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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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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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Odd things happen in Italy, sometimes so odd that I have to pinch myself.

Take my run last evening, for instance. Tripping merrily along, brain in neutral, soul in harmony with the singing birds, I couldn’t help noticing that the surface of the quiet strada bianca was liberally dotted with sheep poo. Now I normally have this remote rural road all to myself, at any time of the day or evening, so the fact this wasn’t, after all, my own private running track, was all too obvious.

I made a mental note to be more careful than usual, not wanting to end my run by having to attend to mucky shoes as well as the usual heap of clothing.

Suddenly, a battered white Fiat Panda came towards me round a corner. It was moving slowly and I was astonished to see that running alongside it was a sheep. It was one of those catwalk-model type of sheep that litter Italian hillsides, its laughably long, flamingo-thin legs appearing quite inadequate to support a normal sheep-sized body.

My senses were having to take in not just the spindly sheep, looking extremely bewildered and lolloping along beside the slow-moving car, but a loud baa-ing and bleating that was coming from the car.

As the car and the sheep went noisily past me I tried to compose my features into a look that said “Please just carry on. I am aware I’m in Italy where weird things happen and so I am trying to appear unconcerned.”

My calmness lasted only a few seconds until I couldn’t resist turning round to observe the mobile charade from a different angle.

This was when I worked out what was happening. I think a flock of sheep had been down the road earlier, but one of them, my flamingo-legged acquaintance, had got left behind. (Probably draining its caffe corretto in the bar and hadn’t noticed its mates had gone.) The shepherd – i.e. the Panda driver – reached the destination with the flock, found he was one short and drove back to get him.

Now heading once more for the fold, the driver made sure the spindly one kept up by leaning out of the window making very convincing bleating and baa-ing noises.

All was obviously going to plan until they encountered me, aka Blunderbug. When I stopped and turned round to stare in disbelief, so too did the sheep. The bleating shepherd drove on, unaware.

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Sheepy and I maintained our stand-off, dismayed and amazed in equal measure by the sight of each other, until the Panda hove back into view, this time in reverse, at high speed. The driver, no longer bleating or baa-ing, jumped out, scooped the surprised sheep up in his arms and bundled it into the boot.

And so ended the evening’s entertainment. If I hadn’t witnessed it I would never have believed it, but of course this is Italy, where anything can happen – and usually does.

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So many people come over all misty-eyed when I mention we have a place in Italy. ‘Aaah,’ they say, ‘la dolce vita, eh?’ The cliché is uttered as the head tilts in a knowing way, as if to imply some superior knowledge.

Oh you know Italy, too, do you? I respond, anxious to delay the 20-question interrogation that always starts with ‘So where is your villa?’

‘Yes,’ they say. ‘We know Tuscany, of course. We’ve rented a holiday house near Lucca for the past six summers. Everyone around treats us as locals. So where is your villa?

Here we go. I tailor my response, having first gauged the true level of interest shown by the questioner. If they lean a little towards me and appear genuinely interested, I give them a reasonably fleshy version, which can take a minute or so, or if they’re just going through the motions, I give them a severely pruned version. Either way, I perm my answer from the following basic facts.

First up, our house in Italy is absolutely not a villa. It’s a small, very modest, brick farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in a region called Le Marche that no-one has ever heard of (it’s half-way down the back of Italy’s leg, back of the knee, opposite side of the country to its more famous sister, Tuscany, from which it is separated by Umbria).

From this little house there are views that never fail to make your jaw drop – across valleys and hills, past medieval villages, all the way to the Sibillini mountains and national park 40 miles away. That’s all, just a small house and huge views.

It makes us happy and sometimes makes us tear our hair out when things, one after another after another, go wrong, but we love it and it’s added the most amazing dimension to our lives since we first stumbled across it in 2001 and committed the mad act of buying it.

You want to know more? Are you sure?

