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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
In spite of the chaotic politics, the graft and the refugees, what graffiti there is tends to be uniquely concerned with l’amore:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Perbacco!! did we really spend all that money? Can’t be! Well, you did buy all those shoes. No other option; back to work.