Monday, September 28, 2015

Island Life - holidaying in Montalbano’s back yard

© Simon Poulter 2015

Let’s just agree on this, right away: there is no right or wrong when it comes to holidays. One person’s Andean hillwalking is another’s brass-rubbing in Norfolk. Equally, you are more than entitled to spend two weeks at some Mediterranean drum doing nothing more demanding than reading Grisham while turning a darker shade of mahogany. 

Holidaymakers are welcome to their Maldive scuba-ing, their Andalusian basket-weaving, their Phuket beach bumming, their Cornish "chillaxing" or even their Disneyland/world adrenalin rushing and endless queuing. All these are fine by me. Because a holiday is what you make it, right? It’s your day off or long weekend or week or three-month sabbatical to do whatever makes you feel good, rested and better. 

Me, I start out with good intentions. I’ll say to myself that this year I’ll satisfy myself just by loafing about poolside, with sleeping the primary meat in a sandwich of the outbound and return flights. However, it rarely - if ever - ends up that way. 

I have, previously, chosen a week at an ersatz boutique hotel in Los Angeles, under the false expectation of getting papped on the rooftop terrace amongst the enfamed and glamorous, in the hope of it leading to a career in film/television and impossible riches beyond. Alas, while my man boobs may have provided momentary interest to an idle and, frankly, myopic photographer, I soon realised just how far out of my league I was in the LA hotel narcissism stakes and spent the rest of that holiday stuck in traffic listening to classic rock radio.

© Simon Poulter 2015

This year, and from where I write, I’ve returned to Sicily. Again, with the sworn intention of doing nothing except alternating sleeping with dips in the pool, eating, and reducing my accumulation of rock and roll biographies. But, as Nostradamus himself could have predicted without so much as batting an eyelid, the hire car keys have proven too much of a temptation to simply leave in the hotel safe. Because, so it would seem, I am a restless soul when confronted by beauty.

This is my fourth visit to Sicily, the first being 1997 when I arrived on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, in what turned out to be a blessed escape from hearing Elton John singing “Goodbye English rose…” for the billionth time that week. Some have politely “questioned” (i.e. made thinly-veiled criticism) my return to somewhere I’ve been to before: yes, I know there’s a world out there, and that Asia, Australia and New Zealand, South America, the Middle East and even parts of both my home country and [current] adopted nation offer destinations I could have seen for the very first time. There are even a few of Uncle Sam’s 50 states in which I’ve yet to breathe the local air, something that might come as a surprise to my kith and kin.

So sue me, then, if I’ve shown no ambition by coming back to this giant Dorito perched off Italy’s big toe. Quite why I love Sicily so, however, has only really occurred to me on this trip, and that is the realisation that it is a feast for all senses so gargantuan that you wish you could just ask for a doggy bag with which to consume more of it when you get back home. 

There are plenty of places that deliver what Sicily does - perfect weather, pristine beaches, stunning scenery, fascinating history, dribblingly-good food and wonderful people - but few that deliver all of it so nonchalantly, almost to the point of lacking any ambition to do so. And that’s the part I like.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Sicily - as a land - isn’t knowingly pretty. It’s not one of those Gwyneth Paltrow-perfect places that, if it didn’t live and breathe, you would swear was a tourist authority construct. But nor is its beauty just skin-deep.

We Brits and our Yankee cousins, in particular, can bang on about Tuscany, for example, with contractually-obliged references to undulating hills, chianti, and your pick of Florence, Sienna or Lucca (and don’t get me wrong, but these are cities and a region I adore), but Sicily delivers graduated degrees of visual exhilaration and geographic intoxication in an enticingly different manner, and, in my view, in more substantial quantities.

First of all, Sicily isn’t Italy. It’s Sicily. An island fought over by X, Y, and Z and several more in between over the course of ancient and modern history. Today it might enjoy semi-autonomy from whichever government is this week running the country, but it is no more “Italy” than Russia is a part of either Europe or Asia. 

