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Sicily Won

It’s a quick flight from Naples to Palermo – 30 minutes, just time to have some blood orange juice – before disembarking into the heat and parched landscape of Palermo’s environs, and, per our transfers, Karen and I duly arrived at the Mondello Palace hotel. Mondello it may be, palace is isn’t, but it’s the best on offer in this neck of the woods. Even so, the navy blue bathroom was a bit disconcerting.

Mid-afternoon, we met up with our group of six for Sara Monick’s ‘Art of Living’ tour of Sicily and set off for Montreale to visit the cathedral. Our guide is Giovanni, a botanist who grows blood oranges on the Catania Plain south of Mt Etna. According to Giovanni, the oranges only grow well in this area – they need the chill wind off the snow for the colour, the sandy soil for the sweetness, and the southern aspect to ripen early. Again, according to Giovanni, Sicily has been invaded approximately 12 times, but there are no decent histories of Sicily written by Italians. He recommended John Julius Norwich’s “the Normans in Sicily” (Note: for fans of the Souls and their offspring, John Julius is Diana Cooper’s son.)

Sicily has been invaded (in no particular order) by the Saracens, Phoenecians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Huns, Romans, Barbarians, Byzantines, Aragonese, Bourbons, Savoies. A quick recce of their kings’ names is informative: Cleandros, Dionysius, Ducetius, Hippocrates, Verres, Genseric the Vandal, Justinian, Doicletian, Roger, William, Tancred, Henry, Manfred, Frederick II, Charles of Anjou, James, Peter, Duke John of Pegnafiel, Vittorio Amadeo, Ferdinand, Vittorio Emmanuel. Oh, and to cap it all off, Archimedes was a Syracusan (killed against orders during the Second Punic War in 212BC, thereby snuffing out one of the finest brains the world has known). Rich tapestry indeed.

The architecture reflects the various stages and styles of the Island’s history and, curiously, each wave of invaders seemed to respect the previous regimes’ heritage and culture (with the exception of the Spanish, who tried to wipe out all trace of the infidel Moors’culture, which is why there is so little use of spices in Sicilian cooking). The Sicilians also adapted Art Nouveau to their own taste, forming the Liberty Style, which is very attractive. Montreale cathedral is famous for its extravagant mosaics – gold everywhere. The old testament is spelled out in stupendous 12th; 13th century mosaics around the nave, aisles, choir and transepts. Magnificent now, it must have been awe-inspiring and preternatural if you were illiterate and poor in the Middle Ages. There was a wedding in progress, closely followed by an ordination, so the spectacle was wonderful except for the fact that the cathedral had been amplified! Why do that, when in its natural state, it would have had superb acoustics? Maybe sound doesn’t bounce off that much gold.

We followed up with a tour of the cloisters, which were beautiful. True to the traditions of raiding rapists and pillagers, the US boys had done a fine bit of mosaic strip-picking with their bayonets when they rocked up to this beauty in ’43. I guess they had to do something befitting the occasion, as their offerings of a pair of silk stockings or a bar of chocolate gave them procuring rights to the other spoils of conquest. With the help of the US mafia and its home-grown relatives, the boys took the west of Sicily in a few days, while the poor old Poms got the short end of the stick in the east of the island and had a bugger of a time, proving the old adage that it’s who you know that counts.

I paid a dollar to visit the public conveniences on the way out, slamming the cubicle door to be thrilled that the art of graffiti is alive and well: “Fuck the Mafia” – splendid stuff.

Back to the hotel for cocktails (campari, cointreau and Orange juice) and dinner. The local fashion house was parading its latest collection in the garden, so we were entertained from 9.30 for two hours with various muzak to saunter by. The clothes were gorgeous, and the glitterati of Palermo were out in force to watch the show. We watched from our balcony in our ‘jarmies, limoncello in hand.

Next morning we set out on a tour of the city. The main drag of Palermo is a beautiful, tree-lined avenue that runs straight through the centre and changes its name many times in the process. Some of the time it’s called Via Liberta. We stopped to have a geek at the Chinese Villa. I can only assume the Chinese had to do something to make a lasting impression, given they’d never invaded Sicily. Then it was on to the Opera House (Teatro Massimo) – the third largest theatre in Europe and an absolute gem. Apart from the stalls (with red velvet armchairs), there are six levels of seating – all of them segmented into private enclaves and originally, the levels clearly designated class. Amusingly, the best acoustics are to be enjoyed on the top level, which was reserved for the peasants and lower merchant class.

The large royal box still has its original upholstery and, with its ante room, makes for a very pleasant suite. The main theatre is circular, with one side chopped off for the stage, which is an impressive 55 metres deep. The Teatro Massimo has been thirty years in restoration but they’ve done a grand job. It used to be said that the Opera house held 3000 patrons. Giovanni said this could only be if all the peasants were ‘standing like anchovies’. Is that the Sicilians version of ‘packed in like sardines’, or what?

We strolled off to the Capo market. The famed Palermo market, the Vucciria, a hot spot for a bit of intrigue and wayward assassination, is a shadow of its former self. Because of falling masonry and general disrepair, it’s about one-tenth of its original glory, apparently. The Capo was pretty good, though. Superb, exotic fruits and vegetables; and the fish was lovely – fresh, no smell, glistening; bright-eyed – swordfish, red mullet, sardines, squid, anchovies, sea bass, shrimp, clams, crabs, sea snails. For presentation, the fishmongers tie the tail to the mouth with fishing line, simulating rigor mortis, so they curl and catch the light on the scales – a pretty trickery. Our tour of the market yielded a bargain – one pair of sabots – leather upper, rubber sole, $9 – fantastic.

Ever onward – by this stage it was 11am and stinking hot – we snuck around a couple of turns to the Capelli Palantino. Listed as a jewel of Arab-Norman art, it more than lives up to its publicity photos and touro-hype. Being our lucky day, we only had to queue for half an hour and enjoy the attentions of the endemic shoddy-droppers. Once inside, we were treated to a second serve of the gospel-in-pictures mosaic trade. On the cupola is the image of Christ Pantocrator (“All Powerful” or “Ruler of All”). Old Testament kings & prophets are on the arches. It’s the ceiling that grabs you – a masterpiece of Muslim art consisting of carved wooden coffers with paintings in tempura.

The Capelli backs onto the Parliament, which fronts onto a garden in which 3000 palm trees were planted by the Arabs. Then it was onward to the famous Cathedral and the double arches and loggia where self-proclamation became an art form. The (enormous) Cathedral, C12th, stands on the site of an early Christian basilica, later a mosque (shades of the Temple on the Mount in Jerusalem!), and some of the original Norman structure survives. There are remnants from the Catalan Gothic period, Arabic inscriptions, Neo-classical fol-de-rols, and Frederick the Second of Germany and Sicily has his sarcophagus on display in an alcove.

We skipped the tin alley flea market – the shingle looked as if it could probably be translated to ‘muggings gratuit’.

It was seriously hot (and we’re talking mid-October), and we did a drive-by glimpse of the Vuccuria market. A couple of traffic jams later and Giovanni proclaimed the polizia to be “so stupid they need tie red string to find their pockets”. A few minutes later, outside a Baroque private palazzo, he parted with more home-spun philosophy on Sicilians “we born baroque, we marry baroque, we die baroque – all is for the theatre”.

