Sicily, September 2014
I don’t know if there’s a concept of “off-peak” discounts in the airport business, but budget flights always seem to either depart very early in the day, or arrive late at night. Well, the latter is the case for the Ryanair flights from Dublin to Comiso in Sicily.
The other factor is that airline delays accumulate during the day, making later flights less punctual, and so it was with ours. We were late. The rental car had been booked with Hertz, Ryanair’s partner, but it turned out that they had no office in the airport. We were collected (along with a couple of German customers) and transported the short distance to their base, between the airport and the town.
There was only one person at the desk, and a queue of renters, meaning more delays. Then when we got “our” car, one of the Hertz personnel stopped us. Wait! The car has no petrol. He took us down the road to an automated filling station and filled the tank, then back to Hertz. At last, we were off.
We’d arranged to meet our property owner, Simona, in Modica, rather than at the apartment itself. (Or rather, she had arranged it. Perhaps she doubted our ability to find the address.) In order to get to Modica, we had to drive across one of the world’s highest motorway viaducts, the Ponte Irminio. I’d been a little nervous about that, but in the dark it was practically a non-event. (It features in the Commissario Montalbano titles.)
After the pick-up in a Modica car park, we followed Simona and her team to the apartment, which was every bit as delightful as we’d hoped from its on-line images. When they left, it was after eleven, and we hadn’t eaten for quite a while, but Simona had very thoughtfully provided spaghetti and tomato. We discovered that the gas stove in the kitchen needed matches to light the rings, but fortunately, the outdoor kichen corner had a two-ring cooker with electric start. We cooked and ate our pasta in the garden before midnight.
Simona had also provided tea, milk, and jam with “toasts” (an Italian abomination, sorry, innovation: crispy, insubstantial bread). I had brought a little coffee and some brioche. Breakfast was sorted, but we’d need more supplies. Marina di Modica has one small food store, but the larger neighbouring town of Pozzallo has supermarkets. I’d done some research and located the Co-op. We explored the seafront and shopping streets of Pozzallo, had lunch in the oddly-named “Squitty” food bar, and then went to the Co-op and bought a few essentials. On impulse, Grace added a prickly pear (or “Indian fig” as it is in Italian) to the basket.
After loading up the refrigerator, we took a walk down to the shore. Marina di Modica has a promenade with gardens, and our 200-metre direct route to the coast put us at the mid point of it. To the left is the core of the village, but we turned right. Stopping only to buy a gelato at Fiore, we walked along the coastal path until the chimney of la Fornace Penna came into view. Grace picked a ripe prickly pear from one of the many fruit-bearing cacti, but found it to be even more prickly than the supermarket version. Their fine barbs easily penetrate the skin and break off.
La Fornace is a piece of industrial archaeology, a large factory ruin from the early 20th-century, but it was built like a cathedral. Striking as the ruin is though, my real reason for wanting to see it was for its role in the Montalbano films. It plays the part of the “Mànnara” a focus for alfresco prostitution. With the sun getting low and golden and the sky dark behind the structure, I got some good photos.
After a lazy start, we went down to the beach, had a paddle, and then a stroll around the village. But having had a good Italian lunch of bread, cheese and tomatoes, we took to the car for a trip to Ragusa. There’s free parking in Piazza della Libertà (right in front of the Fascist-era offices of the Guardia di Finanzia) which is only 500 metres from the baroque cathedral, San Giovanni Battista, of “new” (i.e. post-1693) Ragusa.
Some more walking took us to the edge. Ragusa is separated from Ibla, the older part of town, by a steep valley. Motorists have to do sweeping hairpins, but pedestrians like us could go down and up the many flights of stairs. Well, we stopped at the lowest point for a beer, before taking the upward climb again.
At Ragusa’s other cathedral, San Giorgio, there was a wedding in progress, or at least immanent, waiting for the bride. The wedding car was parked at the bottom of the steps, a tiny, red Fiat 500. The church and piazza often feature as background to Montalbano, as does the nearby Circolo di Conversazione. At the far end of Ragusa Ibla, there’s a pretty public garden, with various baroque buildings, and eventually, a view over the valley.
We had dinner and then began the vertically-challenging walk back to the car, attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to capture the fantastic night panoramas of the two parts of the city spilling down their hillsides. There were three different newly-wedded couples having photographs taken against the nightscapes.
Sunday being a day of rest, it was decided that we’d go to the beach. It’s great to have a beach within walking distance. I’m not the world’s most enthusuastic sea bather, but I was persuaded, and we went for a swim. Twice! Then a beer at the beachfront bar, which was better. We went back to the apartment for lunch and then back to the beach for the afternoon.
