The Luminaria (Illumination)







2 Days

The Luminaria (Illumination)

The Sicilian town of Caltagirone is famous for its ceramics; local artists decorated also the steps of Santa Maria del Monte, the most beautiful staircase in the world. During the Luminaria, it is adorned with 4,000 candles whose lights flash silently and draw glowing ornaments in the darkness

I only had a half day at Catania, but I didn't mind. The air was bloody hot and the humidity so high that it was like walking in the sauna. In the early afternoon I continued my journey by a small bus. We passed Etna towering over the city - when it is in eruption, it must be both astonishing and fearsome - and we headed for the arid, desolate inland.

The town of Caltagirone became famous for its ceramics, which has been produced here since antiquity. The talent of local artists can be admired in churches, palaces and name plates. But their best-known work is the staircase of Santa Maria del Monte from 1606. Each of the 142 steps is decorated with different majolica tiles, hand-painted with geometric, floral or figurative motifs.

In July 1860, Benedetto Papale, a Franciscan friar, got an idea. On the occasion of the celebration in honour of St. James, the patron saint of the city, he placed at the sides of the staircase several lanterns which created a pattern. People loved it and since then the Luminaria became part of the festivity.

Preparations begin one month in advance. Within living memory,”candle holders” (so-called coppi) have been produced by the Russo family; they pass on knowledge from generation to generation. At first, they manually paint the paper, choosing predominantly national colours - white, red and green. They roll it to make a cylinder, put sand in it for stability, and place inside a clay “cup” fitted with a cotton wick. One hour before the beginning, they fill it with olive oil, which lasts for two hours and produces a pleasant perfume.

Then it is necessary to arrange four thousand lanterns on the steps in an intricate pattern inspired by the city or its patron, which is kept secret until the day of completion. In front of the curious crowds, the ,,chief instructor” leads the helpers from below, navigates them what to put where, according to the detailed plan. On the day D around 9 pm, men with lighters stand on the sides of the stairs, waiting for a signal. To make the Luminaria even more impressive, the lights in the surroundings turn off. People stop talking up, there is a dead silence. Just then the chief whistles and dozens of men quickly get to work, gradually lighting all 4000 candles and revealing the breathtaking picture in front of an impatient audience. It only takes a few minutes and all of a sudden a colourful carpet spreads on the staircase, the lights flash silently and draw glowing ornaments in the darkness.

As the wicks burn down, they slowly go out, one by one.... and when the spectators understand that the show is over and go home, the organizers quickly run up the stairs and replace all the candles with new ones, because the Luminaria takes place two days, on 24 and 25 July. (In May, the town hosts another unique event – the Infiorata, during which the staircase is decorated with flowers)

On the way to Caltagirone, we were hit by a terrible storm; and when I walked to the hotel, it was still raining heavily. My clothes were completely wet. After I changed into a dry dress and went out into the streets, I saw the first rays of sunlight; but the damage was already done. Luminaria was set up; 4000 coppi in their place, but all soaked and full of water ... The organizers were helplessly standing between them and discussing what to do; but unfortunately, finally it was decided that the light carpet would not take place that evening… The locals were even sadder than I, because, as they conspiratively whispered to me, people from the former administration of the City hall had embezzled a lot of money. Now there were no funds even for garbage collection, and not at all for such luxury. The world-famous Luminaria was paid from donations of ordinary people...

So I wandered around Caltagirone; the town is small but pleasant. And people are sweethearts - when the waiter had a feeling that he had neglected me, he brought me for free a dewy glass of wine, decorated with a piece of pear. As I was in the region for the first time, in the souvenir shop they presented me gratis with a miniature Sicilian cart; in addition to earrings I got a city fridge magnet. It is the whole different world than Palermo, where I received just some indecent proposals.

Pottery shops are full of colours and forms. The head of the mythological Medusa, from which three bent legs grow, is called Trinacria and it is the symbol of Sicily. Instead of hair, she has snakes, entangled with three ears of wheat representing fertility - the island was once a breadbasket of the Roman Empire. The wings on the sides are a symbol of freedom; the fruit is a reference to the local fruits. The legs represent the three capes of the island: Cape Peloro (Messina), Cape Passero (Syracuse) and Cape Lilibeo (Marsala). Trinacria adorns many households; people believe it brings good luck.

