Italy, like Greece, objects to austerity. So when our flight to Italy from Ireland via London was delayed 5 hours thru national strike action in Italy, we readily agreed with Union Italia that austerity sucks…
Milan turned on a cold, grey, wet, windy welcome for us.
She had draped her iconic cathedral spires in scaffolding iron at least six months thick, and her streets and arcades catwalked next millenium’s design style such that even her street beggars looked embarrassed for us!
…So we were understandably excited to be booked first class couchette on a night train to Sicily when again, Union Italia’s shrill whistle blew and….only held us up two hours before we were zipping thru Italian villages on the dark side of the planet, street lights dotting all over the passing hills of twin”kle towns in their Christmas dressings. We had to be grateful for our takeaway pizza and panini that was all we had to feed the first classi-ness myth of our carriage which had me remembering more kindly my Orient Express trip on the Ghan in 1975!
Arrived in Sicily at Messina next morning as scheduled, but noting how completely austerity ruled Messina, we were not surprised at how sagely we responded to the Union cancelling our next connections – all in a good cause, plus an opportunity to meet Arancino,
whose acquaintance we thenceforward made much of in our Sicilian sojourno….with no further nod to austerity!
Over the hiccups and onwards…allora: the next morning…a fabulous breakfast in the charmed hotel garden, next door to the Duomo San Georgio in the panoramic arc of Ragusa Ibla – the magical old city of Ragusa.
Heaven. Michael, the owner, did everything and more required to leave us fully impressed with the warmth of Sicilian hospitality and the expectation of delightful discovery of widely-reputed good food, good wine, and good oil to come in Chiaramonte Gulfi, a hill town 17 km from Ragusa where we spent the next month at Casa Mario. It never disappointed.
Our cunning plan to foil the worst of Europe’s winter by extending Xmas in Sicily was almost complete before it snowed!…which of course leads to big appetites, very handy when it happens at a time and a place in which to be jolly…We tried the two best restaurants in Chiaramonte. Despite its Michelin status, the Majore Restaurant, is very cheap and a big Sunday lunch family favourite. With its plain décor, and its lukewarm, condescendingly helpful but efficient waiters serving albeit fine enough food, it didn’t stack up well against our experience of the
near-Michelin Dammasu, where the décor was elegant, the much more personable waiter was unarguably ‘perfetto’, the food was great, and the dessert wine complimentary – bella bonza !!!! Even though the Aspic Alla Majore – a beautifully seasoned pigs trotter jelly, clear as crystal – wins hands down on that score, perhaps while the Dammasu wait staff still strives for Michelin stars, they take nothing for granted, but indulge their guests almost to the point of intimacy, which in winter, on a small mountain, in crisp, crunchy sunlight, is almost bearable.
A sweet word on desserts – moscato firriato and amaro toffee mixed thru almond semi fredo along with small pieces of roasted almond! “Yuuummbo”. It is considered to be in poor taste (pardon pun) to mention the cost of a fine meal, but we must….. €35 for 2 3-course meals plus wine. Followed by delicious Moscato Firriato. Wouldn’tcha just love Sicily?
If I had survived driving a car in Spain, was I up for a shot at Sicilian roads? But of course! Yes. A no-brainer. Well, after two days of medically-assisted driving, the car we’d rented for a week sat safely parked outside for the duration of my medically-assisted recovery…no, we returned it early, both agreed that our preferred option for an enriched time and experience here was to engage a guide.
Hey Presto! Enter Magic Man! Sicilian-born Vincenzo is a good-humoured young man with impeccable manners, great driving skills, good English, a sound knowledge of local cuisine, and loads of patience. He is also blessed with a family that is warm, charming and hospitable and his Mama, Maria, is a great cook. So off we went…
Syracuse – 2,700-year-old city, once the major power of the Mediterranean world. For our 2-day visit we stayed at Ortigia, the Old City – and enjoyed local food, including a taste of live sea urchin, and a long ramble around the Greek Theatre,
one of the largest ever built by the ancient Greeks who then ruled the region. Its 67 rows, divide into nine sections with eight aisles. Near the theatre are the latomìe, stone quarries, also used as prisons in ancient times. The shapes of these Latomies are very sculptural one is particularly known as the “Ear of Dionysius” for its exceptional sound carrying effects,
one can speak in a normal whisper and it will be heard 50 meters away!!
