Postcard from Malta: Side by Side by Side

(This is a 5- to 6-minute read.)

One’s impossible, two is dreary/Three is company, safe and cheery.” –– Steven Sondheim, from the musical Company, “Side by Side by Side”

I went to Malta with my friends Larry and Gerri. Whenever I say their names together like that, it sounds to me as though I’m talking about a cartoon duo. And when you’ve gotten to know your friends well over the years, they start to seem––as do family––a bit like cartoons of themselves: you’ve seen enough episodes that you know how they’ll behave in most situations.

I’ve been “the third” to many couples in my life. I don’t recall ever feeling like “a third wheel.” If anything, I felt like a welcome distraction. I agree with Sondheim––two can feel like an inescapable rut. I’m often quite content as one, but traveling is best enjoyed with others, I think. I like the fluidity of the dynamics among three––it’s a constantly shifting two-to-one that always seeks a new balance.

I think of our trip to Malta less as a cartoon, though, and more as a favorite episode of The Three Stooges, with a title like one of their highest-rated episodes––”They Stooge to Conga.” Occasionally, figuratively, we smacked each other upside the head, but more often than not, we cracked ourselves up. Larry composed a little ditty, which befits the Stooges comparison:

We three 

We happy three 

We sainted, untainted yet scrappy three 

We’re e’er do wells 

Not ne’er do wells 

We’ve been to Malta, can’t you tell?

Relax, Cole Porter, I think your legacy is safe. But Larry is particularly proud of “e’er do wells,” and you have to admit it’s clever to describe a trio of swells like us. (Personally, I think Cole would have gone for the anti-grammatical rhyme of “can’t you tells?”)

Larry, Gerri, and a midget accordion player at D’Office Bistro, Valletta
Larry and Gerri under a streetlight, examining a statue of the Archangel Michael on the corner of our hotel’s street in Old Valletta.

The first major sight we saw in Malta was the Lascaris War Rooms. Malta was among the most heavily bombed places in Europe during World War II. These were the underground headquarters of the British forces on Malta, from which they tracked incoming enemy bombers.

Our guide was… let’s say… a “generously midriffed” Englishman (not that I’m casting any stones from my own glass waistline) with a dry sense of humor; the kind of guy who makes a sarcastic joke without ever smiling.

Right before the guided tour, I caught Larry and Gerri where I thought they blended perfectly with their backgrounds.

Larry and an Unidentified Colleague Defending our Borders
Gerri and Two Enthusiastic Volunteers, Backing Up the Fighting Forces

One of the things I loved about traveling with Larry and Gerri was their willingness to spontaneously go off-plan when something intriguing arose. Coming out of Mass at St. John’s Co-Cathedral––where we came close to being the only three people over the age of 60 ever to be expelled from a Catholic mass––we encountered a troupe of bass-players, performing outside the Cathedral. They were students of the instrument, gathered for the Malta Double Bass Days––a workshop for players of all ages and levels.

Malta Double Bass Days Ensemble

As luck would have it, they were giving a concert that night at the University of Malta, right around the corner from our hotel. How could we not go? I’m sure we were the only people who were not family or friends of the performers, but we cheered as boisterously as any proud parent for the students from around the world, who’d come to improve their skills.

Our favorite was a local boy named Giuseppe, who was the youngest of the group, and who performed the first solo pieces. When the director announced that Giuseppe was six years old, Giuseppe interjected ––and a half! (I vaguely remember some distant era when a half a year made an important difference in my age.) Whether it was due to that half-year or not, Giuseppe totally rocked, plucking out the double-bass-repertoire equivalent of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. His parents sat in front of us and were glowing with pride and joy.

Giuseppe with a little help on his double bass solo.

One of our more adventuresome adventures was the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour of Gozo, the second largest island of the Malta archipelago. It wasn’t clear before arriving in Malta exactly how one got to Gozo. Inevitably, a ferry had to be involved. Reviews on Trip Advisor consistently warned that one company managed all the trips, and that it was basically total chaos.

