Sunday, February 26, 2006

Adam and Eve carved in a marble column at the Cloister

The Cloister of the Duomo in Monreale

Restoring the mosaic in the floor of the Duomo in Monreale

Our 37th Wedding Anniversary in Palermo 2.23.06

February 23 is our wedding anniversary. We were married in New York when I was only 19 years old and Bob, just over 21. Babies, we were and it seems another lifetime ago that we stood on that altar in St. Sylvester's church and promised to love each other till death. I felt like a princess in my Cinderella gown and veil that trailed behind me at least 25 feet (or so it seemed!) and when I look at photos now I cannot believe how young we were! We left New York the following day for Colorado where Bob was stationed at the time to begin our life together. I believe it was the start of our mutual love of travel and seeing new places that planted the seed for this adventure we are now on, living in Italy for two years.

Gift giving, since we have been in Italy, has consisted of not material things, but the gift of living in this beautiful place and every day we are aware and acknowledge how fortunate we are to be here, together, having all these incredible experiences. And so, arriving in Palermo, we looked at each other and said "Happy Anniversary honey, I give you Palermo!" We stayed in the same little hotel as our last trip, not fancy but conveniently located right in the downtown, went back to the same restaurant to eat a "Sfincione" (a type of northern Sicilian pizza that is made with onions, artichokes, anchovies, caciocavallo cheese and tomato sauce and I don't know how, but it all tastes incredible!) drink local red wine and once again enjoy their cassata cake that is do die for.

We talked with the owners and told them we are in search of my ancestors and asked if they knew of the name "Bivetto" and they did not. They even looked in the Palermo phone book but found nothing. As we have found, different names are associated with certain cities and we are not having any luck finding anyone who has ever heard the name! (more about our trip to Baucina later)

The weather was overcast but not cold. We walked around the Cattedrale again, a masterpiece of architecture that reflects the history of the city and the various peoples that inhabited and shaped it. Built by the Normans in 1184 on the site of a previous basilica that had been converted into a mosque by the Saracens it is quite an impressive sight. I believe there are four or five bell towers, tons of fancy details like the Catalan Gothic portico with its pointed arches and biblical scenes, Arab inscriptions, cupolas with majolica tiles, the huge baroque cupola added in the late 1700s, the arched crenellation motif characteristic of the Normans, and Gothic double lancet windows on the 12th century clock tower. The interior is baroque but it is the outside that really fascinates us and we never tire of walking around it, enjoying the architectural details from all sides.

Wandering around the Cattedrale we found an unexpected treasure! There is a shop that still paints the Sicilian carts, and on display in their workshop were more of these than we had seen anywhere! From floor to ceiling in this workshop were carts or pieces of carts as well as miniature carts and other artifacts. The name of the shop owner is Franco Bertolino and he told us that for 5 generations, his family has made these "Carrozze d'epoca" and the workmanship was masterful. Along the side street also, were the little 3 wheel apes and small trucks painted in the same style and a red Vespa parked outside the door fully painted as if it were a Sicilian cart! This shop is located at Salita Ramires n. 8, behind the Cattedrale.


The Cattedrale di Monreale

The town of Monreale is just outside Palermo. We wanted to see the Cattedrale there since we had read about it and the photos and descriptions intrigued us. The city sits high on a spur overlooking the bay and the broad, fertile fan-shaped plain around Palermo that is called the Conca d'Oro (bowl of gold?) so named for its shape and the color of the oranges on the trees that grow there, or so we were told by the young man in the information office in Palermo who has been so helpful. We were not disappointed. The mosaics in the interior are splendid. It was built in the 12th century by William II, one of the Norman kings of Sicily, on the site of a Benedictine monastery. It is an outstanding blend of Arabic, Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The mosaics with their gold background decoration cover a total area of 6,340 square meters and depict scenes from the Old and New Testament. It is among the most incredible we have seen and the gilded wood ceiling is nothing short of a masterpiece of its kind. There was no charge to visit the Cattedrale but it costs 6 euros each to visit the cloister, an inner courtyard, with its 228 small double columns decorated with elaborate carvings and mosaic details. And, I might add, not a smidge of scaffolding! We were delighted!


Back to Palermo

The next day back in Palermo, we went in search of the Norman castle, the Palazzo dei Normanni, built in the 9th century on the sight of a Roman citadel and transformed into a palace, and becoming, under King Frederick II, a culture center, only to find that it was closed that day and to learn also that part of the Cappella Palatine, another jewel of Norman art and mosaics, was partially under restoration. We decided to come back another day, when we could see both and ventured off to find the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti and its five pink domes, dedicated in 581. It was built by Arab artisans in 1136 by order of the Normans and is one of the most important monuments in Palermo. We found it mostly interesting from the exterior with the interior consisting of small rooms in stone with Arabic details. The cloister is undergoing restoration and was therefore closed and we found the red and white tape in various places in the little garden a bit off-putting. The cost of 6 euros a piece seemed a bit steep for the little peek we were given of this once amazing place but decided it was our contribution to the restoration project which we hoped would restore this monument closer to its former glory.

