A week in Sicily Part 4: Yummy, Historic, Crazy, Stressful, Amazing, Wet, Complicated and Incorrect

Tuesday – Historic Cities

We woke feeling great and well rested to some glorious Mediterranean sun.
Breakfast in the bright and welcoming breakfast room was a delight. A proper Italian cappuccino, pastries and cakes galore, fresh fruit and a selection of cereals. My perfect morning meal. Yummy!
After filling up we started exploring, starting with a drive to the nearby town of Noto. Again, the SatNav helped us out but didn’t really get us to the centre of the city and we struggled to find somewhere to park. We eventually parked up in a place that turned out to be on the outskirts of the small city, and we walked down the hill towards the centre.
Part-way down the hill we came across a very provincial town square in front of a big church. This was a classic Italian sight: old Italian men gathering in the square in rough suits and flat caps, smoking their cigarettes in whatever shade they could find, whilst talking loudly and gesticulating wildly. Perfect!
Noto, despite being very small, has some fantastic buildings and there’s plenty to see. The Baroque architecture is everywhere and captivates the imagination. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
We spent some time wondering and taking photos before ambling back to the car and heading off to the bigger city of Syracuse (aka Siracusa).

Struggling with Sandwiches in Syracuse

The journey to Syracuse not only confused the Sat Nav (some bits of road were closed or being rebuilt), but gave us our first taste of proper Sicilian driving. Turns out they are a bit crazy after all. We saw some mad overtaking manoeuvres – even from big trucks! – and they drive right up close behind you. This all not helped by the fact that visibility in the Micra was awful.
After arriving at Syracuse and fighting our way through the equally-crazy city-centre mele of cars and scooters (are there any rules of the road?), we again had problems parking – not least because we didn’t have any Euro coins to put in the parking ticket machines – we only had notes!
Eventually we found a free space in a fairly dodgy looking part of town, and walked back towards the historic centre of Ortigia.
By now it was definitely lunchtime, and we wanted to grab a sandwich. This was the start of several lunchtime stresses for us. It turns out that buying cakes, cigarettes and coffee is pretty easy at any time of day, but buying a sandwich is a bit hit and miss.
We eventually found a cafe selling the sort of thing we were after. It had seats outside for an al fresco dining experience. But what did we do? The food was on display in counters inside, so did we go in, see what we wanted, then sit outside and wait for someone to take an order? Or did we buy the food inside and then take it out to eat?
Most people sitting outside seemed quite happy that there were no menus, but we were a bit baffled.
We proceeded to the counter and asked for some panini (sandwiches), and as we were being served some other people came in and started paying. We decided that the system must be to pay first, then get the food. But we still weren’t sure about sitting outside.
AAAARRRGGHH!!!! This is why I hate being abroad. Doing the simplest things becomes incredibly difficult when you don’t know how things work and don’t have a good enough grasp of the language to be able to ask.
Eventually, I think the cafe staff worked out what we were trying to do. Gave us our sandwiches, ushered us outside and took our money once we were finished.
Wandering the Back Streets of Ortigia
Full of good wholesome Italian lunch, we then picked up our Rough Guide and went for a walk around Ortigia. Wandering backstreets is something that Sally and I always seem to end up doing. We try to follow signs and directions but almost always end on off the beaten track in foreign cities. Why doesn’t everyone else end up doing this? We always seem to be alone.
It’s slightly fun, but becomes a drag after a while, especially when you’re trying to see the sights and you can’t find them.
The Cathedral – Reverence, but at what cost?
We eventually found the Duomo (Cathedral). An AMAZING building. It’s a place that has been built and re-built over the centuries, but unlike most places, you can see how it’s been built over. There columns of the old greek temple on which it was built are still there to see, and you can see how the new bits of building have been overlaid, and set within these. The fairly modern facade was added after an earthquake brought down an older entrance to the building. Inside, the building was dark and quiet, huge and expansive, allowing your mind to awe and wonder.
As a Christian I have conflicting views on the nature of big churches. A place like Ortigia’s Duomo brings me to a place of great reverence. These places make God big. They cost lots and took lots of effort to build. These were probably the finest buildings of their times, and they were built for the purpose of worshipping God. I find it amazing, and it makes me wish that WE could do such amazing things for God.
