Our combined trip to Malta and Italy took us to Sicily – Zafferana Etnea. On Day 6 we checked out of the Valletta Malta apartment and took a taxi to the local airport for a 30 minute flight to Catania airport in Sicily. Neglectfully lost my black sun hat, only colour at the airport was sky blue for ten euros….it fell apart before I’d even boarded the plane and before I’d even had chance to work a new colour other than black in to my holiday wardrobe! Picked up the hire car at the airport on landing and Dave drove us to Zafferana Etnea where we checked in to the rather amazing Monaci Delle Terre Nere. It is a stunning Italian villa in the middle of rolling hillside orchards, vineyard and volcanic rock pathways bordered by lavender bushes full of bees and butterflies.
Apart from being beautiful and pretty lavish with its fancy restaurant, small swimming pool and gorgeous stand alone rooms dotted throughout the grounds, it’s also a working farm. We walked around the grounds admiring citrus groves and grape vines, persimmon trees and kiwi fruit, a large chicken coop and gnarled silver olive trees. They give you a map of the 16 hectare grounds clearly marked with the different areas of local home grown produce. The majority of the large trees are also labelled to give immediate identification. It’s impressive attention to detail. Our room was a suite joined on either side to two other rooms, set in the hillside surrounded by lavender, grass and flowering vines.
The walls of our room were made from lava rock, Mount Etna being the looming presence of this part of Sicily. A huge bedroom with a floating wall mounted bed, volcanic rock steps down in to a living room leading down a few more steps to a bathroom with the sink set up against a dark lava rock wall which when you held your hand close too you could feel the cool air coming up from the cave under the room. This cooling effect was welcomed as the temperature outside climbed to 34 degrees during the day…but the inside of the room naturally cooled by the rock. A Siamese kitten with startlingly blue eyes was a popular visitor. We changed and treated ourselves to dinner in the onsite restaurant; expensive and it’s a very captive audience, but standards were high, the Chef impressive and the location, sitting outside around the balconies of the villa, definitely magical. For a special treat it definitely ticks all the boxes. A sound nights sleep in our naturally cooled room was a welcome relief after the cloying heat of Valletta.
Day 7: Zafferana Etnea. Breakfast at tables set in a raised outdoor area near to the villa under trees and looking out across the landscape. Served buffet style with local cheeses, homemade bread, on site produced eggs and homegrown fruit. This place really is very special. Cats wound their way between the table legs but were gentle and live at the villa. A Siamese kitten with startlingly blue eyes was the obvious guest favourite.
We headed out in the car to drive a circuit of the local towns surrounding Mount Etna, labelled in our guide book as a driving tour of Etna’s Western Flank. A wrong turn early on with no obvious way to double back led us along an ugly stretch of motorway for about an hour; driving past industrial landscapes and litter strewn highways it was a surprise so close to the villa and surrounding countryside. We stopped in Adrano but it was so hot that we didn’t want to explore the Norman Castello and the town had little else too offer; small and looking rather scruffy and neglected we moved on to find local towns Bronte (famous for pistachios and we found one place open at 1pm where we did eat a great pistachio ice cream) and Randazzo similarly unattractive. Sadly the Italian economy is suffering and this area was also badly bombed in the war. Apartment blocks butt up to the narrow roads, many un-rendered presenting badly cement pointed breeze block walls, unfinished upper levels where building must have been abandoned due to lack of funds. It’s a sad reflection of a system that has obviously failed the local people. Tourism may bring much needed income but I imagine also some resentment, though everyone we met was friendly and helpful. The heat was so stifling as we drove around in our air-conditioned car that you couldn’t appreciate the strength of will it must take to persevere in such economically depressed areas. We drove on to Castiglione di Sicilia, a small hilltop village of winding narrow streets clinging to a hillside. The satnav is wonderful at directions on main roads but great at causing arguments when you find yourself stuck in streets only an inch wider either side than the car you’re driving. We abandoned the drive to the top as it got more precarious, leaving Dave the unenviable task of trying to turn a car around in a tiny space with crumbling overhead balconies jutting out from buildings immediately above the roof of the car. After many many manoeuvres (and a heated stress related argument!) we managed to extricate ourselves just in time to prevent the tourists in a car behind us from making the same mistake.
