Thankfully, a picture is worth a thousand words, as I am out of words. Our days here: wander, wonder, eat, repeat. Here is a pastiche(io) for you:
Yesterday we spent church hopping, to see the mosaics created by Venetian and Egyptian artists for the Arab-Norman churches in the 12th century. The Venetians created these beautiful Byzantine-style religious mosaics, while the Egyptians decorated floors, columns, and walls with elaborate geometric patterns, in the Islamic tradition of not rendering anything found in the natural world. Occasionally we find stone mosaics with images of animals inlaid.
La Capilla Palatina in Palermo:
El Duomo in Monreale:
This huge church complex (in a town 310 meters up on a rocky peak),was completed in only ten years, so you can imagine the labor force involved. The other day, Domenico informed us that Palermo has over 200 churches, and remarked,“Building churches was the main business back then.”
I will refrain from caustic remarks on the wealth misspent on such projects. They are beautiful, and a testament to human organization and artistic appreciation.
Driving to Monreale was a testament to Larry’s ability to drive in Palermo, or anybody’s ability to drive in the city for that matter. It is not for everyone, and if you can avoid it, do. Rule 1:you cannot be on cruise control, attention is primary. Rule 2: go slow, but go with the flow. As a passenger/navigator, it was fascinating for me to watch as drivers of cars, trucks, motorcycles and scooters braided through the streets, hairs apart. Everyone gets where they are going, and the pace makes it easier to maneuver and not lose the way. Furthermore, the city designers have made arteries that facilitate the movement of traffic in and out of the city, especially in the newer parts; if go down streets in the old section, good luck to you!
The more challenging aspect of having a car in Palermo is the parking. Expensive in the parking garages, hard to find on the streets. We considered our space quite a find after only ten minutes yesterday, a quarter mile away from the pad.
Our host Max showed us the quickest way to get out of town, which we sort of followed, and got to our destination of Scopello easily. On the way the landscape had the drama of the Southwest and Iceland: huge bare mountains fanning into fertile plains by the edge of the sea. It never ceases to amaze.
On the way, driving on a busy two-way road, we passed a group of horseback riders. An hour later they rode into town, to refresh their steeds.
We are staying at the Pensione Trachina, cool and quiet.
Our hostess Marisin came here from Panama nearly forty years ago to start a new life with her husband, whose family has lived here for generations (he emigrated to Panama briefly for work). She told me the town was centered around a hunting lodge for an aristocrat in the 13th century, the two-storey building with the arch being the remains of the original structure.
I assumed the well and watering trough were very old, but Marisin said her mother-in-law (scrubbing away in photo) would have to go further out of town for water when she was younger.
Dinner was served at eight: pasta, fish, roasted veggies, fruit, and a chocolate ricotta cake. Very good.
Breakfast included fresh sheep ricotta, toast, tomatoes, local olive oil and honey, freshly juiced fruit, cappuccino.
A great day for a hike in the Zingaro Reserve, which was established after a hard-fought battle by conservationists and the local population. We hiked for several hours along the coast, stopping for a rest at this beach of white marble pebbles, clear turquoise water, and a school of silver fish swimming among the bathers. Sublime.
Dinner at another restaurant: pasta with sardines and fennel leaf, swordfish in a mint butter sauce, sautéed zucchini. Just right for our last night in Sicily. On to Rome!
The beautiful Tyrrhenian Sea, aquamarine, jouncing and frothing, far out onto the horizon, with small columns of clouds that form over warms waters. Crowds on the beach, multitudes in the streets, we are squeezing our way to our B&B. Some tour groups come toward us, clogging the way, “like sheep” says Larry, and like outside Modica, we wait until they pass. It’s Provincetown,Carmel, Monterey, Santa Cruz all at once, with Italian flare. B&B Lirma is run by Rosamaria and her husband, in a converted modern villa on what is probably the busiest corner near the beach, blessedly, our room is garden side, quiet and cool.
We passeggiata up to Piazza Garibaldi and down the Corso Ruggero and onto Piazza Duomo, where there is lots of gelato and aperitif consumption, everyone enjoying the cooler evening. Up the steps to the cathedral, where a mass is being held. Women are speaking at the podium (not altar), and singing! Great surges of song accompany the magnificence of the cathedral: soaring columns, the impelling mosaic image of Jesus Pantocrator in the apse. The cathedral is a synthesis of Norman, Arabic, and Byzantine aesthetics, and as such is emblematic of Sicilian history.
I am not a believer, but the power of the place in use is still very moving. I’m sure those taking videos will have the same experience when they get home.
For dinner, we settle on one of our hostess’s recommendations, Il Triscete, starting off with slow cooked (7hours!) octopus on panette, little fried chick pea squares, and a lemon sauce, followed by cod with a lovely tomato sauce, served on just the right amount of mashed potatoes. Dessert? Yes, we’ll have the chocolate thingy with mandarin sauce. Down to the water again for a stroll home, to bed.
Breakfast at the B&B groaning board. Rosamaria’s mother, a retired math and science teacher, bakes the cakes and egg dishes: today it’s a mushroom quiche, and a few other delights, along with cheeses, salumni, fruit, bread, butter, jam, etc. Restraining myself, I enjoy the quiche, pistachio salami, yogurt, cappuccino, and melon.
