On the day we arrive one of the hotel guests, in the process of checking out, hears our English. He turns to tell us that we must eat dinner at a nearby casual ristorante called Perbacco, which he only discovered his last night on Ortigia. We walk the narrow uneven cobblestone passageways searching for the address he gives us. The streets names are hard to find and specific numbers even less so. But, the smells of fresh seafood arriving and arancini toasting in olive oil are unmistakable.
Perbacco isn’t open yet for the evening, but the neighborly manager invites us to sit on their sofa in the courtyard and sip some wine. We asked for the vino locale and he said, "when you’re in Sicily, you must try Neros.” Already one of our favorite wines at home in Dallas, we agree with him and say that we’re in love with it. He appears confused. “You know this wine? How can you? The mainland of Italy refuses to drink it. So, we keep it to ourselves.” “Si, si, we assure him. We know it and buy it at home.” “Okey dokey, you get the best.” And we do. A beautiful bottle of Nero d’Avola arrives, accompanied by a gratis plate of arancini, the local delicacy of crispy fried risotto with red pepper sauce. What an introduction to the real wealth of Sicily, its alluring cuisine, wines and hospitality.
The sensuousness of Sicily’s surrounding Mediterranean coastline, cool evening breezes, clear light and temperate weather extends its aura to the food and drink. Ortigia’s fresh produce and seafood market is near Via de Benedictis, just beyond the Greek Temple of Apollo. Shopping there initiates a courtship with Sicilian food. The vivid colors, tastes and feel of everything available to eat and drink make us hungry for the country. An extensive variety of fresh produce, spices, sauces, cheeses, oils and vinegars are found year-round in local markets that burst with saturated color and exotic smells.
The restaurants with talented chefs, whose training begins at home alongside their parents and grandparents, locally source fresh supplies from these markets to produce the featured dishes on their seasonally changing menus. We dive into each plate put before us from breakfast until late at night: luscious heirloom tomatoes; blood oranges; smoked and grilled cheeses; sausages and eggs; tiny potatoes bathing in olive oil; fresh seafood, large and small, with or without shells; creamy risottos; olives; bright green fresh peas and beans.
The next evening, we encounter the first aloof person on the island. The tiny restaurant’s maitre d’ also serves as our waiter. He is frantic and hurries us along with our order. Overwhelmed by the unfamiliar menu, we tell him “just bring us your favorites.” Once again, we appear to confuse the waiter and he knits his eyebrows in a question, using two of the few English words he appears to know, “okay, yes?” Before long plates brimming with cheese, figs, seafood and fresh vegetables begin to appear. There is not enough room on the table for all of it. We look at each other and think uh oh big mistake, we’re going to get everything on the menu. The Frito Misto Frutti di Mare, a mixed platter of sardines, anchovies, tiny ‘popcorn’ squid, octopus and other unidentifiable small fish fried in olive oil makes us swoon when it shows up. We stack plates and clear a place for it. Thinking the bill will make us faint, we ask the waiter to stop. “A little more,” he says firmly. We don’t argue and welcome lemoncello, aged grappa and cassata, a Sicilian layer cake.
“It’s finish?” he says removing the stacks of plates on plates. As in the rest of Italy, we “own” the table until we’re ready to leave. So we say, “it’s finish” and ask for the bill. The total is embarrassingly small. We do something typically American, but out of character for us. We tip heavily. The waiter takes away il conto and turns back to us on his heels. “Senor, not okay.” “Si, si,” we assure him. “Wowa, grazie molto bene” is all he can say and smiles. “Molto bene, it’s very okay,” we cheer.
The beautiful food is a result of an amalgam of cultures, which established settlements on the island of Sicily over two millennia. Although its cuisine has a lot in common with Italy, Sicilian food also has Spanish, Greek and Arab influences. The use of apricots, sugar, citrus, sweet melons, rice, saffron, raisins, nutmeg, clove, pepper, pine nuts, cinnamon (along with fried preparations) is not often found in Italy.
