Our friends in Switzerland had invited us to join them on a tour of Sicily back in the winter. We hadn't anticipated that our son, Tommy, would get married a few days before our trip. As a result we bundled ourselves on the plane early on a Sunday morning with very little preparation but still managed to have an interesting and jolly time.
We had identified that we were heading for the 'Baroque Triangle' of Sicily although had little idea what that meant and soon discovered that the trip would cover over 2000 years of history, not just early 18thC. Neither of us had been to Sicily before although friends and family all raved about what an interesting place it was. Our knowledge was largely confined to Inspector Montalbano from Italian TV and Lampedusa's The Leopard.
Our taxi from Palermo airport drops us at the very convenient Queroni apartments on the Via Maqueda and we join the Sunday promenaders to find a jolly restaurant, Il Baco, in a nearby sidestreet (above left). After seafood salads and excellent white wine we do a bit of exploring. We have discovered that 'Baroque Sicily' is a result of the reconstruction of Sicily after the devestating earthquake of 1693. Sicilian Baroque is notable for convex and concave facades, pillars, carved faces, and elaborate balconies often with 'goose breast' ironwork. The 4 Canto crossroads just down from where we are staying is a rather vulgar early version but we see much better examples as we visit places like Scicli and Noto later in the week.
We had heard that Palermo is famous for its collapsing palaces - Norman Lewis's excellent book, In Sicily, describes this in the 1990s and things have not improved. Some palaces are being rescued and restored but others are just facades as the rooves and floors have fallen in. The old nobility lost much of their wealth in the 1800s when American grain flooded the European market and things got worse when many of the peasants emigrated leaving few people to work the estates.
The next day we pick up our van from the airport and head south across the island. The landscape is green and rocky with vines, olive groves and quite a few deserted farms. Wind turbines sit on the crests of the hills. The road is very good with some spectacular viaducts - lots of EU money here? Agrigento is our first introduction to the challenges of driving a van in streets that are more suited to a Fiat 500. We eventually find our B&B, Terrazo de Lampedusa, which looks dubious from outside but once owner Francesco sorts out our parking and takes us in we find stunning apartments that have been his family home for generations. Family paintings line the walls and several lovely terraces give us views over the town and sea.
At 5pm we head off to the valley of the temples by taxi - too scary to move the car! Agrigento is famous for these Greek temples from the 6thC BC. They have been sympathetically restored and you can walk along hilltop ridges from one to the next. Starting at the Temple of Hera you follow old walls and tombs to the Concordia Temple which is the most intact. Some pretty gardens lead to the Temple of Heracles, where a British archaeologist raised a few columns among a pile of rocks. Over a bridge you reach the site of the temple of Zeus. Although this is largely broken there are examples on the ground of the huge statues of Titans that held up the roof.
The Agrigento museum has a fabulous collection of finds from the temple sites. A huge number of pottery figurines and lamps and many big black and brown pots and jars. Some are copies from the British Museum. A collection of coins show the eagle, representing power, and a river crab, symbol of Agrigento. Also helpfully a model illustrates what the Temple of Zeus might have looked like and one of the titan statues shows just how massive it would have been.
From Agrigento we drive to Piazza Armenica on good roads. The landscape is empty with small towns and old sulphur mines. We are staying at Villa Triconi, the country house of one of the main local families. The staff are charming and serve a terrific four course dinner.
We are in Piazza Armenica to see the villa Romana del Casale, a 4thC AD Roman villa that has been cleverly restored to show an amazing collection of mosaics. From walkways above the villa's rooms you look down on vivid images of animals, gods, hunters and children. Big tourist groups slow the progress - probably a challenge in peak tourist season.
From Piazza Armenica we get into the 'Baroque triangle' driving through gorgeous rolling countryside to Caltagiromi, famous for its ceramics, and then on to Ragusa where we are staying in another countryside property, Cozzo de Papaleo. Ragusa is built around a gorge with Ragusa Ibla, the old town on one side and the newer Ragusa Superiore on the other. The old town has some fabulous churches and a duomo. The new town, built on a grid after the earthquake, is less stunning although the cathedral is worth a visit and we find a good restaurant for lunch in a sidestreet.
Next we visit Scicli, a smaller baroque town built in another gorge. This is very clean and pretty and one street, the Via Francesca Mormina Penna, has a very fine collection of baroque churches and palaces as well as the town hall which was used as inspector Montalbano's police station in the TV series that we love.
From Scicli we head to Modica, also in a gorge but with a large modern town surrounding the historic old town. We walk along the Corso Umberto, past the Church of St Peter with 12 life size statues of the apostles. Then we climb the hill along narrow lanes to see the Duomo of St George - also a fine spot to look down over the town. Modica is famous for chocolate but we are not so impressed by the samples we buy in a noted chocolate shop. Back down the narrow lanes we have a great lunch in Dabbanna, a small restaurant with a hostess with bright red lipstick.
We leave our hotel outside Ragusa and head towards our last stopping point, the pretty island of Ortigia attached by bridges to Syracuse on the East coast. On the way we visit Noto, a stunning example of Baroque churches and palaces built after the 1693 earthquake. Now a UNESCO world heritage site you can walk along the main street from the Porto Reale. The buildings are mostly constructed in a soft tufa stone, now mostly cleaned and restored. Every feature of Scicilian Baroque is on display here - concave and convex facades, 'goose breast' cast iron balconies, columns and carvings. We have not yet been inside a palace so visit the Villadorata palace - much of the furniture is still in place and we wander through the public and private rooms marvelling at the brightly decorated walls and ceilings and imagining the prince from 'The Leopard' and his family living here 150 years ago.
I am heading off for a walking trip in the Alps but the others stay on to explore Ortigia. After a week we have just had a taste of Sicily but enough to get a feel for the rich culture, heritage and friendly people - as well as some fine food. Next time perhaps we can come back and explore the east coast.