Words from Sicily: Recalling the road to Noto

Image c/o comune.noto.sr.it

From the 14th to the 16th of May, Noto Syracuse will be hosting its annual Infiorata flower festival. The grand carpet of flower design will cover the entire length via Nicolaci as per usual.

Or at least as usual as can be expected with the interruptions caused by a global pandemic.

Respecting all of the new anti-Covid regulations, social distancing in place and a reduction in participants, Noto will reinforce the last-year message of hope for the world, that beauty is more powerful than fear.

This year’s theme is dedicated to Italy’s most famous poet Dante Alighieri as 2021 marks 700 years since his death.

Noto is a beautiful city and is one of the crown jewels in Val di Noto’s collection of baroque Sicilian towns relocated and rebuilt after the massive 1693 earthquake, which destroyed most cities south-east of the island.

Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the Val di Noto cities are a precious gift in this little pocket of Sicily. Caltagirone, Militello in Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa, and Scicli was lovingly rebuilt in new areas in a big project which saw the final flourish of the high Baroque style in European history.

As I won’t be making it to Noto this year, I’d like to share some of my favourite photos from the town. During my first ever visit back in 2005 feeling dumbfounded at the beauty of the city. There was so much to see. I didn’t know where to focus.

The Infiorata is probably the worst time to visit as it is always so terribly overcrowded with tourists. They never seem to end; the buses arrive continuously for the three days long festival.

Despite any confusion, there is no denying the splendour of this masterpiece of the Baroque. 

With the promise of visit this magical place again foremost in my mind these days. I want to repost an article I wrote about my last visit to Noto, now two years ago. Let’s take a metaphorical journey there through my memories for now until we can all visit safely.

The golden moment of the early Sicilian morning overwhelms me; there is too much to take in at such an ungodly time of the day. As my eyes adjust to the blaring sunlight, I look out the large tour bus windows into the landscape around me. 

The church steeples of the cramped towns hanging off the Nebrodi Mountains are lit up with the most spectacular light. Everything is glowing in the typical Sicilian golden sun. The early Spring is its usual spectacle of lush green explosions of vegetation and warmth.

This morning, I rolled out of bed at four for a day trip to Noto, Syracuse, for the annual Infiorata festival. Hence, things are still a little groggy, but the beautiful morning makes me appreciate the effort.

It is a privilege to salute the mystic Aeolian Islands in the hues of a misty sunrise deep in the province of Messina as the sun begins to shine out from under its bed covers.

The bus is filled with loud, slightly hyperactive Sicilians who guffaw and happily proclaim: ‘Ogni tanto dovemu allargari.’ Professing their need to let themselves go every once in a while.

As we climb onto the Consorzio delle Autostrade superhighway, a nattering group of fifty-something women start to peel off layers of clothes to reveal freshly varnished nails and dressed hair. I put my headphones on to drown out the chatter.

At Messina, the strait is like a sheet of ice as if Calabria is only a short sledge ride away. Quaint Sicilian villages are littered like discarded building blocks and look out from the shifting mountains, which appear to heave a sigh of restlessness.

Autostrada tunnels create the illusion night time is close despite the invasive morning. I don’t know whether to sleep or rejoice in the varied landscape.

Those yelping hyenas who dominate the bus have settled down. We sneak under the bustling tourist Mecca of Taormina, briefly snatching a glance down at the ancient Greek seaside colony of Giardini Naxos, a respite from the darkness of the underworld beneath the ranges.

Heading towards Catania, the dark lady reveals her beautiful silhouette, even if she usually hides like a coquette seductively behind a feathered boa stole. Etna’s rough outline sketches itself out despite the dark clouds, wearing only a tuft of white as if gently pulling on a cigarette above the Messina – Catania highway.

For Sicilian’s the Mount Etna volcano is defiantly female, alluding to its fertile nature. Like the Greek goddess Demeter who presides over grains and fertility. She creates the gifts of agriculture and the seasons.

Palm trees and palazzi gave way to a mélange of apartments, industrial warehouses, truck depot, and abandoned boarding-up houses near Giarre.

The foothills of Etna become a harsh and ugly juxtaposition of factories with an infestation of overgrown prickly pear cactus, illegal rubbish dumps, recycling plants and lava stone homes with names like Villa Corallo dell’ Etna.

We stop at a tired Acireale auto grill gas station. I wistfully daydream about Carnival parades while studying a solitary broken down campanile just behind the auto-stop. The slate-coloured steeple is covered in edera vines. The vines are adorned with white flowers called the ‘calice Della Madonna,’ elongated chalice-shaped blooms which, according to Sicilian folklore, the infant Jesus drank.

