Category Archives: Food

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 – The Triskelion, The Moor’s Head and the Godfather

First thing in the morning we walked through the maze of streets to the daily market.  I always assume that purchases in a street market are going to be cheaper than going to the shops but this almost never the case.

I estimate that we at paid least double the price for produce than if it had been in a supermarket but if there was one nearby then we didn’t know where it was.  Kim has a theory that there is one price for locals and another for tourists and I think she may well be right.  We bought some cheese, meats, sun dried tomatoes, bread and salad and paid well over the odds but we weren’t unhappy about that and made our way back to the apartment to prepare a late breakfast that we enjoyed on the balcony.

After breakfast we walked back out again.

I had been to Sicily before but hadn’t taken a great deal of notice of the flag of the Italian autonomous region which is a three legged woman very similar to the symbol of the Isle of Man.  This symbol is called the Triskelion and is the head of the  Gorgon Medusa with the three legs that alludes to the triangular shape of the island.

In Ancient Mythology, the Gorgon was a mysterious creature who was one of the three daughters of two Gods of the sea. The Three daughters were Medusa, Stheno and Euryale.  Medusa was mainly known for her ability to turn mortal men to stone with one single gaze but, on a lighter note, was also known for her help to fight the forces of evil. 

So is there a connection between Sicily and the Isle of Man?  Here is a short history lesson that may provide an explanation…

In 1250 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick died after having ruled Sicily for fifty-two years.  Four years later the Pope passed the Sicilian kingship to Edmund Crouchback, the second surviving son of Henry III, King of England  and for about ten years after that  Edmund was King of Sicily.

The wife of Alexander III, King of Scotland, was Margaret of England, a daughter of King Henry III and some historians believe that this connection between the English and Scottish royal families might account for the introduction of the triskeles as a symbol of the Isle of Man and may well be connected with the regime change on the Isle in 1265  to Scottish kings.

There you have it.  History lesson over.

The next Sicilian story that I liked is the grisly tale of the Moor’s head.  The tourist shops are overflowing with souvenir vases depicting the face of a man wearing a turban, depicting the East, and a woman with a crown, representing the west. Both are embellished with jewellery, flowers and citrus fruits. 

Not the sort of thing that I would buy to be honest and they wouldn’t fit in my flight  hand luggage anyway.

There are various stories about the heads but this is my favourite.

The legend says that during the time of the Moor occupation in Sicily there lived an exceptionally  beautiful girl in the Arab quarter of Palermo whose passion was to take care of plants on her balcony. One day she was noticed by a Moor who immediately fell in love with her and she apparently immediately felt the same way and they embarked on a whirlwind romance. When the girl found out that her lover would soon travel back to the East where a wife and children were waiting for him she was overcome with jealousy and grief.

Here are the two star-struck lovers…

I think that she looks rather like Sophia Loren…

Humiliated by the betrayal, in a fit of jealous anger the girl murdered the Moor while he was asleep. She cut off his head and used it as a vase in which she planted a bud of basil (I assume at this point that she scraped the brains out and replaced them with John Innes potting compost number two or something equally suitable).  The girl watered the plant with her tears and, as time went by the basil grew into a luxurious plant. The heady scent of the plant caused the envy of the girl’s neighbours who immediately ordered ceramic vases with the same features as the Moor’s Head to decorate their own balconies and courtyards.

It is similar to the story told by John Keats in his epic poem “Isabella and the Pot of Basil” which also has the unlikely story of the fragrant herb growing in a decapitated head.

Another thing that Syracuse is famous for (as all of Sicily)  is puppets.  This is The Opera dei Pupi where puppets represent Knights from the time of Charlemagne and puppeteers stage elaborate stories and epic battles in puppet theatres.  There was a museum directly opposite our apartment but for some tantalising reason was never open which was a shame.  To compensate it was possible to visit a couple pf workshops where skilled craftsmen were designing and creating the puppets.

Some speculate that the legend of the puppet master is behind the symbolism of the explanation by the logo of the film trilogy “The Godfather”.

Sicily – The Cannoli

Cannoli are Italian pastries consisting of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling containing ricotta, a staple of Sicilian cuisine.  Delicious.

Whenever we stopped for morning coffee break it always involved a cannoli.

Sicily – A Sunset and Trouble with a Mosquito

“Sicily was a gift from the gods to the Greeks.” – Salvatore Furnari

It was a glorious afternoon, a big blue sky, a burning yellow sun and unexpectedly high temperatures so we left the balcony and returned to the labyrinth of streets below.  

I was no longer panicking about being lost in the maze and I immediately liked the place with its unique combination of cultural heritage which was evident everywhere we turned and along every sinuous street that we explored.

Sicily, probably more than any other part of the Mediterranean, maybe even all of Europe, has been subject to so many invasions and waves of migration over the centuries. From the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, to finally becoming part of Italy only with the unification of Italy in 1860 makes it a melting pot of cultures and we had five days ahead of us to explore it all so we were in no real rush this evening.

Some areas were surprisingly run down.  What was surprising was that in some of these part derelict buildings there were clearly family apartments with people living in quite appalling conditions, their occupation of inadequate accommodation given away by the laundry left to dry over rusting balcony railings and from washing lines stretched out randomly across the streets.

After only a few minutes we came across the shop that I had used earlier and I immediately realised my earlier geographical mistakes, I had simply selected the wrong turning and that had disorientated me completely.  I was happier now and a lot more confident on account of having a map and mobile phone with Google Maps.

We walked as far as the centre of the island of Ortigia to Piazza Archimede named after the famous Greek mathematician and all round clever dick who was born here in approximately 287 BC and which now hosts an impressive collection of statues and a spraying fountain.