Our goal is to climb as high as we want up La Rocca, the dominant geographic feature of Cefalù, 900 ft rising straight out of the sea.
As you can see, it makes a great lookout spot if you are concerned about the next wave of invaders, and one medieval community lived safely up here while under siege: ovens, a church, stone walls, a deep cistern.
A trek like that deserves a good plate of pasta, which we split while watching a family at Sunday lunch: the adults and baby at one table, four other children eating silently at another, along with a phone or two. It’s a virus.
A rest, a gelato, a walk around town, the hunt for pizza bringing us back to the same restaurant, this time outside, perfect for people watching.
Tuesday, October 8
Yesterday, off to Castel de Tusa, home of the Fundazione Fiumara del’arte. Initiated by an art lover and industrialist, Antonio Presti, the foundation has brought artists together to collaborate on large and smaller events and installations. The latter are scattered along a dry riverbed, and in the surrounding hillsides.
We saw three, the last two requiring an ascent of 2100 feet , very twisty going up and more so coming down. The skies had been threatening all day; as were were returning along SS113, curving but flat, it began to rain moderately, all the way back to town. We arrived in the car at Lirma, and so did the diluvio, rushing water down the streets, spilling over sidewalks, trapping people under overhangs, drenching me as I tried unsuccessfully to open the gate to the parking. Our angel hostess came down and moved her car for us.
We spent the evening indoors, until the rain relented. Only then could we rescue the laundry we had left outside earlier, setting up improvised drying arrangements.
Out for a delicious mushroom pizza, which we enjoyed while watching the pizza maker; Larry calculated that it took probably ninety seconds for him to make a pizza. After making five or so, he would load each one on his long-handled paddle, and swing it gracefully into the wood-fired oven. His rhythm was beautiful to watch: steady, never rushed.
Before leaving today, a quick jaunt to see the mosaics up close, or least a little closer. The were made by Byzantine artists in the 12th century C.E., when the Normans had conquered this part of Sicily, and had employed the artistry of the Byzantine and Muslim residents.
Travels in Sicily-Palermo
To Palermo, along the coast. Mountains cultivated to impossible heights drop to the coast, a thin line of plain densely cultivated with lemons, olives, braccia and other crops, and lots of concrete houses (summer homes, or the expectations of great tourism waves). Took a detour around a rocky peninsula, and ate a yummy lunch of lentils and spaghetti, and fried squid in Aspra.
Here’s our little pad in Palermo, in the “New City” (19th cent.), on a wide, tree-lined street, toney:
We’re off to the opera at Teatro Massimo, to see “Winter’s Journey”; more later, or read about it in the NYT from last week. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/02/arts/music/ludovico-einaudi-colm-toibin-winter-journey-opera.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share )
Wednesday, October 9th
The visuals were great, the music driven, reminding me of Philip Glass, the story, of an African refugee in Europe and the family he had to leave behind, and the hostility in Europe, sad and not hopeful.
The best part was meeting a group of people, some from Senegal, friends of the singer protagonist Bandara Seck, who run an African restaurant and cultural center, where we will go tonight.
Wednesday, October 11
We went on a walking tour with a great guide, Domenico Aronica, whose knowledge of the city and sights was prolific, and delivered with a wonderful sense of humor.
La Martorana, beautiful church in the Norman Arabic style: a Norman church tower you might find in England or France, Islamic mosaics on the outside and on the floors inside, 12th century Byzantine mosaics, and later baroque marble mosaics and frescoes.
Palermo was heavily bombed by the allies (yes, your parents’ tax dollars at work), leading to the Sicilian capitulation and decision to fight on the Allied side. By some miracle, or precise bomb dropping, these churches survived. In the middle of town, however, you can still see the destruction wrought by these attacks, seventy-six years ago.
Domenico took us to several workshops:
Blacksmiths, making chestnut roasters and commercial kitchen counters, chair caner, a tailor who played Sicilian mandolin for us, and a puppet maker, whose family had been in the trade since 1860. The puppet shows repeat the theme of the French soldiers defeating the Arabian pirates: not hard to plug religion in there.
We stopped for arancino snacks, rice balls (baseball) stuffed with cheese, ham, or spinach and fried to give a lovely crust. Later orange or pomegranate juice, as we trolled the market: fish, squid, fruit, four-foot long zucchini, herbs, nuts, socks, phone covers, this, that, and the other.
We fortified ourselves with espresso and a shared canolo, then hauled back to the pad for a rest until around five, when we hit the streets again, aiming for the Museum of the Inquisition, through back streets, wandering through some neighborhoods not on the tourist circuit. A streetside bookstore., a float of the patron saint, Santa Rosario:
At Garabaldi Park were these two huge multi trunk ficus trees. Palermo has a similar climate to California, and not that much rain in the summer, but the city is built over two rivers, which allows these trees to grow so large.
The museum was closing up by the time we arrived, no problem, we continued our walk, onto an open space, with a small playing field upon which an energetic game of soccer was being hashed out, while bystanders argued. Beyond the field was an abandoned building and a razed area. Posh restaurants dotted the periphery. Palermo, the ruins and the renovations side by side.
