Sojurn in Sicily: Our First Excursion

Wednesday, April 3, 2013. We’ve decided to start slowly, close to home, rather than rushing out to see Sicily’s most famous sights all at once. Jet lag being what it is, and lingering on our terrace in the warm sunlight with morning coffee (espresso and hot milk) being so enjoyable, we don’t get out of the house until about 10:30 a.m.

Our first destination is the center of Acitrezza, which is too small a fishing village to have anything that could really be called a “downtown.” There are a couple of streets of shops and a plaza where mostly men hang out, as well as a big church or two. Several restaurants line the road that runs along the marina, and the town’s main tourist attractions are the Faraglioni (Islands of the Cyclops), eight or so steep islands not far offshore, a couple of them almost conical. In “The Odyssey,” Homer says they’re the boulders that Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus and his companions as they were escaping.

The setting for Giovanni Verga’s novel, “Malavoglia” (“The House by the Medlar Tree”), Acitrezza also has a place in the hearts of film buffs (like Fred). Luchino Visconti’s 1948 classic, “La terra trema” (“The Earth Trembles”), based on Verga’s novel, was shot here using all local residents rather than professional actors. I tried to watch the DVD before leaving home, but the version I got didn’t have English subtitles, and I gave up halfway through. The town has a two-room museum, Museo Casa del Nespolo, devoted to the movie, but it was just closing as we got there, so Fred went back alone on our last day in the area. Anyway, the museum was problematic for me because it was up a flight of steep, irregular steps.

Because I use a wheelchair, I was interested in finding out how accessible (or not) places are in Sicily, which isn’t exactly known for being wheelchair-friendly. Everywhere we go, we find efforts at accessibility, some better than others. In Acitrezza, we see a few big “ramp” signs, but it turns out they just mark the locations of curb cuts. On the other hand, when Fred leaves me in front of some church steps for a few minutes, several people rush over and offer to carry me up, wheelchair and all.

The most accessible place we find is Isola del Dolce, a spacious pastry shop and café that specializes in flavored macaroons. Before continuing on to Catania, we fortify ourselves with a few cookies and a couple of espressos, but the best sweets we sample are the mini cannoli the owner brings us on the house. They’re freshly filled with tangy, creamy ricotta that surpasses most we’ll have on the trip.

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We arrive in Catania without a city map, so we follow the signs to “Centro.” lways follow the signs to the center and/or the cathedral, especially in smaller towns– but are sidetracked slightly by a huge, important-looking building. It’s the Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolo l’Arena Catania, the Benedictine Monastery of Catania, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and now home to the University of Catania‘s humanities department. The information office near the entrance provides us with a map, a descriptive list of highlights and directions to the elevator at one end of the complex. Heading there means we miss the monumental staircase with its ten stucco bas reliefs, but we later double back to see it.

Built on Monte Vergine Hill, which apparently was inhabited as early as 3000-2800 B.C., the monastery was started by Benedictine monks in 1558, but the plan was modified after a lava eruption in 1669 knocked out the church in the northwestern section. Unfortunately, during reconstruction the big earthquake of 1693 destroyed most of the monastery, and it wasn’t until 1702 that the monks returned to rebuild again. Several famous architects took part, but fast forward to 1866, and the state appropriated the whole thing.

We’re not there at guided-tour time, so we spend half an hour or so roaming the hallways, peaking at the gardens out the cloister windows and watching students do what students do. I’m a little sorry about missing the kitchen, the main dining hall with its ceiling fresco and the enormous Church of San Nicolo l’Arena (which is closed), but it’s already mid-afternoon and time to move on.

Once we locate the Piazza del Duomo and find parking not too far away, we head over to the cathedral only to discover that it doesn’t reopen (after lunch) until 4 p.m. We have about an hour until then and spend it checking out a place we saw on our walk to the cathedral square: the archaeological complex of Catania’s Theatre and Odeon.

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Past a modern entryway and small museum filled with artifacts found at the site is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen: a Roman theater excavated right in the middle of the city, with buildings from recent centuries looming all around. Built in the first century A.D. on the site of an existing Greek theater, it was renovated in the second century A.D. and probably started declining in the sixth and seventh centuries until, by the Middle Ages, it was covered with houses, then pretty much destroyed by the 1693 earthquake. As many as 7,000 spectators once flocked here for plays and water games, and two elevated wheelchair ramps built out over the ruins give me a real sense of what it was like, while Fred climbs the stepped terraces and explores the dark corners. He also goes to see the 1,500-seat Odeon used for musical performances, poetry contests and rehearsals, but I have to wait until later to get a glimpse of it from the outside.

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Marble and stone from columns stripped from the Roman theater went into Catania’s cathedral, which is dedicated to the city’s patron, St. Agatha, and was started in 1078 on the site of the Roman baths. Thanks to fires (1194), earthquakes (1169, 1693) and other acts of nature, it was reconstructed and renovated many times in a variety of styles. The side entrance, through the tranquil gardens, is wheelchair accessible, and ramps up to important chapels help us see the notable art works and tombs of royalty.

We make two more stops before starting home. The first is at I Dolci della Nonna Vincenza, an old-fashioned bilevel pastry shop on a small square behind the cathedral. It’s famous for its biscotti and other sweets made from almond paste, and we buy half a dozen or so to go. Next we find the Teatro Massimo Bellini and arrange for tickets to “Giselle” on April 9, the only performance during our stay. I’m a firm believer in attending concerts in other cities; it’s a wonderful way to feel more like a traveler than a tourist.

On the way back to Acitrezza, we stop for dinner in Aci Castello at an inexpensive little seaside restaurant I read about called non solo pizzeria da baffa. It’s only 6 p.m. so the place isn’t very crowded, and reservations don’t seem to be necessary. The highlight is the antipasto table, priced by the server who eyeballs how much you pile onto a small plate. We try a little of almost everything: spinach souffle, roasted peppers, grilled eggplant and peppers, cauliflower with cheese and at least a dozen other items, and it comes to 7 euros. Al dente spaghetti with mixed seafood and cherry tomatoes in a simple olive oil sauce is the better of our two main courses. The flat half pizza with a reddish pesto disappoints, seriously. It tastes re-warmed. With bottled water, a small carafe of the house red wine (chilled) and the 1.50 euro per person cover (for a basket of rolls), the entire tab is 34 euros, roughly $44. Not bad for the money, but I wouldn’t go again – except possibly for the antipasti.

Our apartment is very chilly by the time we get home (no central heating), and unfortunately, we blow out the electricity by trying to use all three space heaters at once. Flipping the circuit breakers doesn’t fix it, and we can’t reach Marco, so we spend the rest of the evening by the light of two candles, which isn’t as romantic as it sounds. Marco comes the next morning and fixes the problem. I make a mental note: Bring a flashlight (or two) wherever you go.

Photos by Fredric Swanson