Sicily: Baroque architecture, sweets and monsters
Coordinates / 37.56667,14.26667
Country / Italy
Region / Sicily
Population / 5 082 000
Sicily - one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean. The land which surprisingly combines the flavour of the picturesque landscapes and the mystique of regional traditions.
This soil has enriched the ancient Greek mythology with Medusa Gorgon, who lived here. The modern legendary novel God Father by Mario Puso was set here, and since the beginning of time - the bowels of Sicily continue to hide the warm sleepless heart of the Etna volcano.
Every day, the island of Sicily welcomes tourists from all over the world, who aren't only spending a long vacation, but also taking a day trip by getting here on the ferry from the neighbouring island of Malta or the mainland of southern Italy.
We also didn't want to miss out on the excursion. One day in May, strolling along the promenade of the Maltese city of Sliema, we saw an intriguing advertising sign informing us of: "tours to Sicily". We had been on Malta for one week and had already travelled its length and breadth, the idea of a change of scenery was quite attractive.
Before dawn the next day a bus tour sped us to the port, where the regular high-speed ferry was preparing to sail. At the port, after passing through the passport control in compliance with all the necessary red tape, tourists are plunged into comfortable chairs and greet the dawn while sipping aromatic coffee somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The journey from the marine station Virtu Ferries to the Sicilian Pozzalo port only takes about 2,5 - 3 hours.
After landing on Italian soil, we were met by a guide, she was a nice blonde lady with a snow-white smile fluently speaking Italian, German, English, and Russian. She expertly collected our motley crew and formed us into an organised group and shepherded us onto the bus. This friendly, welcoming woman entertained us with jokes about the Godfather, while our eyes were firmly glued to the windows of the bus as we headed through the well-groomed agricultural landscapes of stunning beauty.
In the literal sense, we were flooded by the green colour of all kinds of its manifestations, which the guide assured us, turns into no less attractive mixture of red, brown and terracotta colours in the autumn. We saw the silvery shades of olive trees and the bright green hectares of plantations of blood oranges.
The original blood oranges with the red almost seedless flesh were grown on the fertile lands of Sicily. The pulp of the citrus fruit is red coloured due to plant glycosides, which are very useful to the human body due to its antioxidant properties.
Vineyards... Grapes had been cultivated in this area since the ancient Greeks first practised the wine making traditions long before Roman Empire.
The fertile volcanic soil and climate are ideal conditions for the ripening of grape varieties such as Nero D'Avola, Nerello, Perricone, Frappato for red wines and Katarrato, Inzolia, Grillo, Damascino, Carricante for white wines.
The famous fortified wine Marsala is the pride of Sicilian winemakers and deserves a special mention. Experts say that Marsala, mimics the Portuguese Madeira, but it contains more sugar (about 1.5 - 7%).
As we already know from the notes of Tuscany, wines of Italy need to have special identification "controlled and guaranteed by origin". "Guaranteed" Marsala wine produced in the province of Trapani from different grape variety, may be gold, amber and ruby in colour.
However, production of the island is not only limited to wine: limoncello, crimoncello and other delicious local liqueurs are also produced from the lemons, oranges and nuts grown here.
And of course the cheese! Pecorino Siciliano, hard cheese made from sheep's milk. It may be young and unsalted - Tuma. Salted - Primo sale. Aged about two years - Canestrato. Piacentinu with added saffron.
We made a short pit stop at the local souvenir shop, where natural lava crafts could be found. We can see that Sicilian symbolism, which is influenced by the ancient civilisation appears in the national Sicilian motives, decorations and ornaments. Sicilian patterns and symbols can be viewed for hours. Note the photo below, is the figure of it remain the fylfot or the mythical goddess, or maybe both?
After all Trinacria, a woman's head with three legs on the sides is the prototype of the fylfot and was a quite harmless symbol until it was highjacked by militaristic nationalists in 30s, Germany, and even more precisely, the Trinacria was presided by the ancient Greek character "triskelion", which represented the three position of the sun "rise", "zenith", "sunset", and generally "the passage of time".
Look at the pretty face in the centre, do you see the familiar ancient Greek myth of Medusa Gorgon? Sicily is her homeland. Now in the form of a tripod emblazoned on the Sicilian flag depicting the history of the region with geographical shapes of the island formed by the three capes of Capo Passero, Capo Peloro and Capo Lilybeo.
Meanwhile, as the tourists were occupied tasting the local delicacies, we took an opportunity to take a stroll through the town of Nicolosi - the first city stop on our tourist caravan, which allowed us to become a little acquainted with the architecture of its streets.
Suddenly, a "stop" sign came into view on the pavement in front of the dormant volcano in the distance poetically advising us to stop and ponder the history of the ancient Greeks who lived here many centuries ago forming the image of Gorgon Medusa, turning all life to stone with a single glance.
The journey along the eastern coast of the island continued and now no one paid attention to the green plains because all eyes were on the symmetrical cone rising majestically above the horizon. This peak of Mount Etna was our motivating force drawing us magnetically.
Looking at the massive lump rising from sea level to about 3,329 metres involuntarily one can stand on the path and philosophically speculate about the purpose of life on earth, man's role and the huge power of nature. And yet, people continue to live here, to built, to love, to think... By the way, what do people think going to sleep every day, and walking up at the foot of such a majestic monster?
They say that people are happy living with such a neighbour since on its slopes many minerals can be found which makes the land extremely fertile. So Sicilian farmers are grateful to their monster. "Volcano takes - volcano gives" - is a local saying.
The height of Mount Etna may vary due to constant activity, not only increasing, but sometimes decreasing.
