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?

 

 

 

APRIL IN ITALY

I love Italy. Whatever one may say about the odd retail hours, the museums closing on Mondays and the general traffic chaos, the people are confident of their Italianness. And why shouldn’t they be, seeing that they can trace their very beginnings back to Aeneas, son of the Trojan Prince, Anchises, and the Goddess Venus? After escaping the Greeks, years of travel and a lengthy and tragic affair with Dido, Queen of Carthage, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans settled in Latium where his descendants Romulus and Remus founded Rome. Aeneas was later recognized as a God (Jupiter Indiges) an honour unlikely to be bestowed upon Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott. No need to apologise to the Latin tribes who were (sometimes forcefully) Romanised; no need for a referendum to redesign a flag that they feel no longer projects their current image, no need (since Il Risorgimento) to change the country’s name. No need to constantly rewrite history to adjust to political climate change; what could possibly be better than Virgil’s version?

I love Milan; the world capital of style is bright, efficient and beautiful. Retail thrives and the Milanesi, rich or poor, dress as smartly as their purse can spare. The people are thongless and grunge-less and I see no instances of gym-wear being worn as street-wear. Everyone over the age of 20  sports a proper pair of shoes. Speaking of clothes, isn’t it strange how a young woman’s first romantic feelings are often accompanied by a desire to knit? In the first flush of love, Honeybee chose to make me a cable stitch pullover, which was pleasing to look at with its naïve, artisanal appearance, but un-wearable on account of the sleeves, which were only suitable for someone whose knuckles scraped the floor when he walked upright. Worried that I might die from exposure before reaching the altar, Honeybee abandoned her knitting needles and patterns and presented me with a rugged pullover made from the mooring ropes of Norwegian trawlers. Too heavy to be worn by a puny accountant, it lay, impregnating my undies with the smell of tar and smoked herrings, at the bottom of my tallboy for several years until I was allowed to buy my own knitwear.

We are staying in a delightful penthouse apartment just off via Torino, some 200 metres from the Piazza Duomo. In addition to the essential rooms we have a shrub-filled terrace, a tastefully furnished conservatory and a good selection of books on Renaissance art. The owners, who occupy the rest of the roof, are charming and spend a good deal of their spare time sewing coloured beads onto baskets, which they sell through a network of immigrant hawkers (vu’cumpra’) sending the proceeds to a village hospital in Ghana. Bravi!

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Honeybee in the conservatory

A stroll with Franca through the charming quarter of Brera to the Pinacoteca. Art students throng the courtyard and stairs but inside we have the place to ourselves or rather us and ten thousand Madonnas and Child. There must have been a law in the 15th century limiting artists to this one subject. Only occasionally does a dazzling Raffaello or distinctive El Greco stand out. The early Christian martyrs are also well represented – pale Sebastians studded with arrows, Catherines on a variety of wheels. Thankfully, a civic-minded Milanese has left the museum his collection of more recent works and we can forget divine motherhood and bloody martyrdom for the peace and order of Giorgio Morandi and the metaphysics of Giorgio De Chirico. What did grab my attention in the Renaissance department was the painting of St John the Baptist by Francesco del Cossa, together with this piece of prose by British writer Ali Smith from her novel ‘How to be Both’:

“It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.”

The display of apt quotations on art by contemporary writers was the idea of Pinacoteca Director, James Bradburne, former curator of the Palazzo Strozzi, brought in to spruce up the gallery as part of Prime Minister Renzi’s campaign to modernize Italy’s museums in general. Ali Smith’s novel deals in part with the imagined life of Francesco del Cossa and his allegorical frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara.

Although some cannot move 200 metres without the help of Trip Advisor, it should be avoided at all costs, depriving as it does the tourist of the pleasure of discovery; you are also unlikely to find someone with the same tastes and priorities as yourself among all those anonymous reviewers. I’m an off-season sort of chap really; always have been. So nice travelling to an out-of-season destination: February in Venice, April in Sicily, August in Paris, December in Verona; marvelous! Not all that keen on the presence of other tourists when I’m sightseeing, especially groups and the earnest ones wearing sandals made out of military webbing and bits of rubber tyres. There’s much pleasure going in the opposite direction to the heavy traffic as there is in being an hourly rather than a seconds and minutes person. No need for a second hand on your watch; you can always use your i.phone to time an egg.

