“Let’s get out of here,” I yelled as the jackhammers started thundering overhead. Again. Rich pantomimed agreement and we shot out the door.
We were staying in an otherwise delightful Airbnb in Syracuse, Sicily. It was sheer bad luck the neighbors directly above had chosen that week to smash up their old stone floors and tear out walls. Yes, of course we complained to our landlady, who explained it was nothing to do with her. Crashing masonry, pounding sledgehammers, and buzzing power tools resounded from early morning until late afternoon, occasionally rising to thunderous roars that rattled our light fixtures and made me wonder if they’d brought in elephants to do the heavy lifting.
On the upside, we had plenty of motivation to start early and spend all the daylight hours exploring Syracuse.
Like most visitors, we began at the city’s southern tip, on the island of Ortygia, where winding streets, ancient stone houses, and quaint tavernas create a sense of seamless storybook charm.
But our luck was out in Ortygia too; our first day coincided with the arrival of a massive cruise ship, and the island was overrun with merrymakers.
So Rich and I skedaddled north to check out the sprawling archeological site with its Greek and Roman ruins.
You can’t tell the story of Syracuse without talking about the ill-fated, ill-considered, astonishingly boneheaded attack launched against it by Athens in 415 BC. By then Syracuse had become the dominant economic and military power in their corner of the Mediterranean, which annoyed the Athenians so much they decided it was time to give Syracuse its comeuppance.
Normally the Athenians would have sent a modest force for this kind of job, but infighting among political factions resulted in radical and illogical choices. (Oh, those goofy ancients! How lucky we are not to have that sort of irrational decision-making today!) Athens committed nearly their entire fleet and 30,000 men, then put three ideologically opposed leaders in charge (because that always works out well).
Syracuse was stunned by the massive attack, but luckily their ally Sparta sent one of their most kick-ass generals (not that Sparta had any other kind) to sort things out. Eventually he trapped the Athenian fleet in the harbor, enabling Syracuse to sink the invaders’ ships and capture the survivors. Most were sold as slaves, but 7000 prisoners of war were sent to work and live under horrific conditions in Syracuse’s stone quarry. Athens was depleted and demoralized, their enemies were emboldened, and the region’s balance of power shifted forever. Other than that, the plan worked perfectly.
On the way to the archaeological site, I noticed an ultramodern building that looked like an upside-down ice cream cone. What fresh nuttiness was this? I soon learned the shape was meant to represent a teardrop, as this was the Basilica of the Madonna delle Lacrime (Our Lady of the Tears), built to house the city’s miraculous weeping statue.
It all started in 1953, when a relative gave a modest plaster Virgin to newlyweds Antonina and Angelo Lannuso. Soon the bride became pregnant, and preeclampsia caused her to suffer convulsions and temporary blindness. Late one night she woke up, realized her sight had been restored, and saw Mary’s plaster face weeping.
Antonina called in family members, who at first assumed she was hallucinating but then agreed the statue really was crying. (Watch videos of the Madonna weeping here.) As you can imagine, the town went wild. Scientists confirmed the liquid was consistent with the composition of human tears. The pope declared the event “real.” Antonina’s baby was born healthy — on December 25. It was all heady stuff.
The statue has long since stopped weeping but is still on display in the ice cream cone — sorry, tear-shaped basilica. People used to catch the statue’s tears in handkerchiefs and treat them as relics, but now they just have priests bless bits of cotton which are tucked into holy cards and sold. Oh yes, I bought one and it’s been in my purse ever since. Not that I believe in asking for miracles, of course, because I am a modern and skeptical woman. But let me just tell you about the rich experiences that have occurred since I started carrying around the blessed cotton.
For a start, we left that apartment in Syracuse, returning to Catania. What a relief to my eardrums!
I visited Catania’s Museo Storico dello Sbarco in Sicilia 1943 (Museum of the 1943 Sicily Landing), which proved surprisingly interesting and deeply moving. If you paid attention in high school or know the book and/or movie Operation Mincemeat, you’ll appreciate how crucial the Allied invasion of Sicily was to winning the war. It succeeded in large part because the British convinced Hitler the invasion was happening in Greece, an elaborate deception involving a dead tramp dressed as an officer, fake papers, and a lot of nail-biting, cliff-hanging suspense.
What I hadn’t really considered properly was how it must have felt to be in Sicily — especially Catania, which was bombed 87 times — during the six-week invasion.
The tour gives you a dramatic glimpse of the experience. First you mill around in a model of a Catania square. Suddenly the air raid siren sounds and docents rush you into the bomb shelter. Sitting in near darkness with strangers, you hear planes approaching then bombs exploding, closer and closer. The shelter begins to shake, a little at first, then harder until your teeth are rattling. It’s highly effective and deeply disturbing, especially because I couldn’t stop thinking of all the people in Israel, Gaza, Ukraine, and elsewhere who are experiencing this very same thing right now for real.
Catania offers visitors a rich array of experiences, including a vast, sprawling street market in the Piazza Carlo Alberto. One day Rich and I lunched there at a café then picked up supplies including a two-liter bottle of wine for 3 euros or $3.16. (It was a lot more drinkable than you might think.) (Yes, it was!)
As we strolled homeward past fishmongers and piles of glistening vegetables, stall owners were packing up for the day, chatting and whistling. A woman with a microphone began singing the lead-in to a song. Wait, I knew this one, it was …
“Volare,” she belted out. “Oh, oh…”
And then, to my astonishment, the entire marketplace joined in. The young guy selling swordfish, the old lady buying tomatoes, the people sitting over lunch in the café, the delivery guys pushing carts — everyone suddenly burst into song, laughing and grinning at each other in sheer delight. Yes, of course Rich and I joined in. It was magical.
Afterwards Rich kept muttering, “I can’t get that song out of my head.”
“Don’t fight it,” I said. “We’ve gone nearly forty years without something we considered ‘our song.’ I think this is may be it. OK, I agree, 'Volare' is kind of an earworm and could get annoying. But look at it this way: at least it’s better than listening to the jackhammers in that Syracuse apartment.”
“Amen to that.”
AND THAT, MY FRIENDS, MARKS THE FINAL CHAPTER OF NUTTERS' TOUR OF SICILY 2023.
YEP, WE'RE HEADING BACK TO SPAIN TOMORROW.
Thanks for joining me on this long, zany journey. It’s been a hell of a ride.
I won't post for a week or two while I catch my breath and settle back into my life in Seville. But don't worry, there are lots more looney adventures, travel tips, and mouthwatering culinary experiences coming up. I’ll keep you posted!
In the meantime, feel free to browse through my previous posts about
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