An earth­quake with Baroque benefits

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Britain & Europe - LARA PREN­DER­GAST

SYRA­CUSE is a hand­some place, steeped in a rich his­tor­i­cal broth. At the tip sits Or­ty­gia, an is­land off­shoot, which has been the back­drop to many Mediter­ranean sagas: Hel­lenic, Chris­tian, Me­dieval, Re­nais­sance, Baroque — take your pick.

By day, via de Bene­dic­tis is filled with lo­cal men sell­ing sea urchins, milky balls of ri­cotta and bunches of mint. At night, we went to the Pi­azza Duoma for aper­i­tifs. The cathe­dral’s bro­ken ped­i­ments and ex­u­ber­ant sculp­ture cast strange shad­ows on to the square and a ze­phyr blew. It was Novem­ber and the place was empty, aside from a small boy on roller­skates and a dog. In sum­mer it must swarm with peo­ple.

An earth­quake de­stroyed much of south­ern and eastern Si­cily in 1693, and many of the towns were re­built in a Baroque style. You can reach them all by car; good­ness knows how you’d see them with­out one. I’d al­ways thought driv­ing hol­i­days were deeply un­cool — at the same end of the spec­trum as cruises and ram­bling. But what a joy it turned out to be to whiz along a clear, Mafia-funded mo­tor­way.

I can see why peo­ple get into it. The south­ern towns of Noto, Ra­gusa and Mod­ica were all re­built with much vigour. They are packed full of 17th-cen­tury treats — golden-stone churches set among the palm trees, ex­trav­a­gant mar­ble con­coc­tions, paint­ings by Car­avag­gio. “Look at us, Rome,’’ they say. An­other seis­mic shock might smash it all again one day. Would to­day’s ar­chi­tects rebuild with such op­u­lence? I doubt it.

Mod­ica is fa­mous for its gran­u­lar choco­late. Tucked just off the town’s main road is An­tica Dol­ceria Bon­a­juto, which has been sell­ing bars of it since 1880. The wax pa­per pack­ag­ing hasn’t changed since that time and is de­light­ful, as is the town’s hot choco­late, which is so thick that a spoon can stand up in it. Nearby is Sampieri Beach — a great sweep of soft sand, with an aban­doned tile fac­tory perched at the far point. We had the whole place to our­selves, save for a fish­er­man in a dark blue smock netting a small catch where the wa­ter foamed. The wind was warm, the sea icy.

Our fi­nal drive took us in­land, to­wards Mount Etna and the nearby town of Pi­azza Arme­rina. The land­scape changes from the rugged and in­tri­cate to the broad, vast plains of arable soil, barely changed in mil­len­nia and dot­ted with won­der­ful Ro­man ru­ins, such as the Villa Ro­mana del Casale. A for­ti­fied 17th-cen­tury farm called Masse­ria Man­dras­cate, set up high amid the fer­tile soils, made an ex­cel­lent base from which to visit th­ese sites.

For break­fast, we had eggs, olive oil and prickly pears and imag­ined how life had changed over the cen­turies. Not much, we thought. Si­cily seemed empty — and our car some­thing of an aber­ra­tion in the an­cient land, where the or­ange har­vest had just be­gun.

THE SPEC­TA­TOR

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