MAY IN SICILY

Pleasant town, Modica; less touristy than the provincial capital, Ragusa, while still containing an adequate quota of fashionable Baroque churches. Once the capital of a corn-rich province that stretched as far as Palermo, it was the Modican corn merchants that fingered the corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres, causing Cicero to sharpen his stylus and begin one of the most famous cases in legal history. The town, mostly built in the early 18th century following an earthquake in 1693, spreads up the steep sides of a valley. Our apartment, near the floor of the valley, is in one of the narrow alleys, surrounded by balconies, roof-tops and washing drying in the sun. Pigeons coo and homeless cats roam the passageways and stone staircases.

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Modica and Franca’s shoes by night

The town comes alive at 9 am, traffic humming, bells ringing, roller shutters rattling up to reveal butchers and bakers and pasta makers. One o’clock and the town is silent as everyone except us disappears indoors for lunch and siesta. Life returns in the late afternoon when the shops reopen. Later, at dusk, the cafes and gelaterias become busy while swallows dart about reducing the mosquito population.

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We are sitting having the traditional summer Sicilian breakfast of granita di mandorle and brioche. An illegally parked car attracts the attention of a smartly dressed policewoman who gives three sharp blasts on her whistle to warn the driver, who is having a hurried cappuccino and cornetto con crema before work, that he has ten minutes to move his car or be fined. I believe this civilized attitude contributes much to the calm and laissez faire attitude of the Modicani drivers, for here you may close your eyes and cross the road anywhere in the middle of rush hour without injury and without causing anyone the slightest irritation.

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The Police keep a low profile

 

Outside the town they are harvesting hay in fields surrounded by olive and citrus. Sirocco gusts disturb the tops of bulrushes clogging the ditches; bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus hang over dry-stone walls. The walls are everywhere, criss-crossing the hillsides, delineating property and propping up ancient terraces, some perfect, some crumbling and neglected.  Wall building in this region began in the 15th century when the land-rich Cabrera family allotted plots of land to local farmers in exchange for a portion of their produce. The stones, dug from the fields to improve cultivation, were used as property boundaries and to separate animals from fruit and cereals. Ragusan dry-stone walls are particular in as much as the top of the two parallel walls are crowned with a row of semi-circular stones.

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On the road to Scicli

 

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On the road to Ragusa

At Al Molo, a five-star fish restaurant in the coastal town of Donnalucata, I look up from my plate of grilled red mullet to see a poem inscribed on the wall by Claudio, the restaurant’s genial proprietor. It’s called ‘U Muru a-siccu’ and it’s in Sicilian dialect and I can’t understand a word. Honeybee tells me it’s a dialogue between the poet and the walls, as if they are possessed of souls. Well of course they are; each stone is chosen, placed and shaped by an artisan; they are individual, beautiful and, yes, soulful. By contrast, your i.phone, your microwave oven and your black SUV with its darkened windows and six airbags have no soul. Nor does the internet. I’m not sure whether Henry Ford and Tim Berners-Lee  have really done planet Earth any favours. Am I a Luddite? Well I’m not going to smash my i.phone, I need it to call up an Uber.

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At the Castello di Donnafugata

Incidentally, those prickly pear cactus that seem so Sicilian, were actually imported from Mexico by the Spanish in the 16th century, presumably as pot-plants and decoration as the peeled fruit is only mildly interesting in a melonish sort of way.

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The beauty of the prickly pear

 

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Impossible to imagine the landscape without the prickly pear

TANTI SANTI

Sunday morning and I’m awoken by a salvo of cannon fire and a peal of bells. Is it Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture? No, it’s the festival of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the nearest of Modica’s hundred or so churches to our apartment. We hurry to the church to find the priest beginning the first of a day-long series of al fresco masses in the piazza.

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Al fresco Mass

 

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In the evening the Madonna is shown to the people

 

 

The Catholic religion is never far away in Sicily; there are shrines everywhere and rare is the home, shop or office that does not display a crucifix, a picture of a past or present Pope, a local Saint and the odd plaster statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary.

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Holy section of local supermarket

There’s bound to be a few Saintly ceremonies when you consider that, over time, the Catholic Church has made Saints of approximately 10,000 of its followers. 2013 was an exceptional year for recruitment with Pope Francis canonizing no less than 813 former citizens of the Southern Italian town of Otranto, beheaded by Ottoman invaders in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam. No surprises then, when, a week later in the town of Adrano , we witness the single celebration of three Saints.

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A trifecta of Saints – Filadelfo, Alfio & Firino

I do love all this ceremony but I can’t help thinking that the world would have had a more peaceful history if Constantine had persevered with the Roman Gods and not made Christianity the state religion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Greeks or Romans went to war to force foreigners to worship Apollo or Mars or Athena, but for purely political, defensive or territorial reasons. Anyway, I’m not sure the Romans took their religion all that seriously; how could you when you learn that your chief deity, Zeus, had seduced Leda, wife of the king of Sparta, in the guise of a swan? On the other hand look at the wonderful art and architecture this so-called pagan religion has inspired. Having a series of specialist Gods who are experienced in the area in which you are seeking help seems very logical and in keeping with modern consulting practice and I really like the idea of having a God of Wine.

