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Posts Tagged ‘caltagirone’

April 25-26, 2008
Now we left the east coast behind us and drove through the inland hills to Piazza Armerina for two nights in an agriturismo. The next day would star the mosaics of Villa Casale – one of my absolute must-see sights on Sicily (I just love mosaics). I looked forward to the agriturismo, too – not the kind of place you get to stay at if you only use public transport. Before we left Siracusa, though, Alfio had added a visit to the recently opened WWII bomb shelters near the Duomo. As shelters go, these weren’t at all bad, cleaner and less claustrophobic than the London tube, for sure. Originally caves, they featured a big cistern for water.

I had been a little concerned that our lunch stop might have been Noto: instead it turned out to be Caltagirone, which I had really wanted to see, but had thought too far for a day trip from Siracusa. Ceramics have been produced there for over a thousand years, but I didn’t want to shop, I wanted to see the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, 142 wide steps leading up to the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Monte , each riser faced with hand-decorated ceramic tiles. And indeed, while the plates and vases in the shops were a little florid for my taste, the tiles were just right – birds and flowers and lions and horses and geometric shapes, each riser different. Before releasing us to find lunch, Alfio took us to see a huge “nativity”” (presepe in Italian). Think of a model railway layout, but without the railway and with the nativity scene as the centerpiece. This one occupied most of a church, and included numerous tableaux of people going about their daily lives – fixing meals, gathering firewood, catching fish.

Again, we were given only sketchy directions for places to eat. I headed straight for La Scala, listed in Lonely Planet and actually on the Scalinata, but they were only offering a tourist menu at 25 euro. I should mention that April 25th was a holiday, Liberation Day, both celebrating the end of WWII in Italy, and commemorating the war dead. On a different day I would expect to find a regular menu. Unfortunately, many places were closed because of the holiday, and I wasn’t having much luck when I ran into a couple from the tour looking equally hungry. Then I took another look at Lonely Planet and we found Non Solo Vino, almost hidden up a staircase, where I enjoyed an excellent piece of swordfish with fennel and orange. Apparently the antipasto buffet and spaghetti with clams were also good.

We couldn’t linger over lunch, though, as we were supposed to meet up with the group for a pottery demonstration. This was where I realized that one pottery demonstration is really much like another – I would have done better to visit the ceramics museum. I didn’t have time for that after the demonstration, but I did abandon the shoppers, which let me spend a little time in Caltagirone’s pretty public gardens, and take a quick peek at a religious festival that seemed to center on the cloak of S. Francesco di Paola.

We were staying at Torre di Renda for two nights, and ate dinner there both nights. My room, a double, was small enough I wondered where two people would put their luggage, and again I didn’t have much of a view. There were great views available however, looking across a valley to Piazza Armerina. I thought dinner good but not great – stronger on quantity than quality. The antipasto, as usual in Italy, was good, the pasta just OK (although since I’m not really a pasta fan, maybe I’m not a fair judge), then we had tough pork as well as tasty rabbit and potatoes. Dessert included both cake and tiramisu. Turned out that a group of 27 made unrealistic demands on the agriturismo’s hot water supplies, and some on this tour weren’t up to the challenge. Faced with the choice of a cold shower, getting up earlier or showering in the afternoon, I picked the latter, but I did miss my morning shower.

This trip had already included museums closed for renovation, and now the Villa Casale, one of my main reasons for coming to Sicily, was also partially closed for renovation! True, renovation is a good and necessary thing, (very necessary in the case of the Naples museum), but I was beginning to feel I had chosen the wrong year for the trip. I do hope that renovation at the Villa includes a new roof – the current monstrosity makes it very hard to take decent photographs, and must turn the place into a sauna in the summer. Still, the Villa is huge, and although some of the most famous mosaics were covered, I had plenty to admire. Built in the early fourth century, probably as the manor for a large estate, it survived the invasions of the Vandals and the Visigoths, and later the Arabs, but was buried by a landslide in the twelfth century, and remained hidden until the 1900s. The UNESCO listing for the site says simply: “the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world”. Just stunning. While the “bikini girls” may be the most famous, a long procession of wild animals is even more arresting (it’s thought that the Villa’s owner may have traded in wild animals). In all, 37,000 square feet of mosaics await the visitor.

Almost anywhere would be an anticlimax after a morning at the Villa Casale, but Piazza Armerina wasn’t bad. I made a quick getaway from the group to be sure I could buy a panini before the shops shut. With a happy hour and another large meal scheduled for the evening I wanted a light lunch, which I ate on a bench across from the duomo. Exploring the town afterwards, I found several people from the group in a nice-looking trattoria, and was invited to join them for coffee and dessert. Heading back to the coach we walked into the first rain I had encountered since Herculaneum back on April 15th – and hail as well – but it cleared by the time we reached the agriturismo. Now, later in the year, I imagine people would spend the afternoon at the pool, but not in April. I admired the views, I went for a walk among the wildflowers and I caught up on my journal, but it was definitely a slow afternoon.

In contrast, the evening was lively. We all showed up with contributions for happy hour (I took olives, from the same alimentari as my lunchtime panini), and then took turns introducing our “buddy”. RS tours have everyone pair up on the first day and then check that our buddy is present when otherwise the guide would need to count heads. (Turns out that “buddy” is a dirty word in Sicilian!) I tried to graze sparingly on the assorted goodies, but getting through four courses after happy hour was a bit difficult. We had the usual mixed antipasto, followed by another pasta Norma, meat and very mediocre spinach, and my favorite cannoli.

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