Through a maze of back streets in the oldest part of the city we came upon two more fine churches. The first (another amalgum) – more mosaics and admixtures of style, plus wedding – was interesting in that it’s next door to the chapel San Cataldo, which was originally the chapel of William 1’s admiral. It now belongs to the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. The only place I’ve run across these coves before is in Christian Jerusalem, so how did they come they crouch out of the wind in an Arab-Norman haven with inscriptions from the Koran in Palermo? Trade is a wonderful thing.

The second church, out of the normal tourist territory in the compellingly unattractive old port area, was Chiesa del Gesu – representing the peak of Baroque decoration in Palermo. The interior is entirely covered in marble inlay – superb craftsmanship and opulent beyond belief. In between, we cased the town hall and the Fontana Pretoria, once called ‘the fountain of shame’ because of its statues of nude figures, most of which were either well endowed or having a lend of themselves.

Ready for a prosecco by now, we headed for lunch on the city ramparts at the private palazzo of the Lanza family, who are related by marriage to the owners of the vineyard and cooking school planned as our next destination.

Nicoletta met us and introduced her two brothers-in-law who were commandeered into host duty in lieu of her husband, who was off opening an opera in Naples (he’s the Director of the Naples opera). The brothers, Guiseppe and Wenceslao (pronounced Ven-shus), were delightful – urbane, witty, laid back, rich, blue-eyed – they made for fine company. Nicoletta’s husband’s adoptive father* was Guiseppe di Lampadusa, author of The Leopard, and here we were, dining in the author’s last home in Palermo before he died in Rome in 1957, a year before his masterpiece was published. (* There’s a remarkably effective adoption system in Sicily. If you are a childless, you are able to adopt your sibling’s child when he/she reaches 21. The child then takes your family name, or hyphenates it with their own family name, without forsaking their natural parentage. Therefore, the adopted child is the heir presumptive to the childless adopter. Neat, and great for all parties. The system also goes a long way to protecting family names from disappearing if a generation lucks out with a family of daughters.)

The palazzo is architecturally beautiful – again, the cross-vaulted Moorish ceilings, large rectangular rooms akimbo, the façade littered with three metre high French doors to throw open to catch the breeze off the Mediterranean a mere 75 metres across the way.

We started with nibbles (with prosecco -marvellous stuff) – tapenade on toast, chick pea fritters with mint (called panelle – delicious); beignets of cauliflower, zucchini and peppers; potato flour fritters with chives. The Palermentians love fried stuff with their aperitifs, and it’s no wonder – everything was delectable. The wine of the Tasca family flowed freely before, during and after lunch. Nicoletta cooks everything herself, although I rather got the impression this was directional rather than completely hands-on. “You can’t trust servants – they’re so stupid they boil potatoes two hours before lunch.”

We were led to the beautiful dining room, via two of the four substantial rooms that were floor-to-ceiling with Lampadusa’s books, an enormous collection in the several languages in which he was fluent. The dining room again featured french doors open to the sea breeze, the table setting all white with huge bowls of tiny white daisies and scarlet edged carnations. Damask napkins two-feet square.

Our starter was a pasta dish – a Sicilian-specialty pasta of small rings mixed with a meat sauce (including chicken livers) with peas, then turned into a gratin dish (oiled and breaded, with some parmesan too), baked and turned out. It looked wonderful and tasted just as well.

Main course – swordfish steak. Discard your visuals. This arrived on a platter – a single, cross-cut steak from the centre of the fish, weighing in at about three kilos – sufficient for ten of us and then some. It had been marinated in olive oil, anchovies (just a few, crushed) and fresh oregano, then baked and served with new potatoes and a lovely sauce of olive oil, oregano, perhaps a tad of mint, and parsley. Add in a side salad of mesclun and pomegranate seeds and it was the stuff of ‘Death, where is thy sting’.

Dessert continued the circular theme – marsala ice-cream moulded in a savarin ring, with fruits macerated in the same said juice. To accompany, my old favourite from Venice, fragolino (made from strawberry-flavoured grapes) – the only wine not from the family cellars at Regaleali.

We repaired to the former ladies drawing room for coffee. There were two beautiful portraits – 2m+ high – of two beautiful women. One was Guiseppe and Wencelas’ mother. Spanish, in a snappy 20’s sheath, she was quite lovely in the austere fashion, with her first son (Guiseppe) perched atop a classical pillar, aged three. Guiseppe said he could remember the artist, but not perching on a pillar! The other portrait was of the brothers’ aunt – the beauty of her age. Picasso came to stay, painted her portrait, but her mother (i.e. Guiseppe and Wences’s grandmother) didn’t like it and told Picasso to take it away. Damn.

Replete, we exited onto the backstreet footpath and into the heat of the afternoon. The puppet museum was chiusa so we repaired to the hotel to dangle our feet in the cool pool and catch up with all manner of homework. A walk around Mondello Beach revealed little to tempt the wallet, with barely a postcard in sight.

Next morning we were up at sparrows’ for a day in the country. Sicily (based on Palermo observations) is interesting in that the population is comprised of all manner of complexion and colouring, demonstrating that the island was perhaps the first truly multi-racial/multi-cultural society. Blue eyes abound. Honey-blonde hair. A very occasional red-head. Fair complexions are common. I’d been expecting the dark and swarthy type in spades. Wences said he’s still not regarded as a Sicilian, because although his family has been in Sicily for centuries, he was actually born in Rome, therefore no-go as a native. (I discovered later that Wences’ family, the Lanzas, hold more than 50 noble titles between them, some from the fifteenth century.)

On the road at 9am, bound for Segesta and Erice, we hooned out of town in our small bus and headed west. Out along the highway, Govanni pointed out the small stone building on the hillside from which the mafia detonated the bomb in the culvert under the freeway that blew Judge Falcone’s car and its occupants 40 feet in the air.

Then we passed the turnoff to Montelepre, famous for being home to the 50’s bandit Salvatore Guiliano, who was so elusive he managed a comparatively long career (7 years) of crime and other misdeeds, including affairs with female journalists, meetings with all manner of the famous and infamous, and the only folk who couldn’t sniff him out were the Caribinieri!

The Sicilian flora is worth a diversion. The Kapok trees were in bloom – gorgeous pink lilium-like flowers. Caper vines tumble down brick walls, loaded with their wonderful flowers. Carobs abound. These fruit were originally used as the measurement for gold, hence the word ‘carat’. There is a single genus of native palm, cute little buggers about two feet high, a protected species of which there are quite a lot thriving around Castellemare del Golfo.

The landscape towards Segesta is lovely – rolling hills sporting grapes and olives; a few ancient ruined farmhouses – it’s equal in appeal to Tuscany or Provence.

We came upon the Doric temple of Segesta quite suddenly. It’s strange to tootle around a bend in a highway and have an ancient masterpiece take your breath away. Segesta was built as a piece of political expediency: a demonstration of loyalty to the Athenians during the Pelopponesian war. The war ended before the temple was finished, so the project was abandoned. Even so, it’s a beauty. Built in the fifth century BC, it has 36 Doric columns supporting the pediments and emblatures, stands alone on a hillside and is all the more glorious for it.

Surprisingly, the roads are lined with eucalyptus. We set forth again and headed for Trapani, by the sea. Salt is the big ticket item here, with a huge swathe of salt pans from Trapani to Marsala. Lovely little windmills provide power, and one of the inventions of Sicily’s favourite son, Archimedes, is still used to pump water out of the ponds. It’s colourfully called the Archimedes Screw.

