Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Michelle & Jessica in Sicily (written 4.5.06)

The Monday after the feast of San Giuseppe, we took Jessica to Buscemi, called a "rural museum" or a "museum of the country people." Buscemi, as I have written about before, is a small village on the Iblean Plateau, spread across the top of a hillside, with records indicating it has been there since Arab times. It's another of the towns in this area devastated by that earthquake in the 1600s and had to be completely rebuilt. The town also has many buildings built in the 1950s, not a stellar time for housing in Sicily and much of it, on close examination, is not very pretty. From a distance, the view is charming however and the cool part of it is the sites they preserved, where people from the countryside actually worked. Several weeks ago we went on this private tour around the town visiting places such as the carpenter's shop, tinker's, shoemaker's, wine-press, oil-press, the farm manager's house and a house of the contadini (day laborers). Jessica found all of this fascinating as we had before and was as surprised as we were to learn that this house, primitive as it was, was lived in as late as the 1960s. Our tour guide explained how poor living conditions were for these people and it made it very clear to us why our great-grandparents left and went in search of a better life.

Palazzolo Acreide, founded in 664 BC on a high hill, is near to Buscemi and contains a large archeological site with a well-preserved Hellenistic theatre, Roman silos and mills and the remains of quarries and Byzantine tombs. It was fascinating to explore. We were able to see the eroded reliefs representing the goddess Cybele, now protected with plexiglass and a sort of shade structure. We love the area around Buscemi and Palazzolo Acreide also, with its green rolling hills and terraces and with everything in bloom it is even more gorgeous now!

On Tuesday we drove to Caltagirone where Jessica and I had fun going in all the little shops and even buying some ceramics. I finally decided on a large platter I had fallen in love with and Jessica found a really pretty flowerpot and some little gifts for her friends. I especially like the work in a shop called "Alessi" and had a hard time decided what I wanted because I like so many things there!

Michelle arrived on Wednesday, later than expected. Her flight from Milan was scheduled to land at 11am but when we got to the airport we were disappointed to learn that it had been cancelled. We waited at the terminal until we were able to ascertain what flight they had her on and when she would be here, thanks to a very helpful young man at the Alitalia check-in desk. Since we had a few hours to kill, we decided to go back to Aci Trezza for lunch and to enjoy the views from the harbor there of the big rocks called "the Ciclopi."

We were all so very happy to see her pretty face walk out of the gate but sorry to hear that her luggage did not arrive with her. With promises that it would be delivered the next day at our apartment in Marina di Ragusa we headed home. Michelle decided that she could wear most of Jessica's things in the meantime, with one exception. This is a funny part of the story as we drove the car to the nearest town we could exit on the freeway, Lentini. It was getting late, we were afraid shops would be closed by the time we arrived in Ragusa and so we made a wild search through the streets for a shop that would sell "unmentionables" - normally a very easy task in Italy since there seems to be one underwear shop for every 10 women! The shop we found appeared to be closing and we dashed out of the car, with a desperate cry of "aperto??" (are you open??) to which the woman replied "certo!!" and ushered the three of us (me, for language; Jessica for moral support I guess and Michelle, well, you know.) What this woman thought of the three of us seemingly desperate for a pair of panties I did not know but I was able to explain to her that our friend had just arrived here from America but that her bags did not and as it was getting late we were afraid we would not find any shops open and were happy that she was! Imagine, that I can say all of that in Italian!! Of course, I think I sound a bit like a Tarzan and Jane movie script - "me Jane, you Tarzan" but I got the point across and she was very understanding.

We drove to Ragusa for Michelle to see the beautiful city of Ragusa Superiore and Ragusa Ibla, the wonderful panorama that we have grown to love so much, spread across, and tumbling down from the crest of the hills. We stopped in Ibla for a late dinner at Nino and Titos, delighted to be together again. Michelle and Jessica have been friends for years and since our daughter moved to Milwaukee, every visit to Phoenix brought a gathering with Michelle, sometimes with their husbands included, most usually just the two girlfriends and Bob and I. We have many happy memories of those times. This was a new and novel extension of it!

