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Siracusa, Sicilia 30 October 2011

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Siracusa: good and bad

In keeping with my principle that I shouldn't linger on the negative, let me just say that the less said about Siracusa, the better. Partly due to weather, partly (again) due to the cupidity and incompetence of those in charge of treasures, my review of Siracusa is "Skip it; there's better." Nevertheless, we did see (and eat) some good stuff in Siracusa, and so it deserves a few frames.

But our experience is: go directly to Agrigento's Valle dei Templi.

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Siracusa is a simple town compared to hill towns complicated by topography -- a sloping plain down to a bridge to an island, Ortygia, the old town. We found our B&B after a minimum of confusion, and walked back up the hill quickly, because on Sundays the Museo Archeologico only welcomes visitors until 1pm, or so the guidebook said. Jokes on us! The Museo was closed until the end of the week due to an "extreme technical exigency." So we walked slowly back down the hill, finding a panino-maker on the way, sat in a little park, lunched, and then took a short repose.

By 5pm the city had reawakened and we walked out through a blustery drizzle to the island, whereupon (inspired, perhaps, by the museum wallahs of Siracusa) my camera decided to experience a short technical exigency of its own no pictures of the mediocre ruins. It decided to work again for the temple of Athena, the remaining columns of which are now seeing service as part of the Duomo, a church where Saints Peter and Paul are both said to have preached.

The recycling of a treasure, like Ortygia's temple to Athena being repurposed as its Duomo, is an interesting question. As we see later, the superimposition of a living culture on the remnants of a dead one can serve to preserve the treasures of the former culture. It can also be used as an excuse to expunge and forget, as in Split. The conversation is moot, of course, as these things happened centuries ago, and we are now to wise ever to ... or are we? Where and how are we doing this now? 

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We walked  around Ortygia's wind-whipped perimeter, where the houses show the effects of constant battering by the marine environment, then back along five-star hotel row, looking for a likely dinner. It being nearly November, it was hard to tell what would be open and what wouldn't, and our guidebook and TripAdvisor disagreed about the quality of food to be had here. Rough Guide said "over-priced, over-hyped" while TA hyped everything. We believe RG, and chose La Rambla (not even listed by TA) crowded with local families enjoying Sunday dinner. We had a surfeit of shellfish, risotto and soup. Perfect for a dreary night.

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The Essence of Horrid Tourism

Siracusa's historic pride is its Parco Archeologico just outside the city. Poorly signed and unexplained, one discovers by bumbling. To get into the fee area, you need a 10€ ticket -- once in, you'll agree with me it's worth easily half that much -- and to get that you have to walk half a kilometer through a welter of trash sellers to an out-of-the-way hut where a rude monolingual grinch sells you your ticket. Then you fight your way back past the trash through the stunned mobs of of milling tour groups trying to discover some relevance, ANY relevance, in the booths they are force-marched past, half a kilometer to the gate where another rude guard takes yout ticket.

The site, best experienced in silent meditation of times and peoples long gone, is marred by the constant whine and bellow of tour guides reciting canned messages that they cadged from the inadequate, fading, and largely illiterate signage on the site. This still impressive site is the poster child for extractive historic tourism: as horrid as it gets.

The doctors of archeology who run this place should be publicly humiliated, then shot.

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Despite the presentation, the site is stunning. The Greek Theater once seated 15,000, as one visiting opera amateur proved its acoustics with a few bars of recitative. Mostly, it inspires silent awe (except from jaded tour guides.)

Look a little closer, and you see the decay and neglect: stairs eroded with unhandled run-off, sloppy ironwork on stairs, slipshod patching of seats still in use for summertime productions. The common modern practice of cheapest fixes for aging infrastructure so prevalent in the US is practiced here in economically troubled Italy as well.

Water was very much a feature here even during the theater's heyday: the deus ex machina machinery was powered by a water wheel. Apparently the modern keepers don't understand that water is a foe as well as a friend to anything built.

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The theater was largely carved out of the hillside, but any stone needed for its stage and other works was cut from the adjoining quarry, now a sort of parklike crater featuring an artificial cave called Dionysius's Ear. Legends abound, but the name came from a fanciful Italian painter in the XVIth Century, and so they're all apocryphal. People, especially children, love the cave for its darkness and echo.

Some time ago, the quarry floor was beloved and treated with care, and could be quite beautiful ... but lazy present day authorities have blocked off most of the paths, and use them as repositories for broken chairs and trash. 


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On the way to Agrigento, we took our cappuccino break at Caffe Sicilia in Noto, where Corrado Assenza has made a name for himself doing unusual things with pastries and gelato. He surprised us, but we had such a good time that we forgot to write down what we ate. Rochelle tried to order chocolate for me and the sweet guy behind the counter said, "No, you want Montezuma" and he was right, chocolate in the style of Modica and the Aztecs, but with bits of candied orange peel. Even the other flavor was superb.

Following up on a suggestion from a Sicilian friend we tried to get Chocolate in Modica, but apparently you need an invitation. We found it in Ragusa Ibla, a sort of disneyland for tourists (like Matera, only without caves.)

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Right out of the bus from the parking lot far below and peckish, we stumbled into a nice looking restaurant and were warmly greeted -- a good thing on a cold, wet day -- and got served a good lunch by a waiter who enjoyed our effort to speak Italian, gently corrected our grammar, and served us the best antipasto we've seen in southern Italy.

In Ragusa Ibla I got completely turned around, didn't recognize the square we got dropped off in my the commune's bus ...luckily, Rochelle did, and we got out of there intact. Coming out of Ragusa we got scrambled up again in Sicilian signage -- usually Italian road signs are very good ...except when they aren't. 

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So we got some unanticipated close-up experience of Comiso, a little city with narrow streets. Darkness was closing in and we had a long way to go, but we soldiered on past refineries and bad smells into Gela, a town nobody every visits willingly. And that was the end of the day's ride. We found an "amazingly good considering where it is" hotel and holed up.

Tuesday morning, November 1st: a national holiday in Italy. Everyone buys flowers and goes to the cemetery to decorate the graves of the dear departed. Instead, it being only partly cloudy with a promise of patches of sun, we scampered out of Gela and on to Agrigento...  

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