We stopped off at the salt museum, admired the local wildlife that thrive in the marshes, including flamingo and a highly-prized fish called spigola, and watched a local bella figura load his catch of octopi into his wagon, then we set off for the nearby jewel of a hilltown – Erice.

Erice sits atop a bundle of rock that erupts 3000′ out of the sea. The views from the switchback road on way up are spectacular. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Normans et al admired this site and made it their own. The Cathedral stands at the entrance to the town. The white interior would be austere but for its intricately moulded ceilings and marbled walls which capture the refractions of the sun, giving a luminosity and delicacy that is uplifting to the spirits. It’s worth a journey.

We walked around the town and bought some trinkets, including the world’s most expensive fridge magnets at $15 apiece! Then it was back to the Monte San Guiliano restaurant for lunch. We were joined by Mary Taylor Semetti, author of Pomp and Sustenance (marketed inaccurately in Britain as ‘Sicilian Cooking’), a scholarly work on the history of the food of the island. She came to Sicily from the US as a young woman, having done her thesis on Frederick the Second, and has stayed ever since. I asked her if she’d read “Midnight in Sicily” and she replied that she’d read a few chapters. Verdict: the author had chosen to see Sicily through black-coloured glasses and some of his facts were wrong and she didn’t need to read someone’s view of the worst of what Sicily has to offer – probably fair comment from an intelligent and genial local.

The restaurant is named after the peak on which it is perched, and we were in for a very pleasant lunch. We started with an aperitif of Marsala (chilled) under the pergola abutting the escarpment. Thence to table. With the heat of the day outside, a couple of bottles of icy Corvo to accompany lunch were very welcome. Lunch started with fish couscous (quite delightful, with fish fumet ladled over), followed by grilled swordfish with a side dish of caponata (eggplant, onion, celery, sauteed in olive oil with garlic and tomatoes and left to mature for a couple of days – delicious). We ended with cassata authentica, plus some almondy semi-freddo, served with a delectable unfortified muscat.

We revived with a post-prandial ramble around the rampants, then headed back to the kitchen of Maria, the famous biscuit maker. Maria Giannati was brought up in an orphanage in Erice, although orphaned she wasn’t. Her father died when she was ten and her mother was so poor the two youngest daughters had to be outsourced to the ophanage. Maria learned to cook at the side of the nuns, and the traditional patisserie of Erice was all but lost until she resurrected the craft, which is now Erice’s booming claim to fame. We watched her make marzipan and then turn the paste into mock fruit – figs, lemons, loquats, strawberries, chestnuts, apricots, pears, oranges, peaches. Then we attempted the task ourselves, with some dubious results.

Back in Mondello, and after packing our bags, we shot downstairs and bought a bottle of prosecco to celebrate my birthday as it was already tomorrow in Australia. We took with us our Pesto de Trapani, a tasty paste of sundried tomatoes, almonds, basil, garlic, hint of anchovies; plus olives and crackers made for a light and pleasant supper. Before departing next morning, I called Jane (my mother) to remind her of the joy in giving birth to me several decades ago.

True to form, the conversation was both hilarious and heartwarming. It was by this stage early evening in Melbourne. “Hello, it’s me”. “Oh, and how are you”. “I’m fine, I’m ringing because it’s my birthday today”. “What’s that dear? Oh, now wait a minute, I thought the other day that someone has a birthday in October”. “Yes, it’s me.” “I thought it was on the tenth”. “No, that was Tom’s” “Who?” “Tom, your brother”. “Oh, and it’s yours today?” “Yes” “Oh, well happy birthday, dear”. “Thank you, I’m in Sicily” “You’re where?” “In Palermo, in Sicily” “Oh, they have a marvellous history – it was invaded by the Phoencians, Cathaginians, Normans, Germans, everyone”. Blow me down with a feather and butter me on both sides! It just shows you can never make assumptions about anyone, even your mum. Here she is heaping praise on a part of Italy about which I thought she had no knowledge whatsoever. “They make marvellous ceramics in Sicily – why don’t you buy yourself a nice piece for your birthday present?” Life’s pretty good.

Getting out of Palermo for the journey east to Cefalu was comparatively easy for a weekday at peak hour. Again it was a beautiful day, and the trip along the north coast was lovely. After an hour the Madonie Mountains loomed large up ahead. Apparently the main peak, which is the second highest in Sicily (after Etna, at 10,000’+), has ski villages on its southern slopes, complete with Swiss/Tyrolean-style chalets!

We were pulled over by the Polizia with semi-automatics hanging loose. This turned out to be a routine check to make sure our little bus was in order – driver’s papers, fire extinguisher, spare tyre and the like. However, even the Polizia aspire to the bella figura club and when I signalled that I would like to take their photo, they set their bodies akimbo instantly.

On to Cefalu, which is a gorgeous town. The local teenagers were holding a peace demonstration in the duomo square. Giovanni, typically sardonic, said “they demonstrate because no want to go school”. The Norman cathedral is appealing, but some fool allowed all the clerestory windows to be destroyed by a vandal masquerading as an artist. They’re hideous, and destroy what must have been a beautifully lit interior in its original form.

We then toddled down the hill to the ancient well where the folk of Cefalu washed their clothes and abluted until a couple of decades ago. The water flows constantly from a spring sourced in the mountains behind the town, then evacuates through a hole in the rock into to the sea.

There were some excellent ceramics shops, but the range was so superb it was impossible to choose. By this stage, we’d learnt the lesson of the lunchtime closing, so we dashed back to favourite shops so Karen could pick up some truly lovely small ceramics for presents, and I pocketed a pretty, chintzy table runner.

Lunch was at a local trattoria, which surprised with a nice antipasti (grilled vegetables and panelle), then the Sicilian speciality – Pasta con Sardo (with wild fennel, pine nuts and sardine sauce, topped with toasted breadcrumbs). They also offered Pasta la Norma, which, according to the hype, Caruso named when he was singing the opera at Catania and ducked out the back to partake of pasta with eggplant, tomato and basil.

The drive through the countryside toward Regaleali was stark, but picturesque – a rugged landscape with few trees, rather large hills, rolling clouds, vines, olives. It was very dry, but with awesome views of ruined stone farmhouse buildings. We arrived at Regaleali at 4pm, surrounded by hills covered in vines, recently harvested and still green, but with the first shades of autumn appearing. It was quite warm, so it must be blistering in high summer. The estate buildings form a square surrounding a paved central courtyard, and the buildings are of a mellow, yellow stone, the windows closed with ultramarine shutters against the heat of the afternoon.

Bang on 5pm we were treated to the estate workers knocking off, hooning in on their tractors, every one of them yelling and gesticulating and scratching or rearranging their tackle. The occasional local ditty floated up along with the morose whisper of the wind stealing through the pines. I opened the shutters for a while, but a myriad of tiny flies wafted in, so I abandoned the idea.

There was time to sneak in another quick snooze while Karen freshened up. Our quarters were charming, with two bedrooms and bathrooms, living room and kitchenette for four of us; located above the garages. We were due in the kitchen at 6.30 with our hostess, Anna Tasca Lanza, renowned cook and writer, so we toddled across the courtyard to the kitchen for a cup of tea and an introductory chat.

It was time to start on the preparation for dinner. Some snapping fresh, tiny shrimp arrived and were duly peeled and marinated in lemon and tangerine juice for a while to ‘ceviche’ them, they were then mixed with olive oil, parsley, chilli and piled onto toast for bruscetta for aperitifs, with Regaleali wines to accompany.