The next day allowed for a sleep in and rest up, leisurely breakfast and phone calls to the airline to see what was going on with the luggage. Still saying that the luggage would be delivered some time that day, I volunteered to remain at home while they went out and explored. Bob drove them to Modica to sightsee, not wanting to spoil the one week they had together. I stayed home and rested (not altogether a bad thing after two weeks of non-stop touring with our non-stop daughter!). I took a nap, read my book, made a pot of chicken soup and did some writing. They returned home for dinner and we all drove to Donnalucata for some of the best gelato in the area, not only a feast for the tummy, but a visual delight as the flavors are all piled high and decorated with whatever the particular ingredient might be (lemon slices, bits of fruit, cookies, etc.) Unfortunately, the luggage still had not arrived.

It was decided that in the morning Bob would drive them to Ibla for sightseeing and come home. When the bag arrived, which we were now crossing our fingers about, we would get back in the car, pick up the girls and drive to Siracusa. Best laid plans and all that, needless to say, the bag had not arrived by noon and I insisted they go on without me. Had we thought about it, we probably could have asked Elio to have the bag delivered to his office (as he told me later he would have been glad to do) but we never thought it would take so long to arrive and then didn't want to confuse the issue by changing delivery places. They had a wonderful time in Siracusa and as these two young women hadn't seen each other for over a year (when we left Phoenix) it was good that they had time alone together and so from that perspective really I didn't mind all that much. I do enjoy Siracusa very much though and I was glad they were able to see it. I made myself a lovely little dish of pasta from a recipe in the book "Everyday Italian" my sister-in-law Elaine sent me when we were in Perugia and it was delightful. Finally around 9pm the bag arrived, unharmed, all in one piece! Yeah!! No more waiting!

Our next outing was to be Piazza Armerina and Morgantina. Bob and I visited Piazza Armerina, the Roman villa that was buried for centuries under mud, and its incredibly well preserved mosaic floors, several weeks ago (you can find photos and story in our archives) but had not been to Morgantina. Since Bob had not rested as I had, and since he was the one doing all the driving, he decided to take a little nap in the car while we three "girls" went exploring. Morgantina was a lovely surprise for me. I really did not know what to expect and found this archeological site fascinating. It was a town, founded around 1000 BC and then occupied by the Greeks, followed of course by the Romans and the site is quite extensive and still undergoing archeological excavation. In its day, it was a strategic trade center between north and south Sicily and I imagine quite prosperous. We had a good feel for what the city must have been like, where the shops were, the town bakery, the gymnasium, the sanctuary where they worshipped the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, the city walls, the road leading into the town, and of course, for Jessica, the most special place - the theatre.

The following day was the last one in Marina di Ragusa for our intrepid travelers. They needed time to pack up all their souvenirs, and get their things together as we would be leaving in the morning to spend two days in Catania before their flights on Tuesday morning. We took a drive along the coast, ending up in Capo delle Correnti, the southernmost tip of Sicily. It was a windy, cold day and we wanted them to also see Marzamemi with its pretty little harbor and charming stone buildings but by the time we got there it was getting dark and seemed kind of deserted, not at all like the last time we were there, so we were a bit disappointed that they had not seen it in its best light. We headed home and went to Bacciamolemani, a nice restaurant here in Marina for dinner. It was very quiet when we arrived and we have enjoyed their food in the past but no sooner had we settled in than a large party arrived with several small children who proceeded to run around the restaurant as if they were in a playground. One of the nice things we've seen and appreciated here in Sicily, and even in Perugia, is that children are part of every event. They do not seem to be left behind with babysitters but take part in whatever the adults are doing. This is the way it was when I was growing up and we kids just played around the grownups. During this, our last dinner in Marina, however, I did not appreciate it and wished their parents had corralled them a bit more and not permitted them to run wild among the other diners, who were not part of the family event. I don't think this bothered anyone but me however and it just seemed a very natural thing that they be included and allowed to just be kids.