MAFIUSU

‘The expression mafia and derivatives such as mafiusu, mafiuseddu denoted outstanding beauty, grace and excellence. A beautiful woman, a fine fruit were mafiuse.’
Francis Guercio, ‘Sicily, the Garden of the Mediterranean’ Faber & Faber, 1938

It is well over a century and half ago that the mafia took root in the Borgo suburb of Palermo with the admirable objective of providing redress for the oppressed in exchange for money or favours. As we all know, it quickly developed into a uniquely criminal organization dealing in illegal drugs and extortion. And yet Francis Guercio concludes that, as a result of a campaign by the Mussolini government in the mid 1930s, the mafia ‘had ceased to be anything but a terrible anachronism.’ This is not so. You cannot come to Sicily today and ignore the mafia, even if, as is likely, you will never have any direct dealings with its members. While Toto Riina remains incarcerated for the murders of those heroic Magistrates, Falcone and Borsellino, one cannot help being reminded that the piovra still winds its tentacles around Southern Italy and in particular Sicily, both the best and the worst of Italy.

  • In the Nebrodi National Park in Catania province the Mafia set fire to petrol-soaked rags they have tied to the tails of cats. The cats, fleeing in terror into forest, set fire to the undergrowth. The objective? To replace the burned trees through a Mafia controlled re-forestation company. An attempt is made to assassinate Signor Antoci, the Park’s director, when he tries to stop the Mafia renting grazing land in the Park, a long-standing practice used to skim off millions in EU farming subsidies.
  • During a religious procession in the Calabrian town of Oppido Mamertina the statue of the Virgin is diverted and taken in front of the house belonging to the local mob boss, where the statue is made to bow as a mark of respect to the resident ‘man of honour’.
  • In Palermo, police trap four criminals following a robbery and car chase but are prevented from arresting the culprits by local residents and onlookers.
  • Public and official outrage follows the televised interview between journalist Bruno Vespa and Salvo Riina, son of the assassin of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino and author of a book extolling the paternal qualities of his father, where the interviewer is accused of providing a marketing coup for the mafia. Many independent bookstores refuse to sell the book.

 AL MARE

Here, on the coast of Ragusa province, we are at the most Southerly point of Europe, where the Ionian Sea meets the Mediterranean. The nicest beaches are between Pozzallo and Santa Croce. At Donnalucata in May we have the beach to ourselves. We arrive early when the fishermen display last night’s catch

Although over 5,000 refugees have arrived in the nearby port of Pozzallo since the new year began, I hear and see only signs of welcome among the Sicilians. Scores of the North African fishing boats that succeed in making the dangerous crossing are piled on the beaches awaiting incineration.

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Refugee boats dumped on the beach near Pozzallo

L’AMORE

In spite of the chaotic politics, the graft and the refugees, what graffiti there is tends to be uniquely concerned with l’amore: 

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‘I want to hold you in my arms, protect you from everything and everybody and never let you go!’

 

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‘Let my white soul become inky black to give to you.’          Quite dark, that one.

 

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‘Love is….’ a whimsical question on a wall near my mother-in-law’s apartment. I’m pretty sure it’s not her handwriting.

 

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‘Either I love you or I kill you’!!! Andrea. Hmmm…

 

UNDER THE VOLCANO

We are staying in an agritourism hotel in Schettino, a small town on the slopes of Etna. Our dinner order, chosen from a menu dominated by frozen products, is taken by the sour-faced proprietor and served by a waiter from the cast of The Munsters. The pillows in the bedroom are fashioned from railway sleepers and a gurgling water system keeps us awake all night. But all this is forgotten in the morning when we open the blinds, look up and see Etna, cloud-free in a brilliant blue sky.

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Cloud-free Etna

We drive clockwise around the volcano, through Adrano, Bronte and the medieval town of Randazzo. Broom and wild flowers blossom among the lava deposits and small vineyards border the road, separated by dry-stone lava walls.

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Broom grows where the lava deposits are more recent. Those are minor extinct volcanos in the distance

Until recently the wine produced here was for local consumption only; now it is to be found in the best restaurants from California to Tokyo. Near the little village of Passopisciaro, Franco and Gianni show us around their immaculate vineyard and let us taste their wines made from 90 year old Nerello Mascalese vines. Their red Calcagno wines are so good that I have to exercise all of my feeble willpower to spit out rather than swallow these splendid wines, but we do have a long road back to Modica.

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Calcagno vineyard at Passopisciaro

We are on the sea-front in Giardini Naxos, the sun is sparkling on the Ionian Sea and it is time for lunch. Honeybee inquires after a good fish restaurant from the proprietor of a sports goods shop who is watching the passing traffic from his doorway.

Shopowner : Buon giorno, Signora! You have come to the right person for I can direct you to a trattoria where you will eat well and pay little.

Honeybee : We are looking to enjoy some seafood.

Shopowner : Beppe has the freshest seafood in all Naxos and his Spaghetti ai Ricci (pasta with sea-urchin) is a culinary miracolo.

