Cave Churches

In our travels a recurring, interesting feature has been the ‘Cave Church’.

From the famous Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves of Ellora and Ajanta in Northern Maharashtra India (thought to date from 600 to 1000 AD) to a delightful, compact cave church in Castelmola (in the Province of Messina, Sicily) they are places that at once inspire awe and wonder, and offer interesting and varied art forms from a long-distant past.

Take the Sassi di Matera in southern Italy for example: here in this fabulously interesting neighbourhood inhabited since Neolithic, and even Palaeolithic times and where there is bountiful evidence of its Troglodytic inhabitants, we encountered many chiese rupestri (cave, or ‘stone’ churches). Often utilising the Trogladyte caves, they were excavated by Basilian monks fleeing persecution during the Byzantine Empire and thought to be inhabited between 8th and 13th centuries.

Cave Church - Matera Sassi Italy

Cave Church in Matera Sassi

Our favourite was the little-visited cave church of Madonna dei Derelitti at the foot of the Gravina (gorge). We had the place to ourselves (primarily because it is at the bottom of this very steep-sided gorge and accessible only by a series of goat tracks) while tourists crawled all over the more easily accessible ones. We suffered though (this should please those religious among you who believe that life on earth should be one of sufferance) as the temperature was up in the high thirties and we were exposed to the sun all the way down – and up.

Cave Church in Castelmola Sicily

We found classic examples of cave churches in Caltabellotta in Sicily too, while they also abound throughout Greece and Cappadocia in Turkey, where in the 7th century thousands of Christians were forced to flee either to underground cities or rocky caves for refuge.

Cave Church in Caltabellotta Sicily

Why transform a cave into a place of worship? God knows. But these chapels and churches became intimate and cardinal places of worship for those Christians hiding in the caves and were kept secret for two hundred years.

Architecturally, too, half the work is already done for the builder, while in the hot climes, where most of these cave churches seem to exist, they would also have offered some cooling respite from the heat of the day. For the curious traveller it is always worth poking your nose into them.

Syracusa – And Getting There

28th May 2015

But first – more of Castelmola and Taormina:

An unusual and old bar on 4 levels in Castelmola, with phallic symbols throughout its interior

An unusual and old bar on 4 levels in Castelmola, with phallic symbols throughout its interior

View of Isolabela from the top of Taormina

View of Isolabela from the top of Taormina

Taormina – Greek/Roman (one on the other) Amphitheatre (upper centre); it would have taken great legs to have climbed just to that level from the town below, so you would have wanted the entertainment to be pretty good for the effort

Taormina – Greek/Roman (one on the other) Amphitheatre (upper centre); it would have taken great legs to have climbed just to that level from the town below, so you would have wanted the entertainment to be pretty good for the effort

Cat enjoying the beautiful (untreated) mountain spring water in Castelmola

Cat enjoying the beautiful (untreated) mountain spring water in Castelmola

View from up Castelmola

View from upper path – Castelmola

Messina – Proxy bells, a lion’s roar and the cock’s crow
A feature of Messina is its Piazza Del Duomo with the 60 metre high campanile (bell tower) and its incongruous astronomical clock, said to be the world’s largest. Dating from 1733, it strikes at noon, setting in motion a procession of gold gilded figures and automata – a roaring lion, a crowing cockerel and a rotating procession of monks. You can also climb the tower to see the enormous figures up close. No, we didn’t – quite happy to gawp from down below with the throng of camera wielding tourists. I have since noticed that all the chiming, ringing bells I have been hearing are all simply recordings played over loud speakers up in the towers. Not one dinger (donger – clapper?) in any bell I have watched during their ringing has moved even a fraction. Goes like the clappers eh. Hah! Funny the things you notice.

Messina – Proxy bells, a lion’s roar and the cock’s crow

Our experience on a day trip via rail to Catania wasn’t enhanced by my misinterpreting the map, having us walk up a very unpleasant main drag that seemingly went on for ever and failed to reveal any of the promised interesting sights. We eventually twigged and retraced our steps to start anew and in the right direction to find the old city with its amazing churches and buildings and places where we could refresh our flagging spirits with liquor and food.

Catania Sicilia

Catania Sicily

Black Bassalt – Roman Ruins – Catania Centrale

Lunch in Catania Sicilia

Catania Museum - Cloister Sicilia

Cedric, deep in contemplation of the wonders of the ambience of the Cloister of the Chiesa di San Francesco Borgia – really!

Catania Museum Sicilia

Chiesa di San Francesco Borgia, Catania

Catania Museum Sicily

On the whole, though one should not make sweeping generalisations, of course ;), we’ve experienced that drivers here in Sicily and other parts of Italy are very considerate of pedestrians, pausing for you to cross even while you are apprehensively anticipating that break in the traffic. Don’t quote me if you get bowled by a car or scooter here but for the most part we are impressed with their consideration.

There is now a new breed of hotelier emerging around the world as more people are forced to become enterprising. Many are renting out either parts of, or their individual apartments at quite competitive rates. Air B&B perhaps was the forerunner in this, permitting a marketing platform for these small entrepreneurs. I may be wrong and be influenced by my bad experience with Air B&B, but it would appear that Booking.Com have a better platform for them and we are finding many now that in previous years were just not available – or were extremely hard to find.

