Lure of the South
Volcanoes, vineyards and vespas are just three of the things that make Sicily a fascinating island destination, writes Judy Bryant.
South African Garden and Home
Judy Bryant/ supplied
South-eastern Sicily seems like Italy compressed to its essence – magnificent churches filled to the brim with splendid mosaics and art, narrow side streets with elegant couples wearing cream fedoras against the sizzling sun, and pigeon-breasted, intricately-carved balconies overhanging ancient piazzas abuzz with café conversations.
Of course Sicily is traditionally associated with the Cosa Nostra criminal syndicate, but as a tourist you don’t encounter mafiosi – unless you want to. Google, and you’ll find tour companies that’ll take you to the locations where parts of the Godfather movie was shot in the early 1970s – in fact you can even do so in a vintage Fiat 500.
Sicily lies just south of the Italian mainland, and just north of Malta. Our starting point was the small town of Noto in the south-east: accessible, easy to explore and boasting a collection of exuberant baroque architecture that has made the old town centre a UNESCO world heritage site.
A massive earthquake in the late 17th century caused havoc but it had a happy outcome as reconstruction (and further restoration a decade ago) has produced beautiful limestone buildings, sun-ripened to a rich biscuit colour.
It’s rather like stepping onto an Italian movie set when you enter the town through the porta reale, a larger-than-life monumental entrance gate. It’s carved with symbols such as wheat and fish, representing the town’s agricultural and fishing roots. Most of the churches and palazzi are situated on the main road, Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
But Noto’s not only elaborate buildings, battered vespas and old men sitting chatting in small groups under shady trees. The Ex Convitto Ragusa cultural centre houses contemporary installations and we struck it lucky with an exhibition twinning artist Marc Chagall and fashion house Missoni, renowned for its colourful knitwear and artistic collaborations.
Chagall’s bright lithographs (displayed against a rich turquoise background) beautifully complemented the vibrant zig-zag Missoni textiles and patchworks. It was a master class in colour combinations, with a quote reminding visitors that: “In our life there is a single colour which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love.”
The heat provided an excuse to sample ice-cream and visit the vendors pressing fresh orange juice. In Sicily, granita’s traditionally served with a brioche pastry and the best place for both is Noto’s Caffè Sicilia. It was run by current owner Corrado Assenza’s aunt (he left for Bologna, to study insects) but now he’s back in town and renowned for his pastries and gelatos with intense, true flavours.
Next stop was Syracuse, with the historical centre of Ortigia. The intertwined old and new give you a disorientated sense of timelessness. Popping into a modern Benetton outlet to search for a sale bargain, you’ll pass the remains of an ancient Greek temple or fountain to goddess Diana.
The classic profile of the shop assistant takes you back to an illustration in a school text book. It’s a crossroads and crucible, with the dazzling white cathedral incorporating high Doric pillars of a fifth century BC temple of Athena.
Of course cafes, vineyards and restaurants are just as important as cathedrals and monuments. The Mount Etna lava flows that have caused so much destruction have also left the soil very fertile. Syracuse’s ancient side streets offered beautiful little shops selling variously-coloured pasta, cheeses and wine.
Marzamemi, on the south-east coast, is a fabulously picturesque town based on the tuna processing industry. Many of the old fishermen’s and tuna workers’ cottages are now Instagram-worthy cafes, shops and bars, decorated with woven fishing baskets, pots of geraniums, bright umbrellas and nets draped on rough stone walls.
Narrow streets lead off the main square and colourful wooden boats bob in the harbour. It looks ready for a shoot, and every summer the town hosts a major film festival.
Marzamemi still produces artisanal salt-dried and oil-canned delicacies. We lingered at the Campisi shop, where five generations have perfected the art of making tuna salamis, smoked swordfish, marinated anchovies, seafood pasta condiments and much more.
“Try bottorga … its tuna caviar with capers and possibly chilli, a real Sicilian starter,” recommended our guide Attilio Ruta.
The area is also known for yummy specialities like pale green pistachio marzipan (there’s also a pistachio cream liqueur) and, in Modica, great chocolate. The Spanish brought cocoa beans from South America and beans are still traditionally ground using lava stone, then gently warmed. Sugar’s added, as well as orange or lemon zest, almonds and pistachios
Naturally all the products are exquisitely packaged in true Italian style with lavishly illustrated labels and swirly typefaces that make you want to treasure them forever.
The Greeks introduced several varieties of wine to Sicily, and at the Feudo Ramaddini vineyards near Marzamemi, we were welcomed by charming marketing manager Valeria Ballacchino who showed us a collection of old wine-making equipment. The latest vintages tasted pretty good, we agreed, sitting in the courtyard and sampling red and white wine along with delicious bruschetta, salami and local olive oil.
Near the farm was an abandoned railway station building ‒ farming can be tough, and many producers have turned to agriturismo meals and lodging to supplement their incomes.
The hot air was vibrating with the sound of cicadas when we arrived at a working farm, Agriturismo Agrimolo, near Noto. The children loved petting the animals, like donkeys and goats, then we bonded over vast platters of antipasti followed by delicious pasta.
I didn’t have room for the homemade sausage and steamed green vegetables, but we refreshed ourselves with chunks of watermelon and sweet pastries. Seated around an enormous table, our group ranged from a family of four from Australia (with Italian heritage) to a glamorous Colombian guest.
The island’s well worth a visit, whether you prefer cultural artefacts or sun-drenched beaches with sand colours ranging from pale yellow to black lava. The capital, Palermo, is an exotic mix of oriental and European influences; hilltop Taormina’s trails lead up to the summit of Mount Etna; and Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples has an impressive complex of ancient Greek buildings.
Wherever you do find yourself, Sicily’s vibrancy, passion and timelessness can be summed up in the theme of that Chagall and Missoni exhibition I saw back in Noto: Sogno e colore (dream and colour).
First published in South African Garden and Home May 2018
Images Judy Bryant and supplied: Sandro Bedessi, Italian National Tourist Board (Fototeca ENIT).