Voice from within : There will be no ricci today because your cousin was playing cards all night and failed to take his boat out.

Shopowner : Don’t listen; Beppe always has ricci. He mixes the urchin-meat with a little cream and parsley, adds a whiff of peperoncino and a pinch of salt and ecco, un piatto da morire!!

The speaker joins the tips of his forefinger and thumb, purses his lips and rolls his eyes to heaven in an expression of ecstasy before giving directions to the Trattoria del Marinaio

Honeybee : Are there any vegetarian dishes, my sister is a vegan?

Shopowner : (Glumly) Ah, I have heard about such people; Beppe receives guests to his table from many different countries.

Honeybee : I expect there will be an insalata of some kind…

Shopowner : (shrugging unhopefully) Perhaps, Signora. Now don’t forget to ask for Beppe and tell him Carlo sends you.

Voice from within : Beppe will not be there; his mother finally got a bed in the hospital in Messina and is having her legs treated this very afternoon by Professore Bontempo. Beppe will be taking her the flowers he bought yesterday from that ladro’s stall in front of the Comune.

Shopowner: In that case Carmina will be doing the cooking!

Voice from within : Carmina cannot boil water; in any case I saw la troia disappearing on the back of Franco’s Vespa the moment Beppe was out of sight.

Shopowner: Ahhh.. so.. perhaps the restaurant will be closed….. mi dispiace, Signora. Buon pranzo e buon proseguimento. 

Overlooking Giardini Naxos is the once charming town of Taormina, already, in early May, awash with souvenir shops and crowds of tourists. The best time to visit Taormina would have been in 100 BC, although I remember it being still relatively unspoilt in 1972. It certainly made an impression on a neighbour of mine because he named his daughter Taormina after she was conceived there sometime in the early ‘60s. Fortunately the honeymoon wasn’t in Broadstairs or Tossa.

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Giardini-Naxos from Taormina

We are in the delightful hill-town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, which went to sleep in the 17th century and has never woken up. At least not until tonight, because in huge letters in the main Piazza we see AVE MARIA’ in neon lights announcing some religious festivities in the Duomo. It is also guest chef night at ‘Da Maiore’, a restaurant with a menu designed entirely around the insides and outsides of the Nero dei Nebrodi, a breed of Sicilian pig noted for its sausage-filling qualities.

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Gianni choosing a sausage necklace

Glasses of Frappato and Grillo and sumptuous antipasti of arancini, gelatina (pig), coppa (pig), salami (pig) and proscuito (pig) are served in the well-stocked wine cellar before we sit down to dine. The guest chef is Emanuele Fanitza of the Ristorante Letizia in Nuxis (Southern Sardinia), and he demonstrates how he makes tonight’s primo of fregola con ragu di salsiccia (pig), finocchietto selvatico, basilico e zafferano and secondo of maialino al forno (pig) while Honeybee takes notes. Enthusiastic wine growers get up to tell us about the wines we are drinking (Cerasuolo and Nero D’Avola), followed by a producer who elevates his olive oil into the culinary stratosphere -‘L’olio e il direttore d’orchestra d’un piatto: puo’ esaltare un cibo o puo’ distruggerlo.’ Quite. After a waitress tells us how she won a scholarship to a Hospitality College based on her thesis on salame, the chef of Da Maiore, splendid in foot-high toque, grabs the mike. Next to a lover’s lips there is nothing an Italian likes more against his or hers than a microphone. Unless you are Jamie Oliver, I guess a chef doesn’t get much opportunity to sound off, being stuck in the kitchen, and this was his moment. Anyway, his topic was the dessert, nougat ice cream on a bed of melted Modica chocolate, which gradually expanded into a discourse on world gastronomy until someone yelled out that the ice cream was melting, and everyone laughed and it was as convivial an evening as you are ever likely to enjoy.

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Differing fashions in Sardinian and Sicilian tocques

OPERA DEI PUPI

In the souvenir shops of Sicily, amongst the fridge magnets and ceramic pots and tiles from Caltagirone, a visitor cannot help but notice the displays of brightly plumed and armour-clad marionettes.

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Gift shop in Donnalucata with souvenir Orlando

Their story begins back in the 12th century with The Song of Roland, an epic poem recounting Charlemagne’s campaign in Spain against the Moors, the defeat, in 778, of his rearguard and the death of its Captain, Roland, during the army’s retreat through the pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees. History tells us that it was the Basques who destroyed Charlemagne’s rearguard, but such was the fear of Islam at the time, for propaganda purposes the defeat was attributed to the Moors. The fear dates back to the Arab and Berber invasion of Aquitaine and France in 732, which advanced as far as Tours before being stopped by a Frankish army under Charles Martel. It was a decisive victory but a half century later, his grandson, Charlemagne, was still defending Christian Europe from Moslem armies and, when he died in 814, Spain was still firmly in the hands of the Saracens.

