Category Archives: Cathedrals

Sicily – Trouble With Traffic

“To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it!”  –  John Steinbeck

By the third day we had used up the breakfast supplies that we had bought on day one in the street market so we needed more.  Having convinced ourselves that we had paid a premium price at the market and having identified a LIDL supermarket barely two miles away we walked there instead.

This involved crossing the bridge over the water again and venturing once more into the untidy side of the city which involved a very dangerous walk along an abandoned industrial site with crumbling buildings and potholed streets.  An area which once provided employment but now nothing, not even hope.

Road construction in Sicily it seems makes little or no provision for pedestrians and there is an almost complete absence of pavements which requires those on foot to take their chances at the side of the road or in the intermittent cycle lanes which provides little help at all because motorists just drive along them regardless.

In Italy, traffic regulations currently in force were approved by the Legislative Decree number 285 of 30th April 1992 and are contained in the Italian Highway Code called the Codice della Strada, but anyone visiting a busy Italian city or town would be certain to dispute that there is such a thing as traffic regulations or a highway code in Italy.

Crossing the road is especially dangerous, there are pedestrian crossings but they haven’t been repainted since Mussolini was in charge and car drivers just ignore them.  Local people seem to have the hang of it, they just step boldly out into the road, look straight ahead and ignore the obvious danger

The only exception to this is nun’s.  Italian drivers will not hit a nun – you see groups of them breezing across eight lane highways with amazing impunity, so if you wish to cross some busy place your only hope is to wait for some nuns to come along and stick to them…” – Bill Bryson

Italy it has to be said has some insanely different driving rules to the rest of Europe and the traffic was murderously busy and dangerously hectic along this stretch of road.

Here is a general speed limit of fifty kilometres an hour but Italians generally ignore that and this is the second problem – the drivers –  because, in my opinion,  one of the biggest mistakes in the development of the modern world was to introduce the Italians to the motor car.

Italian drivers obey no rules and have no self-control, no manners or tolerance; junction priorities mean nothing because show a moment of hesitation and this is interpreted as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to pull-out, cut you up or just simply push in.  They are impatient and, show a split-second of indecision and they go for their car horn like a trigger-happy wild-west gunslinger.  At a junction or a roundabout the Italian driver narrows his eyes and flashes a ‘do you feel lucky punk’ sort of glare while his right foot hovers menacingly over the accelerator pedal.

Traffic lights are another good example of these different rules because each one resembles the starting grid of a formula one grand prix. 

At an Italian traffic junction there is an intolerant confusion of cars all impatiently throbbing with engines growling, exhaust pipes fuming and clutch plates sizzling whilst behind the wheel the drivers blood pressure reaches somewhere beyond boiling point. 

A regard for the normal habits of road safety is curiously absent so although the traffic light colours are the same as elsewhere they mean completely different things.  Red means slow down, amber means go and green means ‘pedal to the metal‘  At a junction an Italian driver simply points his car at the exit he is aiming for and five seconds before the lights go green he shuts his eyes, presses the accelerator to the floor then races forward and may God have mercy on anything or anyone in his way.

If the normal rules of driving do not apply here then the normal rules associated with parking definitely are completely irrelevant.  But it does look like great fun.  Sometimes there is a small and hopelessly inadequate car park full of impatient drivers looking for non-existing parking spaces, blowing their horns, waving their arms and shouting at each other in that classic Italian driving style.  

More from Bill Bryson…

I love the way Italians park… it looks like a parking competition for blind people.  Cars are pointed in every direction, half on the pavements and half off, facing in, facing sideways… fitted into spaces so tight that the only way out would be through the sun roof.  Italians park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.” 

So, we completed our shopping and as we suspected it was a whole lot cheaper than the street market by as much as 40% in our estimation and we had the bonus of sensibly priced bottles of wine.

But now we had to carefully negotiate our return journey, this time with shopping bags.  We were so glad to cross the bridge and get back to relatively normal traffic conditions and as we passed the cathedral we said a quiet thank you to whoever it was that had been watching over and taking care of us…

 

 

Sicily – The Streets of Ortigia

The streets of Ortigia are a labyrinth of the unexpected and a treasure chest of discovery, something new and exciting at every twist and turn…

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery… 

Sicily – I like a Kettle but Kim prefers a Washing Line

When travelling to Europe We have given up on hotels and preferred instead to stay in apartments.  They are generally cheaper, offer more space and are chock full of facilities.

I especially like that they have a separate bedroom from the kitchen and living accommodation because I generally wake first , sometimes over an hour or so before Kim and in a hotel room I am reluctant to get up and make a cup of tea for fear of disturbing here.  Many hotels in Europe don’t even have tea making facilities, so there is another consideration but in an apartment there is always a separate kitchen and a kettle.