On to Catania! We had found a B&B in Catania through the Internet called "5 balconi" (Cinque Balconi - It looked very charming and well located and I enjoyed a nice dialog with the owners, Rob, who is British and his lovely wife Cristina, who was born in Palermo. They bought this large apartment on the 3rd floor of a large palazzo near the Castello Ursino and lovingly restored it. They live in the upper part and created four comfortable guest rooms, that surround a living area, complete with charming breakfast corner. We all thought it was adorable when Rob, after waving at us from one of the balconies, helped us with our luggage up the stairs with the caution in his British "accent": "watch out for the steps, they're a bit rustic and a bit dodgy." The rooms are not "ensuite" (meaning the bathrooms are not in the rooms). The two bathrooms are shared by the guests and as I didn't feel comfortable with that, asked if I had understood correctly that this was the situation. Rob and Cristina suggested that if we wanted to stay with them, that they would not accept any other guests for the two nights that we were there, that we could have the place all to ourselves and we happily agreed. We were so glad we did! We could not have asked for nicer, more friendly, helpful and knowledgeable hosts. They suggested restaurants, told us about the antique market and recommended a little town to visit north of Taormina - that I'll tell you about in a minute. Cristina is also a wonderful photographer and her gorgeous and powerful (and award-winning) black and white photographs of Holy Week in Enna adorning the walls in the kitchen area were a delight to see. She had Bob had a few things to talk about there in terms of photography. Plus they gave us information about this event, which we hope to be able to attend coming up soon.

Jessica's guidebook was not kind to the city of Catania and the way it described the crumbly parts of it would have scared away a less adventurous bunch. But we had been to Catania during the festival of Sant'Agata and knew that the center was very pretty with its baroque churches and palazzi lining the main streets of the city and the beautiful Villa Bellini, the park at one end. With a view of Mt Etna and lovely shops and outdoor cafes, we knew there was more to it than what the guidebooks were saying. It is true, that there are many parts of the city in desperate need of restoration and from what we gathered, there is still a mafia influence that does not seem to be working for the good of the city and building and restoration projects must be challenging to accomplish, although there seem to be many in the process. But Rob spoke lovingly about how much they enjoyed living in the city of Catania and the arts and culture they have found there, plus the way they have been accepted by their neighbors and looked out for as one of their own, once it was obvious they wanted to make improvements and be a part of the community and demonstrated that they were there to stay. We are honored to have met them and hope our paths will cross again. Jessica enjoyed talking with Rob also because prior to opening this B&B he had worked as a location manager for films in Great Britain, and had the entertainment field in common.

We spent the morning wandering around the antiques market and just generally seeing the city, crumbly bits and gorgeous palazzi and everything in between. Lunch was spent sitting in one of the outdoor cafés in the main piazza. The food was nothing special but we sat overlooking the baroque cathedral dedicated to Sant'Agata, and the Fontana dell'Elefante, so it was worth it. Dating from 1736, the fountain contains an elephant sculpted out of lava and topped with an Egyptian obelisk that is the symbol of the city. We went in search of the Roman theatre, surprisingly surrounded by buildings, some of which seemed as crumbly as the theatre, badly damaged during WWII, currently undergoing some restorations. The little museum was interesting and contained architectural and sculptural bits and pieces.

We took their suggestion for dinner at a restaurant called "Camelot" (it's right next to the Norman castle!) and I thoroughly enjoyed just filling my plate with an assortment of antipasti as my main course (grilled zucchini, eggplant, stuffed tomatoes, hardboiled eggs, roasted peppers, & more). I love trying a little of this and a little of that.

The next day was spent in Taormina, visiting the last of the archeological sites for Jessica, the Greco/Roman theatre, and exploring this charming resort city. Rob and Cristina told us also about a tiny town 15 minutes north of Taormina called Forza d'Agrò where there was a fantastic restaurant and a church where they had filmed a scene for one of the Godfather movies. Food and film history plus a fantastic view! What more could we ask? We did enjoy Taormina (more souvenirs for the girls) a delightful walk through the town and the wonderful views at the Theatre overlooking the sea and Mt. Etna and we were off.