Towards the end of the afternoon the  main square was beginning to get busy with a tsunami of people coming in waves into the old town and then just walking backwards and forwards like an Atlantic tide. The pavements were flowing with people like lava spilling from a volcano, the piazzas were packed, the pizzerias overflowing and the gelateria noisy with babbling chatter. 

This was the  passeggiata, an Italian tradition where local people descend on the town at dusk and just walk and sometimes stop to talk. Some people had bought fold up garden chairs and were just sitting and chatting, others were playing cards, some were hanging around the bars but mostly they were just walking up and down and around and around and they were still coming in as we battled against the flow and made our way to the seafront just a few yards to the west.

At the fishing harbour men were still going about their daily chores and preparing their boats to put out to sea later and this gave way to a long elegant promenade, Foro Vittorio Emanuele II where people were beginning to gather in expectation of a sunset.  As local people they will all have seen this sunset many many times over but it still draws them in like a moth to a flame.

We finished at the Fountain of Arethusa, a natural fountain and according to Greek mythology the fresh water fountain is the place where the nymph Arethusa, the patron figure of ancient Syracuse, returned to earth’s surface after escaping from her undersea home in Arcadia.  The Fountain of Arethusa is the only place in Europe where papyrus grows (allegedly) which explained why the gift shops nearby all had postcards, book marks and fridge magnets made from the stuff.

The sunset came and went, we returned to the apartment and thoughts turned to evening dining.  The owner of the apartment had earlier made a recommendation so based solely on that we returned to Piazza Archimede and discovered a charming trattoria with a traditional menu and enjoyed a vibrant plate of Sicilian pasta.  We knew instinctively that we would be returning.

The day finished with a night of terror.  It was a hot night and in the early hours I pushed the duvet back to cool down but as I lay there a heard zzzzz, zzzzz, a bloody mosquito and we had foolishly travelled without insect repellent.  It simply hadn’t occurred to us.  Not taking any chances we pulled the duvet up to our necks and checked for bites because we had been lying out of the sheets laid out like an all-you-can-eat buffet table for creepy-crawlies.

I don’t like all-you-can-eat buffets much myself because I invariably overload the plate and eat too much and the mosquitoes suffered from the same lack of self restraint and sure enough we had been attacked. 

I had only a couple and considering how many glasses of wine I had drunk the previous day took I pleasure from imagining that the little blighter that got me would most likely be suffering from a monster hang-over! I had a vision of him in my head sitting there with his pals, rubbing his head and saying “never again. never ever again…!”

The next day we made it a priority to buy insect repellent.

Sicily – A Street Map of Ortigia

So much easier with a Street Map!

A to Z of Postcards – Z is for Zuiderzee in the Netherlands

Z is always a tricky one in an A to Z.  I thought about it, racked my brains and eventually remembered that in 1979 or thereabouts I went to Amsterdam and the weekend included an excursion to Volendam on the Zuiderzee.

Volendam is a popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands, well-known for its fleet of old fishing boats, pretty gabled wooden houses and the traditional clothing still worn by some of the older residents. The women’s costume of Volendam, with its high pointed bonnet, is one of the most recognizable of the Dutch traditional costumes, and is the one most often featured on tourist postcards and calendars.

It is rather like a theme park actually, with little in common with reality,

Read the full story Here…

 

A to Z of postcards – X is for Eixample in Barcelona

The modern parts of Barcelona are a triumph of urban planning.  We were staying in the Eixample district which was planned and built about one hundred and fifty years ago by a man called Ildefons Cerdà and is characterized by long straight streets, a strict grid pattern crossed by wide avenues and square blocks with chamfered corners all of which means that the traffic always flows freely in a slick one-way system and it is easy to navigate on foot.

Read the full story Here…

A to Z of Postcards – W is for Wroclaw in Poland

Following the coffee break we returned to the streets, walked through the Market Square and out the other side and at this point alarm bells started to ring because it soon became obvious to me that Kim was leading us directly towards the shopping arcades.  I knew the signs, I have seen them many times before, the sniff of the perfume, the glitter of the sparkly things catching the corner of the eye  and the smell of shoe leather.

For a while I fell behind after stopping to buy a doughnut from a shop with a long and patient queue but after the purchase I caught her up and queried this but was received an assurance that this was a complete coincidence – but I wasn’t entirely convinced. And as it turned out I had good reason not to be entirely convinced because suddenly we were outside the entrance to a modern shopping mall and the tractor beam that attracts women into shops was working on maximum draw power.

Read the full story Here…

A to Z of Postcards – V is for Valladolid in Spain

“The celebrated plateresque façades of Valladolid strike me as being, when one has recovered from the riotous shock of them, actually edible.”    –   Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

Valladolid is a very crimson city, the reddest that I have ever seen, a sprawling industrial metropolis, the capital of Castilla y León, the tenth largest city in Spain but with its medieval heart ripped out and trodden under foot in the post civil war industrial boom and it does not feature on many tourist itineraries.

Read the full story Here…

A to Z of Postcards – U is for Umbria in Italy

I live in England and I am a citizen of the United Kingdom of course but…

…I am really struggling with the letter U.  I have never been to Ukraine or Uzbekistan or Uruguay and doubt that I ever will,  I have never been to Uganda or the United Arab Emirates and also doubt that I ever will.

I have overdone Castro Udiales in Spain having used it three times already in my A to Zs.  So I am going to cheat here.  I am not sure if I have ever been to Umbria in Italy but I have half a thought that I have passed through it on a train journey.

The nearest place to Umbria that I have visited is the city of Siena in neighbouring Tuscany.

Read the full story Here…