Archive for the ‘In Italy’ Category


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A surprising discovery in Sicily

There are quite a lot of sights, when you’re in Italy, that cause you to break step, do a second take, shake your head and shrug before moving on, with the vision playing through your head long after.

My visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Tears* (Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime) in Syracusa, southern Sicily, was one of those occasions. The building itself is remarkable enough, a 90-metre teardrop-shaped edifice of grey concrete, fashioned also to look like a tented pavilion to shelter pilgrims, jutting into the sky and visible for miles around.

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Inside, silent, eerily empty when I visited, it is strangely like walking into one of those bleak and featureless multi-storey car parks where the architects have run out of ideas after designing a contemporary exterior. Areas of it appeared raw and unfinished (it opened in 1994 after 28 years of construction) and it screamed out for contrasting softness, perhaps some tapestry hangings, to alleviate the brutal starkness. But that’s how they like it, I guess, and who am I to pass judgment.

It was when I went down into the museum area that the real strangeness took over. There were different rooms containing displays of various relevant items, including some of the 5,000 votive statues unearthed nearby during the building work, but what stopped me in my tracks was the display devoted to modern-day offerings of thanks to the Madonna.

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These tugged so hard at my heart-strings I could barely breathe. In acts of pathetic gratitude to the Madonna for mercies bestowed upon them, people had handed in their crutches, medical corsets, callipers and leg braces – obsolete now, thanks to her gracious intervention in answer to prayer.

Perhaps the most touching, though, were the soft heaps of baby clothes, lovingly knitted matinee jackets, bonnets, bootees, mittens, given as proof that the Madonna had heeded pleas for the blessing of childbirth upon so many desperate couples.

After looking at photographs, letters, drawings, paintings and lovingly executed pieces of embroidery, I turned away to calm my emotions, only to see a display of dazzling white wedding dresses, so incongruous among such desperate pathos. Yet it turned out that these dresses had also been given in thanks to the Madonna by women who had prayed fervently to her that one day they might become brides. Their dresses told the rest of the story.

I was in that peaceful, emotion-charged room for only a short time, but it was long enough to learn what the very depths of gratitude can look like, and to find how strongly the images print themselves on the mind.

* The circular shrine was built to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims drawn to a small plaster image of the Madonna, from which, in 1953, in a simple Siracusan home, tears were seen to fall for five days, during which the Madonna bestowed more than 300 miraculous cures. The museum area of the building is mainly devoted to the miracle of the weeping Virgin statue and the objects associated with it.

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It is hard to believe that under this depressing mound of litter lies an important historical site.

There, buried under the grime and grot, is nothing less than the late-Roman tomb of a wealthy Christian family, dating from around 400 AD, containing two sarcophagi and decorated with frescoes of roses, wreaths, swags and peacocks.

The frescoes are similar to those in the catacombs of San Giovanni, where 4th century Christians took refuge from persecutors.

The mausoleum is in Viale Teocrito in Syracuse, only a few steps from the famous Paolo Orsi archaeological museum, but no visitors would know it was there because it has sunk virtually without trace, surrounded by grim corporation railings.

Over the years, the roads have been gradually raised around it, leaving it a good two metres below street level, as if it is some eyesore public toilet block.

Now, the traffic roars and blasts its way past above roof height, while buses that stop almost beside it carry passengers who afford it not a glance. It is opposite one of the entrances to the modern sanctuary, the Madonna delle Lacrime, yet I doubt that more than a handful of worshippers would be aware of its existence.

Those who do know about it are anxious for its value and historical significance to come to wider notice and to be accorded more TLC.

The mausoleum is named after Vincenzo Politi, the painter, antiquarian and archaeologist who discovered it in 1826. If he knew what a grim state his lovely discovery was in, he might be spinning in his own grave.

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A fine example of the art of non-translation from Italian to English, seen in the southern Sicilian town of Noto.

A fine example of the art of non-translation from Italian to English, seen in the southern Sicilian town of Noto.

Information boards in Italy rarely illuminate but they do serve as a showcase for reams of flowery Italian and as many paragraphs of impenetrable English translation. I use that word loosely. The challenge is to read them and not double up with laughter.

