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So the holiday is over for another year. Time has really gone quickly and we have packed an awful lot into our two weeks and had a great time. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly.
What I’ll miss
The barque architecture – the places we visited to the south of the island were superb, even if the most of them were churches. The buildings that were built up after the earthquake are stunning as we discovered in Ragusa, Scicli and especially, Noto. All are recommended for a visit.
In the steps of Inspector Montalbano – the very reason that we came to Sicily in the first place. Having seen the scenery on the TV series we decided that it was just the place we would like to visit and weren’t disappointed. Also going to the places where it is filmed and seeing some of the buildings used was great fun.
Lemon Soda – After walking around under the hot Italian sun there is nothing more refreshing than a can of Lemon Soda. Similar to a bitter lemon but not as, well, bitter. Great shame that it’s not available in the UK so maybe I’ll have to look at importing some in.
Arancini – On holiday in the past we have struggled to find something less than a full meal to have for lunch when all you really want is a snack, a quick sandwich. The Arancini is a local delicacy and just what’s needed for a quick lunch on the go. Pyramid in shape it is mainly rice with a tiny amount of filling.
Courteous Drivers – I have to admit that this one came as a bit of a surprise given how poor the standard of driving seems to be generally in Italy. In all towns we visited drivers would stop to let you cross the road pretty much anywhere, not just at a marked crossing. They would even pull up sharply to let you do so. Probably just as well though as parking right across a pedestrian crossing was also popular making it difficult to cross!
What I won’t miss
Biting animals – The flies round here are vicious and liked to feed upon us at regular intervals. Having got what they came for they left behind an itchy spot that remained for several days as an unpleasant reminder. Next time we’ll remember to pack some strong repellent.
Today is our last day in Sicily. Boy has it gone quickly.
It was back on the train again today and once more in search of Inspector Montalbano. This time it was to Scicli which is used for other parts of the fictional Vigata including the police station (shown above).
It’s odd seeing places from TV for real as they are nothing like you expect. Clever camera angles hide things you wouldn’t want in a scene and the inside might be disconnected from the outside. So it was today. Stepping into the “police station” (in reality it is the town hall) is not what you see on the TV. No long corridor leading to the inspectors office instead there are stairs at the top of which is the mayor’s office used in the series as Montalbano’s boss’ office. Very confusing! Good fun though and we’re keen to watch some episodes again to see how they make it all fit together.
So tomorrow we fly back but as if to ease me back into the ways of work it all kicked off back in the office. This only served to remind me how things have changed over the years. Maybe ten years back we would go off and it MIGHT have been possible to reach me by phone but more likely was that the only contact would have been a postcard from me saying “glad I’m not there!”. Today I can be much more hands on thanks to my pocket computer that can also make calls. This is not a stress free way to have a holiday.
Decided to have a more relaxing day today after the couple of train journeys we have taken over the last two days.
In the morning we went back into the island part of Siracusa – Ortiga – and made our way to the market. It was an odd mix of amazing fresh fish and vegetable stalls along side those selling the sorts of tack you see in the independent pound shops in the UK. It was an opportunity to also sample some local wears such as delicious sun dried tomatoes and a local cheese.
After finishing at the market we wandered the streets looking in the touristy shops which again were a mixture of cheap, tacky tourist stuff and more thoughtful gifts. The sour and miserable server in Zara was a nice reminder of home though.
I started with a hot chocolate with hazelnut which arrived below and was, basically, hot Nuttella and delicious. Next up was a much needed English breakfast yes which I’ve much missed.
Tomorrow we are back on track so to speak.
We’re obviously getting the taste for local train travel as we were on the same train as yesterday this morning. This time we were taking a shorter trip to the town of Noto. As yesterday there was a walk from the station to the interesting part of the town and once again there were no signs of where to go, no maps available to guide all of which I found really strange given the reliance these towns place on tourism. Nevertheless it was worth the wandering to find the right place as it is beautiful.
Once again Noto is another place that had been destroyed by the earthquake of 1693 and rebuilt in the local baroque style. What this means in practice is lots and lots and lots of churches built in prominent positions in wonderful sandstone.
I thought this as we wandered around Ragusa yesterday but why does a place need quite so many churches? There were literally two virtually touching each other today. You could probably hear the confessional taking place in one in the nave of the other! I know people like to worship their gods but there seem to be more churches than people.
Today we followed round a pre-set tour of the town from our guide book which took us past all the sights (churches!). Again I was surprised at just how quiet the town was and the only people there were tourists. It is coming to the end of the season here and one wonders how the shops and bars manage once the tourists have gone.
After getting the train back to Siracusa we came down to the water front and watched the sunset with a Lemon Soda/white wine which is a very pleasant way to end the evening.
Before you travel to a new place you have to make certain assumptions as to what you’ll need. So it was this time when we hired a car for the whole two week period. To date we have used it only twice. Once to get from the airport to the first hotel and the second from the first to the second hotel. Rather than go out and visit places with the car we have relied on public transport which has worked really well. It has been less stressful and has allowed me to finish a book and write this blog post as we travel back from Ragusa.
It’s fair to say that the only reason we are in Sicily is because we saw it on the Inspector Montalbano TV series and fell in love with the place. The series is set around the (fictitious) town of Vigata which in reality is Ragusa where we traveled today. It is a two hour train ride from Siracusa but we almost didn’t make the train as we were on the wrong platform – only in Italy could they have TWO platform 2s in different parts of the station! The train was interesting in that it was two tiny carriages and was full of tourists, the majority of whom got off at Noto (a trip for a different day). It rumbled it’s way across the Sicilian countryside until it reached Ragusa.