The most original ceramic objects are the Moorish heads, used as vases or pots. It is said that around 1100, during the Moors domination, a beautiful girl lived in Palermo. She loved flowers, her balcony was full of plants, and one day, when she was taking care of them, a Moor happened to see her and fell in love. He went into the house and declared his love. The beauty, overwhelmed by his passion and hot kisses, succumbed to temptation. But when she found out that he would soon be going back to his homeland, where his wife and children were expecting him; as a typical Italian she went crazy of jealousy. She waited for him to fall asleep, cut off his head and planted basil in it. Then she put a "vase" on the balcony so the lover would stay with her forever. The basil, watered by tears, thrived and so the envious neighbours started to copy clay heads pots hoping their flowers would flourish too...  And so, they are produced to this day and mostly offered as a couple – the black Moor and his pretty lover. Apparently, they are supposed to serve also as a warning to temperamental husbands... :)

There was only a small parade in the evening. The sad organizers were sitting on unlighted stairs, nevertheless, people were still gathering in the square in front of the City hall. And so did the vendors of cotton candy, balloons and other trumpery. Nobody cared that the stairs were lit only by street lamps; they all had fun, met friends they hadn't seen for a long time, chatted and enjoyed the atmosphere.

St. James (San Giacomo) became patron saint of the city on July 25, 1090 for his miraculous help in the victorious battle with the Saracens; since then this day has belonged to him.

Early in the morning, there was a Mass held in the basilica, which since 1457 houses a precious gift from Bishop of Siponto (today Manfredonia) - the bones of the forearm of the saint, hidden in a reliquary in the shape of a hand. Ceremony was attended not only by soldiers, music band and the nobility in historical dresses, but also by many bishops in purple robes and priests of the Order of St. James in red-brown habits with mussels on their chests. As you can imagine, in Sicily even a small procession is a dramatic theatre...

Cez obed som prešmejdila miestne cukrárne, omamne voňajúce kávou. Tento ostrov nikdy neoplýval bohatstvom, preto jeho obyvatelia pri maškrtení odjakživa využívali najmä to, čo im nadelila príroda: ovocie čerstvé i kandizované, oriešky a všakovaké semienka. Ich sladkosti sú preslávené v celej krajine.

Mne najviac chutí virgola – ľahučké cesto s vanilkovým krémom a kúskami čokolády, minna di vergine („panenské ňadro“) s jemným, nepresladeným tvarohom a cassatina – okrúhla tortička, obtočená zeleným pásikom marcipánu. Cannolo je rúrka z chrumkavého cesta, naplnená tvarohovým krémom a kúskami čokolády. Croccantino sezamové zrnká alebo mandle, spečené s čokoládou do takej tvrdej hmoty, že keď som ju raz ochutnala, mala som pocit, že obhrýzam železnú tyč. Podľa mňa by ju oveľa lepšie vystihoval názov „Pozdravujte môjho zubára“. Sfogliatella má tvar mušle, stvorenej namotaním dlhého, tenkého pásika cesta. To je tvrdé, praská pod zubami ako drevené triesky, takže si najprv dorežete ústa, potom popicháte podnebie – až sa nakoniec prekusnete k plnke. Sicílsky marcipán je svetoznámy (viac v článku o Sviatku kvitnúcich mandlí), a ešte odporúčam ochutnať i nenápadné suché mandľové koláčiky (paste di mandorla).

Zmrzlinu si Sicílčania dávajú po jedle, ale nie samotnú – plnia ňou špeciálne sladké briošky, ktoré vyzerajú ako slimák s bombolcom. Po jedle chutí i sorbet a mandľové mlieko (latte di mandorla). No a priam božská je granita, úžasne osviežujúci vynález. To, čo si v lete pod týmto názvom môžete kúpiť na plážach, je len ľad zaliaty sirupom, skutočná sa vyrába podobne ako zmrzlina, ale bez mliekaa

Over lunch I went through local pastry shops with an irresistible smell of coffee. This island has never been rich, so its inhabitants always used the best of what nature has given them: the fresh and candied fruits, nuts and seeds. Their sweets are famous throughout the country (and I adore them!).