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Theatre quality Orlando

Seven hundred years later Moslems from the East were on the march. In quick order, the Turks defeated the Venetian fleet at Lepanto, conquered Serbia, Bosnia and the Crimea, marched into Hungary and Germany and captured, as mentioned earlier, the Southern Italian town of Otranto, decapitating 813 future Saints. These events reignited public interest in the story of Charlemagne and his Paladins – the twelve Peers of his Court – and their struggle against Islam producing three great Chansons de Geste:  Matteo Boiardo’s ‘Orlando Inammorato’, Torquato Tasso’s ‘Gerusalemme Liberata’ and Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’.  All of these poems employ the same characters, most notably Charlemagne and Roland, although the latter’s name has been Italianised as Orlando while his sword (Durendal in The Song of Roland), has become Durindana, a name once given by Sicilian barbers to their razors before the arrival of the electric shaver.

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Orlando Furioso, the most important of these three epic poems (and the longest at 22,000 words) tells how Orlando, a military hero in the service of Charlemagne, falls in love with Angelica, Queen of Cathay, becoming mad with jealousy when he is rejected in favour of Medoro, an African Prince. This heroic tale of fantasy, love, war, magic, bloodshed and chivalry, derived from Carolingan, Celtic and Classical sources, has been mined by Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf and Stephen King. Ingres painted Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, Handel turned the story into an opera and Harry Potter rides a Hippogriff. Chivalry unfortunately disappeared when the horse, from which it took its name, ceased to be a means of transport. Now, even those minor, chivalric manners, such as holding a door open for a lady, are almost extinct, condemned as benevolent sexism. Sad, really really sad.

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You can overdo these things

Sicily, under Spanish rule at the time Ariosto was writing, was also prey to Moslem aggression, especially from Khair-ed-Din, better known as Barbarossa, and his Barbary pirates and it was probably in this era that Paladin stories became popular and people began decorating their carts with scenes from Frankish romantic poems depicting the fight against  i mori, i turchi, i infedeli, i saraceni, e i pagani.

‘Childish pastime or serious art form?’ questions Francis Guercio. Either way, the practice continues today and the latest fashion collection of Dolce and Gabbana, both Sicilians, is based firmly upon cart-art.

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Childish pastime or serious art form?

 

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Dolce e Gabbana handbag

 

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Cart-art fashion for the well-heeled

While Ariosto was writing Orlando Furioso, a new form of street theatre began to appear in Renaissance Italy, based upon the impromptu interaction between a number of stock, masked characters, which included Arlecchino, Pantalone, Colombina, Scaramouche and Pulcinella, the Lord of Misrule, who can still be seen on English beaches in summer under his Anglicised name of Punch. First called commedia all’improvviso and later commedia dell’arte, it flourished in the North of Italy where the weather is cooler and they welcome a bit of comedy, whereas in the South, especially in hot and sultry Sicily, the people’s preference was for Baroque melodrama, occasionally enlivened with aspects of commedia dell’arte.

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Agramante on display in Marzamemi

In was in the middle of the 19th century, after writers Andrea da Barbarino and Don Giusto Lodico produced popular versions of stories from Orlando Furioso (never previously accessible to the common man), that l’opera dei pupi took the form that we still see today – marionettes performing from a repertoire of Paladin stories that concentrate on duels, battles and jousts between the Knights of Charlemagne and the warriors of Islam. More popular in the regions of Palermo and Catania and more frequently shown in the cooler seasons, l’opera dei pupi represents a living link to actual and legendary medieval events. If you do catch a show you may find that Orlando, aka Roland, is also called Anglante or the Count Rinaldo or… Montalbano! I knew the good Inspector came from noble stock.

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Saints day festival in Adrano

CODA

Time to go home. My mother-in-law’s postman neighbor, Matteo, grasps me in a bear-like hug, squeezing the life out of me, and plants a kiss on both cheeks. Is this what it’s like to be a woman? But isn’t this what RLS was on about in his foreword to ‘Travels with a Donkey’- friends. So I’ll take Matteo back home with me, even though he drives me crackers with his Facebook posts. We will also be taking Adriano with us, a new friend, a Modican and a man with the rare gift of being able to communicate with both the young and the old.

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Perbacco!! did we really spend all that money? Can’t be! Well, you did buy all those shoes. No other option; back to work.

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Brother, can you spare me a dime?

 

 

 

A TRIP TO ITALY

I BARBUTI (THE BEARDED ONES)

I’m spinning through the Lombardy countryside on the way to Milan surrounded by the green of European spring. Spring green; the acid green of fresh stalks and new leaves; the green that, for those born in lands of seasons, fulfills some deep need. Lombardy, so called because it is the land of the Longobardi, or long-beards, descendants of the Winnili people of Southern Scandinavia who moved gradually South until by the end of the 6th century they were masters of all Italy north of the Po. Barbados is also a land of the bearded but not of the long-bearded. In the Middle Ages the Lombards struck pay dirt by revolutionizing the existing loan industry, which was in the hands of non-Christians, the loaning of money for interest being condemned by the Papacy and prohibited by Canon Law. By inventing pawning, where interest is included in the repurchase price, the Lombards circumvented the law, escaped Papal censure, and reaped the rewards. ‘Lombard Street to a china orange’ was once a common expression for heavily weighted odds. Later, banking competition would increase when the restrictive Canon Law was repealed. But by then the entrepreneurial Lombards were planting rice, inventing the risotto and manufacturing shoes. In Poland and Russia a pawnshop is apparently still called a ‘Lombard’.