I have a theory about how these translations come about. They are the dastardly work of someone who has responded to a cry across a crowded office for help. ‘Hey, anyone know any English? Give me a hand with this.’ (That’s a rough translation of the original.)

The courageous person who steps up is confident they have a command of the English language good enough to turn dense Italian prose into the sort of language that the English-speaking world can recognise. This is meritorious, in its way, except that they are misguided. They merely employ a string of words and phrases that they remember from school and three months of working in Zio Pepe’s pizzeria in Coventry.

They have a predilection for words such as ‘immersed’, ‘characteristic’ and ‘suggestive’ which make the reader lose concentration while grasping to maintain a hold on reality.

These long screeds of quasi-English verging on the semi-lunatic offer more laugh-a-minute errors than if the piece had been run through Google translate – and that’s saying something.

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Walking along a busy, dirty, going-nowhere sort of road called Via Elorina in Siracusa, lined with derelict buildings and some scruffy stores, an open space was revealed on my right, behind a length of paint-peeled railings.

A gate was propped open so I went in, my feet brushing through the long grass.

To my amazement, I found myself standing in the Ginnasio Romano, an ancient site that was discovered 150 years ago and is estimated to date from between 200BC and 200AD.

Theories about its origins vary, but a distinctly 21st century information board (I use the word ‘information’ very loosely) advised me that it could either have been a Roman curia, a kind of district office for the Pope, or a sanctuary of votive offerings to Oriental deities.

What an extraordinary place to have stumbled across. I walked around the small site, about the size of a football pitch, and was saddened to see it in an apparent state of abandonment.

A trimmed hedge of oleander down one side was the only sign that anyone had tended or even visited this extraordinary place recently. Yet of course it does draw visitors, of a determined mindset presumably, a fact which I discovered later on looking it up online.

How anyone reaches the Ginnasio Romano I cannot imagine, since my walk took me well away from the centre of the town and, this being Italy, there were of course no direction signs.

Little wonder that on Trip Advisor it is rated as 75th out of 95 things to see and do in and around Siracusa, yet it is beautiful in its way, unsung, unloved and so brimming with ancient history that it deserves far greater attention.

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Luigi drives a trailer-load of grapes to the cantina.

Luigi drives a trailer-load of grapes to the cantina.

OVER the few weeks that we have been in Italy the landscape has changed from a healthy green patterned with huge swathes of golden-yellow sunflowers to a brown that smacks of struggle and despair. Water, give me water! Turn that heat down! It has been so hot and dry that the earth is baked rock-hard and the once-cheerful sunflowers hang their heads dolefully, fearing their own demise.

The farmers potter about hotly on their tractors, not all of them with the luxury of air-conditioned cabs. They are engaged in all the usual high-summer activity, much of it at night when they and the earth can breathe. Vines take priority. Here, it’s all about the vines. Come the vendemmia, the whole area’s focus will turn to picking the grapes and getting them off to the cantina for turning into wine. 

In our vineyard, as in our olive grove, it’s always a poor harvest – or so our contadino (tenant farmer) tells us, shaking his head and looking as unhappy as one of the drooping sunflowers. Farmers are the same here, then, as they are in the UK. This ritual attack of the glooms is our farmer’s transparent ruse for excusing his diminishing annual rental payment.

We have always had an agreement that in return for farming our land, harvesting our grapes and olives, and no doubt accruing some tasty EU subsidies and grants each year, he will pay us in lakes of wine, vats of oil, with occasional extras of fruit, vegetables, eggs and strange, stringy chickens thrown in for good measure. 

Tomatoes, melon, red wine and 10 litres of olive oil.

Tomatoes, melon, red wine and 10 litres of olive oil.

Nowadays, we are lucky to get a fraction of that. But we don’t mind. We’re happy with the slightly one-sided barter system and, although others advise us to get tough, we have no intention of coming over all landlord-ish with them. Besides, we like our farmer and all his family and wouldn’t ever want to fall out with them.