Dinner started with delicious legume soup, garnished with crushed sesame seeds and herbs and drizzled with olive oil. Soup is always served tepid or room temperature in Sicily. To follow: involtini with rosemary-roasted potatoes, and tomato salad, made with the last of the season from the garden and they were scrumptious. Dessert was a tangerine jelly garnished with mint leaves and pomegranate (also from the garden), with a separate jelly for me mounted with a birthday candle. By this stage the singing syrup had kicked in, so it was a lot of fun. The conversation was interesting, too. Costanza, Anna’s sister, is passionate about music and she travels extensively, particularly to Berlin, Saltzburg, Milan and Vienna. No wonder, the Tasca family hosted most of the great musicians who passed through Sicily and Palermo after the war, so she grew up listening to Claudio Abbado and the like performing in the family salon.

Anna’s next trip is to Madrid, to follow up on gazpacho, with which she is fascinated (me too, I thought it was Andalusian, with some regional variants). Someone suggested “you could see XXXX (culinary luminary), to which Anna (a Marchesa) reacted dismissively; totally unselfconsciously, “No, I will see my cousin – he is the Ambassador to Spain”.

The Tasca & Lanza families have a rich and aristocratic heritage. Lampadusa apparently traced his branch of the Lanzas back to Tiberius (famed for bedroom hopping in Capri). Wences’ and Guiseppe’s mother and aunt were seriously well connected diplomatically – ambassadors, cultural headlines, the works.

We slept well and were awakened by the sounds of dogs barking from across the other side of the vales and the birds chirruping outside the window. Breakfast. Oh joy, eggs, collected to order from under the chooks and soft-boiled. Heaven on a stick. Persimmons from the garden, home made preserves (mulberry jam for me, please), bread and croissants and a honeycomb from which to dig out honey. Freshly squeezed orange juice and lapsang suchong. A breakfast of kings.

Anna told me that, although the vegetables are lovely, Sicilians don’t serve them to guests because they’re considered poor people’s food and you must serve the best you can afford, hence the meat and pasta. Everything is about appearance. There’s a fine vegetable garden below the terrace, which is full of aubergines, peppers, the very last tomatoes, lettuce, prickly pears (you have to gum these to eat them successfully, & then they’re utterly pointless to my way of thinking).

We had our first cooking lesson in the morning – Arancini (risotto balls filled with ragu, then breaded, deep fried), panelle (chick pea fritters), croquettes (bechamel, pancetta, caciocavallo cheese), ricotta and cinnamon cheesecake. The croquettes were delicious, the panelle almost as good as Nicoletta’s on Saturday. (Anna had been dismissive when we’d commented on Nicoletta’s panelle on our arrival – “she probably had them brought in”. Such is the eternal fate of the second wife at the hands of her first-wife sister-in-law.) Arancini have never appealed for mine – I reckon left-over risotto should be turfed rather than letting it go cold & gluey and then turning it into bland balls of fluff. The salad, straight from the garden, was sublime, even if it doesn’t rate as a fine Sicilian offering.

We had an afternoon lazing around reading and snoozing before heading up to the winery. Regaleali was started as a winery by Anna’s grandfather. It was the first winery in the centre of Sicily, and in its previous life the property was devoted to wheat, horses for riding and general farming. The family still considers it a farm, supporting brown-faced, lanky sheep, olives, wheat, vegetables and fruit, plus 500 hectares under vines. It’s quite an expanse when you see it all laid out before you in all directions over the rolling hills. Until Regaleali, vines were only planted along the coast – white wine along the north coast, red on the south. Anna’s parents made Regaleali a commercial success. Wences was a close friend of Anna’s mother so the family dynamics are intriguing.

The Tascas have a Monzu – a rarity. This is a family chef, and the term is a corruption of ‘Monsieur’. Wences’ family (they of the beautiful Spanish mother, and more homes than you could shake a stick at) also had ‘Le Chef’. This guy must have been a ball-tearer. Always cheerful, he was also lucky. He had been, before the war, a chef on the trans-Atlantic liners. Then he got a bit careless for a minute, and his boat was blown up by the British. He never went back to sea again: instead he shot off like a startled rabbit to his homeland and settled into the Lanza family kitchen.

‘Le Chef’ had two families: his wife and a couple of kids, plus his ‘lady’ and her child. The Lanzas turned a blind eye to the fact that his lady was an admirable assistant to Le Chef in his daily working life, looking after the nutritional needs of the family from daylight till dark. No wonder he was always cheerful.

‘Le Chef’ also won the national lottery – twice! The first time he bought an apartment for his wife; the second time, one for his lady.

As previously indicated, Wences has several houses. The Regaleali home belongs to Anna – her father gave each of the three daughters a house on the estate while the son got the ‘big house’. Wences himself has an apartment in Rome, across from the gardens at the top of the Via Veneto, plus a property ‘across the water’ from Malta, where they grow tangerines. This one doesn’t please him much.

The vineyard is run by Guiseppe, Anna’s nephew. They can manage production of 3 million litres at any one time, although the actual capacity is 5 million litres. The towering stainless steel tanks are aesthetically hidden behind the big house and its courtyard and are topped by a bunting of flags comprising the Tasca d’Almerita family standard, plus those of Sicily, Italy and Europe. In the centre, there’s a steel statue of the Madonna.

Back at the villa it was time for us to cook dinner – a terrine lined with fried aubergine, filled with pasta coated in tomato sauce, layered with bacon and caciocavallo cheese (we’ve christened this horse cheese by now). To follow, a roast side of baby lamb. The lamb was roasted in orange juice, red wine vinegar and sprinkled with salt and pepper, cumin and coriander, served with favas (home grown, but they don’t double-shell them here, so they whimpered on the side in a little grey mass). The dessert was an orange sponge, made without the benefit of any leavening agent, and filled with quince marmalade that disobeyed our entreaties to set. With lemon icing it was pleasant but unremarkable. However, there was plenty of good wine and cheerful banter, and we finished off with excellent home made liqueurs – lemon and fraises de bois.

Breakfast next day was excellent – a perfectly cooked fresh egg with heavily buttered soldiers and fresh melon. Today’s agenda – a trip to the Madonie mountains. For the first time we had clouds – not a lot, but gathering – and a light fog that spoiled the visibility. When it’s clear, one can see Etna across the valleys on approach to Polizi Generosa – the village targeted for our mid-morning stroll. The landscape is compelling – and not interrupted to any great extent by the ubiquitous electricity lines that spoil the vistas of Tuscany and Provence. There are parasol pines and olive trees and large cows in multicolours, and goats also charm in the otherwise stark landscape.

The EEC, via the Italian Government, pays the farmers not to grow wheat. “Rome’s granary” is out of business. In the past, it must have been a lovely vista throughout summer and autumn with the rolling lower mountains covered in shimmering fields of wheat, overlooked by the occasional hill town, with the stone buildings bleached to the same colour as the surrounding countryside.

En route, Wences filled us in on a bit more history – personal and otherwise. His grandfather was a diplomat and a writer. His mother was born in Constantinople and lived in Vienna, Brussels and London. Her father spoke perfect, classical Spanish, and she was embarrassed that her Spanish was less than perfect, so she never spoke it.

