Category Archives: Postcards

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.

Saint Joan of Arc and the Risk of Cross Dressing

I interrupt my sequence of posts about my visit to Sicily with another Saint tale…

The French seem to take this ladies wearing trousers thing rather seriously and after November 1800 it was technically illegal for a woman to wear trousers in Paris without a police permit.  Just over a century ago, exceptions were introduced for women riding horses or bicycles. Otherwise, the by-law remained in force.

Read the full story here…

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 – Doors and Windows of Syracuse

“I feel very adventurous. There are so many doors to be opened, and I’m not afraid to look behind them.”
― Elizabeth Taylor

I am always looking out for doors and windows to photograph and Syracuse did not disappoint…

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

I do like doors, I really like doors, especially old doors, I speculate about their history, who passed through them and what stories they have to tell…

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.

Sicily – Papyrus

Apparently the only place it grows in Europe,  Who knows?

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.