Katherine arrives back on the bus from Palermo just in time to attain the honour of being the youngest person in attendance at the Friday night dinner in the Marina Bar. With lots of Sicilian wine washing down the paella and pasta carbonara, everyone is in good form by the time the dessert arrives. Audrey, our across-the-dock neighbour, is celebrating her birthday and the cruisers from the UK (of which there are many) give her a rousing chorus of "Why was she born so beautiful, why was she born at all?" The silly song replays itself in my head for two days.
Late the next morning, we launch an expedition to Caltagirone, another baroque town that was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693. Although Caltagirone is a Unesco World Heritage Site by virtue of the architecture in its old centre, it is best known throughout Sicily for the colourful ceramics that are produced by its artisans.Our friends Ni and Krissy follow us on their motorbike.
With our usual flair for poor timing, we arrive in Caltagirone just as most places are closing for the long afternoon siesta. But a few shops are still open, and we quickly see that we will have endless choices of beautiful bowls, platters, tiles and figurines. We have purchased ceramic items in almost every Mediterranean country we have visited, but here the craftsmanship is outstanding. The local artisans have had plenty of time to perfect their skills, since ceramics have been produced in this area for over a thousand years. Many of the techniques, colours and designs used today were introduced by the Arabs.
The 142 steps of the impressive "Scala Santa Maria Del Monte" have majolica tiles as risers. Today, the staircase has been decorated with potted plants.
We do not climb the stairs, nor do we give the beautiful baroque buildings more than a cursory admiring glance. We have seen more than our share of baroque architecture in the past two weeks and we are here to shop. Krissy is looking for a straight-sided jar to hold kitchen utensils in Finalmente's galley. Rick is determined to find a set of the ceramic address numbers that he has admired on the walls of Sicilian houses. Within an hour, the ceramic numbers are "in the bag", as well as several bowls, two olive oil spouts, an owl and a beautifully decorated tile. The quest for the kitchen jar will continue throughout the afternoon, and the perfect one will not be found until a nearly-perfect one has already been purchased.
A man on the street has recommended the restaurant "La Piazzeta" for lunch, and our Lonely Planet concurs. After a bit of searching, we find it on a quiet back street and settle in for a memorable lunch. The parade of antipasto choices is delicious, as are the pastas. It is our 33rd wedding anniversary, and what a great way to celebrate it! The meal keeps us occupied until the remaining shops have reopened. As we settle our bill, a young man walks out of the kitchen wearing riding gear, and we speculate on where he might be headed. Someone suggests that he might be a polo player. "I doubt that anyone here is rich enough to play polo" says Ni.
We head back to the shops and before long, we are all carrying bags stuffed with beautiful, breakable items that have only a remote chance of making it home intact. One of the most exceptional shops is Casamano Giacomo, where the artist has created lifelike figurines, some set up in animated scenes.
As we leave Giacomo's shop, crowds are gathering on the street. Riders on horseback clatter into the square. Many of the horses are wild-eyed and skittish, clearly not accustomed to being ridden in an urban environment.
Krissie spots the young man from the restaurant. Ni had been right; he wasn't going to a polo game! Neither is this guy:
We are mystified about the reason for the procession, but eventually learn that it is a springtime blessing of animals and farm equipment. The equestrians are followed by tractors and trucks, decorated with signs saying "Queen of Peace, bless our family".
As I dig my camera out of my bag, I glance down at the curb, where a small face is peering up from the sewer grate. I am staring at the twin of our long-dead pet rat Jo-Jo. Despite the similarities, I am not at all happy to be in such close proximity to this one!
He peers around. Surely he sees the crowd above him, but he scurries out anyway. Quick as a flash he grabs a piece of food from the curb, then disappears back into the grate. I am reminded of how Rod Heikel's cruising guide to Greece warned of "big and bold rats who will not hesitate to come aboard....". Suddenly, I have better insight into what he means by "bold". Of course, we know that rats are a fact of life almost everywhere in the world (the Canadian province of Alberta being one of the few exceptions) but I prefer it when they keep themselves out of sight. I'm a bit jumpy for the rest of the afternoon.
