Monday, October 7, 2013
Yesterday, we relocated from Palermo to Catania, Sicily's second largest city, situated on the eastern coast of the island. On the way, we stopped in Cefalù, a pretty beach town along the northern coast. A rainstorm cleared the beach and curbed our venturing down souvenir shop-laden streets. So, we proceeded to the Villa del Casale, a fabulous 3rd-4th century estate, that had been covered in mud until the 19th century, located outside Piazza Armerina, a town near the center of the island. The villa was the home of a major Roman venture capitalist, who apparently went into witness protection once his prevarications became known. However, his ill-gotten gains did not go entirely up his nose or towards the purchase of gilded chariots. Essentially every floor of this expansive residence is covered with beautiful mosaics, ranging from pure geometrics in working areas to elaborate, hundred-foot long hunting scenes in public spaces. On the whole, the art is remarkably intact, preserved by the mud, and certainly worth the side trip crossing the island.
While Catania is a busy urban setting, we found a free parking space directly in front of our hotel, so we only had to step outside this morning to drive to Mt. Etna, the most famous geographic feature of Sicily. We drove 30-40 minutes up the mountain to a large staging area where individual travel ends. There, I thought that a choice of rugged vehicles, e.g., Land Rovers or Jeeps, carried you to the top. Not the case. From the staging area you have to take a six-passenger cable car to a higher staging area. Then, mini-buses with a guide aboard drove to and around the still-active volcano's rim. At least, that's what I'm told took place, because in the continuing war of Grandpa Alan vs. the environment, the environment won again, as it had at Erice, where I felt that I had encountered the inspiration for Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven." Now, as we stood waiting to get into a swaying cable car for a ride up the mountain, I heard my heart telling me that we will part company if forced to hang hundreds of meters (when in Rome) above the lava-filled slopes. So, while my adventurous head yearned to reach the top, my chicken heart kept me on the ground. Fortunately, I had the latest issue of the New Yorker with me and I sat in the car reading about Philip Roth, Egyptian preachers, the breaking of the NSA spying story and other matters usually paid little attention on the slopes of Mt. Etna.
Our hotel is near the center of Catania's business and entertainment area, but is firmly embedded in a semi-motley residential neighborhood containing many modest restaurants. We've had two dinners so far, from menus that were quite similar, yet with a notable distinction from Palermo's cuisine. Catania seems to be Sicily's center of horsemeat consumption. Not only did the two restaurants that we visited offer horsemeat chopped, grilled, in sausages, and meatballs, but many others that we passed had horsey names or signs announcing horsemeat dishes (carne equine). In case you are wondering, I stuck to pasta, veal and sea food, which was no more daring than what my companions ate.
Tuesday, October 8, 2012
We drove the one hour or so to Siracusa (Syracuse), one of the most historic cities in Italy, which, even as I write it, I realize is as stupid as saying that LeBron James is one of the tallest players in the National Basketball Association. They're all freaking tall. It really doesn't matter at a certain point to compare the height of one professional basketball player to another. Every inch of Sicily seems historic, so let's leave it that we went to Siracusa. Before leaving the good old USA, I had arranged for a guide to show us around for the afternoon. However, the booking agent was very slow and imprecise in his communications. He did arrange for our informative Palermo guide, but his promised message about the Siracusa guide only appeared at our hotel desk just before we left to drive to Siracusa. He instructed us meet Attilio in front of the Santuario Madonna della Lacrime. The Santuario turned out to be a beautiful, modern church, shaped like a cone, about 260 feet tall, which could be seen from almost anywhere in the city. We arrived in Siracusa about 2 hours early, so we walked about, had a snack and waited in front of the Santuario.
