A blog ought to make a reasonable effort at being contemporaneous; this post isn’t – it’s more an excuse for posting some photographs. As soon as I’d left Sicily I was travelling again and a note closing the island adventure was put on the back burner. Our last flirtation – and perhaps a determining factor in ensuring a return visit – was the superb Modica, where antiquity and ambience provided a perfect counterpoint to the noise and pointless urgency of Dubai.
The long drive from Taormina to Palermo provided time to consider what Sicily had been for us. We were captivated but had been ambitious in attempting a brief glimpse of every part of the island; it was just too big and with each region having such a strong identity, pin-balling from one location to another had proven frustrating and self-defeating. The uncomfortable autostrada to Palermo – Sicily’s main route – was little better than we’d experienced elsewhere. We never quite got used to the bumps in the surface but, ruts aside, the journey wasn’t too unpleasant; lots of tunnels, Etna beyond the mountains on one side and misty views to the Aeolian Islands on the other. But Pollina and Sicily’s remaining forest were relegated to the bucket list as we’d arranged to meet Greg and Vibeke for dinner, who were flying to Palermo that evening for our few days together.
Along the way there was time for a nervous peek at Cefalù and its Romanesque cathedral. The coastal town is described as the ‘second most popular tourist destination’ in Sicily and the immediate impression as the view opens up across the bay goes some way to explaining why. Its picturesque setting and medieval profile, nestled in the lee of the rock from which its ancient Greek name and original settlement originate, suggest why all the tourists that weren’t in Taormina were here. Even the guidebooks offer gentle warnings about the crowds but mass tourism and narrow streets make for an uncomfortable marriage so you’d need to be tolerant of the hoi polloi to enjoy spending time there. The number of visitors dwindled significantly as the sun went down and there followed an enchanted hour when the streets quietened and became populated only with local residents. Most would have been of an age, I guess, that could recall an economy based on fishing and a life centred around the port and communal wash-houses; I wonder what they make of it all now.
In Taormina, where we’d enquired about our forthcoming evening in Palermo, Villa Belvedere had directed us to a restaurant where we and our friends could have a ‘real’ Sicilian dinner, free of tourists. It was called Frederick III and located way off the beaten track in a neighbourhood marked by seedy streets, darkened shop doorways and occasional eye-contact with a brooding picciotto. We were welcomed like old friends; an open bottle of wine was set on the table and replenished until we protested that we really had to leave. In between, animated conversation with the other customers punctuated with a variety of excellent fish dishes made every aspect of the evening memorable. It was interrupted only by the arrival of three suited men who sat briefly around a table at the far end of the room, engaged in a hushed conversation over a glass of vino bianco and left without eating or saying a word to anyone else. Maybe I’ve watched too much American television but I had the feeling, as they slipped silently into the night, that they worked in waste management and were about to make someone an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Palermo was regrettably a short visit so we limited our outings to walking the markets and visiting the superb Norman cathedral at Monreale, yet another site that deserved more time than we afforded it. Mission Control had found us bed and breakfast on the south coast at Selinunte so we drove through a vast expanse of olive groves, vineyards and rolling hills where EU funds were replacing trees with wind turbines. The Villa Sogno was ‘award-winning’ [there are a lot of award winners around these days, aren’t there?] due to its high standards of accommodation and home-made food and, indeed, that’s exactly what we found. The manicured garden was set in a walled compound and it proved a tranquil place to swim and enjoy wine, cheese and salumi from the store in Selinunte; a pity, then, that our hosts dealt with the garbage – in a manner common in Sicily but by no means limited to it – by throwing it over the fence into the olive grove next door. Villa Sogno delivered on comfort and food but pleasant as that was, our hosts clearly had an eye on the next award as they were just a little too busy making it the best bed and breakfast in the region to tolerate, with any degree of enthusiasm, encumbrances such as guests.
Just down the road however, the little port of Marinella di Selinunte was far more welcoming. It was quiet in the off-season but relaxed and very pleasant without tourists to trouble the friendly residents. We ate one evening at a local hostelry with the unlikely name of ‘Boomerang’. It looked a little dubious but was busy and clearly very popular. No one managed to explain where the name came from but the fish – fried or grilled in more varieties than you could shake a stick at – was as fresh as it was unpretentious. This part of Sicily caters mostly for local visitors so development tends to be limited even if occasionally, er, illegal. The coast, archaeological sites and small towns are unencumbered by the hoards witnessed at Taormina and Cefalù, which was very pleasant.