Without going into the gory details, suffice it to say that by the time we were on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus that toured Gozo, there was no time to hop off anywhere––not even to grab a snack, much less lunch––before we had to be back at the ferry dock to return to the island of Malta. The bus made one mandatory stop at a tomato-processing outlet, where you could buy various products, tomatoes being a big crop on Gozo. I bought a small jar of a tasty sun-dried tomato spread. The joke––which a British couple we befriended who were sitting behind us on the bus overheard and enjoyed––was that we’d bought the Hop-On Hop-Off tour and only got to hop off for a jar of tomato paste.

Savino’s, Tomato Processing Outlet on Gozo
Larry and Gerri, Intrepid Travelers on the Gozo Hop-On Hop-Off Bus with Audio Tour

For the most part, the three of us exalted in or endured our various adventures together. Once after a long day, Gerri declined a dinner out, and Larry and I made our way to a kind of touristy food court not far from our hotel, where we had really good Italian pizza and some decent wine.

Larry at the Food Court Tucking into a Pizza

On the other side of this table, I’m raising my Nero D’Avola to my traveling companions, who were the real reason this was such a fun trip. As Larry liked to joke with a fake Russian toast whenever we clinked glasses––Garagekey!

Larry and Gerri outside the Hypogeum, a Paleolithic Underground Cemetery

Postcard from Malta: In a Corner

(This is a 5-6 minute read.)

One of the top––if not the top––tourist attractions in Malta is St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.

What the heck is a co-cathedral? you rightfully ask. It has something do with the complicated hierarchy of Roman Catholic churches in terms of where the Bishop of a particular diocese sits when he’s in town attending Mass. In Malta, that’s somewhere other than St. John’s, but St. John’s is important enough that there’s also a bishop’s chair there. The best way I can comprehend it is to say that St. John’s is kind of like the Bishop’s weekend house in the Poconos. He lives in Manhattan, but he’s got a place in the country in Pennsylvania as well.

St. John’s is noteworthy architecturally. An exceedingly plain façade belies the Baroque frenzy inside––every inch is frescoed or gilded or otherwise adorned.

Façade, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta
Interior, St. John’s Co-Cathedral (photo: Larry Kenny)

We made two visits to St. John’s, each a completely different experience.

Our first was to attend the 11:00 a.m. Sunday Mass in Maltese rather than Latin. It seemed like a great opportunity to hear the local language in a somewhat familiar context and also to experience the church not as a tourist attraction but in its real function as a place of worship.

Tourists are not allowed to roam around during the Mass, so there was a sort of screening before we were allowed in––Are you here for the Mass? If yes, you could go in and be seated; if not you were told to come back when the church was open for tourism. We passed muster and took seats in the back of the sparsely-filled church about twenty minutes before the start of the Mass.

Gerri wandered up to the front for a minute or two to see the altar up close and then rejoined Larry and me in the back. I’d always been frustrated by guidebook descriptions of cathedrals, as I didn’t know the terms for the parts of the church that were used to locate something. The third chapel on the right after the narthex is not helpful if you don’t know what and where the narthex is. (It’s the area just as you enter the cathedral, behind where the pews are at the opposite end of the church from the altar.) So I had boned up on my church architecture terms and was pointing out the barrel-vault ceiling and explaining where the apse was, gesticulating toward these features.

We were approached by some sort of church official, who asked again if we were there for the Mass. When we said yes, he told us there had been complaints that we were “wandering around” and “having discussions.”

We restrained ourselves until the service started and behaved appropriately until it ended. Gerri took communion, we put Euros into the collection plate, awkwardly shared the Peace of God with our neighbors, and followed as best we could the spoken Maltese Mass in the printed program. The country’s European and Arabic heritage is revealed in its language. For example, Glorja’l Alla means Glory to God.

Our second visit was with the rest of the island’s tourists on a weekday. We queued up, paid our eight Euros, received audio guides, and Gerri reluctantly tied an ugly shawl-like thing provided by the church around her shoulders, needed since the coverall over her tank top was sheer. (We certainly understand the Lord’s aversion to even of a hint of shoulder skin.)

Despite the strategically-placed oscillating fans, it was hot inside the crowded church. The earphones on the audioguide were the most ill-fitting I’ve ever encountered, and the presenter went on interminably with a detailed history at something like twenty-six different stops.

