Sicily’s Secret Corner.

15 Jul

One of the great things about travel is that there is always somewhere or something new to discover. The World is supposed to be shrinking fast, what with the internet, mobile phones and the rise and rise of social networking. However there are still many new places to find out about and new “secrets” to unearth. A recent family get- together in south-east Sicily was a case in point. Until recently, mention Sicily to me and I would have conjured up images of hot sun, dusty towns, poverty, corruption and Mafia godfathers hiding behind their shades. I might also have thrown in a fiery, erupting Mount Etna and the sparkling Mediterranean. I would never have thought of a string of outstanding 18th century Baroque towns listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. But like I said, that’s travel for you!
We travelled to the Val di Noto region in the south east corner of the island. In January, 1693, the whole of this area was devastated by a massive earthquake plus a follow-up tsunami. There were 60,000 victims ( about half the population) and the area destroyed covered 5,600 square kms. 45 towns and cities were razed to the ground. The reaction of the locals was not to reconstruct what had stood before, but to built completely new cities in the Baroque style, fashionable at that time. It was a wonderful late flowering of Sicilian Baroque, the last hurrah for the baroque movement in Europe. Eight of these cities are now World Heritage Sites because of the uniqueness and completeness of their style. They were all built in a busy 50 year period which led to their centres presenting a wonderfully homogeneous and harmonious architectural picture. If one screens out the cars, telegraph wires and mobile phones, a visit to Ragusa, Modica, Noto or any of their sister baroque cities, is like travelling back 250 years into the mid- 18th century. All that is missing are the powdered wigs and sedan chairs.
We didn’t visit all 8 towns and cities on the UNESCO list. That would have been too tiring, especially under the hot, summer sun. It would also have been inappropriate for a mostly relaxing family vacation that included 2 very young children. However, I did get to explore : Ragusa Ibla, Scicli and Modica as well as Comiso which is not on the official list but still contains several interesting, historical churches and palaces which give its centre a distinctly Baroque air. I keep stressing that this area is still a semi- secret but this may not remain so for too much longer as Ryanair and others have just begun cheap flights to the newly opened Comiso airport ( an ex NATO base) and the region is featured on the popular television series: “Inspector Montalbano.” Information boards featuring the cult, bald Italian detective are already springing up in various filming locations for fans on the Montalbano trail. Luckily for those like me who enjoy a quiet holiday, Montalbano mania has not quite reached Harry Potter heights so the secret is safe for the time being.
South east Sicily is a region of high, rolling hills topped by rocky outcrops. They are criss-crossed by dry stone walls and speckled with carob, almond and olive trees. The hills are punctuated by deep valleys spanned by dizzyingly high bridges. The lower land is very fertile and heavily market- gardened with miles of plastic tunnels, green houses and irrigation pipes, nurturing: peppers, tomatoes, grape vines, aubergines, courgettes and the like. The little towns and villages are indeed quite dusty, but are enlivened by vivid splashes of colour from bougainvillea, azalea and other flowering shrubs ( pink, purple, white, red and orange.) We also spotted flowering cacti, groves of lemon trees, palms and bananas. For most of our visit we stayed in a rustic villa between Scicli and Sampiere near the coast. Every evening, as the sun dipped, the palms, lemon trees and spiky cacti in the garden, slowly turned into dark silhouettes and the sky would fill with swooping swallows and fluttering bats. A low chorus of cicadas would strike up, occasionally interrupted by the loud hoot of an owl or the squeaky call of a gecko. It made a nice change from North Yorkshire!
