The Baroque Triangle - South East Sicily
Trip Start Jan 25, 2007
31Trip End Jun 30, 2007
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I wrote the stuff below yesterday but didn't quite finish it, so am sending this morning (Tuesday). While waiting for the internet place to open at 9.30am I went to the barber and had a shave and a haircut (haven't had a shave for 6 days and a haircut for over a month). What bliss - what a way to start the day - a gentleman of about 70 with short snowy white hair sits me down in a chair and spends 5 minutes lathering my face gently with a cream that smells of eucalyptus. He uses his fingers to stretch my skin so as to give me a close shave. After the first run through he lathers me again and shaves me a second time, working his way carefully around my face to make sure every hair is shaved. Then he applies moisturiser. I touch my skin and it feels unbelievably smooth and moist, and is tingling with excitement (or is that me?). He then cuts my hair and as we chat he tells me he was in Melbourne last Dec and Jan visiting relatives and he thinks he knows my father
OK, here is what I wrote yesterday.
I got back to Floridia last night after riding over the 'altiplano Siracusano' (high plains in the province of Siracusa) in my little Aprilia scooter. Everybody has heard of the Bermuda triangle - well I've just spent 6 days in the Baroque Triangle - the south-eastern part of Sicily comprising Ragusa and surrounding towns in what is considered the most beautiful and extensive baroque area of Italy, and possibly Europe.
Before I start describing my trip I will just mention that I rang Australia and spoke to my daughter Giuliana and wished her happy birthday yesterday (it was on the the 26th May). She was gathered with my sisters and their families and my son at my youngest sister Flora's cafe in Eltham where they were celebrating both her birthday and my brother-in-law Dino's.
Flora opened a cafe in March this year so please go there and tell your friends to visit too - she also does catering for functions. Everything is handmade by her or by my other sister Rosalba, and when Dad gets back they will make him slave away in the kitchen too. The address is:
The Ridge Cafe
15/266 Bolton Street
Eltham VIC 3095
Tel: 03 9439 0394
It's open Mon-Fri 7am-3pm and Sat 7am-1pm, I think
Ok, now that I've got the family promos out of the way I can get on with telling you about this beautiful area.
This is my first real trip on my Aprilia scooter so I pack everything I'm taking under the seat, on the pannier and in my backpack, and set off one fine sunny Tuesday morning for Ragusa. It's glorious riding a motor scooter and I scoot through Avola, stop in Noto for an almond granita and some photos, get slightly lost, then make it to Ragusa for lunch with my aunt and cousins, and Maria Grazia, my cousin from Floridia who's staying with them. You're probably wondering how many aunts and cousins I have - I haven't counted them all yet but there's quite a few and it's nice having them scattered all over the place so I can go and visit them.
My aunt Tituzza and her 3 children, Silvana, Alfredo and Pina (all around my age), all live in the same apartment block with their families - when it was built they bought 4 of the 6 apartments, and they are friends with the neighbours, so it's like a private condominium - people are going upstairs and downstairs all the time and one day lunch will be at one apartment and another day it will move to another, and if somebody needs something they go and see their sister or brother or mother, etc.
Pina's husband Salvatore takes me for a drive around Ragusa Ibla in her blue Opel convertible - it's so great to have a local take you around, as he seems to know everybody and we can go into places tourists wouldn't know wbout and couldn't get in to. Ragusa, like so many towns in the area is built on and in one of the many gorges in this area. Ragusa proper is at the top of the gorge and Ibla is built along the cliffs and the bottom of the gorge
Next day Maria Grazia and Silvana take me to il Castello di Donnafugata (literally woman who has fled) - Salvatore meets us there, talks to a man at the entrance who he knows and gets us past the entrance queue and straight in for free, and to top it all off I'm allowed to take photos in there, even though there's big signs everywhere saying NO PHOTOGRAPHS ALLOWED. Truly in Italy it's who you know, and I know it's graft and corruption, but you wouldn't be seeing these beautiful photos without this, so let's not be too precious about it :)
Although it has the same name as the palace in the book 'The Leopard', it is not the one described as that is way over near Palermo in the North west of Sicily - I will try and find that when I go there. However they did use the 'hall of mirrors' from this castle in the ballroom scene in the film starring Burt Lancaster as the Prince Fabrizio Salina. The castle is built in Gothic Venetian style and is about 15kms fro Ragusa in dry, rocky country, and from the towers you can see the sea. It has around 130 rooms, of which about 40 are open to the public. On the way back we stop to have an almond granita and Silvana isn't happy with it so she says she'll make some for me tonight
In the afternoon my cousins take me to a function for Fulvio Frisone, a nuclear physicist, painter and poet born in Siracusa in 1966. I have never heard of him yet he is a world famous scientist working on cold fusion and is a sort of Italian Stephen Hawking.