They work incredibly hard, papa and his two sons, tending scores of acres of land for a number of different landowners, toiling up and down hills that are like the sides of mountains. Once, a tractor toppled over and fell on Filippo, crushing his legs. Now, 12 years on and aged 78, he struggles to walk as arthritis takes its toll. His sons are the contadini now, lovely men with wives and children who always hail us like old friends. 

As well as wanting to remain on good terms with Filippo and the boys, I am aware that making a fuss about the paucity of gifts could mean a resumption in the supply of chickens. These have been a problem to me in the past. As a vegetarian, I am not sure how many of those strange things I can cope with handling any more. The last one was presented to us already roasted, incinerated to a rich brown-black colour, with its fully beaked head twisted round to give it a view straight up its empty insides.

A few pounds of tomatoes? Now you’re talking.

Rich with promise. This is the kind of gift that brings me joy.

Rich with promise. This is the kind of gift that brings me joy.

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes - melons, tomatoes, wine and olive oil.

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes – melons, tomatoes, wine and olive oil.

Lovely knobbly tomatoes, peppers and cacchi.

Lovely knobbly tomatoes, peppers and cacchi.

The big one. A very welcome 'payment' in the form of 30 litres of the most beautiful olive oil.

The big one. A very welcome ‘payment’ in the form of 30 litres of the most beautiful olive oil.

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The procession sets off

The procession sets off

ITALIAN communities need little excuse to stage a celebration. They turn on the party mood for anything from saints to squid, from sausages to shrimps.

Our village has been having a high old time paying homage in various ways to the saints associated with its five churches – yes, five, in a village of 1,000 souls. There has been food, lots of it, enjoyed at trestle tables under the stars in the piazza, music, dancing, a volleyball tournament and a solemn procession up and down the hills around the village stopping at each church, accompanied by the oompah band, a tolling bell and an occasional exploding firework.

The village's youthful drum corps, led by Ernestino

The village’s youthful drum corps, led by Ernestino

Prominent in the parade was a huge gold-framed portrait of the Madonna, topped with a crown and carried shoulder-high on a red velvet bier by a team of strong men. Along the route, gold-trimmed red cloths hung from windows as a mark of respect.

After more fireworks and the release into the velvet sky of scores of coloured lanterns there was a big shared meal in the piazza, by which time it was about 11pm and not one child was tucked up in bed. All were happy participants in a timeless, deeply affecting event that drew the little community together to confirm its faith and say a God-fearing thank-you to the saints.

Lanterns float into the sky as a finale to the solemn procession

Lanterns float into the sky as a finale to the solemn procession

The previous week the mood had been very different when a palio was held in the medieval centre of the village to decide the champion contrada, or neighbourhood. Unlike the famous palio in Siena, our men wore not dazzling racing silks but coloured tights. And there were no horses.

Before the palio, the trio representing each contrada makes a royal progress through the village to be admired

Before the palio, the trio representing each contrada makes a royal progress through the village to be admired

It was late, we’d all been eating for hours, the atmosphere was benign, the night was warm – but this was serious, there was a contest to win and glory to be had. HD and I joined the crowds lining the cobbled street and waited to cheer our contrada, whose main man, Luigi, was in white tights and a velvet Renaissance-dude tunic instead of his usual farmer’s overalls. As he is our very own contadino, we felt inordinately proud and proprietorial.

Each of the seven teams took it in turns to pull a racing sulky at speed along the cobbles. Bouncing unsteadily aboard the sulky was a man – Luigi was ours – holding a long lance with which to hit a thing like a giant saucepan suspended 15ft up in the air as he passed underneath. A flag, white or red, held by a disembodied hand then appeared from an upstairs window to indicate if the hit had been fair or foul.

It was not gripping stuff, as HD’s weary expression made clear. The only real excitement came when one of the lances whacked the saucepan so hard it whizzed off-centre and had to be re-positioned. For this, a gang of volunteers in yellow, pink and turquoise tights held a ladder vertically while another in white tights clambered up and down to make adjustments. The operation, no doubt contravening every health and safety rule that bureaucracy could ever dream up, took us beyond midnight.

It was all very odd, very Italian and therefore completely unfathomable. But Luigi and our contrada won, so we can hold our head high as proud champions, of a sort.

They didn't need their umbrellas.

