Our first full day in Sicily finds us venturing off the island of Ortigia, on our way to the Catacombs of St John. The streets of Syracuse are dilapidated: shattered concrete, tagged with graffitic inanities. The city seems unlovely and unloved – a worn out matron who has been abused by too many generations. As we near the Catacombs, we see the looming concrete spire of the Sanctuario della Madonna delle Lacrime (Sanctuary of the Crying Madonna) looming over the wasted buildings. In 1953, a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary, kept in a local Syracusan home, began to weep. For three days the statue wept. The Vatican investigated this phenomenon and decreed that it was a legitimate miracle and that the tears were human in origin. The statue began to attract pilgrims and eventually the Sanctuary was built to house it.
The church looks like an inverted ice cream cone, round at its base and rising to sky in fluted concrete. The focus of the dusky interior is a large, polished marble altar, upon which the famous statue has been mounted. Lights are trained upon Mary, lifting her out of the gloom. A crucifix rises over the altar. Small side chapels ring the outer wall of the church, although only a handful are occupied: Joseph, the Virgin Mary, Padre Pio. The rest stand empty, giving the church an incomplete feel, as if it is waiting for the advent of future saints.
From the new to the ancient. Two blocks north of the Sanctuary stand the ruins of the Church of St John. This church was originally constructed in the fifth century, built over the tomb of Bishop Marziano of Syracuse. The bishop was martyred in the city during Emperor Diocletian's Great Persecution of Christians (A.D. 303-313). The church was destroyed during the eighth century Arab occupation, and rebuilt later. Time has not been kind to this building; it now is a roofless ruin, although we are told that special masses and weddings are still celebrated there.
Under the church is a large crypt, carved out of the gray limestone. Here was the tomb of Marziano. His body is no longer present, having been removed to Rome. There is an opening in the side of his sarcophagus where pilgrims could reach in and touch the martyr's sanctified remains.
The Catacombs of St John are reached through a separate entrance. The underground graveyard was once a Greek aqueduct, and the main channel forms the spine of the catacombs, from which tunnels branch off on either side. The limestone, although soft, is much tougher than the tufa (light volcanic rock) of Rome's catacombs. I don't envy the men who spent their lives underground chipping stone to create this place.
The catacombs are vast, and the tunnels, lined with loculi (small niches designed to hold babies or young children), stretch on for miles. We are only allowed to see a small part of it, under the watchful eye of a competent guide. I find it interesting that Christians stopped burying people in these catacombs around the same time they stopped the practice in Rome (fifth to sixth century AD). Was this change tied to the incursion of the Germanic kingdoms and the fall of the western Roman empire (AD 476) or were there other factors at work?
The quest for pizza has now taken on supreme importance. So much so that the team decides to postpone dinner until late in the evening, when the pizzerias deign to light their ovens and serve the pizza-starved masses (7:30). At last, with the rain relenting a bit, we slip out in our waterproof jackets (which haven't been out of the suitcases since the Danube cycle trip) for dinner.
I am not impressed with the range of pizzas offered by the restaurant we choose, but at least they take our order. I select a Pizza Capricciosa, which, although ingredients vary regionally, usually features artichokes, prosciutto, olives, cheese, and capers. Imagine my dismay when my pizza arrived, and rather than the delectable, salty caper berry, the cook in this infernal restaurant had sprinkled peas all over my pizza. Peas! Those disgusting little phlegm-flavored spheres, those green globules of pus. Who puts peas on a pizza? It's worse than the British practice of doctoring their pizzas with corn or baked beans, but at least those two ingredients are edible. I was so stunned by this travesty that I almost sent the pizza back. I was convinced that some rookie chef had made a mistake and sprinkled peas where capers should go.
Disgusting, foul, every mouthful a trial of Herculean magnitude. I choked my way through this pizza firmly convinced that I had now encountered the worst meal on the Euro2008 tour. Let me eat at McDonalds or Burger King every meal from here on out, but please, please, put on my pizzas no more peas.