An hour and a half or so from the Etna’s slopes lies the port city of Siracusa, dating to 2500 BCE. The entire city is a Unesco World Heritage site. Most of Sicily is or should be, unless clean streets and regular trash pickup and street sweeping count- there its cities are failing.
Once in town we found a parking place for our van entirely due to the efforts of a local. He was leaving so he took us to where he was parked, in front of a sign that said no parking. After I parked he came back to make sure we understood that parking there was ok. He knew the sign was no longer valid, but would give us cause for concern as we are ‘stranieri,’ (foreigners) and unfamiliar with the way things actually work. Or don’t. Things are rather idiosyncratic in Italy, making local knowledge of great value. Locals, however, sometimes disagree loudly about what really is and is not permissible.
Back in Time
In the evening we walked to the old town from our lovely 6 person/3 bedroom flat. It was a journey from the fairly new, across the bridge, then onto the island of the very old. Here the city began, ideally situated for access to the sea.
The old island was full of people walking, sitting on benches, drinking and eating, taking photos and what not. They came on scooters and buses mostly as finding a place to park can be somewhere between difficult and impossible.
The cathedral was built on the site of a temple to Athena from the 5th century BCE. The latter’s still visible columns were used to build the walls. What stories they could tell if they had lips! T. The roof of the nave is Norman, as are the mosaics, the people who brought into my family our blond, blue eyed Sicilian uncle. Fewer structures anywhere can transport you so far back in time without you having to budge much at all.
A big reason to come here is to visit the archaeological park. There are huge caves chiseled from the hills, from where oracles gave their predictions. As will all such sites, it helps to have some familiarity with the ancient cultures to enjoy the visit so you can imagine the smoke and mirror shows that went along with all the hooha. The park contains not only a Greek theater but a Roman as well. The Greeks did plays, the Romans watched blood sports. Tell me who was more civilized than the other.
It was lunch time by the time we left so we looked for a restaurant that is more or less on the way back to our apartment, as we were on foot and not all of us capable of lots of hoofing. I found a place that looked good and with just one minor navigation boo boo went right to it. The chef greeted us with enthusiasm at a volume all Sicilians seem to enjoy. Loud. It is equated with being genuine. It’s all about drama, theater, expressiveness. We have run across this often in our past journeys, and as I grew up with Sicilians, I can do a clever imitation my own self.
Well all was fine and dandy despite our expressive albeit friendly cook who came to greet us. Americani! He was thrilled. There have not been many of us lately and he’s off the beaten track so even in normal times there are few. But then I made a major mistake. The house antipasto had a bit of everything so I ordered one for the table. The waitress took that to mean one each. In the meantime everyone had ordered either a primo (pasta) or a secundo (meat or fish). Then the antipasti arrived. And arrived and arrived. It was too much food but fantastic, so we had a great time. We had the other dishes for dinner and were so so at best. In the end, I’d done it right, by mistake. It was about 30 euros per person, not terribly expensive especially given the quality and quantity.
The Necropolis of Pantalica is close by, less than an hour or so in the van. We went the next day. You drive through windy roads and a dusty village or two perhaps before you get a view of the burial caves. We never got close up but you could certainly see the openings on the side of the cliffs. I wondered how they reached some of these, as they were well off the ground and far from the cliff’s top. These were dug between the 13th and 7th centuries BCE. It’s a dry, rocky landscape but a stream runs through it. Life must have been as hard as the rocks they lived on.
Modica and Noto
Noto and Modica are short distances from Siracusa and each other so we visited both on the same day. Noto is most noted for its Baroque church, completed in 1776, and Modica for being built on both sides of a steep, wide gully. Noto as well as Modica is a World Heritage city, their origin in Roman times. Like many others it was conquered by the Moors before falling to the Christians in 1091. Each was also severely damaged in 1693. In Modica there was a population loss approaching 50%. Modica was rebuilt in a homogeneous fashion, giving it a special charm.
This is our second visit to Modica. We stayed just outside town in the summer of 2000. We were living in Rome at the time. We stayed with the nephew of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of The Leopard, a well respected and famous novel written in the early 1950’s, and made into a film in 1963. It’s story of the joining of Sicily to the just unified Italy, led by Garibaldi and company in the events termed Il Risorgimento.
“The more you want things to remain the same the more things must change,” he wrote. My sense is that Italy and Sicily particularly are trapped in deep, enduring ironies such as this. It is extremely rich in heritage in form of architecture, art (at least until the Baroque), antiquities, music, film, theaters, science- Marconi invented radio, for instance. Maybe you have heard of him. Italians were instrumental in the European expansion into the Americas. Maybe you have heard of the famous Italian Cristoforo Colombo. He was born in Genoa. Then there’s Giovanni Caboto, John Cabot to us anglophones. How about Amerigo Vespuci?
In addition to the many contributions to civilization, Italy today is among the 10 largest economies of the world. Yet when you visit many cities the streets, buildings and public spaces look third world. They have trouble getting unemployment below 10%, although who knows, really, given how readily people can move between being on and off the books. And the Italians go through governments as they go through pasta, twice a day.
We departed Siracusa after three nights in a lovely place with two large bathrooms and a tiny kitchen and a huge living room that no one used other than as a 4th bedroom. We were heading for Ragusa, before landing in a B and B for the night.
Want some super views and an old castle on top of it all? Nearly get stuck while trying to get your van out of town? Come to Ragusa where a little over 70,000 people are spread between two steep hills full of narrow roads. Do not follow the one that says “Residents only.” I did and nearly had to back out of the whole town.
Ragusa was heavily damaged in the 1693 quake. The residents rebuilt first on a second hill before fixing up the old section. These are called Ragusa Superiore and Ragusa Inferiore. We drove through the narrow steep streets of both. There are great views from the Lombardi castle after you clamber up the boulders.
We checked into an attractive B and B up a short steep driveway, with a small garden in front. After a bit of confusion I caused as I thought there was no a.c. but not for the first time I missed the modern units sitting high on the ceilings. Later we had dinner in a huge restaurant, its large patio occupied by a family celebrating the birthday of a kid who could not have been more than three. They whopped it up as he did a grand entrance on a battery operated car he was barely old enough to maneuver safely. It’s the kind of thing that could turn the kid into a whopping narcissist. What are these people thinking?
The next day we visited Villa Roman de Casale and the following it was Agrigento. The former is a Roman villa from the 4th century CE. There are amazing mosaics covering 3500 square meters. They depict the life of a wild animal importer who provided these poor creatures for Romans’ cruel pleasures. Or maybe, as most scholars now suggest, it was the home of a high level politician. In 1161 it was destroyed by William I, the first Norman king. I figure the Normans invaded Sicily after realizing how bland the food in England was, deciding to look for better restaurants to the south. They chose well. The villa was covered by a landslide later in the century, thus preserving the mosaics. The huge villa is yet another World Heritage site.