Forza d'Agrò is a medieval village with a 16th century castle at the top. It's tiny, tiny, but very authentic and original. We were starving by the time we arrived and the little restaurant, as Rob had explained was indeed the first thing we saw as we reached the top of the mountain. So kind, he had called to let the owner know we were coming (and, I'm sure to be certain they were open so that they could call and advise us if they weren't) so they were expecting us. The weather was gorgeous and warm and we opted to sit outside in what feels like someone's backyard, the atmosphere is very informal and simple. Someone's backyard if they happen to look out over the Mediterranean with a view of Calabria across the Straits of Messina in front of you! It was spectacular. But what was really spectacular was the food! Cristina told us that the husband was Sicilian but the wife was from Tuscany so the food would be a mix of both of these cultures and exceptional. We ordered the antipasti, a pitcher of wine and a bottle of water to start. What we did not expect was that the antipasti just kept coming! Everything we tasted was divine! Bob started singing "Heaven, I'm in Heaven..." which is totally not at all like Bob to break into a show tune sung my Fred Astaire! But that is the effect this food had on us. Maybe we were just hungry. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe the view and the weather and the fact that we were all here together in this charming little spot but everything, absolutely everything we ate tasted like it was the most perfect representation of that particular dish. There were bruschette with fresh tomatoes and garlic, a couple of different eggplant dishes, mushrooms, roasted red peppers like I have never tasted in my life, prosciutto and salamis with cheeses, and more and more. I wish I could tell you all of the other things we ate but my memory now escapes me, I'm sorry to say! And the funny thing was that it seemed to just keep coming. Every time we thought we were done, she would bring out another dish to try. We were so stuffed, we felt there was no room for a first course but we did agree to try the pumpkin stuffed ravioli and were not disappointed. We shouldn't have, but we reluctantly tried the desserts, a moussier version of tiramisu than I have had and a panna cotta that was light and delicious. After all that Bob and I decided we'd better finish it off with a coffee or we'd want a nap for sure.

We tried to find the church from the Godfather but none of us could remember what that looked like in any of the films and so I bet both Jessica and Michelle will be watching the trilogy to see if they can recognize something. We had fun taking photos and wandering around a bit before descending the mountain and driving along the coast again. We ended up driving all the way to Messina, just so we could see the Straits and walk along the harbor. Not enough time to really explore the city but just a quick taste so they could say they had been there. Bob wanted to get on the road and head back to Catania before dark since driving in these cities is challenging enough in the daylight and he was getting tired. We all were, but we didn't want to see the day come to and end. They were leaving in the morning.

Back in Catania we went to a funky restaurant Rob and Cristina has suggested that is underground, in a lava cave complete with a little stream running through it. It was very unusual and very cool! I don't think any of us were really all that hungry after our lunch extravaganza and we ate lightly and drank some more wine before tumbling back to our rooms so they could do their final packing for the flight home.

Jessica's flight left first, and after tearful hugs and kisses we waited with Michelle to be sure she got safely on her plane, only to learn later that she missed her connection in Rome and ended up spending the night in a hotel! Poor thing, her travel experiences were less than stellar on this first trip to Italy but we hope what happened in between makes up for it and she has good memories of Sicily. We know that we enjoyed having them here, even if it did take a week for us to recover from the experience!!

Now we are alone again for a while. My brother and sister-in-law and my cousins and their wives will be here in a few short weeks. There are things we hope to do before they get here. I want to finish up some paintings and go a few other places we may not get to see afterwards. We are looking forward to Holy Week and all the festivities leading up to Easter. We may also have a week's visit from my friend Elizabeth who is trying now to work it all out. I cannot believe it, but when they all leave, we will only have a couple of weeks before we must leave and I can't think about that now.

Buona giornata,
Rosemary & Bob

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