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

Swordfish in Sicilia

23rd May 2015

Well, I do declare . . . It had to happen. We’ve broken all our taboos. Three or four coffees a day now, pastries, gelati, granitas – Oh dear, who knows where this will end . . . . . .

Who cares eh 🙂

Fresh Swordfish - Giarre Riposto Sicilia

The Beautiful Swordfish (Espada)
Most fresh fish outlets in Sicily will sell at least one swordfish per day, piece by piece, until it is finished: its availability at the shop or stall is announced by its spectacular head.

On the Luck of Random Travel
Booking into random, unknown, un-researched (and often un-researchable) towns can sometimes be a real mistake, if not a total disaster. But it can also turn out to be a wonderful experience. So far it has been thus for us.

Ferry to Messina Sicilia

Ferry Crossing to Messina Sicilia

Our choice of Messina turned out to be such a one; a very interesting city. The train from Napoli took us onto the ferry and off into Messina’s central station, very near to our ‘random’ accommodation. A major ferry port for the Messina Straits with crossings to and from mainland Italy and to parts beyond, it is also one of the entry points and a holding pen for the thousands of refugees rescued at sea.

Migrant Rescue
Italy’s ‘Mare Nostrum’ was a one-year-long programme established on October 18, 2013 to tackle the dramatic increase of migratory flows. Its brief was to rescue migrants at sea during their attempts at making the crossing from North Africa to the European coast. It cost Italy about €9m a month, and they successfully carried out search and rescue missions over a 27,000 square-mile area. Though thousands of migrants drowned in their attempts, Mare Nostrum’s vessels were able to save many thousands more and to bring them safely to Italy. Italy’s complaints to the European Union about the unfairness of this financial and immigrant burden finally resulted in Mare Nostrum being replaced by a European Union-backed ‘Triton’ mission. However, Triton’s budget is only €2.9m a month and they only patrol waters within 30 miles of the Italian coast. But with the recent Western nations’ intervention in Syria creating a flood of refugees looking to escape their bomb-ravaged land, the whole world is now aware of, and becoming more deeply involved in what was, until now, just Italy’s problem.

Because of our hotel’s proximity to the central rail and bus station we daily encountered multiple groups of black Africans, the majority of whom I took to be either Ethiopian or Somalian by their distinct, finer features. However, I was to have it confirmed that my knowledge of African affairs is woefully lacking – the majority were Eritreans, with a smattering of Somalis, Gambians and, doubtless, other African ethnicities among them. Curiously (to me), they remained in quite separate ethnic groups, not mixing. There were also (but in those days only a trickle) Syrians whose lives had been turned upside down by their own civil war. The dimly-lit road underpass not 200 metres from our hotel (our short-cut to the station) also provided a ‘platform’ for some very colourful and interesting looking hookers, too.

Driven by my curiosity we spent a good part of one evening at the bus terminal in Messina talking with English-speaking non-denominational religious volunteer helpers, a travel agent organising bus tickets, an Italian woman with an African boyfriend who spent her evenings trying to help new migrants and, latterly, some of the migrants themselves. It transpired that they were all waiting to be put on buses and transported to Naples and/or Rome, but those we spoke with held Germany to be their ultimate goal. In a journey that had already involved several separate stages, often with long waits in unfriendly countries, this bus trip north was but another leg.

It was during this evening that I realised, regretfully, that I did not have the skills of the trained journalist – the ability to ask pertinent, key questions – those which could elicit responses which would enable us to formulate and present a more informative article on this matter. Here we were, at the ‘coal face’ of Italy’s (make that EUROPE’s) current major immigration PROBLEM, bursting with curiosity, and all I could come up with was lame, ‘sociable’ questions such as ‘Why?’, ‘How was it?’, ‘What do you think of . . . ?’, or ‘Where to?’. Under the circumstances, I felt woefully inadequate.

Rachel’s enquiries revealed that these black-skinned people have – before arriving here – been on amazing treks and experienced terrific hardships, usually funnelling through currently unstable Libya. They are mostly very young – from 14 to 19 years old and they are their family’s hope for the future. In their minds, Europe (often Germany) offers the solution to all their problems. But having seen the plight of their compatriots in other Italian cities like Bologna, Napoli and even where I write this in Syracuse, they are in for one very hard ride and will be starting at the very, very bottom of the barrel.

There are other problems looming for them also: according to the TV (and our interpretation of the news) Italy is receiving an uninterrupted flow of these migrants, and resentment amongst Italians who would normally be the comparative most tolerant, charitable and accepting of races, are now beginning to question this acceptance – largely on (personal) economic grounds as their economy is currently suffering a severe decline.

But, reassuringly, we still see no overt or blatant signs of racism towards the many migrants on their streets. The Italian people’s (I cannot comment upon the government’s) humanitarianism and generosity is inspiring and should be a lesson for countries such as Australia. But I suspect, under the overwhelming load, their acceptance is wearing thin as, for one thing, the migrants get instant government financial assistance, but the Italian unemployed apparently do not, and we were told (tongue in cheek, I think) that some Italians (well, Sicilians anyway) consider going out to sea and coming back in an old boat and being rescued so they can get the financial benefits that are a migrant’s right.

Another Good Find
We took the train over to Milazzo on the north eastern coast of Sicily for the day. It’s another major ferry port, this time for the Eolien Islands just to the north – including Vulcano, Lipari and Stromboli. The journey of half an hour was mostly through tunnels at incredible speed – great tunnelers these Italians. At the easternmost end of Milazzo’s large bay is heavy industry including one of Sicily’s 3 oil refineries, then the ferry terminals, yacht marinas and finally, the town proper.

