italians love their cell phones.   Two of the young military draftees sharing our train compartment with us had them and one called mamma when he got close to home.    Others received calls.   Arturo was waiting for us in Ragusa.   From his cell phone, he called Marina to tell her that he had found us by chance.   We had called at 6 p.m. to let him know when we arriving, as we could not tell from Rome what the local bus schedules would be.

The train was crowded in large part due to all the young draftees (all young men are required to do military service in Italy).  We were going to lose our seats, and would have to stand from Napes to Sicily, at least four hours.   The conductor showed us to another compartment that the conductors used until Naples.   He didn’t have to do this.  He was being  kind.
After passing Napoli, the train hugged the coast, taking us through countless cultivated fields, all the while in view of the mountains, including Vesuvius.    At 2:50 p.m. The train stopped just a five minute walk from the ferry.   The twenty minute journey gave us magnificent views of Messina’s harbor and the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains a kilometer or so inland.    Sicily is so close, the channel so narrow, that an excellent swimmer could readily make the one or two kilometer trip.
We asked directions to the buses and found them after a few false turns.    If you have to do this, you go out of the train station, turn left and while hugging the train station, go about a quarter of a mile until you see the blue regional buses.  The office was closed but the bus driver told us the schedule.
There is no direct service to Modica, our destination.    The bus first took us to Catania, a regional population center and home to an international airport.   With us on the bus was a beautiful black woman from Ghana, just finishing a two-week tour of Sicily.   In her excellent King’s English she told us how much she enjoyed the visit.

An hour later the bus to Ragusa arrived.   The trip into Ragusa, a mountain village of 5500 just fifteen minutes from Modica,
took almost two hours.  Thus the entire journey from Rome took twelve hours, about the same as if we had done it by car, and
shorter than if we had done it entirely by train.    A sun was dipping behind the hills.

Stone village

Arturo (none of the names herein are actual) picked us up at the bus station right on time.  Along the way to his house we were treated to a marvelous sight from Modica Alta (the higher part of town) at night.   From the hill opposite, the valley between containing Modica Bassa (Lower Modica), we saw the large, steep hillside filled with stone houses, and nothing but.    These are attractively illuminated, follow switch-back curves, and are stacked one upon the other. I was struck by the feeling that we were in the Holy Land, for here too the sandy colored housing blended with the stone surroundings.   Only the houses offer a contrasting color, the red of the roof tiles.

Modica panorama
Overlooking Modica

Our hosts live in a large villa.   There are two floors, each with about 8 large rooms, plus several baths.    The main entrance leads to a magnificent stairwell, steps and banister of marble.   The ceiling of the stairwell extends to the roof.   This stairwell was photographed for a book about the region Arturo and Diana they sent to us.

We have the front half of the upper level.    There are three bedrooms we can choose between, connected to one another by a balcony and by a hallway.   Three bathrooms are in this part of the house.    One of them has no hot water.   Another has hot water but no toilet.   The water heater in the third is not working but it is otherwise complete except the toilet has no seat.   However, it is the most beautiful toilet I have ever seen, a fully decorated ceramic bowl.  For a bedroom we choose the largest because it has two outside walls so we can get cross ventilation.

Diana was awaiting us, along with the German shepherd.    Arturo said the dog was living wild when he found him several years ago.  Recently the dog killed and ate a neighbor’s dog.   However, he has not attacked any people.   He wags his tail at us like we are old friends.   Or is he happy to meet his next meal?

Our next meal was by Diana:  baked onions and fresh anchovies,   local bread, white wine, fresh pineapple from Somalia, preceded by thin slices of smoked swordfish.  The fish was locally caught and not expensive, Diana said.    The anchovies were breaded and when fresh are nothing like what you get out of a can.  They taste like fresh tuna, but a very light flavor, even lighter than tuna normally is.   A thin slice of moon looks over us in clear skies as we dine.   Diana’s Italian is remarkably clear, easy to understand, and she is patient while Peg and I work through the conjugations or substitute a Spanish word.

The huge windows are wide open as we go to sleep.    A large palm tree fills much of our view, but behind it, that thin slice of moon is joined by Venus, winking at us as if to say, “Arrivederci!    Join you later, in your dreams.”