The tour culminated in the Oratory (a small chapel for private worship) where, most notably, there are two paintings by Caravaggio.

Carravagio had to flee Rome where he’d become a famous painter after reputedly killing a young man in a duel. Through patrons, he made his way to Naples and then to Malta. Impressed to have him there, in addition to commissioning work, the Grand Master made him a Knight of Malta. But his habitual brawling got him thrown into prison and kicked out of the Knights as a reprobate. Somehow he escaped and made his way to Sicily, where he went on painting.

St. Jerome Writing was the more familiar of the two Carravaggios in St. John’s. I’d seen it reproduced before.

St. Jerome Writing, Caravaggio

It’s classic Caravaggio: the use of chiaroscuro––the dark, almost monochromatic background obscuring detail, contrasted by the dramatic lighting on the central figure of St. Jerome and calling attention to secondary details, in this case the skull and crucifix in the lower right. It’s a masterful composition.

That said, it breaks a “rule” of composition called The Rule of Thirds, which claims that the most pleasing place for an important element of composition is at the intersections of lines dividing the image into thirds horizontally and vertically. In the photo below, the phallic rock that stands out from the rest of the landscape is centered on the left, but cropped to follow the Rule of Thirds on the right.

Photo example from Wikipedia. Used without permission.

Caravaggio’s composition in St. Jerome Writing is more like the image on the left: the peak of the composition (St. Jerome’s head) is centered at the top of the painting, and a lighted triangle is defined by his red drape and the skull at the bottom.

The main draw in the Oratory is not St. Jerome, but The Beheading of St. John the Baptist––commissioned as an altar piece for the church and still in place as such. It is the only work Caravaggio ever signed and, in my opinion, one of the oddest compositions among very famous paintings.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, Caravaggio

Fully three-quarters of the painting is background––the wall of a prison where St. John was being held, broken only by light barely picking out a detail of two prisoners watching the decapitation behind a barred window.

The action is limited to the lower left quadrant, an odd compositional choice, where four figures––a maid holding the silver platter to receive St. John’s head, a distressed woman observing, the jailer pointing toward the platter, and the executioner––form an arc that echoes the stone archway behind them.

The light falls most strongly on the body of the executioner––centered in the lower half of the painting. St. John is relegated to the very edge of the composition, almost insignificant, except for the bright red cloth over him, which echoes the blood of his decapitation, in which we find Caravaggio’s signature.

Odd as it is, the composition seems to suggest what W. H. Auden said so eloquently in one of my favorite poems––Musée des Beaux Arts––that suffering goes on:

“Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

Postcard from Malta: Light within Stone

(This is a 2-3 minute read.)

The Maltese islands are the high points of what was a land bridge between Sicily and North Africa, cutting the Mediterranean in two during the last ice age. The soft limestone that makes up the islands has been the primary building material since prehistoric times through today. Because of this, the built environment seems to rise organically from the islands themselves––as if the buildings had been pushed up out of the ground, or as if the hills had been whittled and faceted into structures.

Modern buildings on the island of Gozo
Old Town of Valletta on the main island of Malta
Valletta at the entrance to the Grand Harbor at dusk

The most striking aspect of the stone, however, is that it seems not so much to reflect the ambient light, as absorb it, altering the color completely.

On our visit to the ruins of the Tarxien Temples, which date from around 3500 B.C., under a slightly overcast sky filtered through a protective covering like a scrim––the stone is dull beige and grayish.

Tarxien Temple, paleolithic ruins

Where the old stone has been power-washed––as in the Baroque buildings renovated for tourism––the stone has a warm, creamy feel to it, almost white in bright light.

Faćade of St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta
Interior stairwell of our hotel, Palazzo Consiglia, in a renovated Valletta townhouse

It’s at its prettiest, of course, in the fading light of late afternoon. Returning from a visit across the Grand Harbor to Birgu, the original home of the Knights of St. John before they built Valletta, sitting atop the ferry, we’re treated to a beautiful scene of sunlight within the stones of the old city, reflected in the water below.

This is Malta at its most romantic and enchanting.

