I woke up at 3:30AM to the sound of pounding rain. Not again! I was trying to be optimistic the night before. The clouds had started to clear and I thought, ”just maybe tomorrow we will wake up to blue skies and the promised view of Mt. Etna from our rooftop terrace”. No, It wasn’t to be. More rain. We definitely needed to escape this rain cloud we were living under and made a plan go to Siracusa along the coast south of Catania, but as we headed for the autostrada the rain was just pouring from the sky. The “dry creek”, as Cinzia our host calls the wash in front of the house, was a roaring river. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. We stopped at the supermarket to pick up a few items and delay our decision. By the time we finished shopping, the rain had quieted down. We dropped the groceries off at home and headed for Siracusa. Not 20 minutes on the autostrada and the sky lightened up to where I almost needed sunglasses. Not quite blue, but brighter than I had ever seen under our little rain cloud at Casa di Camellia. There was hope for Siracusa.
I’m finally typing outside under a sky of cheerful fluffy white clouds that glow from the sun mixed with patches of blue. The air is crystal clear, probably from five days of rain. And I can hear the bells from the sheep passing by down below the lemon grove and a soft melody sung by their herder.
Siracusa’s old town is on a small island, Ortigia, just across a short bridge from the new town. Like most of the old towns we’ve seen it is filled with stately old baroque buildings. These have been spiffed up and are now brighter than in other towns. Our first stop was the market. This was the market experience I had been looking for, not just the great produce and fresh fish, but also the artesian specialty products that really give a market character – cheeses, herbs and spices, sausages, olives, etc. I finally found the estratto that I’ve read so much about. A couple of my cookbooks devote pages to the labor intensive process of making this Italian
“gold”. It is really just a handmade tomato paste – of course made with the finest and ripest tomatoes, pureed and then spread on a table and stirred by hand under the hot Sicilian sky for days until it forms a thick paste. I was so excited to see it at the market and be able to get just a small amount to cook one dish that I lost track of my camera lens cap. Looked all over for it, going back to where I first started taking pictures and then back to the vender where I had bought the estratto. He was very helpful offering suggestions of where I should look. Finally he pulled back the cloth draping the table of items for sale and there was the cap lying on the ground. Grazie mille Signore!
Ortigia’s main square, Piazza del Duomo, is supposed to be one of the loveliest in Europe. It certainly is grand and gleaming with a Duomo that shows off its ancient Greek columns from when it was “just” a Temple. On this warm and almost sunny afternoon, we took the opportunity to try another brioche con gelato – same flavors – chocolate with pistachio, my Sicilian favorite combo. This time the gelato was much creamier and the pistachio much nuttier. An improvement over the Agrigento experience, but I’m still not sold on the whole ice cream in bread thing.
The Archeological park, in the new part of town, has both Greek and Roman ruins not far from which are the ruins of San Giovanni with catacombs underneath. These catacombs are of the same early Christian style as those that I wanted to see in Rome. Finding this church, however, became one of those frustrating travel experiences. The Frommer’s map we were using had the church located just behind a museum, but when I asked the guy at the entrance how to get to the church he gave me a very long and complicated answer in nice slow Italian, pointing in the direction we were supposed to go – all of which took us in completely the wrong direction. When we finally looked at the map in the other guide book, we found both our mistake and the church. Unfortunately, they were closed until 2:30. We headed for the other ruins and would come back to the catacombs. At the archeological park, the Greek and Roman amphitheaters were impressive but the Ear of Dionysius was the star attraction. The quarry entrance to this cave is enormous. Inside there was a group of tourists singing to test the cave’s acoustics. Great echo! One young woman did a solo and was a bit stunned to hear her own voice continue on after she had stopped. She got twice the applause.
The catacombs could only be seen by a guided tour – I read in Frommer’s that someone had accidently been locked in when they didn’t exit exactly at closing time – and no pictures are allowed inside the tunnels. There are a number frescos in poor condition, and our uninspired guide proceeded to tell us the name of each Saint depicted in the frescos in both Italian and English, that they were in the Byzantine style, and little else. The amazing part of catacombs is the extensive tunnel system carved out underneath the church. 20,000 bodies were once interred here in a space of 10,000 meters. After WWII they were moved to a mass grave at a cemetery in Siracusa. Some of the tombs were individual graves carved into the wall that would have had a stone plate covering it with the name of the person. Others were a space-saver style with what looked like bath tubs laying side by side carved out of the stone. A few were more glamorous with a painted fresco marking the entrance to a large tomb carved into the tunnel wall.
When we got back home the weather had cleared some and we were able to sit on our porch and watch the evening sky with a glass of wine. I could see both stars above me and flashes of lighting out over the sea.
Dinner wasn’t the baccalà we had bought at the market in Acireale and carefully soak in water for two days changing the water several times a day. By the second day the fish really started to smell bad and we decided we really did not need to eat this fish. Luckily the supermarket also sells baccalà and stocco – the dried fish I was wanting to try – already presoaked. We bought the stocco but used the baccalà recipe using the estratto I had bought at the market that morning and the black olives from the butcher shop in Passopisciaro. The results – a tasty fish stew with the flavors of Sicily – tomato, onion, capers and olives. Simple and yummy. The wine was a bottle that Don had picked up at a little shop at the market in Siracusa, an Etna Rosso, Nanticchia by Pietro Caciorgna, a complex wine lacking some of the mineral notes of other Sicilian wines, but with bold rich fruit, not too spicy and mellow tannins with a long dry finish. A nice complement to the Sicilian flavors of the fish.