It was time to find our friends at Ciwara, their restaurant in the Vucciria market, in the Piazza Cariccoli. This place is a stew of people, ordering fish, beef, stuffed beef intestines (?), to be cooked to order; beer, wine, and regular restaurant fare.
We ordered two dishes from Senegal: a peanut butter beef dish, and a chicken and vegetable dish, both pleasantly spicy. I had a ginger lemon drink with black pepper (tasty). On the way home we caught this post office from the Fascist Era, the bright lights of a leftover religious event.
Thursday evening, October 3
I am watching a rainstorm come up the hillside toward Villa Rainò, the pensione where we are staying, in a valley at the base of Gangi.
Gangi is the geographic center of Italy, a town grafted onto a rocky peak, altitude 1011m. This makes for gusty lower temperatures, hooray! While we ponder how and why people settled sooo high up, we as tourists looking to have our minds blown, appreciate the fact that they did:
The area is the breadbasket of Sicily, where the wheat harvest is about to be celebrated.
The fields, now bare, are cultivated on gentle slopes, and steep, with sheep grazing those places tractors cannot reach.
We drove today from Piazza Armenina, through reforested areas (alder? aspen?), oaks, cedar, pine, walnut (a town called La Madonna de Noce), olives, and fruit trees. Eucalyptus was imported to Sicily, either as a windbreak to control erosion, or to drain swampy areas in an effort to control malaria. Good for honey and also pulpwood (did you know that eucalyptus is a good wood for tissues?)
As we climbed higher, the trees gave way to the desolate bones of Sicily, outcroppings of folded strata exposed through erosion. The soil is thin, the fields are plowed anyway, and the rock crop is huge. Great sweeping views of mountains, valleys, and Renaissance cloud formations.
Last night in Piazza Armerina we were awakened by a tremendous thunderstorm that rushed over the town, flashing and booming, sheeting down rain. Then it moved off to the horizon, where heat lightning flashed across the sky. It turns out you can’t take pictures of thunder, sorry.
We stayed in P. Armerina, at the B& B Giardino del Zagare, a little gem run by a couple, Morgan and Alessa, on a quiet alley with an eastern view. Alessandra teaches history in an elementary school, seeing all ages. Morgan runs the inn, cooking, cleaning, hauling suitcases to the second and third floors, and being a charming and thoughtful host. In the tiny bit of garden there are fruit trees, palms, bougainvillea: a wonderful place to sit for morning tea, while the sounds of birds and the tinny, amplified voice coming from a car, announcing something to buy, or maybe the need to repent.
Yesterday we went to Villa Romana del Casale (the hunt), the site of an ancient Roman palace, of which the most remarkable remains are the mosaics decorating the floors. They all share the theme of the hunt, both literal and metaphoric (Romans conquering the wild areas of the world, reason and the arts conquering the wilds of human nature). They are tangible representations of the culture, and it is easy to connect with their beauty.
One of the more pleasant aspects of this excursion was not baking in the sun, as the whole area is covered by structures to protect the mosaics.
Tuesday we left Modica for Chiaramonte Gulfi for lunch at Majore. The drive took us into a vast and very productive agricultural plain, with the town rising high above. Unbelievable views!
Lunch, a mushroom pasta, and a grill mix, then an almond parfait with deep semi-sweet chocolate sauce. Parfait, indeed! And check out this very cool cooking unit, and the great chef.
Maneuvering these hill towns is a challenge, and Castalgirone was no exception. Here we checked out the Ceramics museum, but didn’t try to find any retailers: time to move on.
Question: were the Greeks from another planet? It is amazing to see their refined work in contrast to what came later.
Friday, October 4
As I sit on the terrazzo of Villa Rainò, the church bells up in Gangi insist that the faithful attend. The crows in the abandoned house next door squabble over whatever, sheep bleat, dogs bark, and ragged clouds move patches of light and dark over the hills.
Today we took it easy, following the owner’s dog over a dirt road, muddy from last night’s rain, the kind of mud that builds up on your shoes, falling off in big chunks. Half of the cows were lying down, half were standing. 50% chance of rain? None, just dramatic cloud action.
Finally got in the car for a late lunch at Petralia Soprano, a small town (“Prettiest town in Sicily”, boasts the sign) on the top of a rock outcrop, some 1150+ meters high. Salvatore was not entirely happy to see us come in at the last minute, but we placated him by agreeing to his suggestions: Burata cheese (imagine a delicious softball), and an antipasto plate with ten different tiny bowls of olives, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, all bathing in olive oil, cheeses, sausage, bruschetta. We could not finish it, but not to worry, some pig is going to have a feast.
(Oops, forgot to photograph, you’ll have to make do with more jaw-dropping views.)
Sunday, September 29
Sicily: clogged with churches, so Sunday is full of bells. We did not go, so we don’t know how many Sicilians do. On our way to check out the flea market, though, we saw lots of families in “Sunday best”. Stopped by the 12th century church of San Nicolò Inferiore (a grotto discovered in 1987). The almond is a sign of the regeneration of life! See how the Christ figure is surrounded by what appears to be an almond shell? At the market, lots of tools, treasures, toys, textiles:
Retreat to a rest until mid-afternoon, and then out to explore the Cava D’Ispica, a necropolis in a nearby limestone gorge. When the soil is thin, this is how you bury the dead. Nowadays, the dead occupy crypts above ground, a city of their own.