Birgu from atop the Three Cities Ferry in Dockyard Creek

Postcard from California: Pacific Family Time

My niece Megan moved to central California over two years ago. Leaving the D.C. area where she’d been living and working since getting her Masters in counseling, she loaded her car with her things and her dog, Ferris Bueller, and wwoofed her way gradually across country. That’s not a typo, my eagle-eyed editors. WWOOF is the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farmers. In exchange for room and board, you can work for a few weeks on an organic farm. Megan had some very interesting and colorful travelogues to share of her experiences (it must run in the family) and eventually ended up where she wanted to be in Santa Cruz, California and environs.

I was reminded of a certain young man driving a manual-shift U-Haul truck–his earthly belongings filling maybe three feet of the cargo space in the back–from Lexington, Virginia to New York City in 1976 with two cats, Lunch and Mutispaugh, in the cab. On that trip, there was no farming involved. If you told me today that I’d have to do something similar now, I’d tell you to go jump off a cliff. (I’m not sure how I managed to park that truck on West 87th Street and return it somewhere on the Hudson River midtown the following day.) But one does what one has to when one has to do it and somehow survives to write travelogues about it.

While we’d seen Megan back east for family holidays, we hadn’t visited her in her new stomping grounds. Her parents, Jan and Bruce, and I decided it was high time.

Megan and Jan in front of Megan’s apartment, Los Gatos

After some adventures with roommates and boyfriends-at-the-time, Megan has her own place–what’s referred to as an “in-laws’ apartment”–in a small building behind a house on a residential street in Los Gatos, close to her job in San Jose, but not that far from where she likes to hang out in Santa Cruz.

We rented a funky, old, comfortable AirBnB in the Seabright Beach neighborhood of Santa Cruz, which worked out well for us.

Our Seabright Beach cottage

We took great delight in the flora of central California–flowering succulents and other plants we just don’t have back east. This century plant was having its suicidal bloom the very week we were there.

Century Plant at our AirBnB
Jacaranda in bloom, César Chávez Plaza, San Jose

Megan came down to meet us on our first evening after she got off work. We had dinner at one of Megan’s favorite haunts, India Joze. Joe of the Joze/Joe’s pun is the head cook and cuts a uniquely Santa Cruzan figure in a black leather apron, knee-high boots, and the tools of his trade hanging off a thick belt. He was a bit like Mad Max meets Julia Childs meets John Glenn in his culinary capsule of a kitchen, where almost single-handedly he cranks out incredibly delicious meals.

The next day, while Megan was at work, we visited The Tech Museum in San Jose. I think Bruce enjoyed the interactive tech exhibits more than Jan and I, but we all enjoyed an Apollo 11 documentary in the IMAX Dome Theatre. I spent many a night across the César Chávez Plaza from The Tech at the San Jose Fairmont over four years when Intel was my client. So the visit brought back many memories.

That afternoon we met Megan at her place and accompanied her and Ferris on their daily walk through Vasona Lake County Park.

Jan, Megan, Ferris and Bruce – Vasona Lake County Park

Los Gatos creek was dammed to make the reservoir in 1934, and there’s a pretty little marina with paddle boats and kayaks.

Boat dock at the Marina, Vasona Lake County Park

Megan took Friday off, and we all trooped up to the site of the Santa Cruz Mission, built by the Spanish in 1791 and one of a string of missions going up the California coast. (Basically any town with a “San” or a “Santa” in front of it was part of the mission project.) A park and the Holy Cross Catholic Church sit on the site of the original mission church, but a replica was built nearby. It had a great little gift shop, and I picked up an illustrated pamphlet called “The Lives of the Saints for Boys.” This sort of thing comes up in crossword puzzles from time to time.

One of the mission dormitories still exists in the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park. The exhibits aim to give you a sense of mission life and those who lived there–from the Native Americans gathered up by the mission priests to the last Irish immigrant family who occupied the building after the mission had been closed. In reference to the Native Americas, that they were forced into labor was not ignored, but I don’t think anything actually ever used the word “slave.”