We have shifted to Southern Sicily and to the charming city of Modica. Our rental car is a Citroen Picasso. It’s roomy and comfortable and drives nicely; it has a clunky, boxy design, presumably from the artist’s Cubist period. Modica is only a short drive to the sea and we make for Marzamemi, an old fishing village of Arab origins. In the 19th century the village was the site of a functioning tonnara, where great quantities of tuna were caught and processed. The deserted, crumbling slaughterhouses and the black, rotting tuna boats are a little unsettling but not enough to put us off enjoying a fritto misto mare and a chilled bottle of Grillo on the sea-front terrace of La Cialoma.

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Ristorante La Cialoma, Marzamemi

Further along the coast we stop at the Isola delle due Correnti, where the Ionian Sea meets the Mediterranean and then a little further on at Portopalo. Here, near the harbor, lies a graveyard of wooden fishing boats, some burnt hulks, others, stripped and paint-faded, awaiting incineration. On the ground, among the rocks and under the hulls, are the flotsam and jetsam of their passengers – a plastic bottle, a shoe, a torn and grubby headscarf. These are the boats that have survived the journey from North Africa with their cargo of refugees. The nearest Italian landfall to Libya is the island of Lampedusa, but for those boats that miss it, Portopalo is where they end up. At the immigration centre near the port some of the latest arrivals are playing football in the sun; you can see why they call it ‘the world game’.

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Refugee boats awaiting destruction at Portopalo

While Sydney continues to congratulate itself on its fine dining and gourmet food shops it still cannot produce a crunchy baguette, a tasty tomato, a punnet of ripe, unblemished strawberries or a decent salame. Try asking a butcher for a corn-fed cockerel or a capon and he will merely point to his row of uniform, trussed and glad-wrapped hens. If you are planning trippa alla Livornese and ask for tripe the odds are he will throw his hands up in horror. Honeybee has found an excellent salame di suino nero.

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Note the essential high fat to lean ratio

The salumista also sells a tasty salame d’asino or donkey meat sausage. Like its pork brother, it is suspended for a several months in a cool cellar to mature, hence the expression ‘hung like a donkey’.

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Sausage for donkey lovers

‘I know nothing more noble than the contemplation of the world’ said Flaubert and there is no activity more conducive to rumination than the shelling of 2 kilos of peas.

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Meditation time

Occasionally available in Sydney, ready shelled and at scandalous prices, fresh peas in Italy are a cheap and popular delicacy served with pasta or as a piatto unico and occasionally, in Sicily, popping up in the sticky centre of an arancino.

Mind you, I’m not all that partial to some Sicilian dishes. Pasta col macco (overcooked pasta in a soup of dried broad beans) and the little pastries filled with a mixture of ground meat and chocolate called ‘npanatiddi I can live without. Not that I’m opposed to the addition of chocolate to meat dishes, after all lepre in dolceforte (jugged hare) can be tasty, but the appeal of ‘npanatiddi has its roots in ancient efforts by the monks to conceal the consumption of meat during Lent, and old customs die hard on this island.

A morning stroll through the quartiere of Santa Teresa in Modica Alta. This is a charming area of quiet, narrow streets and tree-shaded piazzas. Nespoli, bougainvillea and rose hang over garden walls; old men the size and colour of walnuts sit talking and not talking outside cafes. It’s warm and peaceful and it beckons like the waters of Lethe. Many houses are for sale and I’m tempted but I’m not ready just yet and we start walking down to Modica Bassa.

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Modica Bassa

On the balcony of an apartment just below the Duomo they are filming an episode of the detective series ‘Inspector Montalbano’. The Inspector’s (actor Luca Zingarotti) appearance on the balcony is received with the same degree of enthusiasm as Giuseppe Garibaldi’s. There is a rattle of applause and cries of ‘Bravo Luca‘, while Honeybee melts into a damp spot on the pavement.

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Honeybee asking Montalbano if he wants her phone number

One thing that England and Modica have in common is the same patron Saint, St George, a Syrian-born soldier in the Roman army, executed on Emperor Diocletian’s orders for refusing to recant his Christian faith. England’s most visible association with the Saint is the sign ‘The George and Dragon’ attached to various pubs sprinkled across the country; it’s a very different story in Modica. We are here on St George’s Day, April 23rd, for Modicani the most important feast day of the year. Marching bands parade along Corso Umberto I, families clog the gelaterias and there is an antiques fair in the Piazza Corrado Rizzone displaying, inter alia, old car radios, 45rpm records, rusting keys, coins, second hand books and ceramic jelly moulds from Caltagirone. At 5 pm a crowd gathers outside the massive doors of the Baroque Duomo of San Giorgio in Modica Alta. With cannons booming and the bells of every church in Modica ringing out, the doors open and through the red and white smoke of Roman Candles, an equestrian Saint George is borne out into the sun by his red-coated disciples. Preceded by a band, San Giorgio is then paraded through the town until, near midnight, he is carried back to the Duomo and tucked away for another year.

