St. George, the Dragon slayer is the patron saint of Ragusa Ibla. Here's one of the stories of St. George, taken from Wikipedia online (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_George):
"The tale begins with a dragon making its nest at the spring which provides a city-state with water. Consequently, the citizens had to temporarily remove the dragon from its nest in order to collect water. To do so, they offered the dragon a daily human sacrifice. The victim of the day was chosen by drawing lots. Eventually the "winner" of this lottery happened to be the local princess...She is offered to the dragon but at this point a travelling George arrives. He faces the dragon, slays it and saves the princess. The grateful citizens then abandon their ancestral Paganism and convert to Christianity."
The real St. George was a Tribune in the Roman army. Around the year 300, the emperor Diocletian ordered the systematic persecution of Christians. George, being one, criticized this move, which resulted in his own torture and decapitation. The stories of his bravery and suffering caused many others to convert to Christianity and his legend grew to mythic proportions.
His actual feast day is April 23 and other cities in the area have their festivals on this day. I suppose, not wanting to compete with them, Ragusa Ibla celebrates on the next to the last Sunday in May. We were delighted about that because on the 23rd of April we were busy dealing with our car accident and the arrival of my relatives (parenti in Italian) from the states. Not exactly a good day for attending a festival. But this was perfect. And a perfect way to conclude our time in Sicily and in Ragusa in particular.
We arrived in the afternoon to listen to marching bands and to do some people watching. The weather was perfect, warm, sunny and delightful! One of the things we love about these ancient cities is the civic pride of the people.
A little background:
I have written before that the southeastern part of Sicily was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1693 and was completely rebuilt. This re-building from a blank slate, as it were, resulted in the birth of what is called Sicilian Baroque in the 1700s. Cities like Ragusa, Modica, Comiso and Noto revised their centros by building gorgeous palazzi and churches in this style and re-designing the street layout in this new modern way, which meant broad, straight streets and dramatic stairways leading to the crowning jewels, the fanciful baroque churches. This creates a very theatrical effect and, as Bob and I are fond of saying, "in Sicily, there is no over the top." It all works and we have found these cities and this southeastern part of Sicily to be our favorites.
Ragusa and Ragusa Ibla are actually two halves of the same city, with Ragusa Superiore the more "modern" part of the city and Ragusa Ibla, the more ancient. After the earthquake Ragusa Superiore decided to go with the broad avenues and modern street layout. This is where the city offices are, the Questura, etc. The Duomo, San Giovanni Battista is here and the old part of the city is very charming where it leads into Ibla, at the top of the stairs. It is in the west side of the city where most of the residents live, in tall apartment buildings that were built between and after the World Wars. The official buildings in Piazza Libertà are a good example of the type of architecture built in the 1920s and 30s, with some fine Art Deco reliefs. (called "Liberty style" in Italy) These were the Italian version of America's WPA projects during the depression, before Mussolini went power hungry and seemed to have forgotten the people he previously exhaulted.
But for us, the real charmer is Ragusa Ibla. After the earthquake, the people who lived in Ibla decided they loved their city the way it was and rebuilt exactly the way it had been, retaining the original twisty, turny streets, the layout that the Arabs had designed around the 1st century A.D., before they were rudely ejected by the conquering Normans. Not without adding a few gorgeous baroque details, however, like many of the beautiful palazzi with the fancy wrought iron balconies and "grotesque" details and of course, the Duomo of San Giorgio.
There is a point however, in the old centro of Ragusa Superiore, where the two seem to blend, where the ancient homes still stand and the views, as you approach the church of Santa Maria delle Scale (literally "of the stairs") are nothing short of breathtaking. You can either drive down a winding road into Ragusa Ibla or walk down the stairs that also twist and turn, providing peaks into this ancient part of the city with views of the lovely countryside that surrounds it. Many of the old palazzi are being restored. We have been told that this is becoming the trendy place to be, so costs are rising (but still affordable). There are many restaurants, bars and shops. It's where the tourists come and the city welcomes them in the most gracious way. The people of Ragusa are proud of their city. They have every reason to be. Spending so much time here we have come to love it and appreciate its many charms.
The Festa San Giorgio:
Arriving early in the day, as I said, afforded us a pretty good parking place in the old city. In Piazza Duomo we found marching bands in bright red uniforms warming up and chatting with the locals. There was a row of at least 10 old men sitting in chairs lined up in front of one of the mens clubs, doing what they do best: talking with each other, gesticulating and smiling, as tourists snapped photos of them. I asked an older gentleman standing beside me if they enjoyed having their pictures taken. He responded that they did and it was evident that some clearly did. Others, I'm not so sure, and we try to be respectful about doing this and not treating them as if they were nothing but a curiosity or a caricature.
