Tuesday, May 31, 2016

An Island's Island (Part II)


Grappa & Ortigia Duomo (Former Temple of Athena)

An Island’s Island (Part II)
This story continues the previous month’s account of our visit to the island of Ortigia, only a bridge away from Syracuse on the coast of Sicily.
… Laura, a more than helpful receptionist at Palazzo Gilistro, returned with me and showed us the parking spot that I admit I’d never have found given 50 rounds of the island.  Laura then insisted on helping carry our bags back to the Gilistro.  When all was said and done, we’d arrived at our B&B with five minutes to spare before the reception staff would supposedly disappear for the night.  After being with Laura for only a few minutes, I knew she’d have stayed and waited for us.  She’d been our lifesaver.  Her helpful demeanor seemed driven by more than simply her job.  She honestly wanted to help, whatever the task or problem may have been.  As our stay in Ortigia progressed, we saw this repeated over and over.  Laura, a typical example of the people of Ortigia, appeared genuinely interested in our wellbeing. Again and again they’d go out of their way to offer assistance.  
Our bag-drag concluded, we were shown to our room.  Thankfully there was an elevator involved.  Our room overlooked Via Amalfitania from a beautiful balcony that Maria Elena soon co-oped as her perch over Ortigia by night.  I later learned that one evening she sat in vigil there until 1am, while I of course slept.  She loved this spot above a thoroughfare of activity, which even at that late hour hardly diminished.  We’d been fortunate in our choice of where to stay, for our room was actually a mini-suite – a large bedroom by Italian standards with two balconies, a living room, and an up-to-date bath. 
The entry to Palazzo Gilistro was pretty non-descript.  In fact, when I’d first tried to find it, I’d past it, even though I had its address at #12.  There was no shingle out over the street, just a simple sign beside the door, above a doorbell.  The narrow street may have explained this for a panel truck would have done in any protruding sign.  It was the owner of an enoteca, a very short trip away, just across from the entrance in fact, who showed me where it was.  Later, from Mimo, its helpful owner, we bought Sicilian chocolate, some Nero d’Avola wine, and after an assortment of enjoyable samples, a bottle of exotic Arancello Liquore di Sicilia, Sicily’s answer to Limoncello, made from the blood red oranges for which Sicily is so well known.
Palazzo Gilistro, actually a B&B, was rated number 1 of 86 hotels in Siracusa.  We figured that at least for a few days we could afford number one.  My logic was consistent with the time we’d enjoyed a gondola ride in Venice, after forgoing the experience on earlier visits.  Eventually we decided to take that costly gondola ride.  My rationalization being we could amortize it over a lifetime.  The B&B’s location was perfect, very central, and just a few steps from the fountain in Piazza Archimede and the daytime liveliness of Piazza Duomo, not to mention the tranquility of being close to the sea.

      Eager to explore our new surroundings, we made our first foray.  We found ourselves out and about in no time, under nothing less than a full April moon.  We only had to step outside to begin exploring its many piazzas, vibrant streets, and inviting alleyways.  Surrounded by an enchanting coastline of turquoise water fringed with marinas and parks, along with charming streets, their only wish that they be explored, it was easy to fall victim to the incredible array of images, colors, scents and soon to come, the tastes of this island city.

       Surprisingly, we were not tired following our long trip.  First however, we needed to relocate our rental from its hard-to-find, temporary B&B parking spot.  It was recommended that we move to the Talete Parking Lot, not far from one of the bridges to the mainland.  Luckily we’d passed it when we toured the island by accident and found it easily.  It turned out to be an unattended parking garage, actually deserted, at least at that hour.  Again we needed help.  When we entered and the crossbar rose to let us pass, a photo was taken of our license plate.  We then had 15 minutes of free parking.  Of course we learned this all later.  I initially chose a parking spot then moved once we noticed the parking ticket machine farther ahead, where it seemed all the other cars were parked.  Finally parked, we next inspected what we thought was the ticket machine.  Instructions, though in many languages as denoted by flags, were pretty cryptic.  We understood the first part.  Something about entering your license plate number, which we did, expecting to receive some sort of receipt to display on our dash.  However, when I tried to insert some coins, we couldn’t.  We tried this many times over without success.  We thought we’d been trapped, not able to stay and, due to the crossbar at the entry, unable to leave.  Things inevitably go wrong; the kinds of problems you certainly don’t experience on a bus trip!  What to do?  