Throughout our tour of Sicily we had been surprised by the number and variety of good quality wines that were produced. Some were very good indeed. Greg is something of an aficionado when it comes to matters oenological so in short time we were at the excellent Tenuta Gorghi Tondi, tasting some of the quality wine produced at this small, local casa vinicola. The south-west corner of Sicily and the Vallo di Mazara in particular is a principal area of viniculture and as a result the island produces about a sixth of Italy’s total.
Nearby Mazara del Vallo is described as being the town with the largest immigrant population of Arabic origin on the island, harking back to its roots when it was occupied by Arabs in 827; it’s further south than Tangier and nearer to Tunis than it is to Rome or Naples. The centre of town is known as the Kasbah and it does have the feel of an Arab town even though there are remnants of several occupying cultures. And typically, while the Polpi in Umido might just have been the best we had in Sicily, the driving was certainly the worst – we saw two serious accidents as we parked.
We wanted to see Modica before we left Sicily; it would be the last stop so we drove the interesting and at times picturesque coastal road that would allow a pit-stop along the way at Agrigento and the Valle dei Templi. This is an impressive site and worth seeing but it’s popular and very much on the tourist bus route. That means crowds, souvenirs and expensive gelato but at least you can take comfort in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, from Japan or Korea will have captured your embarrassing image as you crouched in diaphoretic inquietude whilst trying for that one photograph of the Temple of Concordia that didn’t have a small crowd leaning against it.
The route from there, through Licata and Gela, before the land rises to the west of Ragusa and Modica, is a microcosm of the chaos and uneven distribution of wealth that’s prevalent on the island; a seemingly random pattern of new and unimproved roads, uncontrolled development, an occasional high-quality villa juxtaposed with a decrepit ruin, piles of rubble and garbage, agriculture that is, on the one hand, well-funded and thriving or, on the other, almost medieval in its lack of facility. It made one wonder how those people not on the Sicilian gravy-train could ever improve their lot. Ashleigh Brilliant had it about right when he wrote ‘I either want less corruption or more chance to participate in it’.
After winding our way up from the coastal plain and traversing the Ponte Irminio – 140m above the valley floor – Modica came into view, raking down the hillside in a breathtaking, Baroque backdrop. Not content with seducing us with its pastel splendour, the townspeople were preparing for an annual street race that had filled the centre with every living soul in the region. Our spritz on the crowded terrace along the Corso Umberto was taken amidst hoards of runners; young and old, experienced and novice. Teams in matching tee-shirts exchanged banter with shopkeepers and waiters while individuals in Lycra shorts – altogether more serious and focussed – worked their stretching routine. And in-between, coaches, water carriers, mothers, hangers-on, small children and dogs wandered between participants. We watched with growing enthusiasm as the motley throng sped easily or, in some cases, limped back and forth up the road, the event eventually being won by a very slim and very competent young woman. As the evening drew on the crowds were supplemented with students from the local university, filling the pavements, cafés and bars. We picked our way through the milieu for the essential visit to Modica’s famous chocolate shops and especially L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, where it’s made in a fashion said to date back to the Aztecs. Cadbury’s it isn’t and the shop is an experience in itself. Modica’s sense of self was further reinforced when we ordered dinner after the race; the offerings on the menu at Osteria dei Sapori Perduti were described in the local dialect, served with enthusiasm and were superb examples of local cuisine.
That was our last evening with Greg and Vibeke before spending a couple of nights in relative luxury at Donna Carmela before heading to Catania and the Emirates. Sicily had delivered. There were some aspects that irked us – the stripping of the native vegetation and loss of natural habitat [not unexpected after a couple of thousand years of cultivation, I guess, but still an issue]; the shooting; the corruption and the consequences of nepotistic and self-interested authorities. But there was so much more to savour – the history and the culture; in the broadest terms a friendly populace; a unique cuisine; a surprising variety of wine and, eventually, more birds than I’d expected to see with no ‘serious’ birding on the agenda; 109 species in all. Yes, we’ll be back.