A week of day trips from Floridia

Trip Start Jan 25, 2007
Trip End Jun 30, 2007

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Flag of Italy  , Sicily,
Saturday, June 16, 2007

Hi everyone

After my big north-west trip I decided to stay near my home town and get to know the local district better.
On the weekend I attended an Aikido seminar. For those of you that don't know I have been practicing Aikido for around 17 years in Melbourne. My teacher is Michael Field, 5th Dan. Before I left I had been teaching for around 5 years, the last 2 at our Prahran Dojo. I was delighted to find in my little home town an Aikido dojo and have been attending it regularly when I'm in Floridia. It felt great to be able to move the body and mind again as I have for so many years. It's very funny training Aikido in Italy - you kiss the instructors and the other students, the lunch break is 4 hours and you go and have a full meal with wine, beer, grappa, etc.
Am invited to lunch at the apartment of my cousin Letizia and her husband, Angelo, and her mother, my zia Ciccina is there too. Letizia is a very good cook and we have pasta with pesto sauce, to which Letizia has added a bit of dried tomato, then we have coniglio 'a stimpirata (braised rabbit is as close as I can get in translating), then the pièce de resistance is the home-made canteloupe icecream. Truly, Letizia has captured the essence of the canteloupe in this icecream and it is amazingly refreshing. I have to be very careful here, dear readers, as there are quite a number of good cooks in my family and I could cause quite a serious feud if I'm not very careful in how I put things :). Ok, I'll put it this way - this is the best canteloupe icecream I've ever had in my life and going by this example I would assume any other icecream made by these hands would be equally good. My sister Rosalba makes exceptionally good semi-freddo's and my other sister Flora is a dab hand at everything - she seems able to whip up delicious fruit tarts, cakes, etc at the drop of a hat (by the way, have you been to her cafè in Eltham yet?). I'm just dreading going back to Australia and both sisters making canteloupe icecream and asking me if it's better than Letizia's :)
In the afternoon Angelo takes me to the San Giovanni (St John) Catacombs, which house over 10,000 tombs carved into the soft rock underground. Next to it is the San Giovanni Evangelista church, which is now basically a shell, as the roof caved in during an earthquake, but is still used as a church with services in the open. In the corner of the church, there are steps that lead 5 metres underground to San Marciano's Crypt. This is the first Christian church in Europe and is believed to have been founded in 39AD. St Paul was supposed to have preached there in 60AD and St Marciano was martyred in the vicinity and buried there. It is astonishing standing 5 metres underground in a crypt and trying to imagine these things. As we go out Angelo sees a musician friend and asks what's happening, and there's a performance of Tragodia tonight, so we return at 9.30 for a series of readings from the Bible and Greek tragedies, with a woman singing ancient Hebrew songs and other music. It's wonderful that in a provincial capital like this you can get this quality of performance and culture. We finish up with pizza in Ortigia late at night.
After spending the morning washing clothes I mount my trusty Aprilia and set off for Pantalica, an important archaelogical site in the Val D'Anapo (Valley of the Anapo river). I believe that Pantalica is considered to be probably the oldest continuously inhabited places by humans (at least in Europe), with traces from 70,000 years ago. The site spreads over a number of steep, winding gorges and has over 5,000 tombs cut into the rock and was mainly used between 1,300 and 800BC. The tombs have been used for refuge by a number of people who were driven out by invaders, and some villages were even built in the gorges in Byzantine times around 500AD.
At the bottom is a river and lush vegetation and it's a welcome relief from the blasting heat above. There are lovely cold pools in the river and boys have fun dive-bombing from rock walls that were built over 3,000 years ago.
I continue on to Palazzolo Acreide, which is higher up at over 700 metres and is therefore cooler. Palazzolo has a cute little Greek Amphitheatre and a number of other Greek and Roman ruins and seems to have been used as an escape from the summer heat by the ancients (it still is now). When I get to the Archaelogical site it is closed, so as I am already a criminal (riding my Aprilia without registration papers, which have been confiscated by the police in Floridia), I find a suitable spot and jump over the fence and wander around in the beautiful late afternoon light with the site all to myself. Then I ride down to the town and take part in the 'passeggiata' (late afternoon/sunset walk in the piazzas) and have a coffee and Italian sponge cake with wild strawberries on top.