Driving all the way back down we picked up the main road and headed to the tiny hilltop village of Savoca. Slightly easier to navigate with a wider road winding up to the local tourist draw Bar Vitelli.Savoca was used by Francis Ford Coppola as a location for some of the filming of The Godfather; standing in for Corleone where the real life mafia demanded fees for filming there. The bar was renamed for the movie and pulls the tourist crowd who can visit on the oxymoronically named ‘Hop on Hop off’ little red ‘Godfather Tour’ buses. Never was mafia and murder so amicably presented.
Talking to some English people next to us at Bar Vitelli, we learned of the fascinating Crypta del Convento dei Frati Cappuccini, a small catacomb located underneath Savoca’s 17th century Capuchin monastery. The 17th and 18th century fully clothed mummified corpses of local dignitaries enshrined in glass sided wooden caskets and display cases is in many ways quite a shocking sight but eerily fascinating. Some corpses, unsurprisingly all male, are clothed in rather dandyish styled colourful silks which although obviously in states of decay still remarkably hold a lot of colour. It’s a very small crypt but unmissable and thought to be one of the most significant in Sicily.
An hours drive back to the villa from Savoca along the main motorway toll roads, we stocked up on some cheese, salami and a bottle of rose from a lovely local shop in Santa Venerina and lounged away the evening in our lava rock room.
Day 8: We decided to have a chill out day Zafferana Etnea. Lounged by the pool, wandered the grounds and later on ate out at a small local trattoria. Another very hot day, climbing to 35 degrees.
Day 9: We packed up and left Monaci Della Terre Nere. Gorgeous place, but we are leaving the countryside and heading back to a town. We are heading to Modica via Noto. Temperatures climbed to 38/39 degrees, the aircon in the car helped but only took the edge off. A really attractive old town, described by Lonely Planet Sicily (credit Gregor Clark and Cristian Bonetto). as “…an architectural supermodel, a baroque belle so gorgeous you might mistake it for a film set.” And they’re not wrong. Like Valletta in Malta, Noto features a lot of beautiful stone buildings that look washed with gold in the sunset against a stunning azure sky. It’s an easy town to visit and even three hours spent here will afford you a lot of jaw dropping splendour; as long as you make sure to time your visits around their afternoon closing. Turn up after 1pm and everything apart from the odd cafe or tourist shop will be shuttered up until 4pm.
Aware of the clock ticking we arrived in town at 12.30pm and headed straight for the Cattedrale di San Nicolo (below – closes at 1pm, reopens 4-8pm)…situated like most of Noto’s main buildings off the Piazza Municipo, about half way along the main street of Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
The dome had to be fully rebuilt after it collapsed in a 1996 storm and restoration work also took in the rest of the building. Today it stands noble; the exterior in my opinion more impressive than the interior. We much preferred the smaller church just a few minutes walk away called Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore. (Shown below – closes at 2pm, reopens 3-7pm). It’s apparently the most impressive in Noto; elaborately decorated with wonderfully ornate plaster work, marble, stone and carvings. A calming peaceful place.
From there we headed to Chiesa di San Domenico which was closed and didn’t open again until 5pm so we ducked inside the Chiesa di San Carlo al Corso instead for a few minutes but turned down climbing to the top of the bell tower as temperatures climbed towards 40 degrees. We wandered in to the local art gallery in a beautiful old building; http://citymapsicilia.it/en/event/marc-chagall-ottavio-missoni-noto/ the exhibition was Marc Chagall and knitwear designer Missoni; it was quite engaging but I couldn’t really appreciate a correlation between the two…but the old photos were great.