Ragusa is really two separate towns: Ragusa Superiore and Ragusa Ibla. Let me tell you there is nothing “superior” about Ragusa Superiore at all whereas on the other hand Ragusa Ibla is stunning. “Superiore” in this case means “higher”, much, much higher but the views down across Ibla are superb.
Because the trains are so infrequent we had a full six hours in Ragusa and that was more than enough time. For somewhere so beautiful there was hardly anyone about and very few shops which I found very odd. This also made it difficult to find an ice cream!
Like most TV series only parts of Montalbano are filmed in Ragusa but we were able to see the cathedral (Duomo) and the views which feature so prominently. We weren’t able to find the bus stop where Salvo picks up the stroppy Livia but all in all it was a great day.
When we first arrived here a couple of days ago one of the first places we made it to was the castle right at the end of the island. This being Italy we had missed the tiny window of time when it was actually open but did happen to notice that it was open today and, because it was the first Sunday of the month, for free too! So we spent this morning looking around it.
English Heritage, National Trust et al all make a pretty good job of interpreting what you see as you go round any of their properties. That seems to be a peculiarly British thing as I have found nothing to match it anywhere on the continent. And so it was in the castle which was an interesting structure but I have absolutely no idea how old it is or what any of it was used for so I cannot impart any of that knowledge.
Next was a wander round the little winding streets of the town looking at the shops. The hours kept are pretty leisurely here with a looooooooooong break for lunch. I’m sure in their defence they would say that they are open longer into the evenings but they are not that longer. Of course the only time you want or need anything the shops are shut but you just have to go with the flow. For us this meant sat outside at a cafe opposite the Duomo watching the world go by.
Our final stop of the day was at the railway station to buy tickets ready for our journey tomorrow. We didn’t need to engage the chap behind the counter as he probably spoke as much English as those working behind the counters at Reading railway station speak Italian. Fortunately the ticket machines speak impeccable English so sorting the tickets was a simple job.
It has become a thing now that each evening before we eat we go to a cafe overlooking the Apollo ruins. In fact it’s become so much of a thing that the waiter even knows our order! It’s very pleasant in the setting sun sat here in shirtsleeves and I’ll miss it when we return.
There are several distinct areas to Siracusa: Ortiga, the tiny island joined to the main island by a bridge, the modern and unintersting town and the archological area where we went today.
The main attraction on the site is the huge Greek theatre. Unlike the one we saw in Taormina this one is more complete and probably at leat 50% bigger. All the better for seating more locals for a good tragedy! It was pretty hot today so I am sure I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time sat there under the blazing sun.
Also on the site was a second, older, amphitheatre much of the stone from which had been plundered for use elsewhere and the Ear of Dionysius. This is a huge limestone cave which has excellent acoutistcs. Apparently, if you are lucky, there will be a busker playing in the cave. Unfortunately for us we only had the company of shouting tourists.
This being Italy there are, of course, plenty of churches but none as architecturally interesting as the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime which looks very much like a badminton shuttlecock. When you go inside the whole of the structure is exposed giving a wonderful view as you can see from the pictures below.
Today was our last full day in Taormina and I was really sorry to be leaving as it is a lovely place. The hotel was superb and really well located for the town which was just a short walk away. We spent our final morning walking through the main street and down, once again, into the public gardens. This must be my favourite spot in the whole place – the picture above is of one of the buildings within the park which somehow I find mesmerising.
Regrettably we don’t have the ability to teleport and so the relocation from Taormina to Siracusa had to be undertaken by car. On a motorway. It was quick but about as interesting as travelling from Reading to Cardiff on the M4. I was glad when we arrived without too much misshap.
Given the Italians love of Ferrari I have often wondered why there haven’t been more Italian F1 world champions or drivers for that matter. The journey from Taormina answered that question – they are just awful drivers, all of them. They wander over the lanes, tailgate and judging by the number of dented side panels get into more than their fair share of scrapes.
We didn’t have a great deal of time to explore Siracusa fully today, that is a job for tomorrow, but we were able to get out and see the sea. Tomorrow we intend to take a look at another Greek theatre and the other archiological ruins.
Between Taormina and Castelmola sit two peaks holding the church of Santurano Madonna della Rocca and next to it the Castello Saraceno Monte Tauro. They dominate the view looking between the two towns and we decided that it would be jolly fun to walk to them. So earlyish this morning we set off up the stepped path. I don’t know just how many steps there were on the winding footpath but my calves tell me it was about a million!
We were rewarded with some fantastic views though particularly looking back towards Taormina and the Greek theatre in its prominent position. Unfortunately the cloud cover has been such over all the days that we have been here that it hasn’t been possible to see Etna but that’s something to wait for another year.
By the time we had made our way back down the million steps it was time for lunch. This is always a difficult meal as it would be all too easy just to nip into one of the many restaurants and have a plate of pasta leaving no room for a meal in the evening. Fortunately there is plenty of great local snack food available including the local delicacy of Arancine (on the right in the picture below).
Inspector Montalbano raves about the arancine his housekeeper makes so I was keen to try it. They are basically balls of risotto rice filled will a very small amount of filling, ragu is a popular choice – tomato, peas and mozzarilla. They are pretty good for a lunchtime snack as are the Cipollina in the middle which has ham, cheese, tomato paste and olives. You’ll have to ask Helen about the slices on the left! We once again sat in the park to eat our lunch overlooking the bay below.
Today is our last full day in Taormina before we decamp for Syracuse tomorrow.