Travelling in the bus again, I can see into the windows of peoples high-rise apartments beside the highway as we creep around the back of Etna and through densely populated towns. Misterbianco is filled with mega shopping complexes and an IKEA superstore. At the same time, old lava deposits are piled up in between condominiums outside of Paternò.

As we reach Sicula Occidentale, it begins pelting with rain which blurs together the different parts of the landscape. The olive groves of Priolo are smudged together with the blockheaded limestone mountains of Gargallo and the pelting rain blankets over the solar panels near Solarino.

Etna has mysteriously disappeared. More plains appear dotted by irrigated orchids of oranges, lemons, golden meadows, greenhouses and pleasant hills.

Rain comes streaming down the buses free side windows as we reach Avola, the town nearest to Noto, famous for its fruity red wine with a punch.

I’m contemplating the prospect of having to shut myself inside a bar for the whole day to shield myself from the downpour and the busloads of tourists. Perhaps I could make up for the disappointing weather with a few glasses of ‘Nero d’avola.’

I am shaking off the car sickness brought on by the continuous curves of the drive, nearly three hours from my little town in Messina province, thanks to the delays from the tourist traffic for the Infiorata.

I stretch my legs as the bus drops me off near the public gardens in front of Piazzale Marconi. It’s a vibrantly leafy piazza, where the trees are pruned into a strange square pattern; they look like castle balustrades, just about growing into one another. 

Today the piazza is filled with antique market stalls. I’m only a few minutes walk from the centre of Noto, Syracuse, and I’m already distracted by vintage typewriters, vinyl records and gramophones.

The late May springtime is usually a spectacular prelude to a long hot Sicilian summer. Still, this year the Spring is flirting heavily with the rains, baptizing my day at Noto with a damp and dull constant drizzle.

Sheltering from the shower, I weave my way through the stalls browsing antique prints and postcards side by side with Modican chocolate, honey and roasted pistachio’s.

Noto is a comfortable place to navigate once you drive up into the hills from Noto Marina. The main historical sights stare right at you directly in front of Piazzale Marconi, straight down the main street from the Porta Reale archway to the end of the Corsa Vittorio Emanuele.

There is a succession of Baroque churches and palaces right along the main street of Noto. It begins in from of the church of San Francesco all’ Immaculate, to Santa Chiara, the monastery of SS Salvatore and the Cathedral of San Nicolo (which was rebuilt after the 1996 earthquake).

The impressive concentration of architectural marvels climaxes at the civic centre of Noto at the Palazzo Ducezio. The palace serves as the town hall and is directly in front of the cathedral. The chain of monuments slowly peters out. After the churches of San Carlo, San Domenico and the Theatre Comunale Vittorio Emanuele, they take us to the end of the city’s main street.

The main road of Noto is comfortable to walk, and it is a case of merely crisscrossing above and below to discover many more sumptuous palaces, churches, squares and gardens. The city is built on two distinct levels. So going down or up the side streets on either side of the Corsa Vittorio Emanuele will reveal many other beautiful buildings and palazzi to explore.

Entering the mythological gate of the Porta Reale is like stepping into the set of a period film. The grandiose facades of each building are in a sandy coloured Sicilian limestone sketch out in the eighteenth-century Baroque architectural style. 

If it weren’t for all those fashionable Sicilians walking around, the trendy cafes, gelaterias, restaurants, wine shops and fashion outlets. In that case, I’d forget we were in this century.

I now see why they call Noto ‘the stone garden,’ it is an endless flourish of architectural details which seeks to outdo itself along every possible step. Each window and balcony is decorated with embellished details. Far from being cold and stagnant, the city’s stonework is alive in a vibrant diluted cadmium yellow ornamentation.

The apex of Noto’s Baroque heart is at its civic and religious core. The historical nucleus reserves its two most remarkable treasures, the Palazzo Ducezio and the Cathedral of San Nicolo. The two edifices are united in a classical Romanesque forum. Both the church and state are placed firmly at the heart of the city in two of the most spectacular successions of archways reminiscent of Raphael’s School of Athens.

I am here for the Infiorata spring flower festival, which is Noto’s biggest tourist attraction, three days of chaos over the weekend on the third Sunday of May.

The celebration sees people shuffle through Via Nicolas, past the palatial Palazzo Nicolas, filled with lavish details and grotesque balconies. Below along the street, there is the heart of the Infiorata flower festival—a decorative carpet of flowers in an expression of bountiful creativity. The detailed floral designs overshadow everything else up to the end of the road, which meets the church of the Montevergine.

Every year the Infiorata has a theme. This year it was Sicilian’s in America.

The local government selects florists to reproduce original artworks using flower petals and natural materials.

