Thursday, 17 October 2013

The House That Serins Built....

...or: Things To Do In Ragusa Ibla While Your Wife Is At a Conference.

My wife is an intelligent and talented lady (I would say that, I am biased but there is evidence to back this statement up), and being married to her has many advantages. A recent bonus was an unexpected trip away from the muddy banks of the Dee....

That's her sat on the steps of a Sicilian church with a bag full of books. The location and the contents of the bag will become clearer over the next few paragraphs...

She is currently studying towards a PhD focussing on revelatory experiences in Victorian literature. In July, as part of this work, she was invited to present a paper at a conference. This has happened before so when she mentioned this I assumed it would be somewhere relatively local and mean her going away for a couple of nights as is usual with these wordy shindigs.

Fine I thought, a weekend of complete control of the TV remote, guilt free hours birding on the mudflats and all my meals provided by a suite of local fast food emporiums.

"This one's in Sicily. Would you like to come along?" she said.

Well, I had to think about it for about NO TIME AT ALL. So I tagged along (while her place was subsidised by her institution I paid my way, we are not happy to fiddle expenses!)

A hot, cheap and uncomfortable flight took us to cool, expensive and comfortable Trapani on the north west tip of Sicily and we set off to the venue, a medieval hill top town called Ragusa Ibla in the south east of the island. Sicily is as beautiful as I expected....

Travelling by bus we called at Palermo and Catania on the way before arriving the evening before the 3 day conference started.

At this point I became surplus to requirements as my wife was whisked away for tours, meals and presentations. So there I was, hundreds of miles from the Patch, with not a migratory shorebird in sight. Just what was I going to get up to in Ragusa Ibla?

There are worse places to be at a loose end. The town was stunningly beautiful. Narrow cobbled streets, pretty squares and picturesque buildings. No matter where I went the sun always appeared to be directly overhead. It was hot, but this heat was tempered by a welcome breeze. I started to explore and after a lot of research I have some information to share that might be of no use to anyone, but might be an interesting read... So here are my suggestions of what to do in Ragusa Ibla if your wife is at a conference....

1. Eat lots of cannoli

This will involve spending a lot of time in cafes testing these brandy snap like biscuit tubes filled with local ricotta cheese and sprinked with chopped pistachio nuts. I would suggest that this is washed down with copious amounts of peach iced tea (if you can get some peach sorbet in lieu of ice cubes then you have the greatest soft drink EVER!). This is the tastiest, if not the cheapest way to stay cool in the heat of a Sicilian summer.

2. Get hopelessly lost in the back streets.

Even Google maps couldn't help me. Great fun though and I eventually found our guesthouse again although I'm still not sure how....

3. Waste time in the park.

With a knockout view and a comfy bench this is where I spent most of my time. It became the Patch away from my Patch, a surrogate Patch for some wildlife spotting. As the sun warmed the hillside below me the air was filled with the scent of marjoram and rosemary. In the pine trees of the park Serins were nesting. Their calls were so loud and earnest, like a room full of electronic relays during a power surge. I counted 3 pairs and found 2 nests.

I sat on my bench beneath the house that the Serins had built and watched the world go by.
I listened to some music (Japandroids, Teenage Fanclub and Beck) then read a book ( the mindblowing If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino) but soon I was itching to take some pictures.

4. Chase butterflies

All kinds of blues and Clouded Yellows were drifting by me on the breeze but my favourites were the stunning Scarce Swallowtails that would stop to sun themselves on the hedges next to my bench.

Swallows and House Martins were nesting in many of the old buildings and they spent all day swooping over the park and down the hill towards a distant meandering road. I became such a fixture in the park that they would fly incredibly close to me as they hawked for insects. On one such pass I heard the snap of a Swallow's bill closing on a careless fly and heard the zipping sound of its wings tearing at the air.

5. Crawl around on the floor looking at lizards.

The ballustrade stopping me from taking a tumble down the steep hillside was alive too. From between the spindles lizards would appear and gobble other careless flies before vanising with a lightning quick swish of their outsized tails. In a effort to get pictures of them I spent a good while prostrate on the ground to get at their eye level for a better perspective. This got me a few funny looks and with my limited grasp of the Italian language I was never going to be able to explain what I was doing so I just got on with the photography.

6. Take outrageous "selfies"

I spent hours trying to catch a picture of the lizards. It was tricky, a combination of wariness and extreme speed meant my finger hit the delete button as often as the shutter button. After a while I started taking pictures of something a whole lot slower. Me.

One of the obvious beauties of digital cameras is they don't need constantly feeding with expensive rolls of film. This means you can take pointless pictures or take lots of test shots in an attempt to get your desired image or both.

Smart phones are pretty neat too, with really great cameras. So there I was taking a picture of myself taking a picture of myself.

I spent some time trying to decide if this was boredom, narcissism or a natural conclusion to having a digital camera and a lot of free time....

Eventually the lizards came back and I stopped messing around and concentrated on getting some pictures of them.

Point 3 was "waste time in the park" but looking through the images I took, rembering the sweet smelling air, the cool breeze and the birds, bugs and lizards I realise that the time I had there wasn't wasted at all.

Now months later I can still recall the park and all its detail. The most vivid memory is of the Serins chasing each other through the pines, the buzz of their excited calls and their nests swinging in the branches. I miss my temporary Sicilian Patch and with an all too hectic existance the chances are I will never return there.

I hope I do though, to sit on my bench with the lizards and Swallowtails, in the shade of the fresh scented pines, beneath the house that Serins built.

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