Caltagirone through the bus window
Our first destination today is Caltagirone, the birthplace of my father. It is famous for its ceramics, however Franco has warned us that they are delicate and expensive so we are unlikely to buy on this visit. That is fine by me, I already own several pieces which I received as gifts. They are distinctive artisan works that suit a country decor. I find I can only display one or two at a time, the rest wait in the cupboard for their turn to show off.
Franco tells us Caltagirone boasts ninety-seven churches, although only thirty-three are open these days.
This tour includes much eating, long lunches and three course dinners. I love my tucker, there is no doubt about that, however we are only half way through the tour and I am feeling the strain, so I sent myself to bed last night without any dinner. I still wasn’t hungry by breakfast, but that didn’t stop me trying the fresh ricotta sprinkled with cinnamon. It was light and delicious.
Our drive inland from Ragusa is taking us through agricultural fields wearing their summer colours of golden straw left behind after the harvesting. A few months ago this area was green with unripened cereals and bright with wildflowers. Surprisingly, we note the fields are fenced with dry stone walls such as found in the north of England. Before long, we pass acres of land planted with vines, and every row covered tightly with woven cloth mesh, possibly to protect against birds, unless it is creating a mini greenhouse. It turns out both guesses are correct. Franco explains it controls the temperature. By delaying and staging the ripening, the farmer avoids flooding the market, and as many of the grapes are intended for export, their appearance must be perfect. This area is also subject to hailstorms.
We see Etna in the distance again. He is puffing away, steam swirling and rising around his peak.
A detail of the ceramic tiles on the steps of Caltagirone
Caltagirone looms in front of us. A baroque town built on the slopes of a hill. The houses look as if they are stuck together, holding hands to prevent themselves sliding into the chasm of the valley below. Franco explains that it has been built so high, not only for defensive reasons, but also to conserve as much arable land for agriculture as possible. Like many of the places we have seen in Sicily, this town was destroyed by earthquake, 1693 in this case.
As we pull into the bus car park, we notice a food van that has been burnt out. The poor owner. There is a suggestion it may have been retaliation for non payment of protection money. It is our first taste of the thing that Sicily is most famous for outside of the country, courtesy of the Godfather movies. Our guide Franco is doing his best to change that impression. He has already brought to our attention the long history of Sicily, the importance of its aristocracy in its golden age, and the number of world heritage sites that are located here. He believes it is his responsibility to change any idea we may have brought that Sicily is only famous for the Mafia – otherwise he will have to kill us himself 🙂
A gaily painted tourist train awaits us. As it takes us on a circuit of the town, jaunty folk music is playing. Tarantella beat. Makes me want to jump up and dance. We pass the main square where old retired men are gathered to discuss the problems of Italy, and what they would do if they were in charge. We glimpse the ceramic shops and the long stairway decorated in mosaics, one of Caltagirone’s most famous features. Then we turn into via S.S.Salvatore, the street where my father was born and grew up. The train slows as we pass number 53, it is a very modest place, a single narrow frontage, glued to its neighbours on either side. All the facades are crumbling, as are many of its neighbours. Many people from this area have been relocated to a newer part of town.
Shortly after, when we have free time, Franco helps us locate the house again. The owner is outside. He remembers my father, and especially his sister and her husband, who went on living there until fairly recent years. He is attempting to renovate the house, and apologised that he was also using it for storing furniture. Nevertheless, he was pleased to offer us a look around, so we climbed a stone staircase to the first floor.
It is now that I remember being in this house, thirty-five years ago, when I had come to Italy to look for my father. I learnt he was living in Sydney – that is another story entirely, but who I did find was my aunt, and she hosted me for a week. It was a wonder what she had been able to do in such a confined space: one bedroom, one living room, a kitchen and a small bathroom hived off the sunny balcony. The beauty of this visit is not the house, but the memories it holds, and the owner chats rapidly with me about my family. Franco has to translate sometimes, as I cannot possibly keep up with all he has to say. There is no adequate way to thank Franco enough for helping us on this venture, he is an extraordinary guide.
So while I did not go to Assisi for the pilgrimage, it seems that after all we are here on pilgrimage, a personal one to Caltagirone.
When we arrived at our next destination, The Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, I had another cretin moment. The itinerary described the stop as the richest, largest and most complex collection of late Roman mosaics in the world. Itineraries always talk up what you will see, but if I had done a little research, I would have given it more credence. We were allowed an hour, that was just enough time to scratch the surface. It is a huge Roman villa, massive, and still in such good condition that it is not difficult to imagine the life that went on here. They must have had a lot of servants – slaves actually. There are more than 3500 minuscule mosaic tiles decorating the floors of every room. Each design suggests the use for the room, numerous well depicted sign boards help the ignorant (i.e. ME) to understand the significance. The mosaics are well maintained, entire in many places, and here and there wall frescoes are still faintly visible. Bill and I have seen Roman ruins and villas before, and of course the memory fades, but we both agree this is the most outstanding and impressive we have seen. Well worth the trip to Sicily! I hope the photos tell the story. I had to take them on the iPad as the camera battery went flat -again! – just as we arrived.
Lunches on this tour are a big event. Each is in a local restaurant, in Castelbuono, on the slopes of Mount Etna, in the farmhouse of a vineyard. Each restaurant serves us many courses of typical food. We linger for two hours, eating and chatting – it is a part of feeling like a local for a while. We usually start with antipasto. Today’s was extraordinary – we each had platters of cold meats, cheese and bread, but that was just the start – sharing platters emerged from the kitchen. Olives, artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. Eggplant prepared in four different ways. Spinach and parsley Omelette as a cake. Bruschetta with tomato, other tomatoes caprese style with boconcini and basil, grilled zucchini. Even a sandwich made of pizza bread and stuffed with cheese and mushrooms. That was just to warm us up. Antipasto was followed by two different types of pasta, then grilled meat with salad lettuce, and finally a fruit platter and slice of cake soaked in alcohol and filled with sweet cream. This is typical of the meals we have been having. Every lunch is party day.
We had the opportunity to walk some of it off on our last stop of the day – a visit to the Valley of Temples in Agrigento. We had an animated local guide who told us stories of the Greeks and their Gods and why the temples were built. In the few hours we spent with him, he brought the history of Agrigento to life. Far too much for me to recall and relate with confidence, so it is at this point that I have to give up on the words and leave the photos to tell you what we saw.
Wednesday 12th June 2013, Garrulous Gwendoline, Agrigento
Footnote – I suspect some of the photos I posted last night as Noto were actually Syracuse – whoops!