But I also question what God would have us do? Giving our lives, out work, our money, as offerings to God is exactly what our faith requires. But is using that wealth and effort to build a place of worship, where Christians can lock themselves away and revere the Lord the right thing? The Bible makes it clear that our God would rather have us help the poor and needy, share all we have with those in need, and bring righteousness and justice to all, than hoard our wealth within the church.
I love the huge reverence that these people had for the LORD. But wouldn’t their sacrifices have been better used for God’s purposes?
Spooky Catacombs
A quick ice cream (I LOVE Italian ice cream!) and we headed back to the car and out of town. It had started raining again, and large puddles has started accumulating on the roads which, oddly, don’t seem to have drains. This puzzled us because when it rains in Sicily, it really buckets down!
Our next destination was the catacombs. We found this easily using the Sat NAv, and we found some parking too. We even had Euro coins to put in the machine. But…where do we pay? There were no machines!
After some deliberation, we spotted a free space by the road and parked there.
Catacombs are fascinating places. When we went to Rome we made a long trip outside the city to visit some. They are underground networks of tunnels that form a burial site for Christians. Thousands of people were buried in tombs underground in these places and they are spooky, but intriguing places that again show the great lengths that people went to in reverence of God.
One thing tha I found in both Rome and Syracuse was that the guides that took you round the catacombs were incredibly knowledgable, multi-lingual, and very helpful. Catacombs are always well worth a visit if you’re near them.
Dinner in Noto – Don’t Trust your Rough Guide!
We headed back to Noto for dinner via the town of Avola, which looked like a cool and thriving place. Back in Noto we still couldn’t find a place to park. We drove in circles for a bit with the SAt Nav bleating out “Recalculating….recalculating…” (seems they’re not so good at finding parking) then eventually we found a free space.
Wondering round Noto earlier we’d seen plenty of places to eat, but on our return they all seemed to have disappeared. Where had all the restaurants gone?
The Rough Guide we had recommended a couple of places. The first was a restaurant just off the main square. It has a load of seats outside but no one was eating there, there were no menus on show and, frankly, the place smelled of wee. So we avoided that one. Next up was a restaurant described by the Rough Guide as “the best restaurant in Noto”. This was not to be the case. They weren’t serving Pizza, and the food we did get was cheap and pretty poor quality.
Perhaps Noto’s not such a good place to eat after all? And we’d certainly recommend using your head rather then the guide to find a good place to eat. It’s not hard to work out the good places, but it is made difficult when there’s no menus or prices on display – which was often the case in Sicily.
Language Complications
Over dinner we were trying to learn a bit more Italian to get us through the week. We had some phrases in the Rough Guide and an Italian-English dictionary. I somehow got distracted looking at English pronunciation. How complicated is that? How is anyone supposed to learn a language where the following groups of letters sound the same:
  • t, tt, ed and bt (tea, butter, walked, doubt)
  • k, c, cc, ck, ch, que (key, cool, soccer, lock, school, cheque)
  • ch, tch, tu, ti (cheer, match, nature, question)
  • j, ge, dge, di, du (jump, age, edge, soldier, gradual)
  • f, ff, gh, ph, lf (fat, coffee, cough, physics, half)
  • s, c, ps, ss, sc, st (soon, city, psychology, mess, scene, listen)
  • f, s, ti, si (fishing, sure, station, tension)
  • m, mm, lm, mb (sum, hammer, calm, bomb)
  • r, rr, wr, rh (red, marry, wriggle, rhubard)
And that’s just the consonants! Note that some letter combinations have more than one sound (e.g. ti = question, station – subtly different!)
Vowels are even worse – check out these groups:
  • augh, a, oa, aw, ou, oo (caught, ball, board, draw, four, floor)
  • oo, o, oe, ou, ew, ue, u (boot, move, shoe, group, flew, blue, rude)
  • i, ur, er, or, ear, our (bird, burn, fern, worm, earn, journal)
  • oar, e, our, or, io, er (cupboard, the, colour, actor, nation, danger)
Even the letters y, i and u can all sound the same just on their own (yet, onion, use).
Our language is BONKERS, and I have a renewed respect for anyone that tries to learn it!
Less hungry, but not hugely satisfied, we headed back to hotel for some well earned rest. We certainly had a busy first day.
Link: Part five