Saturday, April 30, 2016

An Island's Island (Part I)

Ortigia by Night

An Island's Island (Part I)

As the wheels lifted from the runway, followed quickly by the clank of the gear locking in place and then as the screeching screw-sound of the retracting flaps came to an end, I knew at long last we were on our way.  In the Airbus-330 cockpit, green lights confirming these events had illuminated, while back in coach I flashed a thumbs-up and a smile to Maria Elena.  Just as the pilot had passed that point on the takeoff roll where he could safely abort and had decided to continue, so too we were now committed, destination Italy.  While it would definitely be Italy, our initial destination, this trip, would be the island of Sicily.
Greeks began their settlement of Southern Italy in the 8th century B.C. by colonizing, among other places, coastal Sicily.  Their entire westward migration across the Mediterranean and eventual settlement came to be known as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece).  As a result, Sicily has an especially heavy Greek influence beginning with the symbol for the island province itself, an odd shaped caricature called the Trinacria.
The Trinacria is composed of the head of Medusa, a Gorgon, whose hair is entwined with serpents and the stalks of wheat and from which radiate three legs bent at the knee.  The wheat is
symbolic of the fertility of the land which once helped feed Rome, while the three running legs represent the three promontories of Sicily – to the northeast, Cape Peloro near Messina, a southern leg at Cape Passero near Syracuse, and near Marsala, the western support of Cape Lilibeo.  Fittingly, Trinacria is derived from the Greek words treis (three) and akra (capes).  Now there I go sounding like Gus Portokalos from the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, spray bottle of Windex in hand and stickler for his insistence that all words are derived from Greek.

