SICILY SURPRISES April, 2012
Returning to Marina di Ragusa March 30 with 250 pounds of food and boat essentials we were anxious to unpack it all and get out of that desolate, backwater beach town as soon as possible.
The marina is enormous. it’s a 10 minute walk just to leave it. Ten minutes more to the village along a lonely, many-miles-long seaside promenade, flanked by big empty stone houses.
The census says 4070 residents but the summer explosion would bring in 60,000 filling these quasi-mausoleums and the cookie-cutter condos beyond. 4070 residents? Hiding where? The “big supermarket’ is another 10 minutes—uphill. Monotonous fare at the 2 or 3 open restaurants, shuttered doors at all the others.
Weather—cold and crisp, sometimes downright bone-chilling. Seas—choppy and unsettled. Winds—much too fierce. All failed to cooperate with our plans to leave.
But then--lo and behold--sleepy Marina di Ragusa, so unlike bustling, exciting, sophisticated Barcelona and New York grabbed our hearts.
What was to like?
There was little to do but soak up the vastness. Air, sun and sky so pure and clear they feel newborn—and the endless aqua waves melting into an empty sand beach wipe time away, say slow down, big time.
We walked everywhere, taking more notice of everything. Every day that same theme.
There's an adorable butcher in the square with a huge, welcoming grin, almost no teeth, and a wonderful knack with a knife. Fresh, fresh chicken, rosy, pink pork chops, chunks of veal, all hacked, cut, pounded, skinned, scalloppinied while you wait patiently along with the other housewives.
In the next room his sons make sandwiches to order, and I’m talking a de Laurean not a Henry Ford sensibility. Individually, one at a time. ten-pound hams, hefty mortadellas, huge salamis, great provolone wheels come out of the meat cases--over and over again for every sandwich--never a pile of waiting anything.
Except people. At 11:30 the line of waiting local workers starts at the tiny sandwich room, moves out into the butcher shop past the waiting housewives and sometimes out the door onto the small town square.
The sons are unfazed. Every meat, every cheese is sliced onto butcher paper--5 or 6 paper-thin slices—weighed, artfully, gracefully, draped down the bread. Pepper? Individual packet, sprinkled almost daintily. Thankfully, lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard are not options, though obviously marinated most everything Italian is.
Next the men take their hard-won treasures out to the square cluster on benches almost whatever the weather--since it hardly ever rains, that’s daily.
There’s a small pharmacy, a bakery, a few restaurants, a gelateria, a tabacchi (candy/newsstand), which form the mainstay of what’s open all winter. Oh, and the café. You can plop down and have a coffee (if you get into Italian coffee, which I’ve not yet managed) or a cappuccino (which I have) and a chat, and watch their happy world go by almost any time of day. It’s the finish line of the M-W-Fri Cruiser Women’s Walk.
The slow, friendly pace of life. The happy feel of the tiny square. The greetings and meetings of a people in no hurry at all.
The tight congenial group of cruisers who spent the winter welcomed us all back into their fold. Lots of meetings, briefings, even impromptu jam sessions, and it felt much like the Caribbean.
That perfectly prosaic package of time was nearly idyllic. Moving everywhere, from anyplace to anywhere began and ended walking that quarter-mile of stone promenade lined with those fine old houses along an empty white sand beach. The wild ocean in whatever its mood, all to oneself an empty island of time to simply be.
Imagine that—the delightful unpredictability of life overwhelming our smug certainty.
After four weeks we began readying LULU
for cruising. The weather intimated she’d release us from her clutches. While
we awaited her decision, we opted for a
ROAD TRIP April 21 to 25, 2012
The sign reads “ECCETTO RESIDENTI”
But it doesn’t mean us. We’ve now been living in Italy so long we think we do live in the neighborhood. Besides as Gary says, “I’m from New York, I’m authorized,” then sachets through whatever confronts him like he’s Donald Trump.
We’re also not worrying about narrow medieval alleys because for this jaunt around eastern Sicily we didn’t rent a 9-passenger bus or a 7-passenger SUV. We’ve got a normal 4-door car—well, normal except it’s the color of a grasshopper. So how can we possibly get into trouble?
Maybe we’re overconfident since we’ve managed thus far to slither through these heart-stoppingly constricted mazes in Sicily and Spain with only one or two minor scrapes.
Of course it’s not just any lunch. We’re in Modica. And Modica is Italy’s chocolate town.
Now most people are wild about chocolate. Not me. And this Modica stuff is really weird. Comes in flavors like vanilla and orange—all right, not so weird--but also cinnamon, salt, pepper—not only black but white pepper—plus thyme, oregano and nine or ten other unrecognizable substances. Also it’s bitter, almost bituminous black, and gritty, like some five-year-old mixed it with sand. The Modica Chocolate Maestros say it’s because the sugar doesn’t quite dissolve. Still, even the chocolate lovers, Gary, Mel and Jackie, are largely unimpressed.