On to Pozzallo, a new town, with a gorgeous, nearly abandoned blue-ribbon beach. The tide was going out, over a shallow plate of sand (Provincetown!), so the water was perfect for a rejuvenating dip. Normally, the beach would be full, but weekenders were gone, and the town was preparing for a celebration. As the sun was going down, we made our way back to Modica in time for the evening stroll, and dinner at Quello Buono, on a tiny side street. The braised pig knuckle was delicious! Disappeared before I could whip out my phone.
Fell into bed tired and pleased.
Our charming hostess at Palazzo Beau, Francesca, provided just the right breakfast of yogurt, fruit, eggs, and cornetti (little croissants). We drove the 15km to Scicli on back roads,
through many microclimates: pomegranate and olive groves, rocky unplanted fields, up and over and down to Scicli, now best known for its role in the Inspector Montalbano series. The light is brighter here, the valley not so narrow as Modica. The older men still on park benches, the few tourists, the voices of children in school. Prominent on the windows of one school:
Signs from the recent climate change march:
We climbed as high as we felt like,
and came upon this little museum of country life, where the resident artist, creator and curator, showed us what life was like in the early 1900’s, with eight people living in a 200 square foot cave, with a loom, oven, bed, loft, tiny kitchen. The barn cave was next door, the donkey and the chickens having an almost equal amount of space, but then again, life was probably spent outside, working, working, working. He showed us photos of the first car owned by a resident (1963!), and other historical events, including one he claimed was Mussolini (more later). We bought a small piece of donkey-milk soap, a flute, and a postcard:
Coffee granita, good for slow eating, to prevent severe brain freeze:
Continuing on the food pilgrimage, to Ragusa for lunch at I Banchi: roast chicken with a red pepper sauce, perfectly roasted potatoes, ricotta ravioli in a pork sauce, in a really neatly modern and old, relaxed space. A side trip to Castillo di Donnafugata, where we hoped to see all kinds of splendor and sumptuous costumes, was a bust; it being Monday, the museum was closed. But we took a walk around the periphery, and some arty shots of the castle. Personally, I would not have found it so great to be around the smell of so much cowshit.
Back to Modica, for a rest.
Our dinner at Locanda del Colonnello took us on a long trek up to the top (well, mostly, and far enough, thank you) of the ridge between two main streets in Modica. Stairs, and stairs, and more stairs until we came to the precious locale, a lovely garden with sedate and serious service, and more experimental cuisine. White fish with ricotta foam in a small puddle of mint water, pasta with cuttlefish and almonds, grilled mackerel with escarole and leek, almond foam. The best bread so far. All good, but a little overplayed, not relaxed.
Another way back, past the Duomo di San Giorgio, glorious at night.
Saturday, we left town with only one small detour, amen. Stopped to buy gas, couldn’t get the card accepted, but couldn’t get the €20 back when we tried cash unsuccessfully. Decided to let it go. Saw pomegranate and lemon orchards.
Off to Noto, to try the best gelato, at La Sicilia. And it was good, very good. Larry had tomato sorbet, a little volcano of red, with a white onion sorbet core. Light and refreshing. They were out of the goat ricotta gelato with apricot, so I settled for Montezuma chocolate (cinnamon, orange & lemon zests, and saffron gelato, also with citrus bits. VERY. GOOD. In addition to gelato and sorbets, La Sicilia is known for innovative pastries and candies, and the owner is trying to revive the cultivation of a very local, unique almond. Catch the Netflix special on this man.
Most people go to Noto for the Baroque architecture, massive churches and palazzos of golden sandstone, laid out in a grand plan following the 1623 earthquake.that destroyed so many buildings in the area. Churches as a form of insurance?
Hebrew readers, what’s being said here, behind this Catholic church altar?
On to Modica, via the back road’s back road. Low stone walls line the narrow two lanes, it could be Ireland if the sun weren’t so intense, and there weren’t cacti and palm trees. Orchards olive, lemon, carob, goat-cropped grass, plastic-covered green houses waiting for something, stone buildings waiting to fall down. “Si vende” signs everywhere.
Arrived in Modica, a town reminiscent of Guanajuato, Mexico, only steeper on both sides of the valley, and monochromatic. Narrow one-way streets and tiny “Vicos” and stairways mean one should just park and walk. We have a large room at Palazzo Beau on tiny Vico Giusto, with a view across to the other side of the valley.
The passegiatta in Modica really gets going around 8 pm, when it’s finally cool enough. Swarms of people fill the street: packs of laughing gesticulating tweens, families with small children, older couples and friends, determined twenty-year olds, the scooter club, the bike club, parents and community members who’ve come to watch the gymnastics class performance in the piazza! Twenty-some children, from four to fifteen years old, energetic and appreciated by all. Where would you see that in the US? The circus? County fair? It’s not the same- these folks see each other every day, it is how the social fabric is sewn more securely. How long will this last, with the tentacular effect of cell phones?