Unspoiled beach towns

Last evening was far cooler than we expected.    Diana told us that the temperature was normal for this time of year.   The days are warm, but not normally very hot, and the nights cool, even cold enough for her to wear a light jacket, ‘wools,’ as our landlady puts it.

She took us shopping at an ordinary alimentari (food store), and to the center of the old part of Modica.   There I saw a tourist bureau so in we went.   A young woman was eager to practice her English.    Some brochures of the area are translated into English, others have French as the second language.   Diana explains that there are French tour groups coming to a nearby club.    She calls it a ‘Club Med’ so I presume it’s the Club Med I know of.

A nearby beach town in the evening is uncrowded, an off the beaten path kind of place.  There are small apartments within a few feet of the water, with small, private gardens in the back.    Arturo says there are many bargains in houses in the Sicilian countryside, and these are among them.  Renting them in the winter would also be a terrific bargain, but you must be self-entertaining.

Peg and I returned alone to the beach in a.m.    The beach is far from full, and where we go, we are alone.    The water is surprisingly chilly, but once you are in, it is comfortable.    It is clean but not as clear as, say, the Caribbean waters.    Later  we drove to a nearby village.  This is Arturo’s hometown.    He wandered about the streets, driving the wrong way on one way streets, as if he had not been there in a long time and couldn’t read the street signs, though of course it was quite deliberate.    I think he said that as a child he lived in what is now the town hall.   It is large and beautiful.    There are cave dwellings in the gorge outside town.    These dwellings were used before even the Greeks arrived, making it prior to about 750 B.C.E.

Sitting around afterwards, Peg and I determined that we are confused about whether Diana wants to cook for us all the time or just when they invite us.   Arturo says there is no plan.    An example of our confusion and the unplanned state of affairs, this evening we ate dinner upstairs and when we were done they called us to join them for dinner downstairs.

I have neglected to mention that there is a kitchen in our quarters.    It is sparsely outfitted but the essentials are there. On our arrival we found a few items they had put there for us, one a bottle of local red wine.  We tried it.    It was fruity, hearty, and far more than just passable.    In October the locals have festivals to celebrate the new wine.    They are still selling last year’s new wine in the area shops.

I find it hard to sleep for the few mosquitoes that buzz my ear.    If you close the windows it is too warm, although it is chilly outside.

7/18/99 Sunday.

The baroque town of Noto

In the morning Peg and I head to the village of Noto in Arturo’s ancient Renault 8.  We have use of this French four door marvel.   It is a marvel because it is about 20 years old, has about 130,000 miles on it, and is in great shape.   It is also notable for the gear shift coming straight out of the dashboard.    You push forward for first, backward for second, etc., using the same pattern as if it were mounted between the seats.    At first, you can’t imagine how the thing works.

Noto is an entirely Baroque town, and like Old Modica and most of the old residential areas in the area, it is all of stone.    It was rebuilt after the big earthquake in 1693 by the Laudlino family.   This family apparently had loads of money, for this was a major project.   The dome of the magnificent Chiesa di San Francisco all’Immacolata fell in recently, and the rest of the roof joined it on the ground.   In the plaza in front of the church are several monumental structures in the same khaki-colored stone.   Like all the other towns we have seen on this voyage, including Messina, Catania, Ragusa, it is spotlessly clean.

Palace in Noto
Palace in Noto

In the evening we attended a party at the house of our hosts’ friends, Nino and Monica.  After we arrived came Olga and Heidi, married to Franco and Paolo (not sure who is married to which), and Maria, married to Clemente.   The three German women, Monica, Olga and Heidi, came to Sicily together in the early 1970’s to work in the resorts frequented by the Germans. They met the three Sicilian men, and eventually came back to marry them and live here.    Heidi lives in Modica Bassa in a 300 year old mansion in the center of the town.   They remodeled it into several apartments, and the ground floor tenant is a bank.

Monica grilled skillfully on the large, built-in-stone outdoor charcoal pit.    As an appetizer, she toasted some bread and offered three sauces to paste on them.   One sauce was tomato with olive oil, a second peperoncino (peppers, in this case red) and a third from basil, but not a pesto.   This last is a puzzle, as I could not tell what was in it.

