Sunday, December 4, 2022

Siracusa, My Kind of Town


Okay, I am well aware that I haven't written in this blog for months.  At first, the idea of writing about Italy was so daunting that I couldn't start.  And then I became so embarrassed that I hadn't started that I kept putting off starting.  What have I been doing instead?  I'm not sure.  I also think my Lexapro is a little too effective.  I started taking it because I was so anxious while driving that I was afraid I would drive off the road.  It has really worked for that, but it has also made me significantly less anxious about everything else I should be doing, tasks such as making dinners, writing, fixing things around the house, finishing the ~150 craft projects I have started and never finished...

Anyhoo, here goes, our trip to Italy.  Our family summer trip to Italy resulted from pandemic yearning, jealousy, and flexible/no employment.  

In August 2021, at our favorite art show, Art in the Park, which takes place in Lincoln Park in front of our house, I purchased a photo of Cefal├╣, Sicily and propped it next to my bed as a promise to myself that I would travel in the summer of 2022.  I spent a lot of time looking at that photo and dreaming of the Mediterranean.

Fast forward to spring 2022 when Amy, our classics major, told me about a four-week for-credit program they had found in Rome over the summer.  My first thought was "How fun for you!" followed immediately by "What about me?"  Larry, recently unemployed, and myself, perpetually available, decided to accompany Amy to Italy and do a little traveling before the class started.

I mentioned the trip to our other two daughters, whose employment is flexible, and they immediately decided they could make the trip if we were paying.

Okay, so Rome was a given, but I realized this was my chance to visit Sicily, too!  I did what I always do when planning a trip, which is go to the library and check out all the relevant books, manage to read one, get embarrassed because all the books are overdue, and take them all back.  From the one book I finished, I chose some places in Sicily that I thought Amy would enjoy because of the Roman and Greek historical sites.

Our first stop was Siracusa, which has been around for yonks.  Siracusa is in the southeast corner of Sicily and features a mostly pedestrian island, Ortigia, which is a perfect place to stay and explore.  There are loads of old narrow cobblestone alleys with cute shops and restaurants, the whole thing is surrounded by the Mediterranean, and there are plenty of historical sites. 

Larry and Ellen and I traveled together.  After a truly terrifying taxi ride from the airport, we checked into our great AirBnB which was right above the open-air market and next to the 6th century BC temple of Apollo.  This area has been a market for centuries and sells everything from fresh fish to African beads and hair wraps.

Here is a nice photo of Larry on our first night in Sicily, enjoying cheap white wine and some fish at the Locanda del Collegio. 

On our first touring day we visited the beautiful old Catholic Duomo in Siracusa that used to be a - wait for it - pagan temple.  This was a pretty consistent theme in our Italian travels.  Reduce, reuse, recycle!  After a few weeks it seemed like every other building was a Catholic church that used to be a pagan temple.  The Duomo in Siracusa was a temple to Athena built in 480 BC and converted to a Catholic church in the 6th century AD.  You can absolutely still tell it was a temple - the outer columns of the portico are intact, and the Catholics just slapped up some walls between them.  

One fun thing our family loves about European travel are all the bones.  Catholics love a relic, and there are so many creative ways to display bones.  Here are the (supposed) bones of some saint, displayed nicely in a red velvet niche.  The crown is a nice touch.

The patron saint of Siracusa is Santa Lucia (St. Lucy), a virgin martyr from Siracusa.  She is usually grouped with St. Agatha, a somewhat earlier virgin martyr from Catania, a Sicilian city a little north of Siracusa.  Catholic saints are often (usually?) martyrs, and are usually depicted with some symbol of the gruesome manner in which they were killed, some aspect of which becomes what they are the patrons of.  For example: St. Agatha was killed after her breasts were torn off (for refusing the sexual advances of the governor, Catholics LOVE a virgin martyr) so she is usually shown holding a tray with her breasts on it, and she is therefore the patron saint of breast disorders.  Fun side note: there is a Catanian pastry called Minni di Virgini (Virgin's Breasts) created in honor of St. Agatha.

Yup, the maraschino cherries are the nipples.  St. Lucy is almost always shown with her eyeballs on a dish, because her eyes were gouged out before she was stabbed in the neck (for refusing the sexual advances of a pagan, natch), and is thus the patron saint of eye disorders.   I have been aware of Saints Lucy and Agatha for my whole life, but I did not know they were Sicilian!  There is a big silver St. Lucy in the Ortigia Duomo which is  hidden in a special box and is hauled out twice a year to be paraded around.  There are many, many copies of the statue around town.  Here is one, please note the eyeballs in her cup.