They didn’t need their umbrellas.

Some of our friends are in this contrada team

Some of our friends are in this contrada team

Our very own contrada royalty - the winners! -  with Luigi, our hero contadino, on the left

Our very own contrada royalty – the winners! – with Luigi, our hero contadino, on the left

Some of the strong guys, the cart-pullers, join the parade

Some of the strong guys, the cart-pullers, join the parade

No doubting the contrada loyalties of this baby

No doubting the contrada loyalties of this baby

Waiting for the palio to start

Waiting for the palio to start

11. The mayhem of the palio is underway

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LM-12-July-012 Rosita karaoke

One night this week was spent in the company of another couple of impoverished expats with a house in the locality, about five miles from ours. They are from southern England and they bought their place at around the same time as we did, in 2001.

Unlike our modest little two-bed farmhouse – a straightforward, if major, rebuild – they fell for a huge wreck that might at the time have seemed an equally huge bargain. Its many rooms and outbuildings, its acres of land tempting them with the prospects of a pool, a tennis court perhaps, guest quarters, you name it, presented all sorts of possibilities for restoration – but every single one of them was massively expensive. So far, not even the main house has been completed.

Nothing has gone right for these poor people and they are lumbered with a nightmare of a house, riddled with insuperable problems, of which the main ones could probably be said to be its unremarkable location, calamitous drainage defects, no phone signal, no broadband, and unpleasantly close proximity to a hideous modern house that has recently been bought by a large family of Romanians with five constantly barking dogs. It is very difficult to draw any positives at all from their dreadful experience, other than the fact that at least they themselves have been responsible for squandering hundreds of thousands of their pounds and not Bob Diamond or any other banker.

Our friends have not a word of Italian between them – after all these years of home ownership and encounters with builders – and they still don’t have either a working kitchen or a sitting room where they can relax in comfort. As a consequence, when they’re over here to supervise yet more building work, they eat out every night.

Thus it was that we encountered them in the village where HD and I had gone for an evening drink. We shared a bottle of Prosecco with them at the bar (€6, complete with snacks) and then walked along the road to the restaurant. Here, much to HD’s horror, a children’s birthday party was in full swing, complete with hysterical, over-dressed brats rushing about the place in packs. HD was all for throwing them over the balcony, one by one, or at least tripping them up as they ran past, but I begged him not to and in the end they settled at their table outside like a swarm of fizzing wasps, feasting on a vast ice-cream cake.

After our deliciously simple, entirely locally sourced meal, lubricated with the usual litres of wine and shots of mistra, the local aniseedy digestivo, we returned to the bar in the piazza where a night of merriment was underway.

The event was billed as a Piano Bar, but the Italians often use expressions like that without really knowing what they mean. I guess they thought it sounded a bit glam, which it wasn’t, and anyway there was no piano anywhere to be seen.

It was actually a karaoke night . . . shudder . . . but since it was under the stars, with everyone of all ages in the greatest good humour and with not the slightest sign of inebriation, it had a charm of its own. This was enhanced by the fact not one person sang a number from a British musical – an enormous plus.

Sorry for the quality of the pictured but they were snapped with my iPhone in the half-light.

Sorry for the quality of the pictures but they were snapped with my iPhone in the half-light.

We sat with our friends and with an Italian couple with whom we’ve made limping conversation in the past. This time, because of the noise of the singing and the distraction of a whole piazza-full of people jumping around and dancing, it wasn’t possible to do more than smile and mouth a few banal greetings, which must have been as great a relief for them as it was for us.

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HD and I loved being part of this night of moonlit mayhem, one of those events, as so often happens in our Italian experience, tinged with an affecting innocence. Here were a hundred or more people, many of them ’young’, letting their hair down and having a night to remember. Yet the dominant soundtrack was of music, fun, enjoyment, laughter, bursts of hilarity, applause – and not of the crush of feet on plastic beer mugs and polystyrene kebab containers, as in Anytown, UK.

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We finally got home after 1pm and for the umpteenth night running I flopped into bed just in time for happy oblivion to overwhelm me.

I'm sure someone came back for their sandals next morning.

I’m sure someone came back for their sandals next morning.

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