Before arriving at the villa, my wife, Chris, and I stayed in Ragusa, one of the aforementioned baroque towns. Ragusa is actually 2 towns separated by a deep ravine spanned by 3 bridges. After the earthquake of 1693, the town was rebuilt on higher ground in baroque style, its streets based on a grid system. This upper town is now known as Ragusa Superiore and has some fine buildings. However the real gem is Ragusa Ibla, lower down on the other side of the gorge. This is on the site of the original town and was rebuilt by its citizens following the old, medieval layout. It clings to a rocky outcrop with spectacular views all around. Ibla is a charming maze of narrow streets, stepped alleys, little piazzas and secluded courtyards. It is largely pedestrianized and is a delight to wander around. A jumble of glowing limestone streets clings to the hillside. Ibla features 14 World heritage buildings in an area of less than one square kilometre. As one climbs up and down the narrow streets and stone staircases, there is a parade of great views — pan-tiled roofs, bell towers, domes and fancy facades. We explored it at our leisure, trying to slip into the slow pace of life that is a Sicilian characteristic. Everything was quiet. We slipped in and out of sun and shadows. Washing hung from the many fancy balconies. Gargoyle like faces grinned down at us and the ornate, wrought- iron fences sprouted delicate metal flowers. Beautiful creamy-yellow swallowtail butterflies danced figure-of-eight patterns in the blue sky. The scent of blossom was in the air and greeny-brown lizards raced in and out of cracks in the stone walls.
Sicilian baroque architecture is famous for its exuberant and theatrical style. Churches and palaces are richly ornamented with sculpture featuring grotesque, grinning faces and putti ( chubby male children similar to cherubs.) It features graceful convex or concave curves, eye-catching use of light and shade ( perfect for the sunny climate), grand staircases and ornate balconies. The prime example of this in Ragusa Ibla is the Duomo of San Giorgio which stands like a striking wedding cake at the top of a sloping piazza split by six palms. It’s a masterpiece of Sicilian baroque by Rosario Gagliardi and took forty years to build. later, it was a bit of reverse culture shock to visit a “normal” town, mainly consisting of modern apartment blocks and not featuring anything from the 18th century at all. Only when we left it did we realize that we had been temporarily “lost” in a sort of secret world,largely cut off from 21st century realities.
Ragusa is up and coming as a tourist destination. The old centre of Ibla has been restored thanks to EU money. There are now little boutique hotels and a generous sprinkling of cafes and restaurants. It even has a corny little tourist “train” complete with a multi-lingual recorded commentary. However, it was fairly quiet, even in late June when we went. Outside August it is little visited. Many of the houses are still neglected or derelict reflecting the unemployment and poverty that the area has suffered. It mostly remains a Sicilian secret.
Modica, like Ragusa, consists of 2 urban centres, rebuilt after the late 17th century earthquake. The older centre ( the Storico Alto) is perched high on the rocky top of a steep hill. Again like Ragusa, upper and lower Modica has 2 competing cathedrals ( duomos). St Georges Cathedral, the one we visited, has an impressive wine-glass shaped stone staircase leading up to the main entrance. ( Just like its sister cathedral in Ragusa Ibla.) In the past the worshippers must have thought they were ascending into heaven. It’s another fantastic, curvy confection of towers, domes, pillars and statues, all topped by a soaring belfry. It is approached on either side by two steep, winding sets of staircases and is fronted by a broad terrace which commands grand views of the lower town and valley far below. Inside, the Duomo is rich in silver work and paintings and features a Spanish style, high baroque alter which survived the quake.
Sicily was ruled for many years by the Kings of Spain as part of the Crown of Aragon. It has also in its long history been invaded and/or conquered by the Ancient Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Saracens and the Normans. One legacy of the Spanish rule is chocolate. Modica is famous throughout Italy for its chocolate and is full of little chocolate shops where one can sample a host of different, delicious flavours from little bowls, spread out along the counter. Chocolate making is now a revered 400 year old tradition. Cacao (Spanish for cocoa?) from South America, was brought to Sicily by the Spaniards. Modica specialises in making granulous chocolate with exotic flavours such as chilli pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, jasmine and orange. The recipes and methods descend directly from the Aztecs.
Modica is delightful jumble of old buildings, clinging higgledy-piggledy to a steep hillside. It is another 18th century, baroque paradise. It descends into a deep gorge spanned by the 300 metres high Guerrieri bridge. We explored it in the hot sun, when only mad dogs and Englishmen were about, but the tightly packed buildings gave plenty of shade and we could always retreat into a cool café for a refreshing granita.(sweet flavoured crushed ice drink).