Dinner was a feast.  First was a thin piece of local beef, very tender and tasty, then a thick pork chop.    Of course, all the veggies: eggplant with a little tomato sauce on it, zucchini, peppers.   After everyone was stuffed, she brought out kabobs: onion, tomato, chicken and sausage.    Everything was fabulous.   Surprisingly there was no pasta and people ate very little bread.    We all drank plenty of local red wine and bottled water.

Dining was outside under the stars in the garden.    The garden is in the style of the area, harsh, desert-like landscape.    There was a yucca plant that had sent shoots twenty feet high with flowers and seeds at the end.  There are carob trees, which are farmed in the area, and the usual palm trees, and various cacti.

During dinner Arturo says Americans like to visit the area, once they get past their Mafia prejudices.   But they find living here too inconvenient.   Too often the water is cut off, you lose electricity, and is too expensive to air condition the houses.   We have been without electricity twice since we arrived, once due to a breaker and the other a power failure in the electrical net.

He explains about the other large house on his premises.    It was built without a permit.   I think it is properly constructed but he did not get a permit to avoid the additional property taxes.   That meant that he could not order electrical service.    The second house is served by the same three kilowatts that power his villa.  This second house has a swimming pool whose filter must be left on for much of the season.    The pump absorbs 3-5 amps of power.    That leaves only ten or so for the house he lives in.   That’s why we cannot run two of the hot water heaters in the villa simultaneously.

The telephone wiring is old, he says, so his internet connection is slow.    He now has a free account with the phone company.    If you have a phone in your own name, you can get the same deal.    This just started and sounds to me like the recently privatized telephone company is trying to rub out the competition.     He trades stock but does not do it on-line.    He wants me to teach him how.   He also needs help with computer things in general.    He is self-taught.  He handles it pretty well but he does not understand how to navigate, nor what navigation means.  For example, he thinks that if he saves something in a directory called ‘documents’ it ipso facto becomes a word processing document.



Today’s ‘giro’ (journey) takes us to Ragusa Ibla, the old Ragusa.    Ragusa became the capital of the Province of Ragusa in 1927.    Modica and Scicli are the other main towns.    After the earth quake of 1693, the people abandoned some town sites in the area,  the town rebuilt in a new location.  In others, such as Ragusa, Modica, Ispica and Scicli, the old town remained occupied and a new town added.  Old Ragusa is on the hilltop with commanding views.   The town is composed of Baroque structures, many wrought iron balconies, and steep, stone stairs connecting the neighborhoods.    Many streets are inaccessible to cars. The beach is close by and we were told it is pretty.

Local cuisine

The locals raise cattle, grow wheat and ‘pulses,’ says a tourist brochure.    This area is known for ricotta, mozzarella and provolone, regular elements of my own family’s diet even now in the U.S.    One specialty is ‘gnucchitti,’ ravioli stuffed with ricotta and served with a pork ragu sauce.  Maccu is a bean soup flavored with wild fennel (fenochio).    A third specialty is Pasta alla Pecorara, pasta with onions, diced potatoes, some milk and Pecorino cheese.   Pecorino is a sharp sheep cheese rather like Parmesano, which we all know and love, and which comes from the town of Parma.     Here they eat tripe still, and snails, but I have not seen ether on any menu yet.  Arancine is a rice and cheese ball, deep fried.

Translation difficulties

From a brochure we got from the tourist office:

I heard that you are coming to Ragusa to visit the whole region:  knowing that you are greedy and curious, I want, first of all, to tell you about Sicilian cuisine…

The Italians are very gracious hosts, but that does not mean that the translators always grasp important nuances.

The Excavations of Camerina, 900 B.C.E.

From Ragusa Ibla we drove to the museum and excavations of Camerina near Santa Croce Camerina.  There was a Greek settlement here 150 years before they established Syracusa, according to an exhibit.  In that case, the ruins date from somewhere around 900 B.C.E.

The museum entrance is next to the ruins, and one of the buildings is built over the remains of a temple, part of the foundations exposed to the visitor.    Outside the small grounds of the museum are the active digs.    The archeological zone extends about a kilometer toward the sea on a ridge.   The Greeks chose a ridge with an endlessly stretching view of the sea.

Inside the museum are terracotta tombs in which they discovered tons of pottery, also on display and much of it in fine shape.    The pottery is mostly undecorated terracotta.    Exhibits show gold coins, a helmet (bronze, I think) and a variety of everyday and decorative objects.   Some items were discovered under water, others under the sand that covers the coastal zone.   The helmet was under water, and they have a photo of the diver bringing it to the surface.

