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Ever thought of travelling to Sicily? It is a cornucopia of delights

As Goethe said: If you haven’t been to Sicily, you haven’t been to Italy at all

brunch Updated: Sep 29, 2018 23:58 IST
Pranay Baidya
Pranay Baidya
Hindustan Times
Sicily,Italy,hill-side village of Savoca
Cruise down the water in one of these quirky boats docked at Ponte Ubmertino in Syracuse, Ortygia(Pranay Baidya)

My earliest memory of Sicily is from when I was a boy: while swiping channels, I chanced upon The Godfather on HBO. Many years later, on an in-flight binge watching spree, I finally made sense of it all and was charmed by the pretty hill-side village of Savoca, home to the notorious Corleone family, a Sicilian mafia dynasty in its own right.

Welcome to the moon

Now la dolce far niente, or the sweetness of doing nothing, becomes my travel mantra, and it was with this thought that I booked a 12-day vacation in Sicily. I had been advised by a dear Sicilian friend, “If you want to understand the island of Sicily at all, you must climb the volcano to tread the hard rock yourself.” So it was from Mount Etna, the great heart of fire that beats within Sicily, that I began discovering this land.

The ‘grey city’ of Catania (it was rebuilt in Baroque style after a volcanic eruption and earthquake in 1669) was a good starting point and conveniently lies under the shadow of Mount Etna. The small, yet delightful old town is spread out across the Piazza Duomo, and lined by several family-run trattorias serving the signature dish ‘Pasta alla Norma’, named after its native opera composer Vincenzo Bellini and his famous heroine Norma.

Stop by the fountain of Diana and Arethusa’s metamorphosis, at Syracuse ( Pranay Baidya )

I started at the charming vintage style café Me Cumpari Turiddu, where I met my guide Francesco. We hopped on to our vehicle and set off to conquer Etna. Dark rocks began to appear and so did blossoms of eye-catching violets. Near the summit, eruptions have created an astonishing lunar landscape: deep craters, pinnacles and sculptures of rock. The mouth of the volcano was above us, a languishing threat. To this day, Etna roars with glorious eruptions.

Stones of the past

My next stop was historic Syracuse, a Greek colony founded 2,700 years ago. For a period of time, this commune was the most powerful city in the Mediterranean, commanding all of Sicily and much of the southern part of mainland Italy. I hopped onto to the Interbus from Piazza Borsellino for an hour-long bus journey to the historic island of Ortygia that ended when I was met by my airbnb host Daniela at the Fermata d’autobus. After a whirlwind drive through a jumble of narrow streets, we reached Casa Princy on Via Della Conciliazione, my home for the next three nights.

The ‘grey city’ of Catania (it was rebuilt in Baroque style after a volcanic eruption and earthquake in 1669) was a good starting point

I was charmed by this self-contained studio. The original 18th century stone walls, hand painted tile flooring, windows perched up high (so only fresh air would slide in and not harsh sunlight), and the indigenous terracotta pottery all added to the ethnic vibe of this typical Sicilian home.

A birds’ eye-view flying into Catania is a sight to remember ( Pranay Baidya )

Over the next couple of days, I enjoyed wandering through Ortygia, a fascinating juxtaposition of bygone riches mingling with everyday life. Stones that witnessed history now serve as the backdrop to bustling markets. Surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea, this small island (measuring only 1km long by 600m wide) is a wonderland for an archeology buff like me, brimming with Doric temples, Greek-Roman theatres, Christian catacombs, Baroque piazzas and medieval-Norman architecture. I walked through the narrow streets and found a surprise at every corner: a façade from the 17th century, a glimpse of the sea.

Present happiness

While researching my trip, I had stumbled upon Noto by chance. From the photographs, it seemed like a Baroque jewel box of a town. In the devastating earthquake of 1693, it was levelled to the ground, but relocated and entirely rebuilt nine miles south up on a hill, with streets aligning to catch the sunlight (an architectural marvel at the time), which bathes its limestone buildings in an apricot glow.

I arrived in Noto at noon on a cloudless summer day, entering through Porta Real: a commemorative arch with classical decorative flourishes. Corso Vittorio Emanuale, the main artery, is an elegant walkway flanked by thrilling Baroque palazzi and churches. You feel like you are walking through a living gallery, a vast piece of art, or a film set, the dashing buildings sun-soaked with a golden glow.

