Saturday, August 29, 1998

The Madonna of Tears

Modern miracles and ancient myths in Siracusa, Sicily

This is the story of the Madonna della Lacrime, the Madonna of Tears. A Siracusan family buys a little factory-made plaster plaque-relief of the Madonna back in 1953. They hang it on the wall.

The next morning the husband goes off to work, after which the gypsum Madonna image starts crying, at 8:30 a.m. on Aug 29, 1953. Wife calls husband. He comes home. They marvel at the thing, a bit scared, and try to figure out what to do.

Relatives they call start coming over to see it and confer.

Then neighbors start arriving to see the miraculous Madonna (that'll teach them to reveal secrets to nosy Sicilian relatives).

Then strangers start showing up at the door.

You can see where this is heading.

Wednesday, August 5, 1998

Sweet, Sweet Heaven

Lecce is one of the loveliest, liveliest towns in Southern Italy, but some of its best secrets hide in the unlikeliest of places

I was walking up the street in Lecce near Santa Croce church when someone across at the edge of my peripheral vision started calling out to me in English "Hey! Hello! Excuse me, hello!"

As usual — as with the hotel touts at train stations, the man at the postcard stand today, and the guy playing his guitar (badly) yesterday in a doorway — when strangers on the street in Italy start talking to me in "American," I ignore them completely. Not to be rude, but because 9.99 times out of ten they want to sell me something I don't want or need, and they're out to fleece me to boot.

So I kept walking ahead. Then the voice said "Eh, uhm... Frommer's! Frommer's, hello!"

Wait a minute. This guy knows who I am.

Saturday, August 1, 1998

Brindisi, Waiting Room of the Aegean

I spend a day scaring up the best there is to see in the Apulian port city of Brindisi

Brindisi is, and always has been, a ferry port. From the days when the Romans extended the Via Appia here from Rome through medieval knights leaving for the Crusades to modern sun-seekers on their way to the Greek Isles, Brindisi has been where you step off the end of the road and onto the high seas.

Brindisi is the only Italian town where more road signs point to "Greece" than to anywhere in Italy. The passeggiata here is less an evening stroll than a backpacker parade of ferry-bound tourists killing time until their 10pm departure by restlessly marching up and down the main drag, their eyes sparkling with visions of Greek islands, their faces grimacing as they bite into what very well may be the worst pizza-by-the-slice this side of Naples.

There is little to see in Brindisi, but I was determined to find something to put in the guidebook I was writing at the time, anything to amuse the legions of folks who are stuck here daily, waiting to board the slow boat to Greece.

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Pronto Soccorso

If you have to have a medical emergency, try not to have it in Palermo, Sicily

I think I shall revise my maxim about what one must see, beyond the sights, to really experience a country. Before it was just to eat the cuisine (naturally) and to watch some local TV. Recently, I've added shop in the local market and/or K-Mart equivalent.

However, I am increasingly of the opinion that to this list we must add one other activity without which no country experience is complete: a visit to the emergency room of the local hospital.

Now of course I don't mean a visit for drastic reasons requiring an ambulance and IV drip. I mean relatively minor yet still annoying ailments, such as Frances' flu on that rainy night in Rome, or the vicious Scottish germs I waged a bedridden battle against on Santorini.

Or, of course, Jay's recurrent sinusitis that's been worsening over the past few days ever since we spent that night atop the volcano (long story).

So after a lengthy walk through some of the more bombed-out sections of Palermo—I know of no other European city that still has whole blocks of broken and charred buildings destroyed in World War II still rotting in the very center of town—down city streets that have become dirt roads, back and forth and in spiraling circles as we got repeatedly lost, and then across several dusty, wind-swept squares, we finally stumbled across Palermo's Ospedale Civico.

Saturday, May 30, 1998

No Room in the Inn at the Center of the World

Making do while shaking up in the myth-soaked Sicilian city of Enna

Enna is a city one can see in just 95 minutes—at least, that's how long it took Jay and I to do the major sights (not that most were major...).

Admittedly, we did skip the medieval Norman Torre di Frederico II and it's surrounding park, but the thing was way out on the other end of Enna in the new town (the city is kind of V-shaped, splayed out along two ridges) and is completely swathed in scaffolding (Ionic, from what we could tell) and closed anyway.

Although our train pulled in around 2:20pm, there wasn't a bus up to the town proper until 3:10pm. And, as it turns out, Enna's bus station is way the heck over in the new town, not the old town where all of the sights (and the only hotel) cluster.

Monday, May 25, 1998

A night atop the volcano

Climbing Stromboli, a violently active volcano and the last in the line of Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily

Stromboli eruptingThe mountain had been rumbling all day, but it wasn't until the setting sun sent sparking streamers across the azure Tyrrhenian Sea surrounding us that Stromboli's fireworks truly began.
With a primal roar and a boom that shook the entire island, the smaller of the cones inside the crater below us exploded in fire, spewing tons of molten lava hundreds of feet into the air. Jay and I were too dumbstruck even to grope for our cameras.
As the red glow faded and the magma spattered back to earth like fat raindrops, I turned to my friend and we could both think of only one reaction: "Wow."
Pyrotechnics over for at least the next 20 minutes or so, I looked around the rim of the ancient crater. We stood on the lip of a large bowl, in the bottom of which snuggled Stromboli's trio of active cones gurgling, hissing, steaming, and growling in between eruptions.
At regular intervals along the rim were foot-high curved walls of stacked pumice stone--some just a wind-blocking curl, others spiraled like a seashell. "Well," I said, gesturing to the walls. "Let's pick out a shelter for the night."