Sicily – the boys from Syracuse market

I avoid being an itinerant tourist, preferring to stay in one place and getting to know it inside out even when it means missing something just down the road. Sicily made that difficult; with so much on offer we’d decided before we travelled to get as big a picture as possible and, if it delivered on its promises, come back and stay for a while. Consequently, we didn’t plan anything in detail because on the one hand there would be so much to see and on the other, plenty to avoid; we’d stay light on our feet.

We’d arranged to visit with friends and had initially set out to spend a couple of weeks together but despite best intentions and a year talking about it over ‘Sicilian-themed’ lunches the plan was disrupted by business commitments, migration in Sweden and our forthcoming trip to Dubai. By the time we’d eventually fixed flights it worked out that they would arrive a week or so after us and we’d have to leave several days before them, leaving just a few days together in the middle. Mission Control eased us through this by booking a few places to anchor the Grand Tour, between which we’d drift in the direction the wind took us.

Pozzo di Mazza was perfect for our introduction to Sicily. As well as being handily located to visit some of the sites recommended by Andrea Corso, it was close enough to Siracusa to spend plenty of time in the city. The agriturismo provided a relaxing and authentic springboard to the south-east corner of the island.

Agriturismi are a popular and relatively inexpensive way of holidaying in Italy. The term, in a statement of the obvious, means ‘agricultural tourism’ and was formalised in the mid 1980s as a means of putting some life back into the rural economy by allowing working farms the opportunity to supplement their income with tourist accommodation. Given this basis it means that standards can vary and whilst that is clearly part of the charm our experience in using them over many years has been excellent. And so it was at Pozzo di Mazza. We were provided with good and satisfying food derived from local produce and near-perfect preserves, a lot of which we’ve hauled back. The rooms were spotless, the staff simply charming and there was also a refreshing and welcome absence of television. That meant that guests were left to their own devices although it clearly didn’t suit one Dutch couple who bleated about the place being too quiet, too isolated and too far from any bars. It was actually very pleasant to sit under the quiet, shaded terrace outside the room or in the garden although I was frustrated at the lack of internet access, as all my information for the trip sat in the cloud and was consequently inaccessible.

We knew something of Siracusa before we arrived but weren’t prepared for the sheer magnificence of the crumbling and decrepit buildings, matched in intricacy of detail only by the service and communication cables strung along and between them. Siracusa and its adjoining island Ortigia were largely rebuilt in 1693 after a devastating earthquake in a style that became known as ‘Sicilian Baroque’ and this forms a chiaroscuro backdrop to Greco-Roman and Norman relics. Together they create an intense ambiance of history and immediately we’d absorbed the initial visual impact we knew we’d be back for a longer stay. Like many Italian cities, Siracusa makes one want to live and breathe it. We walked narrow streets and courtyards and, in the Piazza Duomo, watched a Siracusan tableau unfold as its residents married or enjoyed an evening stroll or, like us, simply sipped a slow Spritz.

Siracusa was established on Ortigia in about 734BC and was the most significant city-state in the Mediterranean. I guess the vendors in the market were probably shouting much the same thing then as we heard when we squeezed between the stalls below the market hall. That isn’t in use these days – due, I suspect, to the endemic lack of maintenance – but we did spend a lot of time in the not-to-be-missed delicatessen I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti. Our only regret was that we didn’t have a nearby kitchen as I can’t wait to get back to the widest range of Sicilian wines I’ve ever seen and an exquisite olive oil scented with orange juice, but that will be remedied next time. Walking Mercato di Ortigia and coming out the other end without buying something was a frustrating experience but in brief but sublime compensation we had lunch in a market restaurant supplied by one of the fish vendors; Ristorante Il Porticciolo in via Trento. We ate fried baby fish, risotto with saffron, pistachio and prawns and ravioli of minced prawn in a tomato and ricotta sauce. The [of course] local wine was recommended by the restaurant and was exactly matched, making the entire experience perfetto.

A lot to see and come back for but before that we’d be taking a long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo.


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