Sunday, December 17, 2006

Aci Trezza Fishing Boats

Many Sicilian men still make a living as fishermen, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the town of Aci Trezza (AH-chee TRAY-tsa), a charming village just north of Catania. Here you can still see the boats, the men, the shops, and the fish market. Oh, and they even now have a museum of fishing history! Thanks to my friends Jan and Flint, unofficial tour guides and marketers for Aci Trezza for opening my eyes to all of this recently on a beautiful Sunday in November.

The original purpose of the Sunday morning visit was to sample the ravioli del forno, a seasonal pastry filled with fresh, rich, heavy ricotta that is served warm and perhaps eaten with a spoon. We enjoyed that immensely with cappucino at a cafe near the main piazza. But afterwards, we went to the museum, just a few steps up the hill from the church on the main square, and saw memorabilia from a major motion picture filmed here in the 1950s as well as an authentic house (one room, really) of a fisherman's family from not so long ago. The guide patiently explained every item in the room and demonstrated the art of making fishing nets for us. Her English was very good, in spite of her apologies. There is also a miniscule gift shop with some interesting fishing art (wooden boat replicas for the wall).

Flint knows half the town, so he arranged a boat ride for us out to the Cyclops Rocks, jutting little islands of lava that the one-eyed monster (then blind) threw at the retreating Odysseus according to legend. We rode in one the brightly colored boats piloted by a shirtless Odysseus himself (this, in November) and spent some time on one of the lava outcrops before he returned to get us.

Our day ended with a fabulous seafood lunch overlooking the water--black spaghetti once again--yum! We also had some of the largest and tastiest mussels I have ever had. Oh, that wasn't quite the end--gelati and cafe were in order before stuffing ourselves in the Mini and heading home.

The boats are brightly painted, but not just for tourist effect! We found out at the museum that each of the designs around the top edge is symbolic of one of the conquerors of Sicily--Greek, Roman, Norman (French), Arabic, or Spanish. The mermaid? Well, she's just symbolic of all the blondes that Sicilian men love.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Nature and Necropoli

A few years ago, after seeing Roman mosaics and then Greek temples, some visitors of mine kept kidding me with the question, "When are you going to show us something really old?" If they come back to Sicily, I can do that!

Imagine cliffside burial caves that date back as far as 1300 B.C.--that's over 3,300 years old!

Then imagine over 5,000 of them located in one huge gorge here in Sicily!

Now we're talking OLD, really old.

Welcome to Pantalica, one of the best-kept secrets in Sicily. It's not only a fabulously old archaeological site, but it's also a protected nature area that is spectacularly beautiful!

It's a little off the beaten path, but we didn't have too much trouble finding one of the two entrances into the gorge near the town of Sortino, just off the highway to Siracusa. Brown signs indicating a historical site mark the way pretty well, even through the maze of Sortino itself. You then wind through some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere in Sicily, all white cliffs, grassy meadows, wildflowers, and occasional stone buildings. Gorges, cliffs, and valleys surround the winding road that suddenly just stops. Then you know you are there, and you leave your car to begin a pretty rugged hike down into the gorge. This is the Valle del Calcinara end.

I was glad I'd worn hiking boots but sorry I hadn't brought my hiking poles, as the path was very rocky, sometimes steep and treacherous. You also have to bring your own food and water, as there is nothing out there but nature and necropoli, as they call burial places like this. It would probably only take about 45 minutes to hike to the bottom, but we kept stopping to marvel, to wonder, to take photos, and to stand in awe of the place. The deeper we got into the gorge, the more caves/tombs we saw. Some were found along the very path we were on; we could go right into them! The doors were cut squarely and precisely into the rock, and clearly there were places for a door of sorts, perhaps another stone, and indentations for something to hold it shut. Nowadays, the caves are all without doors, which makes the cliffside look like a honeycomb. How they got the bodies up, or down, to the tombs, I do not know, but most of them are far from either top or bottom.

Upon reaching the bottom, we found a crystal clear stream running noisily over the rocks. It wasn't deep, which was lucky, since I promptly slipped and fell knee-deep in it. Luckily also, it was not cold that day, and I just had to put up with a wet foot the rest of the afternoon. We crossed and went a little way up the path on the opposite side of the gorge and found a large cave to stand in while a little shower passed through. Down below, rock climbers were doing what they do on the walls of a concave cave opening. We met two sets of British tourists and that was all the human contact we encountered that day.

Birds and wildflowers abound, as do the famous Sicilian cacti with their red fruit. Wild gladioli are seen everywhere. Even in December, this is a colorful place.

Afterwards, we drove around the entire gorge to the other end near the town of Ferla. There is another valley to explore here, the Valle dell' Anapo, but it will have to wait for another day, another well-kept secret to discover.

To see more photos, go to my Flickr page.