Sicily: Ragusa's majestic delights
Sun, sand, Baroque architecture, quietude (and the odd old man in Speedos) are all on the cards for Christopher Jackson in Sicily.
In the shadow of the ravine sits an old man with a hammer.
Behind him, on the ravine's craggy face, hang stained plastic drums and rust-covered wheels. At his feet lie punctured cans, twisted pipes and various contortions of lead, copper and plastic. He tips his hat to us, beckons us forward and pretends to mend a pipe with his hammer.
He straddles the line of eccentricity and insanity and none of us are sure of him, not even Sabine our guide who assures us he's not after money. Amidst the stained and rusted detritus is a large microwave sat atop a small barbecue. He may be an inventor, one with the requisite amount of eccentricity but not ingenuity, or he may be an artist, one who were he born in London in the 1970s would be a Turner Prize nominee for sure. A man born in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe he is just insane.
"Is it a 'microcue' or a barbewave", I say to fellow traveller Kevin.
It's not one of my better quips but Kevin laughs, only out of kindness I suspect. The man grins as he hammers away and a few of us take photos. Across the street, in the shadow of San Bartholomew's, two other old men beckon us to come to see them. There's an apt surrealism to the moment, a sort of soothing strangeness, for it's to experience the old and the unique that we came.
The day before several of us flew from Dublin over the great grey white spines of the Alps and the flat silver of the Mediterranean to Comiso in the southern Sicilian province of Ragusa. We arrived at night and a minibus took us to our hotel. After about 20 minutes we turned off the main road onto the dirt roads of the Antica Laconda del Golf hotel.
As we trundled down a dark and dusty road in a still and silent Sicilian night, I imagined a fallow field somewhere where men in leather jackets, their shapes silhouetted by the headlamps of a parked Mercedes, wait with sinister intent. Sabine tells me the Mafia are much more prominent in the north than the south, but then she would say that.
After a surprisingly restful night, we headed to Punta diSeca, a small seaside town. A breeze whips in from the sea, sweeping the dust off the wide empty streets and onto the low slung shuttered houses. It's so silent that it intimates something about to happen, like a town in a Spaghetti-Western minutes before high noon. It certainly looks like one. I half expect to see a young Clint Eastwood leaning on a corner, chewing tobacco.
It's sleepy, but the town does have a claim to fame, it's the home of Detective Montalbano of the eponymous television show; this is a boon not just to the town, but to the Ragusa region, one which the owner of Montalbano's house is keen to show me with her big book of clippings from various European newspapers. Sabine asks me if I've seen it. I say I have, but only an episode or two. I haven't, I've barely finished Love/Hate.
Lunch is by the promenade in the nearby town of Marina di Ragusa. A few feet away dozens of walnut-skinned Sicilians bake under the hot midday sun while others cool in the cool turquoise sea. Numerous old men, as you'd expect from old men in Italy, wear gold chains, even in the water, and, as is even more expected, wear the tightest black Speedos, the kind that would draw derision in Portmarnock but not here.
Still, turkey-necked 80-year-olds in Speedos is not enough to put me off the food at the Quatro Quarti, a maritime-themed restaurant, the highlight of which is the Cuttlefish risotto, although its thick black ink does fill some with trepidation, but I manage, much to my satisfaction.
In the afternoon, we go to the city of Scicli. It's one of three cities in the Ragusa region that make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1693 an earthquake killed half the local population and destroyed 95pc of the buildings. In seeming defiance of nature the survivors re-built their cities on the same sites in the majestic, often unusual and always ostentatious Sicilian Baroque style.
Scicli is set among three valleys. Cracked cobbled streets twist and turn like spaghetti up the steep craggy sides of the valleys where old houses perch in a sort of stoic defiance. In the town square old men dressed in short sleeves spend the day sitting on plastic chairs with fig trees for shade.
Sometimes a conversation breaks out but for the most part they seem content to contemplate in silence. Sabine tells me their wives stay at home, maintaining the household and waiting for their husbands to return. On an island with one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe, the old seemed to outnumber the young, and the old traditions still hold sway.
Scicli's Baroque palaces and churches are indeed majestic. The broad-chested, sand-coloured facades swell with columns, statues, arches, balconies, belfries and decorated stonework - evidence of the great wealth of Sicily's past. Inside the churches intricately detailed frescoes look down from domes on to altars with marble tops, gold candlesticks, silver goblets and velvet-lined golden thrones - evidence of the Church's waning but still considerable power and influence. Among the great examples of Baroque are the town hall and the churches of San Maria and San Bartholomew.