Much of the island's cuisine encourages the use of every item in their fresh bounty: eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes, and fish such as tuna, sea bream, sea bass, sardines, anchovies, cuttlefish, swordfish and a variety of exotic shellfish. Very few recipes have more than five ingredients, taking advantage of seasonal variety in produce and seafood. All of it is so fresh that it takes very little to deliver a profound and memorable depth of flavor. We hope the gallery below will seduce you as it did us to look forward to many more trips to this unforgettable island.
SEAFOOD MARKET IN ORTIGIA SICILY
We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.― D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover
Upon arrival in Taormina, we recognize it as enchantment wrapped around a multitude of myths. The city, precariously set on Monte Tauro, rises 650 feet above the sea, dominating grand, sweeping bays along the eastern coast of Sicily. It offers visitors a dramatically memorable view of Mount Etna and over one hundred miles of Mediterranean Sea. Early Sicels, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards seemed to be in agreement. For centuries, it was the chosen locale for their ancient resorts. Taormina has also been attracting invaders, since it was founded as Tauromenium in the fourth century BC. Its past is a microcosm of Sicilian history. Those who arrived, conquered and eventually departed. On this day, only tourists with backpacks and suitcases disrupted our wandering.
Refuge to Artists and Writers
Taormina can lay some claim to being one of the originating sites of modern tourism. After Goethe’s book Italian Journey was published, the city became a featured stop on the Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century. The painter, Wilhelm von Gloeden, settled there in 1880 and made it famous to European cultural clubs with his provocative portraits of shepherd boys with Mount Etna in the background. Modern literary heroes followed. A quick roll call of celebrities included: Alexander Dumas, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Klimt, Richard Wagner, Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, Nietzsche and DH Lawrence. It is little known that Lawrence’s character, Constance Chatterley, was based on an Englishwoman living at Taormina during his stay there. He was among the many who came here in the 1920s seeking a place to live uninhibited and undisturbed by those who couldn’t understand him. It was eventually established as a locale with an inclination towards the bohemian and sexual. Today’s artists continue to seek it out as a port in the storm and an inspiring setting in which to create without judgment.
Is the Theater Greek or Roman?
Taormina's most spectacular monument is the Teatro Greco, a magnificent amphitheater. If you doubt that ancient gods existed, sit a while among the ruins of this theater. You can almost hear cautionary tales spun by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. While it’s called a Greek theater, there are examples of both Roman and Greek architectural traditions to be found here. Its origin is still open to debate among experts and critics. All their disputes would end if they remembered that Taormina was a Greek “polis.” Every ancient Greek town had its own theater, where the works of the famous authors were performed. The theater in Taormina is the second largest in Sicily, after the one in Siracusa. The later architectural contribution by the more ostentatious Romans was to enlarge the relatively small theater to stage gladiatorial combat. Further evidence that the Teatro is of Greek origin is in the well-cut bricks of Taormina stone (similar to marble) below the theater. Typical examples of the ancient Greek building techniques are the scene (background) and the orchestra (place for the musicians and close seating). The cavea, comprised of class-segregated terraced seating and subterranean caverns, appear to be Roman additions. The scene (skene) is formed by two series of Corinthian columns, recognizable by the shape of the capitals and their acanthus leaf design. The Greeks worshipped nature and it’s evident in their theaters. Sea and sky were preferred background for actors to perform. The Romans tried to improve on nature and control the view by constructing a backdrop connecting the columns to a facade and proscenium. But, serious damage to the theater during many early attacks rendered a return to its appearance during the Grecian period, a magnificent panorama of the bay of Naxos and Mount Etna.
The city's "Duomo" is not actually a cathedral, but a fortress. The Norman-Arab church, built over an earlier Christian structure, dates from the twelfth century. Cattedrale di San Niccolo has a Latin-cross plan with three aisles and six minor altars in the two side aisles. The nave is held up by six monolithic columns, three on each side, in pink Taormina marble and with capitals featuring a foil and fish-scale decoration. The ceiling of the nave has wooden beams supported by carved corbels reproducing Arabian scenes with a Gothic style. The main portal was rebuilt in 1636 and has a large Renaissance-inspired rosette sculpted on it.