The apartment  in Ortigia was brilliant for this even though I felt a little guilty that this was suitable family rooms converted to tourist accommodation.  A different debate that I won’t go into here.

Anyway, to get to the point, Kim especially likes washing machines and if the apartment has one makes a point of washing our clothes and hanging them out to dry in the Mediterranean way even if they don’t really need it.

Sicily – The Unlikely Story of Saint Lucy

The Doumo Square is probably the very best part of Ortigia,  claimed by Sicilians to be one of the most beautiful in all of Italy, the elegant piazza stretches in an oval shape that caresses the Doumo,  dazzling white of alabaster and marble and flanked by grand aristocratic Palaces and the magnificent Cathedral.  Even though I have heard it before I certainly wouldn’t argue with that rather  extravagant claim.

Next to the Duomo is the Palazzo Senatorio, the city hall, built in the seventeenth century on the ruins of an Ionian temple. Opposite stands the Palace Benventano del Bosco, rebuilt at the end of the eighteenth century and to the right of the Duomo, the medieval Episcopal Palace.

We found it to be the perfect place to sit in the midday sun with a coffee and a cannoli, admire the architecture and people watch as folk strolled back and forth.

Naturally we visited the Doumo which has a long and complex history. 

The origins of a temple on the site date to prehistory. The great Greek Temple of Athena was built in the fifth century BC. The temple was a Doric edifice with six columns on the short sides and fourteen on the long sides. 

It probably looked something like this…

The Doric columns are still there because when the first Christian church was built there, the columns were incorporated into the structure, linking the worship of the past with that of the present.

Now it looks like this…

The columns make the Cathedral more interesting than it might otherwise be but most of all  I do like unlikely Saint stories and I was interested in the tale St. Lucy (Santa Lucia) who is the patron saint of Syracuse (St. Agnes is the patron saint of Sicily and St. Francis of Assisi  of all Italy, by the way).  I just mention that in case I get challenged.

Anyway, St. Lucy was a  virgin and a martyr who was one of the earliest Christian saints to achieve popularity, having a widespread following before the 5th century. Because of various traditions associating her name with light (Latin – Lux)  she came to be venerated as the patron of sight and the blind and was depicted by medieval artists carrying a dish containing her eyes.

Gift shops in Syracuse are full of Saint Lucy…

Not to be confused with Aunt Lucy…

Lucy came from a wealthy Sicilian family. Spurning marriage and worldly goods she vowed to remain a virgin in the tradition of St. Agatha. An angry suitor who was rejected  reported her to the local Roman authorities, who sentenced her to be removed to a brothel and forced into prostitution;  Romans were clearly not that tolerant of women’s rights it seems.   

According to legend this worldly order was thwarted by divine intervention.  Lucy became as immovable as a rock and could not be carried away, not even dragged away  by a team of oxen.  So she was next condemned to death by fire, but the wood to make the fire, again by divine intervention would not burn.

Finally, when all else failed she was stabbed in the neck through the jugular (I made that jugular bit up) with a sword and she was dead.  That seemed to work as well it might.  There are clearly limits to the power of divine intervention.

Lucy died in the year 304 at the age of twenty-one and was most likely a victim of the Christian purges carried out under orders of the then Emperor Diocletian,

She is venerated as a saint in the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox churches. She is one of eight women (including the Virgin Mary) explicitly commemorated by Catholics in the Canon of the Mass.   She is also the patron Saint of virgins.  She is one of the best known virgin martyrs, along with Agatha of Sicily, Agnes of Rome, Cecilia of Rome and Catherine of Alexandria.

The cathedral holds a number of supposed relics of St. Lucy, a number of bone fragments, a robe, a veil, and a pair of shoes.  Twice a year on the first Sunday in May and on 13th December on her feast day, a statue of Saint Lucy is brought out of the cathedral and paraded through the streets. The silver statue incorporates three fragments of her ribs within its chest. 

Rather a shame that we would miss that by just a couple of days.

The cathedral shares the Piazza Duomo with the now deconsecrated Church of Santa Lucia which is used these days for exhibitions and functions but which still resembles a church both inside and out and was well worth a visit so we stopped off there on the way back to the apartment.

In a small room (an ex chapel I guess) was an exhibition of artwork associated with Saint Lucy including a copy of ‘The Burial of Saint Lucy’ by Caravaggio which I am reliably informed is quite famous.