As we walked along the prom towards Fiore for a gelato, we saw that there was a market in progress. I bought sandals! Then gelato. After the ice-cream, Grace inadvertently bought a coffee “con panna”, rather than “con latte”, but enjoyed it enormously. It was mostly whipped cream.
The plan was to take a trip to Siracusa. The plan could have done with more detail than that, to be honest, but we drove to the city and then drove around a bit looking for parking. We found a place near the bridges to Siracusa’s older part, the island of Ortigia. It turned out to be rather expensive in the end, but not worth worrying too much about. And there were toilets.
We took lunch at pretty much the first place we came to, since it was past two o’clock, and then explored Ortigia. The winding lanes of the medieval street plan are quirky and interesting, but the open plaza in front of the cathedral is the most impressive baroque space we saw on the whole trip.
The cathedral itself is one of those recycled religious spaces. Originally a Greek temple to Athena, under Roman rule it was dedicated to Minerva, and then the Byzantines made it a church, until the Arabs converted it to a mosque. Then the Normans made it a church again. In the eighteenth century, it was built up with the current baroque façade and portico, although in the early 20th century some of the baroque walls were stripped to reveal Athena’s massive Doric columns.
It cost us €2 to get into the cathedral, but it was pointed out that we then got discount on a visit to either of the two catacombs on mainland Siracusa. We toured the rest of Ortigia, and then set out for Santa Lucia and her catacombs, being the nearest.
After a brief detour into Lucia’s church, we realised that the catacombs were accessed from an octagonal oratory opposite. This was erected over the saint’s tomb in the baroque period, and its construction involved destruction of some of the upper layers of the catacombs. But those were just the graves of ordinary Christians, so they didn’t matter.
The irony of it all is that when the building was put up, Lucy’s tomb was already empty. Her remains were stolen by the Longobard Duke of Spoleto in the 700s and then had an itinerant and badly-doumented history, from Abruzzo to Byzantium to Bourges to Venice. In 1981, the Venice bones, supposedly of Santa Lucia, were stolen but recovered. Siracusa still wants them back.
The tomb tour took us past half-past-five, which, puzzlingly, is the time that antiquities close in Siracusa. It meant we were too late to get in to see the famous Greek theatre, but we walked that way anyway, hoping to see at least something, even by peering through a fence, but no, we saw nuthin’. (Well, hardly nuthin’. You could just see the quarries of the Latomie.)
It had been a long walk across a hot and dusty modern city and I felt like leaving. We drove home, and went out to one of the other pizza places in Marina di Modica. This proved to be as good as their competitor across the street, and the staff were very friendly. We got free limoncello.
Lunch at home, before setting out for nearby Punta Secca, or “Marinella” as it pretends to be in Commissario Montalbano. The Commissario’s house (normally a B&B when not in action for filming) had removals men working. I wondered if they were preparing it for a new series.
A short walk along the promenade led us to the Commissario’s lunch-time restaurant, Enzo’s, but it was closed. A menu on the wall showed that “L’Antipasto del Commissario” was a steep €20. I think they’re milking it. A couple of beers by the sea wall, a walk on Montalbano’s beach, and some photos of the lighthouse, and we had sampled all of Punta Secca’s delights. We moved on, to Scicli.
It looks a bit like “Sicily” but it’s pronounced “Sheekly”, and it’s another regular set for filming Montalbano. The town hall is the front door of police headquarters (with the obvious “Municipio” cropped out), and the mostly-dry river courses have featured too. We found the latter to be full of cats. It is my theory that you’ll have either cats or water, but not both.
I liked the scale and mixed baroque-medieval ambience of Scicli, especially as the sun began to go down and become golden. When we completed our tour, we decided that it was essential to sample real Sicilian cannoli. It was puzzling that we had never seen any displayed in pasticcerie, and didn’t see any here, so we went in and asked. “Avete cannoli?” “Certo.” Of course. Are you mad? We certainly sell cannoli. But they are not on display. They must be made fresh.
We sat down in the piazza to eat them. Delicious, but rich, and larger than I expected.
We’d seen “La Grotta”, a restaurant in a cave, on our tour of the town, and decided to try it for dinner. Our timing was perfect, in that we got an unreserved table just before the place filled up. It really is in a cave. Grace had fish soup with couscous, including an entire giant prawn, while I had pork.