I feel such a sadness for this once glorious city. That there is restoration work being undertaken is heartening. It is desperately in need of it. Its monuments are incredible but the city itself seems to be crumbling around them. On so many of its streets we found buildings half decayed, held together it seems by the dirt that cakes the facades. It's fascinating though in its shabbiness and I find myself wanting to go back, to look again, to uncover the little jewels that lie hidden among its streets. For its past splendor I feel a deep sadness and a hope that the future will see a return for at least some of these wonderful places. So much of it I fear will simply fall down around itself if not given a boost and that would be a great tragedy. That people live in some of these buildings is a wonder in itself and I cannot imagine what that must be like. It is a city like no other we have visited. There are so many places we have not visited in and around Palermo and I'm afraid we will not have time to see them all! I love passing the park, Piazza Vittoria, with its ancient palm trees and gardens, so exotic there in the middle of the city. I know we have barely scratched the surface.

One of the highlights of the day was lunch! Our friend in the tourist info office told us about something called Pane Panelle Crocchè and the look on his face as he described this told us we had to try to find it and have one, whatever it was! We headed in the general direction he described, through the Mercato Ballaro and all the fresh fruit and vegetable stands, past the cheeses and the meat guys with their crazy stuff hanging there and kept asking where we could eat this thing. Finally we found a little stand on the furthest corner of the market and told the guy there what we wanted. Certo! He replied and he filled two small, crispy loaves of bread with what looked like fried balls of seasoned mashed potatoes (any comparison to tater tots is forbidden!) and another flattish piece of, honestly, I don't know how to describe it, sprinkled it with salt and put it in our hands! The first bite was pure delight! I can never say that it would occur to me to make such a sandwich and I can only imagine the calorie content (don't think about!) but it was just about the tastiest thing I had ever eaten! And it cost 1 euro each! Can I have another, please??

Fat (literally!) and happy, it was time to leave Palermo and head back to Marina di Ragusa, with one more stop in Baucina first. I must say, one of the other things about Palermo is the crazy, insane, mind-boggling traffic! It can only be described as pure chaos! I am more in awe of Bob and his driving abilities than ever and am amazed that we do not see more accidents as people turn in front of you, make left turns from the right lane, tail gate, cut you off, cut in from side streets at break neck paces and just generally drive like maniacs. The way the Italians park their cars is a whole essay in itself! If they get even partially into a parking place they seem to be happy, regardless that the lower half of their vehicle is sticking out into oncoming traffic! If they are actually in a parking space and not double or triple parked on a narrow street! I won't even get into the pedestrians and the scooters! Those people must have death wishes! I swear! Even on the state roads, the driving habits are enough to give you a heart attack! Everyone is in a hurry, everyone wants to pass you, regardless of how safe it might be or whether they can see who is coming from around the curve in front of you and everyone drives really fast. From a traffic standpoint alone, we are happy we live in Marina di Ragusa and don't have to deal with this on a daily basis because I don't think our blood pressure could handle it!

Buona sera,
Rosemary & Bob

Friday, February 24, 2006

Searching for Fortunata’s home in Baucina

A house in Fortunata’s old neighborhood


A chicken coop (near where the LoCascio’s may have lived in 1900!)

Searching for Bivetto & LoCascio ancestors

Looking through the ledger books for ancestors’ names


Finding Rosemary’s grandmother Fortunata LoCascio’s birth record


Typing the birth certificate


In the streets of Baucina in search of living relatives with the Vice Mayor


Salvatore has an opinion he wants to share

Baucina: Bivetto, LoCascio and the Mayor 2.22.06

This week we took a trip to Palermo for our anniversary and I will be posting that story with photos soon. But before arriving in Palermo late in the afternoon, we made a few stops. First, we returned to Baucina, the hometown of my paternal grandparents. In early January we had left a note for the prete (the parish priest) asking for his help in locating information about them. Since there was a festival about to take place that evening he could not meet with us and asked that we leave him a note with our request and our address so that he could send us the information we sought. Almost two months later now, we decided to try our luck with the Comune, the government offices (The Anagrafe). As in every other case, the people in this office were wonderful! They could not have tried harder to locate the names of my grandparents in their ancient record books. It took a bit of detective work, but they eventually located Fortunata under the name of "Cascio" - not LoCascio as we knew her name to be, but her parents' names were written as LoCascio! Had there been some error in the transcription? We don't know. But the person they found is my grandmother. It is fascinating that if you have a little bit of information: birth dates, parents names, that this documentation can be found with a desire to search on the part of the people in these offices. They were all as excited as we were when her name was found, proof that she had been born there.

The chief of police and the vice mayor even joined in the search! Everyone was eager to help us find traces of our roots in their city. Once my grandmother, Fortunata had been located and the Certificato di Nascito (birth certificate) was typed and stamped officially, the vice mayor offered to take us in his car to try to find the street where her family lived when she was born! There was no refusing, the car was outside, he had plenty of time, and away we went! What we didn't realize was that he was also trying to find any living relatives who were still there in Baucina. Street after street he stopped to talk with other LoCasios who might be related to us. We stood on street corners with her birth certificate, my Family Cookbook (the one I wrote with all the old family photos, the family tree and all the stories and recipes I had gathered and transcribed) but even though they were LoCascios, none had the winning combination of Francesco and Anna that constituted my particular strain of this very common surname. It became quite amusing actually, all these people, trying so hard to think back, make connections, but nothing, no one could do it. Several invited us to coffee! We have to remember that my great-grandparents left Baucina in 1903, over a century ago and perhaps all of their immediate family members left with them and that I suspect, ended my family's connection to their hometown.

