Unspoiled beach towns
The baroque town of Noto
The Excavations of Camerina, 900 B.C.E.
Marina di Modica
Chiaramonte, Akrai, Tombs from 1800 B.C.E., Noto Antico
We left Rome at 8:10 a.m. bound for Sicily. Peg has a job to do for Arturo, which will keep us away from Rome for at least several weeks, with plenty of time to tour about the island.
The Italians love their cell phones. Two of the young military draftees sharing our train compartment with us had them and one called mamma when he got close to home. Others received calls. Arturo was waiting for us in Ragusa. From his cell phone, he called Marina to tell her that he had found us by chance. We had called at 6 p.m. to let him know when we arriving, as we could not tell from Rome what the local bus schedules would be.
The train was crowded in large part due to all the young draftees (all young men are required to do military service in Italy). We were going to lose our seats, and would have to stand from Napes to Sicily, at least four hours. The conductor showed us to another compartment that the conductors used until Naples. He didn’t have to do this. He was being kind.
After passing Napoli, the train hugged the coast, taking us through countless cultivated fields, all the while in view of the mountains, including Vesuvius. At 2:50 p.m. The train stopped just a five minute walk from the ferry. The twenty minute journey gave us magnificent views of Messina’s harbor and the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains a kilometer or so inland. Sicily is so close, the channel so narrow, that an excellent swimmer could readily make the one or two kilometer trip.
We asked directions to the buses and found them after a few false turns. If you have to do this, you go out of the train station, turn left and while hugging the train station, go about a quarter of a mile until you see the blue regional buses. The office was closed but the bus driver told us the schedule.
There is no direct service to Modica, our destination. The bus first took us to Catania, a regional population center and home to an international airport. With us on the bus was a beautiful black woman from Ghana, just finishing a two-week tour of Sicily. In her excellent King’s English she told us how much she enjoyed the visit.
An hour later the bus to Ragusa arrived. The trip into Ragusa, a mountain village of 5500 just fifteen minutes from Modica,
took almost two hours. Thus the entire journey from Rome took twelve hours, about the same as if we had done it by car, and
shorter than if we had done it entirely by train. A sun was dipping behind the hills.
Arturo (none of the names herein are actual) picked us up at the bus station right on time. Along the way to his house we were treated to a marvelous sight from Modica Alta (the higher part of town) at night. From the hill opposite, the valley between containing Modica Bassa (Lower Modica), we saw the large, steep hillside filled with stone houses, and nothing but. These are attractively illuminated, follow switch-back curves, and are stacked one upon the other. I was struck by the feeling that we were in the Holy Land, for here too the sandy colored housing blended with the stone surroundings. Only the houses offer a contrasting color, the red of the roof tiles.
Our hosts live in a large villa. There are two floors, each with about 8 large rooms, plus several baths. The main entrance leads to a magnificent stairwell, steps and banister of marble. The ceiling of the stairwell extends to the roof. This stairwell was photographed for a book about the region Arturo and Diana they sent to us.
We have the front half of the upper level. There are three bedrooms we can choose between, connected to one another by a balcony and by a hallway. Three bathrooms are in this part of the house. One of them has no hot water. Another has hot water but no toilet. The water heater in the third is not working but it is otherwise complete except the toilet has no seat. However, it is the most beautiful toilet I have ever seen, a fully decorated ceramic bowl. For a bedroom we choose the largest because it has two outside walls so we can get cross ventilation.
Diana was awaiting us, along with the German shepherd. Arturo said the dog was living wild when he found him several years ago. Recently the dog killed and ate a neighbor’s dog. However, he has not attacked any people. He wags his tail at us like we are old friends. Or is he happy to meet his next meal?
Our next meal was by Diana: baked onions and fresh anchovies, local bread, white wine, fresh pineapple from Somalia, preceded by thin slices of smoked swordfish. The fish was locally caught and not expensive, Diana said. The anchovies were breaded and when fresh are nothing like what you get out of a can. They taste like fresh tuna, but a very light flavor, even lighter than tuna normally is. A thin slice of moon looks over us in clear skies as we dine. Diana’s Italian is remarkably clear, easy to understand, and she is patient while Peg and I work through the conjugations or substitute a Spanish word.
The huge windows are wide open as we go to sleep. A large palm tree fills much of our view, but behind it, that thin slice of moon is joined by Venus, winking at us as if to say, “Arrivederci! Join you later, in your dreams.”
Last evening was far cooler than we expected. Diana told us that the temperature was normal for this time of year. The days are warm, but not normally very hot, and the nights cool, even cold enough for her to wear a light jacket, ‘wools,’ as our landlady puts it.
