Last Days In Sicily

Generally, I suppose, visitors to Siracusa might take at least two days; first to explore the “old city” located on the island of Ortigia, and later to explore the Archeological Park, Archeological Museum, the Papyrus Museum, and the catacombs. Our visit to the “old city” Thursday was quickly cut off by the major art museum being closed for renovation although there was a gallery showing a madonna on a motorcycle and a light shining on two eggs hanging from the ceiling, one in the shadow of the other — how will this be regarded in 400 years? Of course not Caravaggio, but most of what you see of that era isn’t Caravaggio either, but it has worn itself a cultural groove and what groove will the think pieces of Y2K wear?

We ended up walking through the church, some underground passageways used as air raid shelters in WW II, and by the fountain. This didn’t take long, so we decided we could visit the Archeological Park as well in the afternoon. It had a Greek theater, some large manmade cave structures (one called the “ear of Dionysus” because its acoustics were such that he could eavesdrop on his whispering slaves), and a Roman amphitheater. There were a bunch of other quarries and ruins and a huge ficus tree that were no longer open — you could see them from outside the fence. This didn’t stop them from charging six euros admission for the whole thing. We blew off the idea of going to the museum. But we did decide to walk through the San Giovanni catacombs, second only in size to those underneath Rome. The Romans decided to appropriate a Greek water system to build catacombs, using the cisterns for chapels, and the main aqueduct for the main passageway through the area. This was a guided tour in English with an Italian accent heavier than Father Guido Sarducci. While we were waiting for the tour, we walked through the enormous Sanctuary of the Weeping Madonna which dominates the Siracusa skyline. I suppose someone saw a weeping Madonna in a piece of marble, or perhaps a piece of pizza, and they decided to build a huge pleated cone structure to commemorate it. It’s very modern compared to all the other churches we’ve seen in Italy.

Earlier, as we were walking through the “old city”, we noted a little trattoria which wasn’t a pizzeria also, and was incredibly cute in its decor and menu. So we went there for dinner, which was thoroughly enjoyable. We had: one of the five(!) flavors of soup, squash leaves (we had apparently the only serving for the evening but another lady beat us to the only cassata); pasta with mixed seafood; sardines stuffed with egg and bread crumbs; a delightful vegetable plate including roasted peppers, a delicious caponata, and various other steamed vegetables. We ended with another cheese plate — Sicily seems pretty serious about its cheese platters: the two we’ve ordered have had incredible variety and volume. The server was from Lancashire, and had been married to a local woman for the last two years. If you’re ever in Siracusa, definitely go to La Foglia.

Friday we tried to do too much: Noto, Etna, and Taormina. We’d driven past Noto on Wednesday, noted by our 1995 gourmet guidebook for its mulberry gelato and for its baroque buildings, all suddenly rebuilt after the 1693 eruption of Mt. Etna and its associated earthquake. So we backtracked a little and checked it out. The buildings were very cute, especially the gargoyles holding up the balconies. The churches had an interestingly consistent look — they were basically white inside, with paintings featuring clouds that didn’t “stay within the lines”. But the gelateria that was noted, while still in business, was closed for vacation, so we weren’t able to get any gelato, mulberry or otherwise. We did take great consolation in having the first perfectly ripe Hachiya-style persimmons of the season, little mouth-sized ones.

One always hopes for clear skies when visiting a large mountain, hoping for views of the perennially snow-covered peak from far away, and hoping for huge vistas from the top of the road. This didn’t happen on our visit to Mt. Etna. It was raining a little, and was quite foggy the whole way up. We hoped to go on a short hike on a trail, and it wasn’t easy to find the trailhead, though we eventually did. It was good exercise, but we didn’t get much in the way of vistas. We did see the grass which has grown through the lava since the 2002 eruption, and the forest which illustrated how far the lava flowed. The traffic through the towns along the freeway getting to and from the mountain was a little heavy and annoying.

Taormina proved to be very difficult to figure out. The guidebook called it a “mountaintop town”, though our atlas map showed that it was right next to the ocean. Apparently both were correct. It’s entirely a tourist town, like Mont St. Michel, and it’s impossible to park. We arrived late in the afternoon, and it was raining pretty steadily as we tried to figure everything out. Ultimately we arrived at its Greek theater, which has good views of the city through the parts of the back wall which have been worn away through the years. And we found a good restaurant, where the most unusual thing we had was colt carpaccio. The Nero D’Avola wine we had (a red Sicilian wine) reminded me of one of my favorite Zinfandels, D-cubed.

Tomorrow may also be difficult — we have to drive a few hundred kilometers to Napoli, including a ferry crossing with the car from Sicily to mainland Italy. But we only have one Thing To Do on the list, and the driving will be easy because it will all be on the autostrade.


Taormina is stupid and I don’t know why anybody comes here. Well, they come here because they have heard of Taormina but why do they stay? Does anyone ever come back? After you’ve figured out that the map you have in hand actually does purport to represent the territory you’re in, and found parking, and walked up the 245 steps and 43 meters of elevation that it takes to get from the main parking lot to the town (by count and by GPS), you are in the middle of the Old World’s Major Factory Outlet Mall For Disappointing Souvenirs. It makes Carmel look like Buy Nothing Day in Delta, Utah. Except, on a cliff. (“How do you get a liberal to support Blue Laws?” “Rename the Sabbath ‘Buy Nothing Day’.”) United Colors of Bennetton ranging down to everything ceramic you ever saw in your aunt’s parlor or trailer and up to a bunch of brand names that Bret Easton Ellis would use to sharply delineate the various personality types of Westwood Eurotrash cokeheads but I don’t know that territory so well so you will have to imagine it.

Every Italian hilltop town has the same stuff as Taormina, but I guess it’s good that the people are here because it means they aren’t crowding all the other places. Is that theory still under consideration, that tonsils exist to attract germs and allow them to be attacked before the rest of the body is infected? Or was that some 1950’s Darwinism/Intelligent design montage long discredited? Keeping track of what’s true is a full time occupation.

About a hundred years ago a famous German pederast named Von Gloeden persuaded many of Taormina’s impoverished boys to strip for money and took pictures of them. So far, so good. Their facial expressions record their enthusiasm for the transaction and it started a fad for visiting Taormina and a fad for schlock neoclassic poses among the cherubs on the walls of European aunt parlors. (The fad for pederasty was already well underway.) Italians have never shared the American apoplectic horror at the sight of boy penises, and after von Gloeden died, his work was ruled OK by Benito Mussolini’s courts — not notably libertine — in the souvenir shops I notice you can buy tiny plastic busts of Mussolini which was tempting but the presence of that many goods puts me off shopping — and there are still post cards of von Gloeden’s boys being cranked out but they are so inundated by t-shirts with the names of soccer stars and VHS tapes of Etna erupting that they are almost invisible. This is how censorship works now. The Americans don’t want to be seen wanting to see that, but I had to seek them out and it was interesting to me that the post card rack on which I first encountered von Gloeden’s gloomy naked boys, was a point-of-sale display in some Taormina version of Claire’s, the little-girl-junk store that you all know from your local shopping center. Back there behind Hello Kitty and My Little Pony Carpaccio were the sepia penises of old. I didn’t buy any of the racy ones: as I said before, products put me off shopping and they cost €1.60 each and why should I spend that and another buck on postage when horny postmen are going to rip them off before they get delivered to special persons on my list? All von Gloeden’s images are out of copyright and on the Internet — you can Google them. Turn Java off.