Other Unlikely Saint Stories…

St Edmund, the Patron Saint of Pandemics

Saint James and Santiago de Compostella

Saint Patrick and Ireland

Saint Spiridon and Corfu

The Feast of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck

Saint John of Bridlington

Santa Eulalia and the Thirteen Tortures

Sicily – Saints of Ortigia

After Malta, Romania, Cyprus and Greece, Italy is the 5th most religious country in Europe and within Italy itself belief is strongest in the South.  Approximately 74% of the Italian population identifies as Catholic. Italy has 225 dioceses and archdioceses, more than any other country in the world with the exception of Brazil.  Least religious in Europe is the Czech Republic and then all of the Scandinavian countries and France.

Sicily – Ancient Greece and The Weeping Madonna

Pope Pius XII, in a radio broadcast on October 17, 1954

“. . . we acknowledge the unanimous declaration of the Episcopal Conference held in Sicily on the reality of the event. Will men understand the mysterious language of those tears?

I will come to this later in the post.  It is important…

Anyway, to start the story, from about 54BC Syracuse was developed as a Greek City, the biggest and the most important in the Western Mediterranean 

Two hundred years later under the tyrant Dionysius, Syracuse became the most splendid, most prosperous and the best fortified of all Greek cities.  The thought of tyrants mystifies me, why don’t people challenge them.  In 2023 there are fifty-seven tyrants in charge, mostly in Africa and the Middle East but the worst of all is Vladimir Putin.

Anyway, under Dionysius the naval power of Syracuse was vastly increased until its fleet was the most powerful in all of the Mediterranean.

Not surprising then that there is a lot of architecture to explore and plenty of archaeological ruins to see.

There were some to see in Ortigia but our intention today was to cross the bridge and make our way through the main city area to an archaeological site about a mile and a half away.

Suddenly there was a great contrast.  Ortigia is the historical centre of the city and is generally clean, tidy and well maintained but the street cleaning budget is not so generous once over the water.

We made our way to the site through a web of neglected streets that were untidy and grubby, not really somewhere to dwell, so bad that Kim wasn’t even inclined to linger in the main shopping street of the city and then along a busy road where the pavement was overgrown with weeds and thistles and eventually to the intended destination.

Almost immediately we were less than thrilled and as we walked to the ticket office we looked down on the ruins and were not impressed and over a coffee we debated whether or not to pay the admission price and go inside.  We decided against it for the following reasons…

1   The visitor reviews were mostly negative

2   The staff seemed most unhappy and unhelpful

3   We had to pay to use the toilets

4   Most of it was visible from the roadside anyway, no need to go in

5   It was €10 each admission

6   We had seen Greek ruins before in Sicily which were much better

This is Segesta on the west of the island near Palermo…

Read the Story about Segesta Here…

So, we left the disappointing ruins and made our way back to the city centre and specifically to the Church Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tears, I’ll say that again, the Church Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tears.  A massive and ugly construction built on the premise of a Marian Apparition*.

Now, this is the very unlikely story…

Sometime ago in Tuscany plaster plaques were  mass-produced and shipped to Syracuse for retail. One of the plaques was purchased as a wedding gift.  After it had hung in the humble home of a local family rather conveniently the image unexpectedly began to  shed tears for four whole days. 

Sent by the Pope himself an ecclesiastical tribunal scrupulously studied the plaque and had the tears scientifically examined and promptly declared it a true miracle.

It has been said that never has a miracle been so thoroughly investigated, nor approved so quickly.  I wonder if they had a structural survey of the house to see if the roof was leaking?

 

In a very short space of time there were reports of almost three hundred miracle healings, three hundred! attributed to the weeping Madonna and the Church and the City were quite clear on this matter and agreed to an appropriate construction to commemorate it.

The rather bizarre shape of the building was designed to represent a tear fallen from heaven and today the church is the destination of many faithful and pilgrims coming from all over the world.  Not many believers there today I have to report.  Actually only one.  We visited it of course (free admission) wandered around, saw the famous icon which wasn’t weeping today as it happened and compared it to the Holy Shrine of Knock in Ireland which is based on a similar unlikely story.

This is the Holy Shrine of Knock…

We were happy to leave the Shrine and the City and make our way back to the island of  Ortigia.  We didn’t like it there especially and wouldn’t be going back unless a miracle occurred.

Very Unlikely.

We crossed back over the bridge and the contrast was immediately there again.  How odd that one hundred yards or so can make such a difference.  We walked around the fishing port where weary fishermen were enjoying a well earned lunch break and ambled our way to the main square of Ortigia under the shadows of the Doumo, found a bar with a table in the sunshine and settled back to enjoy an early afternoon glass of wine.

Later we returned to the apartment, sat on the balcony and had another.

