A Room at the Top
It has been a few years since I set off alone to research new sites and experiences in Sicily to offer my tour groups. The days that I spent on this incredible island during that journey produced a reservoir of small racconti (stories). Many were created by my experiences navigating the public transportation system, some by the personalities of the proprietors and their charming, if often quirky, lodgings and still others by the kindness of the Sicilians that I met along the way.
One of the towns on my itinerary was Ragusa in southeastern Sicily. In this part of the island the public transportation is a challenge because there is a scarcity of trains and the bus service is operated by several different companies. Eventually, with a few bumps along route, I reached the local bus station in Ragusa, located the bus I thought I needed and boarded. I only had a sketchy map for the location of the B&B that I had booked online and I was not at all sure where I needed to disembark. The other bus riders soon understood my dilemma and collaborated in typical Italian fashion and got me off at the right stop. I shouted grazie and arrivederci and headed into the warren of back streets in search of the Arabia Fenice B&B, my nest to be for the next three nights.
Once found and the buzzer rung, the door was opened by a tall, stern looking man, Manuele. With few words he led me up a narrow, rickety staircase to an attic room with a low ceiling and a balcony enclosed by a solid wall. the entire building seemed a bit seedy. I began to feel uneasy. As far as I could tell, Manuele was the only caretaker. There was no evidence of a wife or even other guests. Was I totally alone with this stranger who had a key to my room? Being a solo woman traveler can sometimes lead to a bit of paranoia.
Putting those misgivings aside temporarily, I returned to the tiny kitchen-dining area to officially check in. My host asked what time I wanted breakfast. As my previous experience had taught me, no matter what time I said, it would not be served before 7:30. After attempting to negotiate an earlier time with no success, I told Manuele that what I really would like was to have coffee soon after I woke up around 6:00. It was not a problem he said. Before retiring for the night, around midnight, he would leave a thermos with coffee and one with milk outside my door. With that generous offer and seeing two other guests in the dining area, I began to feel a bit more comfortable with my situation.
True to his word, when I cracked open the door in the morning and peeked out, set on a small table there was a thermos of hot coffee and a thermos of hot milk with a cup and saucer carefully arranged on a tray with everything else I would need to enjoy my early morning coffee. Each of the three mornings of my stay I awoke to the same coffee tray without ever mentioning it again.
As it turned out, I needn't have worried about my well being in this ramshackle little place. My host was a dear fellow and I came to enjoy my little hide-a-way at the top of the stairs. Each day I ventured into the unique town (actually a set of two towns, see below), discovering treasures, sampling the eateries and visiting the shops and museums, happy to return to my cozy room each night. Not only did Manuele supply me with the early morning coffee tray, he insisted on driving me to the bus station when I left and wished me a warm farewell.
Ragusa was one of the towns destroyed in the Val d'Noto region of Sicily during the catastrophic earthquake of 1693. When it was time to begin rebuilding the town there was a difference of opinions among the residents. Some wanted to rebuild a distance away from the original town, a location deemed safer in case of a future earthquake (teremoto). However, a significant number of people wanted to rebuild in the original location. The solution was to create two towns sharing the same name connected by a long stone stairway. Eventually the the names were altered to Ragusa Ibla (the original location) and Ragusa Superiore (the new, higher location).
Ragusa, like other towns in this area rebuilt after the earthquake, such as Noto and Catania, were constructed in the modern architecture of the day, Sicilian Baroque. This included elaborate, three-tiered, concave facades of the churches and public buildings adorned with Corinthian columns and many curves and flourishes. The buildings were also built using a great variety of local stone; from the warm, honey-colored stone in Ragusa and Noto to the dark volcanic rock in Catania.
Note: For those of you who are fans of the Sicilian detective series Inspector Montalbano based on the stories written by
Andrea Camillieri, you might be interested to know that many of the scenes are filmed in and around Ragusa.