But what about Ravioli Stuffed with Minced Meat & Chocolate? Or Rabbit in Chocolate Sauce? Interesting, right? Especially with names like mpanatigghi and u lebru nciucculattata. (So help me! Google them yourself.)
And according to Chowhound, they’re to be found at Fattoria delle Torri at Viccolo Napolitano 14, Closed Monday. How lucky are we it’s Friday?
Except our new GPS lady can’t find Viccolo Napolitano, which is why we strayed past that unwelcoming sign. We fail to notice as we thread our way down into this ECCETTO RESIDENTI neighborhood that we see only one parked car and hardly even a bicycle around.
Soon buildings and stoops close in on us. Can we really be gridlocked in a hilly tangle of European alleys yet again? Apparently so, and not two hours away from the marina--lurching, pitching, inching, backing, folding in side mirrors and the clutch reeks of burning rubber plantation.
The Grasshopper is now a Caterpillar.
We’re giddy/hysterical and hysterically terrified.
“How much room have I got?” says Mel.
“About the width of a human hair,” says Gary.
gain maybe 8 yards and one last teeny-tiny turn…and then we’re completely
stuck. Not even a hair.
A good looking Italian appears, “Signori, you notta supposeta be inna dissa playca.”
Oh, no? Really?
Mercifully, he’s not some furioso Mafioso.
“I getta you out of here,” he tells us in hand signals, broken English and some Italian that I do understand but pretend I don’t because otherwise we would know that “ECCETTO RESIDENTI” means “New Yorkers stay the fuck out of here.”
He tells us get out of the rental car and he’ll turn it around and drive it down the hill.
We can’t wait to hand over the keys and see how he’s going to do that.
Let’s call him Carlo. So he finds his buddy, Luigi, say. Who turns out to be the owner of that one other car we passed, it seems like a month ago.
Luigi backs his car out of a favorable corner spot. Carlo jumps in the Caterpillar/Grasshopper, and, amazingly, backs it down to Luigi’s now-empty spot. There he turns it—no mean feat because we’re still talking maybe two or three human hairs, then drives right down the alley and turns quite a jaunty corner I’d have to say. We four race down after him.
“Now there’s a brand new way to steal a car!” says Gary.
But, no, Carlo is waiting down at the bottom with the Grasshopper. He wants to point out the ECCETTO RESIDENTI sign, yes, but he’s also nice enough to lead us back into Modica proper.
And you do want to know how were the mpanatigghi and u lebru nciucculattata at the Fattoria delle Torri, don’t you?
Takes us another hour and a few more alleys to find Viccolo Napolitano 14, no thanks to the new GPS Lady.
Maybe they’re renovating….
Or maybe you just can’t pull a rabbit out of a chocolate hat. Maybe chocolate belongs on top of ice cream, not inside ravioli.
For five more days we basked in Sicily’s natural beauty—aqua waters and undulating sand beaches verdant fields, mountains bursting with pink, yellow and violet spring flowers, hills blanketed in silvery olive trees, birdsong everywhere.
And gawked at some amazing feats of mankind:
monumentally conceived, intricately executed mosaics
Look really closely—these are not paintings, they are millions
of 1/4-inch ceramic squares
…even a museum filled with thousands of fantastic marionettes
But not to be outdone by their grand artistic achievements are the Italian people themselves. Genial, outgoing, noisy, optimistic.
Italians need these grand spaces because it takes about 3 times their circumference just to get their point across. Prodding, pointing, elbowing, backslapping, and of course, the finger and hand signals. If there’s a tee-shirt, I’d buy it.
Never have a people had so much to say to each other. In small villages, men who’ve known each other lifetimes gather around fountains, in parks, in cafes on church steps, yakking, schmoozing, discoursing, orating.
Italians are voluble but never mean or nasty. (Unless you cross a Corleone.) Yes they’ll honk a nanosecond after your car stalls or the light changes but we have yet to hear a voice raised in anger or a parent yell at a child.
And they’re unfailingly helpful. You can be lost as the light fades, looking for your hotel in some remote valley and if you stop at the local pizzeria, the last outpost of civilization, the owner will drop his apron, hand his French fry basket to his daughter (yes, French fries trump even pizza here--and sometimes are even found on pizza) and he’ll lead you 20 minutes into the mountains to the doorstep of the 13th century restored farmhouse you’ve been looking for.
And won’t accept a euro for his $8.00-a gallon fuel, or his time. God (or The Godfather) will reward him in this life or the next.
We sure hope so…