Taormina – the first impression is dramatic seafront cliff drops with hills of equal steepness backgrounding a town made up of impossibly perched boxes – old and new dwellings sitting in niches like nesting birds. We found a beautiful hotel, Bel Soggiorno, with a steep garden looking over the sea to the surrounding islands and sweeping sideways to give us dress circle views of snow capped Mt Etna.
During our evening passagiata we found ourselves among a large crowd in Taormina’s main square, Piazza IX Aprile where, despite the beauty of the piazza, all eyes were on Etna. Yes! She was aglow! And puffing! Who knows? Maybe with pride? A fit of pique, perhaps? A little angry? Yes, she was erupting and did so for 2 hours. This was her first eruption for 2 years so we felt very privileged. Next morning, in villages downwind of the explosion, were buildings, pavements and cars spattered thickly in dark brown ash and local folk casually sweeping Etna’s latest outburst into small manageable piles.
Marzamemi – is in the deep southeast and is one of prettiest seaside villages in Sicily. Narrow streets lead into the main square and out to the the little cobblestone fishing harbour with its multi-coloured fleet of wooden boats bobbing on the turquoise sea to the south and east.
The village is preserved in its original state with the interiors renovated except for the tuna factory which closed years ago after global protests at the way the fish were netted and clubbed to death (Mattanza).
The lumpy streets of Catania are grouted with catshit. I know because I tripped on a lump and torpedoed into a cement plant pot saying “Curtains!”, “Your Skull Crushed Here”. My hands shot out, as they do, soft-landing my poor head into the cement. My head took its time to fully forgive my wayward feet and let us, all three, struggle and stumble to the hotel where Annie and I peeled off my reeking cat shit clothes while Vincenzo scuttled off to the Farmacia for dressings. Oh Catania!
Modica’s fully justified claim to fame is chocolate, one of the most famous products of the Ragusa area, still made the same way as the ancient Aztecs made it. The tradition dates back to the 16th century when the Spaniards brought over techniques they’d learned from the Mexicans. The Bonajuto family is the most internationally famous Sicilian chocolatier. We found their shop in the heart of Modica where it’s been since 1880, but two visits and multiple feasted cannoli later we were no closer to picking a favourite from the far too many flavour options.
Visit to Palermo, famed as crime capital of Europe. So our ever-watchful Vincenzo refused to open the car boot in the city in case some hungry urban hunter-gatherer glimpsed its baggage bulges! He also made sure our phones and iPad were kept out of sight around streets and markets. Fortunately we’d chosen a magnificent location in a bay with sea views just a little north west of the city for our 2-night stay, where we were safely enfolded in the rugged arms of Monte Pellagrino. In the end Palermo’s mad traffic proved the only real threat to speak of.
In Palermo we paid homage to the artist Renato Guttuso, and his painting “La Vucciria”, housed at the University of Palermo, which starred in the first episode of the 2012 BBC series Sicily Unpacked and which we aspiring traveller moles were most moved by – especially when art critic, Andrew Graham explains the painting to his series offsider, Michelin-starred chef, Giorgio Locatelli. The painting’s fame has sky-rocketed since and, while it could be made more generally accessible, the passion of our volunteer art student escort, who clearly loved the work and detailed the socio-political factors it embodies, made our private viewing of it all the more satisfying and memorable.
Equally memorable tho less satisfying….“…anyone who hasn’t tried a spleen sandwich from Palermo in Sicily is simply missing out…” so say all the travel guides. Of course we were up for trying the famous dish of Palermo – just our bodies were sorely tested – spleen burgers: “pane con la milza” to the initiated/devoted.