Off to EXPO 2015 an event that has its origins in the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, moving from city to city every five years. There’s the same special, friendly ambiance that you find at the World Cup and the Olympics. The theme in Milan is ‘Feeding the Planet’ and food is something the Italians know about. 145 countries are exhibiting, including Nepal and the Sudan; but not Australia, which has blown its dough on a new pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Peccato, because Sudan and Nepal are here to be fed while I thought feeding the world is what Australia did or would like to do. Never mind, I’ll drown my disappointment in the Italian wine pavilion and sit around the albero de la vita while it conducts Roberto Cacciapaglia’s Oceano.

 

Evening at Milan EXPO

Evening at Milan EXPO

Into my favourite Milanese restaurant, La Bagutta, for lunch. What pleasure to be greeted as ‘Signore e Signora’ and not ‘You guys’. The restaurant has been here in via Bagutta since 1924, when it moved from Florence. It still serves classic Tuscan cuisine in the charming garden and the network of salons decorated with caricatures of the winners of the Premio Bagutta, an annual literary prize.

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Paolo takes us out to Vigevano and to lunch in the Piazza Ducale, possibly the most beautiful piazza in Italy. But Honeybee is not here for the piazza or lunch but the shoes. In the 1950s the factories and workshops clustered around Vigevano were producing 30 million pairs of shoes a year. Volumes are down but Vigevano still remains the capital of Italian shoe production and Honeybee makes for the ‘outlet’ of one of the major manufacturers, exiting with the knowledge that her collection now exceeds those of Paris Hilton and Imelda Marcos combined.

 

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

We’re moving on to Sicily tomorrow and I’ve decided to grow a beard; a chap can’t just lie around the pool doing nothing for two weeks! It’s been on my bucket list for a bit. Honeybee is surprisingly supportive; ‘It will hide a multitude of chins‘, she tells me. I’m not contemplating a Hell’s Angels beard or a full set of dundrearies (1) or Piccadilly Wipers, just a neat, clipped affair to give me that professorial air; a Hemmingway or a Sean Connery would do nicely. But what if I can’t? I’ve failed at so many things; I even failed milk at school. Having to abandon the project after a few weeks would be really humiliating. O the ignominy! The indignity!

SICILIAN VESPAS

We’ve rented a house near the hill-town of Chiaramonte Gulfi in Ragusa Province. It is buried somewhere in a grid of unmade roads flanked by fields of olive, citrus and fichi d’india studded with poppies and surrounded by dry stone walls. Google maps is useless and it takes longer to find than Toto Riina.

Albero Limone

Albero Limone

Albero Limone, when we find it, is charming; an old stone farmhouse which Ian and his wife Jenny have restored and extended with taste and restraint, set in a lovely garden with pool. The elegance of the pool surroundings has not been compromised by a safety fence, mandatory in Australia. I suppose there is a possibility that my mother-in-law may fall in the pool and drown but I’m willing to take that risk in return for a nice, uncluttered poolside.

Albero Limone

Albero Limone

There are great clumps of lavender in the garden and the honeybees (apini) are busy. It seems so long since I’ve had the pleasure of hearing the comforting drone of bees. I don’t think I’ve seen a bumblebee (bombini) since I was a child. Sylvia Plath, whose father was an authority on bees, wrote ‘The Bee-keepers Daughter” shortly before she took her life:

In burrows narrow as a finger, solitary bees
Keep house among the grasses. Kneeling down
I set my eyes to a hole-mouth and meet an eye
Round, green, disconsolate as a tear.
Father, bridegroom, in this Easter egg
Under the coronal of sugar roses
The queen bee marries the winter of your year.

Emily Dickinson also wrote of the bee:

Partake as doth the bee,
Abstemiously
The Rose is an Estate
In Sicily

A plump and furry bumblebee docking carefully into the yellow trumpet of a hollyhock. Wouldn’t that be a fine thought to take with you when the Boatman comes to row you across the river?

I’m in a coma; have been for some time. There’s something about the Sicilian countryside, the thin, waving arms of the olive trees, the sun on the pale stones, a hawk cruising in circles in the blue sky and the bottle of wine at lunch under the pistacchio tree that induce fatigue. I came loaded for work with pen, paper and paints, but I’ve been drifting in and out of this coma, hardly able to separate dreams from reality. The hum of Honeybee’s hairdryer brings me, momentarily, back to life. A cloud the size of Africa is about to blot out the sun so I’m going inside for a glass of chilled Frapatto, the colour of a tart’s nail polish.

Plenty of time to reflect on serious issues while lying around the pool. Jesse shows me Woody Allen’s interesting reincarnation plans:

In my next life I want like to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old people’s home feeling better every day. You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day. You work for 40 years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous, then you are ready for high school. You then go to primary school, you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born. And then you spend the last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day and then voila! You finish off as an orgasm.

