Saturday, January 31, 2004

Day 8 - Caltagirone

It seemed that we might never get to the historic center of Caltagirone, but once we did we were blown away. This beautiful old town, tucked away in a forgotten corner of Sicily is a gem. Perched atop a hill, the old buildings are seemingly stacked upon one another, higher and higher, until they reach the Piazza Umberto, and then rise upward to yet another piazza reached by a set of stairs that seem to touch the sky. Everything about this town is right and we are fortunate to be able to spend a whole day here.

But I get ahead of myself. We rise and have breakfast at the Grand Hotel Villa San Mauro, located just outside of the main town (it is difficult to find, but can be done so if you follow signs to the hospital - "ospedale" - the Villa San Mauro is across from the hospital, and just down the street). It is part of an Italian hotel group called Framon and we are quite impressed. The room is quite spacious, especially by Italian standards, with high ceilings and beautiful details, such as painted ceramic wall sconces and a painted tile headboard. The bathroom is decked out in marble with upscale fixtures. The staff is most accommodating and helpful (the manager himself parked our car last night) and the restaurant on the premises is quite good. It is like an upscale American hotel chain with an Italian twist. There is a beautiful swimming pool and terrace, which is unfortunately too cold to use. Although Framon appears to be based in Sicily, it has properties throughout Italy and we are definitely going to seek them out in the future.

We get directions to the old town from the hotel reception and head off, immediately getting off track, as has become our habit. It is Saturday and there is much traffic and activity and we manage to get ourselves into a traffic jam nowhere near the center. Fortune smiles on us, however, and we stumble across one of the only streets that is marked on our map and are quickly on our way to town center.

Streets are narrow, in typical Italian fashion, and by narrow I mean about 2 inches narrower than our car. We navigate these lanes and emerge at the Piazza Umberto, the center of town. It is a lovely piazza flanked by several historic municipal buildings, and everywhere we look there are small shops bursting with ceramics. Caltagirone is, after all, the spiritual center of the ceramics industry in Sicily, and this is why we have come.

We exit the piazza looking for a parking space and come face to face with a staircase stretching hundreds of feet up from the piazza to another piazza. The stairway, the Scala Santa Maria, is wide - about twenty or thirty feet wide, with each stair a piece of heavy gray marble. On the face of each riser (pardon me if I am using the terminology incorrectly, but by riser I mean the vertical member that faces you as you climb each stair) is a series of hand painted tiles that stretches the entire width of the stairway. Each riser uses a different series of tiles - there are birds, animals, knights, ladies, duels, palaces, cities and geometric designs. The effect is stunning as the stairs stretch upward for several hundred feet. The Caltagironians clearly take their ceramics and its tradition and history seriously.

We luck out, finding a parking place a block away from the Scala Santa Maria and begin to wander back to it and the Piazza Umberto. Only a few steps from the car we notice a small shop displaying wine for sale. Upon closer look we realize it is an enoteca (wine store) for the Tenuta Nanfro, the producer of the wine we enjoyed so much last night at dinner. We make this fact known to the man running the enoteca and strike up a lively conversation with him. He turns out to be Concetto Lo Certo, who co-owns the winery, located about five minutes from our hotel, with his brother. He invites us to visit the winery and take a tour. While we peruse the store and his products (the tenuta also produces olive oil, and we buy a bottle for evaluation), a couple of customers come in, armed with glass bottles with stoppers. Signor Lo Certo fills them with wine from the large wooden casks in the store. In Caltagirone, it seems, you can get your wine for 2 euro if you bring your own bottle. This place really is fantastic!

We wander back to the piazza, scaling the stairs and taking photos of the different tiles and admiring the view of the countryside you are afforded from this vantage point. We window shop the many ceramics stores around and about the piazza, which are all closed or closing for lunch.

We look for a restaurant ourselves, which is a bit of challenge during this low season, but find a nice place featuring pizzas called al Posto Giusto (Piazza I. Marcinno 15/16/17, tel. 0933-54896). We have a leisurely lunch and are entertained by an Italian family that clearly dines here often and knows the proprietor. They enjoy a large lunch, with wine for all, including the 10 year old son, and take a half hour to say their goodbyes and depart. During this interval we are unable to get anyone's attention for espresso or the bill. We have found that you often are left undisturbed after dinner, sometimes so unmolested that it is difficult to pay up and get out. We have noticed recently, more than in the past, that diners will get up to ask for and to pay the bill at the front of the restaurant. This does not seem to be an egregious faux pas. We get our bill and depart after a leisurely two hour lunch, timing our departure to coincide with the reopening of the stores.

Despite our efforts, since arriving in Sicily we have been unsuccessful in finding souvenir marionettes or a marionette show. Sicily is famous for its puppet theatre, featuring marionette knights duking it out, with much blood and gore, a tradition of storytelling and entertainment that stretches back centuries on this island. On the way to lunch we are disappointed to see the local puppet exhibition, located at an establishment called Preseppi, is closed. Fate shines upon us once again, as the Preseppi's proprietor happens to be going in to do some cleaning as we pass by on our way from lunch. He lets us inside and we are treated to a half dozen different scenes, each featuring a number of marionettes that are intricately carved, painted and clad in armor or royal vestments and each about two feet high. A number of them are nearly a hundred years old, but even the newest ones are special. We are truly fortunate to have stumbled upon them.

After lunch we visit several ceramics shops. The quality of their goods and their shops is uniformly outstanding. The patterns here share some similarities with Deruta patterns, but use some darker tones and more painting. They also seem to produce more ornamental pieces, such as painted figurines as well as a fair amount of portraiture. The town is home to over a hundred studios, and it seems that most of them have a small shop near the piazza. A number of artists' works are also displayed in a single large ceramics superstore, a sort of majolica meets Walmart, and this is the single disappointment in Caltagirone. There is even a snackbar in the market, giving it a South of the Border feel.

We visit a number shops but limit our purchases to one shop, Maiolche Artistiche di Giorgio Alemanna, just off the main square. His shop is smallish, but filled with a broad array of patterns and pieces all of the highest quality. We buy a few pieces to bring back to the store and are on our way. Outside, in the Piazza Umberto, Caltagirone's older generation of men is congregating in the lengthening shadows, engaged in animated discussions in groups of a half dozen or more. They are decked out in their finest clothes, and every man wears a hat of some sort. Where they are going or why they congregate at night like this is beyond me, but watching them interact with one another, gesturing wildly with their hands, erupting in indignation at an apparent slight or in disagreement with something said by their compatriot, which is forgotten as quickly as it came, is as much a joy as being able to experience the beauty these people have created from lumps of clay and dabs of paint. The Italian culture and their people are every bit as beautiful and satisfying as their food we eat and their art we enjoy and we are truly grateful to be able to come here and experience it.

And with that, we get back in our trusty Passat and head back to the Villa San Mauro, stopping for a few panoramic photos of the old town. We look forward to another good meal and the promise of returning to this city in the not so distant future.

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill

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