When the procession ends, Rick and Ni retreat to a café while Katherine, Krissy and I plunge back into the shops for one last look. The perfect countertop jar reveals itself at our final stop, just minutes after Krissy has purchased another. It is some consolation to see that the price is nearly triple that of the one she has chosen.
Just as we prepare to leave, it begins to rain. Krissy decides to ride back to Marina di Ragusa with us, which will keep her dry and make it easier for Ni to control the bike in the wind and rain. But fortunately, rain rarely lasts long at this time of the year in Sicily. Within 20 minutes, the sun begins to break through and a glorious rainbow appears on the horizon.
We round off the day with pizzas at the "American bar" pizzeria in Marina di Ragusa. As we are finishing our wine, Katherine slips away from the table and pays the bill. A nice anniversary surprise!
We still have the car for another two and a half days. We consider going to Chiaramonte Gulfi (famed for its delicious pork and olive oil) or perhaps even as far as Villa Romana del Casale (site of an ancient Roman villa with extensive and extraordinary mosaics), but we are running out of steam. Instead, we spend Sunday afternoon at the shopping mall outside Ragusa and cook pasta onboard Aisling in the evening. But Katherine mounts a campaign for a return trip to Siracusa the next day, since her previous visit had been a bit of a bust. Rick is growing tired of so much driving, but eventually caves in.
We arrive in Siracusa on time to visit the morning market, then have cappuccino in the Duomo square.
As we wander through the streets of Ortygia, a small shop called "Olive" is offering tastes of olive oil and chocolate. Delicious! Naturally, we cannot resist. We hand over a fistful of euros, hoping to bring a taste of Sicily back to Halifax.
Katherine's ulterior motive for the return trip to Siracusa is to have lunch at the Apollonian on Via Campisi. This restaurant has no menu, but instead offers a multi-course meal at a fixed price (35 euros per person, tax and service included). We feast on cold seafood antipasti, oysters, breaded mussels and clams, fish cakes topped with sea urchins, seafood spaghetti and so many other things that I'm too embarrassed to list them all. It is after 3 p.m. when we finally waddle out the door. We are all in agreement that dinner will not be served onboard Aisling this evening.
The next morning, we pay a quick visit to Ragusa Ibla (Ragusa's baroque old town).
The baroque architecture in Ragusa Ibla is reminiscent of nearby Noto or Modica, and it too was constructed after the 1693 earthquake. The story of Ragusa Ibla has a bit of a twist though. When the earthquake flattened the original Ragusa, the new town of Ragusa Superiore was built on a higher ridge. Later, many of the town's aristocrats disagreed with the decision to relocate, and rebuilt their palazzi on the site of the old town. The two towns eventually merged, but not until 1927. This morning the streets of Ragusa Ibla are quiet, although a few people are up and about.
We'd like to linger, but the car must be returned by noon. Katherine and I squeeze in one last bit of shopping on Via Roma while Rick returns the car, then we all reunite on the bus to Marina di Ragusa. The only thing left on the agenda is a trip to the beach, and goodbye visits to Deep Blue and Finalmente. Katherine is impressed by the bright and spacious boats of our friends. We all love Aisling, but we do wish the guest quarters were a bit roomier!
We know we've been eating out far too often, but Katherine still hasn't had a chance to try our favourite Marina di Ragusa restaurant, the Imperial. The caprese salad and spaghetti vongole are delicious, the owners are friendly and our bill is always reasonable. After dinner, we enjoy one last walk along the boardwalk, sad to realize that our wonderful two weeks together have come to an end. The next day, Katherine boards the bus to Catania airport, and a hollow, "empty nest" feeling pervades Aisling.
But the guest quarters will not be vacant for long. Onward to Siracusa, and a rendezvous with Kathy MacGillivary!