Here are some details then: the house is 100 sq metres, it has a large open-plan living area with the sitting bit divided by two arches from the eating bit, a kitchen, utility room, two bedrooms (one of them enormous, the other big-ish), two shower rooms, beams everywhere, terracotta floors throughout, a woodburner, and outside, a large terrace where we live most of the time when the weather allows.

Beyond the garden we have 2.7 hectares made up of a vineyard with 180 vines, an olive grove with 100 trees, an area of oak woodland which has carpets of cyclamen and orchids at certain times of year, and a few fields which grow sunflowers and other crops that our tenant farmers (contadini) choose, probably depending on EU seed subsidies and the like.

The contadini farm the land, tend the vines and olives and harvest the crops, and they pay us rent in olive oil and flagons of wine, as well as occasional gifts of home-grown tomatoes, melons, plums, apples, peaches and, alarmingly, the odd, very odd, chicken with its head up its bottom and roasted to the point of near-incineration. I believe the Italians like their chickens that way, and at least they have had a happy life even if they do end it by staring up into a blank blackness – the chickens, that is.

We have tried, over the years, to create a sort of garden around the house but through trial and error and countless hours of wasted labour, we have found that the best we can manage is a gravel bed filled with succulents, cacti and drought-tolerant herbs like lavender and rosemary, and another bed of santolina. Two climbers, a plumbago and a jasmine, keep growing and flowering up the sides of the terrace in the almost-constant face of terribly hostile conditions, which amount to fierce summer heat and fierce winter cold. The area of grass between the house and the vineyard is brought back from its depressingly overgrown disorder into closely shorn order with the aid of a heavy-duty brushcutter each time we come out to the house in the growing season.

The various sounds we can hear from the house and garden are typically Italian: the clanging chime of the church clock in the mile-distant village every quarter-hour, voices from across the valley – screeching fish-wife women, protesting children, deep-voiced grumpy men – tractors clanking their way, season after season, up and down, up and down, the hilly fields and vineyards – always so much to do, so much land to till and toil over, even through the night when the summer days are too blisteringly hot – and, across and above it all, always the sound of dogs barking, the true soundtrack of rural Italy. Bark, bark, bark – no-one ever calls out to them to cease their idiot rending of the air, no-one even notices what a hideous, monstrous, intrusion this is, seeping into the very corners of the brain, rhythmically, unendingly drowning out reason until, even when the beasts lie dozing, flattened by the heat of the sun, you can still hear the bark, bark, bark going through your body and pumping into your very soul.

But in contrast, what is the best sound, the one that makes the soul lift and soar and exult? The song of the nightingale! Oh, such knee-trembling stuff, unequalled for purity, romance and the sense of awe it purveys. We have a quadraphonic service from our nightingales, with some of the best singers in the business belting their hearts out for our delectation from branches at four corners of the house. I have yet to see one, which is strange as they are so plentiful, but when I do I’m going to say a heartfelt thankyou.

Not much else intrudes on our lives. There is nothing airborne, like annoying buzzing private planes, just the inevitably lovely and entertaining variety of bird life – golden eagle, golden oriole, bee-eaters, to name-drop a few. There is no passing traffic since we live at the end of a steep, rutted white road.

In short, it is bliss, of course, but because this is Italy there are niggles and annoyances and much daftness to contend with. So, while we feel blessed we would like to know exactly why everyone around here stares at us. We don’t have horns, we don’t have two heads, we are quite normal, honestly. We hope they don’t realise how rude they are, but while this hideous habit goes on it is hard not to feel that they don’t much like having us in their midst. OK, so we are weird animals on day-release from a zoo, but please don’t throw buns in our direction.

This is why we are sceptical when the unknowing Brits cock their heads and go ‘Aaah’, about what they think of as la dolce vita. So you are sure the locals treat you as one of them? Do they – really? I think not! I think they just want to get close so they can have a jolly good stare. 

