Ragusa – Sicilia

7 June 2015

Yet more nail-biting, riveting reading to keep you on the edge of your seats . . . but first – something to settle the nerves:

Multi-Rotor Remote Control Vehicle Enthusiast

Multi-Rotor Remote Control Vehicle Enthusiast

About those Maltese Multi-Rotor Remote Control Vehicle enthusiasts; they had some very interesting gear. Their drones carried remote controlled video cameras – as you do – and besides having a portable screen with which to watch whatever they want, each ‘pilot’ wore goggles which are remarkably like the recently failed Google glasses which allow you to watch online stuff while walking into a lamppost. Very high-tech stuff indeed. They assured me, after I raised the obvious problems about drone-snooping, that their registered club did indeed have scruples and ethics and solid rules. Amazing machines though: even though the ones they brought with them on their holiday had only four rotors each, their transmitters enabled a flying range of one and a half kilometres (the compact lithium batteries allowed this). Anyways, I (and Rachel too) found it and them very interesting.

The Run to Ragusa
We caught the 1230hrs bus to Ragusa. We had secured a comfortable and conveniently-placed hotel for the previous night and thus been able to spend a relaxed morning prior to embarking on catching some more of Syracuse’s magic.

The bus driver was on his mobile phone at one point for a good twenty minutes while expertly negotiating the winding road with one hand. An armed Municipal Policeman seated in the front row to the driver’s right was also on the phone on what sounded like a personal matter. He clearly had no problem with the driver talking on his mobile – I guess it isn’t considered an infringement of any law here, and many, if not most, drivers and scooter riders are happy to talk on their mobiles while driving. Oddly, they are also attentive and considerate drivers on the whole (and that affirmation from other travellers too).

The city of Ragusa is broke – or so we were told, but given the parlous state of the Sicilian economy . . .

Nah, the word is “baroque”. After the massively destructive earthquake of 1693 it, and surrounding affected towns and cities were rebuilt in the Baroque style – all curlicues, goblins, gargoyles, frescoes and lovely wrought iron work.

Decorative Balconies in Ragusa Ibla Sicilia

Decorative Balconies in Ragusa Ibla Sicilia

Ragusa Ibla - balcony art

Ragusa Ibla - decorative balcony art

The earthquake (which had been preceded some 30 years earlier by the monumentally destructive eruption of Mount Etna) had an estimated magnitude of 7.4, destroying at least 70 towns and cities, seriously affecting an area of 5,600 square kilometres and causing the death of about 60,000 people. It was followed by tsunamis that devastated the coastal villages on the Ionian Sea and in the Straits of Messina (almost two thirds of the entire population of Catania were killed), then came the bombing by the allies in the wars. However, in spite of this cataclysmic history, much of Ragusa’s baroque architecture has fortunately survived.

Mountain Goat Territory
Steep and narrow flag-stoned (this time from the hard white limestone of the area) lanes and roads that have our calves twitching. Not a goat to be seen, but some great legs about when they do get revealed.

Ragusa-Ragusa Ibla Sicilia

Ragusa-Ragusa Ibla Sicilia

Ragusa-Ragusa Ibla Sicilia

Ragusa, and Ragusa Ibla (the even more historical/older part lower down), is mountainous territory, and because of this it affords more scenic aspects. We’ve settled into a little ‘studio apartment’ for a six day stay and have hiked over most of Ragusa already in our ‘getting to know you’ procedure. It only has a population of about 70,000 people. We’ll also be taking a day trip to Modica (stunningly ancient and scenic) and Ragusa Marina (its seaside village).

This whole south eastern region of Sicilia is known for its calcareous lime stone which has been used for centuries (hundreds of) to build walls (fences?) to define farmed areas, keep farmed animals in and to terrace the steep slopes. It is still used today for this purpose and we see walls being either rebuilt, or new ones built in the same skilled manner today as of yesteryear. This skill is still in evident in the UK, and I have even seen such stock and farm walls built with local volcanic stone in both New Zealand and Samoa.