The vice mayor, Antonino Varisco, pointed up to the street where they had lived, where, somewhere along the line the street's name had been changed because we could not find it. Baucina is a very, very steep city. The houses in "centro" having been renovated or rebuilt, I expect after the Second World War and seem mostly well cared for and maintained. It is a simple town, there is nothing flashy about it; it's not especially beautiful or charming. Every street rises up behind the last in a steep ascent to the top of the hill where they lived. We got out of the car, there were chickens in a little fenced in area; some of the houses were ancient looking, old stones, worn wooden doors, rusted metal gates and hinges and I could imagine them scraping out a living here and deciding they wanted more for their little Fortunata, Caterina and Francesco. Young, perhaps more ambitious and materialistic, they packed up their little family and made the journey to Palermo, to board the big ship and make the crossing to America, to Brooklyn, to a new life, never turning to look back, putting the "old country" behind them. Perhaps their parents and aunts and uncles came too. I suspect that is what happened. They all left. And in Brooklyn, they created a new Baucina. They built a church dedicated to Santa Fortunata, like the one back home and lived near their friends and relatives. They met and married people who came from their village in Sicily; they celebrated the same festivals, cooked the same foods, altering and adapting to what they were able to find in America. I was astounded to learn when I did my cookbook that my grandparents had emigrated in 1903. They barely spoke English! My grandmother was 10 years old when they arrived in America! You would think by the time she died in 1958 that she would have picked up some of the language. Her children spoke English. My father, in my recollection, did not speak Italian, but he must have to her. So many questions, so many things I want to know but that are now lost to me. I asked many questions as I was growing up about Italy but my mother and aunt did not know much. Their parents and grandparents did not speak of the old country. They died when I was young. Was it too painful that they had left their beautiful Sicily or were they just so happy to be in America that that seemed ancient history to them. I will never know.


In Search of Bivetto 2.23.06

The Bivetto name is a bit harder to locate than my grandfather Lore, the LoCascios or the Fabrizios. There exists a history of those names and it is assumed if you are one of them that your family came from Polizzi Generosa, Baucina or Chianchetella. So far it has been impossible to pin down the name Bivetto! We were astounded to learn that it has no origin in the city of Baucina. No one knew the name, no one had ever heard the name, and no record exists in Baucina of a Bivetto. I am stumped! The family history is that he was an orphan, adopted at birth, that he "made up" the name. How does this happen??? How clever was he to manufacture a name out of nothing? Or was the name misspelled when he reached America, as was often the case? Is our name really something else and since he could not read or write (I am surmising) he did not know how it was spelled and took the new spelling to be correct? But in Baucina, nothing even similar exists. So now where do I go to search? Is my name really Biveddo or Bavetto or Bavetta or...I don't know!

We decided on the way home to Marina di Ragusa to stop in Baucina to see if the prete was in. We didn't have any luck the last time, but what the heck we thought. Deciding to give him one more try, we rang his doorbell. He answered his intercom by telling me he could not do anything today. It was during the risposo (the rest period between 1 and 4) and he asked me to come back (this seemed to be a pattern forming) but I pushed a little harder and asked if he could at least come down and speak to me. He relented finally. We waited. It seemed perhaps he was just waiting and hoping we would just go away, that's the impression it gave us. We waited. Finally he opened the door and the blank, disinterested expression on his face was startling. He acted as if he could not have cared less who I was or where I came from. This all seemed just a big bother to him. I wrote down my grandfather's name BIVETTO and the dates that I have as his birth date (of which, to be honest, I am not completely certain) and asked if he could at least try to find some record of his having been baptized in Baucina. I gave him our phone number and address and he agreed to look. The documents are old he said, it would take time, he said, we would have to come back, he said. He said also that if he found something he would call; if he did not, he wouldn't call. I asked him to call either way and he reluctantly agreed. I was so glad that I could at least say the things to him that I needed to, in Italian, and we thanked him and went our way. I'm sure he must have very important things to attend to in caring for his parish and does not have all the time in the world do look for my ancestor but you'd think he could have shown a little more interest in the fact that I wanted to make this connection. At any rate, I do not have high hopes for his finding anything. He doesn't seem to be a person who would enjoy the challenge but who knows. Maybe he's just shy.

It was around 3:30 in the afternoon when we left Baucina and it started to rain as we were leaving this part of Sicily. The rain did not let up and in fact was quite heavy in places and made driving home a very stressful experience. In some places the fog was so thick we could only see the truck in front of us and were happy that he was there. Normally Bob would have done his best to pass him! It took much longer to get home than the expected 3 hours and we were happy to get home to Marina to find the streets dry and the skies relatively clear. However, the wind was really whipping and we grabbed our stuff and climbed up our stairs, just ahead of the rain that soon pelted our little Piazza Malta. We did not go back out to have dinner as we had talked about doing but made do with what we had in the fridge, turned on the heater, watched the skaters compete in the Olympics and, pretty tired, settled in for a quiet evening at home.