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By Rosie Staal

(published 2003)

HOLIDAY memories are made of this: standing on a crowded platform trying not to be felled by battalions of schoolchildren armed with out-of-control rucksacks or drenched by a rainstorm while waiting for a train already ten minutes late. They are also made of this: being moved almost to tears by the sight of a deserted, moonlit Campo dei Miracoli at Pisa, the leaning tower jauntily cocking a snook at all the architectural perfection around it.

That’s holidays for you, and that’s Italy for you.

The country embraces its visitors and thrills them with its treasures, but it must get on with its own life, thank you, so it can’t make concessions, like swapping incessant rain for just half a day of sunshine or equipping the loos in the Uffizi with door locks and toilet paper.

We took it all in our stride and loved it.

My husband and I know the Marche region well and we have visited Venice, Sicily and Rome. How could we tick off some of the other places on our list of Italian ‘must-sees’? Last November, we decided to tackle a swathe of the country by train, freeing us from the tyranny of the car and enabling us to see more of the countryside.

The planning started when we found a ‘free flights’ offer on the Ryanair website. Paying only for taxes meant that for £12.50 each we could fly to Bergamo, a logical starting point. We settled on six other destinations: Milan, Genoa, Pisa, Siena, Florence and Bologna. We booked all hotels in advance and tickets for a flight home 13 days later from Bologna, this time with Go, for £22 each.

To take even more pain out of the exercise, we opted to leave our car at Tisbury station and travel to Stansted via South West Trains, the London Underground and the Stansted Express. We really did mean it when we planned this as a train holiday.

Almost a year to the day after we had visited Rome, where we breakfasted on the hotel’s rooftop terrace and walked through sun-kissed pages of childhood history books, we landed in Bergamo in torrential rain. The downpour continued all through our visit to this historic gem at the foot of the Alps and, indeed, for the next three days.

To get to Milan, we took the train. The station was empty. Where was everyone? Suddenly, we found out, as what seemed like the country’s entire school-age population swarmed on to our platform, rucksacks swinging like deadly weapons.

A station announcer burbled incomprehensibly and our fellow travellers let out a chorus of derision, catching our eyes and raising their eyebrows. The train was 15 minutes in ritardo and so now we were all on the same side, allies against the rail system and veterans of the long wait.

The height of the step up to the train almost defied belief. We had travelled on Italian trains before but never with heavy suitcases. This time, the manoeuvre seemed impossible. We made it, albeit with some loss of dignity as we grunted and heaved, and, with muscles zinging, we sat down to recover our normal heart-rate and enjoy the journey.

This routine, with variations in the length of time waiting on rain-lashed platforms for delayed trains, was repeated throughout our trip. By the time we undertook the final leg, Florence to Bologna, we were lifting our cases with relative ease. That particular train was the tardiest of them all: one hour late – for a one-hour journey. Train travel in Italy is a pleasurable way to go if you aren’t in a rush.

Views of the passing landscape were sometimes obscured by dirty windows and on occasions we had to sit in corridors when compartments were overcrowded. Only Siena had a truly awful station, a smelly, grubby mess that we were glad to leave behind.

Milan, big and bustling, meant getting to grips with the metro system as well. We walked a great deal, enjoying the big-city atmosphere and its smart, sassy, shops. Even under umbrellas, the Milanese look elegant. Their cathedral was to be the first of a succession of sights on this trip to make our jaws drop.

Next stop was Genoa, which will forever have a place in our hearts as it was here that the rain stopped, the sun shone and the temperature rose – along with our spirits.

We had given ourselves just 24 hours to feel the pulse of this lively city but it was enough to convince us that a return visit deserves to be paid, especially to appreciate the changes being wrought in anticipation of its role as European City of Culture for 2004. We found an edge and a verve to Genoa that excited us and reminded us of Barcelona. It is not a place of great beauty, but the sum of its parts is significant.

The journey from Genoa to Pisa was our longest at an hour-and-a-half. In Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli, the stunning duomo and baptistry vie for attention until the eye lights upon the ridiculous campanile, the tower of a billion photographs, leaning over at an impossible angle as if to outsmart its sensible, upright neighbours.