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Saint George’s Day in Modica

 

Eeyore’s Italian Christmas

 

Warning: some food descriptions may be distasteful to vegetarians and vegans. 

I know, I know, I said I’d never fly Qantas again (or C**t-arse as a French friend unwittingly pronounces it) but our national airline is in financial trouble, its shares reduced to the level of junk bonds, so time to help out. What’s this? They’re announcing that the catering truck responsible for victualing my flight to Dubai with the usual luke-warm compost has crashed and there will be a delay in boarding of approximately half an hour. Quelle surprise! Once on board I find I’m nicely placed in an Exit row and near a toilet, which, as I’m a Gold Frequent Toilet Flyer, is a Godsend. The in-flight attendants are charming but seem terribly young. I’m worried that when the Captain orders ‘Doors to manual!’ they will open them by mistake and I shall be sucked out of the aircraft and end up in someone’s dining room in Wollongong. Better tighten the seat belt.

Genova

Back in the organized pandemonium that is Italy. I’m on my way to Genova to witness my young friend Andrea’s graduation as a Master in Engineering. I take the coach from Malpensa Airport. It’s cold and a silver dollar of a sun sparkles through banks of mist on fields of frozen stubble and woods of spindly, leafless trees. Incongruously, at a quiet country intersection, stands a beefy Siren with red lips and short skirt waiting for some lonely male on his way home. It’s Christmas time and a little ad hoc prostitution helps to secure those festive extras. My heart goes out to her. Back on the Autostrada we begin the descent off the great fertile plain of Lombardy, winding down through tunnels and viaducts until we arrive in the ancient and pleasant city of Genova. This is the city of a million scooters and should be twinned with Kuta. Narrow, steep winding roads with cars parked half on the pavement half on the road with not even the space to slide a piece of paper between them. An ancient, congested city centre and an absence of public car parks make two wheels a necessity. It’s warmer than Milan with clear blue skies.

Off to the Castello hill, the oldest part of Genova’s historic centre to collect bound copies of Andrea’s thesis. The printer’s shop is located near the Faculty of Architecture from which Andrea’s brother and his girl friend, both graduated. Genova, with some 40,000 students is one of the newer Italian universities, founded in 1481.The Faculty of Architecture, cunningly incorporated within the remains of the ancient monastery of San Silvestro and a medieval Bishop’s Palace, is an exciting mixture of ancient and modern, a labyrinth of lecture rooms and libraries cunningly installed in the irregular spaces dictated by the ancient buildings, including a triangular cloister. On the roof we look out over the port from which Columbus sailed, now filled with ferries and container ships.

Up early for an assemblage of Andrea’s family and friends at the Faculty of Engineering. Francesca, Andrea’s mamma is there along with his brother Simone, Simone’s fidanzata, Eleonora and assorted uncles.  Andrea’s fellow students are all charming young people; you would think that Italy would be in good hands when they are in charge but alas the country always seems to end up in the hands of cunning, self-serving politicians like ‘Burlesque-only’. We sit in rows behind a quintet of examining Professors while Andrea confidently presents a summary of his thesis. Then a wait outside until he is called back in to hear his mark. It is difficult to tell from his expression when he emerges whether the result is good or bad. It’s 109 out of 110! That single missing point is important to Andrea who aims high, although, to me, it’s just a whisker, a whisker that could easily have been influenced by nothing more than one irritable examiner dwelling upon an unfair parking ticket. I would have spent the next five years sticking pins into effigies of the professors, but Andrea, like the man he is, puts it behind him, dons the laurel wreath and gets on with the festivities. I had warned him before I came that, as in Roman times, I would be standing behind him in the chariot as he goes to receive his Triumphus, reminding him that he is not a God and whispering ‘Respice post te. Hominem te memento!’ But for the minute I think he deserves to be feeling like one. Who could have predicted the happy repercussions arising from our decision to take in a young Sardinian exchange student those seven years ago?

I’m waiting with Simone and Eleonora for our transport to arrive to take us to the restaurant where Andrea is holding his celebratory lunch. It’s an up-market part of town and the pavement sports a red carpet in front of some expensive boutiques. I’m trying to figure out whether I’m in front of a jewellery shop or a pasticceria, unsure whether the object in the window is a cake or a large Faberge’ egg (the price suggests it could be either) when a young man asks me for money for a coffee. A coffee? If he’s hard up, why not a sandwich or some fried potato peelings? A coffee is a luxury in my book; but then I’m not Italian. Now a man selling lighters wants a hand out. I give him a couple of Euros. If I stay here much longer I’ll be bankrupt. Chi sono io, Babbo Natale?