It’s this individualism that makes Sicily such a perfect pace for the Italianophile to spend a couple of weeks: you get to enjoy the bits of Italy you like - mad driving, breathtaking architecture and insanely ornate places of worship, food and drink you would wallow in like Gina Lollobrigida in the Trevi fountain if you could - while consciously turning a blind eye towards the things you don’t like. That, ashamedly, are the obvious signs of poverty that remain in Italy’s less than prosperous Mezzogiorno, and the husks of suspiciously incomplete buildings that dot the countryside in the most incongruous manner - multi-story commercial buildings in the middle of nowhere and miles from any urban centre, that have been started and then abandoned. 

Some will hint at criminal involvement, others corruption in both high and low places, while others will simply be resigned to it being what it is, much like the filth of fly-tipped rubbish that piles up uncollected alongside roads (as do prostitutes who ply their trade openly on bizarrely remote stretches of highway, like lay-by fruit sellers, so to speak).

© Simon Poulter 2015

Intense summer heat and the genetic makeup of myriad invading peoples have made Sicilians a hardy breed. In towns that cling to hills like limpet colonies, neighbours live on top of, underneath and right beside each other. Proximity is not a social drawback here as it is to us repressed Brits. Thus a Sicilian will stand on your heels in a queue, or attach themselves to your rear bumper without once considering the imposition it causes. Being close is just their way.

Speaking of Sicilian roads, they are worthy of their own guidebook alone [*makes note to call publisher next week*]. If you take the Italian reputation for cavalier driving and then crank it up past 11, you will come close to the motoring experience here. 

Overtaking on stretches of highway where it is obviously unadvisable is as much a part of the way of life as the nuclear-strength coffee which, now I think of it, probably contributes to the driving culture. There’s no point in harrumphing when you see a car coming towards you on your side of the road here - it knows what it is doing, as does everyone else…even if a head-on collision of the most dramatic and calamitous kind is clearly about to happen. But never does.

In mitigation, there is a cause: apart from the three main autostrada - between Palermo and Catania, Messina and Syracusa, and Syracusa and Gela (except it doesn't get that far) - driving anywhere in Sicily can be an exercise in extreme patience as all the roads are single carriageway. Which means on weekdays you will get stuck behind a procession of tectonically slow trucks belching out acrid diesel smoke, while a hotshot in an Alfa impatiently sits on your tail waiting to accelerate past. In a no-passing zone, obviously. 

Like other crazy car cultures - Paris and cities in south-east Asia spring immediately to mind - there is something intuitive about motoring in Sicily. It shouldn't work but it just does, like ant colonies. Miraculously, no-one ever seems to get in anyone else’s way, regardless of the obvious risks taken.

What Sicily lacks, quite deliberately it would seem, in major automotive infrastructure it makes up for in roads that edge their way around the magnificent Sicilian interior, hugging hillsides and coursing through hilltop towns high enough to feel like you're flying, before twisting and turning down into deep valleys

Sicily can be a driver’s paradise. While there are plenty of places where it is patently not - Palermo being one, trying to park in most of the other urban attractions being another - the island is criss-crossed with gloriously rolling roads where you can ivariably be the only human being for several kilometres in any which direction. 

Some of these roads are awful, pothole-infested disasters, but many others allow the time to meander the breathtaking Sicilian interior, its seismic history having carved out in great, fertile valleys and mountains with towns nestling in them like something out of Mordor.

At its eastern end, it is impossible to go anywhere without seeing the enormous, classically conical outline of Mount Etna looming in the haze. No wonder it inspired Greek legends. With its ever-present puffs of sulphuric smoke, and occasional up-spits of lava and rock, it's an awe-inspiring sight that looms over Catania like an imperious guard. Indeed, Etna’s reoccurring prominence is such that you see it from everywhere and in everything - rather like Roy Neary, Richard Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Tower-obsessed telephone engineer in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Indeed so much of Sicily is cinematic, and, yes, as you travel through it, it’s hard not to have Nino Rota’s music from that Coppola epic in your head. Many a tourist will head for the very real Corleone, not just for its literary and cinematic connection (including being, ironically, birthplace of Al Pacino’s maternal grandparents), but because of its genuinely grim history. It is, though, a pretty, if functional town and, presumably, well used to tourists traipsing through it. 