State Historic Park with Holy Cross Church steeple in the background

Afterwards, we drove up “the One,” as one says, to Swanton Berry Farm, where we had delicious vegan chili and berry cobbler and pie. Payment is on the honor system. You add up your own total and charge it on an iPad to your credit card. Or you pay in cash and make your own change from the open cash drawer. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in New York anymore.

Swanton Berry Farm

Just up “the One” from Swanton’s is a nice little cove where Scott Creek flows into Monterey Bay. We walked along the beach there, examining unusual stones worn by the tides and the geographic strata of the cliffs.

Scott Creek and Monterey Bay

On Saturday morning, Jan and Megan went to Megan’s Ecstatic Dance class at India Joze. While they were there, Bruce went for a run along the San Lorenzo River, and I went to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. There was a great exhibit on the history of Santa Cruz and one done by a Chinese-American graphic artist, tracing Chinese immigration to the area–as charged an “issue” in its time as immigration today across the southern border. Maybe we should study more history in school.

In the rooftop garden of the Museum of Art and History

The four of us reunited for lunch and a six-mile hike through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. I recall lore about redwoods even as young child in upstate New York, but I realized when were hiking that I’d never actually seen any live. It goes without saying how amazing these trees are, towering so above us, living thousands of years, surviving and thriving.

Redwood grove, Henry Cowell State Park

Santa Cruz was perfect for experiencing the phenomenon known on the California coast as “June Gloom.” (We poets call that a slant rhyme; it leans toward rhyming, but doesn’t quite make it, and we love to use them.) Every morning was chilly, gray, foggy, and dripping. If you drove twenty minutes west, you were in bright sunshine. Or if you just waited until noon, the gloom (another slant rhyme) would have been chased away. Our cottage was no more than two blocks from Seabright Beach, so once the gloom cleared, we spent Sunday enjoying the ocean.

Beach at Santa Cruz in front of the boardwalk

Megan also took Monday off, and the four of us drove up to Marin County just over the Golden Gate Bridge to meet Bob Hanenberg, a former work friend of Jan’s. He led us on a hike through the Marin Headlands with great views out over the bay.

Angel Island in San Francisco Bay from the Marin Headlands
Wildflowers on the Bobcat Trail, Marin Headlands

After the hike, we drove into San Francisco and had lunch sitting on the rocks at China Beach–named for the Chinese laborers who used to sleep there–with views to the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, it’s a toney neighborhood with some spectacular mansions hanging over the cliffs above.

China Beach, San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background
Bob Hanenberg scaling the cliffs at China Beach

That evening, we met the “dog people,” those who walk their dogs in Vasona Park at the same time when Megan walks Ferris. It was a special day: Snowflake the poodle was having a 12th birthday party. There were doggy cheeseburgers, frozen doggy treats, and some human snacks as well. The dozen or so dogs were having the greatest time and were impossible to gather for a group photo though an attempt was made – just like at a kiddie birthday party.

Closest one could get to a dog party group photo
Snowflake, the Birthday Girl

Megan had to work on Tuesday, so Jan and Bruce and I took the tourist train from the Santa Cruz boardwalk up through the Redwoods State Park to Roaring Camp, a former logging site. We had an hour layover to roam through the redwood grove again before the train ride back. That evening we joined Megan at a human birthday party in a park in Capitola for one of her friends.

I spent that night at Megan’s to be closer to the San Jose airport for my early morning flight back to New York. I woke up several times during the night to feel the comforting warmth of Ferris, snuggled up next to me, once with his head resting on my stomach. And isn’t that what family is all about?

Postcard from Sicily: Salute e Minchia

When we got to the Hotel Villa Diodoro in Taormina, I made a beeline for the pool. What I mean is that I did it without hesitation, as there was nothing resembling a beeline to the pool. Taormina hugs the side of Monte Tauro and going anywhere involves climbing up or down steps; there’s no straight line to anywhere. I followed a winding path that went through a small tunnel that finally emerged at pool level. It was worth it.

Pool at the Hotel Villa Diodoro

It was the 29th of April, and the pool didn’t fully open until the beginning of May, but it was filled, the water refreshing, and the chaises out, so I caught an hour or two of sun as well as a view down to the Ionian Sea.

Looking south down the Sicilian coast from Taormina

The next day we went sightseeing. A recent article in the New York Times on “over-tourism” mentioned the “beautiful nightmare that is Taormina.” We could feel it, even though we were early in the season. On those days when the cruise ships dock, throngs are bussed up to wander the Corso Umberto I, the main thoroughfare through town. Having survived Venice and Paris more than once each, I took this in stride, though the limited space in Taormina makes the crowding feel more acute (except for trying to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre; that’s worse).

Nonetheless, the ancient theater – the largest in Sicily after Siracusa’s – is a sight to be seen. In some ways, it’s more impressive than Siracusa’s: it has better sightlines to the sea (although those wouldn’t have existed in ancient times when a multi-story stage façade would have blocked that view) and is better preserved. Because it’s more compact, it’s easier to take in the whole thing and get the full sense of it.

The Ancient Theater, Taormina

Like its Siracusan counterpart, the theater was being readied for summer events – Sting was there in 2018, followed by a Pink Floyd tribute band. It’s not Aeschylus, but who are we to judge?

View of Taormina from the Ancient Theater with Mount Etna in the distance

That evening before dinner, we drove further up the mountain to the village of Castelmola. My guidebook mentioned the panoramic views but failed to mention the town’s main attraction – the vintage Bar Turrisi, where just about everything – door handles, drinking glasses, light fixtures, chair legs, you name it – is in the shape of a penis. One review on TripAdvisor called out the “interesting decor.” Oddly, it’s not a gay bar, but the ground floor certainly became one when we arrived.

Me, scandalized (and Stan intrigued) by the food choices on the penis-shaped menu at Bar Turrisi, Castelmola

They make their own very sweet almond wine (don’t go there), which we sampled. The cocktail napkins were emblazoned with their slogan, Salute e Minchia. Our guide John was not able to translate it beyond knowing that salute means health, which is one of the common toasts made in Italy. But my English-Italian dictionary app filled in the rest; basically, it means Health and Dick. John, who is English, told me later that when he asked his Italian wife why she’d never taught him the word, she replied that she didn’t think he’d need it. Well, one never knows.

The following day we made a trip up the south slope of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano. This involved driving partway up the slope, where we got a cable car further up, then boarded a kind of small 4WD bus up to the Valle de Bove, where we hiked around the craters of the more recent eruptions. I suppose I imagined I would be looking down into a deep, dark, bottomless hole spewing steam and sparks, but it reminded me more of the surface of the moon, as seen by the Apollo astronauts.

Valle de Bove, Mount Etna, with tourists on the rim
Guide with Sleeping Dog, Mount Etna (and tiny people on the rim)
Our Etna guide, with the active peak in the background

We got a little belch of grey ash from the active peak in the distance while we were there, but generally it was cold and windy, and the sunshine by the hotel pool was calling.

The final day of the official tour was a free day before our farewell dinner. A number of us decided to climb down a long set of stairs from Taormina to the rocky beach below at Mazzarò.

Mazzarò, between Capo Sant’Andrea (left) and Isola Bella (right) seen from the top of the Taormina steps

We walked along the beach to an isthmus you can cross at low tide to visit Isola Bella, where a once luxurious home has been converted into a small historical museum. Later we had lunch at one of the bayside restaurants, and wisely took the cable car back up to Taormina.

The beach at Mazzarò from the Isola Bella museum

That evening we had drinks at the hotel terrace bar before our farewell dinner. We toasted Toto Tours, the trip and the good company with the toast we’d learned at Bar Turrisi – Salute e Minchia. The waiter blushed slightly but knew exactly, I suspect, where we learned it.

Terrace bar, site of our farewell drinks, at the Hotel Villa Diodoro, as seen from the balcony of my room.

I had extended my stay by one day and on it did one my favorite things to do abroad – I took a cooking class with a local chef. I met Chef Domenico Siciliano (his real name) at the Porto Messina and joined a young couple from Bath, England and two couples from the Netherlands for a trip to the market to buy ingredients for our lunch. Not being someone who enjoys seafood, I’m not sure why I ended up with pictures of fish at the markets on this trip, but for some reason this spread interested me.