Wences was born in Rome and grew up there. He and his brothers had a disciplined upbringing, with a tutor for mathematics, literature, history and geography; a priest for Latin and German; and an English-speaking nanny who was Irish (Catholic) with an Oxford accent! The first language he technically learned was French (the language of diplomacy); the second English, which he started learning at six, and sandwiched in the middle was Italian. Life was fairly strict – the regimen of schooling took all day, and the ‘year’ lasted from October to June.

The children spent the whole school year looking forward to the three month summer break, when the family repaired to Biarritz. (Wences’ grandfather played around in Biarritz with all the other Spanish nobility, plus the Brits, including Edward VII, who spent a fair time there in the company of ladies other than his Queen.) Even in summer the tutoring didn’t stop – each day the boys were required to practice golf or tennis.

All this seemingly idyllic life came to a halt in ’35 with the rise of Mussolini and Fascism and the invasion of Abyssinia. However, living in Rome seemed to be rather surreal as it was elevated from the mundane by the influence of the ubiquitous Victor Emmanuel, and Pope Pius XII, who was pretty keen on not having his mortal coil buggered up by a bunch of testosterone-filled black shirts. So Wences and his cronies, as adolescents, thought it was pretty silly having to dress up on Saturdays in black shirts and wave plastic firearms around while marching up and down in the city of Caesar.

Similarly, the war didn’t have too much impact on those of the inner circle. Wences used to see Mussolini almost every day – he lived nearby and they crossed paths with Mussolini on the way down the hill to his office, and the Lanza boys on the way up to school.

The Vatican was used as a safe house for the diplomatic glitterati – German, UK, US, and every other nationality – they all lived within the Vatican City. They were supposed to be corralled there, but this was more propaganda than fact. The British Ambassador scrambled over the wall once a fortnight to visit his ‘dentist’ and afterwards ‘took tea’ with Wences’ aunt.

Everything went along swimmingly, with all parties knowing the game, until the German took unkindly to the Italian government signing an Armistice with the Allies (September ’43), when things got ‘quite nasty’.

Having taken over the Italian defences, and rocked into Rome to assume virtual governance, the Germans started a habit of closing off a section of Rome without notice, rounding up everyone in the compound, letting women, the aged, and kids go, and shipping all the able-bodied males off to work as slave labour.

One day Wences was caught in such a roundup. Now a teenager, he was so terrified that when the German officer checked his Vatican passport and asked him a question, he answered not in German or Italian, but in English! The German officer said to him that he looked able-bodied enough to be shipped off but added ‘come with me’. He led Wences to the corner of the square and told him to run as fast as he could. Wences sped off like a cut cat and didn’t look back.

By this stage we were approaching Polizi Generosa. This has always been an independent town, owned by the State. Feudalism lasted much longer in Sicily than anywhere else in Europe – well into the nineteenth century, but more of that later.

One of Polizi’s exports was snow; as Sicily was the first port of call for ice-cream making in Europe, the technique originating from the Moors. The church, never slow in making a fast buck, decided that snow was the property of the church (created by God, obviously) and developed a neat business in taking a cut from their boss cocky’s work by having snow packed in straw and shipped to the coast.

We visited a local ceramic shop, the market, and specialist patisserie and sausage maker – an entertaining morning. The market was intriguing. How many mattresses can you sell in a remote hill town on a Wednesday morning? Or kitchen mats and carpets, or fixtures and fittings of a normal household? The cheese and meat I can understand.

We left Polizi with the sky leadening, and headed up to the mountains. As we climbed, we entered oak forests, then onto the usual snowline stumpy vegetation. The woods were beautiful, just starting to turn with autumn colour. We were headed for Piana Bataglia. ‘Piano’ means a ‘flat place in the mountains’. And this is where the ski resort is – a few Swiss style chalets and a substantial chair lift. It must be quite good fun, skiing down through the oak forests.

We had lunch at the Sicilian Club Alpine. Wences had brought a large container of wine (about 5L for 10 people) because the restaurant had told Regaleali that their own wine wasn’t good enough for us!

We started with bruscetta with hot pecorino and beautiful black olives with just a hint of wild fennel. Then a fetuccine with a) fresh porcini, collected that morning, and b) wild hare ragu. Both were delicious. Possibly because we were in danger of starving, the pasta was followed by grilled mutton chops with chips and salad, then fresh fruit and a dessert concoction with ricotta which my US companions knew well, but of which I had no previous acquaintance.

Suitably replete, we headed back down through the forests, admiring the parasol pines and goats and cows and lovely, if barren, landscape. We drove past the estate where Prince Charles comes to paint. He had asked to come to Regaleali a couple of years ago but the advanced security check pronounced it unsuitable, so he had to settle stopping by for dinner with Costanza (Anna’s sister).

Back at Regaleali, we settled in for an afternoon kip before cocktails and a light supper. The aperitif was sparkling white with pomegranate juice. Our supper was minestra. The spaghetti was cooked and added to the minestra at the last minute. Served at room temperature, it was good, but would have been excellent hot. Not only do Sicilians like tepid food, in summer they eat minestra cold, straight from the fridge.

The soup was followed by grilled sausages, bought that morning in Polizi Genorosa. Elaine (from New York State) pronounced that they might be from Polizi, but they certainly weren’t genorosa! Being an butcher’s daughter, one sausage didn’t cut the mustard.

The simple salad with cucumbers was soothing, then, to cleanse the palate – a mulberry granita consisting of freshly picked, crudely crushed mulberries mixed with sugar syrup, then frozen – yum. And so to bed. For company, I had a mosquito, so ended up taking a melatonin and sleeping with a towel over my head.

Overnight, it had rained briefly – not even enough to dampen the road, then cleared to another beautiful day. After the standard wonderful breakfast, we made a Sicilian version of pizza, but with a thick, yeasty base covered with tomatoes, onions, anchovies and caciocavallo and oregano. Then we crafted a rolled focaccia filled with a mixture of sausage meat, ricotta and tomatoes – a tasty but decidedly unpretty melange. However, the doughnuts were grand – yeast dough rolled by hand into a length, then tied in a knot, deep fried and covered in sugar and served hot with ice-cream.

We had a restful afternoon, reading and packing, before a history lesson with Wences, which included a fascinating insight into the aristocracy of Sicily, as well as a potted history of why the island is unique.

Sicily was feudal until 1816. Until that time the assets were divided 1/3-church, 1/3 aristocracy, 1/3 state. The societal framework and its noble constituents were emasculated by the treaty of Vienna. This left a void in the social framework, with which the Sicilians were uncomfortable. Before 1816, the merchants of the aristocracy were employed as the administrators of assets and employees. After 1816, this bourgeoisie filled the gap left by the breakdown of feudalism by becoming the ‘protectors’ with ‘payment’ for services of continuity and ensuring the security of family fortunes.

The resulting ‘mafia’ had a flawless business plan – ‘you run a successful business’, ‘you need protection from the forces of evil’, ‘we will protect you from the forces of evil’, ‘if you pay us $$’, ‘if you choose not to pay us, we kill you’. Simple, logical and effective, and it could have gone on forever as a model of business planning, provided no-one got a) greedy, b) disrupted the family/peer model of success.

Enter Toto Riina. Even his mother couldn’t love him. Codenamed ‘the Beast’, do yourself a favour and avoid ever reading his exploits, because they constitute the worst of humanity’s doings. Falcone, in taking on this animal and knowing that he would die in the process, was one of the bravest people imaginable.