Lucky for us, as we continued to fiddle with the machine, my frustration growing exponentially, a man came by to get his car.  We watched as he entered his plate number and paid the calculated fee without any problem.  He then tried to assist us and was stumped when our payment was rejected.  Only the godsend arrival of a couple, who spoke English, resolved our dilemma.  The combined pantheon of gods this island has known, whether Greek, Roman, Jewish or Christian, must have been with us that night.  It was simple, you only paid when you departed.  The camera had logged us in and only later, after at least 15 minutes, would it calculate our fee when we entered our plate number to depart.  Our Good Samaritan had assumed we were departing, when actually we’d just arrived and were yet inside our free time window.  What confusion a string of false assumptions, misunderstanding, and lousy instructions can spawn.  Casting around for a solution, we’d realized just how fleeting is mutual understanding.  Seems our second circuit of the island had turned out just about as stressful as our first.  We needed some relaxation, certainly a dose of liquid restorative, and sùbito (right away).  
By night, the streets were alive as visitors examined placards announcing the daily specials in front of restaurant after restaurant.  Mind you, in Ortigia, there are far more eateries than churches.  My hedonistic prayers had been answered!  We were on the prowl ourselves and considered many a sign hoisted on easels that we passed.  It was along Via O’Scina, a rather narrow lane, where we stopped before a frosted plate glass restaurant window; frosted just enough to restrict our view inside.  Maybe it was its hidden nature that attracted us, maybe the advertised fare.  A peek through a tiny clear patch of glass on the door revealed an inviting one room bistro crowded with customers and a few yet open tables.  Our interest piqued, in a nod of agreement we opened the door and entered.
I love this part of the story, the foodie part, the part I get to describe the carnal pleasures of our table.  We started out by enjoying a chilled bottle of local white wine, there known as ‘Albanello’. Our young waiter, Nico, suggested it from the cubed wall of cubbies just behind our
table.  In fact, calling me repeatedly ‘Mister’, he’d occasionally ask my help to pass him this or that particular bottle of wine as other customers would order.  In these cozy confines it was one way for gatekeeper me to learn the labels!  While Nico attended to our needs, it was the owner, and only the owner, who was allowed to take an order.  She eventually came by, sat with us, interpreted the menu, and answered our questions.  No culinary fusion or confusion here, the entire menu, a role model for eating well, was as you might guess, straight forward Italian. 
Since we were on the sea, we began with what else but Zuppa di Cozze, one of our favorite must haves in Italy.  As an additional starter we also enjoyed a plateful of Alici Fritte (fried anchovies) referred to as Masculini ca’cipuddaone in Ortigia.  I’m glad we asked or we’d have missed it entirely on the menu.  Both the mussels and the anchovies, while very good, fell short of our love affair for the cozze piccante and crisp alici at the Heaven Ristorante some miles down the beach from Salerno.  Next came Tagiatella a Cozze Vongole e Ciliegino in a bowl in need of sideboards.  It was a fresh pasta in a tomato slurry with more mussels, along with tiny quarter-sized sweet clams, parsley stems and garlic.  The ciliegino part of it consisted of a typical Syracuse variety of small tomatoes, freshly harvested even this early in the season..  This was followed by Tonno Rosso alla Siciliana, a healthy slab of red tuna with its Sicilian flair attributed to sweet onions and some hot peperocini flakes.  We shared in this feast on the extra plates Nico provided.  For dessert we had one Dolce O’Scina with two forks.  This was a chocolate layered cake affair with a Bronte pistachio cream custard filling.  It seems that pistachios, a product of Sicily, are found in many food items, with the intensely green Bronte variety being the most celebrated.  Finally, to mark our meal’s conclusion, our hostess served us a sweet Marsala digestivo, something different from the Limoncello we usually receive on mainland Italy following a meal’s conclusion.  After a long day, highlighted by stressful moments, this had been a truly delightful first meal in Italy.  Our dinners tucked away, we departed well sated, but there was more delight in the offing.
On our arrival at the Gilistro, we’d been given a coupon for a complimentary welcome drink at the nearby café, al Sud, which they referred to as a
‘cafeteria’.  It was in fact in the same building, just around the corner from the Gilistro, on Via Cavour, and visible from our balcony.  It was also where the B&B served their guests breakfast.  In addition to the welcoming gesture, this may have been their way of having us find it well in advance.  Leaving the restaurant we found it easily, and although it was late by then, discovered that the offer was good even hours after our arrival.  We settled in at a table just outside and were soon enjoying, you guessed it, Aperol Spritzers.  When I presented my coupon to Giovanni, one of the employees, a really nice young man, who I soon learned went by the abbreviated nickname, ‘Vanni’, I said that if a spritz was something beyond the normal arrival drink, I’d be glad to pay the additional cost.  They soon arrived and we were told there was no extra charge.  I love these people!  They certainly have a way of making you feel welcome, not that the Aperol doesn’t help.                                               Street-side at Al Sud
It was at an adjacent table, there in the street, where we first met charming Doctor Carlo Gilistro.  I’d put him in his 60s, short, with salt and pepper hair, a round face and a continuous smile that brightened his appearance and only added to his infectious enthusiasm.  I felt an affinity for him right off, but then, just about anyone would.  He turned out to be none other than the Gilistro family patriarch, a pediatrician and allergy specialist by profession.  His English was prefect and we talked there at our table in the street long into the night.  In addition to informing us we now had a third home in Ortigia, anytime we wished at Palazzo Gilistro, run by his daughter, Valeria, we learned that his other daughter, Alessandra, ran the al Sud.  It was one big family operation, and God forbid, if worst came to worst, could even cover an allergic reaction.
In Ortigia time, the evening was yet young with the city especially beautiful by night.  We strolled about and came upon the Temple of Apollo, thought to be the oldest Greek temple in Sicily, adjacent to Piazza Pancali, and later, the 1906 Fountain of Diana in Piazza Archimede with its mythical interpretation of the nymph Arethusa escaping from Alpheus.  The bathing sprays of water and the shadowy light of a full moon brought the divination of Diana near to life.  But by far, it was the Piazza Duomo that made the night.
From the square, head-on, the Duomo appears to be of typical Sicilian Baroque style, if such noble architecture can ever be described as typical.  It was while walking along one side, where the base is exposed, that we easily made out the foundation of an earlier structure.  If I have my tops correct, Doric columns rose from what we learned was a circa 480 BC Temple of Athena (Minerva to the Romans) only much later to be incorporated as part of the Cathedral’s present-day walls.  Structural remodeling and replacement of earlier deities occurred around 650 AD.  Rounding a corner, we came upon the piazza quite by accident, which only added to our surprise.  Mare loved this square, especially by night, with so few about and floodlit with light.  It was as though we were the only ones in this giant living room as we sat at a café table across from the Ortigia Duomo (see lead photo).  The entire limestone clad plaza seemed to glimmer as we sipped our evening, or quite possibly by then, early morning grappas. 

