Shaking off the car sickness brought on by the endless curves of the drive I stretch my legs. The bus drops me off near the public gardens on front of Piazzale Marconi a few minutes walk from the centre of Noto, Syracuse.
The late May springtime is usually a spectacular prelude to a long hot Sicilian summer, but this year the spring is flirting heavily with the rains, baptizing my day at Noto with a constant drizzle. Sheltering from the shower I weave my way through the stalls of an antique fair in the square which is gratefully covered by heavily foliaged trees.
Noto is an easy place to navigate once you drive up into the hills from Noto Marina, the main historical sights start directly in front of Piazzale Marconi, straight down the main street from the Porta Reale archway all the way to the end of the Corsa Vittorio Emanuele. One after the other there is a succession of Baroque churches and palaces from San Francesco all’ Immaculate, to Santa Chiara, the monastery of SS Salvatore, the Cathedral of San Nicolo (which has been lovingly reconstructed after its destruction in the 1996 earthquake), Palazzo Ducezio the town hall of Noto is directly in front, San Carlo, San Domenico and the Theatre Comunale Vittorio Emanuele.
The main road of Noto is comfortable to walk and then it is a case of simply crisscrossing above and bellow to discover many more sumptuous palaces, churches, squares and gardens. The city is built on different levels so going down or up the side streets, either side of the Corsa Vittorio Emanuele will reveal the city.
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 wasn’t for all those fashionable Sicilians walking around, the trendy cafes, gelaterie, restaurants, wine shops and fashion outlets, 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 individual 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 greatest treasures the Palazzo Ducezio the civic hub which is directly across from the Cathedral of San Nicolo. The two edifices are united in a classical Romanesque forum, which unites church and state in a succession of palatial archways like the backdrop to 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 Nicolasi, past the palatial Palazzo Nicolasi which is filled with lavish details and grotesque balconies, below it along the street a decorative carpet of flowers in an expression of bountiful creativity overshadows everything else up to the end of the street which meets the church of the Montevergine .
This year the Infiorata is a cultural exchange with Russia. The designs for the flower carpets have been provided by Muscovite art students while the city also hosts ‘Casa Russia’ in the nearby Ragusa Convent, with exhibitions of Russian artists and artisan market stalls.
Florists are selected by the local government 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, while the theme changes every year.
To ‘infiorare’ the length of the one hundred and twenty-two-meter street, more than four hundred thousand individual flowers are used including 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 small umbrellas. I try to subtly sneak behind other people’s umbrellas as everyone pushes one another along.
The bells chime in a nearby church and I think of Noto’s patron Saint Corrado who miraculously made all the city’s church bells sound out by themselves on his death, proclaiming himself saint for the Netini 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 and 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 which include: a stylized skyline of Moscow, an exploding golden Arabic Phoenix, solemn San Sergio in the Greek Orthodox style, the divine domes of Russian architecture, the music of a Russian tea party, the Bolshoi Theatre, a modern portrait of the futuristic poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, an ode to the first man in space Yury Gagarin, a tribute to the music of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a folklore princess, Russian ballet dancers, adorable Martryoska Russian dolls, a homage to Chagall’s green violinist, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the Balalaika a traditional folk instrument and the Orthodox icon of the Our Lady of Vladimir.
Trying to take photo’s of the images from directly beside them is a frustrating exercise apart from the pandemonium and lack of perspective, the light is terrible. No doubt the crowd on top of the San Carlo church terrace directly across from Via Nicolaci would be getting a better view but it still would be dull without the Sicilian sunshine.
I find Noto a little less magical and more decrepit than on my first visit seven years ago. The economic crisis is clear with many empty stores and dirty crumbling edifices who are obviously dressed up for the ‘festa’ and mostly abandoned during the year. What is the good of being a UNESCO world heritage site if nothing is maintained? Yet there is some hope in the spectacular Duomo which has been pristinely restored and is lovingly maintained.
As my day progressed 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 city destroyed by the earthquake of sixteen ninety-three, about thirty-five kilometres southwest of Syracuse. Today Noto Antica can be visited as an archaeological site, a ghostly homage to an ancient city which was an important centre in the Arab period of Sicily.
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 extra clientele. To use a vernacular phrase, I bet the Netini have their ‘marrone gonfie’ that is they are terribly 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, to experience it all 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 asked permission to push in to get a photo of the parade and them promptly she pushed him into a rubbish bin. Smiling and giggling together with them I respond, of course, you won’t fit, you’re way too good for that!
Gorgeous blonde haired boys and young women pass by drumming and throwing flags in the parade. The gifts of spring file by followed by a succession of historical figures from the military (complete with a round of cannon fire), religious brothers and Nobel families from the city’s aristocratic history, the most important all 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 character of the people, the innate pride they have 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 during the final night of the Infiorata when the designs are suggestively lit up with artificial lighting or perhaps the following day after all the tourists have gone and the local children are left to walk through and destroy the wilting petals. Even better still to visit when everything goes back to normal and 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 the busloads of bedlam.
For more tourist information see Noto, Sicily: a cultural city guide by Fiona Duncan from the Telegraph in the UK.