On our second day we go to the city of Modica. Like Scicli, it's built in a series of valleys which swell with tumble-down yellow and pink houses. The Cathedral of San Giorgio and the Church of San Pietro are as impressive as any church in Scicli, however by the seventh or eighth church I find the charm starting to wane. Majesty, if experienced too much too fast, can attain a degree of uniformity, for me at least.
As we twist down into the city Sabine points to a plaque. It's the birthplace of Salvatore Quasimodo, the Nobel-prize winning poet. Sicily, like much of Italy, suffers from graffiti, the banality of which belies Italy's proud artistic tradition. Such banality most often takes the form of a willy, one of which is drawn on Quasimodo's house. A universal sign of male frustration - to be expected in a place light on jobs and heavy on religion.
"First chance they get, they'll draw a willy on Mars" I say.
Before lunch we go to the hilltop Castello di Donnafugata. From its ramparts is a perfect panorama of the Ragusa countryside - pine and pea-coloured fields sloping down to the corrugated edges of the Mediterranean which stretches far into the horizon. A castle first stood on the site in the 15th Century, although the most recent one is less than 200 years old. It's an impressive mix of Gothic and Neoclassical styles; a Venetian castle in a Sicilian landscape.
For what was once home to one of Sicily's riches and most powerful families, the beds are surprisingly small. The only one that can sleep two is the one that was reserved for the local bishop. Patrick says what we're all thinking. Not even Sabine can keep a straight face.
Lunch is at the Hotel Eremo della Giubiliana, an old monastic-like house once home to the Knights of Malta. The meal is the best of the trip (and we ate at a Michelin star restaurant). The food and wine is all locally sourced, and was delicious in both a direct and a delayed sense, welcomely lingering on the pallet. The rabbit I particularly enjoyed. The hotel's chef is a 31-year-old named Giorgio, whose skill with and passion for food, but more so his good looks, causes a few in our group to fawn. He's certainly handsome but he's no Don Johnson.
Afterwards we go to Ragusa Ibla. Like Scicli and Modica, it's a Baroque city, another living museum - certainly worth seeing. However after two days of visiting Baroque churches, risk becoming impervious to architectural charm, no matter how majestic.
On the final day, we go to Comiso to see yet another church but a different kind thankfully. The Church of the Capuchins has the mummified corpses of Capuchin Friars and appeals to my macabre sensibilities.
Before we depart we spend a short time in Vittoria. It's Ragusa's youngest city and much of its buildings date from the late 19th Century. A travelling companion Patrick remarks that it looks like Havana, and it indeed has the feel of a great colonial city. Unfortunately our time in Vittoria is too short, and it along with much of Ragusa, leaves me with a desire to come back to see more (and eat more too, a lot more) although I feel I've had my fill of Baroque churches, for a while at least.
A touch of the macabre
For those who want to see something a bit more unusual then I recommend you go to the Church of the Capuchins in Comiso. The church dates back to the 17th century, but it's not the church that's so much worth seeing but its basement. It has the mummified remains of local monks and noblemen. It will either fascinate or frighten you but it's worth seeing whether you think you have the stomach for it or not.
How the other half lived
The hilltop Castello di Donnafugata was built in the early 19th Century and belonged to one of Sicily's most prominent familys. Its Gothic and Neoclassical design seems as if Venice has been transposed onto Sicily. Its rooms are intact and you get a great impression of what life must have been like in 19th Century Sicily. What's more, its manicured British and French gardens are a must for the green-fingered among you.
If you have a few bob to spare and want to treat yourself to a great meal then I recommend you go to the Hotel Eremo della Giubiliana. Set in an old monastic-style hillside house, there's a sanctuary-like feel to it. The very hospitable staff only add to this feeling. As for the food, it's locally sourced, as indeed is the wine. My lunch there was as delicious as anything I've had in quite some time and I highly recommend it.
Flights from Dublin to Comiso with Ryanair start from €56.99, inclusive of all taxes and charges. Ryanair operates two weekly flights from Dublin to Comiso as part of its summer schedule, on Thursdays and Sundays. For more details visit www.ryanair.com.
A double-room at the four-star Antica Locanda del Golf starts at €115 per night. Visit www.anticalocandadelgolf.it for more details. For details of accommodation and/or meals at the five-star Eremo Della Giubliani visit www.eremodellagiubiliana.it.
For more information on what to see and do in Ragusa visit www.italia.it/en/discover-italy/sicily
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