Sicily: The eyes, the belly, the heart

Qatar Happening, May 2015. Original article p106-107.

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Sicily, Italy:
The eyes, the belly, the heart

Sicily’s overwhelming Baroque architecture will fight hard for your attention, but in the end it’s the food that will win you over. The pasta, yes, and certainly the gelato – but best of all, the cannoli.

You think Sicily is going to be similar to the rest of Italy, but it really isn’t. This island is a different creature, a unique culture found across the water from the boot-shaped mainland. Sicilia may be an Italian island, but its soul is its very own.

There’s a lived-in feel to Sicily, creating an atmosphere far more homely than the polished squares of Northern Italy. Sicilian village squares fill with ladies in black at lunchtime, and coppola-clad men at dusk, as the locals claim these spaces as their own. Though the backdrop to this neighbourly charm is gorgeous, elaborate baroque architecture, which is found all across the island. Curvy, deep façades host dozens upon dozens of stone sculptures, showing us the detailed faces of the saints, the cuddly cherubs, the swooning angels.

3000-year-old Palermo remains a city the making, proud and ready for its next heyday. Sicily’s biggest city is a little worn around the edges, sure, but it’s got better things to do than to stay on top of all this upkeep. So many little churches, all those charmingly narrow streets, not to mention the massive cathedral and the Norman palace, the latter not just a historical attraction but also the seat of the Sicilian Assembly. Don’t miss the Fontana Pretoria, a Renaissance concoction of nymphs rummaging around in the water. When it was built in 1573, the spectacle shocked the church-going locals to the extent they named it the Fountain of Shame.

The pride of the newer part of Palermo is the Teatro Massimo, the third-largest 19th century opera house in Europe and a symbol of Sicily’s key heritages: cultural creativity, old world bureaucracy, and Mafia influences. All the travel books are clear on this: Don’t mention the Mafia! But sometimes a friendly local, eager to set things right, will bring it up: “You do what you can and try to make an honest living,” one man said. “Sicily is so much more than just the Mafia.”

Like the food. The food! The Sicilians may have invented the Mafia but they also created the wonder that is gelato ice cream. This island has gelato shops the way the rest of the world has tobacco shops, always there to provide a hit of creamy, sweet goodness in a whole alphabet of flavours. Ask for black chocolate, Sicilian almond, or maybe best of all, the local pistachio. The best gelato is found on Sicily’s east coast, which is two hours from Palermo by car. Noto is a little town boasting a stunning little historical centre, but the star attraction is possibly Corrado Costanzo, supposedly one of the best ice cream shops in the entire world. Try the almond and cinnamon and eat it while swooning up the street, taking in the stone buildings which glow red as the sun is setting.

Another medieval hillside town worth a visit is Modica, where you’ll exhaust yourself climbing the steep streets, passing a cattedrale here, a chiesa there. While Noto is the place for ice cream, Modica’s claim to fame is its chocolate, specifically that of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. Everything is made from traditional recipes in the kitchen behind the counter, creating bold chunks of chocolate flavoured with vanilla or lavender, or maybe have some with chilli pepper that goes straight to your head.

But the star of Sicily’s east coast is probably the Ortygia peninsula in Syracuse. Ortygia looks like it’s been dug out of yellow stone, stacked within the walls like a perfect timepiece. Myriads of alleys open onto little piazzas, where espresso is served to patrons stood at the counter, one foot resting on the low-slung rail. The Siracusa cathedral incorporates columns from the Greek temple which once stood in its place, renowned throughout the ancient world for its large golden statue of Athena. Mary stands in her place today. Make sure to stick around in Syracuse until dinner, maybe for a plate of tomato-salty linguini topped with piles of claims, or go for the gnocchi – it’s made not from potato but from clouds. Then, round off the evening with a trademark cannoli: the crispy pastry, ricotta cream, and a sprinkle of pistachio will be the highlight of your day. You may not speak Italian, but this is a language you’ll instantly recognise.

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