Afterwards we drove under the relentless sun along the coast in the general direction of Modica.    We passed by many greenhouses in which they grow poinsettias for Christmas, which now lay unused.   There was little else and it was after 2:00 before we found an open restaurant.    The restaurant reminded us of places in the Caribbean for the laid back atmosphere, the turquoise sea just the other side of a short expanse of white sand, the bamboo roof, paneless windows.    It was just a summer place.   Mama made some pasta with clams for us.   Two young teen girls swatted a ball back and forth on the beach just outside the door.

Palm trees in Arturo's garden
Palm trees in Arturo’s garden



Siracusa (Syracuse, famous in Greek times) is about an hour and a half from Modica, a distance of some 70 kilometers.   The archeological park houses a Greek theater from 475 B.C.E.   The stone seating was cut from the hillside and seated 15,000.   The locals still stage classical Greek productions.   The acoustics are fabled.   The early Greeks built an altar 65m long by 11m wide by 23m high (200 B.C.E.), perhaps the world’s largest, for sacrificial events.   The Roman Amphitheater (2nd century) is in excellent condition.

Since we visited these sites five years ago, we headed for the section of town called Ortigia, an island on the tip of the city but just a few meters from the mainland. Here we gazed upon the remnants of the Temple of Apollo (575 B.C.E.).  Only two of the enormous exterior columns are intact.   The capitals (the tops of the columns) are Doric in style.   These examples are cruder than Doric capitals normally are.    Inside some of the original, ancient   (also circa 575 B.C.E.) Greek columns were built into the walls.   All of the others support the roof.   There are 26 ancient columns in all.   The baroque facade is from the 18th century.

a Palace in Syracuse
Palace in Siracusa

The ocean is nearby, maybe 100 meters away.   A fresh water stream bubbles into the fountain just a few feet from the sea.  The Fonte Aretusa is fed by a subterranean river.   There are trout or similar   fish.

Scattered about are various palaces, some Gothic and some Baroque.   Nary a tree shades the narrow streets, but parks and tree-lined vias add green to the harshness of the stone and stucco.


Marina di Modica

In the early evening the Renault 8 carries us to Marina di Modica, another of many nearby coastal villages less than twenty minutes from our hosts’ villa.    Germans must come here, for there are wursts for sale in on the streets.   Near the beach are vans selling these sausages and typical local fare, including pizza and ice cream.   The wurst wagon has one of those appliances that warm bread by piercing the bun longitudinally.

Young teens parade about in the carnival like, yet laid-back atmosphere; it’s the feeling I only get in the countryside.   Brisk winds have whipped up the waves and a few wind surfers are trying their luck.  A music vendor spoils the atmosphere with some rock and roll, but someone complains and he turns it down.  Trees shade the walkway along the beach.   Large ships and pleasure craft dot the horizon where Ulysses once passed on his way to or from present day Tunisia.   The Phoenicians (from what we now call Lebanon) came before, lonely on the seas, later the Romans and many others, the British, the French, the Americans among them.   About 100 miles away lies Malta, scene of WWII battles for that strategically located island.   The sun is still bright in the breezy, comfortable evening as we turn the little Renault back to Modica.


Chiaramonte, Akrai, Tombs from 1800 B.C.E., Noto Antico

Today the trusty but slow Renault took us north and east of Modica today to four towns.  Chiaramonte is a village on a steep hillside, surrounded by pine woods.   In town, we crossed paths with a bicycle race.   A little bar on the main plaza had the usual great cappucino, but also canoli, the round pastry shells stuffed with sweetened ricotta, a soft, creamy cheese, thicker than yogurt and not at all sour tasting even without sugar.  The teenager who waited on us was obviously the owner’s son.   He talked to us in English, not fluently but he made the effort, unlike many who have had years of English without ever speaking a word.   His father eyed us suspiciously, without cracking a smile.

Twenty men sat outside drinking coffee and watching the racers snake through the narrow, stone streets heading down the hill.   The race finished on the other side of town after the punishing climb uphill. The baked plane to the north spread out before us from a wide spot in the road outside town.   After climbing through the village and to the top of the mountain, you are on another flat, dry plane where everything is the color of my khaki pants.   I blend in like a lizard.