Each image is six meters by four meters in sixteen individual canvases spreads along the upward sloping street. Traditionally the beginning of the decorated thoroughfare is the city’s coat of arms, realized by Noto’s Institute of art. The theme changes every year.

More than four hundred thousand individual flowers are used to ‘infiorare’ the one hundred and twenty-two-meter street length. The flowers used for the designs include daisies, carnations, gerbera daisies, roses, and wildflowers which are native to rural Noto.

For the shades, shadows and visual effects needed in each image, other natural materials are used, including foliage from the Mediterranean scrub like myrtle leaves, fennel, mastic tree, carnation stems, millers bran, ground carob, carob seeds and used ground coffee beans.

Plodding along the interminable line, I am soaked, and hawkers are charging ten euro for tiny umbrellas. I try to subtly sneak behind other people’s umbrellas as everyone pushes one another along.

The bells chime in a nearby church. The ringing reminds me of Noto’s patron Saint Corrado. The Saint made all the city’s church bells sound out by themselves on his death. This miracle had the Netini proclaiming him as a saint before his canonization in sixteen fifteen. We certainly need a big push from St Corrado to get to the beginning of this queue.

It is the final day of the Infiorata, so the crowds are at their peak. Busloads of people keep arriving despite the rain. Later, they will all try to leave all at the same time, creating evermore mayhem.

There is a whiff of decomposing flowers as people successfully push in front, sneaking ahead from a side square in the middle of Via Nicolai, bringing progression along the sidewalk to a standstill.

I dawdle along the footpath beside the images. Trying to take photos directly beside them is a frustrating exercise apart from the pandemonium and lack of perspective. The light is terrible.

Undoubtedly, the crowd on top of the San Carlo church terrace directly across from Via Nicolaci would be getting a better view. However, it still would be dull without the Sicilian sunshine.

I found Noto a little less magical and more feeble than on my first visit nearly a decade ago. The side effects of the economic crisis are apparent, with many empty stores and dirty crumbling edifices dressed up for the ‘Festa and others mostly abandoned during the year. What is the good of being a UNESCO world heritage site if nothing is maintained?

As my day progresses, I became aware of the cities many faces. There are many Noto’s; one is the Baroque city we see today. The other is in the ruins of the old town destroyed by the earthquake of sixteen ninety-three, about thirty-five kilometres southwest Syracuse.

Today Noto Antica can be visited as an archaeological site, a ghostly homage to an ancient city that was an important centre in the Arab period of Sicily during the middle ages.

Then there is the Noto during and after the Infiorata festival. The town puts on its best face for the tourists, and the locals grit their teeth, put up with the disruption and try to make a profit from the new clientele. To use a vernacular phrase, I bet the Netini have their ‘Marrone gonfie’; that is, they are exasperated to the point of wanting to explode.

Tired out after a day of being on my feet, I wonder if it would be best to visit Noto far away from this time of year. I want to experience everything in the city without this sea of tourists. 

As if confirming my belief in an authentic Noto experience, I begin to see the character of the locals who finally come out in all of their fineries during the afternoon’s medieval procession.

The residents step back and let the crowd push forward but quip under their breath. One simpatico Netino mutters to his girlfriend: ‘io sono buono e’ caro ma non posso finire nella mundizia!’ A single-minded German Lady, without asked permission, quickly had moved forward to get a photo of the parade, promptly shoving him right up against a bin. I am smiling at the couple. I look at the well-groomed, solid built young man and respond with a wink. Quipping, of course, you won’t fit; you’re way too handsome for the bin!

Gorgeous blonde haired boys and young women pass by drumming and throwing flags in the afternoon parade. A beautiful young woman is dressed as Spring; she files by followed by other locals in the costumes of local historical figures. I can only imagine the competition every year to find a suitable candidate to depict Springtime. It must be the equivalent of an American beauty pageant.

As the historical parade continues, a squad of men dressed as a 19th-century military battalion pass by, complete with a round of cannon fire. They were followed by a monastery of Franciscan’s and various Nobel families from the city’s aristocratic history, some riding in a horse and carriage.

One elaborately dressed Netino discretely bows while the parade pauses. Proudly not breaking character, he salutes someone he knows on a nearby balcony.

This subtle moment reveals the nature of the people of Noto. The local’s innate pride for their history and the intimacy within this community. The personality of the Netini is more appealing than the cities monuments.

Perhaps my next visit could be the following day after the festival after all the tourists have gone. The local children are left to walk through and destroy the wilting petals.

Even better still to visit when everything goes back to normal. So you can enjoy a lunch at a local ‘trattoria’ in peace or buy a giant gelato and eat it on the Duomo’s steps without busloads of bedlam disturbing the peace.