I have more to tell about the Blessed Virgin Mary in a later post coming up soon.

* A Marian Apparition is a reported supernatural appearance by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The miracle is often named after the town where it is reported

More posts about a Marian Apparition…

Montserrat and the Black Madonna

The Royal Monastery at Guadalupe

Fatima in Portugal

The Holy Shrine at Knock

Sicily – Washing Day in Ortigia

Not a bad bit of pegging out there, good effort, nice use of colours, I am very impressed with white, black, blue , white black, blue recurring theme.  Colour coordination of pegs could be better and personally I would have hung the trousers waist band down to assist quicker drying.  The srtiped top hung by the shoulders is a dis-as-ter and lets the whole thing down.  Marks out of 10 for this one  – 8.

Image

Sicily – A Washing Line in Ortigia

Sicily – Lost in a Syracuse Street Maze

“To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe – Italian Journey

Looking for a short Winter break we decided upon Sicily. We had first visited the largest island in the Mediterranean in 2009 when we went to the capital Palermo and had a shared desire to go back and see more of the island.  The island of Passion, History, Garibaldi, Opera, Crime and an active Volcano.

We had booked flights for 2020 but Covid put paid to that and then again in early 2022 but Easyjet cancelled the flight out to Palermo.  The return flight from Catania remained operational so because of that we only got a 50% refund.  Undeterred we booked again for December this time to Catania there and back and a few days in the ancient Greek/Roman/Byzantine/Norman city of Syracuse. 

The early morning flight left at the scheduled time and approached Catania late in the morning and on its final descent passed surprisingly close to the volcano Mount Etna which is less than twenty miles from the city centre.  Not quite as close as Naples is to Mount Vesuvius at only thirteen miles but Etna at eleven thousand feet is almost three times as high and is in a near constant state of activity.  Rather like living next door to an unstable man with a loaded gun.

We had a sort of vague plan to visit the mountain but soon after arrival learnt that this may not be such a good idea in December because the peak was covered in snow, the railway line was blocked and it was bitterly cold and we didn’t have suitable clothing so we shrugged our shoulders and took the bus to Syracuse, forty miles away to the South.

Once on the bus we slipped out of Catania  through edge of city suburbs with streets and streets of unattractive apartments which looked as though they had been put up in a hurry at a time when neither style or good design was considered especially important. 

Like most of Sicily, Catania suffered greatly during the Allied invasion of 1943 and lack of finance, Government corruption and the influence of the Mafia has in some areas restricted the process of rebuilding and regeneration.  The Mafia took control of the post-war building contracts and skimmed off most of the money by cutting back on basic building standards.

The route through the city of Syracuse wasn’t especially promising and for me first impressions were  not that good.  Sicily is one of the poorest regions in all of Italy where those living below or close to the poverty line is as high as 40%.  Compare that with Aosta Valley in the north and neighbouring Switzerland where the figure is 0.1%.  Italy is a country of many contrasts.

From the bus terminal we had to walk a mile or so to our accommodation which was on the island of Ortigia which is the historical centre of the city and the modern day tourist area which is connected to the mainland by a couple of bridges.  Once across there was quite a transformation as suddenly everywhere seemed more cared for and wealthy and my early misgivings began to quickly ebb away.

After we had found the apartment, approved it and settled in I went off to do an important job – find a shop for some beer and wine so that we could sit and relax on the charming little balcony.  I found one quite easily, made the necessary purchases and then set off to return which turned out to be a problem because I had neglected to bring with me either a map or my phone and I couldn’t remember the street name that I needed. Whoops.

I estimated that it was barely five hundred yards away but I was hopelessly lost, completely disorientated and just couldn’t for the life of me remember the route back.  My mind had gone completely blank. I explored the deep holes of my memory, the crevices of my mind but there was nothing there.

Ortigia is built on a grid system inherited from the Ancient Greeks which I suppose in theory should make things easy but my problem was that every street looked exactly the same and I quickly became lost in the maze of narrow streets and alleyways. 

I realised the next day when I had finally got my bearings that at one point I was barely twenty yards away but I had turned around and tried again and repeated this mistake several times over.  A shopping quest that should have taken ten minutes by now had taken almost forty and I thought that I was surely destined to wander the streets of Ortigia for eternity.  

Racking my brains I suddenly remembered that the apartment was opposite a puppet museum so once I had found a direction sign it was plain sailing all the way, I found my way back, opened the wine and enjoyed an hour on the balcony in the delightful sunshine.

“Why have you been so long?” asked Kim

“Oh” I said ” It was a bit further than I thought”

My stress levels leaked away and returned to somewhere near normal.

 

A to Z of Postcards – Y is for Yorkshire