Akrai is in the province of Siracusa.   On the hilltop is a small, well-proportioned Greek theater.   I estimate that the seating capacity at 400.   The site also has caves in which residents lived or stored things, and ruined walls and walks.

We got a few kilometers down the road from Akrai when Peg realized that her wallet was missing, cash, credit card, passport inside.   After checking inside the car, we rushed back to Akrai.   One of the guards helped her look and it did not take Peg long to find it, in front of the stage, readily visible to anyone yet undisturbed, fully intact.

Our next stop was labeled on the map only as a prehistoric village.   The route was not well marked but we drove right to it.   You see tombs carved out of the hillsides.   They date from 1800-1500 BC.    Where we stand to look at the remains is in the middle of a shallow gully, fields and stones all about, no guards, no admission fee.   Just us, the tombs carved out of the rock, the wind, the stones, the ancient presence of whom we know not.   Many little lizards scurry around the desert landscape, the same color as the stone, the car, my pants, the sun.

Next was Noto Antica.  Not much here to see.  Dusty road, couples and families picnicking among the ruins, no guards, no admission fee, no information.   We took a quick look at the stone foundations and a few walls and left.   There is a nunnery nearby, on the way to Noto. It is made of the local stone.

We went to Trattoria al Buco, the same restaurant we ate in a few days ago.   Tuna, gnocchi alla pesto and first of all, the antipasto. The cook came out to say the shrimp was not good today, which is how we ended up with the tuna.   Arturo told us that the tuna season here is occasioned by the migration of the fish.   They pass south of Sicily.  Soon they will be gone but until then the fishing is easy, the tuna cheap.

The antipasto spread consisted of eggplant with tomatoes, marinated artichokes and mushrooms, spinach, olives.   The menu offers a large variety of seafood besides pastas.

The daughter, who served us the other day, came in for a moment. She recognized us and came over to say hello.   She is wearing the same friendly smile, the same outgoing personality, the same black shorts, too short for she is not a child anymore.   This is her day off, and her brother is our waiter.   The cook is her mom, her father works in the dining area as well.   It feels like eating with family.

Italy July 1-10, 1999

Gypsies attacked

More about the Italians

Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia (Etruscan Museum)

Business hours

Miscellaneous observations


Ostia Antica

On 6/23/99, I went to Ostia Antica with our friends from Georia, Debbie and Teri.   Getting there is a cinch.  Take the train to the Piramide metro stop on Line B.  The train for Ostia Antica is next door.

Ostia Antica is a well preserved set of ruins of the old port town.   It approaches Pompeii in quality and importance, although having seen both, I think that Pompeii is the better preserved and more interesting: houses that are more complete, more art, better theaters and commercial buildings, mummified bodies with their visible clothing.  However, Ostia was more important historically as it was Rome’s port, ‘ostia’ meaning mouth, in this case referring to the mouth of the Tiber.  The town goes back to the third century BCE.  The Roman writer Levy says that Ancus Martius, the fourth king of Rome after Romulus (circa 750 BCE), extended Rome’s dominion to the sea.  However, archeologists say that the city was founded sometime in the third century BCE.

Ostia was important to Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean.  In 278 B.C. the port served the fleet fighting the Carthaginians, whose city was located in what we call today Tunisia.  Perhaps General Patton in a prior life (in which he believed) docked here after the battle for dominion of the Mediterranean, an act he was to repeat nearly 2000 years later.  Scipio’s army left from here for Spain in 217 BCE.  This was to prevent reinforcements from reaching the Carthaginian General Hannibal, who by this time had already crossed the Alps.

The river no longer reaches Ostia Antica.  The sea is now about six kilometers away as the Tiber’s silt has extended the land.  The port was outside town, as Emperor Claudius, one of the better rulers of Rome, decided that this site was better protected than the original area.  He wanted to deflect winds from the southwest (called Libeccio)and southeast (Scirocco).  He locatged the port about where the Leonardo da Vinci airport is now.  Later, another harbor was created to allow for expanded activity.

Mud covered the site after Rome’s decline with the arrival of the Visigoths, in the 5th century.  Malaria plagued the population, and eventually the city was abandoned.  Much of its beauty was pillaged for building materials.  Excavations began around the turn of this century.