As the day was hot, it called for a gelato and we shared a mandorla (almond) - they didn't have my favorite pistachio! - and fragola (strawberry) while sitting on a bench in the shade. At around 6pm everyone started to gather in front of the Duomo. Anticipation grew and we were eventually pushed back behind the barriers, as the program was about to begin. Suddenly, there was a loud boom like a canon and into the air millions of brightly colored little pieces of paper that held prayers to San Giorgio (for example: one said "San Giorgio, protect our city," another: intercede for us" etc) were shot high into the air and fell down on our heads. The red and white balloons that had been distributed to the crowd earlier were let loose, the band played, and down the steps of the Duomo came the statue of San Giorgio, on his white horse, complete with slayed dragon, to pass right beside us as we stood next to the path it took from the steps of the church! A terrific little fireworks display followed and it was fun and different to see this in the daylight hours. The woman in front of me was very emphatic that we return to see the fireworks display later that night as it was expected to be "meraviglioso!" (marvelous!) We assured her we planned to do just that.
The streets of the old city were all decorated with these fantastic light creations we have seen at festivals like Christmas, Carnivale and Easter, with specific designs for each occasion. These seemed even more dramatic as they mimicked the shape of the duomo and stretched across the narrow streets of Ibla, so that even in the daylight the effect was that of white light and fantasy.
The statue of San Giorgio was carried by a group of strong and mostly handsome men who lifted it and danced with it, with George appearing to be galloping through the crowd as the bands played and adoring worshippers (fans?) fell in behind. Sicilian drama at its best, right in front of our eyes.
We didn't follow the statue all around the city (although Elio said we should have because it is wonderful to see it go around the narrow streets and in and out of the many other churches, up the steps etc.) We decided instead to find a place to eat dinner and get off our feet for a bit. Stopping at a charming outdoor café called "Rustica" along the route, we hoped we would see the procession pass us by as we sat in our front row seats. As the statue and his entourage approached, Bob got up to take some photos and we ended up being interviewed by the beautiful Analisa from the TV station Mediterraneo! She came to our table with her cameraman and asked us a bunch of questions we answered in Italian, as good as we could muster under the circumstances (and after two glasses of wine!). It was all very fun and exciting.
Later, we wandered back to the Duomo to enjoy the live music and as we were sitting there, a man was wildly motioning us to come over to where the TV crew was still doing interviews. We thought he was either suggesting Bob take some photos or that we ourselves, come and be interviewed. As he was really emphatic about it, we went over to see what he was saying and found out that he had seen us on the TV screen, where they were replaying the interviews they had done earlier in the day and he had recognized us!! It was hilarious! We then spent about the next half hour or so talking with this man and his family. We are really getting good at the "Getting to Know You" conversation (our friends from our Italian language class will know what we are talking about!) so it seemed like we were quite fluent in the language as we chatted away with these people. It was so much fun!! We shared our blog address with them and hope they will be able to look at the photos we will be posting along with this story. The wife, coincidentally, was from a small town near Baucina where my Bivetto grandparents came from. She is the first person we have met in Sicily who knew of this tiny place so that was also fun. It was the kind of thing we enjoy so much, being able to talk with the local people, something we never could have done without our language skills, such as they are. And believe me, they are not as good as we would like them to be. We don't do as well with more complicated conversations as our vocabulary is fairly limited. We read the dictionary and try to remember words. We keep a dictionary in the car so that we look up words we think of. We are always trying to think of how to say something in Italian. We get by.
Which was how it went as we attempted to ask Analisa if we could get a copy of the tape with our interview on it. We managed to get our point across and she graciously wrote down her phone number so that we can call her about it. That will be a blast, to have a CD/DVD of the festival including us, being interviewed on Sicilian television!!
At that moment, all the lights in the piazza went out and the fireworks extravaganza began. Similar to the one we had seen in Catania several months ago, it was choreographed to music and of course, some of the most rousing, dramatic crescendos was timed perfectly to the explosion of the fireworks and we could feel the booms in our chests as tiny bits of burned paper floated down around us like snow flurries. Standing as close as we were, we could also see the display at the top of the steps of the Duomo. All the fireworks shot up from in front of the Duomo so that the face of it was also illuminated. With the current restoration work, the façade is still partly under scaffolding, but luckily they recently exposed a portion of the top to dramatic effect. We would love to return to this beautiful city, to take part in this festival when all the restoration work is complete and we can fully appreciate this Duomo, one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in Sicily. As they have started to take down the scaffolding already, we believe it will be completely uncovered very shortly. Not before we leave, but perhaps later this summer. We hope so. We know how disappointing it was to us, when we arrived and found it all covered in December. It was a thrill to see at least part of the metal armature removed several weeks ago, as we stood below in the square.
With the fireworks show concluded, a content and very well behaved crowd made their way out of the square and off to find their way home. It was truly a wonderful day and a delightful last memory of this city that will always hold a very special place in our hearts.
Rosemary e Roberto
(If you are interested in renting an authentic Sicilian country house, lovingly restored and decorated in the countryside of Ragusa or an apartment in Marina di Ragusa, check out Elio's site: www.rentinitaly.net. We know he is in the process of updating it, but go ahead and take a look. Elio is a wonderful host as I have said and we cannot say enough about how lovely this area is.)