We don’t usually like to become involved with the host of our accommodation, but because of cost, in Italy (as opposed to Spain with its many Pensions) we are using quite a few and are finding the hosts to be quite sensitive to our need for independence, or, as in the case with Elena in Giarre Riposto, our willingness to share our time with them and be shown around. In bigger cities we prefer to be independent. We find many of these ‘apartments’ appear to be secondary personal apartments because they have so much personal stuff in them – the current one has several semi-valuable collections and some antiques: it could be that they use them to store excess ‘stuff’, but they certainly stand the risk of things ‘going missing’. Anyway, most of these small operators are doing a wonderful job and I wish them every success. I do know that there will be some guests they will wish they never let through their doors – but that’s business.

Syracusa – Ortygia
A bird shat upon my head today while we ambled about the remarkable island of Ortygia. What luck, I thought superstitiously, until Rachel’s efforts to remove the mess from my hair divulged it to be a black-brown-glutinous mass that required our 3 available tissues, and more that we didn’t have. Oh, what great luck awaits me, I thought. Later in the evening Rachel found a 5 Euro note on the footpath as we headed back to our apartment. What good . . . Wait a minute – shouldn’t it have been her that had been shat upon? And for those who believe in such superstitions, no, nothing good happened to me for the rest of that day.

On the subject of random travel; today had us changing our accommodation bookings on the iPhone on the simple (but pertinent) basis of there being no bus out of here (for Ragusa) on the Sunday, and that of the trains being inconveniently infrequent and extra expensive. So we will remain – somewhere – for yet another 2 nights. That is not a real hardship, as Ortygia (an island attached to Syracuse by a couple of short bridges) is a remarkably fascinating place. It is an incredibly ancient city with a significant Greek, Jewish and Spanish settlement-history with those architecture styles everywhere evident. An important fishing village/port and safe yachting marina that attracts multi-sqillionaire yachts as well as the simple global yachting traveller, it has a really good buzz to it, especially down at the bridges between the island and the mainland. This is, of course, a seasonal thing; the place dies in winter. Right now, however, it’s all ago-go and we’re loving it. We’ve had to do some accommodation swapping as bookings are hard to get in our budget range at the moment (it is the time of locally famous Greek Theatre productions here in Syracuse at the Archaeological Park in the Amphitheatre there), and we are paying more than we would like. But in two days’ time (as I write) we will be moving on to Ragusa, a small inland city famed for both its Baroque architecture and its food. There, accommodation costs less.

– We met and had a leisurely conversation with a group of (fluent English speaking) Maltese drone operators (Multi-Rotor Remote Control Vehicles) having a holiday over here and flying their craft off the extensive breakwater/boardwalk – interesting people and hobbyists. Hi tech and expensive equipment aside, they were really nice guys and very amiable.

Multi-Rotor Remote Control Vehicles

Multi-Rotor Remote Control Vehicles

– I talked with the crew of a 45m luxury sloop berthed alongside near one of the bridges over a few days (”We can’t say who the owner is – but he’s not famous.”) – yeah, just filthy rich! This from one of the Seth Efrican crew busy polishing all the stainless steel. She’s a monster vessel called WISP – look it up on the net – and she’s my perfect MIRANDA II. (See photo below)

– From the comfort of our favourite Kiosk by the marina and fishing boat wharf today (while each supping on a flute of spumante) we watched some local Falconers stroll by with their birds – one was clearly a falcon (large, predatory-looking and without a hood but fortunately attached to its owners wrist) and the other was a huge owl (equally fearsome-looking). Rachel wisely suggested it was being kept awake (it hadn’t occurred to me) – I put it down to it having too many coffees.

Syracusa Ortija - Pet Owl

Syracusa Ortija – Pet Owl

– It is fascinating to encounter the long, straggling queues of labelled tourists as they go by following an upheld flag, number, or coloured umbrella. There is something quite odd about it, and them. They are ushered/hustled along, many being quite inattentive, some clearly wishing they had more leisure to enjoy the unusual surrounds, with a core of dedicated followers grouped at the front around their guide listening attentively to every word. It strikes me that if the stragglers at the end of these queues dawdled a straggling-minute too long, they would actually be left, lost and alone and I wondered what they would then do. Perhaps, if they didn’t panic, it would spark some innate independent spirit and they would relax and enjoy themselves. These groups consist not only of the ‘older traveller’ type either, but there are many older folk to be seen either on their own or as couples who, like us, clearly like their independence.

Syracusa Ortija - Author of Miranda - The Ohara Inheritance

Author of ‘The Ohara Inheritance’ finds his Miranda II (ex Renaissance) tied up in Ortygia

Syracusa and Ortygia Aspects
Ortija Sicilia

Syracusa Ortija

Syracusa - lunch

Syracusa - overpriced meal

Syracusa - snack at apartment

Fresh fish, anybody?
Syracusa Ortija Markets (33)

Local Tuna, Swordfish and Squid at Ortigia fresh food market

Local Tuna, Swordfish and Squid at Ortigia fresh food market

Syracusa Ortija Markets (41)

Syracusa Ortija Markets (42)

Syracusa Ortija Markets (46)

Kayak polo between the bridges between Ortygia & Syracusa – A very popular summer sport here

Kayak polo between the bridges between Ortygia & Syracusa – A very popular summer sport here

Syracusa Ortygia Fishermen

Syracusa Ortygia Fishermen

A front door I would like to grace our house

A Syracusa front door I would like to have grace our house