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Posts Tagged ‘mount etna’

Back to Ortigia

April 23-24, 2008

On the itinerary, days 3 and 4 looked good. This day, we would visit Mt. Etna in the morning, drive to Siracusa, and then meet in the early evening for a walk and dinner. The next morning we’d visit the Archaeological Park, which would leave me nicely positioned to spend the afternoon at the museum. It didn’t work out that way, as Alfio changed the schedule. The day started well, despite an early start, with a good talk and good views from the coach. But our visit to Mt. Etna itself disappointed me. The place we stopped at was mobbed, and then we just got to follow a well-worn path round the rim of a small crater. A freezing wind tried to blow us off the mountain, and only dead black ash surrounded us. Alfio had told a stirring story about a close encounter with live lava on the way up, but we didn’t see so much as a spark. Then we stopped off in Catania on the way south for a walk round the town center and a disorganized lunch stop. I did fine – I picked the closest café, shared a table and figured out the buffet system, but others had more trouble. Then, back on the bus, Alfio announced that we would tour the Archaeological Park that afternoon, instead of the next morning. This meant that the tour would include two full “free” (i.e. no activity) days instead of one. I like having some free time, but I don’t see a need to pay tour prices for too much of it.

Rosa, our local guide for the Archaeological Park, was dynamite, bringing the site vividly to life. The Greek theater was disappearing under plywood in preparation for the summer drama series, but nothing could hide the size of the quarry behind it. The Athenians who had survived the disastrous (for them) naval battle of 413 BC had been forced to work there for seven years, before ending as slaves. Rosa was so good that, when we were given the option to tour the Duomo with her that afternoon, instead of with Alfio the next morning, most of us chose to do so. While I had admired the outside of the Duomo earlier, I had saved the inside for the visit with a guide, and was not disappointed.

Since there were no activities scheduled the next day I was able to get up a bit later. The tour was staying at the Residence alla Guidecca, self-catering apartments in renovated palazzos in the heart of the old town. I had a big bedroom with a lovely double bed, a sitting room with a mini-kitchen concealed in a cupboard, and a bathroom. My rooms were dark, as they looked out onto a narrow street rather than a courtyard, and there was an easily missed step a few paces inside the bedroom door, but otherwise this would be a good place to settle in for a few days. A couple of other women on the tour were also interested in visiting the museums in the new town, so we rode the shuttle to the train station together and then shared a taxi to the Papyrus Museum (now moved to new quarters in Ortigia). Good thing it was free, as the labels were all in Italian, and there wasn’t a great deal to see. Some papyrus sheets with Egyptian hieroglyphics and a couple of canoes caught my attention, but I soon moved on to the Archaeological Museum next door.

In Naples I had been disappointed in the Archaeological Museum because part was closed for renovation. Guess what, same thing here! At least they reduced the admission charge. The prehistoric section was still open, and I found this especially worth visiting as most of the Sicilian history I had read had started with the arrival of the Greeks in the 8th century BCE. Although the Greek section was also accessible when I was there, I was still a little Greek museumed-out from my six weeks there in 2006. I was more interested to learn that Sicily had been a magnet for invaders even before the Greeks – just too tempting to resist, apparently. And then there were the dwarf elephants – I had absolutely no idea that such things had existed, never mind on Sicily (and other Mediterranean islands too, it turns out). I finished with the museum around lunchtime, and walked back to Ortigia just in time to score a panini before the shops shut for the afternoon break. I ate it under the trees on the lungomare, and then revisited the Café Minerva for coffee and cannolo.

I had not forgotten that I wanted to take a boat ride. I had mentioned it to Alfio in the hope that he might pass the message on, but no. Luckily I ran into two people from the tour who were interested, and we agreed to take a boat around the island. Our boatman doubled as a tour guide, but he spoke no English – the Italian couple sharing the boat with us were able to help out with a little translation. We had a lot of fun – getting to see the castle at the end of the island, meeting up with a scuba diver who handed up a few sea urchins, and finally sitting in the bottom of the boat as the awning came down to get us under a low bridge.

Underneath the alla Guidecca’s main building lies a surprise – Jewish ritual baths dating back to the Byzantine era. Alfio arranged a reduced admission price for the group, and most of us headed down the steep stairs to have a look at the small, deep, rock-hewn pools before dinner. The water came from an underground spring, and I couldn’t help reflecting that it was mostly women who were supposed to purify themselves in the cold water, not men.

After touring the Duomo, we didn’t reach our hotel until 7:30, with no real orientation to the island, and only a couple of vague suggestions for dinner. (Alfio was swapping the group dinner on Ortigia with two lunches later on.) I had announced my intention of eating again at Il Fermento, where I had eaten my second night on Sicily, and several people wanted to join me, so I asked Alfio to make us a reservation. When he called me to say he couldn’t get an answer, I pulled out my restaurant list for Siracusa, and headed down a little early to meet my group so I could confer with the front desk. We settled on Oinos, just round the corner at Via della Giudecca 71, where I had perhaps the best meal of the whole trip. We had to split the group, and my table of three shared appetizers – asparagus with quail eggs, and a tuna tartare sampler. Then I had Argentinian beef with Jerusalem artichokes, and got a taste from the duck breast and leg with foie gras. Everything was delicious, and the wine, a Shiraz and Nero d’Avola blend, so good it seemed a steal at 15 euro a bottle. The next night I planned to eat dinner with the same couple, after confirming that Il Fermento would be open, but in all eleven of us showed up at the restaurant. We took over a big table in the back room, and fortunately one of the men spoke some Italian, and was able to translate the message that with so many of us, and only one person cooking, it would help if we didn’t order too many different dishes. The risotto and king prawns I had had before were popular, and I gathered that the ravioli and salad were appreciated, too.

Capital from the Duomo
In Catania

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