For our last full day, we decided not to do too much travelling. We drove the short distance to Pozzallo, and took a look at their main shopping street, without finding anything to buy. At “Tropical Sandwich” we sampled the other Sicilian foodstuff we’d heard about, the arancini. Although there were several varieties on the menu, they only had the basic type with ragu inside, but those were good.
With stuff in the fridge to use up, we thought dinner at home would be the best idea, and Grace suggested buying some fresh fish. We were in Sicily, after all, although there would be a slight compromise, since I’m not a fish person (e.g. giant prawns). In a pescheria, we first asked after tuna, but there was none. Our similar options were salmon and swordfish, and I asked innocently for two swordfish steaks. Well, the swordfish torso that the fishmonger brought out was a large as a human’s, and he cut two generous slices, over 750g in all. That came to a handsome €19, but what the hell, we bought it and drove home.
A swim (for Grace), a final walk around the village, and purchasing a nice white wine for our fish took us home just as the sun was setting. Since we had no real idea about the best way to cook swordfish steaks, Grace opted for frying in olive oil (they barely fitted in our pan) while I did a tomato and pancetta sauce.
The fish was delicious, but between us, we could only consume about three-quarters. Rather than bin the remainder, I put it on a plate and we went out into the quiet streets to find some cats. They loved us. “Friends for life” said Grace, but then she doesn’t know cats like I do.
One of the other remnants in the fridge was a pair of mini bottles of prosecco. At midnight, we took them down to the shore and toasted our holiday. Cin-cin!
Our landlady was due before ten to check us out of the apartment (the bottle of wine, prosecco and finishing off our limoncello the night before may not have been wise). But we were ready to go on schedule and the apartment was presentable. “‘Til the next time,” said Simona. I’d go back in an instant.
Modica is another of the UNESCO-listed baroque towns, and we’d only glimpsed the modern outskirts as we’d arrived the previous Thursday. It was also on the way to the airport, although our deadline (returning the hire car) wasn’t until six. With no real idea of the geography of the town, I simply drove towards “Centro” and then looked for parking. It wasn’t a perfect strategy, but we struck lucky and came upon free parking at Viale Medaglie D’Oro, with another of the high motorway bridges almost above our heads.
It was only a short walk to Corso Umberto I, the main street of the old town. That is the “low” old town, because there is also a “Modica Alta”. We went into the cathedral and when we came out, the terrace outside was being used to film… something. There was a group of dancers, some pretend musicians with plastic trumpets, two girls with hula hoops, and two traditional mafiosi. I’d already seen from the tourist tat that there must be an image of the old mafiosi as lovable rogues with moustaches, red scarves, berets and sawn-off shotguns. That’s what these two were like. No mention of drugs, bombs or murder.
The next step was to visit Modica Alta. Or rather, lots of steps. Lots and lots. But it’s worth it for the views and the architecture. At the base of the long flight of steps up to San Giovanni Evangelista, there was a pizzeria where we had full-sized pizzas for lunch, before descending (mainly by road this time) to the lower town.
I noticed that visitors could go into the cloisters of the town hall. There was a little art exhibition too, which kept us amused for a few minutes andthen we prepared to leave. But what was that noise? A sudden thunderstorm, torrential. The courtyard quickly became a pond, put we were under cover under the arches. We waited it out, and when the rain eased, went for a coffee.
It was still raining a little when we finished, and we walked briskly to the refuge of the car. We dried off with the car’s heater and then I programmed the sat-nav to get us back to Hertz. It did choose an idiosyncratic route, cross-country along some dirt tracks, but I can’t complain, since we emerged exactly at the right point. The Hertz people took us the few kilometres to the airport.
There shouldn’t really have been a “Friday” on this blog, but out flight was late arriving at Dublin by about an hour, making it one in the morning by the time we’d disembarked. (Our outward flight had also been late, by about 20 minutes.)
We got on the shuttle bus for the Blue car park, and it took us right up to our parking spot. The car keyfob disarmed the alarm and sprung the doors as expected and we loaded the luggage and took our places for the trip home. But disaster! Opening the doors was the last gasp of the depleted battery. The engine would not start. By this time, it was after one-thirty.
I’d seen that the kiosk at the gates to the car park had been manned with a live person, and I set off to seek help (several hundred metres away). But before I’d gone far, I saw a tow truck approach, and watched as it pulled in. There was another driver suffering from a flat battery! The tow truck man said “Sure, no bother,” when I told him I needed help too, and he came over right away and jump-started us.
After that, it was plain sailing, although I was paranoid about stalling before the battery was recharged. I took Grace to her house first, and then I came home to mine. I went straight to bed. It was 04:10.