OMG, it’s time to head to Siracusa, and it is late afternoon! To the car, to the Autostrada (miraculously), and two hours into the dusk and dark to Siracusa, to our place on Ortigia, the old part of town, an island first settled by the Greeks nearly three thousand years ago. Getting into any place at night is a trick, and this was no exception, with quite a few wrong turns, one ways. After a rest on a rock hard mattress, we headed out through the streets to dinner, at A Putia delle Cose Buone, a “bolthole” of a space, whimsical decor, good food: pasta alla Norma (eggplant & olive sauce), swordfish, and an orange salad with olives and a dash of red pepper flakes. Very good, and the couple from Danville next to us made great dinner companions, exchanging traveling experiences, sharing antipasti. Being able to converse with someone, after communicating in very broken Espanitaliano, smiles, and gestures, was a relief, and a pleasure with such simpatico folks.
At Palazzo Giaracà we had an upper floor tombroom, with a window ten feet above us. After we got the AC to function, it was okay. In the morning, we headed to the Parque Archeologico by hopon/hop off bus to save our feet, but got stuck in traffic held up by a climate-change march by Siracusa youth (ironic to be on an HOV), so we hopped off and hoofed it through town. Of note at the Parque: a 16,000 (!!) seat Greek amphitheater, “Dionysius’ Ear”, and a Roman stadium. The latter had been raided by the Spaniards for building their infrastructure, but the amphitheater displayed itself dramatically at the top of a hill, and the clouds delivered a short sudden downpour for extra effect.
“Dionysius’ Ear”, so dubbed by Caravaggio, is a 23 meter high grotto of stone formed by quarrying for the rock to build the ancient city. 7000 Syracusans were kept prisoner in the quarry by Athenian forces in 413 BCE, and the Athenian ruler Dionysius is said to have used the grotto’s acoustics to eavesdrop on the prisoners. It is an awesome site/sight. I am sure Gaudì was there.
Back to Ortigia by the bus, and into the market, which was at the tail end, but not before we had the luck to have a sandwich made by a very nice salumni and cheese seller. That with a bottle of green tangerine soda, lunch. A slow wander into the older streets of the Giudecca (Jewish quarter), narrow, shaded, sudden reveals of courtyards, tiny piazzas, and…the sea, waving in the wind, from turquoise to ultramarine, with white crests crashing on the rocks.
After tea and mulberry granita, it was time to try another bank to pay our fine, but too late!
Then Larry remembered that our new friends from Danville had suggested we ask the folks at Avis for help. So we did, and they did (“we try harder”). Small matter, big weight lifted. Went home for a nap.
Dinner of mussels and a pasta, and after a bit of a walk, gelato. More of a walk, a beautiful evening, way down the island to quieter streets, older buildings, a calmer sea.
Around Etna-September 24-26
On our journey around the western flank of Etna, we drove to Paterno first, took some photos for a friend whose ancestors emigrated from there long ago. The Normans occupied this part of Sicily for awhile, and they built a series of forts on hilltops. Here’s one.
Back on the road, past the cactus, fig, olive, and pistachio groves, grapes, tomatoes, and strawberries, abundant in the volcanic soil, but abandoned buildings speak to the masses of Sicilians who left over the last century and a half (3 million?).
Lava fields (crops are planted right up to the edge):
Picturesque snapshots of Randazzo:
I’m so glad I couldn’t get a reservation there, and found a room instead at Hotel Frederico II in Castiglione de Sicilia, perched on this mountainside. Very narrow streets that wind along the slope, sometimes ending in steps. Park the car, check in, and take a walk! Walk up, walk down, get turned around,
but suddenly we are back in the Piazza de Lauria, steps from our hotel!
Blood sugar low, too early for dinner. Buy some of those lovely little yellow pears, so delicious, and a cup of tea at Le Chevalier (Norman residue?), the bar/cafe/tobacconist. Larry visits the barber for a beard trim, and I sit and draw, observing the evening ritual among the older men:
At first, three men sit in chairs along the wall, with a fourth, younger, sitting on some steps near by. Silent, observing, occasional talk. One by one, they check their cell phones, put them away, quiet again, then conversation begins to flow. A sixth, a seventh, an eighth arrive, the social gathering increases, conversation varies in animation, the language is not as recognizable as Italian, more Sicilian perhaps, but what do I really know? Some move over to sit with others, who had appeared to me to be alone, not part of the group. More men come up, greet everyone, who knows everyone.
Larry comes back looking trim and refreshed. We go to dinner (no photos).
September 25, Mt Etna
After getting sandwiches at the neighborhood bottega, totally jammed with five people, we left for Etna Nord, to hike in the forest, having opted out of a rugged hike in the hot sun, on steep slopes of lava gravel (health considerations and common sense). Hiked through pines and some oak, on a ski trail on a sunny day, the volcano smoking picturesquely. After a while, the trail appeared to be headed very downhill (no trail maps available), so we headed back to our car and down we drove, discovering on the way that we had a parking ticket. Funny, the lot we were in was not posted, nor were there other cars there. So we went to the address on the notice, but no one answered, nor on the phone. If we did not pay €3 within five days, the fine would jump to €35! Tried the email address, not a recognized domain. A scam? To be continued…
A walk before dinner was very instructive. The majority of people in this town live in a newer section, at the bottom of the hill, which is the center of town post office (€2.55 for an international postcard stamp!), caribiniere, many more shops and restaurants. The old guy scene “downtown” was twice the size, but silent, as if maybe they were waiting for a certain time of day to start. We didn’t stick around, but headed up via stairs and alleys, while the sun turned the sky orange, then pink, violet, indigo, and Etna blew smoke rings.