The goddess Diana near the entrance to Ostia Antica
The goddess Diana near the entrance to the town

When you enter, you pass by old tombs that lined the road leading into the city.   It was the policy in ancient Rome to bury the dead outside the city limits, as we saw in the Catacombs (see 5/5/99).  Then you pass the ruined main gate of the city, whose arch must have been a splendor.  Through it passed many of the town’s 100,000 residents (peak). Just the suggestion of a curved line remains.

Many dwellings you see are apartments, called ‘insula.’  These multi-story dwellings were inhabited by the lower classes.  The wealthier lived in detached houses (villas).  The building material is tufa, volcanic rock.  There are no roofs in the ruins.  I guess that the roof joists were wooden with terracotta (literally ‘cooked soil) roof tiles.  Workers formed these tiles on one of their legs, making them wider at the top and narrower at the bottom so they fit inside one another readily.

Apartment buildings in Ostia Antica
Apartment buildings in Ostia Antica

Farther up on the left are huge warehouses that stored large shipments of grain and other items sent on to Rome and other destinations inland.  Behind the amphitheater, which has been restored unremarkably, the Piazzalle delle Corporazioni has beautiful mosaics in front of each stall.  These depicted the merchant’s occupation and his country of origin.  Temple ruins sit in the center of the large square.  Farther along, near Casa di Diana, we found facilities for food preparation.  This may have been the Thermopolium, a bar.  We did not go into the museum, but it sounds worthwhile, for many objects found on the site are housed here.

The Forum contains the largest temple.  You walk up a wide, steep staircase and find yourself inside a large building sans roof.  Another temple sits at the far end of the plaza.  Archeologists have assembled various decorative elements on a low wall so you can see them easily.

By the time we got here we were tired and decided to skip the last portion. Setting back toward the entrance on another route, we wandered into what were large and beautiful baths.  We climbed to the second story of the philosophers’ house for a panoramic view, and studied wall drawings.  There was plenty left to see before we just had to stop.

The admission is L8000.

Gypsies attacked

Many recent immigrants have come to Italy, famous for its hospitality.  Among them are Albanians, some from Kosovo, of course, and many Africans.  As always there are the mysterious gypsies, also called Rom here, I guess because some came from Romania.  We see a few most days.

There are 1400 or so living in a tract called Casilino (see Int Time Her. June 19?20 Italy Daily section).  The government of the city of Rome is destroying some of their housing, dumpy, crappy, no water, no sewage.   The government is to find new housing for them by the end of the summer.

I think I finally saw some Gypsy men selling what appeared to be Gypsy jewelry.  We always we see the women, who stand out in their bright and flowing dresses.  Their skin tone and general facial characteristics also distinguish them, and they are often talking loudly together.  They seem to travel in groups of at least three.  However, I think that if they wore ordinary clothing they would blend in.  But the men blend in always, I guess, for this is the first time  I recognized them as gypsies.  They looked like Indians but something about their appearance said they weren’t, but the distinction was not in their dress.

In Naples a gypsy town was burned (IHT 6/21/99 Italy Daily Section) by angry residents who seemed well organized.  They were apparently acting in retaliation for a Rom having struck two pedestrians with his car.  One women is in a coma.  Father Aniello Magnaciello blamed organized crime for the burning.  He said the squalid camps have been ignored by the city for years.  He described gypsy lifestyle as exasperating to many people, a lifestyle he described as ‘drinking, stealing and driving at a crazy speed.’  The gypsy said to have struck the women is in hiding.

Five were arrested the next day for looting.  Looting?  I can’t imagine that they have much to loot.  To me it seems if the Rom were successful I think they’d live in better conditions; some do, and drive some very fancy camper units.  The article did not say who was arrested, Gypsy or non.


Last night it was another free concert, this one at a Methodist Church.  They brought in a gospel group.  Of course, the protestant churches don’t offer the magnificent settings that the Roman Catholic ones do.  However, the singers were very good.  After the first song, Peg leaned over and said they were singing in English.  I hadn’t noticed.   Peg’s ears work better than mine and besides she grew up hearing gospel music.  I could pick up some words in each of the next songs.  You could tell they weren’t English speakers, though.