Ugh! Annie had one bite, I had two, the second crash landing into my serviette! Vincenzo was happy with his…but then, he eats horse….another story.
Pannelle, a fritter made of chick peas and served in a sandwich is delicious and is also typically Palermeten. We grew very partial to pannelle in Sciacca.
Monreale Cathedral has over 64,000 sq ft of golden mosaic tiles.
Built from 1174 to 1185. It was commissioned by William II (1154-89), the Norman ruler of Sicily, to assert the power and glory of his kingdom. A magnificent fusion of eastern and western influences. at this point you may be asking for some more Sicilian history…No,? Oh good. Because it’s altogether a rich (ad)minestrone seasoned with Vanadal, Byzantine, Greek, Islamic, Roman, Catalan, Spanish, Norman and even Irish herbs and spices…and not the stuff of which modest molish blogs are readily made!
Sciacca – a small southcoast city where festivals and ceramics rule and where we stayed for the second half of our Sicilian siesta. One of the main religious festivals of Sciacca is the Procession of Madonna del Soccorso through the streets.
She is carried by fishermen running barefoot! (some midwinter feat p/pun – and explains why the procession moves so very quickly!) The festival dates back to 17th Century plague times. Of the many local miracles and stories associated with this Madonna, the most amazing for me is the miracle of 1817: when Sciacca was in the savage grip of terrifying earth tremors, her people feared that the old wooden church of St. Augustine would succumb and their beloved Madonna would be buried beneath it. So the fishermen carried the Madonna statue from the church into the Town square, away from any falling objects. At 3:00 drops of sweat were seen falling from the Madonna’s forehead.
At 8:00, when the Madonna stopped sweating the earth tremors ceased. Every year when the fishermen carry the statue through the streets of Sciacca, the Madonna starts to sweat when she reaches that spot in the square. We were present at this procession, only the thousands-thick crowds stopped us from getting close enough to the Madonna to see. But if she was sweating, Annie thought, it could just as likely be due to a touch of agoraphobia.
Sciaccia is famous throughout Italy for its annual Carnival which begins at the start of Lent and ends on Shrove Tuesday with the ceremonial burning of the King, Peppe Nappa. Had it not so savagely rained on parade proceedings such that the event was cancelled halfway through, we may have gained some deeper insight into what now must remain a exclusively arcane event for which the town prepares all year long to ultimately produce extravagant costumery, community-choreographed sparkle, and artistry encroaching into the grotesque. What we saw and felt of it, however, was wonderful, intriguing, and a mystery we are happy leave unresolved
From Sciacca we explored the western side of the Island of Sicily – Marsala, named for its own fortified wine; Trapani for a forgettable, overpriced, supposedly authentic Tunisian cous cous; Agrigento – the Valley of the Temples;
Burgio – an exploration of beautiful ceramics;
Lucca for a wonderful home-cooked lunch as guests of Vincenzo’s parents, Giovanni and Maria Mule, whose friend Guiseppe Salvo, artist/musician, we were later to meet;
Caltabellotta – to battle the wind and sleet of this high-altitude Rock-squatting town,
and much more, including Palermo (as above).
If the home of Sicilian ceramics was not Caltagirone, it would be Sciacca. The public sculpture and the main shopping streets of Sciacca are choc-a-blocked contemporary and traditional ceramic art and craft.
A living museum of immersive beauty, humour and delight. If we stayed years we still wouldn’t get enough.
Much more could be said of our time in Sicily, a wonderful island that can squeeze itself three times into Tasmania. It rolls out from the first chapters of human history, unfolding its awesome beauty at each new turn of the street, each new pin in the map. As objective strangers in this strange land, we felt subjectively safe, at home, not a bit strange. As our departure from Siciliy is imminent, as is our upcoming return to Oz….mmm….it’s time to reflect on the fruits of our year-long journeying that has made us feel so much more at one with this world.