Gole dell’Alcantara & Taormina
From our hotel in Castiglione, it is twenty minutes through a fertile valley of olives, grapes, hazelnuts, citrus, castle ruins, to Gole dell’Alcantara.
The gole (throat, gullet) of the Alcantara river is a narrow gorge of volcanic basalt thirty meters deep and maybe ten wide, which the river has cut through and eroded, creating a magic spot, with elements of Zion, Iceland, and the Yuba River.
188 steps take you down to a pebbly beach with willow and other water plants. The air is hot at eleven in the morning, the water cold and clear and turquoise in hue. Wading up the gole can be done in full waders, etc, though most pilgrims were in shorts or bathing suits. As you enter the gorge, the shade and the water immediately cool things off, everyone is smiling or in that “this is cold water” pose, arms extended, breath in. Looking up at the crack of sky and plants above, you see that over the millennia the water has softened the hexagonal waves of rock as high as six meters up the escarpment. A little further up, the water turns to rapids, and there are those who don wetsuits and helmets and ride those. It time to turn around and brave a short swim down stream, as the water chills your bones. But not your soul.
It is here that we learn that we can pay the parking fine at a bank, no sweat, but it must be paid. In Taormina? Sure.
In a half hour we are at the coast, navigating the flow of traffic to Taormina. Signage is okay, though sometimes the signs are overgrown with vines, or maybe the paint is peeling. But Toarmina is a tourist magnet, so the signs are plentiful.
Now, I know people love this town, but I did not. I suppose our parking headaches would’ve been solved by parking at the bottom and taking the funicular, but acrophobia ruled that out, which complicated the first half hour. And if boatloads of cruise-ship tourists weren’t parading through the pricey, glitzy shopping street, and if the hike to the Saracen castle didn’t present itself as a form of mid-day torture worth skipping, then the experience would have been different, more like that of DH Lawrence or Lawrence Durrell. So we drifted against the tourist tide, stopping in at churches to cool off, peering up up tiny alleys, came to the main plaza and terrace that overlooks the magnificent view: the coast precipitating into the Ionian Sea, glittering and multiple shades of green and blue, the hill above studded with blocks of palazzos and brightly-colored houses, flowers and plants cascading over the balconies, etc. Caught an exhibit of Sicilian carts.
Oh yes, the bank. You don’t have an account with us, sorry we can’t take care of this, and besides, we’re closing. Breathe…
And have some granita: lemon, orange, almond, mulberry. Cools the temper, brain freeze to the max. Very effective therapy.
Catania, September 22-24
Hot, first impression off the plane. Got off at the wrong bus stop, trudged with bags through a funky part of town, and up steep streets (so that’s why it’s called lug-gage!) until we found our “hidden gem”, Crociferi B&B, where we promptly had tea, showers, and Larry napped. I had been feeling the strain of the heat, the teary frustration of not being able to get to the place without taxing him, so it was a big relief. Remember: take taxis in a difficult situation!
After a couple of hours of rest, we headed downstairs to the neighbor restaurant, La Deliziosa, which was indeed. Two women cooked in a very small kitchen (two burners!), another worked the front (reminded us of Neens), and never stopped moving. We split a creamy mushroom pasta dish, and a thin piece of swordfish with a crust of Mediterranean spices, along with a fresh tomato salad. For dessert, a kind of crême caramel. A big glass of white and some Moscato, and I needed a walk to clear my head.
We headed down Crociferi the Way We Should Have Come Up, past a bunch of Baroque buildings, some churches, some no longer. People eating out everywhere. Piazza Mazzini is especially lovely in its symmetry, bordered by four identical pinkish buildings with concave circular fronts, which form four quarter circles on the piazza. Three of these were full of diners, families with small children, everyone having a great time. It was eleven at night.
As we made our way back to our room, fireworks popped in the neighborhood.
Monday, September 23
At 6:30, the street was quiet, a few people making their way with phones on. Now the sounds of setting up shop, work, climb in through the balcony doors. For a hidden street, there’s enough traffic. The sky portends a hot day in the lower nineties. We will walk around town, and mind the heat.
Eating breakfast with complete strangers is a little awkward, but we managed, and overcame our language differences, with mixture of French and English. Sorry, no pictures at the table.
As soon as we got it together, we headed to the fish market, passing through the food market.
The fish market is raucous, smelly, gory; though dead, the fish are beautiful.
We passed into this garden for a bit of quiet.
Onto the Duomo, looking out onto the city and beyond to Etna.
Into the Palazzo Biscari, a quick look at a few rooms and the odd aesthetics of 16th century aristocracy.
By this time we were minding the heat very much, thank you, so we retreated into our room, nodding off until we thought it would be cooler, but it wasn’t really, so we sat in the shade and ate this calzone-y dish, read, and drew until we were ready to visit the local amphitheater, Greek and then Roman, and still used today.
