Saturday, November 28, 2009

La Fine di Sicilia

Only for Mr. Guy.

Not the end of Sicily but just the end of Mr. Guy's week in this very interesting region of Italy (and if the attempt at an Italian title is not perfect, I beg the reader's indulgence).

And since this visit began with impressions, let's end with some as well.

How about some thoughts about Catania? Syracuse? Taormina? Beautiful cities, each different and each offering the visitor experiences not available elsewhere.

In Catania, the focus is on lava and the baroque. [Yes, you read that right!] 1669 was - some assert - the year of Mount Etna's most violent eruption, and the lava flows reached Catania, causing massive destruction. Then in 1693 - adding insult to injury for any survivors I suppose - the city was leveled by a devastating earthquake. Not to be undone by such awful circumstances, the city fathers decided to rebuild, and the Sicilian Baroque architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini - having been born in 1702 and grown up amongst the ruins - went to work building one of Europe's most Baroque cities (or at least one of Italy's). If you like Baroque architecture, Catania is the place to come to. From the flowing lines of the Duomo and its lavish Fontana dell'Elefante (the elephant connecting to the city's coat of arms and, like St. Agatha - for which see below) to the highest of Baroque private palazzi, the style is seen all over the city. Lava is used, too, with lava stone incorporated into the Baroque architecture and providing the material for most of the paving blocks of the city. The result is a slightly different "take" on the Baroque, with the two-tone coloring of the buildings pretty much the norm, with one of them matching the pavement of the streets.

Saint Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, and the city honors her in many ways. The story has it that she rebuffed the advances of a Roman senator, with the result that she was tortured for being a Christian by having her breasts sliced off and being rolled over hot coals. While Agatha was in prison awaiting death, Mount Etna rumbled so terribly that Agatha's tormentors were scared out of their wits, and she was set free. Since then, the city is reputed to have been saved many times from further destruction from the volcano (except in 1669) because her relics are carried through the streets whenever Mount Etna rumbles. Her feast is in February, and from what I hear, the city goes slightly crazy in venerating Saint Agatha. And as a special treat, the bakeries all serve up pastries in the shape of a lady's breast (I'm not making this up).

Catania is a very poor city, and it shows. First of all, much of the ornate Baroque city was leveled in the bombings of WWII and while there is not much in the way of bombed-out buildings (as in Palermo), you still get the sense that it is a city that desperately needs some financial restructuring and some sort of plan for serious revenue growth. Syracuse is another story altogether.We don't hear much about the economy in Syracuse, but there seems to be building going on all over the place. It is an ancient city (over 3,000 years old), and at one time was one of the three greatest Greek cities, led only by Athens and Sparta. Despite the fun Shakespeare and Rodgers and Hart had with the story of the twins, there is a serious side to Syracuse's history, best experienced from a visit to the great Syracuse Neapolis Archaeological Park, where visitors can get a vision of what life was like in ancient times, where there is both a Roman amphitheatre nearly 2,000 years old and a Greek theatre dating back to the 5th century BC.

Syracuse is truly a beautiful city, too, with its two harbors and it freshwater spring (right next to the sea) contributing to its being one of the loveliest cities in this part of the world. The harbors bring the Ionian Sea right to the heart of the city, where one of my favorite places is the area around the Duomo. All the buildings around Piazza Duomo  (including one from the Mussolini period which - despite a pretty ugly architectural framework - shows off very handsome sculptures of the "working-man-and-woman" style) are attractively laid out. The Duomo itself, with its subtle little trick (its Baroque porch and facade are merely tacked on to the structure of a massive 2500-year-old Temple of Athena from ancient times, rebuilt to incorporate a church) is one of the most interesting buildings in Sicily. Indeed, for some architecture critics, it is their favorite building, and it is easy to see why. Great fun, and beautiful to behold, both from the outside - where you can see the temple's columns as they have been incorporated into the later structure - and particularly from the inside where the specifics of each architectural period are clearly on display.

And Taormina. It's all about the views. The views. The views. No matter where you go in the city, there is so much to look at, and despite the hoards of tourists in other parts of the year, a visit in November is blessedly quiet. You're looking at the sea, at Mount Etna, at other mountains, and even at the city rising up even higher behind you. There's no question but that looking out to see the views is a primary occupation in Taormina.

The main shopping street is a pedestrian mall and the shops are still full of things to buy, depending of course on the level of taste with respect to what you want to buy. Clothing is very high-end and exceptionally stylish. Collectibles, objets d'art, and the like run the gamut and you have to decide if it is worth the price being asked to take some of this stuff home and put it out for someone else to see. Not surprisingly, the hotels are pretty spectacular, particularly the hotels catering to the wealthy and the celebrities, and you sometimes get the feeling that you're in one of those early 20th-century "grand" hotels designed for simply sitting in the  great lounging rooms and looking beautiful and stylish. And, yes, the Wunderbar - hangout for such as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Taylor and innumerable others - is still in business but pretty slow this time of year (I guess the celebrities have other things to do).

The churches and the cathedral of Taormina are lovely, and one cannot help but be moved by the sincerity of the people you see praying in the churches when you visit (but the number of actual services seems to be pretty limited, judging from the postings on the signboards). The ancient Teatro Greco is fun to visit, and being the venue for continuing programs during the high season, one can get a real feel for how performances took place in the days when the Greeks were in charge. As for the famous (infamous?) association of Teormina with Wilhelm von Gloeden's photographs, there's little about it on offer for the casual visitor, although if one wanted to seek out more information, it is probably available. Postcards of course are on offer in all the card shops, and collections of photographs (at very expensive prices) can be purchased in book or exhibition catalogue format, but it is interesting to note that there is apparently not a large-scale focus on this part of Taormina's history.

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