© Simon Poulter 2015
Pacino’s scenes in The Godfather as the young Michael Corleone, on the lam after shooting the murderous Sollozzo and his corrupt police ally McCluskey in New York, were filmed at the eastern end of the island, in and around Etna and Taormina. It is well worth the pilgrimage to the altitudinal town of Savoca to see Bar Vitelli, where he asks for the owner’s daughter’s hand in marriage, later leading to her death and his return to America. The current proprietors are not as accommodating, but they are extraordinarily nice people, the drinks are cold, the ice cream is exquisite, and it provides a very welcome refuge from the intense midday heat,

During my first visit to Sicily I was asked by a close relative, who will remain nameless, how conspicuous the Mafia were here, as if expecting to confirm men in black suited men on street corners flipping coins like George Raft. They’re not, but that said, organised crime's presence here is well documented. 

The Sicilian economy - indeed the economy of the entire 'Mezzogiorno' south of Italy - seems unable to escape the fingers of mafia groups, though Sicily’s Cosa Nostra has been eclipsed in recent years by the more powerful ‛Ndrangheta operating from across the Straits of Messina in Calabria, and by the Napoli-based Camorra. Barely a night goes by without television news reporting a capo's arrest or a racket being broken up. Still, you have more chance of encountering a shark than a mafioso, and as we all know, the odds of bumping into Jaws himself is pretty slim to begin with.

But if there is one criminal influence that is bringing tourists to the island, it is the fictional police inspector Salvo Montalbano of Andrea Camilleri’s Il Commissario Montalbano novels and the 26 brilliantly engaging, feature-length TV films made by Italy’s RAI since 1999.

© Simon Poulter 2015
Camilleri set his books in the fictional southern Sicilian town of Vigàta, imagined to be in the area of south-western Sicily where he grew up. The TV films, however, were filmed around the historic south-eastern towns of Ragusa, Scicli, Modica and Noto, as well as the picturesque seaside resorts of Punta Secca (where you can find la casa di Montalbano - now a fully functioning B&B) and Donnalucata, the latter of which I have spent the last two weeks.

Quite rightly, the Montalbano films (and, more recently, the prequel series Il Giovane Montalbano - ‘The Young Montalbano’), have worked like no regional advertising campaign ever could. They have elevated the Baroque beauty and sleepy sandstone of these towns via complex and invariably surprising whodunnits, and their cast of regulars - Luca Zingaretti (with whom I share a birthday - I mention apropos of nothing) as the elder Montalbano, the preening deputy Mimi Augello, Fazio his loyal understudy, and the clownish Catarella, the station receptionist (played by Angelo Russo, a native of Ragusa itself). I implore you to buy the Montalbano box set. Clichéd as it sounds, each of the almost two-hour films have the magical ability to transport you to this sub-drenched corner of Sicily.

Getting here for real, however, has become somewhat easier. On my last visit, three years ago, the only option was to fly in to Catania’s Fontanarossa airport and then endure a lengthy drive through the baking countryside to the coast. In 2013, however, the former Cold War airbase at Comiso (the American nuclear cruise missile bunkers are still visible next to the runway…) was opened up to serve commercial airlines, with Ryanair - yes, I’m sorry - becoming the first to fly and out from various parts of Europe (though at least, for once, Comiso is actually close to where you might intend to stay...). Alitalia have since added a scheduled daily service, while charter carriers fly in during the main summer season. It should only be a matter of time before others cotton on to the appeal of this region of Sicily.

Because even if you only come here on a Montalbano pilgrimage, you will be rewarded and then some. Not for nothing has the Val di Noto been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for the architectural glories of the seven towns within it, many the result of remarkable rebuilding work after an earthquake in 1693.

To return to my opening argument, you can, if you want, come to Sicily and plonk yourself down on one if its southern coast’s pristine beaches for two weeks and never even bother walking up the steps of a cathedral. But if, like me, you are possessed with a mildly inquisitive nature, or even a fully restless spirit, you can have both the beach time and the exploration time on this island and still feel rested and nourished. 

You can live like a king for relatively little, dining out on all manner of aquatic fauna (the pesce spada alla griglia - grilled swordfish - is to be recommended) and indulging the deliciously zesty local wines. You can indulge history or simply soak up the sun. Holiday life, to borrow from Talk Talk, is truly what you make it.

© Simon Poulter 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment