Much to my surprise the route seemed to be lined largely by derelict industrial sites as we drove along rough roads from the airport at Catania, through torrential rain to the ancient city of Siracusa. Burnt out ice cream vans, ragged remains of Luigi Riva shirts, battered violin cases and rusty old Spaghetti Hoops tins, all reminders of better times, littered the way until we reached our destination 70 km further down the Mediterranean coast.
On a rock overlooking the sea, the town of Ortiga at the centre of Siracusa was where we had planned to park up for our first night on Italian soil. This amazing place that had been founded by the Greeks in 600 BC, and invaded by just about everybody down the centuries, had today been invaded by me and my Australian travelling companion, Jo. It was so utterly lovely that I was surprised that they allowed the likes of Jo and me to stay there . . . especially Jo!
Having found the magnificently old Hotel Posta (not Pasta) in Via Trieste, with a history dating back to before 1900 (that’s seven o’clock to you and me), encamped amongst the plush furnishings of our five bed attic room, admired the art that adorned the walls and found the rusty old fridge rattling in the corner, we had an expensive can of cheap German beer to toast our hosts and the forthcoming adventure. Immediately Jo, who was ill, was out for the count and I was out wandering the miles and miles of stylishly unkempt narrow and windy streets and alleys of medieval Ortiga, the island that forms the spiritual and physical heart of the city.
The place had everything you would expect of an old Sicilian city. The jewel of the architecture was the Doumo (Cathedral), built on the site of a Greek Temple to Athena. I stood for a while in the Piazza del Doumo and admired my surroundings as the orange rays of the setting sun illuminated the white stone from which the basilica was built. Around me Sicilians and tourists went calmly about their business. Here was a truly special place that seemed to have preserved its serenity despite its popularity with the modern day invaders.
Lots of old churches, a fortified sea wall, an old harbour and a fortress built on a rock in the sea at the island’s southern tip made this a fairy-tale place to visit as I roamed alone through quiet streets inhabited only by hungry, scabby cats and children playing football, and along busy streets fringed with restaurants and fridge magnet shops inhabited only by a coach party from Wakefield.
In the evening the streets and restaurants became much more busy, to the extent that Marsupial Jo and I were turned away from the first two or three that we tried because we hadn’t reserved a table. I had travelled all the way from the Wiltshire Wilderness and they couldn’t even give me a seat and a bacon butty . . . how shameful. Mind you, had they made the journey in the opposite direction to the Wiltshire Wilderness they would have no doubt had even less luck and probably even made the front page headline in the Daily Mail with something like, “They come over here . . . pinching our bottoms …”
We ended up in a gorgeous little restaurant up a narrow street far, far away from the crowds, apart from the crowd that had got there before us and already taken most of the tables for dinner. Rather than turn us away, the lovely lady proprietor arranged for us to share a large table with two young Sicilian couples. Oh how romantic! We exchanged smiles and greetings as we also shared the sauce from their spaghetti as it whiplashed its way across the pristine white Italian lace tablecloth to my pristine white English flabby arm. Of course I licked it off to save their blushes. It could have done with just a hint more marjoram though.
During the course of our meal, dining companions and restaurant staff all expressed to us their embarrassment at having such a limited knowledge of the English language. I didn’t know enough words of the Italian language to express my embarrassment at having absolutely no knowledge at all of the Italian language. Luckily, Jo was able to act as translator and save the giorno. She wasn’t fluent but she knew the Italian word for every conceivable type of seafood on an Italian menu. So a jolly evening of mixing with the locals was enjoyed using only the medium of fish.
It was lovely to be in Ortiga but I wished that I had gone there a day earlier. Near to our hotel was a street called Via XX Settembre. I would have loved to have seen what went on there the day before our arrival. And I would have loved to have known what they would have called that street had the City of Rome not been captured from Papal control on 20th September 1870 during the Second Italian War of Independence. And I would have loved to have known what the lovely lady proprietor in the restaurant was called.
Wouldn't you just die without Francesco Crispi?