The next day, after breakfast at al Sud, with a rich history before us yet to be explored, we picked up where we’d left off, walking the streets and investigating beckoning alleyways that held inviting shops.  We expected to come upon just about anything and we weren’t disappointed.  To our surprise, much of it lay underground.
We’ve visited Israel, but even there I don’t recall ever seeing anything quite like the ritual Jewish baths (mikveh) we explored beneath Ortigia.  “There are thought to have been as many as 100,000 Jews living in Sicily before they were expelled from the island in 1492 by its Spanish ruler - and the main architect behind the Inquisition - King Ferdinand II of Aragon.” 1   These baths were unearthed in 1989 during restoration work on a medieval palazzo, today’s Residenza Alla Giudecca Hotel, once the home of a Jewish family.  Estimates date these baths at about 1500 years old.  When the Jews were forced into exile they filled the mikveh with rubble and concealed the entrance to this holy place. 
  1. “Jewish Baths”, http://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/ortigias-jewish-ritual-baths
There were just the two of us and our guide when we carefully descended 30 feet and about 100 footsteps along slippery rungs hewn from the limestone bedrock.  When we’d arrived, three
baths, flush with the floor, occupied a large vaulted chamber carved from the stone.  I felt like Indiana Jones, less the booby-traps, cobwebs, and whip - the steps had been enough.  We could still see blackened areas on the ceiling where candle soot had accumulated over the centuries.  Stone benches jutted from the walls where patrons had likely sat awaiting their turn.  Additional steps were visible leading the faithful down into the purifying waters of each chiseled bathing depression in the floor.  Their waters still flowed clear and cool, fed from a former Greek well.  Two adjacent chambers cut into the walls, one on either side of the main room, each housed an additional bath thought used by important dignitaries or perhaps those seeking extra privacy at an extra cost.  These baths are still occasionally used today.
We hadn’t finished with our spelunking adventures just yet, for this town held other subterranean secrets.  ‘Operation Husky’ was the WWII plan for the Allied invasion of Sicily.  It was to go down in history as the most dispersed amphibious assault of WWII.  One of the more important objectives of the invasion, understandably, were the ports.  To insure there was the necessary mix of light and darkness, the invasion commenced in the early hours of 9 July 1943 under second quarter moon.  Shore bombardment and battles raged throughout the night as cadres of English paratroopers, preceding an amphibious assault, fought to secure strategic points such as the Ponte Grande Bridge across the Anapo River, just outside of town.  As in past bombardments, the people of Ortigia took shelter throughout the night in air-raid tunnels beneath the city.  We got to visit this network of tunnels firsthand.