Today I ride to Avola for breakfast (best almonds in Sicily), then I head off for Cava Grande nearby where I've been told there are these lovely little laghetti (small lakes) at the bottom of the valley. After riding up through the dry, rocky mountains I come to the edge of a rugged gorge, and way down below, shimmering green and aquamarine there are indeed 2 beautiful little lakes. Half an hour later, hot and sweating from the descent, I dive in for a refreshing swim. The only other people there are a young Italian couple. I lay out on the hot rocks for a little while trying to get some colour into my legs (my face and top and feet (except where there are sandal straps) are very brown, but the rest of me is quite white, then a bunch of around 10 tourists arrive, so I have one last swim to cool myself off, then trudge up the steep gorge sides arriving at the top dripping with sweat. However as I ride my Aprilia over to Noto the wind dries me off.
I'm starving so I pop in to the Enoteca and ask for a restaurant recommendation and so in a few minutes I'm in a restaurant called 'I sapori del Val di Noto' (the flavours of the Valley of Noto) and when I ask what's good to eat I'm recommended the snails. There are 2 types - Crustuni, which are large, and 'ntuppateddi (have fun trying to pronounce it), which are smaller and the meat is more delicate, but they are actually more aggressive and eat the other type of snails. Unfortunately the 'ntuppateddi have just been delivered and will take at least an hour to prepare, so I have pasta and Crustuni for primo piatto, then grilled tuna and roast peppers, and a cassata for dessert, and a glass of sweet wine of course and a coffee.
In the afternoon I head off for Vendicari, which is a nature reserve on the coast comprising marshes and low sand dunes. There is also an old tonnara which is abandoned. Tonnara's are tuna processing plants - they were sited near where tuna congregated or passed and there were once 50 of them in Sicily. Commercial fishing by Japanese and others has depleted the number of tuna so much that all have closed. In the old days there was a season when they held the 'mattanza' - the boats went out to catch tuna in their nets - they used to sing songs influenced by Arabic chanting to give them the strength to haul in the nets and kill the tuna, many of which weighed 500kg. In other tonnaras they drove them into channels so it was easier to kill them. The tonnaras are nearly all sited in beautiful places and remind you of the means of living of the local people. Nowadays people swim and sunbath near them.
I spend most of the day updating Travelpod and have lunch with my cousin Maria Grazia, who lives just around the corner. She's always saying she can't cook but every time I go there she's made a nice soup, or something else nice, and today she has bought us each an octopus, which fills the plate (if I opened out the tentacles to their full length it would be more than 30cms wide). She boils it and it is cooked to perfection - soft to the bite and juicy and full of flavour. She also fries sardines, which I love, so with a salad and lemon and oil and bread you could not wish for a simpler or more enjoyable meal. In the early evening I meet Letizia and Angelo at the Greek Theatre in Siracusa to see the play Eracle (Hercules) by Sophocles. Siracusa has the largest existing Greek Theatre in existence and every year in May and June puts on ancient Greek tragedies. I have been to Siracusa many times but have never been to a performance so jump at the chance to go - how many opportunities do you have to see a tragedy performed that was no doubt performed in this very same theatre 2,400 years ago. The theatre is still in a pretty good state and reputedly could hold 10,000 spectators. The play is truly a tragedy - Hercules comes back from the underworld to find a usurper has killed the king (his wife's father), and his wife and 2 sons and father about to be killed. He polishes off the usurper and it looks like a happy ending, but a goddess decides to punish him and he goes mad and kills his wife and children, and is about to kill his father when he is overcome and tied up. He wakes to find himself in chains, surrounded by the bodies of his loved ones, etc, etc. The Greeks truly knew how to ram home the uncertainty of life. The acting is wonderful - it's such a pleasure to see the actors using their voices and bodies to engage you in the story - the backdrop is simple but stunning and the Greek chorus accompanies the story. Hercules is played by Sebastiano Lo Monaco, who is from Floridia, so everybody is very proud of him and my aunt tells me that my father knows their family. A truly lovely night.
Today starts bright and hot (again; every day has been like this), and I want to explore the coast north of Catania and have a swim. I ride the backroads from Floridia to the mountain townships of Lentini and Carlentini, then along the long Playa south of Catania, which is a seething mass of people on the long curve of sandy beach.
