SICILY 2007 - Weeks 5~6
misty rain and low cloud continued all night at our mountain wild-camp
at Morgantina, obscuring everything and causing us to postpone our visit
to the 1000m high hill-top town of Enna. In poor visibility we turned
south again towards Caltagirone, the narrow road winding around high
hill-sides still shrouded in mist.
Caltagirone developed the reputation for quality ceramics, skills learnt from Arab craftsmen who introduced the highly glazed, polychromatic designs now typical of Sicilian ceramic ware. Post-earthquake rebuilding gave further boost to Caltagirone's ceramics industry, still seen in the town today with colourful tiling decorating both major buildings and tiny nooks and crannies around the town and streets lined with workshops and galleries. But the grandest statement of ceramic skills is Caltagirone's Scala, a 142 step staircase linking the upper and lower town, with the risers between steps decorated with Majolica tiles hand-painted with pictorial and patterned designs (Photo 1). From the top, the view across the town's grand buildings was magnificent.
We moved on to Grammichele, another of the towns which arose from the ruins of the 1693 earthquake. The forerunner settlement of Occhiola was rebuilt as a model new town to a novel design planned around a hexagonal central piazza with 6 roads radiating out like spokes and outer rings of concentric streets encircling the town. Grammichele still preserves this unique design almost intact. The huge hexagonal central piazza was in process of renovation, giving this grand urban space an air of dereliction; but this did not prevent the town's elderly gents taking their evening passegiata and gathering in groups to socialise. Grammichele's small Archaeological Museum is worth a visit for its displays of local remains ranging from ancient Sikel settlements through to relics recovered from the 1693 disaster. It was late in the day and we needed somewhere to camp; the only place in Grammichele we could find was the car park outside the town's cemetery at what must be the most bizarre wild-camp spot ever. The neighbours were certainly quiet, but early next morning, locals began arriving for the first funeral of the day. It was a tragi-comical scene, being camped doing the washing-up in the midst of a funeral gathering. But such is Sicilian relaxed manner that no one seemed to mind and one kindly gent even showed us a tap for water.
Further south, we reached Ragusa, a large town set on a high plateau of the Monti Iblei hills. The old town of Ragusa Ibla, sited on a limestone spur projecting above steep-sided valleys, was totally flattened by the 1693 earthquake, but within a few years, the new town of Ragusa was built higher up the ridge surrounded by precipitous valleys. The modern city has developed across this craggy ridge, separated from the medieval town of Ragusa Ibla rebuilt on the original location. The 2 rival towns re-united in 1926, but with Ragusa's rapidly developing commercial success, Ibla fell into decline, only recently tidied up at EU expense as tourist centre. The steps edging down from Ragusa give majestic views over the blue Majolica-domed church of Santa Maria dell' Idria and the pan-tiled roofs across to the older town of Ibla with its restored buildings clustered around the hilltop crowned by the dome of the Duomo (Photo 2). Ragusa Ibla's flamboyant cathedral is one of the masterpieces of Sicilian Baroque, designed by the leading 18th century architect, Rosario Gagliardi, who did very nicely thank you rebuilding the cathedrals of SE Sicily in the aftermath of 1693 with his standard designs: you could have anything you like so long as the façade had 3 tiers, sets of triple columns surmounting a wedding-cake exterior to a balconied belfry, with a convex-rounded curvature - take it or leave it and live with the pile of debris of your old cathedral wrecked by the earthquake. Despite gloomy weather, we spent a happy afternoon ambling around Ragusa Ibla before heading down to the southern coast, looking forward to a comfortable campsite at Marina di Ragusa after 3 nights of wild-camping. Having watched the village band tuning up for a funeral (today was a popular time to be buried in Sicily), we drove with great expectations to the campsite, only to find the gate locked and the dreaded sign 'chiuso'. And the rain poured down. We had no option but to turn westwards along the coast to find other campsite options at Punto Braccetto near San Croce Camerina. At the end of the road, we found the most hospitable welcome ever at the newly modernised Campeggio Scarabeo. The site was beautifully landscaped with tropical trees and shrubs and sheltered from the brisk SW breeze by bamboo screens, with salt spray from the surf which crashed onto a glorious golden beach.
We could not have asked for a better spot to rest up for the Easter weekend, and the sky cleared to give a perfect sunset across the sea (Photo 3). With such a setting, hospitable welcome and good value at €17 a night (remember to ask for a sconto/discount), Scarabeo had to merit the accolade as campsite of the trip. Nothing was too much trouble for the owner, Angela di Modica. A problem with our camper needed VW attention: Angela phoned the VW garage in Ragusa fixing us an appointment on Good Friday morning. The problem was sorted, and the manager at VW Belluardo insisted there would be no charge. We have enjoyed so much helpfulness in Sicily. Much relieved we were able to get to the town of Vittoria in time for the traditional Good Friday procession. Crowds gathered in the central piazza, and at noon the procession emerged from the church, with local dignitaries bearing a bier with a wooden figure of the crucified Christ covered with a purple shroud. The band played mournfully funereal music, and people rushed forward to touch the bier. The whole aura and setting was so moving, almost evoking tears. Leaders of the procession carried wooden rattles, and the sound of these echoing around the streets was chillingly pagan, a throw back to some pre-Christian ritual to scare off evil from the holy object. And bringing up the rear was a huge figure of Maria, Madre Dolorosa mounted aloft on a cart decorated with flowers, her heart pierced by a dagger symbolising her sorrow at the crucifixion (Photo 3). We joined the crowds following the procession; in the past, it was absolutely de rigeur for women to be veiled and dressed entirely in black with total silence observed as befits a solemn funeral. Today was more of a carnival atmosphere with balloons and jollity; women dressed fashionably and men looking uncomfortable in their Sunday suits. Good Friday in Vittoria was another occasion when we felt privileged to be sharing in a local festival, albeit more secular in tone nowadays than its religious origins suggested.
