Another beautiful day! I still can’t believe we missed Stromboli- the only bad day we’ve had. This morning we descended from our aerie one last time (with our luggage-thanks Dave and Jeri). We decided to do two last things in Taormina before we got on the road to Catania and Siracusa. We first drove to the small town of Castelmola which sits high above Taormina. The old fort at the top is a great vantage point for photos of Mt. Etna and the coastline. We then stopped at the Ancient Greek theater. The setting for this theater is spectacular with the azure water, coastline, and snow covered Mount Etna in the background. It was built in the Hellenistic period (3rd Century B.C.E.) and then rebuilt by the Romans (2nd Century A.D.) when it became a gladiatorial arena.
We left Taormina behind and headed south for Catania and Siracusa. Catania is the 2nd largest city in Sicily and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city was founded in 729 B.C.E by Greek colonists but was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and a major eruption of Mount Etna in 1669. The city was rebuilt in the 18th Century in the Baroque style with wide straight streets, a precaution against future earthquakes. Our 1st stop was the Palazzo Biscari, the largest Baroque palace in Catania. It was built by Prince Paterno Castello and work on it continued for nearly a century. It has been owned by the same family for over 400 years and we were given a private tour by one of the present descendants, Signore Moncada. The palazzo is extremely ornate, typical for this period. There is a large terrace facing the Catania Cathedral.
From here, we walked around the Catania fishmarket, the Mercato della Pescheria. There was much more than just fish. We got an eyeful of various weird fish, and body parts of various unidentifiable animals. There was also an area for fresh fruits. We decided to pass on the spatola fish and the cow entrails and get some fresh fruit for lunch. While we ate, we walked around the Piazza Duomo. In the center of the piazza is the Fontana dell’Elefante. In the basin of the fountain is an elephant made of black lava with an obelisk and globe on top. The elephant has become the symbol Catania. There had been indigenous elephants in this area a few thousand years ago, and the legend of the Cyclops in the Odyssey, may have come from the skulls that were found with a large central hole (from the trunk).
Our final destination today was Siricusa, founded circa 700 B.C.E. by Greeks from Corinth. Siricusa became a cultural, economic, and scientific center of the ancient world. It was also a cultural melting pot with people from all over the world gravitating to this area for commercial interests. We met a local guide, Antonio, for our tour of the area. The city was divided in ancient times into several areas including the Neopolis (“new city”), Achradina, Tyche, and Ortygia ( an island that was probably the initial settlement). “The New City” is not new by our standards, with the Greek Temple that dominates the area built in the 5th Century B.C.E. Famous Greek playwrights including Aeschylus premiered there plays at this theater, probably like running plays outside of New York prior to bringing them to Broadway. While we were at the theater, there was a bit of excitement. A French tourist fell (trying to take a picture- the old back up one more step joke) from one of the tiers. Initially, we thought he had a dislocated shoulder, but when the paramedics came and lifted him by his armpits, I figured he was O.K. Adjacent to the theater was the Latomie, a huge quarry from which slaves extracted millions of cubic feet of stone for use by Siracusan architects. One of the caverns, Orecchio di Dioniso (the Ear of Dionysius) is adjacent to the theater and is said to have improved the acoustics by acting as a sounding board. The quarry was also used as a prison for many years and got its name from the legend that the tyrant Dionysius was able to hear whispers of the most dangerous prisoners due to the great acoustics.
We then drove to the section of the city called Ortygia. A small bridge connects the small island of Ortygia to the Sicilian mainland. The island was colonized in ancient times due to a spring fed pool providing fresh water for humans and animals. This pool is surrounded by papyrus, important for early paper-making. There is a legend of the pool- Aratusa, the godess Diana’s nymph, swam in the the River Alfeo (½ river ½ god) against Diana’s wishes. Alfeo fell in love with Artusa immediately. Diana in a rage, turned Artusa into a pool of water and banished her to Ortygia. In order to be with her, Alfeo turned himself into a spring so that he could eternally “mix his water” with hers.
We walked from here to the Duomo (cathedral square) and went into Chiesa Santa Lucia alla Badia the church of an old convent named for Saint Lucia, a martyr that was tortured for her faith by the Romans. Inside the church is an original painting by Carabaggio, a painter from the 1600’s who was hiding out in Sicily after escaping from prison in Rome (convicted for murder).
Adjacent to Chienta Santa Lucia is the Duomo or Cathedral of Siricusa. It was built between 1728-1753 incorporating the ancient Greek Temple of Minerva from the 6th Century B.C.E. The columns from the temple formed vertical members of the exterior walls with an interior wall utilizing arches. After years as a Greek temple and early Christian church, it became a Muslim mosque, and finally the present day Baroque cathedral. It contains 13th Century font, Norman mosaics, paintings and a sarisy with choir stalls from 1489.
This evening we had plans to meet Jeanne and Michael for a puppet show and dinner and began making our way to the theater. On the way, we passed the Piazza of Archimedes. Archimedes was born in Siracusa and became the most prolific and famous mathematician and scientist 287-212 B.C.E. It took 3 years for the Romans to conquer Siracusa primarily because of one of Archimedes most famous inventions, the catapult. The Romans thought that the gods were against them because large rocks seemed to be falling out of the sky. When they finally did conquer Siracusa, they executed Archimedes. He really got screwed (that was a physics joke).
We finally got to Via Giudaica, the main street of the old Jewish Quarter. There are still remnants of the large vibrant Jewish community, and there are still 3 mikvahs (ritual baths for you non-Jews that are reading this), one of which is in a church. The Jewish community was all but eliminated by the Inquisition, but many Sicilians in this area claim Jewish roots.
Adjacent to the Teatro di Pupi is the puppet shop where Gipetto works (not really). It is the workshop that the puppets for the puppet show are crafted. I had thought about bringing one home, but the hand-made puppets start at 800 euros! The puppet show was not your Shari Lewis/Lambchop puppets. These puppets are about four feet tall and controlled from above by 3 wires. The show was in Italian but there was an English synopsis (that was undecipherable). The puppets were a lot of fun to watch, though. After the show, the 6 of us had dinner at a small restaurant in what was up until 5 years ago the red light district (there had been an army base nearby which closed and forced the hookers to move to more fertile grounds). It is going to be hard to go back to Ronzoni after all this fresh, home-made pasta.
We walked back to our hotel stopping off for some mandorla (almond) gelato. We said goodnight to Jeanne and Michael (after I gave Michael a plug converter for his camera battery charger which Jeanne forgot to pack) with plans to meet them tomorrow at the Villa del Casale in Piazza Armerina.