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Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Final Days of the Sicily Trip

We introduced ourselves and pointed to a map of the United States which is in a prominent place on the wall. Concetta began telling her story. She was chosen as a bride when she was 15 and very cosseted by her family. Salvatore came to visit on Wednesday and Friday evening plus on Sundays and they had to wait two years to get married. Nine months and one day after the wedding, their first child was born. They have four children, none of whom want to be farmers. He is now 69 she 58. They have never had a vacation since their honeymoon to visit relatives in Germany.
They manage 30 cows, a half dozen pigs plus a new litter, lots of chickens, Guinea hens, rabbits and dogs.

We watched as Concetta and a neighbor Graziella made sourdough bread dough. They used a paddle to help knead the dough and we helped form rolls and breadsticks which Concetta baked in a wood heated oven as we walked to the fields to feast on home made ricotta cheese-which we watched them prepare.

Salvatore grilled chicken and sausages which they served with the freshly baked bread and a salad for lunch. Desserts were rosy, ripe sweet apricots, pudding and coffee. We drank local red wine all afternoon and we all slept on the bus during the hour ride back to our hotel in Ragusa.

Connie's suitcase arrived this afternoon, ten days late!!! Louise and Felicia invited me to join them for dinner on our own. We met Ann and Lyn and we all ate together at an outdoor cafe. Susan and Dan arrived and then our leader, Mauro, who bought himself new clothing. He said he never has time to shop in Palermo, where he lives. We leave for Siracusa and Catania tomorrow. Only three days of our trip left with the Mount Etna highlight still to come.

Sircusa - we have a Syracuse in New York. Perhaps there are others. I never imagined I would someday be in Siracusa, Sicily, Italy. Before the trip, Mauro, our guide, wrote to each of us, asking us to describe ourselves and list our objectives for this trip. I told him about my lactose intolerance and that I am interested in any sign that is left of a Jewish presence in Sicily. Of course we know that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, when they became the rulers of Spain, decided that Spain should be a Catholic nation and everyone who was not Catholic would be asked(forced) to convert, be killed or leave the nation. Some Jewish people nominally became Christian and kept some behaviors and rituals of their faith, but most left or were killed. Italy was ruled by Spain for centuries, so all the Jewish people disappeared in 1493. Buildings that were synagogues were converted to churches; mosques were converted also. What signs are left?

Mauro showed me some street signs in Palermo, I saw indications of a Jewish residential zone in Mazara del Vallo and I had heard of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath that was still in existence in Siracusa.
Mauro was not sure we would be able to visit; there is flooding underground, so he was not optimistic.
However, when he approached Valerie, our city guide, she walked through the artisan section of town and through the Jewish section which existed from the ninth century until 1493. Although there was an attempt made to change the street names, several names remain. There are two synagogues, one was 100% known Jewish and they found a mikveh underneath the sanctuary. Valerie told us all the history and purpose of the ritual baths and we were permitted to descend and to see the three pools in one room and two small rooms with one bath each. There was a Greek well in one room which feeds the clear water from a below ground stream. Hence the flooding today. Amazing!
About the second synagogue we visited. Valerie grew up in Siracusa and she knows the building was abandoned during her youth. She attended outdoor movies in the space which no longer had a roof. A few years ago a rabbi moved with his family to Siracusa. He lives with 6 other Jewish families in the modern pat of Siracusa, where they worship in a room in a small building. Valerie believes the local priest was afraid the rabbi would claim this synagogue, so he applied for permission to rebuild the space as a church and claims the Vatican has proof it was built as a church.

On the altar, on the eastern wall there are Hebrew words inscribed. They are in fact upside down. What is the truth? I don't know. But I was delighted the whole group chose to participate in this activity. Then we had lunch by the seaside and took a boat ride to see the grottoes. The sea was calm, the weather was pleasant, the day was super. 

Wednesday was our day to visit Catania, the second largest city in Sicily, with 400,000 inhabitants which we did in the morning with Caterina as our guide. In the afternoon we visited Taormina, the shopping Mecca for tourists. Many visitors including a cruise ship joined us today. The architectural highlight is a Roam era Greek established theater. The views of the sea are gorgeous. The view of Mount Etna was cloudy today. We visit Mount Etna tomorrow, our last day in Sicily.

I didn't know what to expect on Mount Etna. Certainly Mount Vesuvius with the ruins of the destruction of Pompeii was amazing, when my husband and I were there on our honeymoon in 1990. This volcano is an active volcano, with steam and gas emanating all the time and craters forming often. Sicilians call it the "fat" volcano because the shape has crater bulges all along the thirty mile stretch of the volcano. We drive up and up around hairpin curves. The bus driver honks the horn as we approach to warn cars, trucks or buses on the way down. There is no room for the bus and another vehicle on the turns, which are marked 2, 3, or 4 degree turns. Our boisterous guide joins us and points out the changes in vegetation, from the brightly yellow blooming "broom" trees, whose stems are so supple they were used to hold up grape vines,
to the 5000 acre stand of pine trees. For  a June religious festival the streets were lined with these blossoms which are said to last 19 days after being cut.
We stop for a coffee and a baker's kitchen. He shows us how to prepare hazelnut cookies, from the multiply ground nuts, sifted confectioner's sugar, egg whites and salt. We taste and meet Serafina, the wife of our guide (whose name I have already forgotten) who will prepare our lunch later.

Further along we stop and meet Salvo, our guide's son who has several donkeys we ride to learn more about the volcano. The donkeys are used with special needs children for whom our guide runs a camp. Today we take turns riding the donkeys as two, month old mares frolic among us. The volcano has explosions which spew volcanic ash and create craters and eruptions, the last one was in 2002 that created 21 craters and dumped 20 feet high of lava for 20 miles, covering everything in its path. The lava couldn't be touched for several years as it was still too hot.
We were told to be prepared for rain and cold, but the sun came out! We were guided in a short meditation to enjoy and experience nature. It was an emotional moment with all of us holding hands in a circle, with the vast amount of lava, the donkeys, the vegetation that was beginning to grow and our enthusiastic, upbeat local guides.

We drove to their restaurant which they built on the site of their wine preparation center. Now done "with the push of a button" the old way of stomping the wine and using a hand turned press was explained to us after we tasted his home grown wine, his home pressed olive oil, his wife's home baked bread and the lunch she prepared of "Polpettes" which are meatballs, salad and home made sausages. Serafina then sang Volare and O Solo Mio for us and invited us to dance and sing with her. Good fun!
We said goodbye to our bus driver as he delivered us to the hotel in a sudden downpour. Tonight we have a farewell dinner and I leave for the airport at 4:45 AM.

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