She took us shopping at an ordinary alimentari (food store), and to the center of the old part of Modica. There I saw a tourist bureau so in we went. A young woman was eager to practice her English. Some brochures of the area are translated into English, others have French as the second language. Diana explains that there are French tour groups coming to a nearby club. She calls it a ‘Club Med’ so I presume it’s the Club Med I know of.
A nearby beach town in the evening is uncrowded, an off the beaten path kind of place. There are small apartments within a few feet of the water, with small, private gardens in the back. Arturo says there are many bargains in houses in the Sicilian countryside, and these are among them. Renting them in the winter would also be a terrific bargain, but you must be self-entertaining.
Peg and I returned alone to the beach in a.m. The beach is far from full, and where we go, we are alone. The water is surprisingly chilly, but once you are in, it is comfortable. It is clean but not as clear as, say, the Caribbean waters. Later we drove to a nearby village. This is Arturo’s hometown. He wandered about the streets, driving the wrong way on one way streets, as if he had not been there in a long time and couldn’t read the street signs, though of course it was quite deliberate. I think he said that as a child he lived in what is now the town hall. It is large and beautiful. There are cave dwellings in the gorge outside town. These dwellings were used before even the Greeks arrived, making it prior to about 750 B.C.E.
Sitting around afterwards, Peg and I determined that we are confused about whether Diana wants to cook for us all the time or just when they invite us. Arturo says there is no plan. An example of our confusion and the unplanned state of affairs, this evening we ate dinner upstairs and when we were done they called us to join them for dinner downstairs.
I have neglected to mention that there is a kitchen in our quarters. It is sparsely outfitted but the essentials are there. On our arrival we found a few items they had put there for us, one a bottle of local red wine. We tried it. It was fruity, hearty, and far more than just passable. In October the locals have festivals to celebrate the new wine. They are still selling last year’s new wine in the area shops.
I find it hard to sleep for the few mosquitoes that buzz my ear. If you close the windows it is too warm, although it is chilly outside.
In the morning Peg and I head to the village of Noto in Arturo’s ancient Renault 8. We have use of this French four door marvel. It is a marvel because it is about 20 years old, has about 130,000 miles on it, and is in great shape. It is also notable for the gear shift coming straight out of the dashboard. You push forward for first, backward for second, etc., using the same pattern as if it were mounted between the seats. At first, you can’t imagine how the thing works.
Noto is an entirely Baroque town, and like Old Modica and most of the old residential areas in the area, it is all of stone. It was rebuilt after the big earthquake in 1693 by the Laudlino family. This family apparently had loads of money, for this was a major project. The dome of the magnificent Chiesa di San Francisco all’Immacolata fell in recently, and the rest of the roof joined it on the ground. In the plaza in front of the church are several monumental structures in the same khaki-colored stone. Like all the other towns we have seen on this voyage, including Messina, Catania, Ragusa, it is spotlessly clean.
In the evening we attended a party at the house of our hosts’ friends, Nino and Monica. After we arrived came Olga and Heidi, married to Franco and Paolo (not sure who is married to which), and Maria, married to Clemente. The three German women, Monica, Olga and Heidi, came to Sicily together in the early 1970’s to work in the resorts frequented by the Germans. They met the three Sicilian men, and eventually came back to marry them and live here. Heidi lives in Modica Bassa in a 300 year old mansion in the center of the town. They remodeled it into several apartments, and the ground floor tenant is a bank.
Monica grilled skillfully on the large, built-in-stone outdoor charcoal pit. As an appetizer, she toasted some bread and offered three sauces to paste on them. One sauce was tomato with olive oil, a second peperoncino (peppers, in this case red) and a third from basil, but not a pesto. This last is a puzzle, as I could not tell what was in it.
Dinner was a feast. First was a thin piece of local beef, very tender and tasty, then a thick pork chop. Of course, all the veggies: eggplant with a little tomato sauce on it, zucchini, peppers. After everyone was stuffed, she brought out kabobs: onion, tomato, chicken and sausage. Everything was fabulous. Surprisingly there was no pasta and people ate very little bread. We all drank plenty of local red wine and bottled water.
Dining was outside under the stars in the garden. The garden is in the style of the area, harsh, desert-like landscape. There was a yucca plant that had sent shoots twenty feet high with flowers and seeds at the end. There are carob trees, which are farmed in the area, and the usual palm trees, and various cacti.
During dinner Arturo says Americans like to visit the area, once they get past their Mafia prejudices. But they find living here too inconvenient. Too often the water is cut off, you lose electricity, and is too expensive to air condition the houses. We have been without electricity twice since we arrived, once due to a breaker and the other a power failure in the electrical net.