Later that afternoon, we drove down to the coast to visit the archaeological site of the ancient Greek colony of Camerina. It was evocative simply for the sense of awareness of this once thriving city, its streets, houses and temples; all that remains now is an open hillside of bright yellow and purple wild flowers, dotted with the occasional dwarf palm, and set above an aquamarine sea sparkling in the beautiful sunshine. It was a glorious setting, and back at camp that evening we were rewarded with another flaring sunset across the bay.
We spent Easter Saturday visiting the gorge of Cava d'Ispica, carved out of the limestone plateau of Monti Iblei by an ancient river. The rocky walls of the gorge carry traces of 3,500 years of life and death, with prehistoric necropolis, early Christian catacombs (Photo 5)and medieval cave dwellings, all cut into the rock. All of this was brought to an end by the 1693 cataclysmic earthquake when the site was abandoned. And today the floor of the gorge is filled with a paradise garden of bright wild flora, prickly pears and dwarf palms.
Easter Sunday in Sicilian towns is a time for traditional festivities celebrating the Resurrection. We joined the crowds, who greeted friends with kisses and 'Buona Pasqua', in the town of Scicli, another victim of the 1693 earthquake rebuilt in flamboyant Baroque. All we knew was that a decorated statue representing the Risen Christ would be raced triumphantly through the streets. We waited with the surging crowds at the church of Santa Maria la Nuova, peering into the dark interior from where riotously irreverent cheers and excitement could be heard. At 1-00pm, the crowds were pushed back with much shouting and shoving; to cheers and applause, the local 'lads' hurtled the enormous statue out of the church's interior darkness into the light of day; it was a bizarre mix of symbolic reverence and utterly pagan Carnivale. The heavy wooden bier was hurled around and the statue up aloft twisted and danced at crazy angles as the scrummage underneath whirled the bier around at a furious pace. Amid this riotous melée, the crowds backed away in fear of being overwhelmed by the massed weight of bier and surging hefty bodies. The statue was surged forward down the church steps as spectators from the balconies overhead showered confetti (Photo 6) and cracking detonations of fireworks echoed around the craggy limestone cliffs which surrounded the town. Whatever its symbolic religious origins, today's celebrations abounded in secular festivities; it was utterly mesmerising and delightful bedlam, and amid the happy revelry, we glanced upwards at the magnificent Baroque churches and palazzi which line the streets of Scicli.
After a night's camp at a wholly unworthy and run-down dump which passed for a campsite (shall we name and shame? - yes, it was called Il Forte, and should be avoided) near the tiny fishing village of Marzameni, we celebrated Easter Monday with a visit to Sicily's southernmost point, Capo Passero (Photo 7); on a clear day, you felt the North African coast should have been visible. Turning up the eastern coastline, we headed for the Riserva Naturale di Vendicari, a protected area of coastal meres and coastline where the air was filled with the sweet scent of orange blossom from surrounding citrus groves. From a hide near one of the lagoons, we saw spoonbills performing their peculiar feeding ritual, a large flock of flamingos showing their pink wing tips, black-winged stilts with their long spindly red legs, white and grey heron and egrets. The sun was pleasantly warm and the air clear and fresh as we walked along the rocky shoreline, enjoying the peaceful afternoon and flourishing wild flora. That night we stayed at Sabbiadoro Camping near to Avola, a glorious setting with terraces overlooking a turquoise sea, and shaded with cycads and cactus.
We visited our final 'earthquake' town, Noto, by local bus, a hit and miss journey with all the uncertainties of Sicilian bus timetables. The former settlement of Noto Antica was totally destroyed in the 1693 cataclysm; rebuilding on a fresh site 16 kms to the south began soon after with a grandly prestigious plan for a model new town. The local population was less impressed and reconstructed a shanty town amid the ruins of their former homes. Long before the days of compulsory purchase orders, the new town's architects reinforced the move to Noto. With the accent on symmetry and visual harmony, Noto was aesthetically the most successful of the new post-1693 towns of SE Sicily. But it was doomed to disaster: the local Iblea soft chalky limestone, so workable for delicate carvings, is also highly friable. Years of neglect and belated reconstruction work, delayed by interminable Italian bureaucracy, culminated in the collapse of the Duomo's dome in 1996; although the dome has at last been restored, the cathedral has been shrouded in scaffolding ever since along with many of Noto's other grand buildings. In bright sunshine, the stonework of Noto's buildings glowed a golden honey colour. Somehow symbolising Noto's fate, tower cranes and scaffolding will mingle with the glorious Baroque for years to come. The following day, we ventured up into the Monti Iblei to visit the site of Noto's predecessor, Noto Antica. But be warned, the road is scarily narrow; unless you drive a small VW camper, don't even attempt it. The scant remains of the former town set high on the ridge of Monte Alveria, and destroyed by the 1693 earthquake, are now totally overgrown, but the atmosphere and setting are so evocative and the wild flora simply stunning.
The SE corner of Sicily has been a rewarding period. Our continuing journey will take us northwards, so join us again next week for a 'walk with Thucydides' around the scene of the Athenian Great Expedition's tragic and humiliating defeat at Syracuse, and onwards from there to Sicily's second city, Catania. Arrivederci.
Sheila and Paul Published: Friday 27 April