Scicli was our nearest town and we ended up there several times. It’s a very confusing place to drive through and we ended up going down one way streets the wrong away, attracting much angry gesticulation from the locals. Even the sat- nav failed to fathom-out the one way system. It’s old baroque town is not as concentrated as Ragusa or Modica. A sprinkle of extravagant churches and the odd palace are scattered around. The main focus is the large Piazza Italia with its pavement cafes and gardens. At one end is a fancy baroque church while at the other is an old cinema from the 1930s or 40s. It reminded me straight away of the old picture house in the Italian cult film “Cinema Paradiso”, sitting as it is in the same sort of hot, southern Italian, backwater town. Scicli nestles in yet another gorge, overlooked by a towering limestone mass upon which the large disused church of San Matteo stands. There are also very old cave dwellings up there but it was too hot and too tiring to go climbing.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive travelogue of Sicily. You can read the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet for that. There are many outstanding attractions that we missed out. We did get to see some ancient Greek temples at Arigento but never made it to Siracusa. Taormina, Mount Etna or Palermo. Holidays are for relaxing and being together as well as sight seeing and we had a great time doing just that. It just means I will have to return to Sicily to see some of the things I missed.
We spent the last day of our holiday in Comiso as it was a stone’s throw from the airport. We didn’t have high expectations of it but it proved to be a delight. We stayed at a lovely guest house on an old piazza. The view from our balcony included a baroque church, the keep of a 16th century Aragonese castle and another old theatre/cinema. The hospitality at the guest house was outstanding as it was in our place in Ragusa and at the villa. Sicilians are famous for their wonderful hospitality. We wondered round the narrow streets of the old town and visited an extravagantly decorated baroque church. In the evening, we watched groups of old people playing bridge in the floodlit cloisters of a religious building, now turned into the public gallery. We also saw a wedding with both the bride and groom wearing white and the guests showering them with rice instead of confetti. They descended the church steps on a white carpet and eventually drove off in a bright red sports car. We also saw anti-fascist monuments in a park reminding us of a dark chapter in Italy’s more recent history.
On the morning of our last full day in Sicily we sat in the old piazza waiting to check in to our nearby Comiso guest house. The setting was very atmospheric and picturesque. Opposite us was the aforementioned Spanish castle keep, while behind us, a steep flight of steps climbed up to a large baroque church. Worshippers quietly came and went. Old men stood or sat on street corners, chewing the fat and watching the world go by. Hundreds of dark swallows, out to catch their breakfast, soared and swirled around in a fabulous, acrobatic flying display. Who needs the Red Arrows? It was a lovely relaxing start to our last day.
Finally we were back at the tiny airport of Comiso which has its own piece of history. It is adjoined by an eerie ghost town — empty streets, boarded up houses and even an abandoned cinema. Nearby were rusting, menacing coils of barbed wire and aggressive keep out signs. This used to be an American run NATO airbase which housed land- launched cruise missiles in the 1980s.( it reminded me of the faslane military base on the west coast of Scotland, being completely out of keeping with the surrounding area.) A big peace camp used to surround it manned by women from Italy, Europe and further afield. It was modelled on the similar anti-nuclear peace camp at Greenham Common in England. The deadly missiles were removed in 1987 after a treaty was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union. After that both the military and the peace camps were disbanded and the place drifted steadily into obscurity until Ryanair discovered it and put it back on the map.
Our trip to this still mostly secret region of Sicily was a revelation in many ways. Every trip to a previously unvisited destination is. One can read and plan to the nth degree but one can never really be prepared for the surprising reality of a place. I saw enough to make me want to return for more. The history, the landscapes, the architecture, the hospitality, the relaxing pace of life, the eccentric driving ( sometimed decidedly dangerous), the sunny weather and the food ( despite me being a vegetarian), all combined to make this a fascinating visit. I didn’t see the famous volcano but did experience the consequences of another major seismic activity over 300 years ago — a string of dazzling Baroque towns in a little known corner of Europe. It was a very good trip.

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