A Si­cil­ian sym­phony

The me­dieval vil­lages of the south­east could dou­ble as opera sets

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - HAR­RIET O’BRIEN IN­DE­PEN­DENT TRAV­ELLER

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

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