I ride along the coast road through Catania and out to the Costa degli Ciclopi (Coast of the Cyclops). It is called that because it is the setting for the episode in the Oddyssey where Homer is attacked by the Cyclops, Polyphemus. There are a number of faraglione (rocky outcrops) in the sea, which are the supposed clumps of lava thrown at Homer as he escaped. There is an interesting story about the Cyclops.
Sicily is attached to the African plate, which in pushing up against the European plate (Italy, etc), has caused Etna and most of the other mountains in Sicily. There used to be elephants, hippopotamus, deer and other African animals in prehistoric times. There were in the region of the coast north of Catania many caves found with the skulls of dwarf elephants. To the early human inhabitants these seemed like the skulls of giant men with one eye (where the trunk is) as they had no idea about elephants being there. Thus the legend of the Cyclops was born.
It is a beautiful area - first Acicastello with an old Norman fort, then Acitrezza with the faraglione, then Acireale, etc. A word of explanation - there are 8 towns the river Aci flows through so they all have Aci in their name. Aci was a shepherd in love with Galatea, and the Cyclops Polyphemus became jealous and killed him. The gods turned him into a river and thus he is united eternally with Galatea in the sea.
I have a lovely swim at Acitrezza, directly in front of the faraglione - again I am struck that I am swimming in the sea and clambering on rocks that Homer wrote about nearly 3,000 years ago. I have an enormous lunch at a nearby restaurant - antipasto of fried baby octopus the size of a fingernail, boiled baby prawns, octopus, calamari and clams, fried sardines, clams baked in shell and topped with breadcrumbs, marinated fresh anchovies, fried baccalà cakes, fried baby fish - then a plate of mixed grilled seafood - whole small fish, calamari tubes, 2 large prawns, a small octopus and 3 lemons to squeeze over the lot. Truly an overdose of seafood and I can feel the Omega-3 oils dislodging the cholesterol from my arteries and the calcium penetrating and strengthening my bones (and the bottle of crisp white wine relaxing my limbs).
I need exercise so I go to the Gorge of Alcantara, which at one point has rock walls only a couple of metres wide, through which flows a freezing cold river. I am there too late to go canyoning in a wetsuit (there are waterfalls upstream).
I ride on up to Taormina, which is the tourist capital of Sicily - the international jetset and hordes of northern European tourists come here, but it's still beautiful, then I ride up to Castelmola, which is high above and has a stupendous view in all directions. Another little story:
Most people will have heard of the book Lady Chatterley's Lover - it was banned for many years in Australia and most schoolboys would have given their right arm to get a copy when I was a teenager. The author David Herbert Lawrence and his wife Frieda von Richtofen (related to Baron von Richtofen, the Red Baron flying ace of WW1) lived near here in the early 1920's - she was 41 and was described as blond, happy, sensual and exuberant. Frieda often used to visit a friend of hers near Castelmola for afternoon tea. One afternoon in 1922 her friend sent a muleteer and mule to bring her over as it looked like it might rain. A thunderstorm broke out and the muleteer, Peppino found shelter in a hut for them and started drying off the saddle and mule. When he turned around Frieda was dancing in the nude outside in the rain and asked him to join her. He didn't need to be asked twice and their relationship lasted until September 1923. Frieda told her husband, who was impotent, and he turned it into Lady Chatterly's Lover. Peppino died in Pittsburgh in the US in 1990 aged 92. He couldn't read or write but told his story to friends, always adding a little bit - 'è chistu è nenti' (and this is nothing ...).
I marvel at what you can do in one day in this area - ride through dry, rocky mountains to medievcal hilltop towns, down to a large gulf on the edge of a volcano with sandy beaches, swim near a 100 year old Norman castle and the rocks that the Cyclops threw at Homer, wade through a gorge with unusual geological formations, go mix with the jetset at Taormina, and visit the tiny town near which the inspiration for Lady Chatterly's Lover was born. All on a little Aprilia 150 scooter.
I get home to Floridia at midnight.
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bcjitterbug on

Che Everard
Great way to slip into my day, reading, then digging into the archives of our photos from a month in Sicilia. Your writing is fabulous, especially details of the mechanisms of omega-3 fatty acids in the distruction of bad guys hiding in the inner workings of one's body!
I could detail the disaster that awaits me from my truck skidding downhill while trying to position my sawmill for my summer's adventure ... milling some redwood trees on my property. Somehow, however, it doesn't seem to measure up to Italy, food, family and the wind in your face! Thanks for the inspiration.

bcjitterbug on

Che again
forgot to sign... steve

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