Andrea is hosting his family and friends in my favourite restaurant. If you are in Genova and looking for somewhere serving well cooked, classic Italian food, where any combination of antipasto, secondo and dessert costs 10 Euros and where you eat in a charming warren of green tiled rooms, then this is it. But I’m not going to tell you its name or location as I think the place should be left to the quiet enjoyment of the Genovese. In the evening we return to the Engineering Faculty for the graduation ceremony proper when Andrea gives me a copy of his thesis in which part of the dedication is to his adopted Australian family. It’s a ‘hats in the air’ occasion and Spumante corks are popping like gunfire.

After the ceremony I set off with Francesca, Simone and Eleonora whose parents, Ermanno and Marita, have kindly invited me to stay at their home in Diano Marina, a seaside town an hour’s drive west along the Italian Riviera. We arrive quite late in the evening and sit down to a marvelous feast of antipasti, tortellini in brodo, bollito misto, formaggi and Sachertorte washed down with excellent Chianti. Behind Francesca’s petitely innocent façade is one of Sardinia’s major producers of powerful moonshine and we round off the meal with some of her vintage Mirto.

The next morning is warm and sunny and after a breakfast of coffee and biscotti laced with Marita’s marmellata of mele cotogne and a charming audience with Eleonora’s nonna, we walk the through the quiet pedestrian town centre to the beach where the dogs race around like greyhounds on Ecstasy. Simone buys chunks of warm focaccia al gorgonzola, which we eat on the way home effectively reducing my capacity for doing justice to the marvelous lunch prepared by Marita with the enthusiastic assistance of Simone.

One should approach these meals as one would a 10,000 metre foot race; you must know how to pace yourself, to enjoy each course (including the unexpected ones) so that, at the end, you still have that little space for the chocolate and Mirto. Self-control has never been one of my strong points, although I’m not sure if my life would have been better with it.

In the late afternoon Ermanno drives us along the coast so that we reach San Remo as the sun is setting. The streets, closed to traffic, are thronged with Christmas shoppers although I’m not sure if anyone is doing any serious spending. Then on to Monte Carlo where the Piazza bounded by the Casino and the Hotel de Paris is decorated in a black and white theme – white Christmas trees, black Bentleys, white diamonds, black fur coats.

The next morning Ermanno takes us along the coast to Cervo, a medieval village perched on a hill overlooking the sea. The jewel in its crown is the pastel pink 19th Century Church of San Giovanni Battista, built from the wealth amassed by the town’s coral fishermen. The fishermen have long gone, the seabed hoovered clean of coral, but as always in Italy the Church still stands. That afternoon Ermanno takes me to the station where I catch a train to Milano looking forward to being reunited with my Honeybee. I wonder if I’ll be back here for the marriage of Simone and Eleonora; just in case the wedding’s here rather than in Sassari, I’ve taken note of a pleasant little B & B in Cervo.

S. Giovanni Battista overlooking Cervo

S. Giovanni Battista overlooking Cervo

 Milano

A taxi to the Castello and a stroll towards the Duomo, which I come upon suddenly, a great iceberg worked on by Grinling Gibbons that leaves me breathless. The Cathedral is surrounded by bancarelle selling salami, cheeses, panforte, Christmas trees and the traditional, ladies red underwear. Dean Martin is singing ‘Let it Snow’; a pair of Carabinieri Officers, elegant in cloaks of Prussian blue, polished boots and spurs stroll across the piazza; for the first time in many years I feel a sense of Christmas.

 

Il Duomo with Carabinieri

Il Duomo with Carabinieri

A tsunami of salami

A tsunami of salami

 

I slide into the perfumed warmth of Rinascente (Department Store) and am overcome with an uncontrollable urge to spend. Even from 10,000 miles away I can sense my bank manager checking the availability for an increase in my overdraft. Extra personnel take their places in front of their PCs at American Express, fingers poised over the keyboard. I am a magpie, drawn to anything that catches my eye – a nativity scene in porcelain by Villeroy & Bosch, a lady’s high-heeled shoe in dark chocolate, a pair of stainless steel spaghetti tongs. What am I doing? I ask myself as I squeeze into a pair of brightly coloured jeans made for someone half my size and 50 years younger. Perspiration trickles down my temples and my spectacles mist up when I see the price, but the sales lady is young and attractive and I exit with two pairs. ‘Mutton dressed as lamb’ my mother would have snorted. I may be going down but I’m going kicking and screaming.