Our next adventure will be Carnevale in Acireale. We have reserved a room in the town for two nights and hope to do a little sightseeing of the area north of Catania as well, including some time in Taormina. But that's it for today. It's still raining and the wind is still blowing. We had a lovely taste of spring last week when the weather started to warm up which I know we'll see again when this storm blows over!

Ciao,
Rosemary e Roberto

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Buscemi Panorama

Baroque Keystone

Angels and Bells

Interesting Architecture

Red Door with Lock

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Buscemi and the Museum of the Places of the Farmers and country life 2.19.06

Elio had told us about Buscemi and recommended we take a drive there. He said the city was like a museum and you could visit different houses to see what life was like here in previous centuries. We were intrigued and decided to put "Buscemi" into our GPS system and see what we could find. The countryside between here and there is incredibly beautiful! We have fallen in love with the low stone walls around Ragusa and as you go further into the interior there are the Iblea Mountains and the landscape is green, green, green, with terraced hillsides and rock layers that I thought must be a naturally occurring phenomenon, or the work of ancient farmers trying to cultivate this ruggedly beautiful island. We actually crossed over the border between the province of Ragusa, and that of Siracusa and noticed that the stone walls do not seem to be present in the farms and fields of Siracusa as they are in Ragusa but it is every bit as beautiful. Wildflowers are beginning to bloom, in particular a bright yellow, almost chartreuse-colored one that is everywhere now and many hillsides and fields are sprinkled with them.

Buscemi is a tiny little town, perched on a craggy hill, stretched across the top, as these Sicilian towns have a way of developing. We found a place to park on the street and discovered when we asked about visiting the "museum" that we were to be given a private tour of the houses that make up this unusual museum, that is scattered throughout the city. We were disappointed to learn that photographs were not allowed within the buildings. Visit their website to read more about it (in English) and see some photos. It is this: http://www.museobuscemi.org/eng/index_eng.htm
The concept of this museum is that instead of making a separate building and moving all these artifacts, the town, in its wisdom, decided to protect and maintain the actual places were people lived and worked, in their original state so that one can visit an olive press, a wine press, a carpenter's shop, the blacksmith, shoemaker, tinker, dish-repairer, a barn for the animals and two different homes: a one-room house where 6 people lived, amazingly; and one of the middle-class farmer who would have been a bit wealthier, with more "conveniences" and four full rooms. There is also a small museum displaying some of the art & crafts of the Sicilians, like pieces of those beautiful painted carts, paintings, ceramics and the terracotta and wood-carved figures.

We really enjoyed being shown around this town and the man who conducted the tour spoke just a tiny bit of English, so we were glad we understood at least some of what he said in Italian and got the gist of it all. The more "modern" parts of the city were built after the second world war and have a stark simplicity but nestled in and around these old stone buildings there is a charm and sense of "reality" that we find fascinating if not always beautiful. Some things are really strange, like the shiny gold metal doors that look like they came from the Sears catalogue, right next to ancient stone buildings! There is some obviously "unauthorized construction" of homes, with rusted corrugated metal exteriors and roofs that might constitute a "cutting edge" architect's home in the states and are just interestingly odd here! By walking through the historic parts of the town, and having these doors opened to us to peer inside was like stepping into the past and I could imagine my ancestors who might have lived in places like that one-room house perhaps, looking towards America and imagining a more prosperous life. He told us that they did not always have meat to eat, and that they only had chicken when the hen died and then they could make soup! They would sell the eggs to make some money to buy other necessities they could not themselves produce. That the pecking order was, first the man ate, then the boy children, then the girls, and only then, the mother! They worked very hard for what they had. In the little one room house there was a double bed for the parents, a sleeping space above for the daughters and the boys slept on the floor. They also had a sort of a cloth baby cradle suspended above the parent's bed which we have seen before in other museums of this type, so that they could have the baby close by, rock it if it cried out in the night and if it fell out it would just fall on the parent's bed! There was a table against the wall and a small area for the fire. This is very, very basic stuff. And, we were told, inhabited until the 1960s!!

Afterwards we wandered around on our own, taking more photos of the city and the view of its skyline and enjoying the beautiful weather. For lunch, we asked the woman in the grocery store to make us a sandwich (prosciutto cotto (ham) and formaggio (cheese) on crispy bread) and just sat in the piazza and had a little picnic.

We did a quick drive through the town of Palazzo Acreide and want to go back to see their museum along the same lines as Buscemi but an actual museum space.
There is so much we want to see and do in Sicily I am afraid we will not have time to do it all! Two weeks from today our daughter Jessica arrives and we get to show her all around for three weeks. Her friend Michelle will join her for the last week and that should be so much fun. Michelle and Jessica have been friends for years and Michelle was Jessica's maid of honor at her wedding (now 5 years ago!). She's like one of our family and we are excited to see her and hang out again.
Then we have about three weeks to ourselves and my brother Fred, his wife Elaine and my cousins Andy and Jimmy and their wives, Marnie and Evie will arrive. They'll spend a week here in Marina, then a week off traveling, then another week back here. We expect to do a lot of laughing, cooking, eating, sightseeing and enjoying each other's company. And perhaps my friend Elizabeth will come for a week before we must pack up and leave our little beach town of Marina di Ragusa and head north for the summer. It will not be easy to go!