The eruption occurs because its location at the crossroads of the African and Eurasian plates. The character of the eruption is effusive, which means that the volcano lava pours slowly and harmlessly down the slopes, without presenting any particular danger to people of the region.
However, in recent years, researchers have begun to worry that such peaceful natural eruptions are gradually becoming more unpredictable and explosive.
The solid mass of lava, which appears on the surface is breathtaking. Somewhere beneath it are the remains of someone's house. Do you see the roof of the building? It used to be a two-storey Sicilian family home. However, do not worry, the life of its inhabitants is safe for the moment. Whole groups of researchers are constantly active on the volcano Etna every day, so in a case of any danger, they will be able to warn the residents that it is time to prepare for a hurried evacuation.
Along the way, we came across a building which has miraculously survived, and our guide did not miss the opportunity to boast that the same group of scientists who are monitoring the activity of the volcano have somehow learned to change the direction of the lava flow. Which is good news for the villagers who live at the foot of the mountain.
Our ascent to the top of Mount Etna was via the asphalt road of the southern route, between the town of Nicolosi and Rifugio Sapienza halt. This halt is located at an altitude of 1,900 metres above sea level. By using the cable car at the Refugio Sapienza halt it is possible to travel even higher to an altitude of 2,500 metres above sea level.
Besides our route, there are two other routes to Mount Etna. The east path starts at the village of Zafferana Etnea and goes to Rifugio Sapienza halt and the northern route passes through the villages Piedimonte Etneo and Linguaglossa to the halt at Piano Provenzano. Of course, it is possible to climb to the top of the volcano on foot but one should bear in mind that there are no maps showing the hiking routes because the periodic eruption constantly changes the terrain.
Frankly, we were expecting something more than a lunar landscape at the top of the volcano. It was cold with a total lack of magma smoke. Fortunately, there is a decent selection of shops and food outlets at the halts of Mount Etna, where it is possible to have dinner or buy food, souvenirs or warm clothes.
However, the volcano answered our prayers and we saw one of its crater belching clouds of thick smoke. A great show! Especially close up.
When our mission was accomplished, bypassing the small towns, gardens and isolated villas, our bus went to the beautiful Sicilian town of Modica in the province of Ragusa, which is part of UNESCO heritage and is protected by a strong patron - St. George.
Historical references say that the town of Modica was founded in the period between 1360 - 1031 BC. This town belonged to the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, In 1296, thanks to the family of Chiaromonte, the Modica city became the country capital and the fourth city in Sicily. Because of its expansion, the city had a large number of educational institutions.
Our walk started on the main street Umberto I (Corso Umberto).
However, it is hard to imagine that there was a time when Modica city was compared with Venice until its modern street Umberto I replaced the rivers which flowed here before, these being the Yanni Mauro and the Pozzo dei Pruna. Accordingly, these two rivers divided the city, and the two halves being connected by 17 bridges. Unfortunately, the river often caused devastating floods, so the citizens decided to bury them into the ground in the 1900s.
Nowadays, there are picturesque terrace houses hanging over each other on the side of Umberto I street, by comparison, the other side of the street looks plane.
The heterogeneous urban landscapes Modica is acquired due to its location on the southern slope of the Hyblean mountains, which divide the city into the picturesque mountainous Upper side and the plain Lower area.
In recent years, a third newer part of the city has begun to develop. The locals call it - Sacro Cuore or Modica Sorda. Pilgrims to the town preferred to spend the night here long ago. Nowadays, new schools, shops and a modern hospital have been built here.
In the centre of the historic part of the city our attention was drawn to a wide staircase, leading to St. Peter's Cathedral (San Pietro). There are massive pedestals with twelve apostles along this staircase overlooking neighbouring houses.
Historians say that St. Peter's Cathedral was built in the 14th century but was reconstructed by the architects Rosario Boscarino and Mario Spado because of damage caused by a massive earthquake. The cathedral is considered to be a model of Sicilian baroque. After all, Sicilian baroque is the reason many connoisseurs of architecture come to Modica city every year. Nowadays, St. Peter's Cathedral is the second most important religious building in the city. But years ago served as a local church for the urban elite.
The internal part of the cathedral is as interesting as the exterior. It is divided into three naves by high arched columns , the interior is decorated with coloured marble and stone sculptures. stucco, wood and frescoes.
Certainly, Modica is a city whose history has been lost in the recesses of antiquity and the Middle Ages. It is a cultural and historical relic of the world appreciated by UNESCO, which took Modica under its "wing".
However, any exhausted tourist in the pursuit of beauty will likely try the legendary local chocolate, originally prepared by the ancient Aztecs. The secret of cooking this delicacy was brought here together with cocoa beans by conquistadors of the New World. This chocolate is produced by a cold method which means that cocoa paste is heated to 40 degrees and triturated with sugar, adding pepper, vanilla, spices, dried fruits, nuts and salt depending on the recipe, it is then compressed into slabs.
We had the opportunity of visiting two competing chocolate shops in Modica and travelled to the first workshop - Antica Dolceria Rizza by tourist bus, its sign is pictured above. It has a large selection of chocolate, there is a special guide inside the shop, who can tell visitors about the manufacturing process of the chocolate and provides samples of its many varieties. This workshop has existed since 1935.
The second shop is Dolceria Bonajuto which we found accidentally. Its sign says that chocolate has been produced here since 1880. And, according to the sales assistant, it is one of oldest chocolate workshops in Sicily.
It is up to the individual to decide which of the factories to choose from the many varieties of this unusual chocolate.
Unfortunately, we only had a couple hours scheduled for our visit to the city known for its chocolate and architecture. Obviously, Modica deserves a longer stay to fully appreciate its beauty.