I like the most virgola - light dough with vanilla cream and pieces of chocolate; minna di vergine ("virgin breast") with soft, slightly sweet cheese ricotta and cassatina - a small round torte wrapped in a green marzipan band. Maybe you know cannolo, a crispy dough tube filled with ricotta and chocolate chips. Croccantino is sesame beans or almonds, cemented with chocolate into such a hard mass that when I once tried it, it felt like nibbling an iron bar. I think that the better name for this delicacy would be "Say hello to my dentist". Sfogliatella is a shell-shaped pastry; the dough is quite hard. When you eat it, it cracks under your teeth like wood chips; so you first cut your mouth, then stab the palate - until you finally get to the stuffing. Sicilian marzipan is well known (see The Almond blossom festival); and I would recommend tasting also unobtrusive dry almond cakes (paste di mandorle).

Sicilians eat ice cream for breakfast or after a meal, often served in a round brioche which looks like a snail with a pom pom. Another treat is sorbet and almond milk (latte di mandorla). The island is also the home of the divine granita, fabulous and refreshing invention. What you can buy under this name on the summer beach is just crushed ice covered with syrup. The real granita is a semi frozen dessert similar to ice cream, but without milk. It is made only from fresh fruit, without any flavours. When you smell the raspberry one, you can almost see a bush full of red fruits. The one of wild strawberries smells of meadow and sun. When it’s hot; lemon, almond and coffee granita are literally snapped up. I tried for the first time a blackberry and melon ,,ice” and they are definitely the reason why I will go to Sicily again :)

. Pripomína to, čo sa kedysi u nás nazývalo ovocná dreň či pretlak. No je stokrát kvalitnejšia, pretože sa robí naozaj len z čerstvého ovocia, bez akýchkoľvek príchutí. Keď privoniate k malinovej, priam vidíte krík, obsypaný šťavnatými plodmi. Tá z lesných jahôd vonia lúkou a slnkom. Citrónová, mandľová a kávová idú v horúčavách doslova na dračku. Prvýkrát som ochutnala morušovú a melónovú a viem, že už len kvôli nim sa na Sicíliu ešte vrátim :)

Fuck! In the afternoon, rain came again! And so the organizers thanked everyone who contributed and apologized for the Luminaria would just not take place this year - for the second time in history. What a pity :(

At least there was a procession in the evening. The small historical parade went through the town to the Basilica di San Giacomo, where two things were already prepared on special motorized vehicles: a huge silver case - a reliquary and a statue of Saint James.

At 8.30 pm, the bells began ringing and cannons firing; and in this rumble, both cars went out, where crowds had been waiting for them for hours; and set off on a journey through Caltagirone. At the head of the parade, there were priests with crosses, followed by a walking tent (in which Saint James once hid from the enemies, I was explained by a woman standing beside me).

While marching, the choir was singing and the songs were transmitted far away through the speakers. One signor carried a portable bell and rang like a church tower all the time. It was a pleasant march, because the saint was standing high on the car, so everyone could see him well and no one had to push; he ran through the town like a wind. He and the case glittered beautifully in the glow of night lights.

They whizzed through the streets, accompanied by gunfire and bells, until they reached the main square. The bishop climbed onto the vehicle, opened the case and pulled out a relic - a silver hand – while the believers applauded. He blessed them with it from the City hall balcony; then put it back in the box; and finally, the motorized saint and the case headed for Mass, back to their native church. As they approached the portal, bells rang; crowds applauded again and shouted ,,Long live Saint James!” while the black sky was lit by colourful fireworks and swarms of golden stars. The saint was showered with confetti, whereas his driver was slowly entering the sanctuary. And people again didn't mind that the staircase wasn't lit, they remained in the streets long into the night and talked….

Sicily is definitely worth exploring and its pastry shops even more! A good ending was that when the bus to Catania didn't show and we had to wait two hours for a next one, in the restaurant, we were spontaneously compensated by a slice of watermelon ...

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