Urban Planning 101

One thing you immediately notice about Italian and Sicilian towns is the focus on the town square: a large, centrally located area, often with a fountain, or a statue, or some other attractive feature, or perhaps a combination of all three, where people can gather. In every town we’ve visited, we’ve been drawn to these squares, like this one in Ortigia. And the central feature of the square doesn’t need to be ancient, either. The impressive fountain above, for example, was built in the 20th century.

Italians and Sicilians understand the importance of the town square. Somewhere along the way their American counterparts seem to have forgotten that lesson. Ortigia is not a huge town, but it has several beautiful squares like this one. How many American towns or cities do?

If I were an American city planner, I would spend a lot more time thinking about squares, statues, and parks and how to get local philanthropists to contribute toward their construction. These kinds of spaces help to knit the community together.


Yesterday I (sort of) learned how to play Briscola, an Italian card game. It’s a fun game with rules that are very different from those of an American card game, like euchre or gin rummy. In fact, Briscola suggests that the spectrum of games you could play with a deck of cards is as wide as the human imagination.

And speaking of the deck, forget hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. The suits in a Sicilian deck are coins, swords, cups, and sticks. The card characters also are different, with a horseman instead of a Jack and a young woman rather than a queen. The size of the cards is a bit smaller than the standard American playing card.

The Briscola rules also are strange because the three is a very significant card, second in value only to the ace. That takes some getting used to. Each player is dealt three cards and then the card that establishes the trump suit is turned over. Each player then plays a card, with the card that is led by the first player setting the suit for the hand unless someone trumps in. You don’t need to follow suit, either. The highest card of the suit that was led, or the highest trump card played, takes the hand and wins any points assigned to the card played. And here’s a key point: many cards are assigned no points, whereas aces are worth 11 points and threes are worth 10 points. Why is a three worth 10 points? Only the creator of Briscola knows for sure.

I’m not doing a good job of explaining the rules, and in any event a wooden explanation of the rules doesn’t do justice to the game. It’s a fun, fast moving game that is best learned on a sun-dappled patio overlooking the sea coast.