Travel
Costa nostra

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 40

Travel
Costa nostra

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 40

Travel
Costa nostra

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 40

Travel
Costa nostra

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 40

Syracuse is the ideal base from which to explore the eastern part of Sicily, says Christopher Newall

I began my love affair with Sicily in Syracuse. Set on the south-eastern coast, it is one of the most gloriously beautiful and historically fascinating cities of the Mediterranean. Although it is connected to the mainland by a causeway, Syracuse was built, back in the eighth century BC, on the island of Ortygia, and so enjoyed an invaluable defensive position. Consequently, the city was fought over by – among others – Athens, neighboring Greek colonists on Sicily, Carthage and, finally, Rome.

By reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, one can follow in situ the events of Athens' disastrous attack on the city in 415-13 BC as they unfolded, and the strategic significance of landmarks such as the Plemmyrium and Epipolae Ridge will be understood. Ortygia's cathedral was built as a Doric temple to celebrate the victory of the Syracusans, while on the mainland there are the ancient quarries where the Athenian captives were held. The determined traveler will want to see the Castello Eurialo, built by the tyrant Dionysius I in an attempt to safeguard the city against further attack, and which is the most complete system of military defense to survive from Magna Graecia. And the city's Archeological Museum contains some of the greatest treasures of ancient art.

Ortygia itself offers so many delights. Caravaggio's Burial of St Lucy – a painting full of Baroque dynamism and featuring Syracuse's own patroness, now in the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia – reveals 17th-century Syracuse's antiquarian sense of its own history. The genius of the great Sicilian Renaissance artist, Antonello da Messina, is glimpsed in his Annunciation in the Museo Bellomo.

The center of the town consists of a labyrinth of lanes, piazzas and hidden courtyards, crowded with medieval, Catalan Gothic and Baroque churches, palaces and simple houses. It is glorious to explore. Fragments of the ancient city lie about, with the remains of a sixth-century BC Temple of Apollo guarding the causeway. Close to this temple is a market in which a stupendous display is made of all the fish of the Mediterranean, as astonishing in zoological terms as it is stimulating to the appetite.

Syracuse is also a wonderful base from which to explore the eastern part of the island. The landscape of the interior is magnificent, and its agricultural productivity is a clue as to why so many successive waves of migrants adopted Sicily as their home. The limestone gorges of Pantalica are stupendous. Here, tomb embrasures, carved in the cliff faces by the indigenous Sicel people, date from the second millennium BC. The coastline to the south – Montelbano country – meanwhile, offers charming port towns, expanses of beach and the Vendicari Nature Reserve, a place where flamingos gather.

Inland lies the town of Palazzolo Acreide, where the visitor may wander through the site of a city built by Greek colonizers and explore a beautifully preserved theater from the third century BC. There are also the towns of Ragusa, Modica and Noto (the last especially loved by British enthusiasts for the Baroque, notably the Sitwells, who visited in the 1920s), built from a honey-coloured sandstone after a cataclysmic earthquake in 1693.

Most beautiful of all is Catania – one of the jewels of European architecture, yet under-appreciated. Set on the coast to the north of Syracuse and beneath the outline of Etna, its streets and squares are laid out for sceneographic effect, with erotically curvilinear church façades.

Head off the beaten track, and you can see glimpses of the unchanging face of Sicily. Legend has it that there are still villages where the Sicilian dialect is spoken with a peculiar inflection derived from the Normans, who settled here in the 11th century.

The eastern part of the island has always been more prosperous, better administered and less affected by the blight of the Mafia than the west (although tourists should seek to guard themselves against street-crime in Catania). Here especially, Sicily may be seen to be emerging from the miasma of political neglect and interference, and with a new spirit of confidence and optimism.

Speaking of optimism, the island is larger than it seems on a map, and one should resist the temptation of trying to see too much. Slow travel is the key.

Christopher Newall is the author of The Art of Lord Leighton.

Where to stay

Sicily boasts some of the most luxurious and expensive hotels in the world. In Taormina, the Grand Hotel Timeo and the San Domenico Palace Hotel vie for first place in terms of sybaritic splendor. At the former, on arrival, one is asked whether one prefers linen or cotton sheets, and rooms are made up accordingly. A little less indulgent, but always welcoming and close to the shops and restaurants, is the Hotel Villa Belvedere.

In Palermo, beyond the harbor, is the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, a magnificent relic of Edwardian elegance. In the city's historic center two hotels are particularly to be recommended: the Centrale Palace and the Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa, while the Grand Hotel et des Palmes claims the distinction of having been Wagner's choice of accommodation.

Syracuse is not well provided with hotels, although at least one new one is under construction. There are, though, various small-scale establishments, such as the Royal Maniace, Albergo Domus Mariae and Alla Giudecca, which are both comfortable and characterful.

All over the rest of Sicily, new hotels are opening which are beginning to attract larger numbers of tourists. A few months ago,
I stayed in the delightful Palazzo Cerami in Catania. Also proliferating are so-called agriturismos – converted farm buildings in the countryside, ranging from basic but serviceable to distinctly upmarket, often with swimming pools. Visit agriturismo.it for more details. C.N

Where to eat

Sicilian cuisine is renowned for its freshness and simplicity, with the main influences coming from the Greek, Arab and Norman conquerors. The favorite dishes are simple – pasta con le sarde (sardines), caponata di melanzane (a vegetable stew with aubergines and olives) and gelato.

Perhaps the most renowned restaurant is chef Ciccio Sultano's Il Duomo (cicciosultano.it) in Ibla, near the hilltown of Ragusa. Memorable dishes here include salami of goat with vegetables; dry-roasted tuna with bottarga and anything that includes the famous Sicilian red prawns. The rival two-star Michelin restaurant is Pino Cuttaio's La Madia (ristorantelamadia.it) in the nondescript town of Licata. Savor dishes such as rice balls with red mullet ragout and wild fennel; smoked cod with pine nuts or fried baby octopus on a chickpea base (right).

As a complete contrast, there is Da Majore (majore.net), a bargain restaurant in Chiaramonte Gulfi, just north of Ragusa, where the menu is almost nothing but very high quality pork. The costata ripiena, a double chop, is well worth trying.

Finally, in Syracuse, Ristorante L'Ancora (ristoranteancora.com) is a deceptively simple establishment that serves some of the best seafood in Sicily.

Bruce Palling

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