It was over at 10.  As usual, it took us an hour to get home.  The buses dry up at around 9.  Metro line A closes at 9:30 for repairs and improvements.  I hope that one improvement is the ventilation.  It’s hotter in the metro than it is in the sun on the street!

Speaking of which, the cool weather we had in June is now behind us.  It was 34 degrees yesterday at 1:30.  But our apartment is cool, as it faces north and is thus in the shade until late in the afternoon.  The sun starts to hit our walls around 4:30, but the angle is sharp so little sunlight enters the windows.  Shortly after 6:00 the sun weakens quickly and by around 8 p.m. it is setting over St. Peter’s.


We ate dinner at Ana and Vada’s down the street from us.  A couple sitting next to us had their dog with them.  This led to conversation, at first in Italian.  However, the man spoke English. Peg asked if he had been to America.  He laughed and said he spent four months in Indianapolis.  He had a job supervising the building and opening of an Italian restaurant.  This job was to last six months.  Indianapolis was so boring he did it in four.  He told us that there are seldom visited ruins nearby.  We tried to visit the ruins the next day.  We found the park but nothing we could identify as of archeological interest.

This restaurant is even more of a local place than Pietro’s and the Hostaria.  It looks quite upscale from the outside, with its outdoor dining.  But all that changes as you observe a bit more.  There is a menu typed up and posted near the door to the inside seating.  But finding one for you at your table is another matter.  They fly through the menu verbally for you.  We understood it all, a sign of improved language skills.  They serve mussels and clams, with or without pasta, and lots of pasta dishes, but really the same as most places.  Many patrons were also having steaks.  The place is packed and when you get the bill, you see why.  It cost L40,000 ($23) for sizable portions of mussels, an ample portion of sword fish, assorted veggies and the usual local white.


Every week for the past month sidewalk dining has sprouted in our neighborhood.  Umbrellas and small tables appear everywhere.  In March we ate at Pietro’s, a restaurant around the corner from us.  We returned last Saturday night with Lori and Debi, our two guests just returned from Venice and Florence.  We did not know that the restaurant had a beautiful garden in the back.  Trees, flowers, grape vines, and more room than in most restaurants.

Gloria and Gaston just left after being here for three months.  They flew to London, with plans to rent a car and go to Scotland.  From there they will take a ferry over to Norway.  Then they plan to travel through Eastern Europe and on to Turkey.


More about the Italians

I finished The New Italians by Charles Richard, Penguin Group 1994.  He has written excellent chapters on corruption in the political parties that led to downfall of many in the early 90’s.  It was an ex- wife, whose alimony was unpaid who triggered the revelations that the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, even the Communists were on the take.   Mario Chiesa was behind on his maintenance payments and Lara Sala complained.  She told the authorities that he made a lot more than he was paid officially by the old people’s home he worked for and whatever the Socialists were officially paying him.  His life style was a dead give away, as was the 12 billion lire in his bank accounts.

He and many, many others were demanding and receiving kick-backs from contractors for construction and other government contracts.  These payments added anywhere from 1% in high cost jobs to 25% for small concerts or the like.  One third of the take went to the individual, one third to the party, but I forget who got the rest.

There are good chapters on the north/south tension and organized crime.  He also talks about the industriousness of the Italians (given short shrift all too often) making this the 5th largest economy in the world.  Organized crime is another topic he treats in detail, focusing on the apparently effective crackdowns in the 90’s.  I am not sure how weakened they were by the confessions of men of ‘honor’ and the investigations earlier this decade.  Investigations and trials continue.


Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia (Etruscan Museum)

Pope Julius II (1550-55) built this villa as a summer palace.  It’s not in the mountains, so I can’t imagine why he would think of this  as a summer palace.  It is not far north of the Piazza del Popolo, a short climb from the Tiber.  Now the Villa is the home of the Etruscan Museum.  Pope Julius II is infamous in part for having elevated a 17 year-old to the rank of Cardinal, also in part for his princely life-style.

Where the Etruscans came from is not known, but they came to Italy in the 8th century B.C.  They resided in what is now Umbria, Tuscany, and Latinium.  Their empire extended from the Adriatic to Corsica.  By the 6th century BCE their empire began to disintegrate.  Eventually they were conquered by the Romans, much later becoming citizens.  Most of what we know about them comes from tombs containing everyday items.  A reconstructed tomb is on display in a basement.  Funeral urns from the Latins and the Villanovans from about 1000 BCE are also displayed.