Buona sera,
Rosamaria e Roberto
I just thought this was a pretty picture?

Ragusa Ibla Stazione

Scenery on SR 149

Lago Santa Rosalia and Buscemi, Sicilia 2.18.06

I think I am getting a little behind on my writings about our life and times here, so I must spend some time this morning catching up. Our last major outing was Agrigento and the next will be Acireale for Carnevale. But in the mean time we have been having fun exploring places closer to home. Last week we decided to take a drive to find the Lago Santa Rosalia, that Elio told us about and the diga (dam) that formed it. The drive was spectacular and since Elio himself put in the coordinates for the TomTom GPS, we headed out fully confident we would have no difficulty finding it! Why we didn't buy one of these the minute we got a car is beyond me (part of the live cheap philosophy I guess) but we are glad we have it now and would recommend one to anyone traveling.

Heading out of the city, passing Ragusa Ibla, we stopped for a cappuccino at a bar/restaurant called "La Stazione di Ragusa Ibla" in a converted railway station that was charming (put this on the list of places to take the family when they come.)

The drive was spectacular, through again, some of the most gorgeous scenery we have seen anywhere in our travels through Italy. Sicily has not disappointed us.
Along the lakefront we discovered a restaurant (Dirupo Rosso) we want to take our family to when they come to visit with an incredible view of the lake (and reservations required). We will return there! The "profumo" (smells) emanating from this place were enough to start me salivating!

The almond trees are blooming all over the place and with the yellow wildflowers everywhere, we think spring is certainly beginning and we are excited to see what comes next!

Ciao,
Rosemary & Bob

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Monday, February 13, 2006

Castello di Montechiaro


Castel and Dragon's Head
Rwanda Drummers


Hellenic Dance Ensamble, Greece



Russian Folk Dance Ensamble, Vladikavkaz


Duna Art, Budapest


The Ephebus, Agrigento Museo Archelogico

Valle di Templi, Agrigento

Hellinistic Quatiere


Giant of the Temple of Zeus


Almond Flowers and Temple


Temple of Vulcan and Agrigento


Temple of Hercules

Agrigento and the Sagra dei Mandorlo Infiore 2.12.06

On Wednesday we got up early and stopped downstairs at the bar called "The Summer" (we are surprised at how many places have English names here. We guess it's sort of the same as in the U.S., where Italian or French words or names are used to sound more authentic or exotic) to have a cappuccino and a chat with Salvatore. This coffee bar is hopping on the weekends as it is also a "tavola calda" a buffet-type place where food is already prepared, not like a sit down and order type of place. He's a really nice man who has been very friendly to us and every time we pass he gives us a big warm "buon giorno" or "buona sera." We don't think his cornetti are the best in town, but his cappuccino is good and he is so nice we like to go there sometimes for our coffee, especially when we are headed out of town and don't want to take the time to fix breakfast at home. When we told him we were going to Agrigento, he wrote out directions for us and told us how easy it was to get there. We had not asked him to do this and were very touched that he would take the time to help us.

Just before 8am we were on the road. Agrigento is about two hours from Marina di Ragusa and we wanted to get there as early as possible, to make the most of the day. In spite of Salvatore's directions, we turned on our TomTom GPS system, found a signal and off we went. We got held up as we drove through the town of Vittoria and decided that TomTom does not know this city and all its one-way streets! We lost a bit of time there and after some frustration, finally found our way out and on the road towards our destination. As I have said before, some of this landscape around the city of Gela west of here leaves a lot to be desired, but this is the most direct route. However, as we got closer to Agrigento, the view to the sea opened up and it was beautiful.

The most amazing sight awaited us as we approached Agrigento - the temples stretched across this valley with the city glistening behind them and the blue Mediterranean beyond. We had found a place on the internet called the B&B Villa San Marco. The owners were kind and helpful, they told us which web site to access for the festival, and even obtained tickets for us for a concert and just sounded very nice and friendly, we looked forward to meeting them. We found them through the web site www.bed-and-breakfast.it, which links to their site www.villasanmarco.org but the bed and breakfast site has all the photos and the best information about their lovely place.

They had given us a map and directions but still we were confused when we arrived and called for further assistance. They told us to wait at the service station and sent someone to get us! We were quite surprised as we followed the young man down a bumpy dirt road, less than half a mile away and arrived at this little delightful place nestled between the temples and the city, with views 360 degrees in all directions. They welcomed us so warmly, even offering us a cup of coffee, you would think we were members of the family! They have a delightful home there with almond trees in bloom, olive and orange trees, ducks and chickens, a friendly white dog named Tosca and accommodation we guessed for 10 or 12 people in 5 different rooms. A walkway lined with trees leads from the gate to the main house and everywhere there are benches and little areas to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Breakfast was served in their big homey kitchen. Vincenzo proudly talked of his five children and showed us his photo collection, many wonderful portraits of his children and interesting travel images. He has a good eye for photography but is a lawyer by profession. They showed us to our room and then we headed back down the bumpy road to explore the temples.