There are also many relics of St. Lucy in the Duomo, including this supposed dress she wore.  In 304.  As if.

In the afternoon, we walked over to the train station to get Amy, who had been backpacking around France, Switzerland, and Italy for a few weeks.  On the way we saw this excellent graffiti (Italian for "little scratches", btw)

Amy was exhausted and hot, after much hiking and sleeping in un-air-conditioned hostels.  Amy went to bed in our nicely air-conditioned apartment and slept for about 24 hours.

Larry and Ellen and I went out to acquire food and enjoyed a lovely sunset on the water.

We found an adorable patio restaurant, Trattoria Kalliope, and had some of the best arancini of our trip.  Arancini are fried rice balls with stuff inside and are served as an appetizer or a quick lunch.  I wish we had them in America, so much nicer than a hot dog.  Suddenly as we were eating, we heard the discordant strains of an accordion.  This band roamed around and played until we had all tipped them enough to take the accordion elsewhere.

We took a pizza home for poor, tired Amy.

We enjoyed exploring all the tiny alleys.  And for once I didn't have to get out my GPS all the time, because Ortigia is a tiny island and even I could not get lost for long.  Eventually you hit the ocean.  We encountered this nice alley shrine to St. Sebastian, once of my favorite saints.  St. Sebastian is invoked against the plague because arrows couldn't kill him.  I mean, after the arrow incident Diocletian had him beaten to death, but it's cool the arrows didn't kill him I guess.  I thought about him a lot during the pandemic.

I hadn't had an issue falling asleep the first night, but I could NOT fall asleep the second night.  I sat out on our tiny balcony above the empty market, took two benadryl, polished off a goodly part of my bottle of suitcase whiskey, and took some arty photographs with clothespins in my hair.

I was pretty hungover the next day which was compounded by the fact that it was about a million degrees outside.  However, I wasn't going to waste my time in a foreign country in my bedroom, so out we went to tour.  We had lunch by the water near the Fountain of Arethusa and then decided to go to the art museum because we thought it might be air-conditioned.  It was not.  Here is Ellen communing with Jesus.

We gave up on the hot art and wandered over to the hot castle.  Castello Maniace was built in about 1250 and has been used for all kinds of things.  One of the reasons I love Sicily is that once something was built, unless it fell down, people mostly left it alone, proving that sometimes lack of ambition is a good thing.

There was like one guard at this whole edifice, so we just messed around and took dumb photos all afternoon.  Here I am with what I can only assume are holy hand grenades.

We took Amy to the Duomo, honestly a very cool place,  I could spend a lot more time there.

Here is Amy near an ancient column on the inside of the Duomo:

And here is Amy with the same ancient column on the outside of the Duomo:

After dinner we went back to the train station to get Susan, who had been visiting friends in Copenhagen.  The next day was Larry's birthday!  We got sandwiches at Caseificio Borderi, the famous sandwich place in the market below our apartment.  I got someone to take our photo, much to the embarrassment of my children.

We each ordered a sandwich, which turned out to be a lot of sandwich, but we did our best.

We made our way across town to the famous Neapolis Archaeological Park, which is full of ancient edifices that were built and abandoned, but not torn down, probably because it was too HOT to bother.  All of us enjoyed Ellen's fit, which is seriously serving young Italian widow.

Amy, our classics major, was in their element, explaining the nature and uses of the Roman arenas, and periodically just pumping a fist in the air and yelling "Blood sports, baby!!!"

It was so hot in the full sun that we spent most of our time in Ear of Dionysius, a cool and dark cave where hundreds of prisoners were starved to death.  We did what we always do when we encounter an enclosed dark space on vacation, which is pester Ellen until she says "Release Me!!" in a deep, scary voice.  Then we had our second gelatos of the day.  Ellen was very much enjoying pretending to be a young widow, sad, but not too sad, if you know what I mean, about the probably mob-related death of her much older husband.

I really, really wanted to visit the Santuario Della Madonna Delle Lacrime, a 1950s era church dedicated to a plaster bust of Mary that cried real tears, so I dragged everyone over there.