Toto also set about nuking every other family in the game, and all their hangers on, by the most barbaric means to hand. By conducting such mafia-cide, he destroyed the fundamental ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ of live & let live across the various families. In the process, he proved that the Mafia’s power revolved around precisely the attribute that Toto disembowelled – the community protectionism, familiarity with ‘the system’ by the locals, ‘this is the way things are done around here’. In fact, it’s not much different from any social system, if at all, and understandable given the history of the place. It’s only when the mechanism turns feral that the whole shebang goes belly-up.

By this stage it was getting cool, so we repaired inside to Wences’ and Anna’s sitting room to hear more. Wences rattled off a wonderful personal history, with idiosyncratic insights. Going back to pre-war (WW2), Mussolini had thought to inspire and educate young Hitler, but the Italians had never wanted war. When Chamberlain and Halifax came to Rome in early ’39, they were clapped in the street because they were pacifists, and especially because they were wearing top hats, not uniforms. At the end of the war, even when there was no food, the wine was beautiful.

Going back a tad, at the start of the C19, there were no real police in Sicily, because the system was self-regulating. Until 1812, Sicily had been two independent kingdoms, but the Congress of Vienna buggered that up as a means of sticking it to the Bourbons. Going further afield, there was no Renaissance in Sicily because there were no Dark Ages, courtesy of the civilization of the Arabs and Normans. The Moors managed peace with Jerusalem without war in a fusion of bilateral governance comprising both Christian and Arab elements, but this was not acceptable to the Europeans because it did not constitute a military conquest. Sicily was, however, visited by the Black Plague, after which there was a wave of new immigration from Genoa and Catalonia because they couldn’t own property in their homelands.

The Aragonese, the Hapsburgs, the chiefs of Savoy and Austria and the Bourbons all took turns as landlords. All the important laws were in Latin, with the less important in Spanish; and normal administration conducted in Sicilian. Modern Italian started in Sicily as a court language for poetry. Titles were important, because very few families survived – nobility required a large estate, a village with a church, a mill, hall and a certain number of people. If you qualified, you could become a Prince (the highest order), or a Duke. The number of titles held was important because each meant a seat in Parliament (i.e. 1 title = 1 vote). Wealth was accumulated through exporting wheat, for which there were two prices – for locals, and for the international market.

Dotted throughout the history of Sicily are the Lanzas (the family name derives from ‘lance’, as does ‘Lancia’ for automobiles). Wences’ forebears pop up as mother of the last Norman King, fourth wife of the whichever king was plonked on the thrones of Germany and Sicily by the Pope (his tutor). This king was ‘lukewarm Christian – more of a Greek philosopher’. Other ancestors were uncles of the last Hohenstaufen king. Two survived via Turkey only to return and have to start again. One became Admiral. When Charles V (Hapsburg) refused to swear to the liberty of the Kingdom of Sicily revolution threatened, and it was a Lanza who engineered peace, and his grandson became the 4th Prince of Sicily. The trick was to get a gig as a civil servant – the perks included taking a cut of the tax booty for oneself. Within a twinkling of an eye, the family was very rich and important, with palaces all over Sicily, and serving in highly prized positions in Sicily, Spain and Italy.

In 1848, Sicily jumped on the European revolutionary bandwagon and tried to become independent. One of the leaders of the reformed parliament was a Lanza, and, as a result of this folly, the family lost a goodly part of its fortune and was obliged to leave for Florence, where they lived until the 1860’s. As the Garibaldi show swung through from Savoy to unite Italy in 1861, the Lanzas (presumably with all of the 18 children that had been hatched) caught a lift back to Sicily.

Back to our friend Lampadusa. He was a prisoner of the Austrians in WW1, he escaped and was caught on the border of Switzerland. He spoke German, but was thought to be an Hungarian traitor and was probably tortured. He married a huge German, whose mother was an Italian opera soprano primarily and Brahms’ mistress in her spare time. Lampadusa’s wife was President of Psychoanalysts and a granddaughter of the Tsar, and constantly went on about the glories of St Petersburg. Guiseppe married her against the wishes of the Lampadusa family and spent summer with her in Lithuania, and winter in Sicily with his mother. There were no children, hence his adoption of Wences’ younger brother Giacomo, who did quite well from the success of ‘The Leopard’. Full Circle.

Sicily, to my way of thinking, is a state in its own right, and not logically a ‘province’ or ‘state’ of Italy. It’s totally self-contained (being and island), with its own special history and culture, being the quintessential, historically multicultural empire.

We went to Rose-Marie’s for cocktails. Rose-Marie is the third daughter – much younger than Anna and Costanza – who has a coterie of artist friends (the walls of her home are literally covered in paintings). She’s setting her house up as a B&B now that she’s back at Regaleali after leading a fast and loose life on a number of continents. Rose-Marie served a gruesome cocktail comprised of a ‘little’ gin plus cherry flavouring and soda. Wences arrived and was finally allowed his whisky before we toddled off to Costanza’s house for dinner.

Costanza’s husband Paolo arrived from Palermo. Paolo is a Prince, which makes Costanza (second daughter) a Principessa, while Anna’ a Marchesa. The Tasca family is recent aristocracy – C19th Counts. Wences’ family, also Counts, are C15th, therefore much more important and respectable. Wences inherited his Marquis title via his mother – it’s a Spanish appellation.

Dinner was wonderful. I rather think that Costanza is the natural cook in the family, even acknowledging Anna’s high profile and deserved reputation. Costanza’s risotto with porcini was exquisite. She followed this up with a simple triumph of chopping up the veal she had used for the risotto stock, mixing it with celery and a little onion and dressing it with vinaigrette flavoured with worcestershire sauce. The continuo were tomatoes with basil, pecorino, plus bread. Just perfect. We finished with the cheesecake we’d bought in Polizi the previous day and it was more than respectable. The wine was also excellent, and I enjoyed thumbing through an exquisite coffee table book called “Terra” – a superb volume of photographs taken throughout Sicily.

We were up early Friday morning to bid farewell to the family and head south to Agrigento. We took Wences’ shortcut and, with Giovanni back in tow, travelled through a lovely landscape of more rolling hills, olives and vines.

Agrigento is an industrial city and a regional centre for Mafia activity, but the powers that be have done a spiffing job of maintaining the integrity of the Valle di Templi. The ‘valle’ runs down the length of a ridge and the ruins are something special. Start with the Temple of Hera at the top of the walk, with a superb vista of the Temple of Concord. As you stroll down the wide, stone pavement, you pass the above ground Christian tombs, for a gasp-stop at Concord, a Doric beauty. The next surprise is an early C20 villa! A very rich Brit by the name of Hardcastle suffered some illness that required him to move, on Doctor’s orders, to a dry climate, and the Sicilians didn’t have a problem with him building a villa in the midst of a clutch of superb Greek ruins! Then onto the temples of Heracles, Zeus, Castor and Pollux and several other fantastic bits – truly wonderful stuff.

After such cultural ennoblement, we had lunch at a touro trap on the hills opposite the Valle di Templi, along with the Germans and Japanese and whatever, then headed East, destination Piazza Armerina. On the way, we passed the Licola Beach where the US forces landed, and several Norman forts.

Piazza Armerina is famed for a single villa that was buried under mud in a flood C5BC and excavated during the 50’s and 60’s. The mosaic floors are the best of any known Roman remains and are a pretty fair commentary on the hedonism (if you were male) of the period.