Rock Walls in Modica-Modica Alta

We have been visiting more Museums this trip – especially Archaeological Museums –and today spent a couple of hours in Ragusa’s. We were staggered by the amount of historical finds they hold from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Greek settlement era. And the museum had no other visitors while we were there. The collection is stunning – not only for the quantity of pieces, but the quality and the excellent reconstructions they have made of their finds in replicated sitiu. This whole southern region of Italy and Sicily is/was just full of buried and sunken antiquities from mankind’s earliest settlement. We also visited the Archaeological museums in Naples and Syracuse when we were there and they, too, were full to the brim. Equally, St Georges ‘church’ museum here in Ragusa Ibla is loaded with incredible historic reliquary and art including huge tapestries, priestly vestments, their gold, silver and semi-precious jewellery and other such excessive religious trinkets. It is a horde I must say, however, that I would love to get my hands on – I could probably retire a whole village on its current value (well, I ask you, how did they, the church, get its greedy hands on all that loot in the first place).

Beauteous Churches
Rachel has taken to photographing the interior of churches – again. I gave up on that on the last trip, but I have to agree there is some stunning artistic craftsmanship evident in most of them – wondrous stuff. I often deride these buildings, but when you enter their cool interior you are inevitably impressed, in spite of yourself, by the effect of the grandiose, spacious-and-far-reaching arched, domed and meticulously decorated interiors. They are designed specifically to impress believer or non-believer – and they do. But, much as the architecture is often stunning, brilliant and easy to admire, it is frequently coated in the same decorative artistic drivel – suffering Jesus’s, weeping Mary’s, boys with wings . . . lots of gilt . . . and guilt!!! I’m sorry, but I’m leaving the church photos out. No, you can’t tempt me. Rachel is posting them on the google and twitter platforms relating to our Zamoa Productions website for those who may be interested.

Olde School Sicilian Hairdressers
My second experience with a Sicilian hairdresser has left me greatly impressed. The old upward-combing snip-snipping with the scissors and a little razor finishing by an elderly local gentleman Barberie has, again, left me wondering whatever happened to this old form of the art of haircutting in NZ and Oz. This old guy (not much older than myself if the truth were known) was an artist. He did a fantastic job (my hair looks great and is now easily manageable) and the bill was only 10 Euros. I-I-I-I-m so-o-o-o-o-o beautiful . . . . . to me-e-e-e

Modica – Bassa, Sorda, and Alta
Modica, the previous capital of the region, is just half an hour’s bus trip from Ragusa around, up and down steep and scenic road. What is still evident today is that an ancient civilisation terraced, farmed and lived on the slopes of this mountainous calcareous land and in many parts, this process continues to this day.

After a great lunch we walked up an ancient pathway to the top of Monte Serrat. No tourist had walked up this track for some time judging by the undergrowth, but a steep walk with wildflowers and beautiful views out over the whole of Modica including Modica Alta was just what we needed after that lunch.

It was a very economical and sumptuous (for us) meal – Rachel started with a delicious and light ravioli stuffed with ricotta in a pork-tomato salsa and me a pureed broad bean dish, oddly called ‘Lolli’ – these for the first plate. For seconds Rachel had a delicious baked lamb (lots of juicy bone pieces) with rosemary in a light salsa and me the baked rabbit . . . Mountain food: superb, as was the half litre carafe of local white wine, followed by a glass each of the local house red.

Lunch in Modica-Modica Alta Sicilia

Lunch in Modica-Modica Alta Sicilia

Lunch in Modica-Modica Alta

We needed that walk up Monte Serrat.

Local path up to Modica Alta

Local path up to Modica Alta

Modica-Modica Alta

We caught the late afternoon bus back to Ragusa in time to enjoy a drink at a bar we’ve come to know, and then back to the unit to snack on our cheese, bread, tomatoes and olives with a few glasses of wine. A cheapie evening snack.

Italian Parking
Had to mention it again – it is so funny. They will park almost anywhere – much more liberated even than the Spanish I guess. We are talkinghere of their parking: half over the footpath; on a pedestrian crossing; angle (even rt angle) parking in parallel parking spots; over driveways; on street corners, and “fagged about” bus stops – buses just don’t seem to have any rights apart from their bulk – it really makes you smile.

