My alarm went off at 8 a.m. I was sleepy but far too excited to go back to sleep. My friendly concierge suggested a place on the square for breakfast: brioche and gelato. He said it would be the only place open. No wonder! The whole town was still sleeping it off from last night’s escapades. He explained that weekends here begin on Wednesday afternoons. When I inquired about tea, cereal and toast he told me that I would never find these – and his words were so true for the rest of the trip. He told me that the hotel was once an aristocrat’s home and it was probably built in the mid 1600s. The marble floor tiles and stairs are not reproductions! I took a look from my balcony. WOW!
Apart from a couple of elderly gentlemen walking their dogs at this ‘early’ hour the square and the adjoining streets were deserted. I wandered around for a couple of hours and managed to find a coffee (50p) and a pastry on the waterfront. There was graffiti everywhere. If this was the U.S the graffiti would imply that this was an unsafe area, but not here. Here it’s accepted. Lines of washing hung from balconies high above me as I watched the town slowly come to life. It was fun watching the men erecting the
enormous umbrellas that cover the outdoor restaurants. A man was standing at the opera house door looking very official. I indicated that I’d like to go in. He told me that there was a rehearsal in progress but I could come back at 11. I did. Then he told me that the rehearsal was still in progress and I should come back at 3. As I spoke to him I peeked inside and sure enough I could see and entire orchestra in rehearsal. I wonder if I could go to a performance this evening. I meet with the tour group at 6 p.m. but that’s only for an hour. I’ll check.
By the waterfront I found a monk standing by the road. He was in the same spot a week later. Perhaps he’s collecting alms.
By mid-morning it was already getting warm for my liking so I found an outdoor café, Comis, with a view of the Bellini opera house, and sat in the shade of one of the umbrellas and watched the world go by.
Next stop was a huge church, St Nicholas, adjacent to a monastery. It’s one of the largest Catholic church buildings in Sicily and it’s construction began after the eruption of Etna in 1669 replacing an older Renaissance temple. Then the earthquake in1693 destroyed it completely. Construction resumed in the eighteenth century, first by the architect Amato, then by Francesco Battaglia, and at the end by Stefano Ittar who in 1780 completed the great dome, while the facade remained incomplete until today. The church was confiscated by the United Government in 1866 and then it returned to the Benedictines and rededicated. During the Second World War was badly bombed. There was an amazing Baroque organ built in the 1700s and, for a couple of Euros, I was able to take the stairs to the dome high above the nave. I found myself the only one on the roof of the building – and I don’t really like heights. I could see a block of apartments whose rear wall was the
outside wall of a Roman amphitheatre. Such a hodge podge of buildings. If a wall, of whatever age or design, is still standing it is incorporated into the newer building regardless of ‘design.’ It’s so practical, and so unique.
It’s 2:15 now and I’m just finishing lunch at Etoile d’or. It’s an outdoor patio opposite the park and I have a view of little stalls are set up in the railway arches, mainly peopled by
stall owners from Africa. I’m trying an arancini, a Sicilian speciality of rice and ragu in the shape of a pear. It reminded me of the Eric Satie’s ‘Three pieces in the form of a pear” which title he gave to a group of piano pieces after people criticised him for his lack of form! When I went to the bathroom I came back to my table and found the waiter doing and amazing impression of Basil Fawlty. He was strutting around, flapping his arms and saying “Pig-e-on.” Apparently while I’d been in the bathroom the pigeons had come and eaten my arancini! He quickly brought me another. I had a beer, then a mini strawberry tart, then another beer. After lunch I explored the odd sight of the elephant in the square. This is a carved chunk of lava, reminding me of Bolton, my home town, whose symbol is also an elephant. I went to see a bar below which there’s a lava tube and you can see the original town walls on top of which is lava from the 1693 eruption of Etna.
It was time to get my bag from Hotel Trieste and move to Hotel Gresi where I would meet the G Adventures group. Lots of vespas tried to run me over but most of the passengers now wear helmets unlike when I last came to Italy in 2003. There was rubbish everywhere, even strewn around the historical sites. I arrived at the hotel, got stuck in
the lift, and then locked in the bathroom in the lobby but eventually figured it all out! I headed for the G adventures meeting room at 6 p.m. The place was deserted but a banner suspended from a table indicated that I was in the right place at least. I stayed put, sifted through my photos and wrote up my journal as a few fellow travelers drifted in. We met Alicia, our 30 year old tour guide and 11 travellers. Three were missing. Apart from a German couple we were all English speaking: a newly retired couple who had moved to Colorado Springs after working in Texas for 20 something years, two women who were friends from Winnipeg, Canada, two women from Australia, and a mother and adult son also from Australia. I was the only Brit which surprised me, though one of the ‘missing’ travellers who would be joining the group tomorrow was a Brit. I found it interesting that the only men in the group were travelling with a woman, whereas 5 women were travelling alone. What does this say? That single men are more comfortable travelling without the security of a group, or that single men don’t travel. I’d love to see some statistics on this. Maybe Rachel can give me some information.
So the hour meeting began thirty minutes late, ran til 7:30 and then it was suggested that we all went out for dinner together. That was fine with me, though it meant that I wouldn’t get to the opera. We had dinner at ‘Be Quiet’ which nobody was, fortunately. It took 3 hours for dinner – a pace that I became acquainted with over the next seven days. I enjoyed both the meal and the conversations. This is Alicia’s second season with G adventures. I asked her what her background was. She has a master’s degree in economics but before this job she worked in the hospitality field in a lot of different service jobs. I shared a fish platter and a bottle of Chardonnay with the couple from Colorado, and then had a delicious seafood linguine.
I was back in my room by 11 to write my journal and sift through today’s photos and post a few onto Facebook.
During my wanderings I had found a street named D’Agostino. I have Denton ancestors who married a D’Agostino who was, by profession, an ice-cream maker, in Lancashire!