About 2 PM, the appointed hour, Jill got a text message that the guide is waiting for us at the roundabout in front of the church. So, Steve and I walked back to the circle skirting the building and looked around, which is very easy anywhere in Sicily around 2 PM because the siesta seems to still be the modus operandi for the average Sicilian, leaving the streets quite empty. Empty included no Attilio. We walked back and called the person, not Attilio himself, who sent the text message. He gave us a story about losing phone contact with the guide and told us to drive to some other spot to look for him. I took the mobile phone, and living up to my nickmame of "High Dudgeon," told this middleman that we were at the right place at the right time and he had five minutes to produce Attilio. In a couple of minutes, a slightly-bedraggled man, dressed in black, with blondish dreads, approached us. I got up and said "Attilio?" "Si," he responded. When I told him how happy we were to see him, at last, he said that his English wasn't so good, but he spoke French and German. Concerned, I repeated, "Attilio?" "Si, Italiano." Then, he asked me for 50 euro cents, which I quickly gave him and wished him bonna fortuna in his future endeavors.
With that, we decided to use the street map which we picked up from a very friendly, older gentleman named Armando, who operates a travel agency on via Luigi Cadorna that we walked by, and make our own tour. We circled the church and turned down a main street that would lead us to some important archaeological ruins. Just then, a man in a straw fedora called to us, and asked if we were looking for the catacombs. No, but are you Attilio, by any chance? Indeed, he had been directed to the back of the Santuario, while we were waiting in front. After that rocky start, we got along swell and spent about 3 1/2 hours together retracing the essentially invisible footprints of Jewish life in Siracusa centuries ago.
I certainly don't take vacations abroad to check out television coverage, but, I've found that in those parts of Asia, the Middle East, Western and Eastern Europe that I've visited, you can expect to find BBC World, CNN International and possibly Sky TV, Bloomberg, or CNBC broadcasting in English, maybe even American English. But, it was not to be in the Liberty Hotel, rated #1 in Catania, otherwise offering exemplary service, but not English language television programs. Trawling through the 100 or so available channels, English could be heard only on some music videos. The best that I could find, and it was pretty good after a fashion, was a live broadcast of the Sunday night Denver Broncos/Dallas Cowboys football game entirely in Italian. Since that game started about 11 PM Sicily time, I did not stay up until the end, but I was heartened the next day to learn that Dallas lost, which is all the pleasure that I can find in professional football now with the Giants losing their first five games of the season so far.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
By any measure, this was the best day of our trip, although the last, usually a time of deflation in anticipation of the return to normal. However, we drove to Taormina, the very popular town perched high over the Mediterranean, about 30 miles north of Catania. Within moments of arriving and leaving the car, as tourists must, at a garage below the top, you face beautiful sights from the high elevation. Then, despite the presence of hordes of tourists and the shops only they would enter, you are won over by the utter charm of the narrow streets and alleys. In fact, an occasional left or right turn takes you into quieter residential areas where even some real people live. Through good coincidence, Jill knew a shopkeeper who directed us to Trattoria Don Ciccio, via Damiano Rosso 19, an excellent restaurant, steps away from the crowds, where we sat outdoors and had the best meal of our vacation, so far. I had fish carpaccio, thin slices of raw tuna, swordfish and octopus, dressed lightly with olive oil, and then tagliatelle with mushrooms in a creamy, cheesy sauce, not overly thick, full of flavor.
Back in Catania, Francesca, the charming desk clerk, recommended Ciciulena, via Antonio di Sangiuliano 207, for dinner. Even as she did so, another hotel guest, a friendly Brazilian, who had been there for lunch, eagerly endorsed her choice. We could not have done better for our last dinner in Sicily. Ciciulena, meaning sesame seed, aims quite successfully to update Sicilian cuisine. We ate outdoors, but not on the sidewalk. Eight tables are set out on via Sant’Orsola, which remains open to traffic until about 8 o’clock, providing a not-entirely comfortable breeze as cars and motorbikes rush right behind you. I ate only beef carpaccio dressed in a light, orange-infused oil, over greens. As good as it was, and in spite of the raves from my more anhedonic companions about their food, I had nothing more, because I was still pretty full from lunch, and I made a solemn oath to end the evening with gelato. Francesca had also recommended Scardaci Ice Café, via Etnea 158, and she got it right again, as I managed to have tre gusti, three flavors.