There were complications at his birth and he and his mother were given extreme unction (given by a priest when you're expected to die), but both survived, although he was left virtually without use of his body, has to be fed intravenously and has to be turned over every few hours at night. The doctors said he should be allowed to die but his mother refused and gave up her promising singing career to bring him up. She was determined that he would have as normal a life as possible and spent much of her time badgering and shaming educational institutions into admitting him. When he was high school age his mother tried to enrol him in several high schools in Siracusa but none would take him, until she found a sympathetic headmaster, who, after initially saying he couldn't take him on practical grounds, eg the maths and science classrooms were on the 3rd floor, changed his mind and gave up the headmaster's rooms so these classes could be held there. I later found out that the headmaster was Franco, husband of my cousin Dora, oldest child of my father's oldest brother, Andrea. Truly is the world comprised of only 6 degrees of separation
Anyhow, Fulvio turned out to be a genius and is one of the leading research scientists in the field of cold fusion, and heads a research foundation named after him at the University of Catania. In order to do his work he has to use an apparatus attached to his head to labouriously work on his computer (and also to paint) and he needs someone to translate and make speeches for him - usually his mother.
They showed a film of his life and I must say I had wet eyes through most of it - I seem to be like this every time I hear or see something about the love and strength of the human spirit, which funnily enough seems to be quite often as I have been travelling (perhaps in the normal workaday world you are too preoccupied with work, etc to notice these things).
After the film Fulvio's mother, Anna (also known as the Cyclone Mother), who is around 70 and is still a dynamo, gave a heartfelt talk about how she gave up her love of singing to look after Fulvio, the strains it put on her marriage, etc. She is tiny but extremely lively and says that if Fulvio acts up with her or makes her angry she swears at him and whacks him over the head to show him who's boss. In the film we were shown they didn't show the bit where his mother arranged for him to get sexual experience with a prostitute and had to ring around quite a few brothels to find someone who would go with him (the film was shown in the hall of a Catholic church and several nuns were present)
That night Silvana goes to choir practice and I tag along with her granddaughter Martina (5) and we play rock, scissors, paper and other games while listening to the choir practice opera pieces. I've got to tell you about Italian children - I don't know what it is but they seem like miniature adults and are very precocious - at 5 years of age, and not even at school yet Martina has an excellent command of the language, a huge vocabulary and all the body and facial expressions for conversing in Italian.
When we get back we sit around the kitchen table eating pieces of lemon which we dip in salt - there is a particular variety of lemon with a thick pith which is suitable for eating like this. Before going to bed Silvana puts ground almonds into a cheesecloth, dips it in a bowl of water, then gently squeezes the ball of wet almond meal until the water becomes a milky colour. She then adds sugar and puts it in the freezer. Ideally you should take it out and break it up with a fork every now and then, but she's not going to do this tonight, so in the morning she sets me to breaking it up, which isn't hard to do because it hasn't set hard overnight (most people here don't set their fridges too cold). Nowadays granitas are made in special machines.
My cousin Maria Grazia had a carpal tunnel operation 2 weeks ago, and is having the stitches taken out next day in Modica hospital about 20kms away. Like many towns around here there are 2 parts to Modica - Alta (high), and Bassa (low, set at the bottom of a gorge). They drop me off in Modica Bassa and will pick me up after they have finished at the hospital. Modica is just beautiful - possibly the most baroque town in Italy, full of churches and palaces. I stop at Caffè Macchiato and have their specialty - caffè macchiato con scaglie di cioccolata modicana è cannella (with scales of modican chocolate and cinnamon). I sit out in a triangular piazzetta and it's just beautiful - I'm surrounded by lovely baroque buildings, old gentleman with coppollas (traditional caps) sitting chatting (they sit squeezed up together on the same bench, 6 or 7 of them, and as they talk they familiarly put their hand on their friend's arm or leg - no problem with personal space here), and street life buzzing all around in the hot sunshine. I saw the bar owner squeezing out fresh lemon juice to make granitas so I decide to have one. I shouldn't because it's so close to lunchtime, but I justify it by saying 'I might not get this opportunity again'. After the rich chocolatey caffè macchiato the tangy cold lemon granita is delightful. My cousins come to pick me up after nearly 3 hours and find that I have only moved about 200 metres down the main street.
