My Grand Tour to Sicily, Italy
Mine had been a different idea of Sicily. I had expected the land to be arid and dry, the people unsmiling and just as austere – after all, isn’t this the kind of Sicily we have grown accustomed to through the Hollywood productions, of course, and not Italian? Come to think of it, I still cannot fathom the reason why producers insist on highlighting this particular facet of this charming, lushly green island!
All I have to do is close my eyes to bring back three pictures: green valleys, dotted with orange groves and vineyards; then, baroque-style balconies, quite unique with their curvilinear, lavishly decorated in cast iron, with supports representing griffons, sirens, lions and whatever else a wildly fertile imagination may bear; and then, the rich Sicilian cuisine, using all those pure, tasty and uniquely flavored ingredients this land has to offer. Once at the table, one is in for an endless succession of dishes. I know it, I have experienced it and I have tried them all! You may have the same products in Rome, but they just do not taste the same. When asked to give their explanation of this difference, my Sicilian friends replied to me that here, the land is blessed by the sun.
This is the land that touched me. I spent a week wandering around Syracuse and the Noto valley, and I came under the spell of this place. How come? Well, maybe because here history fuses itself in art. Deep-rooted traditions have never failed in their adorable arrangement with all those cultures that have flourished on this island, and all this clad in the deepest silence.
This is not the absolute stillness of the early afternoon, a sacrosanct moment of the day in Sicily, when everyone and everything take a siesta, behind the closed blinds of homes and stores and with churches closed.Take the town of Noto, for instance, a UNESCO-proclaimed world cultural heritage site, a distinction deservedly earned because of its astonishingly rich baroque architecture: after lunch, I chose to go out on one of the Palazzo Villadorata balconies to contemplate the town’ s perspective over the roofs. The honey-colored shades that the stones used for the buildings bestow, make this town look like a stage set, from where the actors have suddenly vanished.
Incredible Noto, devastated to ruins in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake that shook the area in 1693, only to be rebuilt by architects that gave it its unique allure. The same goes for other towns: Ragusa, Modica, Scicli, Palazzolo, settlements amphitheatrically built in the slopes of the precipitous hills that come alive once the pitiless rays of the sun turn to the west. This is when town squares become inundated by children running about, the elderly idling at the cafés all around, brides and grooms posing for photographers at the churches’ steps against a background of jubilant guests, just as extravagantly dressed, Sicile oblige!
Still, once out of town and on to the valley roads leading deeper into the hinterland, and usually ending up at some fishing settlement, off the beaten track and with their eyes turned to the African coast across, one is bound to delve in this deep silence. Please, I insist: not the kind of silence one usually has in mind.
The silence I mean is the reflection of the unperturbed calm of Sicily. Strategically seated in the very center of the Mediterranean basin, this island was fated to fall under all kinds of rule. From the Phoenicians, founders of Palermo, to the Romans, who introduced latifundism; from the Byzantines and their mosaics to the Arabs with their exotic gardens; from the Normans and their churches down to the Aragonese and their fortresses; the Bourbons with their fleur-de-lys on the coats of arms of their palazzos and the Piemontese, whose kings first envisioned a unification with Italy… they all left their traces in Sicily, this land that has always known how to assimilate it all, patiently weaving its cultural tissue over time. Not a single conqueror came here without the promise of making the Sicilians a better people, dragging them forever out of their misery. A chimeric enterprise, since Sicilians, on their side, have always harboured the certainty of being flawless, self-standing, something like gods – hence no desire to improve! Quoting Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Saline in the film “Leopard” (Il Gattopardo) “Once the cannonade is over, nothing will be the same anymore… although everything will be the same…”
Here I am in Syracuse, the most beautiful of all towns in the Mediterranean, according to Cicero. A stroll in its historic center, on the island of Ortigia is certain to entice the visitor. The city’s central square is a of fireworks of Sicilian baroque – what many consider the most beautiful of Italy’s open-air sitting room. In the evening, our pleasant group indulged in refreshing water-ices under a starlit sky. A little further, alleys with curvilinear balconies leading to shady backstreets, remnants of the Arab medina… And then, once the sun is up again, a luxurious cruiser anchored in the still waters of some bay just off the city makes one believe that one is in Greece. Rocky and forbidding at first sight, the jagged coastline nevertheless gives way to the waters of the humble river of Ciano. Old time Britons on their Grand Tour made a point of a boating promenade, looking for a brief journey to dreamland. In the shade of perennial trees bestowing the water some lovely shades of green, papyrus plants have for centuries now peacefully grown on the river banks (nowhere else to be found in Europe).
In Syracuse, Greece is present and speaks straight to one’s heart. Is it the scenery? Is it the ancient theater? It is all this and something more. The deep connection of this city’s dwellers with the Greek civilization, with links remaining very much alive. Quoting Giulia, a dear Syracusian friend of mine, in the aftermath of one of Sophocles’ dramas we attended: “Every summer we are in jitters, waiting for the Ancient Drama Festival – everyone attends, from fishermen to dilettantes”.
I became touched by her words. I had always known that my coming to Sicily had nothing of a simple promenade about it. This was really a pilgrim’s visit to a version of Greece that remains very much alive beyond its national borders.