The Sicilian spring is moody as the weather fluctuates between rain and days of glorious sun. The Sciroccio wind whips itself up from the African desert and pushes the seasons along.
White blossoms in the fruit trees blend with shadowy greys. The spring is an armistice which allows the winter to gradually surrender itself and begin the cycle again.
Sicilian artichokes are as prickly as the late winter weather, but after their external spikes are removed the internal fleshy flower is a delicate balm for the cold.
The artichoke is a thistle and comes from the same family as the sunflower. This edible flower is a native of the Mediterranean and dates back to ancient Greek times when they were cultivated in Italy and Sicily.
Greek mythology tells how Zeus created the artichoke from a beautiful mortal woman. While visiting his brother Poseidon, Zeus spied a beautiful young woman, he was so pleased with the girl named Cynara, thathe decided to make her a goddess. Cynara agreed, however she grew homesick and snuck back home to visit her family. Zeus discovered this and became angry, throwing Cynara back to earth and transforming her into a plant.
Cynar is an Italian liqueur which gets its name from the artichoke and the mythological origins of this plant. This bitter alcoholic drink is made from thirteen different plants including the artichoke. It is generally drunk straight as an after dinner digestive or as a cocktail mixing it with soda water, tonic water and lemon, lime or orange juice.
It is always a joy to prepare artichokes as part of the Sicilian table every year. They may seem difficult but they are versatile, easily stuffed and the tender internal leaves can be prepared separately as a pasta condiment. The discarded stalks can also be blanched in hot water, then blended together to make a creamy pesto like mixture.
The best way to prepare the first tender artichokes of the season is to stuff them with a combination of fresh spring aromas like pancetta, parsley, spring onions, garlic, finely sliced celery, a pinch of hot chilli pepper, all soaked in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon and then cooking them slowly over hot coals, or ‘a braci’ as they say in the local dialect.
Covering the richly flavoured artichokes with hot smoking embers and letting the stuffing’s taste gradually imbue itself into the artichoke is the best. The tough external leaves are crusty and burnt but act as a protective shell until the internal tender parts are fully cooked. The fat of the bacon melts and amalgamates with the sweetness of the vegetable in an irresistible smoky flavour.
I love preparing them for my Birthday in late February every year. The only flowers I ever truly enjoy are a bouquet of carciofi.
Italy is a place where fashion comes alive. Italians have a real flare for it whether it be elderly ladies dressed in colorful silk tops and high heels, or the latest shop window display from Dolce and Gabanna there is an astounding level of creative expression happening deep within the Italian psyche which is inspiring.
A favorite pass-time of mine whenever I find myself in a major city on my meridional home in southern Italy is to wonder around a particular fashion district and drool over the latest fashion or simply marvel at what there is to admire in the displays.
I don’t mind the frivolous tourist shops, I know it’s kitschy but there is still something mildly Sicilian about it and there is colour in it just the same.
Then comes my favorite Sicilian craft, which is the ceramics, I simply can’t get enough of the different styles and designs, my dream is to fill my house with ceramics!
The jewelry and silver work available all over Sicily leaves me speechless. I’m particularly in love with the characteristic use of red coral and lava stone in original designs. These two contrasting elements from the sea, to the earth are a perfect metaphor for the nature of this island. I’m still looking for the perfect piece to add to my collection to aptly depict my love of Sicilian jewelry.
Then there are those shop windows or shop fronts who leave you simply surprised and prick your curiosity. The timeless artisan traditions of Sicily are reflected in objects like elaborate hand made baptism gowns for babies or the hodgepodge of antique shops filled with new discoveries and treasures.
I will never grow tired of window shopping in Sicily and Italy in general.
I love all things Vintage so I was so happy when I came across this vintage souvenir from Messina.
In the series of postcards the landscape of the city, the port and the mountains on the other side of the strait at Calabria are always the same yet the infrastructure is ever-changing.
The main street image was less confusing in the 1950’s/60’s and there weren’t many busy office buildings filled with shuffling queues, bureaucrats and employees mumbling curses under their breathe.
Festivals and traditions of Messina have always been a source of pride and colour yet on these postcards they seem more vibrant still.
The appeal of all things vintage is the shine and fascinating twist passing time gives everything. Something mundane becomes a treasure as it maintains itself through the decades as a testament to a lost past.
Even if I dislike shopping around touristy type shops I am often surprised to find stunningly original items in amongst the tacky kitsch. Working my through I heart Sicily post cards, every possibly shaped lava sculpture, bamboo flutes and knickknacks I saw these little babies. A series of handcrafted tools used to pick those particularly prickly Sicilian fruit the ‘fica d’india’ or prickly pear. Priceless really!
Shaking off the car sickness brought on by the endless curves of the drive I keenly 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 criss crossing 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 out do 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 years 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 daises, roses, and wild flowers 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, bus loads 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 kilometers southwest of Syracuse. Today Noto Antica can be visited as an archeological 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 finery during the afternoons 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.
The golden moment of the early Sicilian early morning overwhelms me, church steeples from the cramped towns hanging off the Nebrodi Mountains for dear life are lit up with a distinctly auburn glow. I rolled out of bed this morning at four am for a day trip by bus to Noto, Syracuse, so things are still a little groggy but the splendid morning is making 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 tantu dovemu alargari’ – literally we need to let ourselves go occasionally.
As we climb onto the Consorzio delle Autostrade superhighway, a nattering group of fifty somethings start to peel off layers of clothes to reveal freshly varnished nails and dressed hair. I put my headphones on to shut drown out the chatter.