      We entered through a door close to the Duomo, paid a fee, and made our descent, this time by ourselves.  The complex apparently lay directly beneath the Piazza Duomo and worked its way toward the sea.  It was striking how well preserved this jigsaw jumble of passages and rooms, some

now restricted from entry, were.  While exceptionally orderly and clean, only echoes and ripples of the past remained behind.  Occupying many of the large open spaces were displays of Greek theatrical costumes, shields, mythical props and masks.  The head of Odysseus’ Cyclops, with a shaft in its eye, was another reminder of Ortigia’s Greek origins.  Other ‘giants’, however, were more impressive.  These were giant sized photos attached to the walls that promoted a sense of reality.  Black and white scenes of the past, from the war, when these tunnels were filled with civilians seeking shelter, covered the walls.  To add to the realism, scenes depicting the very spots where we stood brought us back to that time of war, a time when insanity became respectable.  As we moved on, the photos followed our footsteps, the backgrounds of stone and brick changed only by the faces etched in terror.  Truly, the invasion had to have been “shock and awe” on a level never before experienced by these people.

Seventy years later, the faces in these poster size photos remain their only message.  Huddled by the hundreds, cold and frightened, the imagined sounds of explosions, the sudden shakes and

vibrations palpable, the fear that at any moment the angry world above might collapse on them, all told of hardships we’ve never experienced.  The fear in the eyes of a mother, if not for herself, than for the dirty-faced child she clutched, spoke those proverbial ‘thousands words’.  Not that it made things any easier, but they appeared to be a tougher breed, lacking today’s modern comforts, which I fear ill-equip the likes of us to have survived such hardship.

Paolo in the WWII Bomb Shelter
  What would they find when they emerged?  We eventually surfaced by the marina, along Passeggio Adorno, in a garden-like setting shaded by what appeared to be Banyan trees, though I’m no arborist.  When the people of the shelters merged on 10 July 1943, the frightened inhabitants of this exhausted city found the harbor of Syracuse filled with allied ships!  Weeks later, Sicily would be the first piece of the Axis homeland to fall to Allied forces.
Syracuse and its Ortigia island suburb are not strangers to conflict and conquest.  It was during another amphibious assault, this one during the Second Punic War and lasting not a day but years, when that most famous first man of Syracuse, Archimedes was killed.  I’d first heard of him during my grammar school days.  Like hand in glove, the place and the man seemingly went naturally together.  Impressionable as I was, I could never forget the imagery of his famous words: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”  Whatever my teacher my have said after that I missed as I wondered where he would have stood!