Gelato at last!
Dinner at Antica Marina. I keep forgetting to take pictures of the food, but here’s what’s left of that meal:
Tango dancers in the square tonight. Buona notte!
A walk for stamps, money, a knife. Post Office overcrowded, no knives in the street market (duh), but the bank delivered. 1 out of 3. But wait, we’re in the fabric and notions district, great pictures! (2 out of 4).
And we climbed the stairs back to our street (3 out 5!).
Off to the rental car place, no need to bore anyone with that game, but the building was cool, with this exhibit on the Trump/Kim media show.
Made it out of the city on the first try, Larry’s expert driving and my navigating. Sicilian traffic and driving is about the flow, and they only honk when the flow stops, and then EVERYBODY honks!
The Paseo del Arte Pass (€30.50) gets you into three major museums quickly, although we did not encounter big lines. It is good for a year. Let me know if you’re going to Madrid, I have two of them.
Spoiler Alert: There is a No Photos policy in all of these museums, which means one has an unmediated experience with the art (okay, maybe you get the audio), and brings back what resonates, and a few postcards. You, dear reader, get no pictures, sorry.
The Prado, way big. We focused on the special exhibit of 17th Century Spanish, Dutch, and Flemish painters, which aimed to dispel the idea of national identity in art, pointing out instead their similarities and shared influences. Point made. National identity in art, a war-borne disease in this case (Spain lost the Eighty Years war, ceding the Netherlands to the Dutch). Lots of portraits: ruffs, ruffs, and more ruffs, both finely and loosely executed (ruffs were banned periodically for being too fancy, giving way to a simple flat collar), incredibly detailed brocades, and multi-toned blacks. Oh yes, the faces, all wonderfully painted, running the gamut from invisible brush lines and flawless complexions, to rougher renditions, warts, wrinkles and all. Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Velasquez stole the show as usual, but we also got to appreciate Halls, Ribera, and others.
Then onto Bosch, that tripper, more Velasquez, El Greco, and an overdose of Goya. I’m not sure how any of this will translate to my own painting.
Wiped out on art, we started the next day with a walk to the San Isidro museum of the history of Madrid, from the Neolithic period to the 15th century. A lot of paleontological and archeological discoveries have been made while quarrying or road-building. The exhibits were not dense, and many featured some digital arrays. Good for a school field trip, or a quick overview of how the city grew.
Back to the pad for a siesta, then on to the Reina Sofia, dedicated to art of the 20th century and beyond. The is the home of “Guernica”, which is now exhibited among galleries that augment the historical context: works of both Phallangist and Republican propaganda, art by other artists during the Spanish Republic and Civil War, and in the subsequent diaspora. One gallery is devoted to studies Picasso made in preparation for, and as postscripts to the work itself, and you see how he worked out how to make the work as strong and torturous as it is. In a series of photos by Dora Maar, we see how Picasso rearranged the bull, for instance, or the prostrate, armless man’s head so that nothing feels inert, and the terror of the moment is thrust at us. For me, this made “Guernica” all the more powerful and alive.
Not satisfied with that gigantic masterpiece, or perhaps because we needed relief, or maybe because we were on automatic pilot, we went back in time to the Cubists, savoring their color and lyricism.
A retrospective of the US artist David Wojnarowicz, a gay man, prolific and vociferous in his critique of US politics and society during the Reagan years (Central America, contras, AIDS, you get the picture). Spot on analysis, extremely vivid and powerful imagery in many different media. What would he be doing now, if he had not died of an AIDS-related illness?
We went away knowing that we lived that same era, but did not know of this artist, and realizing that were had been more focused on what was happening in Central America, than the fight to demand more attention to finding a cure for AIDS. Shame.
GOYA FRESCOES & THYSSEN-BORGEMISZA
Saturday, after breakfast at the Brown Bear Bakery, and a long chat with Gordon, a Canadian living in Vienna, in town to sell some property, we headed out for a long walk to see the frescoes Goya painted in 1798, on the ceiling of a small chapel, San Antonio de Florida (No Photos). On our way, we saw the Municipal Print Shop, now a free museum, with old presses, and a special exhibit to Herman Zapf and his wife Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse. Both were instrumental in the 20th Century printing world, in the development/revitalization of typefaces: Zapfino, Optima, Palatino, among others. As you might expect, his calligraphy is stellar. No photos allowed.
The walk to the frescoes took us into a more modern part of town, say mid 19th to mid 20th century. On the way, we passed through a park by the Manzanares river, newly renovated, with broad paths, civilized pay toilets (15 mins for 10 cents, handwashing & drying,clean), and very few people. This was a mystery, but maybe it fills up on Sunday.
Goya frescoes: Depicting the miracle of San Antonio de Florida, a Franciscan monk who revived a dead man. Full of movement and everyday people in the cupola, the arches are filled with angels dangling in the air, pulling back drapery that goes back deep in space, beyond the surface of the wall. Goya (and crew) painted the whole thing in six months.
We sped to the Thyssen-Borgemisza in a taxi, which took us into the big shopping district of Madrid, where all the people were. So glad to see this quickly from a cab.