More interesting to me was the work of current artist Pietro Ruffo and his wonderful series of detailed blue and white artworks featuring finely detailed drawing and three dimensional construction based on the theme of migration.
After gorging on the most amazing ice cream at Corrado Constanzo which was still open at 2.45pm..(stand out flavour being an orange chocolate that was so dark it was almost black)…we limped back to the car which was so hot we could barely operate the door handles!
We blasted out the aircon and headed for Modica….booked for 4 nights at the beautiful Casa Talia; a series of rooms in stone cottages tumbling down the narrow streets and steps at the upper reaches of the old Jewish quarter in Modica. The approach to Modica led us higher and higher towards the top of the city and parking the car we were mesmerised by the glorious views down in to this wonderful city. In the sun light the pale stone buildings looked painted on to a backdrop of blue. A stunning visual introduction to this fantastic city.The view from our bedroom window at Casa Talia was jaw-dropping; we would have no issues figuring out when the cathedral and church was open as we could look out and see their doors from our window. The room was split level with a huge bed and lovely bathroom on the lower level with stairs leading up to a lounge area above which could double as extra beds for those travelling with children. Access to the room is down paved slope and some stone steps; wonderful rusting containers filled with plants and bougainvillea cascading down the walls. Casa Talia became a favourite place very quickly; the staff are lovely and the gardens, which could be accessed from our room were beautiful with sweeping views across the city.
We thought we’d just crash out after a long day but headed in to town, winding down and down more marble and stone steps until we popped out on to the Main Street Corso Umberto I. Carlo back at Casa Thalia told us it was St Peter’s Day and there would be processions in the streets and fireworks. We ate huge pizzas just off the Main Street but the sound of a marching brass band lured me from our table (I had already scoffed a pizza as big as my head) and out on to the street to see a local band leading a group of priests and a large wooden dais supporting a statue of St Pietro being trundled through the streets by several local men.
We climbed the steps of the beautiful Cattedrale di San Pietro and joined throngs of local people at dusk as another priest exited the church to walk down the steps followed by about 40 local men grunting and shouting instructions as they buckled under the weight of another large carved statue being carried down to join the other one on the street. ..it was amazing watching them struggle to coordinate the weight of it whilst negotiating the steps without dropping it.
The crowds got bigger, loads of fireworks went off as the statues were reunited and everything proceeded up the street in a circular loop; led by local police on foot, a police car, the priests, the statues being trundled along, followed by the brass band and an amassing crowd of local worshippers and excitable tourists (me included) caught up in the spectacle. Back in our room later that night, a bigger firework display went off; the sound ricocheting around the steeply stacked streets of sounding like canon fire and gunshot. Bells rang wildly…and the band played on.
Day 10: A chill out day. Modica is really beautiful…and a bit mad! It’s all going a bit Monty Python. There’s a lot of bell ringing here…a LOT of churches. It seems to happen randomly, like this morning at 8.11am. There is one bell ringer who is either pharmaceutically challenged or really pissed off with the other bell ringers; no tune, he just bashes the hell out of it as loud as possible to drown out the others. I’m really surprised that no-one has punched him in the belfry. We decided on a down day with little sightseeing, to recharge, rad, kick back and relax in the gardens of the hotel. The temperature reached 39 degrees. They are getting their August weather two months early here. We ventured down all the steps around 5.30pm to then walk up another 250 steps to visit the main attraction; the Chiesa di San Giorgio. Based in Modica Alta The church of St George is in the baroque style designed by Rosario Gagliardi and described as his masterpiece. It’s certainly lofty as evidenced by the green netting put up inside to prevent pigeons flying up to roost in the dome…something I’ve not seen put into place in any other buildings like this. It is a dramatically placed building of great beauty and accomplishment; but for atmosphere even when empty of religious celebration I far preferred St Peter’s Cathedral. St George’s feels very aloof and vain in its splendour, even the statue of St George is kept closed behind huge iron grilles an unlit, probably reserved for the worshippers benefit only.
