Everywhere I look I see someone who reminds me of someone I know in Boston. Occasionally it seems like the North End of 30 years ago (Boston’s Little Italy) has teleported itself to Sicily. It’s a testimony to the extent of Italian and Sicilian emigration to the Northeastern US over the past century that everyone looks so familiar. I’ve never experienced this anywhere that I’ve ever travelled.
After leaving Ortygia we toodle around the Baroque UNESCO towns of Modica and Scicli and end up in Ragusa Ibla, also UNESCO baroque, and increasingly gentrified from its tumble-down state (literally, it tumbles down the side of a mountain, as well as from the neglect of the past decades.)
Gentrification is largely true only of the central ultra-cute main drag, because most of the secondary stepped (as in very steep) streets are still close to abandoned with “Vendisi” signs in many of the boarded up windows. Romantic, yes, to imagine a cave-like studio built into the side of a cliff, but after walking down (not up) 467 steps from Ragusa Superiore to Ragusa Ibla, the romance will surely fade. Parking is impossible and we leave our car in the lowest part of town on the street where we are told it will be towed during the 3 day festival of San Giorgio, which replicates his (St. George’s) slaying the dragon in front of the spectacular Duomo on its dramatic stairway. (Not a place for the handicapped and yet we see lots of people in wheelchairs).
The hotel cheerfully moves our car (shout-out to Ivan at Hotel San Giorgio Palace who treated us like his most important guests of all time) and we are basically stuck for a day and half to enjoy about as much local color as you can get. If you’ve ever been to a festival in the North End or Little Italy, you get the picture. Everyone is dressed in Sunday best and buses drive up and down the tortuous hills disgorging families from the surrounding area. There is a steady parade of people coming and going which we watch for two nights running from the terrazza of the Quatro Gatti restaurant (another shout-out; 4 course meal with wine for – get this – 18 euro; I am not making this up).
It’s a treat to watch the grandparents, elegantly turned out in suit and tie, or stockings and dress with heels (Mamma Mia, these women are in their 80s!). It’s a crash course in local family dynamics – families with strollers, babies being pushed by their older siblings; aging bachelor uncle leaning on his cane; a grey-haired grandmother leading her mentally handicapped grandson tenderly by the hand. His mother tries to take over – he pushes her away and clings to his nonna. (I am almost in tears watching this.) Everyone is so excited to stay up late and watch what is basically just-OK fireworks, a not great band, teenagers flirting, babies crying, and lots of gelato spilled. We are so jaded, we big city folk who can poke fun at a small town existence – their families bonded and still together, multi generations participating joyfully in one simple thing that they have looked forward to for months. It’s hard not to think of what we give up to live out our big city dreams.
The festival itself starts with a night-time marathon – how is this possible on cobblestoned, stepped streets? – with numbered uniformed runners in various states of conditioning flying through the streets as the carabinieri wave flags and shriek at the crowd to clear the way. The marathon must go on all night because the next morning they are still coming through.
The man of the hour is a statue of Saint George who normally resides in the Duomo but is taken out for his viewing each evening of the 3 night festival, carried on a float by the hunkiest young men in town. I’m sure they fight for this honor, big-time.
He is followed by a huge silver reliquary which couldn’t possibly contain his remains, as Saint George is the patron saint of half of Italy and all of England as well as Lebanon and many other cities and towns. (I always assumed he was veddy British, in fact.)
Cannons boom several times a day and church bells peel causing dogs to bark in panic and swallows to swoop, shrieking wildly through the valley. The steep Duomo steps are off-limits and set up with fireworks ready for launching (this is a fairly crowded piazza; seems a little dangerous).
A sound stage is set up in the piazza and military bands parade through, along with what look like cub scouts and various local Catholic orders.
All the churches are open and one can preview the upcoming festivals with floats of favored saints ready to roll. (Mary Magdalene below in fighting mode – note the flagella on the side of the float. I didn’t ask.)
The lovely giardino at the bottom of the pedestrian street is open for nighttime strolling among the stately palms and yellow roses.
Along the main drag, the windows are hung with red velvet San Giorgio banners and the cheap sidewalk restaurants are packed with locals, many of their children carrying horse-y balloons – but tourists take up the more expensive table-cloth-ed indoor seats.
Saint George emerges from the open doors of the Duomo and his handlers carefully carry him down the many, many steps. The crowd cheers, as do I, more excited than I expected. He tours the city, followed by the mysterious reliquary, and returns hours later (hope he got some gelato on his outing) to climb up the Duomo stairs to be greeted with an explosion of fireworks (the 3rdset of the night) from the cathedral steps. Hurray! And that’s it. Same deal the next night with different interludes of bands playing. Weather is cool and slightly damp – jacket-time.
On Sunday we take a local bus up to the high town (packed, it’s like a ride on a roller coaster) which is completely deserted. It’s Sunday, it’s lunchtime, everything is shut tight. The only people we see are a group of African kids on the street outside of what seems to be an immigrant hotel. This is the first sign we’ve see of the huge migrant boat people crisis (if that’s what it is). Otherwise, Sicilians are also the most homogenous people I’ve seen. Hardly a hijab in sight, and that is rare for Europe.
We wander our way down the steep steps past the death notices (everywhere – touching; everyone evidently knows each other) with the occasional sounds of families gathered for Sunday lunch, and climb back up the hill on the other side to visit Saint George in his Cathedral perch before the exertions of his night-time voyage.
After the last midnight fireworks, and the bus evacuations up and down, and up and down our street – we’re done.
And off the next day along the coast to the largest Greek archaeological site (outside of Greece) of Arigento.