Milazzo Fisherman - Sicilia

At the westernmost end of this bay there is a beach where local fishermen daily haul-out their small craft. On the afternoon we visited, the fishermen were mending their nets, playing cards near their boats or standing around chatting and gesticulating dramatically in what we now see as a normal Italian manner. Having taken our fill of these heart-warming sights we headed into the back streets to find a bar at which to gather intelligence of a local nature while wetting our tongues (we’ll have to knock this midday-ish drinking on the head when we return to Perth:). We found the perfect place and the barman there gave us an excellent steer to a nearby restaurant that specialised in seafood. His suggestion was ‘La Casa Linga’, and he emphasised his approval by pressing his index finger to the side of his mouth and rotating it while saying ‘Buono, buono’ – a typical Italian gesture signifying approval – usually of food. Of course I instantly registered this gesture and adopted it for my Italianate image :-).

We have eaten locally caught swordfish several times since our arrival but Rachel’s charcoal-grilled version in La Casa Linga took the prize. It was superb, and my mixed seafood spaghetti dish was outstanding (I still don’t know why I eat shellfish like mussels over here, but not at home – I may work on that aversion when I get back). Anyway, at 38 Euros for the two dishes, including ¾ litre of local white wine in carafes, amongst clearly local regular diners (they don’t kiss both cheeks of strangers) it wasn’t a bad deal in our opinion. I must tell you though that most Italians do tend to eat more dishes off the menus than us for lunch (their main meal of the day), we are not big eaters by any means.

Food at Casa Linga - Milazzo Sicilia

Mine’s Bigger Than Yours
After lunch we wandered west along Milazzo’s coast in the vague direction of a hilltop castle with the intention of visiting it, but got distracted by what is the fanciest Cemetery we have ever come across – mausoleums that in size and architectural style would fetch very good money as houses (with views to die for I tell you). But, judging by the number of caskets some of them hold (stacked to the rafters on 2, 3 and in some cases 4 levels) they probably make more money for the cemetery’s owners in their current use. Splendid buildings anyway, but the grandiosity of it all seems . . . well, a bit pointless to me.

Milazzo Cemetary - Sicilia

Cemetary in Milazzo Sicilia

Holed-up in Giarre Riposto
We made a move south; another random choice and this time at the foot of the active Mount Etna. Outside (and as far-reaching as Taormina to the north and Catania to the south), coarse, black ash lies in pockets large and small – everywhere; a legacy of Etna’s eruption last year which distributed it far and wide over this end of Sicily. In fact, this Mt Etna is one of the largest and highest in all of Europe. We’re staying a hundred metres from the sea in a B&B that would once have been someone’s comfortable apartment: very spacious high-ceilinged rooms still with well-appointed furnishings: clean, tidy and secure . . . perfect! Our host, Elena, is a gracious and obliging young lady and when the weekend arrived, on Saturday volunteered to take us up Mt Etna (this sort of thing would be unlikely to happen when staying in a hotel of any type). We equivocated for about a second before accepting – we were getting on well and she clearly enjoys the interaction with her guests.

Giarre Riposto Mt Etna Sicilia

Mt Etna is vast, with multiple fumaroles and snow still on its upper slopes. We didn’t go higher than 2000 metres and it was very cold – the rim of its uppermost crater is much higher. Elena has trekked, with guide, to Etna’s uppermost point, staying overnight in a refuge on its slopes, though that refuge has since been abandoned and is now buried with ash. She mentioned she got no sleep that night as the mountain was rumbling. Travel on the mountain is much more regulated nowadays because not so long ago a German was leaning over one of its cauldrons (to get a better photograph?) and fell . . . into the molten lava. Wow – what a way to go, eh!

Forget boring-and-small Vesuvius; this is a seriously large and still active volcanic mammoth mountain. Sensibly, the black volcanic basalt stone has been used since even Roman times as building blocks and to surface roads.

Giarre Riposto Mt Etna Sicily

Those Damned Fireworks
We were resting at mid-day at a seaside kiosk in Giarre Riposto with a flute of excellent spumante when the church bell chimed: this was followed shortly thereafter by a series of rockets exploding a few blocks away up in the clear sky. They would have looked better at night as they were the star-bursting type and, for now, this ‘thing’ the southern Italians have with exploding fireworks remains a mystery – maybe it was just another coded signal.

Aha. Mystery solved. The fireworks were in celebration of Santa Rita: a local saint – in fact, so local that that night, on the terrace of our B&B with Elena, supping her family’s excellent Inzolia white wine (complementary, along with generous and varied breakfasts) we were treated to a magnificent finale of fireworks above, and music (mostly brass and wind instruments) below in the neighbouring street as Santa Rita’s image was carried along and back into the nearby church. What a treat!

It got better: on Sunday Elena took us north to Taormina where, after an excellent but rather expensive light lunch, we walked up a very steep track to its castle. We arrived via neighbouring Giardini Naxos, a very attractive fishing village-come-ancient-Greek-city-now-tourist-trap and now sporting broad, people-friendly promenades. After Taormina she drove us down and then up and up to a much higher mountain village named Castelmola. Here we parked and walked right up to its castle some distance above. We later refreshed ourselves in one of its piazzas – what a fabulous, architecturally interesting place. Historically-strategic (originally for defence) it has stunning 360 degree views including over the neighbouring Ionian Sea.

Local eatery - Giarre Riposto Sicilia

Elena also gave us good a good tip for an economic restaurant (opposite a more expensive version) which we fortunately utilised. Fantastic: and all for 20 Euros. Certainly not ‘up-market’ – plastic plates – but we were lucky we arrived early as it became incredibly busy by the time we’d finished eating (yes, the price included the ½ litre carafe of local wine too).

Swordfish in Taormina Sicilia

And at another – a little more expensive – restaurant in Taormina 🙂 swordfish again