False Chimneys
Elena, of the Giarre Riposto B&B, showed us a tall mock-chimney attached to a house up the heights of Castelmola – it was specifically built to hide the antennae inside it from frontal views. We have seen more since. She explained that the householders accept a large payment to have the antennae placed on their particular house. As I understand it they are repeater stations for radio electrical signals (this may be TV, radio, satellite, internet – you name it – none particularly good for people’s health) and they are not at all welcomed by the community at large. In fact we have seen peoples’ signs writ large indicating this objection, but, people are easy to bribe eh.

We have to move to one more accommodation in Ragusa for our last night but it’s not far from where we are at present. Then, on Monday we are off to Agrigento (for one night only as we have been there before) by bus and rail, then bus to Sciacca (pronounced ‘Shiacka’) where we will rest awhile. It is a spot on the southern coast of Sicilia renowned for its seafood (google it). We have booked a unit overlooking the marina. The plan after that is to go to Trapani, stay a while to taste their fare, then fly to Rome and take a train up north to meet with son Roman and tribe – but this plan needs some refinement yet and may not even come to fruition.

Ragusa Marina was, for us, a bit of a disappointment. It is now a typical modern Mediterranean beach-side town with broad boardwalks, cafés, restaurants and bars and a yacht marina at one end, but with our familiarity with Perth’s hard-to-beat beaches perhaps we shouldn’t bother with such modern places. We only spent the afternoon there, after eating a modest but satisfying meal at one of their modern restaurants.

Gelati and Granitas
We have begun to enjoy the odd one or three of these. What sets these Sicilian delights apart from other imitations is their natural flavouring. For e.g., the lemon gelato or granita is flavoured with real lemon juice as Sicily is renowned for its lemons (and oranges), the chocolate flavouring (another Italian speciality) is intense and rich, and the mandorla (almond) is made from locally produced almonds which are large and fresh-tasting. Sure, they also have some disgustingly OTT rich looking versions of the gelato too, but I don’t intend to work my way through them and we have both settled on the above one or two favourites.

Indiana Jones

Caves in Ragusa - Sicilia

Caves in Ragusa – Sicilia

Got caught in a very dramatic thunderstorm while walking from our restaurant (had just pizzas and wine today) between Ragusa and the insular Ragusa Ibla. We had decided to walk the ‘road less travelled’. In fact it was a track up a gorge that someone had pulled down the plastic “no go” striped banners from at the beginning, but it went up and up and we’re always curious. It led up and around a ragged cliff face and we found ourselves passing a necropolis – holes carved into the rock-face into which people in ancient times buried their dead and enclosed clay pots with items to help them along their journey. It was a common thing in these parts and one can see necropli (pl?) around many an archaeological dig of Greek or Roman origin. Anyway, naturally, they had long been emptied and/or looted – except the one in front of which we paused to shelter from the storm and rain, which had a lot of rubble inside. Knowing what they must have held, I climbed up and started ferreting around and, lo and behold, started finding some pottery shards.

Wooopy dooo. Indiana Jones I am, and also, for those who didn’t know, a pottery and ceramic restorer of some modest talent who can claim his ability to re-assemble broken shards, as in jigsaw puzzles, is pretty damned good. So there I am, arse up head down into the hole passing bits and pieces back to Rachel while the thunder and lightning tears the surrounding sky to pieces with such force and volume that it often has me nervous – we are under a big rock overhang afterall. Anyway, we get some pieces together and get to see the form of this early pottery, but not enough to have any serious reconstruction worth taking home with us, so, when the rain eases off my Indiana Jones alter ego bubble pops and we continue up along the much dug into cliff-face track with wet jungle on one side and over us. This place is ancient and inhabited for so long – for us it was a most interesting afternoon. And I am certain that what I was doing was probably a wee bittee illegal, though Rachel convinced me to leave the pieces behind anyway.

Pottery pieces found in cave - Ragusa Sicilia

Pottery pieces found in cave – Ragusa Sicilia

Ragusa Caves B (2)

Ragusa Caves (5)

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