Saturday, March 18, 2017

Cave Dwellers and Grave Goods

February 8-10, 2017

I haven’t been in any place so grand since we took the kids to Disney World and stayed in the Polynesian. The Villa Politi doesn’t have parrots or a jungle in the lobby, and there’s no monorail.

But it does have a grand marble staircase outside. A photo somewhere in the building shows Clare Boothe Luce, when she was ambassador to Italy, coming down those stairs. 

The hotel shares its considerable grounds with an ancient quarry that has a cave cut into one wall. 

There is a legend that Dionysius the Tyrant, one of the early rulers of Syracuse, used a quarry to hold prisoners of war during one of his war with Athens.

He had a cave put in, the story goes, in order to eavesdrop on the prisoners. It’s called the Ear of Dionysius.

According to the lady at the Villa Politi desk, this is the quarry and that’s the cave.

There are replicas of Classical statues in the garden. There is also a statue of Maria Laudien Politi, for whom the street outside and the hotel here are named.

The phone didn’t work in the room they first put is in, and there was construction in the room next door. The smell of turpentine was in the air.

So they have moved us to one with a working phone and a better view. We get to see part of that ancient quarry and some of the gardens, instead of the empty swimming pool.

We rested when we got to the hotel on Wednesday afternoon and then went out to explore the neighborhood. It was cold and damp because rain was on its way.

We passed a park that has a wall full of small caves. The caves are full of trash and one has been used as a latrine, so it appears that they are still occupied. Imagine, in 10,000 years, if there are still people, they will be digging through that stuff to learn about 21st century life.

It won’t be human waste any more, but a midden.

We got as far as a bar near the Shrine of the Madonna of the Tears and shared a small sandwich. It was almost 5 by that time and getting colder and windier, so we retreated to the hotel.

Around 7:30 we went downstairs to dinner. The restaurant has a two-course dinner every night for 23 euro if you want a glass of wine with it.

We had eaten that sandwich at the bar, so we shared one meal. The first plate was ravioli stuffed with ricotta and pistachio. The sauce was a Sicilian specialty called Norma, which includes eggplant.

They say that the Arabs brought pistachio to Sicily. I'm glad they did.

The second course was a small plate of lamb chops, served with caponata (a mix of grilled vegetable) and a green sauce of pureed avocado and maybe more pistachios.

The wine was a blend of Syrah and Nero d’Avola. The Nero is a very popular grape in Sicily. (When we were at Pompei, we encountered several wines using Nero d’Avola grapes grown in the area around Naples.)

Sicilian Nero tends to be very smooth. The Syrah gave it a spicier edge, including an aftertaste with a mineral flavor.

We set out Thursday to get some laundry done.

We got a late start and left the hotel a few minutes after one. That was a wrong move.

We got directions to a neighborhood wash-and-dry shop, which is literally right around the corner. It closes every day from one to five for “riposo.”

So we took the laundry bag back to the hotel, where I picked up my raincoat and we headed in the opposite direction, toward the Madonna of the Tears, or in Italian, Madonna delle Lacrime.

The shrine is an immense cone that stands on a strangely shaped concrete building. It holds a relic of a miracle that took place in August and September 1953.

We got there around two and the church was closed. We eventually learned that it closes every day from noon to three. This is the first time I’ve found a destination church like this closed so everybody can go to lunch and take a nap.

So far, everywhere from Naples south, businesses and public buildings close for hours every day. Stores and the like close earlier than restaurants. But you can’t get a meal, other than bar food or sweets, between three and seven. It’s a real nuisance.

So we went to a bar to wait for the shrine to reopen. It’s the same place we went for the sandwich the day before. 

This time we split a small plate of surprisingly good lasagne. I approach lasagne with caution. It can be starchy, and it can even taste a little stale at times. 

This one was savory and fresh, no sweetness in the sauce. Dead-on perfect.

We went back and, indeed, found the shrine open.

At the end of August 1953, a couple in Syracuse discovered that the bas relief of Mary the Immaculate Heart in their bedroom was weeping. The phenomenon lasted several days and, of course, drew immense crowds to the couple’s house.

It became a worldwide sensation. I remember seeing photos about it in the Trenton newspapers when I was a boy.

Some of the tears were collected for analysis, which according to literature at the shrine, established them as human tears. The tears are preserved in a reliquary in a chapel in the crypt.

The original bas relief of Mary is in a frame behind the main altar in the basilica upstairs. The form, from which the manufacturer’s mold was made, is also on display, donated by the artist’s heirs.

We got back to the hotel shortly after five, so I took the bag to the laundry. Two delightful ladies, possibly a mother and daughter, were there when I arrived.