Chiaramonte Gulfi is a typical Sicilian hill-town with 8,000 inhabitants and 11 churches. We cross the roofless pizza oven of the central square and dive into the cool and dusty interior of the Chiesa Madre, where Madonna and Child, under a blood red canopy and surrounded by gilt sunrays and angel faces, overlook an altar designed for a Busby Berkeley musical. I love it! This is idolatry at its highest level. Baroque art, the Catholic Church’s counterblast to the Reformation. Not fifty metres from the church is Da Majore, a former macelleria, now a restaurant specializing in a pig-inspired cuisine, which allows for a wide variety of dishes, for the pig is the most versatile of animals. Lamb and chicken will never inhabit a successful sausage. The food is perfect with a pleasing absence of rocket and cherry tomatoes, but the cantina, where we go to choose our wine, leaves Jesse and I weak at the knees. From a cornucopia of amazing wines at absurdly low prices we select a 2007 Prunotto Barbera (18 Euros) and a 2008 Masi Amarone (45 Euros).

Chiaramonte Gulfi - daytime

Chiaramonte Gulfi – daytime

Chiaramonte Gulfi - at night

Chiaramonte Gulfi – at night

The two jewels of Ragusa province are Modica, an UNESCO world heritage site, and its smaller neighbour, Scicli. Scicli is overlooked by hills of tunneled limestone once home to its ancient, troglodytic people which may explain the height impairment of the present population. Modica, largely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1692, is home to a very particular type of chocolate. The story goes that the Spanish introduced the cocoa bean sometime during their occupation of Sicily in the 16th century along with a recipe for chocolate obtained from the Aztecs. Modica chocolate is made at low temperatures without the addition of butter and other fats. As the sugar does not melt completely, the crystals remain. Personally, I’m too accustomed to Cadbury’s to even pretend to enjoy it. The thing about Modica and Scicli is that they are both vibrant communities rather than Baroque museums and art colonies like Ragusa and Caltagirone.

There are fields of olive all around us, the trees randomly, and therefore attractively, disposed with no thought to the economies of mechanical harvesting provided by planting straight lines. Each tree, as old as the temple columns in Siracusa, has its own character. There is beauty in the contrast between ancient trunk and main limbs and the thin pliant, fruit-bearing branches, which rise at the end like an Australian sentence.

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A Sicilian friend tells me that the current rush of tourists into Sicily, and particularly into the province of Ragusa, is entirely due to a bald Italian policeman. Commissario Montalbano is the principal character in a televised crime drama that has attracted audiences worldwide since the first series appeared in 1999. The stories unfold in Vigata, a fictitious town, a pastiche of various locations from a variety of towns in the province. By chance we are in the Mezzaparola restaurant in Donnalucata, and after a misto arrosto di pesce and a bottle of Grillo we motor on to nearby Punta Secca where Honeybee can pose by the Inspector’s apartment overlooking the beach.

Ispettore Montalbano's apartment at Punta Secca

Ispettore Montalbano’s apartment at Punta Secca

UNDER THE VOLCANO

I’m taking my mother-in-law back to her home in Adrano, a small town on the slopes of Etna. The road from Catania to Adrano is Hellish, the hard shoulder strewn with litter, the weeds as high as an elephant’s eye. It is a road of shrines with frequent bunches of flowers, sometimes in a vase or even with a small marble tablet, marking the spots where a son or husband failed to make the sorpasso. What were the circumstances in the 18th and 19th centuries that allowed the citizens of Adrano to build elegant houses and fine churches when now there are insufficient funds to collect the rubbish and efface the graffiti from the park walls? The town resembles Ramadi, the Iraqi town torn apart in American Sniper; was it filmed here? Many of the houses on the outskirts remind me of Osama Bin Laden’s depressing compound in Abbottabad. My mother in law’s apartment is typical; armchairs the size of elephants, pictures of Saints and Popes, china figurines and photos of grim looking ancestors.

On the other hand this is real Italy, a town without hotels, tourists or Michelin starred restaurants, a town where people are courteous and look out for each other, a town without traffic lights or visible pedestrian crossings where the roads are a shared space between people and vehicles. The Café Europa serves the best granita di mandorle and brioches in all of Italy and if you become depressed by the immediate surroundings you can always look up and see the big, white diamond of the volcano against the blue sky.

I’m in one of the most important places in town, the Tabaccheria. For those who remember the days when smoking was an elegant pastime, when one could enjoy the aroma of smouldering nicotiana tabacum in peace, relax watching a curling column of rising smoke from a Passing Cloud, feel the solid comfort of a silver Dupont in your hand or inhale the burst of sulphur from a freshly struck match; for all of you I attach these images of Murattis, Chesterfields and Camels, glorious names from a freer past. Now that the display of cigarette brands is prohibited in Australia, pictures like this will soon be harder to find than dirty postcards in a Seminary.

