Although we were aware of just how big the island was the poor quality of the roads, appalling traffic in towns and difficulty in parking when we actually got somewhere meant that we were in the car far too much. It was an important point that we’d remember for next time as it became a little frustrating, especially when we didn’t get as much time to explore as we would have wished. We’d planned a trip that would take us through as many places as possible and while that has good and bad aspects, on balance we were satisfied that we were seeing as much of Sicily as we could and were getting a real impression of the place.
We liked the south-east corner of the island and before embarking on the long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo we spent a few more days looking around. We stayed at the very pleasant La Corte del Sole. This is a country hotel in a rebuilt masseria, set on the side of the flat river basin of the Val di Noto. A masseria is a farmhouse that is fortified or, at least, capable of being defended and typically dates from the late middle ages. The appellation is used somewhat loosely but then the marauding hoards that invade Sicily these days come with easyJet or Thomson so a degree of poetic licence is forgivable. To be fair, Le Corte doesn’t look old and actually feels pretty new but it has a satisfying solidity that we liked nonetheless. The rural location balances country walks to the relatively empty beach with a short drive to nearby Noto, one of Sicily’s Baroque towns. It’s also well-placed to see most of the region between the Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari and Isola delle Correnti, Sicily’s southernmost point. A very pleasant dining terrace overlooks the verdant valley and has views to the sea. We had a memorable dinner; spada alla griglia con finocchio selvatico [grilled swordfish with wild fennel] for Mission Control and maccheroni con le sarde for me. This is one of my favourite Sicilian dishes – local pasta, sardines, saffron, currants, pine nuts all turned in fried bread crumbs. The food and substantial breakfast were actually very good. La Corte del Sole is a bit off the beaten track and quiet but well worth finding.
Noto is a particularly attractive town that was largely rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and we liked it a lot. The splendid buildings are faced with the local honey-coloured limestone that develops a unique luminosity in evening sunlight. It’s laid out on a grid and this adds a formality to the ornate architecture that is frequently absent elsewhere on the island. Noto’s UNESCO world heritage status is apparent when wandering its streets; taking time with a cool aperitivo delivers, in many respects, both the charm and the acute fascination of Sicily in a single bite. During our visit it seemed that all of Noto’s residents were either strolling back and forth along the Corsa Vittorio Emanuele or watching life pass by from church steps or the piazzas. And Caffé Sicilia produced simply the best cannoli that we found, with the finest scorze [that’s the pastry shell]. Equally interesting, however, was to walk off the main streets and find, as I did, evidence of a less comfortable side to life away from the mainstream. Browsing a row of local shops I found myself gazing at a display of weapons. Not small guns for target shooting or keeping the sparrow population in control and not a few but dozens of AK series assault rifles, carbines, Berettas, machine pistols and shotguns – the kind of weapons that are used to kill people. And there they were, on open display between a hairdresser and a pharmacy. It was sobering to ponder what ‘I’m just popping to the shops, dear’ might mean in Noto.
We resolved to return as the town deserved far more time than we were able to give it but we had a rendezvous and there were more places to visit on the way. I wanted to see Messina again after gazing at it under a smouldering Etna from across the straits as a student. And now that I’d finally decided to visit the island there was also that remaining piece of endemic woodland in the Nebrodi Mountains.
Getting to Palermo from Noto was tortuous; driving between the ‘three points’ of Palermo, Messina and Catania makes travellers heavily dependent on the autostrada network, which peters out away from these centres. Fortunately Noto is linked to it and getting to Palermo by way of Messina would take about the same time as using the cross-country route through Enna we’d arrived on. We headed for Messina and north of Catania the autostrada became a toll road. The rates are not high but not for the first time I found myself wondering about how the fees don’t appear to resurface as improvements, maintenance or repairs.
While we were thinking about that and trying to keep our Autogrill coffee in the cup – almost impossible on Sicilian roads, by the way – Taormina and its teetering, cliff-top buildings came into view.