Last Sunday, we were invited to go to the city of Caltagirone, west of Ragusa, with Elio, our landlord and some of his friends and relatives. Some of these guys work for a bank that organizes these day trips around Sicily and sometimes they all go on a bus and sometimes they take their own cars in a sort of caravan. The city of Caltagirone is particularly famous for its flight of 142 steps that are decorated in enameled ceramic tiles. It is as famous in Sicily for its ceramica as Deruta is in Umbria. It has been a center for ceramica since the Arabs were in charge here in the 9th to the 11th centuries and still carries on the tradition. We met Elio at his home at 8:30 Sunday morning and with him drove to another meeting point, where his brothers and their wives and several carloads of friends were to gather. We were so delighted to be included in this outing and to have the opportunity to meet Elio and Giovanna’s friends and family. (Giovanna could not join us because she is in school and had to study for an exam that was being given the next day) Everyone greeted us warmly and Elio, Bob and I piled into yet another car for the drive to Caltagirone. The Sicilian countryside we drove through is absolutely gorgeous with vineyards and rolling hills, very different from the Tuscan or Umbrian countryside, interspersed with prickly pear cactus and orange and lemon trees. The farms, with their rustic old houses, are separated by low stone walls, very reminiscent of the Irish countryside, which surprised both Bob and I. The sky had turned grey and rainy as we left our apartment, after our gorgeous Saturday of sunshine but we were prepared with war coats and umbrellas, a benefit, as the weather became quite cold and wet.
The historic center of Caltagirone is laid out on three hills. It is mainly Baroque but also has buildings from the Renaissance, along with some Art Deco references. It is really charming to see the use of ceramics to decorate many of the buildings and architectural details, in particular the bell towers and the bridge of St. Francis. Also during the Christmas season, these towns in Sicily go all out on what they call Presepe – creating little villages around the birth of Jesus, with the manger and Mary and Joseph just the beginning. They can be made up of an entire village scene and are quite elaborate. Some of them have live animals. Some are animated. It’s quite something to see and Sicilians travel around to their neighboring cities to see and appreciate this artistry. Caltagirone is no exception and we saw a few of these along our little guided tour.
Unfortunately, the rain did not stop all day. We walked around with the guide explaining what we were seeing, taking refuge in the churches and a museum but getting completely soaked in the torrential downpour that accompanied us on our tour of the city! Water was running down the streets and pouring from the drainpipes; waterfalls were everywhere! Eventually, we had to throw in the towel and everyone admitted that they had had enough and we called it quits earlier than planned. I definitely want to return to this city when it isn’t pouring rain, to visit some of the ceramics factories and see and appreciate the stairs lined with ceramics and the holiday lights decorating all the pretty streets.
Before heading home to Ragusa, we stopped at the beautiful Villa Tasca for lunch. They prepared a room upstairs for this big crowd of at least 40 people, including several kids and we ate a meal that was like a holiday feast! On every table they placed several pitchers of red wine and bottles of water, plus several baskets of bread (remind me to tell you about the bread in Sicily!!). There were two radiators in the room and all the ladies with soaked clothing were trying to dry off as we waited for the food to be served. There were at least 3 servings of appetizers and I will try to remember all of them. There were cheeses, tomatoes stuffed with breadcrumbs, fried zucchini and eggplant, olives, green and black, grilled eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, bruschette with diced tomatoes and garlic, toasted bread with olive oil and garlic and more I just can’t think of at the moment! The first course followed – a crepe stuffed with fresh ricotta and spinach and a pasta with tomato sauce. Secondi piatti was sliced pork with roasted potatoes. Desert was a lovely fruit bowl and a bowl of lemon sorbet. Then whoever wanted coffee was invited to go downstairs to the bar to order what you wanted. We had so much fun, speaking Italian and getting to know these people a little bit. Elio speaks very good English and as I have said before, he can bounce back and forth between English and Italian and we find it easier to speak Italian when we know we can find a way to communicate one way or another!
The rain subsided while we ate and the views out the windows of this villa were breathtaking, with the sun breaking through the clouds for a little while. Growing all around the countryside were olive trees and prickly pear cactus, heavy with fruit.
We drove back to Ragusa and said “ci vediamo” and “arrivederci” to Elio’s friends and family, picked up our car at Elio’s house and drove the 20 minute drive to Marina di Ragusa and home to our apartment. Our feet were soaked, our coats were wet, but we had a good warm feeling inside about this island of Sicily and the people we find ourselves surrounded with. It is a nice feeling.
Rosemary e Robert