A More Modern Trinacria
We’d been to Sicily several times in the past.  Those visits had unfortunately been hurried and intentionally short lived for they had been associated either with our arrival or our departure from Italy.  Whichever the direction, we’d been eager to get on to our destination - home to Calitri or home to the States.  This time we would intentionally not rush to get to Calitri.  Instead we would relax, and in circling the island get to know new places and hopefully new people.  Of course we had a final destination in mind, but it is what we imagine and then experience along the way, the in-between, that is all part of the pleasure of travel.  As to pleasure, there was even more going for us to make this trip enjoyable - we were aboard an Alitalia flight all the way, first to Rome and then on to Catania on the eastern coast of Sicily.
Ours was a late departure.  Instead of the more routine 7 or 8 pm takeoffs, ours was at 11 pm.  Once aboard, we quickly realized that our aircraft, an Airbus 330, was less than full.  So much so in fact that I was able to cross from my isle seat to the center section that still had four open seats.  Though still uncomfortable, it did allow us enough room to get some sleep.  But before we napped, we were served dinner.  For a long time I’d looked forward to the dinner service along with all the Italian wine I could absorb on the flight over, but at this late hour we didn’t know what to expect.  Dinner at midnight?  Surprisingly even at the late hour we were still served dinner.  It however fell far short of my expectations.  Disappointedly it turned out to be nothing special, simply the familiar airline cart food of chicken or pasta.  Boy had things changed.
To complicate matters further, we were informed that Italian air traffic controllers were set to observe a countrywide strike on 20 April.  The strike had been called due to what else but an ongoing wage dispute.  A four-hour work stoppage was anticipated, just enough to disrupt operations and trigger flight cancellations.  Although it was scheduled a day before our departure, aircraft could be scattered.  Authorities, whom Italians always seem to refer to as “competent authorities”, as though others among them were of lesser competence, even incompetent, hoped to implement contingency plans to minimize the effect of the work stoppage.  As is sometimes the case, it must be noted that scheduled aviation strikes are frequently announced and then cancelled on an ad hoc basis.  We had our fingers crossed this would be one of those ad hoc occasions.
On the day of our departure, even the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) got into the act.  I had anticipated this because of the odd contents in one of our suitcases and had included a note of explanation just beneath the zipper flap.  It held a bizarre number of items ranging from an electric heating pad, maple syrup bottles, baking powder, books, assorted wires, and most suspiciously, a tubular Bluetooth speaker the size of a Quaker Oats oatmeal container that just begged to be looked at more closely once scanned.  It must have rung some warning bells for when later, following our arrival, we opened this suitcase, a notice from the TSA stated, “TSA is required by law to inspect all checked baggage.  During inspection, your bag and its contents may have been searched for prohibited items.”  They definitely had.  It was apparent.  Even the vacuum shrink bags we use had been opened. 
But by far, the only inconvenience that occurred, among all that could have occurred, was a delay in our departure from Rome to Catania, Sicily.  The Alitalia flight was an hour late getting off.  The slowdown, however, was due to the boarding staff in Rome, not to their flight controller compatriots, who toyed with paperwork and their computers seemingly forever before allowing passengers, to our surprise patiently waiting in line, to board.  But then again maybe this is normale because hurry doesn’t exist here.  The only advantage it offered was more than enough time for us to renew our Italian cellphone plan, for there was a Vodaphone office just across from our boarding gate. 
Finally arrived at the Catania Airport and grateful that our luggage had also materialized, we got our car without too much difficulty and were soon away.  Our first stop would be Siracusa (Syracuse), a place we’d always wanted to visit, yet hadn’t.  The nearby sea, the food, the Nero d'Avola wine (similar to a New World Shiraz), its picture-window into living history, the tranquil leisure of a table by the sea, all these and still more would root us in the truest of Sicilian atmosphere.  But first we had to get there.
We were already on an island, Sicily, but soon after arriving in Siracusa, we crossed a causeway onto another island, an island’s island, this one named Ortigia, apparently after a local bird that we commonly refer to as a magpie.  As expected, this ancient
city is not convenient for automobiles.  In fact, the area of Ortigia is designated a Limited Traffic Area, normally reserved just for residents.  Margaret, our GPS, got us to the Ponte Santa Maria leading onto the island of Ortigia and the ancient historic center from greater Siracusa without difficulty, but not much farther. 
Shortly after crossing the bridge onto Ortigia proper, we came upon the traffic lights of the Limited Traffic Area.  If the light happens to be red, the island is apparently full, seemingly threatening to sink under the added weight.  Red being the international signal to stop and this being Italy, we knew someone or some camera had to be watching us, even if it turned out to be some next-day attendant reviewing stored camera photos.  From costly experience, sometimes as much as a year after returning from Italy, we've been surprised to receive a pricy traffic ticket by mail all the way from Italy, all due to a camera photo that captured my maleficence.  Down a sensa unico (one way) street before I knew what senso unico even meant was my dumbest offense.  We pressed on to the hotel anyway, sure to inform the receptionist of the color of the lights.  The only hope of a reprieve being to provide “competent authorities” with our license plate number so it could be passed on to the local police and thereby avoid a fine for "improper transit”.  Maybe the idea was to somehow arrive by boat!
Since our hotel was in a central location, just a few steps from the Duomo, it inevitably involved the inconvenience of finding somewhere to park. Once across the bridge, we were looking for a particular parking spot, a needle in the haystack, a single slot reserved for guests of Palazzo Gilistro, our home for a few days.  Since the streets were one-way due to their narrowness, once we missed it the first time, we had to orbit the entire island before getting a second chance at finding it.  Hesitate for just a few moments, the exact duration determined by the driver behind us, in the single lane of traffic and we’d earn a steady horn blast.  On the second lap, realizing I probably wouldn’t be any more successful that time around locating the “needle”, I squeezed over by the entrance to the B&B’s no-autos-allowed street and headed in on foot while Maria Elena stayed put in case the police came by.  What she would have done is pure speculation but I’m sure she would have been able to hold them off until I returned.  It was about then that the friendliness of these island people first emerged.


From That Rogue Tourist,