The Etruscans were excellent potters and there are many examples from as early as 600 B.C.E., some of them in excellent condition.  They imported Greek pottery and there are some examples for comparison.  The Veii Sculptures, five in all, show great skill.  There are a goddess and a Hercules among the five.  They are from the late 6th century B.C.E.

The only sculptor known is named Vulca.

Another fine piece is the terracotta sarcophagus.  Two figures lay on their sides on the cover.  A beautiful plate shows an elephant being led by his handler, an Indian man.

The Etruscans also worked in bronze, and produced fine gold jewelry, some of it filigree.  The threads were almost too tiny for me to see without my portable electron microscope.  They worked in ivory as well.   They decorated with animals and people, many with happy faces.  On the eves of temples and other buildings they put ceramic decorations.  The piece fit under the roof tiles and came to a right angle at the edge of the roof.  On the upright portion is where the figures were, thus visible from below.  I saw examples on the temple in the courtyard.

Afterwards we walked into the gardens of Villa Borghese, enjoying the cool temperatures (about 80 F), shade and freedom from the noise and exhaust fumes.

Business hours

Most shops open around 9:00.  The Tabachi, where you buy metro tickets, tobacco products and a wide variety of other items, open much earlier, some as early as 6:00 a.m., as do many cafes.  Alimentari (food stores) open around 8:30, and take one day a week off besides Sunday.  Most close from 1:30 to 4:00 and stay open until around 7:00.  That’s when rush hour starts.  A store that’s says it is open ‘no-stop’, (in English), is open during lunch.  Restaurants open for lunch at around noon, but you’ll be the first one there if you come much before 1:30.  They close at 4:00 and open again around 7:30.  The first customers show up around 8:00 and the last around 11:00, so the doors close around midnight.  Street markets are open every day but Saturday.  Workers arrive around 7:00 and open around 8:00, closing for the day at 1:30.

Miscellaneous observations

Automotive repair shops spill out onto the sidewalk.  We walk past one every day.  Two or three mechanics working on the cars weave through the pedestrian traffic to reach the cars they are repairing.  They are neat and well organized, and we are seldom impeded.

The trash containers are emptied early every morning.  The large truck has one worker who employs hydraulic arms to lift and empty the special receptacles.  A man comes by later to clean up what was not put in the containers, driving a three-wheeled truck.   Recycling containers, one for paper and one for glass and metal, are on every block and are similarly serviced.  Another man, though I have seen some women, comes by during day hours to sweep the sidewalks.  Many big city Italians have no qualms about just dropping their litter on the sidewalk.  Soft drink containers, cigarette wrappings and the like are scattered about.  Shop keepers keep their sidewalks very clean, mostly by sweeping everything into the street, although some do scoop up the waste and dispose of it properly.  The street markets are a disaster after closing.  During the opening hours they are very clean, but after they close, they leave lots of trash behind.  A city crew arrives and within an hour, the street is cleaned and ready for the cars that use it to travel and park until 7:00 the next morning, when they must be out of the way.  The vendor’s buildings remain, their carts (mostly wooden) are stored away.

The post office closes at 2:00 for the day, after opening at 8:00.  Deliveries occur during the morning.  I see a man and woman delivering to our neighborhood working as a team.  Some museums close for lunch.  Monday is a closing day but not just for the museums, as many shops don’t open either.  Everyone or nearly everyone goes on vacation in August, along with the rest of Europe.  Most tourists come here during this period, when Rome is usually hot.  The normal daytime high in the summer is 30 C, which is only 85 degrees, although everyone tells us that for the past ten years 35-37 (95-98) have been common.

Most small shops are not air conditioned, some are half-heartedly so, but the big stores are more likely to be adequately cooled.  The buses are not air conditioned, and they get hot in the sun and when there is a crowd.  The new green trams are cooled, but in the heat of the day the units just can’t keep up with the frequent door openings and the crowd.

Consider taking some spray deodorant with you.  Use it on those who don’t seem to buy their own.  They’re the ones (they are exceptions) who love to be squashed next to you with their arm above them as they hang onto the rails.  For even more fun, go to some of the train stations where the street people are sometimes allowed to sleep.  Their clothes fill the large hall with an unmistakable aroma.