So, I am back from vacation in Italy and feeling refreshed and ready to blog again 🙂
I learned several things about the cities in Sicily I am most familiar and this put me on the train of thought that has led me to this blog. I propose to tell you about two Sicilian cities whose fates crossed due to oil and fascism, two French cities whose fates crossed due to alcohol and favouritism, and two more Sicilian cities whose fate seems to have crossed due to UNESCO and tourism.
I have been to Sicily three times now and have always stayed in the Ragusa province (RG) which encompasses the southeastern quarter of Sicily from just west of Syracuse to just west of Ragusa, the provincial capital. All the license tags have a circle with RG in them and the name Ragusa is everywhere so up to this trip, I had always assumed that Ragusa was always the head honcho in this neck of the Sicilian woods. I had assumed wrong. Actually, before Mussolini, the region included the area south of Syracuse as well and was called the Valley of Noto and its capital was the wonderful chocolate mecca known as Modica. A beautiful town nested tightly into a rich valley, Modica was the cultural and administrative heart of the region until oil was discovered near Ragusa in the 20s. When Mussolini took power, one of the things the fascist government did in the late 20s was transfer all the power and administration to Ragusa. Loads of money rolled into town and this is still evident when you visit the lush and gleaming Ragusa Ibla. The two competing towns of Modica and Ragusa are about 10km apart, but as they are in different valleys, it is about a 30 minute drive. I was told by the sisters that rented me the vacation apartment that their grandfather walked to school in Ragusa from Modica everyday when he was a kid – about 10km up and down – because once the fascists moved everything to Ragusa, this also included middle and high schools – Modica was left with kindergardens and elementary schools and that was it. In any case, the folks in Modica haven’t quite forgotten the insults and pains inflicted on them by the Ragusans and the Ragusans think folks from Modica are a bunch of whiners. And so it goes.
This story reminded me of another competitive situation I learned about from natives on the losing side. The Marne Valley is associated very closely with champagne production and the two of Reims is considered to be the champagne capital. This was also not always the case. Champagne as you may know is tightly regulated. It can only be made in certain French departments and only with specific kinds of grapes and techniques. Well, in addition to the department of the Marne (51) and l’Aisne (02), the department of Aube (10) is a major champagne producer. In fact, should you go to Bar-sur-Aube (the prefecture of Aube), you will find hundreds of hectares of champagne vineyards. In fact, the soil in the Aube valley is richer than that of either the Marne or l’Aisne and thus more than 50% of the grapes that go into even champagne marnois (champagne sold from vineyards in or near Reims in Marne) are actually from Aube. The problem for Aube however is that Bar-sur-Aube was NOT where kings were sanctified, that would be Reims. Bar-sur-Aube is also therefore NOT where most of the local aristocracy built their castles and their reputations. When champagne production became more standardized towards the end of the 19th C/early 20th C, Reims had already been established as the de facto capital and Bar-sur-Aube faded into a pretty but insignificant has been. Needless to say, this story was told from the losing end. I think that in this case, the folks in Reims are so infinitely wealthy that even fretting over folks in Aube is probably far beneath them. And so it goes.
Now, the last tale of two cities I have is a little more conjectural, not to say sort of weirdly personal. Now, my last name is rather unusual and rather rare in the USA so when I see it pop up, it gives me a little softy. For example, there is actually a Piazza Aprile Finocchiaro in Rome in some superbly inconvenient and sans-aucun-interet part of Rome near the “New” Via Appia but back during my first visit to Rome in 1999, I slugged my sweaty ass all across Rome to get a photo (now lost 😦 of my name on a sign. It turns out that this ancestor was an anti-fascist resistor during the war and that’s why he got a sort of out-of-the-way piazza-cum-grimy-parking-lot named after him. But, hell, it was my name so I was thrilled. About 4 years later, I saw posters for a comedian in Firenze also of the name Angela Finocchiaro and on this trip saw that she was #4 on the list of most popular Italian tweets for the month of July 2012 because she is now a screen actor in a pair of hit comedies Benvenuti al Sud (and Nord) – you go girl!! OK, Fino can you get to your point tonight? So, in my Finocchiaro quest, I had read about a Caffè Finocchiaro in Avola in a cookbook and chronicled my failure to actually get there in a post a few years ago. Well, I went back again and was mystified and disappointed by the dark window and clear signs of neglect at this once institution for ice cream. Now, I scratched my head a bit and asked a local passerby in broken (not to say incomprehensible) Italo-Anglo-French whether this was an annual thing or what. He responded something equally unintelligible but thankfully accompanied his statement with a pointing finger. My head slowly turned following this fateful finger until I spied cate-corner to the “old” Caffè Finocchiaro a smaller, humbler Gelato Agatino-Finocchiaro across the way. I mumbled a quick gratzie and screamed like a banshee on acid to my sun-shocked little family that it still existed! Caffè Finocchiaro! Yes! Well, the ice cream was extraordinary but the place was really teeny, tiny. I found one of the employees actually spoke English and I made slightly deranged excitement a bit understood. A few minutes later, the last standing Finocchiaro still associated with this caffè, Paola Finocchiaro came in. Unfortunately, her English was worse than my Italian so our conversation was, well, terse. I did manage to convince my somewhat annoyed wife to take a photo of me and this distant cousin. Now, once again, my reader will be like, dude what does this have to do with the whole two cities theme? Well, here goes. Avola seems to be on the decline. About 10 years ago, about 10 of the cities and villages in the Vallé di Noto that I referred to at the beginning of this article got recognition from UNESCO. Noto, only about 7km from Avola got the nod and tourist money, Avola got shit. Basically, Avola can’t compete with Noto now in terms of architecture or tourism. Noto is gorgeous and incredibly turned towards tourism. There are postcard vendors every three feet and loads of Americans, British, French, Spanish, and other assorted tourists wandering around snapping pictures on their iPhones and eating in the cafés of Noto. Avola is just, well, empty except for the seafront which is actually called Marina di Noto (and not Marina di Avola). Well, that isn’t exactly true because Avola has a beachfront but the beaches are quite inferior to those in Marina di Noto. In any case, Avola clearly took a hit and I think that my distant family there took it in the shorts with the café as well. I can imagine that once the tourists started pouring into Noto, they stole loads of business away from Avola leading a huge drop in business and the forced merger with Agatino that I saw. Yes, reader, I will do my due diligence and write a letter (and get it translated by a native Italian) to Paola to ask the true deal and if she answers, I’ll share the answer with you.
If I might close on just one other interesting twin cities thing about Sicily, several of the cities are actually split in two. There is an “old” Ragusa (actually the gorgeous Ragusa Ibla I talked about) and a “new” Ragusa (the modern, industrial bit) and this case is repeated in other parts of southeastern Sicily as well. The explanation I got was that several earthquakes have wiped out Sicilian cities from time to time and in several cases, when there was no money to rebuild the town, they built a “new” town next door. Sometimes there was enough money later to restore the “old” town and turn in into a tourist mecca (like Ragusa Ibla) and sometimes, the old town just dies (like the old Avola which actually is signposted but is more or less a ghost town now). I found that explained quite a few things I saw.
Hope you enjoyed reading this rambling account. Up next: my latest obsession: Sherlock Holmes 🙂