Vietato ai minori di 18 anni

Vietato ai minori di 18 anni

Not much for the young to do in this town except work on a scratchy, listen to the partita on the radio, drink 15 espressos a day, lean on your Vespa on the street corner, shave your head or get a new tattoo. No wonder love, inexpensive and absorbing, is treated seriously. Here, on the walls of the park, written in spay-paint by an Italian Cyrano, is this pitiful tale of the unparalleled agony of love rebuffed, of a suit declined:

Vaffanculo, Tere’
Non credete nell’amore
Tutto questo per te
Ricordi … vorrei dimenticarti ma non riesco…Ecco!!!!
Ci sei riuscita. Addio e’ FINITA
Ti ho dato il mio cuore
Me lo hai ridotto cosi, verde come il veleno…Distrutto
Sei una falsa, ipocrita, bugiarda e stronza!

Go xxxx yourself Teresa. You don’t believe in love.
All this for you
Memories…I would like to forget you but I cannot
You have succeeded. Goodbye IT IS OVER
I gave you my heart
You have reduced me to this – green, like poison……Destroyed
You are false, a hypocrite, a liar and a bitch!

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I would like to meet the young author, buy him a drink, counsel him, tell him how, even after 50 years, irritating scar tissue will continue to remind him of the pain he felt when he wrote those words.

In spite of its cold winters, the culture of Sicily is focused on keeping cool, hence the polished granite floors, the metre thick walls of Albero Limone, the permanently shuttered windows and the cult of the gelato. And so, on our last night, Matteo drives us 19 kilometres to Bronte for pistacchio ice cream. I go to sleep under a particularly harrowing crucifixion in painted terracotta.

And so we leave Sicily, careful to obey the parking regulations for pedestrians……

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A WEDDING IN SARDINIA

We are staying at Sa’ Manda, an agritourism resort where tomorrow Simone and Eleanora will be having their wedding dinner. Soon after we arrive Andrea and Marta pick us up and we go to dinner in the nearby seaside town of Alghero, so called on account of the amount of algae in the water. Here is another ancient and attractive town that has lost all self-respect, a whore ravished daily by coachloads of modern day Visigoths. In the narrow streets of the centro storico the Algherese have retreated into their kitchens and opened their street front sitting rooms to diners and the seekers of souvenirs. On the seafront, music from the lower ranks of the Eurovision Song Contest serenades the clientele of the vast pizzerias. After a long search we settle into Mirko’s small parlour, which he has refurbished as a Trattoria and have a perfectly respectable Fregola con gamberi.

The English do nice weddings; Ladies in big hats, men in morning suits, flower-stuffed village churches in the Cotswolds; but the Italians also do it well, perhaps in a less choreographed, more intimate way. It is Andrea’s elder brother, Simone, who is getting married and the next morning we witness him on his knees as the family anoint him with rose petals and bless him before we go to the Chiesa di Santa Caterina in Sassari’s centro storico. There’s no communal hymn singing but Simone’s zia Adriana fills the vast knave with a voice so clear and pure that I’m reduced to tears and on the verge of conversion to the Catholic faith. There’s applause as Simone and Eleonora emerge into the sunlight to be showered with rice and confetti (still legal in Italy) before we all go to dinner at Sa’ Mandra.

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I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am to be part of this large and generous Sardinian family and very honored tonight to be sitting at the table with the senior uncles. Porcetto allo spiedo stillato con gocce di lardo and a glass of Santa Maria La Palma Cannonau. Heaven. Like every other special occasion in Italy the wedding dinner coincides with an important partita, this time the European Cup Final. Guests consult their i phones between mouthfuls of capretto con finochietto selvatico and waiters are sent off to bring back the latest score. The match is between Juventus, a Torinese team, and Barcelona, but it is not a match between Italy and Spain, it is a contest between Turin and the rest of Italy and when the final whistle blows with Barcelona the winners, our waiter strips open his shirt to reveal an Intermilan jersey, demonstrating to the assembled diners his pleasure at his rival city’s loss.

After dinner the dancing begins. Uncles, aunts, friends, mothers and brothers all on the floor clapping, hopping and twisting, forming snaking conga lines to Chubby checker and Pat Boone but mostly to the romantic Italian music of the 70s.

LA MAREMMA

Campiglia Marittima, another un-spoilt hill-town, where Ann has kindly lent us her house, an ancient building which she has restored in her inimitable style, respecting its simple period style while discretely incorporating all the necessary mod-cons. The town is quiet with only the occasional tourist, mostly of the serious, bearded variety working on small watercolours. In the central piazza two cafes compete for our breakfast and aperitif business while, underneath Ann’s house, Rosy provides the sort of home cooking that makes cooking at home unnecessary.

La casa di Ann

La casa di Ann

Near the town of Venturina, a 10 minute drive from Campiglia, is the spa of Il Calidario with its natural warm springs. We spend the morning in and out of the outdoor thermal pool and the afternoon we are bathed, roasted, steamed and massaged in the indoor tepidarium designed to resemble the Etruscan baths that once stood here.

 

Il Calidario, Venturina

Il Calidario, Venturina

Along the thin, umbrella’d littoral of the Alta Maremma are a series of stazioni balneari and Alex has directed us to her favourite (shortly to become mine). At Bagno Skiuma, which I doubt I could ever find again, we rent umbrella and deck chairs on the largely deserted beach and toast and soak until lunchtime when we sit down to spaghetti alle vongole and sorbetto al limone in the restaurant. A bottle of Antinori Scalabrone and I collapse in a coma on the beach for the rest of the afternoon, but the lunch was so outstanding we return the next day for a bis.