Into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and into Tods, my favourite shoe shop, which appears staffed entirely by Japanese. I’m undecided whether to take the suede lace-ups or the leather slip-ons. The assistant suggests I take both pairs. Of course, how stupid of me not to think of that! The streets are full of busy shoppers and I see no evidence of the frail economy that the press harps on about, pointing to the level of Italy’s national debt, which is apparently on a par with that of the USA and Japan. As I see it, this places Italy alongside the giants rather than among the economic pygmies like Canada and Brazil.

Paolo takes me to the quiet town of Pavia where there is a Monet Exhibition in the Palazzo Visconti. The Palazzo dates from the end of the 14th century and once had Petrarch in charge of its library. The exhibition is wonderful, lots of Monet’s works from his early childhood drawings to his last oils and none of the water lily series that seem to overwhelm most shows. Everybody is out buying boxes of Ferrero Rocher Chocolates and recordings of Nat King Cole singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and we have the place to ourselves. There’s not even a security person in sight so I can get very close to the canvases to inspect Monet’s brushstrokes.

On the way back to Milano we stop to look at the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery built between 1396 and 1495 to accommodate Carthusian monks. After a series of monastic takeovers the cloisters are now home to the silent traffic of the Cistercians.

 

La Certosa di Pavia

La Certosa di Pavia

Our final stop is Vigevano, home to the magnificent Piazza Ducale, the work of Donato Bramante the high priest of Renaissance architecture. It is dark now and children are ice-skating in a Piazza once overlooked by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and his protégé, Leonardo da Vinci. Thank you Paolo for those unforgettable experiences.

It’s that time of year for reflecting on the past 12 months, when every magazine trots out articles featuring the best of 2013, be it film, book, athlete, unit trust or travel destination. The Economist votes Uruguay Country of the Year and Italy’s L’Espresso magazine nominates Constantino Baratta, a 56 year old builder from the island of Lampedusa, Man of the Year. Signor Baratta’s achievement was to save 12 Eritrean refugees when their boat capsized. Surprisingly, but admirably, Italians display an amazingly generous attitude towards refugees in spite of the vast numbers crowding daily into this small country.

Ne’ carne ne’ pesce

Dinner alone in a Trattoria in the Piazza Gramsci. I’m struggling through a Cotoletta alla Milanese the size of Roger Federer’s tennis racquet when in comes the Dottore. Our Host, no longer interested in discussing my request for a second flagon of wine, rushes, beaming, to greet this more important customer. ‘Buona sera, buona sera Dottore! Make yourself comfortable at your usual table.’ Then, after inquiring into the state of the Dottore’s family’s health, the weather outside and the Dottore’s success in finding a parking space, our Host, wringing his hands in pleasure, pops the all important question:
Carne o Pesce?’
After years of trying to accommodate his various clients by reconciling their dubious tax declarations with the exigencies of a continuously changing law, the Dottore has become wary and indecisive and, through habit, indifferent to the unctuous groveling of our Host.
‘Hmmm, what fish do you have?’
‘We have fresh branzino, which we are serving grilled on a bed of potatoes, onions and wild fennel.’
‘Hmmm, do you have any scampi?’
‘An excellent choice, Dottore but unfortunately Beppe neglected to refuel the Ape and by the time he reached the fish market this morning the best scampi had gone’.
‘Hmmm, what meat dish can you recommend?’
At this point I had finally managed to secure the assistance of a sulky waitress and my attention turned to the pitcher of the house red wine she brought me, a vino vivace as pink and delicious as Lady Gaga’s lips.

It’s my birthday and we’re whooping it up in the Osteria del Borgo Antico, with Paolo, Franca and Andrea. My birthday present from Honeybee is ‘The Broken Road’ the last, posthumous, volume in a travel trilogy by Patrick Leigh Fermor. In 1933 at the age of 18, the author begins a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Moving through an Eastern Europe still inhabited by a noble peasantry, he sleeps in barns and hedgerows, falls in love with a Rumanian Princess and lives with her in Rumania and Greece until the drums of war summon him back to England. He joins a Guards Regiment and is parachuted into German occupied Crete where, with the help of partisans, he kidnaps a German General, an event dramatized in the film ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’, with actor Dirk Bogarde playing Leigh-Fermor. It is the author’s association with Military Intelligence, his partiality to cigarettes, strong liquor and beautiful women, his good looks and his friendship with Ian Fleming that lead many to feel that he was the inspiration for James Bond. If you read his books, start with the first book in the trilogy, ‘A Time of Gifts’, published in 1977, 43 years after the event it describes. Its title will lead you to Louis McNeice’s poem ‘Twelfth Night’  (‘For now that the time of gifts is gone’) and if you happen upon a copy of the original edition still with its dust cover, you will have an introduction into the cubist art of John Caxton. What makes PLF’s books stand out from those of other travel writers is the stylish prose. Here he writes of those events, unanticipated, their importance unappreciated at the time, which shape our lives.