We decided it was definitely a house of pleasure. Small boys gratis for a bit of rampant paedophilia; prostitutes black or white; slaves with fairly good bodies; plenty of hunting and fishing and general blood sport with tigers, lions and elephants imported for purpose from the dark continent across the water. Girls in bikinis playing volleyball! A classroom for the children, plus (sewered) internal dunnies an external vomitorium for intra-feast relief.

Our troupe came up with some classic comments. The classroom has inlays of the ABC and roman numerals as teaching aids. “Is that our alphabet?”. “Who was that guy Lazlo?” (Lazarus actually!) “How many squares was this joint?”.

Around 5pm we headed off across country and then by freeway over the Catania plain, covered in orange groves, to Syracuse. Ortygia, an island, is the original city of Syracuse, and it’s linked to Sicily by a short bridge. We arrived tired and a bit fragile, but the Grand Hotel is lovely. We reorganised ourselves and set off to a restaurant in a lemon grove. It was excellent. Simple food prepared by an ageing Mama in a spotless kitchen. We started with spaghetti garnished with fresh sardines and wild fennel, tomato and garlic (another version of pasta con sarde). Next, penne with speck and tomato. Grilled spigola (the fish from the salt pans), scampi and prawns with radicchio. Fresh fruit. Local crisp white wine. Home to bed.

Saturday morning is market day in Ortygia, so Karen and I were out on the streets before 8am. The market is small and runs from the main drag to the quay. Basically fish and vegetables, but this market brings tears to the eyes. The fish were marvellous. In the Palermo market they used fishing line to tie the head to tail to simulate rigor mortis. No such affectation here. The sea bass, spigola, red mullet all curled naturally, shimmering in the early morning light and shade, with no smell whatever. There were several varieties of clams- all spraying water into the air and onto passersby – Karen got zapped, which gave us a giggle. Fresh local tuna – not lying flat, but completely erect from head to tail. Monkfish. Several varieties of squid – brown, white, speckled. Scampi, translucent shrimp, swordfish, octopus.

Move on to the vegetables. Salted capers in three sizes. Beautiful baby beans and purple cauliflowers. Artichokes so fresh their cut stems had barely oxidised. Mountains of sparkling parsley and basil. Perfect, unwilted zucchini flowers. Radishes and tomatoes, uniformly rich red and firm. A mound of sundried tomato at $10 a kilo. This is the real stuff. Anna had shown us a photo-essay of her production, which takes place in the middle of August. Ripe tomatoes and a stinking hot, sunny day are the ingredients. The tools are a large number of wooden trestles, long wooden spatulas for turning, and a mechanical crush to get the raw ingredients onto the starting blocks. The puree is poured out on the trestles, and then it’s a constant workload. The puree has to be turned continually otherwise the top forms a crust and the base starts to rot. Over the course of the day, the puree from 200 kilos of tomatoes is reduced down, transferred to fewer trestles, until a rich, deep red puree of 18 kilos weight remains. A back breaking process but the unctuous result is fabulous – bottled sunshine.

But I digress. Ortygia is the market to out-market everything seen anywhere. A work of art, and all the vendors are delightful and unspoiled because the two of us were probably the only ring-ins they’d had to put up with all week. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken my spare film with me, so we ran out very quickly and were unable to record the full beauty of the morning.

Climbing into our trusty mini-bus, we headed north for Taomina, which is about one and a half hours away, past the foot of Etna. Although it was a beautiful day, Etna was partially obscured by mist/fog – a result of the Sirocco blowing in from Africa. Even so, we could see the plumes of smoke billowing skyward, and the outline of a 10,000ft mountain in close proximity to the coast is awesome.

Taomina is a tourist beacon, deservedly. It’s a steep climb up to a rocky knoll on which a beautiful ampitheatre perches, with the view from the stalls across the stage to Etna. As a location for a theatre, it doesn’t get any better than this, and must be mind-boggling when Etna puts on her fireworks displays. Then there’s the shopping. The main drag (named after Victor Emmanuel, again) is a delight, especially for ceramics. We did a reconnaissance of potential purchases, then stopped at the Wunderbar for a drink. This I considered mandatory – the bar has been a watering hole for the famous and infamous for generations, including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Besides which, it was hot and an ice-cold beer went down exceedingly well.

After the beer and a warm-up purchase of half a dozen ceramic napkin holders with lemon motif, I moved in for the kill at the best of the shops we’d seen. This one qualified for serious retail therapy because I coveted 80% of the stock, but I finally settled on two large urns with lemon motif and a matching seat resembling a stack of cushions. The issue of where to place them in an already crowded garden was a trifling consideration. Suitably euphoric at having spent a copious amount of money, we set off back to the Hotel Timeo for lunch. This is one of the fine hotels in Taomina, sited directly below the ampitheatre.

We were alone in the dining room, but there was plenty of activity on the terrace, with a wedding reception just warming up and fascinating to behold. The guests had gone to a lot of effort on their appearances, but not many had made the grade in the sartorial stakes. There was one chap who had not only failed the bella figura criteria, he’d also missed out on the ‘Allo, look at me’ benchmark. This chap was a genuine, paid up member of the mulletocracy. He was sporting an electric blue shiny suit and patent shoes and looked like tuppence-worth-of-God-help-us. There was a tall floozy in knee-high, fake leopard high heel boots with fishnet stockings rocketing up her thighs. It appeared to be mandatory for the women under thirty to wear clothes at least one size too small. The men all walked with their feet turned outwards, presumably so as not to trip over their winklepickers; and the women all toddled in heifer-gait, with knees together and toes turned inwards.

The wedding party finished its aperitivo and surged downstairs for the main event. A few minutes later, the wedding cake was carried by our table. A triple decker edifice, it was, like the bride, swathed in untidy shards of white dross. However, when we asked the maitre d’ about the cake, he said it would look different when it had been festooned with fresh lemon leaves, flowers and fruit, and I imagine that such embellishment could make it a thing of beauty, fit for the occasion.

Our lunch was exceedingly pleasant, and we appreciated the air-conditioning of the dining room, in contrast to the heat outside. We stated with a lovely dish of finely shaved proscuitto with pineapple and canteloupe. Then swordfish, and finally cannoli – crisp fried pastry filled with sweetly flavoured ricotta.

Suitably replete, we repaired to the terrace for coffee, which never came, and then strolled back to catch the bus back to Syracuse, with most of us having a pleasant snooze along the way.

This was a ‘free’ evening. On leaving the hotel, we walked along the quay some way. It’s absolutely charming at a distance, and set back from and parallel to the quay is a dense avenue of evergreens. We were seduced by the idea of taking a stroll under the arbour but was immediately apprised of our stupidity: the place stank – all the cheerful chirruping was motivated by the collective slamming shut of myriad avifauna sphincters.

Karen and I decided to walk around Ortygia in search of a suitable establishment in which to savour the local version of pizza. We had identified a couple of reasonable-sounding suspects but then made the mistake of asking at the local tourismo office inside the walls. We were directed to a wood-fired forno off a side street, where we ended up with the rest of our travelling companions, but it was imperfectly ordinary.

We walked back through the main squares, then past the pizza joint at which we should have eaten, then we were entranced by a pet shop with iguana and all manner of unusual beasties. I managed to smile fixedly as a large and very tactile lizard crawled up my hand. He was really very nice, and not at all smelly, but I think I prefer cats.