The Temples!! How magnificent they are, dominating the valley below the city of Agrigento. They stretch across a vast area and date back to the 6th century BC. The Tempio della Concordia is one of the best preserved Greek temples outside of Greece. Although partially under scaffolding (we are becoming accustomed to this sight now) we could still appreciate its beauty and marvel at its lovely architecture and Doric columns and imagine how it must have looked in its glory days when the Greeks built it and it was described as "the most beautiful city of mortals" by the poet Pindar, and the philosopher Empedocles walked its pathways. The sun was playing games with us as it darted in and out of the clouds but we still took a gazillion photos, climbing on top of these ancient stones, astonished at our freedom to do so. We encountered tourists from all over the world who stopped to look over my shoulder as I sketched a detail of one of the temples and even had a conversation with a group of Italian high school girls fascinated by what I was doing.

And all around were the blooming trees! In February, the almond trees bloom and the sight of these pink and white trees is totally delightful and rivals the cherry blossoms in Washington DC and Japan, I'm sure! Growing on all the hillsides, they sparkle in the sunlight and the effect is dazzling. It was a feast of color, with pink & white blooming trees, golden temples and blue sea, not to mention the huge agaves sending gigantic stalks into the air, soon to burst into bloom. Everywhere there were the same yellow wildflowers we have been enjoying, and the delicate foliage of the olive trees planted along the hillsides.

The temples were built of sandstone and tufa, which makes them appear golden in the sunlight. At night they are lit and standout against the dark sky, visible from many viewpoints around the city. We also enjoyed the view of the city of Agrigento that sits on a hillside overlooking the Valley of the Temples. The guidebooks were not kind, mentioning "cultural stagnation and widespread illegal construction" but we found it lovely to look at from our vantage point at the Villa San Marco. In colors of pink, gold, green and creamy white with brightly colored shutters of deeper shades of blues and greens we found it interesting the way it spreads itself across the hill, especially at sunset when the sun, peaking through the clouds, lit it up against the darkening sky.

We enjoyed the Museo Archeologico, (in spite of the drilling noise when we first arrived and the hordes of high school students who preceded us) one of Sicily's most important archeological museums, which houses finds from the ancient Greek city and from the provinces of Agrigento and Caltanissetta, along with an incredible collection of Greek vases dating back to the 6th century BC. The collection includes also a Greco-Roman sculpture "Ephebus," a rare and beautiful artistic specimen that dates back to 470 BC. There is also one of the "telamones" (or Atlases) one of the huge figures that once supported and decorated the Temple of Zeus (now completely destroyed but which had been the largest and most fantastic). These massive figures were about 25 feet tall and there were about 38 of them all around the temple. They have a model of what it must have looked like in its day and these giants are just a small piece of the overall structure.

Sadly, we learned that scholars believe that the temples were destroyed by an edict of the Byzantines who found them too pagan and decreed that they be destroyed. All that is left of the massive Temple of Zeus is rubble. Enormous pieces of columns and blocks of stone that litter the valley floor and only give us a glimpse of what it must have been like when it stood proudly in this place. The Temple of Concordia is intact due to the fact that it was converted into a church, which saved it from the wrecking ball and was, thankfully, restored to its classical pagan splendor in the late 1700s.

The Hellenistic-Roman quarter is totally fascinating, as this is basically the place where the people lived. The Temples were places of worship, by contrast, but this area represents the houses and shops and actual living spaces and neighborhoods where they spent their days. We read that it was one of the best preserved ancient city areas in Sicily and walked around it to see simple mosaic floors, columns still standing and a grid pattern that shows how the city was laid out. Fascinating stuff. Archeologists are continuing to unearth parts of this ancient city.

On Wednesday evening we found a place to stand to await the torchlight procession. The International Folk Festival was taking place at this time, a celebration of peace and brotherhood and folk groups from all over the world were there to perform. As the sky darkened a light rain began to fall and we were lucky to have found a place under a portico, protected from the weather. The raindrops did not stop the celebration though as each group sang and danced as they paraded by us, dressed in their beautiful traditional costumes and carrying torchlights through the streets of the historic center of Agrigento. It was truly a lovely sight to watch and we were so delighted to be there. Afterwards, we found a small trattoria and ate a late supper, returning to our room tired and happy.

Thursday afternoon we had tickets for a performance in one of the theatres just outside of the old town. We had the pleasure of watching different folk dance groups perform and enjoyed so much the diversity that was displayed before us. We saw groups from Sicily, Costa Rica, Greece, Poland, Russia, Spain, Budapest, and Rwanda and each one had the most exquisite costumes and original folk dancing, unique to each country and the traditions and cultures that formed it. It was a very uplifting experience and we came away feeling joyful and happy that we had had the opportunity to witness it.

On Friday morning we said our goodbyes to Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples and decided to drive home along the coast, to see some of the beaches described in our guidebooks. The best place we found was in the area of Palma di Montechiaro, where, high on a cliff overlooking the sea sits the Castello di Montechiario. We parked our car and walked up a bit to get a closer look at the castle, enjoying the views and taking photos. We looked down to see a rounded cove below that looks like a dragon, with its head in the water taking a drink! Afterwards, we tried to find a lake we had read about and ended up backtracking and going around in circles, which only frustrated us and tired us out. We did not, I might add, find another beach area we liked more than our Marina di Ragusa and decided we should just return home, since we were starting to get tired and cranky from too much time in the car.