Chill at these cabanas at Mondello Beach, Palermo ( Pranay Baidya )

I am not a lover of ice-cream, but Caffè Costanzo came very highly recommended (locals argue it whips up the best gelato in all of Sicily).Tucking into their pistachio flavour, I walked the streets soaking in the beauty of these architectural masterpieces. Ravenous from my afternoon exploration, I settled into the charming trattoria Fontana d’Ercole, bustling with locals.

Surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea, the island of Ortygia is a wonderland for any archeology buff

I was promptly served a glass of chilled Catarrato Bianco (a subtle-flavoured coastal white wine with moderate alcohol levels, making it a perfect choice for the day!), the freshest of seafood, simple luxurious ingredients, and the pièce de résistance: fino fino al pistachio – a homemade pasta generously smothered in pesto made from coarsely grounded pistachio, tossed in local olive oil and freshly-caught clams, prawns and baby octopus. To work off my meal, I climbed the steep Bell Tower for a bird’s eye-view over the Duomo all the way to the countryside, especially hypnotic now in the early evening when the sand-gold palazzi seemed to glow with a radiating inner light.

Old pals in Palermo

Palermo truly is the Alta Moda of Sicily. A sizzling mix of cultures, this capital boasts Arabic markets with labyrinthine streets exuding a souk-like atmosphere; decadent Spanish streets lined with historic palazzi and vibrant street life on every rococo corner; churchly Norman towers encrusted with Romanesque architecture, Byzantine mosaics, Arabic domes and decades of Italian disrepair.

Youngsters gather around worshiping Sun & Sea at Mondello Beach Palermo ( Pranay Baidya )

The Italian tradition la passeggiata (a leisurely evening walk for the purpose of socialising) is still very much in practice here. As the day softens into dusk at Piazza Marina, something in the air seems to pluck the dandy Palermitani out of their homes and workplaces to participate in this enduring practice. The most important thing is seeing and being seen, and the sight offered me a snapshot of the town’s esoteric drama.

I had met Beppe at a dark, spirited, cosy bar in Le Marais a few summers ago in Paris. A Sicilian-American working for the United Nations, he has travelled to and lived in some of the most conflict-stricken parts of the world. We kept in touch and it was serendipitous that our times coincided in his native town.

Inside a sea cave, during a boat excursion around the island of Ortygia ( Pranay Baidya )

The old-school Osteria dei Vespri is believed by many to be a Palermo institution. Just a ‘Buona sera Pranay!’ later, Beppe and I picked up exactly where we’d left off. What followed was a beguiling evening tasting incredible wine, and sampling much of the antipasti menu, debating the local state of affairs, especially the recent success of Addiopizzo, an organisation fearlessly eradicating the protection money extorted from local business by the mafia.

The Italian tradition La Passeggiata (leisurely evening walk) for the purpose of socialising, is still a norm in Noto

Palermo’s past has been anything but stable. Due to its strategic position, the city has been a game of thrones, passing from one dominating power to another with remarkable frequency. And for much of the 20th century, it was a raging fury of organised crime by La Corsa Nostra, the notorious Sicilian mafia.

Worshippers of sun and sea

In the second weekend of July, this culture-capital transformed into an art heaven, playing host to Manifesta 12 Palermo – Europe’s most prestigious itinerant festival of nomadic contemporary art. Driving around in Beppe’s quirky Fiat 500, viewing exhibitions and installations in a war-damaged 17th century church, a disused theatre, and the glorious botanical gardens was a sensual experience I’ll remember for years to come.

On my last Sunday before flying out, we wandered toward Mondello, a once marshy, plague driven, abandoned stretch of land, resurrected in the early 20th century into a spectacular mile long stretch of fine sand, with shallow electric blue waters and candy-coloured Liberty Style villas adding to the vibrant “Tempo d’Estate” atmosphere.

For a panoramic view of the Castello Maniace sign up for a boat excursion in Ortygia

It was an education in Sicilian custom and adolescent bonding. The long curving beach sloping gently into the turquoise sea was choc-a-bloc with sun-oiled bodies. Floating amidst the shallow, placid, translucent waters, I admired the technicolour panorama painted out in front of me: Capo Gallo, a mountainous nature reserve on the far left, whose vertical cliffs plunge hastily into the sea; Stabilimento Balneare, a magnificent art nouveau bathing house built for summering aristocrats, accessed by a wooden pier-like bridge to my right; and Sicilian families, elderly ladies, teenage groups, young couples all uniting in worship of the sun and sea.

In the German writer and freethinker Goethe’s words, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all.”

(The author is a fashion designer, who originally comes from Kolkata, but loves travelling the world )

From HT Brunch, September 30, 2018

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First Published: Sep 29, 2018 21:45 IST