Still hovering around 38 degrees…and humid. So bloody hot…yet an ever fashionable Italian lady was walking in front of us wearing a sleeveless quilted BODY WARMER! And what’s with Sicilians (apologies to my Italian friends!) and parking cars? …haphazardly aim for the kerb, think sod it, close enough, doesn’t matter if the whole back end is sticking out in to the (very narrow) street. Then trip off and when the policeman blows his whistle at you to come back and sort your car out…tell him to WAIT whilst you’re looking at shoes and then wander nonchalantly back to your car in 4 inch high wedges and have a massive row with said policeman in the middle of the road. You’ve got to love it. A wander back in to the beautiful St Peter’s Church at dusk. Stone statues looking out over their city; flanking the steps from street level to the main entrance.A service was being held inside so I waited for it to end before venturing back in to take some photographs of the beautiful interior. You would think by now that we had seen enough of thee magnificent buildings but the structure and design of the buildings never fails to inspire wonder at the sheer scale and talent of its architects.
And steps…I’ve never seen so many steps, but it’s wonderful. Staying as we were at Casa Talia looking from the high part of the town down all the alleyways to the main street, we walked hundreds of steps up and down from the hotel to the restaurants. Admiring the houses during the day on our walks down and playing in shadows as we walked back up in the dark. It’s well lit and safe to walk around. Incredibly atmospheric climbing the steps up and down and twisting around in between the houses, potted plants, women chatting across to each other from overhead balconies; alleys with paved worn stones underfoot and small crumbling buildings waiting to be done up. Dave sometimes checking ahead that we were in fact leading down towards an exit to the main street!
A walk along Umberto to the less touristy end led us to a small independent music store where we got talking with the owner; us enthusing about music travel and books, him about shamanism, his postcard collection and his description of me as an ‘alien’…in context it was meant as a compliment but certainly made Dave’s night. We left promising to fulfill his request to send him a postcard from London….and from anywhere else we go to, which I have since honoured not only by sending my own cards but asking friends from all over the world to mail postcards to him.
From that slightly surreal encounter we headed in to another one. We ate at a fish restaurant; I ordered the plate of small mixed fish….and was served with a GIANT portion; upon seeing my face, Joseph, the Italian waiter laughed and announced “the Armageddon of fish!” After eating and leaving a plate resembling a Piscean graveyard; we ate ice cream, then walked up 20,000 more steps where I stopped for a breather to entertain some local kids. Their mum pointed at my stomach and said “bambino?”. (No love…just an Armageddon of fish…but thank you for pointing that out). Dave softening the blow “well at least she thought you looked young enough to be pregnant.” My husband has always been a wit.
Day 11: A drive to Scicli and Ragusa. Roused ourselves to head out for a day trip. First to Scicli (above – pronounced chick-lee) a small town 20 minutes drive from Modica recently famed for being the location for popular crime television series The Young Montalbano and Montalbano. Dave and I have never watched it but his mum has so we headed to the town hall and were given entry to a locked room which must be the local Mayor’s office in its everyday life but doubles as a beautiful room used as location for Montalbano’s office in the TV show. We also visited a chemist; Antica Farmacia Cartia preserved in time from 1902 but later discovering not originally on the site where it’s now based…still fascinating to see all the old cabinets and apothecary bottles.
Even more churches, two more in fact; St Michael’s and Chiesa Sant’Ignazio…the latter the more interesting and featuring quite a bizarre papier-mâché statue of the Madonna riding a horse, the horse’s belly apparently made from an old wine barrel; Madonna holding a sword and trampling a Norman and an Arab underfoot, after allegedly chasing them all from the city.
I’m not religious, definitely haven’t heard this story before and was more amused by the 1 euro fee to receive “Ascension”…half the price to rise to heaven and sit near God than 1 stop on the central line to Oxford Street. Dave made a 5 euro donation as he only had notes, just so we could take a 1 euro coin back out of the donation pot so I could see a bunch of light bulbs come on. I love random events like these.