It's shaped like a teardrop!  The story goes that this fine young Siracusan couple, Angelo and Antonina Lannuso, received this plaster bust of Mary as a wedding gift from an aunt.  

Antonina was pregnant with her first child and suffering toxemia, which caused temporary blindness.  One night she awoke, she could see again, and she noticed that the plaster bust of Mary above her bed was crying real tears!  The story spread like wildfire, and soon thousands of people were thronging her house to see the bust.  Eventually the Sanctuary was built and now you can go and see the bust, like we did. We were the only people there, which was a little weird after seeing the pictures of thousands at Antonina's house.

After the sanctuary, we went across the street to tour the catacomb at Chiesa di San Giovanni.  I had really been looking forward to touring the catacomb.  The experience, however, was extremely underwhelming.  It turns out the catacomb is just a dusty, dark underground cavern that used to be full of bones, which have been removed, along with any possible entertainment value.  It was not magical in any way, and, frankly, I couldn't wait to get out.

We had tickets to a performance in the Greet amphitheatre back at the Neapolis, but first we stopped for Aperol Spritzes and a big taglieri platter.  We sang happy birthday to Larry over the meats.

The Greek Amphitheatre of Siracusa shows three ancient Greek plays in rotation every summer.  We chose to see Oedipus, since because of whole Oedipal-complex thing, we thought we might understand some of it, even though it was performed in Italian, which we do not speak.  The plays are very popular, and the ancient stone seats of the amphitheatre were jammed full of Italians fanning themselves.  The chorus was at least fifty actors strong, and the main characters must have been famous Italian soap-opera stars or something, because the crowd went crazy for them.

When Oedipus went crazy at the end, he disappeared over the top of the steps to find and kill his mother/wife (spoiler!) and reappeared full naked, raving, and covered in (hopefully fake) blood.  We had been sort of drowsing, but that woke us up!  Happy Birthday to you, Larry!

On the way home we had another gelato, and prepared to say goodbye to Siracusa for our adventure in inland Sicily.  

Okay, phew, I finally made a blog entry!  I hope I can bang out another entry before many more months pass.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The Ren Faire of the Prairie


I'm not sure how to explain my fascination with all things Wisconsin, so I won't try.  Suffice it to say that when I first read the following event description a few years ago, it was not a question of if I would go, but only when.

I got my chance to go this June, and it was all I had hoped for.  The Rendezvous is always held over Father's Day Weekend, probably so knife-obsessed Dads can have a bargaining chip to drag their families to it.  I was way more invested in the Rendezvous than Larry, so I made my way to Prairie du Chien alone.

I flew into Minneapolis and rented a car for the three-hour drive to P du C.  At first the drive was pleasant, and I stopped for a tasty Culver's ButterBurger in Rochester.  As the sun began to set, however, foggy mists rose off the fields and drifted across the road, the deer came out, and lightning crackled ominously off to my right.  By the time I made it safely to my AirBNB, my nerves were shot and I was very grateful for my suitcase whiskey.

My AirBNB was the second floor of a modest old house next to the train tracks.  Every time a train went by (roughly every hour all day and all night) the horns made a terrific noise and the whole house rattled.  I liked it.  It felt very authentic, as transportation was what drove the development of Prairie du Chien.

The next day the Rendezvous wasn't quite set up, so I toured the town.  I have read a lot about Prairie du Chien, so it was very exciting for me to visit the Headquarters of the Prairie du Chien Historical Society and Museum and Fort Crawford Civil War Hospital.

I know that visiting three sites in one afternoon may sound ambitious, but it was not a problem at all.  The displays were heartfelt, but modest.  The three adjacent buildings house a variety of exhibits put together by townspeople who cared deeply about many diverse topics and who were all given some space to express themselves.  Here are two of my favorites:

A local girl rides to fame (?)

Did you know buttons were made from river clams??

I spent some time chatting up the one young woman in charge of all three buildings.  She told me about a few places that I should visit in the area.  Over the next few days, I ended up at all five!  If you'd like to follow along, they were: Veteran's Plaza, Muddy Waters Pizza, Spring Lake Inn, Effigy Mounds, and Lansing.  

Veteran's Plaza is a gazebo on the river in which local acts perform on Thursday nights during the summer.  At the coffee shop where I had my breakfast and at the museum, I was told that I simply HAD to go see the Chris Farley impersonator at Veteran's Plaza that night.  When I rolled up, there were at least a hundred people ready to be entertained.

