Yesterday, the day after Christmas, after our usual walk on the beach, we decided to take a drive. Elio had told us about this little town in the mountains about an hour's drive north of Ragusa, who put on what is called "Presepe Vivente," a live nativity scene, and that in his opinion it was the best place to go to see this. Many of the cities in Sicily do this and we had heard about Modica's and another nearby city, Scicli, but we respect Elio's opinion and it seemed easy enough to find, so we headed in that direction in the early afternoon. Since the festivities would not begin until after dark, we took the long way there, on smaller roads, stopping in Comiso, another beautiful city not far from Ragusa. All of these cities are decked out in lights all throughout the center of the town and even in the daylight it is charming to see the stars and streaming lights, strung every few feet from one side of the street to the other and the result is so festive and delightful. We are so thrilled to be here at this time of year to be able to witness it. Comiso is very pretty and we promised to return and spend more time there than just a quick stop to take some photos.
Our one-hour's drive turned into a few more because the scenery along the way was so breathtaking we had to keep stopping the car! The sky was darkening and we thought for sure it would rain (it didn't) and it made for the most dramatic backdrop for these green hills, mountains really, sculpted with terraced gardens and fields separated by with low walls made from the white rocks that are found here. The sky was a deep dark blue, with indigo and grey-colored clouds and the sun streaking through lit the fields of green in colors that were too incredible to be believed. The photos are not retouched. These were the colors we saw and you can imagine, we were giddy with excitement.
Coming to Sicily for the first time, we did not know what to expect. It is an island. A very, very, large island for sure, but an island. But when you drive through the countryside and see the expansive vistas, it is so vast, it seems an entire continent is before your eyes and the changing scenery from one area to another is nothing short of magical. At this point, we have only seen a very small corner of this island, but it is working its way into our hearts in a very big way. We are beginning to understand why everyone said "Ahhh, bella Sicilia!!" and got that wistful look on their faces, when we told them we were coming here to spend this time.
Around 4:30 we arrived in the little town of Monterosso Almo and were completely enchanted! The area surrounding the little piazza was strung with lights and booths were being set up to sell various things to eat. Signs read "Ravioli, Ricotta Calda (hot ricotta, which was to die for, spread on bread!), Salsicce (sausages on the grill, served with onions or patatine fritte), cannoli (yummm) and other goodies we only admired and did not taste. I found a bench to sit on a did a sketch of the chiesa as the sun was going down and finished up before my hands froze solid (it was much colder here than along the sea, since it is higher in the mountains) and it became too dark for me to see. At this point, the Christmas lights came on and the entire scene was just too charming to believe! This sweet little square with all its lights lit and the festive atmosphere was filled with anticipation for the events about to unfold, which we could only guess at.
Since we had time earlier, we also visited an art exhibition that was mostly by local artists and nothing that really blew us away, mostly amateur in nature but proudly displayed and appreciated. However, we really enjoyed the collection of art pieces, true folk art, and so completely creative and innovative by an artist who also makes and sells finely crafted wood furniture. But the pieces that impressed us the most were made using metal cans and boxes, like coffee, cookie and candy tins that have sumptuous designs and rich colors on them and incorporating them into other existing vehicles, such as old victrolas (that played large 78mm records), clocks, and lamps. He takes the metal edges and slices and twists and turns them into curlicue shapes, uses old pieces of jewelry and fabric borders etc. Our explanation does not do this justice and we will include a photo so that you can see for yourselves and hopefully understand what we mean. Wanting to buy one, we asked how much he wanted and he only laughed and said they were not for sale! We understood him to say that they are just his collection and that he likes them too much to sell them! We were so disappointed but understood how that feels when you create something and don't want to give it away, for any price. Not exactly a way to earn a living but we suspect he does just fine with his furniture and that this is his hobby and his love. Incredible!
I may have talked about these Presepe before but I'll recount now. In the states most people who are religious (or who have religious roots like me and like the tradition) set our their manger scene - the little stable with Joseph and Mary and the Baby Jesus, and of course, the three Wise Men and the shepherds, guarding their flock by night and the angel on top. In some places you might see a whole little village. My Aunt Celeste had such a collection, with all the little houses that might have been in Bethlehem, creating a little town. In Sicily, this is an art form. In Caltagirone, as in many of these cities, there were a number of them, large and small. Even school children assemble these, as we did gingerbread houses (my daughter Jessica might remember her brownie troop in our kitchen making their little town which was then donated to the Phoenix Art Museum who displayed all the gingerbread villages that had been created and would be auctioned off as a fund raiser.) But I digress. That is a very secular event, while this is definitely a depiction of a religious event. Some as we expected in Monterosso Almo are done using actual people and real animals and are quite a major production.
At around 6:45, amid some fanfare, into the town walked Joseph, leading the donkey on which Mary sat, followed by townspeople, dressed in period clothing and the Three Kings, and disappearing down the road that led to the viewing area.
We had bought tickets when we arrived and were number 449 and 450 to view the Presepe. We thought it would take hours to get to our number, but by 7:45 they were announcing the 400s and we took our place in line. What we saw was so much more than simply the Holy Family in the stable. Monterosso Almo is built onto the crest of a hill and follows its contours and is the northernmost city in the province of Ragusa. Its origins date back to prehistoric times and archeologists studying this area have unearthed remains of these early civilizations.
We were led down a flight of stairs to a street scene that might have been in the middle ages, people in period clothing cooking in the outdoors, the tiny street transformed into a scene out of history. Two adorable little girls offered bites of donut holes that had been cooked in oil and sprinkled with sugar, reminding me of the sfingas we ate at St. Fortunata's Feast in Brooklyn, except that these had granulated sugar and not the powdered kind that gets your all over your face and fingers! It just got better and better and for more than an hour we wandered these ancient streets, lit only by candle light and oil lamps, peeking into doorways to watch artisans performing their crafts: lace makers, pasta makers, ladies forming dough into fanciful shapes and baking bread; the shoemaker, rope makers, grain sifters, chair makers, potters, cheese makers, carpenters, blacksmiths, toy makers, basket weavers, and even a tavern scene with its patrons laughing, drinking and dancing; and others I cannot remember now! But the final viewing, in a cave cut from the rock on which this city is built, was the nativity. Mary and Joseph, who had passed us earlier now with the baby Jesus and the Wise Men, shepherds and townspeople and even some live sheep! And after all of that we passed another room where these two guys were singing what we are sure were old Italian folksongs we did not understand but the appreciative crowd surely did and laughed at all the appropriate places.
By 10pm we were on the way home and took the main road back. It was quite dark and we stopped only once, ostensibly to look at the stars, with no city lights to obscure them, the sky was filled to brimming.
We send a "grazie" to Elio for suggesting we go to Monterosso Almo and to Mother Nature for holding back the rain, but giving us a terrific sky to photograph.
Today it is stormy and will probably rain. The sea is rough. We took our walk earlier and are now snuggled safely in our cozy apartment. Some boys are playing basketball in the square below and an occasional truck ambles by. I'm going to make a stew for dinner, so I probably better get started.
Thanks again for reading and keeping up with our adventures. We hope you are all having a happy holiday season and wish you all good things for the new year.
Rosemary & Bob