On Saturday I decide on a scooter excursion along the coastline and set off through Modica, then the small town of Scicli, built at the bottom of a ravine and partly into the cliff face, then I head for Pachino (which confusingly is what Beijing is called in Italian), a town just inland from the coast which is surrounded by tomato farms - the cherry tomatoes from here are famed througout Italy (one of the things I like about Italy is the regionality - the best pistacchios are from Bronte on the slopes of Mt Etna, the best almonds from Avola, etc)
For a large part of my ride black rain clouds have been piling up and a bit of rain falls. I have visions of riding back through the rain but push on to Portopalo at the top of Cape Passero. The actual southern tip of Sicily is nearby and I take off my shirt and ride down there - it's a wonderful feeling with the wind blasting my body. Is there anything better than riding a scooter along the coast bare-chested and bare-footed and without a helmet. I know you're all tut-tutting and thinking what a crazy and dangerous thing to do but I don't care because it's wonderful. I find a nice beach near Portopalo and have a swim.
I follow the coast to Marzamemi, a tiny fishing village, and am enchanted by a group of buildings on a point. I stop and wander through to a piazza, which to me at that moment feels like the most beautiful I have seen. It is extremely simple - it is surrounded by an abandoned church, an old palace now containing a shop selling local produce and touristy things, and small, low stone fishermen's houses, and is just metres from the sea.
It's now about 4.30pm and I need to get back to Ragusa by 7 so I turn back. I don't have a map so I'm just relying on road signs (when will I ever learn?) and I get to an intersection with signs to Pachino and Noto, both of which will get me back, and another sign SS156 which says it's a minor road without any signs, so I hesitate for an instant and take that one
That night my cousins are taking me to hear a performance based on the life and songs of Fabrizio de Andrè, a singer/songwriter of the 70s & 80s, who died a couple of years ago. We enter this building in Ibla formerly owned by a noble family and walk through a number of vaulted rooms into a tiny theatre. It is like a miniature opera house - stage, plush red velvet seats, enclosed balconies (seats around 120 people all up) - and must have been used by the family for private concerts. I know virtually nothing about Italian pop music and am expecting some sort of a tribute to the singer and lots of saccharine pop music, which I will just have to bear with a smile on my face and diplomatically say 'yes it was nice' when I'm asked 'did you like it' (saccharine pop music is one of my pet hates).
There's a 6 piece band on stage and a young narrator and I thoroughly enjoy the show. The lyrics range from prostitutes in the port of Genova, a love affair near London Bridge, a massacre of Indians by US troops in the 1800's, and a song about a gorilla
There's a spaghettata (spaghetti feast - made simply with oil and green beans and grated cheese) after the show, then we toddle off for an icecream of roasted almonds, hazlenuts, carob, orange essence and cinnamon.
The final day we go to Marina di Ragusa, the beachside area of Ragusa, about 18kms away and have a barbeque. It's windy and rainy and when I say I'm riding back to Floridia tonight, via the alternate mountain route there is consternation - you'll die of cold, the road is dangerous, it might rain, you'll get lost in the dark, etc (to all my relatives I'm a bit of an exotic species and they are alternately bemused and worried about me - travelling the world for an extended period, sold my house, no job, climbs mountains, rides scooters around Sicily - but I'm family and they tolerate everything).
However, I convince them I won't die, and if I do it's not their fault because they've warned me, etc and I have an exhilirating ride over the mountains in the dusk via Giarratana and Palazzolo Acreide, and arrive back in the dark, not too cold because Silvana has forced me to wear a pullower wind shell in dark blue, with bright pink panels (first time I've worn pink in my life, I think), which clashes horribly with my bright orange backpack, but it's dark and I don't think anybody will notice my fashion faux pas in the dark (this is Italy after all and you have to cut a 'buona figura').
I plan to wash some clothes, catch up with rellies, update my blog, then in a couple of days head off for the west of Sicily, which I have never been to, then along the northern coast, and finally down the east coast back to Floridia, where there will be an Aikido seminar on the 9 & 10th June.