St. Pancras Church
Though captivated by the skulls and crossbones carved in the exterior stone of an edifice that reminds us more of a pirate ship than a church, we are uncertain of their meaning. The church’s origin, however, is clear. Santa Pancrazio was built on the ruins of a Greek temple dedicated to Isis in order to honor Taormina’s patron saint, Pancras, a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Parts of the temple’s cell can still be seen in the southern wall of the church. The early Rococo style church dates back to the second part of the 16th century, when this style was less ornate and used light colors, asymmetrical designs, curves and gold. Unlike the more political Baroque, Rococo was playful and witty. The main portal features jambs and architraves in Taormina stone. Two Ionian columns decorate each side of the portal with an organ above the portal. There are eight angels on the altar, four on each side, and a bust of God giving his blessing. A fresco picturing the torture of St. Pancras can be seen on the right of the main altar. In iconography, this saint is depicted as a world-weary old man with yellowing grey hair, vested as a bishop and holding a cross in his right hand, a book in his left.
Porta Messina and Porta Catania
In ancient times Taormina was protected by a circuit of walls with a triple fortification system, which looked towards Messina from the north and ended on the west on the side looking towards Catania. Traces of these walls can still be seen today not only in the center of the town where the clock-tower stands, but also at the two farthest ends of the town where there are two entrances, Porta Messina and Porta Catania.
The Arabian dominion in Sicily lasted from the 9th to the 11th century and the Moslems remained in Taormina in particular from the year 902 to 1079. During the 11th century the Arabs reinforced the town’s defenses by building a tower, which is really the main part of today’s Palazzo Corvaja. The tower reminded the Arabs of their sacred “Al Ka ‘bah,” the first temple erected to God by Abraham at Mecca.
Ideal Vacation Locale
With its ancient Greek soul, medieval architecture, temperate climate, literary history and sensuous Mediterranean beauty, Taormina is one of the most seductive places in the world. Sensitively restored buildings, breathtaking views around every corner and a giddy network of winding streets strewn with boutiques, bars and restaurants make it a perfect place to stay. To quote Lawrence’s Lady, “It's terrible, once you've got a man into your blood!" Chambers Architects would say the same of Taormina. This city on the Bay of Naxos wound its way into our hearts and took up a permanent residence. We’ll be back. All photographs and videos by Stephanie and Steve Chambers.
On the morning we planned to go to Ragusa, rain beat against the windows of our Ortigia hotel. We ached all over from the prior day's walk through Villa Romana. It would have been easy to perch on tall chairs near wide windows of the hotel, watch fishermen haul in fresh catch, nosh on homemade croissants and sip cappuccinos until swept out with the crumbs. Although little was written about Ragusa in our guidebooks, it’s history as a cave town for the Sicels (ancient Sicilians) piqued our curiosity. We charged up the cameras, packed raingear into backpacks and waited for il “beeg Sha-neek-wa” in the hotel lobby. We navigated “S” turns and climbed up to the hill town. Our jaws dropped when we scanned the city hugging rocks for security. “What is this place?” We were in disbelief at the sight of Baroque on top of Baroque, tossed across the edge of the rocky precipice.
Origin of Ragusa Ibla
Ragusa's origin can be traced back to the 2nd millennium BC, where Sicels established several settlements. The ancient tribe who populated the 1000 ft. hill came in contact with the nearby Greek colonies and developed the town thanks to the nearby port of Camerina. After a short Carthaginian rule, the Romans and the Byzantines, who fortified the city and built a large castle, administrated Ragusa. Ragusa was occupied by the Arabs in 848 AD and remained under their rule until the 11th century, when the Normans conquered it.
Devastation by Earthquake and Rebuilding
In 1693, a huge earthquake that killed 5,000 inhabitants, devastated the architecture, too. Following the catastrophe, public opinion was divided on where to rebuild. A compromise was struck. The population divided itself into two new settlements: a new upper city called Ragusa Alta and Ragusa Ibla on the ancient site. The merchant class rebuilt Upper Ragusa and today it is a bustling modern city. The aristocracy refused to leave their devastated homes in the valley and recreated a Baroque city on the medieval street plan. The two towns remained separate until 1926.