At the museum we filled up on religious pieces, more 17th century portraits, Impressionists, Expressionists, American Art of 19th century (romanticism). A friend described the collection as having the top works of 2nd tier artists, and the second best works of 1st tier. Many of the works seemed “neither here nor there”, in Larry’s words.
We’ll continue with Art in Sicily and Rome. But check out this building, the Caix Forum, a cultural center. Converted old factory, where the lower support has been offset, so it looks like this huge brick building is hanging in the air!
Naturally, we we planned to eat well, and made a reservation before we left Berkeley for 10:45pm at Astor, a delicious effort by a Spanish woman and her Argentinian husband, with a Peruvian chef who introduced them to a variety of Peruvian cuisine that includes Japanese and Chinese influences. Our menu: a beet hummus, cod croquettes, and Char Siu, a braised meat dish in a soy sesame sauce, a glass of wine each. Sorbet for Larry, ice cream for me.The owner wanted to know more of Larry’s 40 years restaurant life; he gave her thumbnail, and they agreed on the difficulty.
The second night we ate at Moratín 40, a slice of a space done up smartly, serving a locally-sourced menu. Leeks, a tomato salad, seared tuna, wine, all good.
Our third night we ate an older restaurant, La Sanabresa, very busy, great waiter, lots of regulars. The menu, divided into prix-fixe and a la carte at multiple levels, offered “down home food”. Too late for the oxtails and oyster mushrooms, we settled for mushrooms with jamón and lamb chops, homemade tiramisu for dessert. It was Yum.
Our last night, at Sua, specializes in grilled foods: baby artichokes served in rich meat reduction sauce, mixed small veggies in a green veloutée (sorrel?), steak, roasted potatoes and peppers. A glass of wine each, no dessert because…
In the afternoon we sat down to a cup of traditional “hot chocolate”, a thick sauce of dark chocolate into which we dunked porras, lengths of deep-fried dough. We couldn’t finish it.
Breakfasts and lunches here and there, keeping it light. No tapas-hopping, but we did go to Mercado San Miguel, a former wholesale vegetable market, now an elegant glass and metal food magnet, with booths selling bocadillos, chichones, sushi, lots of wine and beer. Mobbed.
A feast for the eyes, a few tasty morsels.
Mercado Antón Martín sells to discerning shoppers: produce, meat, fish, and more. I will spare you the photos of mammal parts and flesh.
Well fed and satisfied, even had a whole-wheat seeded croissant which was pretty good.
Sept 18-21, 2019
Our days in Madrid have been filled with long walks along many narrow streets, wearing our eyeballs thin at the museums, and eating. We’ve been staying in a 4th floor apartment (a good workout) in the Letras neighborhood, where many illustrious writers have hung out(Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Góngora, y otros.) These days, it is populated by well-heeled folks, young and old (us) from around the world, trundling suitcases, alongside permanent residents, and at night, many young people in the bars and restaurants. It’s located within minutes of the three major museums of Madrid: the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza.
This part of town makes for great walking, with short blocks and narrow streets adding a sense of discovery to every turn. Streets fan out from little plazas, so you travel in many directions quickly. The buildings are mostly old, windows with interesting iron grill work or balconies, and warm light glowing through curtains at night. It is an area of active gentrification (the apartment next door is undergoing a vigorous and loud renovation). Most buildings are 5-6 storeys, but already there are taller ones. There is a huge lot behind “our” building; what will it become?
When the fruit has reached the right consistency and color, remove the pan from the oven (if using two pans, keep one in the oven to keep the fruit hot). Taste the molten mixture, and add a little sugar if you need, maybe 2 teaspoons for the whole batch. Spoon the fruit into a jar up to 1/4 “, wipe the edges if needed, place a moisture-free lid on top, move to a cooling rack, repeat until fruit is all gone. Clean those pans while you wait (anxiously) for that satisfying ‘snap’ that tells you the jars have sealed properly. Twist the dried bands on the jars to fingertip tightness, label with contents & date, brag, and give some away.
Yellow sauce from the pits, red from the whole fruit.
It is YUM!
A few days of wistful, with weather to match-grey and foggy. Our internal clocks have adjusted, as have our appetites. Regular routines, like laundry and shopping, and work have assumed their place.
The other day, however, I opened the spice bags, added a touch of Aleppo pepper to the lamb/rice meatballs, and then I removed the skins from the cooked garbanzos, to make a velvety humus. All this while I was listening to a randomized mix of the CDs from Turkey, some of which Dore bought for us, all of it great.
I finally finished Birds without wings by Louis de Bernieres, which left me with an ache in my heart for the tragedy of the “population exchange”, and the inevitability of suffering by the many at the hands of the few stupid architects of war.
Now I am reading Barbara Nadel’s River of the dead, a mystery that takes place in Istanbul and Mardin. Not the best read, but I’m hooked.
Next on the list: Istanbul passage by Joseph Kano, and reread Istanbul noir, a collection of modern short stories edited by Mustafa Ziyalan and Amy Spangler.
In the garden: 5 huge cucumbers (3.5 inches in diameter), and a zucchini easily three feet long. The peppers are ripe and delicious. The eggplant has no fruit but insists on producing big beautiful purple flowers.
I opened a 3-lira box of Turkish delight, and got what I paid for: 6 small pieces!