Close to home, we stopped and picked up a roasted chicken and some potatoes for a simple dinner and flopped into our apartment, glad to be back with our beautiful sea view and our quiet little town.

We do want to go back to Agrigento though and will take Jessica when she comes so she can touch some more old stuff. She'll really like that place!

A presto!
Rosemary e Robert

Sunday, February 12, 2006

How to Post & Privacy Policy 2.12.06

I just thought I would tell you again how easy it is to add your comment to this or any blog through Blogger, the host for our blog site. All you have to do is go to the bottom of anything I have written (or below photos too). You will see the words "0 comments" (or however many have already been "posted" that just means someone has written a comment and told Blogger to "post" it, like putting a post-it note on the fridge.) and next to it a little pencil graphic.

When you click there, the box will expand and you will see something like this:

0 Comments: (or 2 or 3 etc)
(here is where you can read what other people have written)

Post a Comment
Home

If you click "Post a Comment" another window will come up that will ask you to "Leave your comment" with a box where you can type your comments. You will see the words "This blog does not allow anonymous comments" and this is for OUR protection. In the beginning we did not have it set up this way but found that we were getting "spammed" like crazy. That means a lot of people who had blogs that were commercial sites were bombarding us with "comments" that were more like ads to go to their site and it was becoming a pain in the neck. So our son Chris, who knows more about this stuff than we do suggested we change it so that people have to register to post a comment and this has virtually eliminated that sort of stuff. You would not believe some of the crap we received!

That page will also ask you for "word verification" and you just type in the letters you see there. This takes just a minute and is another safety measure for us, to keep away the "spammers" who won't take the time to do that.

Anyway, you will have to "sign in" if you are not a registered user and type in a username and a password. Below is the "Privacy Policy" which states that this is solely for you to access this site and that they do not share your information with anyone. So if you have not wanted to comment because you were afraid of that, I hope that this dispels your fears and you will try it.

Here is what is written on the Blogger page in the TERMS OF SERVICE area:

5. PRIVACY POLICY All information entered into Blogger by Member is private to Member except to the extent that he or she opts to share that information with other Blogger members and/or the public, through Blogger or otherwise.

It is Pyra's (these are the people who own "Blogger") policy to respect the privacy of Members. Therefore, Pyra will not disclose to any third party Member's name or contact information. Pyra will also not monitor, edit, or disclose the contents of a Member's information unless required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to: (1) conform to the edicts of the law or comply with legal process served on Pyra; (2) protect and defend the rights or property of Pyra; or (3) act under exigent circumstances to protect the personal safety of BTS members or the public; (4) fix or debug problems with the Blogger software/service.

Finally, if you have tried all of this and want to post a comment but still have problems doing it, you can click the "Blogger" icon at the lower left side of our blog page (below the list of Archives) and go to "Blogger Help" where it will answer all your questions. There's some cool stuff there too that you might find interesting as well.

We hope to hear from you soon! You have no idea how much it means to us.
Rosemary & Bob

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Catania, Saint Agatha Feast

Procession of Banners


Ceri in the procession


Red faced tired ceri carrier


Cardinal of Catania


Saint Agatha diarama
Fireworks


Fireworks at the Cattedrale


Making sfinga with ricotta inside



Face of Italia


Cathedral chandeliers

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Feast of St. Agatha, Catania 2.3.06

Friday morning we got up early and at around 8am left for Catania. It's about a two-hour drive and we wanted to be there before the parade (procession?) started at noon. This was a good test for our new GPS system (TomTom) and we programmed it to take us via the fastest route. Since we have gone in this direction before, several times now, we had a good idea how to get there but the GPS knew a few different turns and it was interesting to see the route it planned as we approached the city. It's cool the way it re-plans the route too, if you turn down a wrong street or if the street it wants you to go on is closed (as happened a few times), it figures out where you are and tells you where to go.

We parked by the train station and walked about 10 minutes to the center, near the Duomo and were quite delighted with the festive atmosphere we found! All the streets radiating from the center had decorations and there were balloon sellers and street vendors and people lined the sidewalks in anticipation. It was a gorgeous blue-sky day and the snowcapped volcano, Mt. Etna is a very visible part of the landscape. Catania is a big city with a population of over 350,000 people. Its origins date back to around 700 BC, when it was founded by Greek colonists, but it was also destroyed by that 1693 earthquake and completely rebuilt. The streets are straight and broad and the center is lined with many beautiful baroque buildings. The Duomo is in the heart of the town, in the piazza where the delightful "Fontana dell' Elefante" can be found. This is the symbol of the city, a fountain sculpted in the 18th century by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, where, on a pedestal in the basin there is an elephant made of lava rock and on his back an Egyptian obelisk with a globe on top.