We left the tiny but perfectly formed streets of Scicli; golden lit and gorgeous and went back to the car and a 45 minute drive up beyond Modica to Ragusa…a town I’d heard so many great things about and seen so many photos of, but one which is much more impressive looking across the gorge to, rather than climbing hundreds of steps whilst in it at 3pm when everything is closed. We had unfortunately mistimed our visit.
The approach to Ragusa is stunning; and the panoramas of the gorge and trees with the ancient buildings clinging atop is wonderful and worth seeing. The outside view of it and the outlying countryside of steep terraced fields, small mountains and layers of dry stone walls are quite breathtaking. Wandering the empty streets in the mid afternoon we couldn’t help but compare with Modica or Scicli and so for us Ragusa didn’t quite measure up to its prolific inclusion in so many photographic books of this region of Sicily where Modica and Scicli were often overlooked. We definitely appreciated its charm but Modica had most certainly won our hearts.
Back to Modica where Dave bravely ventured in to the cloying heat down hundreds of steps to find the small local supermarket at the other end of town to buy local food from the deli; to then climb all the steps back to me. My hero. I sat in the garden and selfishly enjoyed the view.
Day 12: another chill out day in Modica. An idle lovely long breakfast chatting to other guests, especially a German couple who are great fun. Eating yogurt and freshly baked pastries in the breakfast garden, listening to the bells of Modica whilst watching the strange apparition of a large palm apparently ‘wandering’ the pathway on the other side of the wall…standing up we saw two gardeners carrying various plants to a neighbouring garden. As other guests left we stayed on to read and enjoy the shade before crossing the paved alley to our room to spend the day sitting in wooden chairs under the tree in the other garden outside our room.
We have NO plans for the day apart from an hour sunbathing slot for Dave. We feel no need to go to another church or a steeply stepped town, or even to eat gelato. Sat in the private garden we ate local bread, cheese and bresaola…a glass of wine. I caught up on sorting photos and we started packing for the following day and flight home. Modica we love you. What a vibrant beautiful city.
Day 13: Our final day but time for one more stop en route to the airport. After breakfast we drove to Syracuse, once the largest ancient city in the world, bigger than Athens and Corinth. Separated in to two parts, Ortygia sits across the water from the mainland but immediately accessible connected by a small bridge in town. We circled a few times in the car getting a little lost in the winding bustling streets before finding a car park and making our way from there on foot through the honey coloured alleyways, boutique shops and colourful cafes. The first main site The Parco Archeologico della Neapolis; the 734BC ruins of the original city founded by the Corinthian colonists.
We loved Syracuse, it had a very distinct flavour to it…a city edginess, just a little seedy and well worn and precocious. A city of grafters, posers, the wealthy and the nefarious. We loved wandering the alleyways, blistering plasterwork in pale pinks and blue, crumbling iron balconies often supported by decaying stone supports threatening to break away and fall crashing to the pavement. People were occupied and brasher. The ancient streets lead down to the sea; a vivid marine blue crashing on to rocks with the commerce of the city just metres away…men sitting on upturned buckets outside restaurants sorting sea urchins from large trays on to plastic tables ready to sell. The atmosphere lively and challenging. And juxtaposed to the gloriously shabby alleyways is the Baroque showstopping main square Piazzo del Duomo, where we marvelled at the pristine restored buildings, their pale stone glowing in the sun.
Walking in to the shops, I bought a flamboyant ceramic owl vessel with removable head and everywhere we saw the large ceramic heads for sale that we had seen all around this region of Sicily; finally learning the macabre love story which inspired their design.
We would have happily spent more time in Syracuse but had to get back to Catania airport to return the hire car and fly home…but it was a fantastic way to leave this Italian island and as a parting shot we flew by Mount Etna in the lowering sun.