A Sicilian symphony
The medieval villages of the southeast could double as opera sets
AMID all the swirls of wrought-iron balconies and flamboyant stonework, I half expect a window to fling open and an impassioned soprano to lean out giving full voice to an aria.
Even though it is bustling with contemporary cafe life on a Saturday evening, Via Francesco Mormino Penna looks surreally like an opera stage set. Several small groups, for all the world like members of a crowd-scene chorus, are sitting out at a couple of restaurant terraces on the beautifully lit street, while up in the night sky two wonderfully illuminated facades of distant church buildings punctuate the darkness.
I have made my way to Scicli (pronounced ‘‘shickly’’), in the southeast corner of Sicily, straight from the airport, driving for a couple of hours on ever quieter roads that the blackness of the winter evening has imbued with a sense of lonely remoteness. I wound along the coast and then up into hills, before abruptly descending into this bright hub where it seems that suddenly all human life has gathered.
The party mood is all the more appealing for being entirely local: even though winter temperatures are generally a happy 15C or more by day, and at least 9C at night, there are unaccountably few visitors at this time of year.
I have come in quest of blue skies, bright sunshine and sublime architecture. Scicli lies in Sicily’s remarkable Val di Noto, which became a World Heritage Site in June 2002. It’s a strikingly rugged area containing a string of extraordinary towns, phoenix-like places of great glory. In 1693, an earthquake reduced much of the human habitation here to rubble. Yet out of disaster came exuberant re-creation: great swathes of eight ancient towns were rapidly rebuilt in the prevailing, fabulously opulent, late-baroque style.
Set at a natural crossroad of canyons, Scicli is enhanced by theatrical urban planning. The town looks sensational under a cobalt sky next morning, its pinky-cream stone glowing in near melodramatic light. It is Sunday and the air is infused with the sound of church bells. Straggles of people are chatting in the two main squares, big men with small dogs on leads, a few ladies in black.
A rapid ribbon of cyclists swoosh past the handsome town hall, trailed by a tiny old Fiat with spare bike wheels dwarfing its mini roof rack.
That town hall would look familiar to any viewers of the Montalbano television series (based on the novels by Andrea Camilleri), which has been helping to put Scicli and southeast Sicily firmly on the tourist map. On screen, the building is the bullish detective’s police station.
It is my first port of call on a tour around town. I am staying nearby at Hotel Novecento, an elegant 19thcentury palazzo, now refurbished as a nine-room boutique hotel complete with original painted ceilings. Its proprietor, Donatella Tognon, offers to show me around, accompanied by two other locals. After the screen-star town hall, we pause by the quirky, moustachioed faces decorating the exterior of 18th-century Palazzo Beneventano before heading to San Bartolomeo. It’s Scicli’s most fantastically showy church; its ornate interior is home to a large nativity scene so exquisite it remains on display all year.
Outside are other intriguing creations — we climb an adjacent hill for a view over former cave dwellings cut into the limestone rock; amazingly, they were in domestic use as recently as the 1950s.
Then we meander back through town dropping into several of Scicli’s numerous churches — San Ignazio the ‘‘mother’’ church; austerely spiritual Chiesa del Carmine; curving San Giovanni Evangelista; and majestic San Michele.
We finish our walk at the church turned museum of Santa Teresa where medieval frescos painstakingly brought down from the former Convent of the Rosary on a hill above town are displayed. The simplicity of the paintings makes a striking contrast to the riotous baroque interior of the building.
The mix of medieval and baroque
ALAMY worlds is beautifully evident again the next day at the town of Ragusa. I set off from Scicli in another great blast of morning sunshine, firmly advised by Tognon to follow roads to the lower town, known as Ibla, rather than the higher, more industrial sector.
The road leads along an escarpment and suddenly presents a terrific view. Draped over a hill is a jaw-dropping mass of terracotta roofs dotted with domes and spires. Ragusa is divided into distinct parts because of the 1693 earthquake. After this disaster the wealthier inhabitants created a new town on a ridge above their flattened old centre and this is now trimmed with further modern additions.
Many poorer residents, however, dug their heels in and during the early 18th century rebuilt their hill-town on the same spot, using pretty much the same street plans. So Ibla, or lower Ragusa, is in many ways still a medieval town, buildings set along curving lanes.
Shoehorned into the tiny streets are magnificent baroque churches and a sprinkling of snazzy palazzi. The dome of the cathedral of San Giorgio appears suddenly at the end of a narrow lane. A sweeping palm-lined square magically opens out in front.
I marvel at the splendid balconies of Palazzo Cosentini, supported by intricately carved corbels. I admire the wedding cake facade of the church of San Giuseppe and the lovely bell tower of Santa Maria dell’Idria, topped with a little blue dome. Perhaps best of all is Giardino Ibleo at the foot of town, a beautifully planted public space with an impressive avenue of palms and walkways offering staggering views over the craggy countryside.
Even in winter it would be an oversight to visit this part of Sicily without seeing something of the coast, so I head south, driving along empty roads fringed with cacti and great clusters of pampas grass, stopping at fishing villages such as Donnalucata, where the natural harbour has been in use since Moorish times, pretty Sampieri and, just beyond, the striking remains of the brick factory of Penna.
At the busy port of Pozzalo I take in a magnificent blood-red sunset over the beach and the 15th-century military tower built to defend the district against raids from Saracen pirates.
Just a few kilometres inland, another ancient military defence tower is now a haven of a hotel. I bump over a small level crossing and then plunge along the rough road of an organic farm to reach Relais Torre Marabino. With seven guestrooms, beautifully tended grounds and one of the best restaurants in the area (locals flock here), it exudes informal charm. The hotel’s parent company also owns an organic winery as well as the surrounding vegetable farmland. I enjoy a tour and tasting at the Marabino vineyards nearby, learning how many of its vines are grown Sicilian-style as bushes rather than trained along wires, and sampling the strong flavours of its nero d’Avola and moscato grapes.
I expected to be less enthralled by a tour of the organic farm around the hotel. But the zeal of manager Roberto Giadone is compelling; he says he has found the vegetables seem to grow better to the strains of a soothing symphony.
‘‘And opera?’’ I ask, thinking back to stage-set Scicli. ‘‘Only the most melodious of arias.’’ enit.it hote1900.it torremarabino.com
The town of Scicli is enhanced by theatrical urban planning