What To See
While the upper part has its share of attractions, the lower jumble town of houses, churches and civic palazzi piled one on the other, hugging the walls of the gorge, is the more breathtaking and timeless pocket of Sicily. Seemingly Medieval from a distance, at its heart the town it's an ancient treasure. It is now part of the Val di Noto UNESCO Heritage site. Eighteen of its buildings are protected by UNESCO patronage. During our walk through the hill town, we couldn’t help but marvel at the human capacity for toughness in the face of natural disaster. Chambers Architects encourages everyone interested in ancient culture and Baroque architecture to consider this town an essential part of a tour of southeastern Sicily. All photography and video by Stephanie and Steve Chambers.
Imagine that you are co-emperor of the western world. You need to build a ranch, hunting lodge or lake home worthy of your status that will keep you safe from unappreciative plundering hordes. Oh, and you like the finest art being produced today. What considerations would you, could you, give to the art and interior design of this edifice? How would you insure that it remain intact and important for centuries? Where in your empire would you place it? For the second of the Chambers Architects’ Sicily blogs, we deepen our knowledge of the Sicilian connection to mythology and rural life with a visit to Villa Romana del Casale.
Most scholars believe it belonged to Diocletian’s co-emperor, Maximilian, who ruled between A.D. 286 and 305. The UNESCO protected Villa is located in the province of Enna, the heart of Italy’s breadbasket. This region has been little affected by time and mass tourism. Historically, Enna has been an important agricultural center since Arab rule. The pasta you eat anywhere in Italy may well have begun its life in Enna. Sicily was once a heavily forested island, but with the Roman Empire’s increasing population, iron ploughs and animals were used to clear dense forests to grow wheat in the rich topsoil. Agriculture was the economic base for the Roman Empire. Sicily was the granary that fed its legions. In fact, Sicily’s flag features a trinacria (three legs) with head of Medusa. At the time of the Romans, Medusa was replaced by a sweet-looking young maiden with stalks of wheat protruding from her head instead of snakes. This substitution emphasizes the fertility of Sicily's lush landscape.
Enna has an ancient mythological link to the cult of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Zeus and Demeter. She was carried off by Hades to become Queen of the Underworld at Lake Pergusa near Enna. Greek myths abound with creepy uncles and revengeful mothers and fathers. Persephone’s drama doesn’t disappoint. She's minding her own business frolicking and picking flowers, when her Uncle Hades, God of the Underworld, kidnaps and drags her to the land of the dead, forcing her to be his wife. Demeter finds out what happened and becomes so angry she doesn’t allow anything on earth to grow. This origin story was used to explain the change of seasons and why crops don't grow in the winter. When Persephone returns to the world of the living with Demeter, the earth and plants return to life. Persephone is the embodiment of a seed. Each year she must go under the earth to be reborn again in the spring and return to the world of the living.
Stepping into Enna’s Villa Romana, we see the exceptional richness in architectural and decorative elements. Due to the beauty and complexity of this 4th century AD Roman structure, it is considered one of the most important examples of a state residence among its contemporaries in the Roman West. Only a man of great wealth and standing could have created such a building. Diocletian realized that the Roman Empire was too large and unwieldy to be ruled successfully as a single entity. Eventually, this realization led to the Empire’s division into Western and Eastern (Byzantine) empires. Some hint of this split is seen in the Villa’s location, far from fractious Rome and close to northern Africa, one of Maximilian’s spheres of authority in the unraveling empire.
The villa’s age is also significant artistically. Within a few years, the empire, under Constantine, would recognize Christianity. The subjects and imagery allowable in art would be primarily religious. The Villa mosaicsexpress exuberant paganism and vivid narrative. All the pleasures and events of everyday life are depicted, from dancing, lovemaking, massages, hunting, sports, and children at play. None of this representation would have been sanctioned a few years later. Few mosaics, before or since, show the same intense naturalism combined with subtlety, intimacy and sensuality.