Thursday, October 10, 2013
Yesterday, on the way to Taormina, we passed the exit to the airport about 15 minutes after leaving the hotel. Today, after 45 minutes, America’s Favorite Epidemiologist and I (Jill and Steve had left for an earlier flight to Naples), found ourselves about three blocks from where we started. I stopped frequently for directions (that’s how desperate I was) because the GPS became dysfunctional with separation anxiety. I had to stop frequently, because every friendly Sicilian said straight ahead, which meant that every several blocks I ran into a pedestrian-only zone or the street reversing direction, one way against me. The ample time to catch our 11:45 AM flight was swiftly dwindling down to a precious few minutes. Again I pulled to an abrupt halt and asked a very distinguished, mustachioed gentleman, wearing a handsome gray suit and carrying a briefcase, for directions. Good luck, bad luck. He was a senior police officer, but he didn’t speak English. “Momento, signor,” he said, as he walked back into the guarded compound he had just emerged from. I became impatient as I waited for him to return, especially as I saw, for the first time, a sign that said Aeroporto right in front of us. Just before I drove off, he came walking back, but I tried to wave him off, pointing to the sign in plain sight. “No, signor,” he said with a sad shake of his head, “indicazioni sono deficiente.” I got the message without benefit of translation. He handed me a ticket, a receipt from a parking facility, and pointed to the guarded gate of whatever we were in front of. I drove up and a uniformed officer opened the gate and told me, in reasonable English, to drive through this secured area, even as he was describing, in Italian over his phone, my car and its strange driver. Okay, what else could we do? I drove for a couple of minutes to the other end, where a man listening on his phone accepted the ticket, opened the gate and pointed up the main road outside. Boom! Aeroporto! Right down the road. I dropped my young bride at the terminal and spent a few more harrowing minutes getting back to the rental car return, but I got to Alitalia check-in with time to spare.
The flights were pleasant and comfortable, which was a blessing because we were in the air about 9 hours total. Which leads me to a confession. During the long transatlantic leg, I spent 100 minutes watching “Parental Guidance,” with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. After several hours reading and doing crossword puzzles, I felt very tired, but could not fall asleep. So, I chose a movie that promised to be free of car chases and/or warring robots. Almost one-third of the movie was worth watching, contrasting the tightly-wound parenting style of a young family against the loosey-goosey approach of the grandparents, Billy/Bette. What intrigued me most was a brief scene where the grandparents, left alone with the three children, play Kick-the-Can, or what they called Kick-the-Can. I played Kick-the-Can, and certainly not in a well-manicured suburban backyard, but I could not, and still cannot, remember the rules.
What many of you may not realize, having been deprived a childhood on the streets of Brooklyn, was that our games had Rules, and I mean RULES. Whether stoop ball, Three Feet Over Germany, or pitching pennies, we did not act randomly, slogging through some meaningless universe, waiting for the Sun to heat up and burn the Earth to a crisp. We had RULES, and, well before his Bar Mitzvah, a boy made his rite of passage by mastering them. In fact, I am certain that so many of my young friends, neighbors and relatives grew up to be either lawyers or professors because of their time spent learning and explaining the RULES.
Friday, October 11, 2013
Up at 3:30 AM, ready to face another exciting day in Sicily where it is 9:30 AM. That gives me time to comment briefly on a article that several of you sent me while I was away, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/09/science/ashkenazi-origins-may-be-with-european-women-study-finds.html?emc=eta1&_r=0. It deals with the ancestry of Eastern and Central European Jews, the Ashkenazi, my tribe. DNA testing has established, with reasonable certainty, that “the women who founded the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Europe were not from the Near East, as previously supposed, and reinforces the idea that many Jewish communities outside Israel were founded by single men who married and converted local women.” In other words, many of us are descendants of Hymie Hebrewseed.