I  had my doubts about this so-called entertainment, and my doubts were correct.  It was as bad as you might imagine it would be.  I walked back to town and made my way to Muddy Waters Pizza, where I had the house special, The Big Muddy, at the suggestion of the friendly proprietor/pizza maker.  

If you take the time to count, as I did, you will see that this pizza has nineteen (19) toppings, including sauerkraut and pineapple.  

Perhaps you are saying to yourself, what a grand idea!  Perhaps all pizzas should have 19 toppings!  The answer is no, all pizzas should not have 19 toppings.

The next day I ventured out to Effigy Mounds National Monument across the river in Iowa, which I can unreservedly recommend.  It is a beautiful, fascinating, and well-maintained park with some great mounds.

Historians and archaeologists are not sure why the river people built these animal-shaped mounds on the cliffs.  Before Netflix, people seemed to have a lot more time for frivolous projects.  It was a really lovely day, and there was hardly anyone there, so the deer, the chipmunks, the birds and I had the woods mostly to ourselves.

After my hike I had the early-bird fish-fry dinner at the Spring Lake Supper Club with two brandy old-fashioneds.  Just fantastic.

A little tipsy, I stopped by the graveyard outside of town and found the graves of early Prairie du Chien residents Hercules Louis and Nina Sturgis Dousman, which was extremely exciting for me, as I have read a lot about them.

If you and I are ever at a cocktail party together and you're bored, ask me about the Dousmans and you'll be bored in a whole new way.

I assumed that, as with the many Renaissance Faires I have attended, the Prairie Rendezvous participants would make an attempt at period dress.  So before my trip I sewed myself a calico dress and got out my leather bag and moccasins and straw hat.  On Saturday morning I donned my outfit and headed to the river.

It turns out that the only people who dress for the Rendezvous are vendors.  Luckily the vendors didn't all know each other, so they all assumed I was taking a very long lunch break.  I was curious to see what items would be for sale.  The answer?  Mostly knives and axes.  Also some beads, fur hats, blankets, and cookware.

The Rendezvous is held on the island of St. Feriole, which is also the site of the Villa Louis, the historic home of the Dousman family, now operated as a tourist attraction by the Wisconsin Historical Society.  I took the opportunity to tour the home in my period dress, which was very fun for me.  Our tour guide was the self-composed Marietta, a 15-year-old girl who introduced herself and said we were her second tour EVER.  She then asked if we knew anything about the Dousman family.  Reader, I know a great deal about the Dousman family, but I took pity on Marietta and feigned ignorance.

There was one of those men on the tour who asks questions just to show how much he knows about some obscure topic.  In this case, walnut furniture.  He kept saying things such as "Marietta, is it true that the porcelain wheels on that walnut tea trolley make it more valuable than most walnut tea trolleys?  How much do you think it's worth?"  Marietta kept her cool admirably.  I think she will go far.

To cap off my day, I attended Mass in my period dress at St. Gabriel's, where the Dousmans worshipped.  I am still mindful of Covid, however, and when the congregation began lustily singing unmasked, I ducked out.  I mean, I think God helps those who aren't complete idiots.  There was an excellent graveyard out back.

As I walked back to my AirBNB, I came across these excellent railroad signs.  I include this picture simply because I like it.

On Sunday I headed to Lansing, Iowa for the river views and Horsfalls Variety Store.  Here is a river view picture which I got a bemused family to take for me.

Horsfalls Variety store is a local institution.  It is a three-generations old dry-goods store which has morphed into the mother of all kitschy variety stores.  I loved it.  It now occupies three buildings and it carries everything from canning supplies to garden gnomes to kitchen gadgets to darning thread to bucket hats to lawn chairs to crock pots.  The home decor items especially appealed to me.

The bear looks happy, but the rabbit looks scared

After poking around happily for hours and buying several obscure items, I headed to Jones' Black Angus Supper Club for my last dinner in Prairie du Chien.  The Black Angus has been around for decades and they know what Wisconsinites want:

A brandy old-fashioned and lots of atmosphere.  I really enjoyed my long weekend in Prairie du Chien, and I hope to be back soon.  As I said, I'm not sure exactly why I love it so much, but I definitely could have riskier obsessions.