‘One is only sometimes warned when these processes begin, of their crucial importance: that certain poems, paintings, kinds of music, books, or ideas are going to change everything, or that one is going to fall in love or become friends for life; the many lengthening strands, in fact, which plaited together, compose a lifetime. One should be able to detect the muffled bang of the starter’s gun.’

Sicily

On our way to spend Christmas with my suocera (mother-in-law) in the town of Adrano.

On a clear day the first thing you see as you deplane at Catania Airport is the volcano. Its brooding presence dominates the horizon. To the Greeks Etna was the home of Haephestus, God of Fire, who used the lava to forge Zeus’s thunderbolts. To the Sicilians it is muntibeddu but to my mother-in-law and the others who live on its slopes it is simply ‘a muntagna, the mountain. To the vulcanologists it is the highest (at 10,890 feet) and most active volcano in Europe. In 1669 lava reached the outskirts of Catania and in recent days it blew its top, sending clouds of sulfurous dust into the air and closing down air traffic. What lunatic decided to build Adrano on the slopes of an active volcano? I picture myself in a thousand years, a museum exhibit like those unfortunate Pompeians, a lump of fossilized volcanic ash in a cowardly foetal position. Better pull the bedclothes up tonight.

Etna - 'A muntagna

Etna – ‘A muntagna

Adrano is a poor town, you can tell from the fact that cigarettes and AA batteries can be bought singly. There is no cinema, no hotels or passable restaurants, the buildings, many fine, are chipped and weed infested. In the main Piazza there is a gloomy 12th Century Norman stronghold built in black volcanic rock and the elegant church of Santa Chiara, its façade still pock-marked from the second world war. The municipal authorities have abolished dustbins (since they overflowed) and rubbish piles in the streets since people cannot wait for collection days to dispose of their rubbish. There’s little to do except drink the small, bitter espressos, smoke and hope, which in the short-term is expressed in a scratchy and, in the longer term, in a ticket for the National Lottery.

Orange tree in the middle of Adrano

Orange tree in the middle of Adrano

Poor it may be but the people are kindly and courteous, exhibiting an almost old worldly degree of politeness. The town itself is a genuine example of ‘shared space’. In a town of 20,000 people there is not one set of traffic lights and although there are marked pedestrian crossings, people only use them IF THEY HAPPEN TO BE AT THE PLACE THEY WANT TO CROSS knowing that drivers will always slow to let them pass. There are no public car parks and the people park anywhere without ever resorting to reverse parking. But nobody minds. The roads are clogged with cars the size of dog-kennels. But you never see any road rage. These conditions I also witnessed in Genoa, San Remo and Milan only confirming my opinion that Italians are the most expert and generous spirited drivers in the world and therefore Italy the easiest place for foreigners to drive in.

Sicilian eco-taxi

Sicilian eco-taxi

We come from a city where the seasons are only mildly distinguishable and everything is available regardless of the season. That is not the case in Sicily and when we enter the Caffé Europa for breakfast expecting to see the polished, mahogany domes of brioches and jugs of granita di mandorle we are informed that these are for summer only consumption. Still, some warm, ricotta filled crescents dusted with icing sugar and sliced almonds will do very nicely.

Christmas Eve and we go to the Associazione Nazionale Combattenti e Reduci, an RSL in other words, except there are no pokies. We have come to listen to a quartet (tambourine, guitar, accordion and fischietti, a Sicilian, Pan-like whistle) play traditional Christmas music. While an elderly gentleman recites a Christmas themed poem in Sicilian dialect, I inspect a splendid battlefield mural featuring a mortally wounded WW1 Italian soldier.

Sicilian RSL

Sicilian RSL

Like every shop, building and piazza the club has a presepe (nativity scene) and like all the others, the crib is empty, for all the baby Jesus, from those no bigger than my thumb to life-size examples, are in the Churches waiting to be ‘born’ the next day and transported in processions to their allotted straw cots. In the foyer of my mother-in-law’s apartment block, framed in tinsel and poinsettia, a young man is clutching a whole pig to his chest. He is there to play a selection of Christmas music on what turns out to be Sicilian bagpipes and after wailing for ten minutes moves to the first floor to annoy some other residents.