He explains about the other large house on his premises. It was built without a permit. I think it is properly constructed but he did not get a permit to avoid the additional property taxes. That meant that he could not order electrical service. The second house is served by the same three kilowatts that power his villa. This second house has a swimming pool whose filter must be left on for much of the season. The pump absorbs 3-5 amps of power. That leaves only ten or so for the house he lives in. That’s why we cannot run two of the hot water heaters in the villa simultaneously.
The telephone wiring is old, he says, so his internet connection is slow. He now has a free account with the phone company. If you have a phone in your own name, you can get the same deal. This just started and sounds to me like the recently privatized telephone company is trying to rub out the competition. He trades stock but does not do it on-line. He wants me to teach him how. He also needs help with computer things in general. He is self-taught. He handles it pretty well but he does not understand how to navigate, nor what navigation means. For example, he thinks that if he saves something in a directory called ‘documents’ it ipso facto becomes a word processing document.
Today’s ‘giro’ (journey) takes us to Ragusa Ibla, the old Ragusa. Ragusa became the capital of the Province of Ragusa in 1927. Modica and Scicli are the other main towns. After the earth quake of 1693, the people abandoned some town sites in the area, the town rebuilt in a new location. In others, such as Ragusa, Modica, Ispica and Scicli, the old town remained occupied and a new town added. Old Ragusa is on the hilltop with commanding views. The town is composed of Baroque structures, many wrought iron balconies, and steep, stone stairs connecting the neighborhoods. Many streets are inaccessible to cars. The beach is close by and we were told it is pretty.
The locals raise cattle, grow wheat and ‘pulses,’ says a tourist brochure. This area is known for ricotta, mozzarella and provolone, regular elements of my own family’s diet even now in the U.S. One specialty is ‘gnucchitti,’ ravioli stuffed with ricotta and served with a pork ragu sauce. Maccu is a bean soup flavored with wild fennel (fenochio). A third specialty is Pasta alla Pecorara, pasta with onions, diced potatoes, some milk and Pecorino cheese. Pecorino is a sharp sheep cheese rather like Parmesano, which we all know and love, and which comes from the town of Parma. Here they eat tripe still, and snails, but I have not seen ether on any menu yet. Arancine is a rice and cheese ball, deep fried.
From a brochure we got from the tourist office:
I heard that you are coming to Ragusa to visit the whole region: knowing that you are greedy and curious, I want, first of all, to tell you about Sicilian cuisine…
The Italians are very gracious hosts, but that does not mean that the translators always grasp important nuances.
From Ragusa Ibla we drove to the museum and excavations of Camerina near Santa Croce Camerina. There was a Greek settlement here 150 years before they established Syracusa, according to an exhibit. In that case, the ruins date from somewhere around 900 B.C.E.
The museum entrance is next to the ruins, and one of the buildings is built over the remains of a temple, part of the foundations exposed to the visitor. Outside the small grounds of the museum are the active digs. The archeological zone extends about a kilometer toward the sea on a ridge. The Greeks chose a ridge with an endlessly stretching view of the sea.
Inside the museum are terracotta tombs in which they discovered tons of pottery, also on display and much of it in fine shape. The pottery is mostly undecorated terracotta. Exhibits show gold coins, a helmet (bronze, I think) and a variety of everyday and decorative objects. Some items were discovered under water, others under the sand that covers the coastal zone. The helmet was under water, and they have a photo of the diver bringing it to the surface.
Afterwards we drove under the relentless sun along the coast in the general direction of Modica. We passed by many greenhouses in which they grow poinsettias for Christmas, which now lay unused. There was little else and it was after 2:00 before we found an open restaurant. The restaurant reminded us of places in the Caribbean for the laid back atmosphere, the turquoise sea just the other side of a short expanse of white sand, the bamboo roof, paneless windows. It was just a summer place. Mama made some pasta with clams for us. Two young teen girls swatted a ball back and forth on the beach just outside the door.
Palm trees in Arturo’s garden
Siracusa (Syracuse, famous in Greek times) is about an hour and a half from Modica, a distance of some 70 kilometers. The archeological park houses a Greek theater from 475 B.C.E. The stone seating was cut from the hillside and seated 15,000. The locals still stage classical Greek productions. The acoustics are fabled. The early Greeks built an altar 65m long by 11m wide by 23m high (200 B.C.E.), perhaps the world’s largest, for sacrificial events. The Roman Amphitheater (2nd century) is in excellent condition.