Archimedes was born in Syracuse in 287 BC and died during the siege in 212 BC when he was killed by a Roman soldier despite orders that he should not be harmed.  During his in between years, like Galileo, he was at once mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer.  In mathematics, he cultivated concepts approaching modern calculus by entertaining the notion of smaller and smaller divisions of complex areas under curves.  Not enough, he also derived an accurate approximation of pi, calculated the area of a circle, the surface area and volume of a sphere, and created a system using exponents to express very large numbers.  He was indeed a man of irrepressible energy.
The story goes that his death resulted when he refused to accompany a soldier to meet Claudius Marcellus, the conquering Roman general.  His reason for declining … he was working on a problem involving circles that he first had to finish!  Such were his priorities.  This reminded me of a similar story, this one from WWII, told to me by a first party to the incident, of how following the discovery of a secret underground laboratory, a German scientist in the throes of a wind-tunnel experiment was dragged away from the controls screaming, “One more vun, one more vun”.  Archimedes may have had some culpability for his death, however.  History says his inventions assisted in the defense of the city.  Archimedes’ so called heat-ray or burning glass, was supposedly a series of mirrors, which when acting collectively as a parabolic reflector, could focus sufficient light to ignite the sails of approaching Roman ships.  My first bit of whimsy about the lever and where to stand put aside, I next mused a counter history as to whether his beam just may have struck that very soldier’s ship, making his a very upsetting and revenge seeking day.
If stumble upon things we must, we certainly have a habit for the serendipity at times.  It was on the second night of our stay, when we returned to al Sud once more, that we happened upon someone who, while promoting himself as a pianist, was in reality, at a minimum, a piano virtuoso if not maestro.  Antonio Canino’s ten years of formal training had included a stint at the Palermo Conservatory of Music.  Today this former school music teacher is in retirement. 
By far, his piano performances proved to be the
most memorable event of our stay in Ortigia.  Though on meeting him he appeared a humble sort, demure and unassuming, he is no tiny talent when seated at the piano. He reigned over his keyboard kingdom.  He appeared to be Carlo’s age, with a Ben Franklin style receding hairline, and a swift smile.  I felt sure that in his hands coursed the blood of a refined Van Cliburn classicist, the lilt of George Gershwin, and the fiery expressive jazz of a Dave Brubeck maverick.  He radiated passion and oozed jazz.  His hands at times moved so fast they were a blur.  I recall some of the pieces he performed like Greenfields, Maria, Porgy & Bess, even ‘rhythmy’ ragtime honky-tonk.  In a series of magical moments, people stopped in the streets, captured by his music, all from the sheet music in his head, transmitted brain to fingertips.  A thin veil separates craftsmanship from art, talent from genius.  This was one of those nights, rare as they are, when we walked right into that realization.  
It so happened there was a troupe of actors, also in attendance, whose specialty was Greek tragedy.  For us this was something unique, but this being a former Greek colony, home to the likes of Archimedes, Greek Theater must have been a common occurrence.  Greek tragedy, from its simple beginnings in honor of Dionysus, grew to eventually influence the theater of Ancient Rome and well beyond into the Renaissance.  I could imagine the masked chorus, in their upcoming performance of Electra, circling and commenting on the play’s action as Electra and her brother plotted their revenge against their mother and stepfather.  We’d unfortunately be gone by then, sure to miss the tears, gnashing and moans. They were, however, far removed from their tragic form that evening.  Tearless, they chatted with Maria Elena, enjoyed the music, and no-doubt in honor of Dionysus, the wine.
Other friends of Carlo’s stopped by.  They included the first violinist of the Sicilian Symphony, who was also a music producer and promotor.  We also met another local resident and connoisseur of the arts, Francesco Rio.  He described himself as a simple barrister yet his attainments spoke higher of him.  He’d worked for the Economist Group, then Fiat, and was fluent in four languages in addition to his native Italian.  Following his years in England, he spoke as though he was a native Brit, especially when he invoked expressions like ‘brilliant’ and ‘daft’.  At the moment, as a testament to a never-too-late attitude, he was taking piano lessons from Antonio. 
Still a proclaimed amateur, he said he “does everything for love”.  To know them now, our new Ortigian friends seem almost like characters, not in some Greek tragedy, but as Francesco hinted at, a greed for the good of life.  It was a beautiful sight for strangers like us in a foreign land, with hugs and kisses like they were all family, speaking with a play of their hands like potters at their wheels.  It was evident that at the al Sud you’d never have to face nightfall alone.
By next morning, it was time to depart convivial Palazzo Gilistro and 2500 years of Ortigian history for another slice of Sicily.  This had been a place in alliance with the past, fascinating to visit, wonder and explore.  In keeping with its laid-back, unscripted atmosphere, you needn’t a particular plan in mind - no schedules, only desires.  It had fit my idea of an island rather well, since it is relatively small - a little over a third of a mile wide by approximately 0.6 of a mile long.  We’d gotten that impression when we unintentionally orbited the island the day of our arrival.  With a cosmopolitan blend of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Jewish cultures,      Antonio and Carlo
it once rivaled Athens.  Today, for those of us interested in experiencing Southern Italy, here is a place that just might rival the big named places of mainland Italy.  An island’s island indeed, and per Doc Carlo’s kind words, OUR OTHER HOME. 

From That Rogue Tourist