It is Saturday morning in Modica and the sun has returned to Sicily. So won’t you join me, today, for a stroll in Modica Bassa?
Before we can begin, we have to negotiate the “urbano” bus: this is supposed to run every half hour, on the quarter hour, but of course, it doesn’t. Nobody really minds on a fine day and, whereas in Britain I would be complaining and possibly calling the bus company from my cellphone, here I just stand around gossiping – there is always someone to gossip with – and uttering, “Pazienza”. Not only does the bus rarely arrive on time, but no one is ever sure where it is going to stop. We all wait outside the Caffè Consorzio because you can sit or lean on its wall but this morning the bus stops further down the road, so we all run after it, shouting “Aspetti!” to the driver – who cannot possibly hear – and when we reach it, there is a free-for-all push to get on . I long ago learned to use my elbows in this battle. And off we go!
It takes about ten minutes to get down to Modica Bassa and there is stunning scenery to behold on the way. Each time I make this journey, I have to pinch myself to remember that I really do live here. Most passengers get off at the first stop in the Corso and then a crowd of mostly elderly folk get on.
“Only old people use the buses”, said a student of mine a couple of years ago.
“Thanks a lot”, said I.
This morning I decide to travel as far as the “monument” or War Memorial and I alight there as nearby there is a pet shop where I can purchase treats for Simi. This is the street where we lived for five weeks when we first arrived so this is a bit of a “sentimental journey” for me. There is a florist’s, a greengrocer’s, a Chinese clothes shop and a delightful shop selling Caltagirone ceramics. Mr C from the salumeria, smart in his spotless white apron and cap, is standing outside his shop greeting everyone. What a lovely smile he has for passers-by and customers alike!
Further up the street some elderly gentlemen are sitting on a wall, for they, too, enjoy a Saturday gossip. They remember me and ask after “Bobby” for they are convinced that all British dogs are called Bobby. I have given up reminding them that Simi is Simi and female, so I just thank them and say that she’s fine.
In this street, too, is our beautiful Church of Santa Maria di Betlem, which houses a nineteenth century crib with figurines based on local characters. Its white façade is glowing in the sunlight and, as the bells chime the hour, I again reflect upon how lucky I am to be here.
Now I turn back into the Corso and, as I approach Piazza Matteotti, the historic quarter’s main square, I can see some stalls and a crowd. Yes, I have chanced upon the farmer’s market I have heard about and today piles of purple broccoli are competing for space with mounds of the freshest artichokes you ever saw. There are stalls teeming with lettuces and peas in their pods, too and at one stall thick, golden olive oil is being ladled into water bottles from a great, steel container. I cannot resist the oil at 5 euros a litre and I am about to leave when I espy the bread: close-textured, golden and with a heavenly, homely aroma, it is calling me. In days gone by shepherds carried hard bread such as this because of its keeping qualities. They would moisten it with a little olive oil and that, together with whatever wild food they found, was their supper.
Now I decide it is time to head for Bar Ciacera and its ice cream. Traditional ice cream is seasonal in Sicily and year after year, the owner remembers that my favourite flavour is amarena [black cherry]. Then I surprise her by choosing a different flavour to go with it every time. If you look up whilst seated outside Bar Ciacera, you will see an interesting roofscape and an array of colourful plants on balconies.
But wait! It is 11.30. Any moment now she will appear…. Yes, she is coming and everyone turns their heads. For here is Eleonora, the real sight of Modica Bassa, making her stately process along the Corso. This lady is eighty, says a friend of mine but I would guess that she is in her seventies. She is always dressed a little ahead of season, in the most fashionable clothes which she has accessorized perfectly. Today she is dressed entirely in scarlet, with navy blue accessories. Her high heels are no wider than cocktail sticks but Eleonora walks elegantly in them. She takes a table under the trees at Bar Ciacera and I observe that she is perfectly made-up. Her rather alarming red hair is coiffed into a neat bun. Eleonora is my fashion barometer and when this lady dons her summer clothes and ventures out barelegged, I will know that it is time for the “cambio di stagione” [seasonal change of wardrobe] which Italian women, without communicating with each other, all manage to effect at exactly the same moment.
Eleonora is leaving her table now and it is time for me to head back to my life in the modern quarter, too. In another hour the bus will be full of happy, chattering schoolchildren and the lunchtime rush will have begun. On the way to the bus stop I pop into a traditional butcher’s where samples of focaccia and other temptations are on offer. I am hungry and must go home to boil the pasta water….