 

Sicilian bag-pipes

Sicilian bag-pipes

This is a very religious island and its religiosity is evident everywhere. My mother-in-law’s apartment is crammed with religious statues, crucifixes, messages from Popes and pictures of Saints in various anguished or beatific poses. As I lay in bed under a particularly harrowing Crucifixion scene I can look at a plaster statue of the Black Madonna and Child (why not?) and a picture of the new Pope. My Honeybee, a Catholic, asks what is the principal difference between the Catholic and Anglican religions and I explain that Anglicans deal directly with God while Catholics use the Virgin Mary as an interlocutor. Do Anglicans follow the Stations of the Cross, she asks and I tell her that to a heathen Londoner ‘Stations of the Cross’ can only mean Charing Cross and Kings Cross.

Christmas Day and not a turkey or a mince pie to be seen. Most Sicilians seem to eat the same food at Christmas that they eat regularly throughout the year with the addition of a bottle of Spumante and a Pandoro or Panettone. We are beginning with an antipasto of Zozzo (brawn) and baked ricotta. Although customarily a New Year’s Eve dish, we follow with Zampone, literally a ‘big foot’, in this case that of a large pig, emptied of flesh and bones, stuffed with spiced, minced pork and reassembled, complete with toe nails, and ready for boiling and eating with lenticchie nobili (good quality lentils from Ustica).

Zampone ready for the pot

Zampone ready for the pot

To finish we have pere spinelle (boiled, squash ball sized local pears) and prickly pear fruit. Some of my mother-in-law’s friends have joined us for dinner and I’m sitting next to Marcello, a courteous neighbour, who has looked at me on previous occasions, as if I’m from outer space. Tonight however, we are bonding nicely, having found a common interest, first in the inky, Nero D’Avola wines of Etna and now in a bottle of Limoncello. While Marcello cracks walnuts for us I reach for the Limoncello to toast once more the glory of Anglo-Italian relationships and my new best friend but, as so often happens, the ‘League Against Dancing on Tables’ (a movement composed exclusively by women dedicated to saving men from themselves) has spirited away the bottle. I would have thought that so many similar experiences over the years would have alerted me to the danger posed by Marcello’s diminutive but explosive wife, Graziella.  I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that Honeybee, a founding member of the League, supported her.

Palermo

My Honeybee and I are in the Trattoria Primavera in Palermo reading our favourite piece of literature – the a la Carte menu of a new restaurant. Among the primi our attention is drawn to Fettucine alla Nelson. My limited knowledge of Sicilian history suggests that the dish was invented by or (more likely) conceived in honour of Horatio, Lord Nelson rather than Nelson Picquet or Nelson Rockefeller as the English Admiral, at one time, had quite close ties with Sicily. The roots of the relationship lie in the conquest of Sicily and Naples in 1734 by Philip V of Spain ending 20 years of Austrian rule. Philip, a descendent of the Bourbon King Louis XIV, installed his son, Charles, Duke of Parma as ruler of the two separate kingdoms. On the death of his father in 1759 Charles assumed the Spanish throne as Charles III, abdicating as King of Sicily and King of Naples in favour of his third son, Ferdinand, the Spanish constitution prohibiting the holding of more than one crown. Ferdinand (styled Ferdinand IV of Naples and Ferdinand III of Sicily) married the Archduchess Maria Carolina (daughter of the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I), who dominated her weak husband, pressing him into actively supporting the Anglo-Austrian alliance against the French Revolutionary Forces. In 1793 Nelson arrived in Naples seeking reinforcements for the British attempt to capture the port of Toulon. It was the first fateful meeting between Nelson and Emma, the soiled but ravishing wife of the British envoy, Sir William Hamilton. In September 1798, shortly after destroying the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, Nelson was back in Naples for R & R where he and Lady Hamilton began one of history’s most famous love affairs. In November, Nelson tore himself from Emma’s embrace to join with the Neapolitan Army in taking Rome from the French, who soon regrouped, routed the Neapolitans and invaded Naples. Ferdinand and Maria, together with the Hamiltons and other notables, were safely evacuated aboard Nelson’s flagship, the Vanguard, which sailed into Palermo on Boxing Day, 1798. Nelson returned to Naples to help loyal Neapolitans succeed in ousting the French and then to punish those Neapolitans who had sided with the Jacobins. In 1806 the persistent French were back again, retaking Naples and installing Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, as King, a reign that lasted until Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The British Navy prevented the French from taking Sicily.