We had arranged to meet the full team at the ice-cream parlour across the road from the hotel. Given that ice-cream as we now know it originated in Sicily, I was expecting something wonderful. It was. Innumerable flavours, too many to choose from, but we were all happy with our choices. A few more laughs, a digestif, and so to bed.

Our last full day on Ortygia dawned soft and warm, as usual, and the breakfast on the terrace was gorgeous, with the sea gently slapping against the boats moored at the marina. The streetscape architecture is quite beautiful: wrought iron balconies and terraces are obligatory, of individual style and grace. Throughout our trip, Sara had implored us to ‘look up’, with good reason.

By the time we had crossed into ‘new’ Syracuse on our way to explore the Neapolis Archaeological area it was seriously hot. The crowds seemed bent on heading for the Greek Theatre, so we took the low road and headed for the Latomies – stone quarries from which were extracted millions of cubic metres of stone for building. The caves were also used as prisons for centuries. Exotic caper vines hang metres long from all the cliffs.

The largest entrance is to Orecchio di Dioniso (ear of Dionysius). According to legend, thanks to the extraordinary acoustics of the cave, the local tyrant Dionysius could hear the whispers of dangerous prisoners from his listening post at the top of the Greek theatre hundreds of feet above, through a small fissure. Giovanni, as a newly minted tenor, tested out the acoustics with renditions of populist stuff, to the delight of all within hearing. The gardens of the quarries are fabulous – cool and labyrinthine. However, there were fatter fish to fry, so we made our way up to the Greek Theatre. Even the resident cats were feeling the heat by this time, and the bay of Ortygia below was hazy and shimmering in the autumnal heat.

We climbed to the top of the theatre – a beauty of sun-bleached stone. Right at the top of the theatre is a cave from which a torrent of cool water gushes into a pool, then tumbles into an underground chamber. Tell me how this works? It seems that the supply of water comes from the hills many kilometres away and breaks surface here. However, when you look over the edge, the landscape seems to have no natural drainage topography that would support such gravitational progress. Well (in every sense of the word) it’s actually the outflow of an aqueduct, for which a cave (Grotta del Museion) was hewn, along with a rectangular basin to provide a cool pool atop the theatre. Lovely.

On the way out we took a look at the Roman sarcophogi and ampitheatre where, on red-letter days, 400 bulls were put to death. Strangely, this testimony to ancient civilisation (of sorts) is completely surrounded by gum trees.

Of course, one is able to buy a souvenir of the experience. After ferreting through the shanty-town of collective trash, replica of minor miracles, and new-age collectibles in search of a t-shirt that would hold its colour and advertising slogans, we headed back to Ortygia.

We had to be back to the Piazza Duomo before 11-ses, as it was Sunday. This had been the site of the greatest Ionic temple of the western Grecian empire, the remains of which are now under the Palazzo Senatorio. The temple, with ivory and golden doors, was a landmark by which to navigate in ancient times.The Duomo is superb. As we had come to expect in Sicily, the various cultural invasions overtly layer on each other. The Duomo was rebuilt in 1728-53, after the earthquake of 1693, but incorporates the ancient Temple of Minerva, which in turn had been built over the site of a C6th BC monument, which Gelon had dedicated to Athena. So, this was initially a temple, then a Christian basilica, then a Muslim mosque, and finally a Sicilian Baroque cathedral. It contains a C13th font, Norman mosaics, and a sacristy that has wooden choir stalls carved in 1489. Not a bad culture fix before lunch.

By this stage we were getting a bit peckish. We strolled around the streets to the south and east of the island and found several interesting ceramics and papyrus art galleries, at which we bought a couple of nice small pieces. Then Karen, Elaine and I headed for restaurant Orto di Epicuro, a seafood restaurant adjacent to the eastern quay. Spaghettini with razorfish, then red mullet, bream and calamari – it was all very good, along with the chilly local white. A stroll back to the hotel via Piazza Archimede with the lovely fountain (with Diana as centrepiece) for a coffee completed the afternoon.

For me, it was time to pack up and have a snooze when we got back to the hotel, given our early start tomorrow. However, Karen, indefatigable as ever, opted for the a trip to the country. She arrived back two hours later with glowing reports of having spent the afternoon in the company of our host for the evening to come – one Baron di Beneventano del Bosco. The said Baron is turning his country home into a superior private hotel and by Karen’s account it is gorgeous (as is the Baron).

So we dressed for dinner. The Baron’s house on Ortygia is as good as it gets. It’s opposite the Duomo. So we set off for the piazza, and, having arrived early, decided on the perfect aperitif – Prosecco.

The Piazza Duomo is exceedingly fine – a massive polygon with narrow funnels at all angles for pedestrian access and egress. It was nearing dark when the appointed hour of our arrival at the Baron’s house tolled. He appeared on his balcony, surveyed the piazza, spotted our little team and waved to us to come up. By this stage the Piazza was gloriously awash with the passagiata – all beautifully turned out, swaying elegantly, murmuring affectionately, unashamedly checking out the beauty of their fellow citizens and the lucky coves on the balconies surrounding the piazza. I’m all for privilege provided I’m part of it, and it was one of the great views of the world to be a guest on the Baron’s terrace (don’t lean on the ancient wrought iron balcony) and survey the softly lamplit parade below, G&T in hand. G&T you ask? Well, the terrace on which we were privileged to stand was previously occupied on several occasions by Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. They were good friends of the Baron’s ancestors and there is a substantial library of valuable collectibles from the period. The Baron has in fact set about collecting a pictorial naval history of Ortygia and there is all manner of illustrations to that effect on view within the drawing room. There was a copy of the latest Vogue casually adrift on the billiard table, where the major fashion shoot of the edition was conducted. The Palazzo features prominently in most commentary on Syracuse and Ortygia.

A couple of years ago, the Director of 'Malena' demanded of the Baron that the Palazzo be used in the film. The Baron decided the Director was a nasty piece of work and refused. During filming, the Baron was hosting a meeting of the Georgian Club, of which he is a member, and they were having drinks on the balcony. Apparently the Director below went ballistic, threatened to break down the palazzo entrance and sue the Baron for all he was worth for unlawful observation of the filming, whereupon the Baron strolled downstairs, apprised said Director of his intimate knowledge of the law, and suggested in no uncertain terms that the Director and his crew would be well advised to bugger off. Which they did.

There was an ante-room by the ballroom. The Baron pointed to the ceiling and asked if we noticed anything. It was a barrel ceiling, and, once informed, we were able to discern an extra line on one of the frescoes. Apparently the Baron’s grand-daddy had hidden an artist cum murderer in the palazzo during the second world war in exchange for the painter redecorating the palazzo; and he lived in the ceiling, accessible through a manhole in the anteroom. Time for dinner. We descended to the Dining Room on the ground floor. For openers – razorclams and shrimp salad. Followed by an appetiser of lasagne. A first course of swordfish. Main course – Veal with peas and corn. Dessert of cannoli. Plenty of wine and water, and all served by a delightful Ceylonese staffer. Digestifs were taken in the courtyard with a baroque fountain performing splendidly. A thoroughly lovely evening, and we took our leave through the courtyard which is paved in a concoction of lava stone and river pebbles, decoratively deployed in baroque fashion. Supposedly unique in style, it is eyeballed through the wrought iron gates by every student of architecture from around the world who passes this way. What a fabulous finale to a brilliant, near flawless experience exploring this spellbinding island in gorgeous weather. Sicily won. #Agrigento #Cefalu #Palermo #PiazzaArmerina #2005

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