A few highlights of the Villa:
The Ambulatorio features a single, 200-ft. mosaic carpet of stone of “The Great Hunt,” depicting the hunt and capture of wild animals of land and sea, probably destined for Rome’s Colosseum for use in gladiatorial games
Sala del Circo portrays the events of a Roman “circus”, or chariot racetrack based on Rome’s actual Circus Maximus.
The Triclinium illustrates the “Labors of Hercules” with panels that vie with those of “The Great Hunt”as the villa’s masterpiece.
The Thermae is a thermal complex with enormous furnaces that heat the rooms through an elaborate system beneath the villa. Sections of ducts, which once ran along the length of the rooms, are still visible in the walls. The under-floor heating can be seen in the Tepidarium. Small brick columns support the floor, leaving a large cavity between it and the ground through which hot air could circulate freely. This room was maintained at a moderate temperature for use immediately after the Calidaria where saunas and the hot baths were taken.
The Frigidariumis an octagonal room set aside for cold baths and features a central mosaic with a marine theme consisting of cherub fishermen surrounded by tritons, sea nymphs and dolphins. One recess is filled with a man sitting on a leopard skin, attended by two servants.
The Portico is rectangular with eight columns on the short sides, ten on the longer side and is dominated by a great fountain with a small statue as its center. Running along all four sides of the portico is a beautiful mosaic ornamented with round medallions set among squares, with, at their corners, birds and leaves. The medallions feature heads of wild and domestic animals.
Sala delle Dieci Ragazze in Bikini is a room with ten girls pictured in their underwear, commonly worn as exercise outfits for weight-lifting, discus throwing, running, and games.
Cubicolo della Scena Erotica is a room surrounded by images of the four seasons. A polygonal medallion enclosed within a laurel wreath shows a young man embracing a loosely clad young woman, probably Cupid and Psyche.
The area and the Villa Romana have become highly prominent in the program to safeguard and valorize Sicilian heritage. Its mosaics and frescoes make the villa one of the most prestigious monumental testimonies to antiquity in the Mediterranean. For this Texas architect, the villa is a living classroom of ancient design techniques.
Getting to Ortigia, however, proved a greater challenge than we realized. We picked up a rental car in Catania, after an overnight flight from DFW to Frankfurt. Armed with a Michelin spiral-bound road map, we found ourselves a pretty fair match for the aggressive Sicilian drivers, but very poor in our ability to navigate the way to Ortigia Island. When we left Dallas, we were confident in our ability to deal with the capriciousness of Italian roadways. Where we lost it was when healthy-sized two-lane highways became alleys, leading us so close to people dining under umbrella tables that we could have picked up the sardines and blood oranges on their plates from our open car window. We kept saying, "This can't be a street, I'm sure we not supposed to be driving in here."
Lost and no closer to the island, we stopped at an Esso benzina station to ask for directions with broken Italian and sign language. The men seated near the door read the panic on our faces and summoned a woman from inside the station to speak with us. She looked at the point on the map we were trying to find and warned, “You will never find this place. I take you there.” Not wishing to impose, we declined, “No, no, signora, dice per favore.” Our awkward, but apparently understood request brought a strong response from la signora. “No tell you, I will drive my auto. You follow.” We relented and were led on a break-neck ride through the streets of Siracusa, across the bridge to Ortigia, through a tiny arch, hugging a wall built by early inhabitants until she screeched to a stop and pointed to the door of our hotel. Rushing to her car window, we tried to thank her with a ten-Euro bill. She pushed it away and exclaimed, “Welcome to Siracusa. You are our guests.” She grabbed us for a three-kiss hug, which we gladly returned. We were family. Throughout Sicily, we were embraced as guests by delighted hosts.
Tired, but thrilled, we approached the desk of Des Etrangers Hotel and were greeted with a hearty “Buongiorno! You are the Chambers, non?” “Si,” we answered. We showed our passports and filled out paperwork on our car, a Renault Scenic, and ourselves. The protocol for cars is to park them at a remote garage. There is very little room for even the smallest Smart car on the island. It wasn't until the fifth day that we realized in the hotel lobby when they announced “beeg Sha-nique-kwa,” (local pronunciation of big Scenic) they were trying to let us know that our car had arrived at the hotel from the remote parking garage.