We saw it all by day, in the company of the world and his wife, and we returned after dark to find ourselves quite alone. Under a dense, velvety sky, sprinkled with stars, the white marble buildings shimmered majestically – and still the wedding-cake tower stole the show.

The colours of Pisa – earthy and organic and of infinite variety, from muddy lemon to rich terracotta – were a contrast with the monotone limpid brown of Siena, where we arrived after changing trains at Empoli.

We knew we would like Siena but we could have had no idea quite how much. There was a great tranquillity about the place, a quiet, almost reverential calm pervading the narrow streets so that no-one raised their voices and even cars seemed to purr as they passed.

The great campo, scene of the legendary palio bareback horse races, made a huge impression on us by its sheer size and beauty. Here, too, we found a serenity that we will always associate with this wonderful city.

Two days in Siena were followed by three among the Renaissance treasures of rainy Florence. Enthusiastically, we ‘did’ the Uffizi, the Bargello and its fabulous sculptures, the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David, the Duomo, the rather disappointing Ponte Vecchio, a vast street market, a flea market and countless extraordinary churches.

With suitcases bulging we headed off for the final city, Bologna, and its much-vaunted 22 miles of colonnades. If Florence had brought heavy rain throughout our stay, Bologna seemed determined to compensate. It positively glowed – and so did we. Suffering from culture overload, we simply walked and walked.

Three days gave us a good flavour of this wonderful city, for good reason dubbed the food capital of Italy. The Piazza Maggiore was the setting for entertainments of all sorts, including a highly aromatic polenta festival where onlookers were rewarded with generous helpings. Friendly, welcoming Bologna provided a high point on which to end our holiday.

Our memory banks filled to overflowing and our affection for Italy and all things Italian strengthened tenfold, we flew back to Stansted and completed our journey home by rail to Tisbury.

• There are seven types of train in Italy, from local plodder to zippy espresso, and we took whatever was available. The fares ranged from €3.75 for the short Bergamo to Milan leg to €12.85 for Genoa to Pisa. Total travel costs in Italy came to €97.50 for the two of us – a bargain for our tailor-made holiday of discovery.

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(Published in 2011)

THE Moccia family of Gragnano, in the Gulf of Naples, owe much of their success in the competitive business of making pasta to their ability to move with the times.

Though centuries-old artisan recipes and traditions are at the root of what they do, their Fabbrica della Pasta, in the heart of the historic town, is a highly modernised affair, where 30 skilled workers and some of the most up-to-date machinery create pasta that has aficionados the world over.

One hundred years ago, Gragnano, with its superb quality water and locally grown wheat, boasted about 120 pasta-making enterprises. Now, there are 15, and the Moccias’ business, with its factory tours, its enticing shop stacked with a huge array of products, and ultra-smart website (www.lafabbricadellapastadigragnano.it), is very much a leader of the pack.

True to form, which has seen it modernise while remaining loyal to its heritage – the third generation of Moccias to be involved in pasta makes up the present management team – the company is pushing forward into a new area.

On the first floor, above the pasta factory, a cookery school opened this summer to introduce cooks of all abilities to the joys of pasta-making and the secrets of which salsa or ragu is better suited to which type of pasta.

The school is a response to the growing demand from visitors to become more knowledgeable through, literally, a hands-on learning experience, and the desire among Italians to be better informed about their gastronomic heritage.

Antonino Moccia is ‘Il Pastaio’, in charge of the production side of the factory, while marketing is in the hands of his brother, Ciro, and sister, Susanna. Another sister, Marianna, controls the finances.

And the fourth generation is already making its mark. Antonino’s daughters, Anna Maria, aged 12, and Claudia, seven, like to don white caps and coats and meet visitors who come to see how the simplest of ingredients – flour, water and salt – are transformed into the pride of Italy.

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