The city felt bright, open and clean. Even though it is large, the center seemed manageable on foot, but our goal was to observe the festivities of the day and just get our bearings so that we could return another day to explore. Right on time the parade started, accompanied by the sounds of fireworks, loud in the air at either end of the route. In the procession were representatives from all the trades and clubs in the city. The firefighters received a bigger applause than the bishop! There was a group of people carrying a sign that said "España," dressed in period costumes and playing musical instruments. Every group carried the banners we have become used to seeing, identifying each organization and the event was often accompanied by the sounds of hymns being sung. At the end of the procession came the 11 "ceri" or candlesticks - more like giant vertical chandeliers, each of them a little different in gold with crystals, baroque details, angels and little dioramas depicting the events leading up to the martyrdom of Santa Agata, who had her breasts removed and was put to death for not renouncing her faith and marrying some guy with a lot of power. The fancier the better. Because my family is Sicilian and I grew up with my dear sweet Aunt Celeste who would love this very much, I have to smile to myself seeing all this fancy stuff. Bob and I say to ourselves "In Sicily, there is no such thing as 'over the top'." This is especially evident in the interiors of the Baroque churches and really true in these golden candlesticks! It was fun to see this event and the strength of the men carrying these heavy things from one end of town to the other, wearing these burlap headpieces that had a cushion at the back where they would rest the handles of the carts carrying them. We met a woman from Milan who overheard some of our conversation and in perfect English answered with a "yes" when Bob wondered aloud if one of the groups was made up of local politicians. She and I exchanged email addresses before the procession ended and she invited us to get in touch with her when we were in Verona.

Once the parade ended we wandered around a bit and found the fish market, about to close down for the day - something else to come back to on a future visit. Our plan was to drive to Acireale in the afternoon to try to get information about Carnevale, to take place in that city during the month of February. Acireale is not far from Catania and we found it easily, with the help of TomTom. The folks in the information office were friendly and gave us maps of the city and a list of B&Bs in the area. It is evident that a festival is about to take place as the streets are already decorated with holiday lights representing Carnevale,

Picking up some snacks to eat, we tried to make our way to the sea but took a few wrong turns (getting directions from a police officer and not using our TomTom) and never made it there! By this time it was getting dark and we decided to turn around and head back to Catania for the fireworks show. Scheduled to start at 8pm, we got back there around 7 and joined the crowd that was gathering in Piazza Duomo. There was to be a singing of hymns, followed by a fireworks show. We love fireworks!! The choir started to sing but the people in the piazza could not have cared less and were talking among themselves with the music simply a background distraction we found kind of frustrating, but which does seem to happen at these types of events. However, after a few songs (which did not really sounds like hymns to me at all) two violists stepped up on a platform to the left of the Duomo and the most amazing, well synchronized, fireworks show began, choreographed to the music, in the most dramatic and dynamic display we had ever seen!! These two artists could not have had more different styles of playing! It reminded us of the song "When the devil went down to Georgia" about a competition between the Devil and Johnny, a hot fiddle player. They started with a beautiful Ave Maria punctuated by soaring streaks of gold and silver rising to the heavens! After that a rousing Eastern European classical piece complete with crescendos accompanied by an explosion of light, color and sound. I do not have the vocabulary to properly describe the music but we were spellbound throughout the performance, the best we have seen so far. (and we were blown away in Siracusa by Santa Lucia's fireworks!) The music and the fireworks so perfectly married to each other, right above our heads, made it quite remarkable, unique and totally unforgettable, especially against the backdrop of the Duomo.

When the spettacolo ended we found ourselves in the crush of people leaving the square and slowly made our way to one of the side streets, where we could walk comfortably towards our car. I was stopped in my tracks at the sight of an enormous vat of boiling oil with what looked like sfingas bobbing in the hot oil!! Sfingas, for those of you who do not know, are little balls of dough deep fried in hot oil and then sprinkled with powdered sugar that we used to get during the Feast of St. Fortunata in Brooklyn near my grandparents' house. We could never get enough of them and everyone loved them better than any other treat. The ones in Catania had ricotta in the center and were delicious, but very greasy! I asked for powdered sugar and the woman behind the counter frowned at me and said "NO! miele!" meaning honey. We ate some in the car right away and kept a few for eating the next day. We warmed them up and tried them with honey and it was yummy I must say.

The drive home, with no traffic at all on the main roads went very quickly and we made it back to Marina di Ragusa in about 1-1/2 hours. I felt a bit uncomfortable driving on some of these very dark roads and was glad our car is dependable and did not let us down. Never really did we feel threatened and I guess I am a bit more anxious than I would have been before my journals were taken but all was well. We arrived home safe and sound, tired from our long day.

Coming up: Agrigento and the Sagra del Mandorlo Infiore! (The festival of the blooming almond trees). Our trip for this coming week!

Are you still with us? It would make us so happy if everyone who is reading left just a small comment so we know you are out there. Grazie!

Buona giornata,
Rosemary e Robert

(photos of the Feast of Santa Agatha to follow soon)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Details of the Carro Sicilano

Carro Trinacria: The symbol of the three areas of Sicily



Carro detail: These carts were made entirely by hand and then painted by hand. Usually by the man who owned the cart.

Acate (Antica Biscari)

The rooftops of Acate from Castello dei Principi di Biscari



Castello Biscari defensive detail



Rosemary and the very nice man who allowed us our own private tour of the castle.



Carro Sicilano (Sicilian vendors hand made and painted cart)



Fields of clover and wildflowers under carob trees