Seafood on offer at the Taormina market

We went to the family restaurant – Ristorante Nettuno da Siciliano – to prepare our meal. My favorite dish, which I recreated as soon as I got home, was a caponata siciliana.

Before: onions, tomato paste, fried eggplant, olives, caper berries, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, and celery.
After: with plum tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, sugar, basil, dill and parsley – Caponata Siciliana

I received my Certificato di Partecipazione from the Chef and was photographed in my official apron. It was a delicious end to a delicious trip.


The Graduate at the Ristorante Nettuno da Siciliano

Postcard from Sicily: Greeks and Stones and Names

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York, I never thought much about the city’s name. I had no idea there was a place in Sicily – Siracusa, in Italian – after which my hometown was named. Why the founders of towns in Upstate New York had an affinity for classical antiquity – our first house was in Cicero; Rome and Ithaca weren’t far away – is not clear to me. But my visit to Siracusa on Toto’s Sicily tour had extra fascination, given my family origins.

I don’t know what I thought would be special about it. When I first visited Ireland, the Netherlands, France and Scotland – the home countries of my ancestors – I thought I’d experience an almost biological feeling of “home.” I didn’t; I felt like an American on vacation in a foreign country. People in Ireland nod very politely when you say your mother’s maiden name is Kennedy; it would be kind of like if a foreigner discovered you were American, and they got all excited telling you their mother’s maiden name was Smith or Jones. I didn’t bother telling every Sircusan where I came from; nor did I feel any special frisson when we arrived.

Had I been Greek, I might have. Siracusa was originally settled in the 8th century B.C. by Greeks from Corinth on the island called Ortigia, separated from the mainland by a narrow strait. Our hotel, The Grand Hotel Ortigia, had a lovely view out over the marina.

View from the dining room, Grand Hotel Ortigia, Siracusa

After we arrived, we went for a spin around the Piazza Duomo before dinner. Everyone was out for the passeggiata, the evening stroll. Their was an exhibition of a single Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Andrew, from a private collection, a duplicate of one in the Cleveland Museum. For seven euros, it seemed worth seeing; you can’t see too many Caravaggios.

The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew, Caravaggio

The highlight of the Piazza Duomo is, of course, the façade of the Duomo itself. I’m pretty sure that Dan Ware, the owner of Toto Tours, once named a tour “Go for Baroque.” I love that pun, and it could easily be applied to this Sicilian Baroque façade with its Corinthian columns, built in the first quarter of the 18th century as part of the general rebuilding after the devastating earthquake of 1693.

Baroque façade of the Duomo of Siracusa

The most interesting part of the cathedral, however, it’s not its beautiful façade. Rather, it’s that the church was built into the existing structure of a Greek Temple of Athena from the 5th century B.C. The massive Doric columns of the Temple are visible inside and out on the sides of the church. Basically, the builders just filled in the spaces between the columns with walls.

Doric columns inside the Duomo of Siracusa

Rolling with the times – or at least with the powers that be – has preserved the Cathedral. After being a Greek Temple in the 5th century B.C., it became a Roman Catholic church in the 7th century A.D., was converted to a mosque in 878 with the arrival of the Arabs, and back to a Catholic church under the Norman King Roger I in 1085. It’s been stable now for the past 934 years; not even an earthquake could topple those Greek columns.

We wandered through the old city, ending up in the market. One enterprising vendor gave us samples of warm mozzarella that had been swished around garlic, olive oil and oregano. Nothing short of amazing. I’m not a seafood fan, but there was something about these perch or dorate, curling up for 9 euros/kilo that caught my eye. Perhaps it was theirs.

Dorate in the market, Siracusa

Crossing the strait into the “new” part of town, we visited the Greek Theater. The original 5th-century structure is still in use today. There’s a summer season of – you guessed it – ancient Greek tragedies and comedies. For the protection of the rings of stone seats carved into the hillside, workers cover the stone in plastic, covering that with wooden steps and seats. A set was already going up on the stage when we were there. Helen and The Trojans, both by Euripides, are playing in rep during the first part of this season. I don’t know what’s playing this summer at Siracusa’s New York namesake, but somehow, I don’t think it will have quite the same charm.