Since we visited these sites five years ago, we headed for the section of town called Ortigia, an island on the tip of the city but just a few meters from the mainland. Here we gazed upon the remnants of the Temple of Apollo (575 B.C.E.). Only two of the enormous exterior columns are intact. The capitals (the tops of the columns) are Doric in style. These examples are cruder than Doric capitals normally are. Inside some of the original, ancient (also circa 575 B.C.E.) Greek columns were built into the walls. All of the others support the roof. There are 26 ancient columns in all. The baroque facade is from the 18th century.
Palace in Siracusa
The ocean is nearby, maybe 100 meters away. A fresh water stream bubbles into the fountain just a few feet from the sea. The Fonte Aretusa is fed by a subterranean river. There are trout or similar fish.
Scattered about are various palaces, some Gothic and some Baroque. Nary a tree shades the narrow streets, but parks and tree-lined vias add green to the harshness of the stone and stucco.
In the early evening the Renault 8 carries us to Marina di Modica, another of many nearby coastal villages less than twenty minutes from our hosts’ villa. Germans must come here, for there are wursts for sale in on the streets. Near the beach are vans selling these sausages and typical local fare, including pizza and ice cream. The wurst wagon has one of those appliances that warm bread by piercing the bun longitudinally.
Young teens parade about in the carnival like, yet laid-back atmosphere; it’s the feeling I only get in the countryside. Brisk winds have whipped up the waves and a few wind surfers are trying their luck. A music vendor spoils the atmosphere with some rock and roll, but someone complains and he turns it down. Trees shade the walkway along the beach. Large ships and pleasure craft dot the horizon where Ulysses once passed on his way to or from present day Tunisia. The Phoenicians (from what we now call Lebanon) came before, lonely on the seas, later the Romans and many others, the British, the French, the Americans among them. About 100 miles away lies Malta, scene of WWII battles for that strategically located island. The sun is still bright in the breezy, comfortable evening as we turn the little Renault back to Modica.
Today the trusty but slow Renault took us north and east of Modica today to four towns. Chiaramonte is a village on a steep hillside, surrounded by pine woods. In town, we crossed paths with a bicycle race. A little bar on the main plaza had the usual great cappucino, but also canoli, the round pastry shells stuffed with sweetened ricotta, a soft, creamy cheese, thicker than yogurt and not at all sour tasting even without sugar. The teenager who waited on us was obviously the owner’s son. He talked to us in English, not fluently but he made the effort, unlike many who have had years of English without ever speaking a word. His father eyed us suspiciously, without cracking a smile.
Twenty men sat outside drinking coffee and watching the racers snake through the narrow, stone streets heading down the hill. The race finished on the other side of town after the punishing climb uphill. The baked plane to the north spread out before us from a wide spot in the road outside town. After climbing through the village and to the top of the mountain, you are on another flat, dry plane where everything is the color of my khaki pants. I blend in like a lizard.
Akrai is in the province of Siracusa. On the hilltop is a small, well-proportioned Greek theater. I estimate that the seating capacity at 400. The site also has caves in which residents lived or stored things, and ruined walls and walks.
We got a few kilometers down the road from Akrai when Peg realized that her wallet was missing, cash, credit card, passport inside. After checking inside the car, we rushed back to Akrai. One of the guards helped her look and it did not take Peg long to find it, in front of the stage, readily visible to anyone yet undisturbed, fully intact.
Our next stop was labeled on the map only as a prehistoric village. The route was not well marked but we drove right to it. You see tombs carved out of the hillsides. They date from 1800-1500 BC. Where we stand to look at the remains is in the middle of a shallow gully, fields and stones all about, no guards, no admission fee. Just us, the tombs carved out of the rock, the wind, the stones, the ancient presence of whom we know not. Many little lizards scurry around the desert landscape, the same color as the stone, the car, my pants, the sun.
Next was Noto Antica. Not much here to see. Dusty road, couples and families picnicking among the ruins, no guards, no admission fee, no information. We took a quick look at the stone foundations and a few walls and left. There is a nunnery nearby, on the way to Noto. It is made of the local stone.
We went to Trattoria al Buco, the same restaurant we ate in a few days ago. Tuna, gnocchi alla pesto and first of all, the antipasto. The cook came out to say the shrimp was not good today, which is how we ended up with the tuna. Arturo told us that the tuna season here is occasioned by the migration of the fish. They pass south of Sicily. Soon they will be gone but until then the fishing is easy, the tuna cheap.
The antipasto spread consisted of eggplant with tomatoes, marinated artichokes and mushrooms, spinach, olives. The menu offers a large variety of seafood besides pastas.
The daughter, who served us the other day, came in for a moment. She recognized us and came over to say hello. She is wearing the same friendly smile, the same outgoing personality, the same black shorts, too short for she is not a child anymore. This is her day off, and her brother is our waiter. The cook is her mom, her father works in the dining area as well. It feels like eating with family.