They saw me when I came to the wrong door and pointed me to the right way in. I asked for “wash, dry, and fold.” 

The lady spoke no English. I got as far as “lava e” and realized I had no idea what word to use for drying clothes. But she had a couple of words of English after all: “wash and dry.”


The deal was done.

We managed to establish that I would pick the laundry up on Friday morning, because they are only open half the day, or, failing that, sometime on Monday.

For our purposes, this isn’t the best part of Syracuse to lodge in. It’s close to some of the sights, the archeological museum and the archeological park, for instance, but there are only a few bars and no restaurants in this neighborhood.

So we went downstairs to the hotel restaurant again. The minestrone appeared to be vegetarian and was delicious, as tasty as something you might get at the vegetarian restaurant of a Buddhist monastery. (We’ve eaten with the monks a few times in Singapore and Hong Kong and have never been disappointed.) 

Even better than the soup was a fish steak stewed in a vegetable mix, which the menu called a “Mediterranean sauce.” We shared that and then added a plate of gnocchi. 

Potatoes wrapped pasta are always going to make a starchy dish, and this one was not an exception.

The wine of the evening was 100 percent Nero d’Avola, very smooth and very dry.

Friday we went to the Archeological Museum Paolo Orsi. It is named for a distinguished archeologist who I believe was director of the museum perhaps in the 1920s or ’30s.

We saw the first floor before the museum exhausted us. 

It starts with a section on the geological development of the area and on fossils of early flora and fauna. 

Sometime in the last century a group of cave explorers came on a pile of old animal bones, which they reported to the authorities.

It turns out that the bones belonged to an extinct and previously unknown species of pygmy elephant. The museum has replicas of two complete skeletons.

Artefacts record the development of handiwork from paleo- to neolithic and then into the Copper and Bronze Ages. There are blades of flint and obsidian. You can imagine some guy sitting on the dirt and chipping the stones till they take shape.

The second section displays finds related to this section of Sicily and has an area devoted solely to Syracuse. 

There are endless cases of pottery, including magnificent kraters, which apparently were urns for holding the ashes of cremations.

Many of the pieces are grave goods. There is an excavated temple and graveyard called Piazza della Vittoria right behind the Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Tears.

One of the finds made there consists of dozens of terracotta figurines left as votive offerings. 

At the Madonna's shrine, there is a shop selling souvenirs. You can buy an effigy of the Virgin to take with you to remind you of your visit. 

Next door, they did something like that long ago, but the other way around.

At the ancient temple, visitors used to leave effigies to remind the goddess that they had been there.

Many of those terracotta figures have been glued back together and occupy several cases against a wall.

A sarcophagus taken from the area contains a skeleton. Reproduction or original I don’t know.

Grave goods also included a small stylized bronze horse, which was found in the grave of a child.

It has become the symbol of the museum. So I was looking for it, but almost missed it.

I had been expecting something much bigger. It stand three or four inches high, and really is hauntingly beautiful.

A similar figure of a horse with unnaturally narrow waist is on a krater that held the remains of another child.

Displays include scale models of temples, replicas of eaves and rainspouts, torsos of athletes, greaves, breastplates, safety pins. 

A door from an ancient tomb is carved with spiral motifs. An archeologist, Bernabo Brea, saw them as abstract representations of sexual intercourse.

We had eaten dinner two nights in a row at the hotel and wanted something different. The man at the reception desk gave us directions to the nearest restaurant, about a mile away.

A walk too far after a day of museum crawling, and besides, I had explored part of the road we’d have to take, with tiny sidewalks and speeding traffic, so I didn’t want to do that again.

We went to a bar across the street instead. Bar Drago serves lunch, but at dinnertime it only has pizza.

I was going to order a Margherita, when Joanna noticed something that sounded more interesting. They called it Bufalina and made it buffalo milk mozzarella. 

Some time in the past (I don’t know when: a hundred, a thousand, a million years ago) somebody brought Asian water buffalo to Italy and started to make mozzarella di bufala.

It is tangier than mozzarella made of cow’s milk. It’s also fun to think about water buffalo when you eat it.

So we had that, along with a bottle of Sicilian Syrah bottled under the name Kaid by a wine cooperative called Allessandro di Camporeale, which is in the Province of Palermo. I chose it because of the blend of Syrah and Nero d’Avola the other night.

It has a great aroma and a tartness all the way through from beginning to end that’s a lot of fun. 

I brought half the bottle home, and was so tired I didn’t even touch it. I went right to sleep.

This is long enough, gang. More in a few days.

So remember: Che syrah syrah.

Love to all.


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