Greek Theater, Siracusa

In it’s heyday, Siracusa was bigger than Athens and the most important city in the Greek empire, due to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean. It’s heartening somehow, for the continuity of life, to know that despite the empires that have come and gone in Siracusa, local stone quarried by the ancient Greeks still serves its original purpose today. Hopefully it will for many centuries more.

Postcard from Sicily: Blue

In 1693, a major earthquake struck Sicily and southern Italy. The town of Ragusa in the southeast corner of Sicily was among those severely damaged. The destruction was so complete that a decision was taken to built a new town higher up the hill on which Ragusa was situated. However, some of the noble families of the town wanted to rebuild where they were. In the end, so the story goes, both plans went forward, and the result is a city in two parts – Ragusa Superiore (which you should interpret as “Upper” not “Better,” although locals might debate that) and Ragusa Ibla, Ibla being a variation of the name of the early Greek settlement there.

For natives of Ragusa, the distinction seems to be cultural as much as geographic. When I asked a taxi driver if he’d grown up here, he said, Yes, I’m from Ibla. It’s like being a New Yorker, I suppose: Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island – your home borough identifies you in ways every New Yorker understands, but which may be meaningless to outsiders.

Our hotel was in the new town, although let’s be clear – new refers to having been built in the early 1700’s – though the hotel was decidedly newer than that.

Our hotel in Ragusa Superiore

We arrived in the late afternoon, had a rest, and then drove down into the old town for dinner. On the way, we had a great view of the city perched on the side of the hill which we were able to photograph better the next day when we went sightseeing. I like both the wider shot that catches more of the ravine below the town as well as the tighter shot that details the town a bit more dramatically.

Ragusa Ibla above the valley
Ragusa Ibla

We had a lovely dinner, then wandered up the main drag of Ibla – the Corso XXV Aprile – to the cathedral, dramatically and romantically lit for the evening. (The church, not us, though we did have some good wine, and I probably shouldn’t speak for my traveling companions.)

Duomo of San Giorgio and the Corso XXV Aprile, Ibla

The next day, we returned to Ibla for a tour of the sites. Farthest down the hill, one enters the town into a piazza in front of the Public Gardens. There’s a pretty little church at the entrance to the gardens – the Chiesa di San Giacomo or Church of Saint James. Note the picture-perfect, cloudless blue skies in every daylight photo here. We were blessed with lovely weather on this trip.

Chiesa di San Giacomo, Ibla

The main part of town starts uphill at the Piazza Polo, graced by the Chiesa di San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph.) The style of architecture is Sicilian Baroque. It dominates the monumental buildings of the region, since so many were rebuilt at the same time after the earthquake. (Note the Corinthian columns by the elaborate acanthus leaves of the capitals, and more cloudless blue sky.)

Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Piazza Polo, Ibla

It’s pretty inside, and the church was still decked out for Easter, the previous Sunday. When we entered, there were half a dozen elderly nuns in the church. We tried to take our photos inconspicuously, as one of them seemed to be moving about ritualistically before statues and altars. Then we realized she was taking photos of everything on her cellphone.

Cupola fresco, The Glory of Saint Benedict, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Ibla
Decorated for Easter, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Ibla

The pedestrian street continues uphill to the Piazza Duomo. The cathedral, dedicated to San Giorgio, is another Baroque masterpiece, designed by Rosario Gagliardi, whose apprentice designed San Giuseppe, which may account for some of their similarities.

Usually the Feast of Saint George is on the 23rd of April. But when the 23rd falls during Easter week, which it did this year, the feast day gets moved. It was coming up on May 2nd, and the statue of Saint George was out in the church ready to be paraded around town.

Saint George in the Duomo

We climbed some of the stairs that lead up to the new town behind the cathedral to get a good view of the Neo-Classical cupola with its blue-tinted windows above the nave.

Cupola of the Duomo di San Giorgio, Ibla

Ragusa may have been my favorite place on the trip. It had all the charm of Taormina (or more) without the cruise-ship crowds, and was utterly photogenic, postcard-perfect. When we left, we drove to Pozzallo for lunch overlooking the turquoise-blue water. In Sicily, you’re never very far from the bright blue sea.

The sea at Pozzallo