At Messina the strait is like a sheet of ice, as if Calabria is only a brief sled ride away. Quaint Sicilian villages are littered like discarded building blocks and look out from the shifting mountains who appear to heave a sighs of restlessness. Autostrada tunnels create the illusion night time is close despite the evasive morning light. I don’t know whether to sleep or rejoice for the pristine luster before me.
Those yelping hyenas who dominate the bus have settled down and 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 a dark lady reveals her splendid silhouette, even if she normally hides herself like a coquette seductively behind a feathered boa stole. Etna’s jagged outline sketches itself out despite the dreary clouds, wearing only a tuft of white as if gently pulling on a cigarette above the Messina – Catania highway. For Sicilian’s Etna is defiantly female alluding to fertility of the goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology who create the gifts of agriculture and the seasons.
Palm trees and palazzi give way to a mélange of apartments, industrial warehouses, truck deposits and abandoned boarded up houses near Giarre. The foothills of Etna become a harsh and ugly juxtaposition of factories with an infestation of overgrown prickly pear cactus, rubbish tips, recycling plants and lava stone homes with names like Villa Corallo dell’Etna.
We stop at a tired Acireale autogrill gas station and I wistfully day-dream about Carnival parades while studying a solitary broken down campanile just behind the depot. The slate coloured steeple is covered in ‘edera’ vines adorned with white flowers called the ‘calice della Madonna,’ elongated chalices in which according to Sicilian folklore the infant Jesus drank.
Traveling 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, while 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 olive groves of Priolo, with the blockheaded limestone mountains of Gargallo and blankets the solar panels near Solarino.
Etna has mysteriously disappeared and more plains appear dotted by irrigated orchids of oranges, lemons, golden meadows, greenhouses and pleasant hills.
Rain comes streaming down the buses generous 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 little bar for the whole day to shield from the downpour, perhaps I could drown my disappointment in a few glasses of ‘Nero d’avola.’
A few weeks ago I shared a photo of the impressive bell tower near the Duomo of Messina and was surprised by the level of interest in this landmark, hence this post.
I’ve been taking people to visit the bell tower ever since moving to Sicily. The mechanical aspects of the tower are a little bit dull for those that don’t have a particular passion for the world of clockwork devices. The most fascinating aspect is the symbolism of each individual section which illustrates the intricate mythology of the city.
The main event happens at midday and midnight (I wouldn’t mind waiting around to see it a midnight even if I wouldn’t recommend hanging around that part of Messina, late at night!) when the movable parts of the bell tower are in motion.
The original tower near the Duomo was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century and has been reconstructed many times thanks to the earthquakes of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.
The tower houses the largest and most complex piece of intricate clockwork in the world. Constructed in Strasberg, the sixty meter tall campanile is made up of an impressive astronomical clock and a collection of gold coated bronze statues which acts out seven different scenes symbolic of Messina’s history.
At the apex of the tower right near the bells there is the lion which is the symbol of Messina, complete with royal crown and flag, he proudly roars out over Piazza Duomo while waving his flag at the tourists below.
Further down we have a cockerel who crows his heart out after the lions roar, he is flanked by two women Dina and Clarenza who chime their bells every fifteen minutes and on the hour. These two lovely ladies saved the city from a nocturnal ambush by the French in 1282 by appropriately ringing the bells to warn everyone.
Then we have Saint Paul leading the four Messinese ambassadors who receive were received by the Virgin Mary and were given a special blessing from the Madonna when they visited her in Palestine in 42 A.D. (The letter containing the blessing is paraded around Messina in the mid August holiday celebrating the ‘Madonna della Lettera’.)
Incidentally the Madonna of the Port is a grand statue near the city’s harbor meets who greets everyone, with the very blessing contained in the letter. Beneath the statue Mary says the city is a blessed place, with the Latin phrase: ‘Vos et ipsam civitatem benedicimus.’
Continuing down the clock tower there are different scenes from the bible including the Shepherds visiting the nativity, the three wise men, resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
A special dedication is given to the other major church of the Virgin Mary of the city which aptly rises up to it’s mountain perch to display the Church of Montalto through strains of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
The bottom two windows are dedicated to the passing of time. The penultimate display is of the phases that man passes through in life, every fifteen minutes we see man transform from a baby, to youth, maturity and old age. A skeleton represents death and waves his scythe around during the lifetime.
The last part at the base of the tower are the days of the week, each day is given a specific divinity drawn on a carriage by a specific animal. At the stoke of midnight the carriage changes its configuration appropriately.
Sunday Apollo the deity of the sun is pulled by a horse, Monday Diana the goddess of hunting is accompanied by a buck, Tuesday a horse is guided by Mars the god of war, Wednesday a panther pulls along Mercury, Thursday Jove is accompanied by a Chimera (a fire-breathing mythological creature which is part lion, goat and a snake for a tail), Friday the carriage is pulled by a dove with the goddess Venus and Saturday another Chimera guides Saturn through the week.
The tower is a fascinating piece of Messina’s history and it also offers great views of the city and the Strait over to the mainland. I’m sad to report that over the past few years the tourists seem to be dwindling as when I first came to see the bell tower in all of its glory a little over a decade ago, the square was always packed. Let’s hope the economic crisis gives people space to breathe and travel here once again.
I managed to get a glimpse of the metaphorical ‘Primavera’ while jostling in the crowd at the Medieval parade as part of the Infiorata festival at Noto, Syracuse but I’m afraid I’ve seen very little of her since.
I’ve always loved Sicilian churches prolific use of mosaics. Last summer I got to the church of the Madonna of Tindari (ME) and managed to sneak a shot of this beautiful image of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
These mosaics are like living breathing operatic scenes filled with life and drama. I think I’ll never tire of visiting them.