We move to Vada where Alex, in festive mood having put to bed another Business Plan, takes us to dinner at La Barcaccina on the sea front where the water is as flat and calm as my mother’s gravy, which is not, fortunately, on the menu. An outstanding meal of crudo di mare and a superb orata al forno accompanied by Champagne, a chilled Pinot Nero from Alto Adige and a vintage grappa, which seems to have aged better than me. Alex, you should write a personal guide to the food and wines of La Maremma; no one could be better qualified.

Bagno Skiuma

Bagno Skiuma

Alex takes us to Castiglioncello, which is remarkable for a number of reasons but all with roots in the beauty of this rocky promontory pointing out into the Tyrrhenian Sea with its sandy beaches and forests of pini marittimi. In the mid 19th century the Macchiaioli, a school of Tuscan painters who painted in macchie (patches of light and shade) and alla prima like the Impressionists, found inspiration in Castiglioncello. Later Luigi Pirandello, the Bulgari family and Lucchino Visconti all built villas here. But it was in the 1950’s, the Dolce Vita years, that Castiglioncello became a summer escape for Vittorio Gasman, Marcello Mastroianni, Alberto Sordi and other stars of Italian cinema. During the economic decline and the tangentopoli scandal of the 1980s the resort fell on hard times but is now, happily, experiencing a revival.

At Dai Dai (literally c’mon c’mon), a wine bar famous for its bite sized choc-ices, I spot a framed painting of Moana Pozzi. The subject is angel-winged and seated, with breasts bared and a bunch of red grapes covering her business parts. Blonde, beautiful and smart, at 20 she was the lover of Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, who helped her get a job in a children’s show on television. That same year (1981) she performed in her first hardcore porno movie Valentina, Ragazza in Calore. In the ensuing scandal she lost her job in television but became the first Diva of Italian Porn and launched the Golden Age of the Blue Movie. Apart from her film fans, she won respect from other Italians as an informed and eloquent pundit on talk shows and for her (unsuccessful) bid to become mayor of Rome. She died in France at the age of 33 in mysterious circumstances. At the top of the painting the words Beata Santa appear; they point to the gradual Beatification of this remarkable Mary Magdelene, who with the approval of the Italian people, continued to sin until the very end.

VERONA

Verona, still beautiful, but much changed since we lived here in the 1980s. Since then it has become the fourth most visited city in Italy, but whereas the tourists are spread thinly over the much wider areas of Rome, Florence and Venice, here they are clustered in the small centro storico. I raise my arm to point out a church tower and 20 or 30 Japanese tourists follow me into the Piazza Dante. The number of tourists taking pictures in the Piazza Erbe makes it inevitable that my image will shortly be appearing on 10,000 screens from Copenhagen to Kobe. Glacial, white Scandinavian legs gleam on the pink marble pavements. In the Via Mazzini, many of the old independent shop owners have sold out to international chains. The windows of Guelphi e Barbotini, once the most elegant of bookshops, are now filled with unremarkable ladies underwear. The ferramenta, which once sold artists’ pigments and raw alcohol for your alembic or home made limoncello, now sells handbags.

We are staying in an apartment in I Filippini, overlooking the river. The apartment is very pleasant with floor to ceiling mirrors everywhere, presumably to give the sensation of non-existent space. Nothing is more horrible than waking up next to myself. In the corridor I see four of me turn into the tiny bathroom as if in one of David Copperfield’s illusionist tricks. Honeybee goes to look at our old house around the corner in the aptly named Vicolo Satiro (Satyr’s Alley), but I sense the onset of depression just thinking about it.

Lunch with Honeybee and Andrea at the beautiful Osteria Ponte Pietra. We eat on the terrace overlooking the fast-flowing Adige and overlooked by envious tourists on the bridge. We start with cappesante and tartare of crustacians followed by coda di rospo. As I raise my glass of Lugana I can see a crocodile of tourists sweating up the steps of the Roman Theatre on the far bank, which somehow seems to improve the taste of the wine.

With Andrea at Osteria Ponte Pietra

With Andrea at Osteria Ponte Pietra

View from Ponte Pietra

View from Ponte Pietra

Our last night in Italy. We are with Paolo in the leafy suburbs of Gallarate, a few kilometres from Malpensa airport, when we fall upon hidden treasure, La Tana del Lupo. Weeks after our return home I still look at the bill in disbelief. A glass of Prosecco, antipasti of grilled anchovy and scamorza cheese fried in breadcrumbs, two superb risotto dishes and a plate of Dublin Bay Prawns flambeed in Cognac. A selection of cheeses and fresh figs, a bottle of excellent Pinot Noir from the Alto Adige, Limoncello, friandises and coffee. 3 covers, 65 Euros! I’m having it framed.

 

(1) After the side-whiskers worn by Lord Dundreary in the play Our American Cousin, the play Abraham Lincoln was attending when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.