Colonized by the Corinthians around 734 B.C., Siracusa and its ancient historic center of Ortigia, embodies all of antiquities of the ancient Mediterranean in a way that is rivaled only by Athens, Carthage and Rome. It is a feast of ancient history in architecture, monuments, geography, geology and archeology. It is filled with fantasy and mystery and brought us the closest we’ve ever been to understanding how figures in history lived in the monuments and sights of this ancient world.
The island of Ortigia with its labyrinth of ancient and medieval streets made an exciting classroom for Greek, Roman, Moorish, Byzantine and Judaic civilization. Physical evidence of these cultures is solidly intact, making Ortigia a fascinating destination for anyone curious about the historic patrimony inherited from classical mythology, early Christianity and medieval Judaism.
The Sanguinello blood orange, a locally abundant fruit brought to Sicily by Arabs, is perhaps the best metaphor for this jewel in the Ionian Sea. Like its people, the fruit features a soft maroon skin, very few bothersome seeds, and a sweet and passionate center. The distinctive Sicilian "full-blood" citrus has multiple vibrant blood-colored streaks in its flesh. It only develops when temperatures are low at night and warm during the day. It’s a perfectly exotic treat for intrepid explorers.
Video of the Ortigia fresh market and photographic gallery of Ortigia streets and architecture by Stephanie and Steve Chambers.
Sicilian Fennel, Blood Orange Salad with Green Onion and Mint
Makes 4 servings
Olive oil, blended with the juice from the oranges, creates refreshing vinaigrette. Market tip: Fennel bulbs should be heavy for their size — this indicates plenty of moisture — and have a smooth outer layer.
2 blood or navel oranges
1 large fennel bulb, halved lengthwise, cored, very thinly sliced crosswise
5 sliced green onion tops
8 small fresh mint leaves, torn in half
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
20 oil-cured black olives
Cut peel and pith from oranges. Cut between membranes to release segments. Toss orange segments, fennel, onion, mint, and oil in large bowl to coat. Season the salad with salt and pepper. Transfer salad to platter. Garnish with olives and serve immediately.
TWO EUROS FOR A KILO OF STRAWBERRIES! VIDEO
The design for the J-5 Cutting Horse Ranch by Stephen B. Chambers Architects’ required authentic wrought iron elements to blend with the character of the ranch, as it might have existed in Texas in the late 1800s. Texas architect, Steve Chambers paid a visit to Homestead Heritage Forge in Elm Mott, Texas, to discuss the West Texas project. Walking through the double doors of Caleb Nolen’s forge, he found a craftsman possessing the historic skill and artistry of village blacksmiths of Early Texas. Blacksmithing was once so essential in supporting agrarian community life that no town could function properly without a local blacksmith. In 2014, these skills have almost disappeared.
It was Chambers’ intent that all of the wrought iron work would be done in an authentic fashion of the late 1800s, which exhibited historic forging and connection techniques. In modern wrought iron work, two pieces of metal are connected by electric or gas welding. During the late 1800s, this was not available to local blacksmiths who employed pegged and forged connections. Chambers’ designs required these authentic historic details.
At Homestead Heritage Forge, Steve had the rare opportunity to watch blacksmiths work with a variety of tools and techniques that demonstrated the ancient skills employed in blacksmithing. As the blacksmith pumped the bellows to heat the fire in the forge, sparks flew while pieces of raw steel in the fire turned from glowing red to white hot. The blacksmith pulled the white-hot steel from the forge and placed it on an anvil, which rang with hammer blows as he shaped hot iron.
Blacksmith Caleb Nolen used his smithy skills to shape and form wrought iron into lamps, tables, fireplace tool sets, kitchen and bathroom hardware and ornamental fences for the J-5 from the designs provided by Stephen B. Chambers Architects, Inc.
The gallery below shows sketches of Chambers Architects’ designs and the finished forged items. The video below the gallery shows the blacksmith demonstrating the shaping of iron into the creative forms.