Randazzo squats under Mount Etna, sprawling out along the massive volcano’s base in the fertile valley of Alcantara. Etna has a tyrannical hold over the landscape and is constantly hovering over this place born out of the volcano’s colossal menace. The broad lava streets of the city are filled with a rustic opulence, as if they have been carved out of the volcano, fashioned by the meaty hands of the god Vulcan in his subterranean furnace, deep in the volcano above, lovingly nicknamed Mongibello (literally the beautiful mountain.)
In the burning days of August the historic centre of Randazzo is like a stone garden, the heat re-awaking the memory of the hardened magma’s fire. A heavy layer of darkness poured over every part of the architecture from the jagged streets, to the polished sidewalks and the Romanesque archways of the cloister like courtyard of the town hall. The same hand has touched each feature of the town, like a Midas touch in lava instead of gold.
Randazzo itself is sprawled out along the base of Etna on a ridge between the base of Etna and the Alcantara River which is nothing but a deep gully of hard rock for most of the year. The area surrounding the city runs along the valley and is part of one of Italy’s most productive agricultural areas. The areas around Etna has given birth to the most remarkable wines and there are a succession of considerable wineries in the countryside. Grape vines thrive in the lava soil as do olive trees, pistachios, prickly pears and a wide selection of stone fruit and vegetables. This rugged seemingly inhospitable area is surprisingly fertile.
Randazzo is at the crossroads of three important Sicilian provinces connecting Catania, Messina and Enna. If you imagine the island of Sicily as an isosceles triangle lying on its side, its main point facing towards the left, Messina is on its top right hand corner, Catania a little way down on the right side and Enna is in the centre of the triangle, forming a second internal triangle. You can place Etna and Randazzo in the centre of these major cities at the core of the Val Demone in the primordial heart of Sicily.
Like most major Sicilian cities, Randazzo has a long and complex history which has been shaped by all the many invaders of the island. The city’s founding came about with the amalgamation of the pre existing towns of Triracia, Triocala, Tissa, Demena and Altesa, who were destroyed during a civil war by Roman emperor Ottaviano. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Byzantines kept the city united under a central administration. Randazzo’s name is believed to derive from the name of a Byzantine governor known as Rendakes or Randas who governed from the nearby coastal town of Taormina in the tenth century. The name also has its roots in the local dialect, from the word Rannazzu meaning ‘big city’, which aptly describes Randazzo’s expansive urban development.
The strategic position of Randazzo has made it the focal point of trade and commerce throughout its existence. A symbol of this tradition are the Randazzo markets which bring together the best of the three provinces products nearly every Sunday (with the exception of public holidays and election days.) On Sunday the town is transformed into a giant sea of stalls, crowds and confusion like a Moroccan bizarre.
The open air market tradition goes back to the times of the Arab domination in Sicily, from the seventh century when the concept of trade markets was imported from the Middle East, creating an expansion of trade and products throughout Sicily and Italy. The market tradition is still a vibrant part of local commerce, once a week each Sicilian town has a day dedicated to the market and most major cities have daily fresh produce markets.
On market day Randazzo is invaded by endless stalls selling literally everything from: art work, pirated C.D’s, children’s wear, fruit, vegetables, toys, cheeses, furniture, ornaments, fur coats, wrought iron work, fabric, statues, casual ware, sausages, hand bags, shoes, soccer jumpers, socks, suits, dried baccala fish, lawn mowers, scythes, fairy floss, books, cleaning products, dried fruit, lingerie, roast chickens, army surplus products and endless haberdashery.
As people arrive the confusion grows to an impressive level and by mid morning there is a non stop chorus of stall owners who yell, scream and chant about the quality of their products trying to out spruik one another. While experienced market shoppers rummage through the large piles of stock trying to find a bargain. Like any market there are both worthy products and junk, the challenge is to recognise quality objects in amongst the confusion.
Shopping at a market is an invigorating challenge and offers a completely original experience to the standard sterile shopping at convenience stores or expansive shopping centres. The most important thing about market shopping is recognising a bargain and firmly naming your price, the never-ending stalls mean you can always threaten to go to another to get your price, so being firm and fair means you can often get a decent discount. Walking away from a stall can be just the right strategy to get a vendor to take a few Euros’ off the cost. There is a real skill to shopping at a market. It becomes a game if you are willing to throw yourself into the experience whole heartedly. Just walking through the transformed streets is a journey into the past of the medieval bazaar, full of exotic sensations and products.
There is an eternal stream of colour and confusion in the late morning the crowds reach their peak as people literally dive into the narrow side streets already congested by the teeming stalls creating a terrible crush and confusion, making people crawl along at a snails pace lined up shoulder to shoulder. The best time to visit is early in the morning before the crowd, when the best offers can be found and you have the energy to submerge yourself into the world generated by the Randazzo markets.
Here is a quick video I shot recently while browsing around the markets, to give you a sense of the colours and character of these markets.
Please let me know in the comments if you like this video and if you’d be interested in seeing others.
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