“I see your mum!” Cried Maria excitedly. “Stop the car!”
I hesitated as I checked the rear view mirror and pulled into the side of the kerb…on the brow of the shallow bridge. The swarm of Vespas and scooters hit their horns in unison as they took evasive action and swerved into each others’ paths. “Pazzo, cretino.” They turned back to face me with a Sicilian gesture or two….causing yet more chaos.
“Listen, let us out here and you and Egidio go and find somewhere to park.” She said as she and Maria Carmela got out, waving enthusiastically at the launch that had just arrived at the harbour steps. I peeped the horn a couple of times for good measure as I drove off to relieve the traffic of the blind hazard awaiting it.
We were on the bridge which joins the ancient town of Siracusa (Syracuse) with the even older quarter of Ortigia. Where Archimedes was born, raised and eventually killed – when the Greek city was captured by the Romans. It was a rare opportunity to meet my mother who was on a cruise day-release with her old school friend, Sheena. Siracusa is only a ferry trip and a couple of hours drive from Reggio so it was a great chance to see mum and the fabled city. She might be eighty odd but she has the heart and ambition of a teenage explorer. It was 8.00am.
Edgidio and I went in search of a parking spot and after a few turns found ourselves in a vast empty car park. Result, I thought. We tried the ticket machine a few times before we realised it was out of order. We looked around a little and in the far corner of the car-park we spotted a local by an old grey Apè van beckoning to us. We calculated the walk to be about 200 meters but, as we saw no alternative, we strolled over.
“Machine doesn’t work” he informed us sagely.
“We know that” said Egidio, a little unkindly I thought.
“1 Euro an hour.” He muttered, showing some genuine enough looking parking tickets with 50c stamped on them.
“The machine says 50cents.” I said. “ And so do these.”
“Ah well it depends how much value you put on your time getting a ticket from the tabacchi.” “We’ll risk it.” Snorted Egidio. “Where’s the tabacchi?”
“In the Piazza.”
He turned back to his crates of cherries and garlic with a shrug as we walked off in the direction we’d come. It took us a good 40 minutes before we found the piazza, the tabacchi, bought our tickets, returned to the car and then made our way finally to the point we’d dropped off the girls near the harbour. By now I was fretting that mum and Sheena had been waiting in the hot sun for longer than was wise.
As we approached the bridge I could see Maria and Maria-Carmela sitting on the harbour wall, chatting. “Where’s mum?” I asked, puzzled.
“It wasn’t her.”
“I thought you said you saw her on the launch, you can’t mistake my mum surely.”
“Just wait.” Said Maria, pointing at the launch making a return journey from the cruise ship. “This is the 4th since we’ve arrived.”
As the boat approached I suddenly realised why. All I could see above pier level was a bobbing row of about fifty well-groomed heads of pure white hair. This was Saga holidays, specialist in octogenarian cruises. “We’ve waived at every tender as if it was your mum.” Said Maria chuckling….”they all look the same”
I had to admit, I wouldn’t have known my own mother, never mind Sheena who I hadn’t seen for the best part of thirty years. We looked on as line after line of white perms made their way slowly up the steps from their carrier. I couldn’t help wondering what those first passengers had thought as they’d arrived to the sight of some attractive women waving frantically at them and motorists beeping their horns.
“I say Mable, the natives seem awfully friendly here.”
“Be careful Ralph, I’m pretty sure it’s not your body they’re after!”
“Hey look.” Said Egidio, pointing at a sixty-something woman with brown hair getting off the boat. “There’s hot chicks on this boat too…..bet all the guys are after her.” I had to hold onto his arm to stop falling into the dock with mirth.
Eventually the last launch arrived bearing our expected visitors and after some tearful reunions we made the difficult decision of heading to the piazza, now well-known to Edgidio and me, for some breakfast.
“Weel” Said mum, as we sat down in the beginnings of a very hot day, “We’ve just had a lovely English breakfast on the ship… of sausages, eggs, black pudding, bacon and toast, I think a coffee would be just fine.” The envy welled up inside me. It was the only thing I missed and hadn’t tasted for over a year. “Marmalade cornetto and coffee please…I suppose.”
We slowly awoke to the fact that we were sitting in the heart of a place that has thrived for over 2,500 years without missing a heartbeat. The Temple of Apollo was on the other side of the road. Artisan traders were setting up their stalls for the day, probably as they’d so long ago, and we could see groups of people making their way towards what we’d been told was the old market. If you ever get the chance to come here you’ll be told about the old Magna Grecian theatre and the period plays which you must watch in the open arena….and you must. But, please spend the morning in Ortigia market…..you cannot imagine how the millennia will roll back. This is where merchants sailed thousands of years ago to trade wine and spices. From Persia, Egypt, the Orient and Ancient Greece they came to buy and sell everything from papyrus to slaves, to exchange the fruits of the slopes for oils and potions. Nothing much seems to have changed. We walked slowly through the narrow street of stalls of the most varied and rich-coloured fare. We stopped to watch how sea urchins are prepared for eating, scampi the size of lobsters tossed in a little oil just for a taste, fruit and vegetables whose skins shone in the morning sun and my own little discovery…..a spice shop that can’t have changed in 2,000 years. It was a library of old jars rising from floor to ceiling, from Jamaica to India. The aroma was intoxicating and the first instinct was…taste…buy….cook…Now! “Bring me some fish, slave. Some herbs, olives and some virgins, sorry virgin oil, ….oh and don’t forget the oysters.”
Maria came back and found me and pulled me back from the past and into the street just as we were asked, politely, to move aside. A camera crew were backing up the narrow lane filming the white-robed Archimedes himself, wandering through the stalls reading aloud from a yellowish scroll. Strangely it didn’t look or even sound at all out of place. A slow walk through this town takes you through narrow winding lanes, always leading you towards the Duomo and the cafè lined square. Pristine and romantic, this is where you find small local restaurants that make choice so difficult. We stopped to buy some presents for home (Scotland) and found ourselves talking to the cousin of a friend who knew a cousin who served the best food in town….we went and were not disappointed. We sat inside a small trattoria where washing lines hung from the ceiling and we ate hand-made Sicilian pasta blended with seafood and white wine….with the sort of service that makes you feel you’re part of the family. Who’s washing up?
Can you imagine the moment when we had to part, when the cruise ship’s horn sounded? There is a unique bond that comes from ocean-bound farewells, between my mother and me. It’s something I’ve inherited from a sea-faring grandfather I never got to know, from a long line of accidental travellers and adventurers. It’s all in the wave, I’m told.