In recognition of his services to the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily Ferdinand gave Nelson the Dukedom of Bronte (in Sicily) along with the Castello Maniace. Nelson never lived to see his ducal residence but if you go there now you will see the initials NB (Nelson & Bronte) set into the wrought iron gates and his coat of arms with the inscription ‘Heroi immortali nili’. Bronte lies some 10 miles from Adrano on the slopes of Etna. The Sydney suburb of Bronte is named in recognition of the Hero of the Nile. In 1815, after the final defeat of Napoleon and the execution of Murat, the separate crowns of Sicily and Naples were merged, still under King Ferdinand, into the single Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, although I feel The Kingdom of the Two Volcanoes would have made a more sensible title.

The ‘Nelson’ ingredients accompanying the ribbon pasta are melanzane, zucchine, pomodoro, mozzarella, basilico and parmigiano.

Susan Sontag, in her novel ‘The Volcano Lovers’, provides an excellent record of the affair between Nelson and Lady Hamilton.

Falcons and Pigeons

In spite of a light rain falling, a crowd has gathered in a Piazza, their gaze directed towards the narrow, fourth floor ledge of a palazzo upon which a large dog is precariously balanced. Unable to advance, having reached the end of the parapet, the dog attempts to turn. With paws scrabbling wildly on the wet stone, the dog falls, even as the mournful alarm of the vigili wails in the distance. The crowd now turns its hostile attention to the fire services, called over an hour and a half earlier, and then to the dog’s (absent) owner, who has failed to mend a gap in the railings, which enclose his terrace. This familiar story – a preventable tragedy, the tardy reaction of indifferent authorities, the minimal effect on a better future that public sentiment produces – is a microcosm of the country’s fight against the Mafia.

Of course, there is always a new hero ready to step up to take the place of Carabiniere General Dalla Chiesa (gunned down with his wife in 1982) and Prosecuting Magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino (both victims of Mafia bombings in 1992). This time it is Anti Mafia Magistrate Nino di Matteo, recently fingered for assassination by Mafia Boss, Tito ‘the beast’ Riina, currently serving a life sentence for the killings of Della Chiesa, Falcone, Borsellino and a hundred others. Government ministers have yet to announce any supportive measures for di Matteo and there are suspicions that it may have to do with the fact that it is the former Interior Minister, Nicola Mancino, who is accused of Mafia connections when he and Judge Corrado Carnevale released many of the top Cosa Nostra criminals in 1992.

Not that there isn’t any public support for di Matteo and the fight against organized crime. In the Chiesa dei Cappuccini in Adrano we listen to a youth orchestra, part of a foundation formed to honour the memory of Falcone and Borsellino, while Palermo Airport is now called ‘Falcone Borsellino’. Island clergy are in the streets announcing their solidarity with di Matteo, but perhaps the most encouraging sign is the campaign by Palermo shopkeepers to resist paying the Pizzo, literally the lace embroidery edging a piece of material but also the protection money paid to the Mafia.  In the town centre we are handed flyers saying “Paga chi non paga” (pay those who do not pay), referring to shops that refuse to pay the Pizzo. At the Punto Pizzo Free Emporio in Palermo’s city centre the shop owners have banded together, refusing to pay protection money. We wish them well.

Our hotel is in an old Palazzo rich in elaborate frescos and as we lie in bed and look up at the ceiling I feel we’re lying in state in the Sistine Chapel; anyway Honeybee doesn’t have to think of England with all this elaborate decoration to engage her attention.

Bedroom ceiling in Palermo

Bedroom ceiling in Palermo

A baby Jesus, naked except for an enormous gold crown and carried by six elderly Sicilians, parts the Christmas shoppers; behind comes a marching band playing Jingle Bells and in front a quartet of young men collecting for the Confraternita Maria SS delle Grazie dei Pirriaturi Palermo whatever that may be, but I’m sure it’s a good cause.

Baby Jesus ignoring lady's legs in stocking advert

Baby Jesus ignoring lady’s legs in stocking advert

We’ve seen la Cattedrale and the Byzantine wonder of Monreale and I’m ready to go home now and enjoy proper plumbing, but I dread the endless journey back to Sydney and that ghastly stopover in Dubai, a Middle Eastern Mecca of consumerism; people buying Rolex watches at 6 o’clock in the morning; Harrods in the January sales. Can’t understand why it takes as long flying home as it does coming here, after all it’s all downhill going back, innit? I think I’ll just go to Haberfield next time or have a stroll around Prahan Market.