The glories of Sicily’s ancient hilltop towns, Ragusa

To reach either half of Ragusa, the old town of Ragusa Ibla and it’s newer counterpart Ragusa Superiore, requires you to descend into the deep ravine of Valle dei Ponti, and then clamber back up endless flights of steep stairs worn by the passage of time and countless feet. There is no better example of this than the Salita Commendatore, stairs that wind through the 18th century heart of Ragusa Superiore, crossing hairpin bends of the winding road and passing under stone arches as you climb.

Breathlessly, we arrived at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Scale, St Mary of the Stairs, a 13th-century Gothic church given a Baroque makeover after the earthquake of 1693 which flattened much of the original city. The climb to the church is worth the effort when you turn around. I challenge anyone not to be wowed by the superb views across to Ragusa Ibla and over the surrounding countryside. Once you reach the small square next to the church, the good news is that it’s all downhill back to Ragusa Ibla.

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Cathedral, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Cathedral, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Cathedral, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Cathedral, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Like too many churches on our trip, St. Mary of the Stairs wasn’t open. You have to time your visit well to arrive when churches are open in Sicily, even the cathedral in Ragusa only opens for limited periods. We started our descent on the road, but occasionally dived down narrow stairways or cobbled alleys to explore the nooks and crannies of this fascinating place. There are tremendous views to be had between the tall houses as you tumble downwards to reach the Church of Santa Lucia.

The small square in front of the church offers panoramic views, some of the most iconic in Ragusa. The blue dome of the Church of Santa Maria dell’ Itria prominent against the cityscape. From this vantage point you get a sense of Ragusa Ibla’s layout and its place in the landscape. We spotted metallic figures of people climbing a nearby hill, a nod to a local legend that claims the treasures of the town were buried on a hilltop to stop them falling into the hands of the invading Arabs. Treasures that have yet to be found.

This part of Ragusa Superiore was built following the 1693 earthquake that destroyed the ancient town of Ragusa Ibla. The devastation was almost total and a decision was taken to build a new town on the hill opposite the original town. A new cathedral and grand palaces were built, and that might have been the end for Ragusa Ibla, except the local aristocracy couldn’t bear to see the town fall into ruin. Instead, they decided to rebuild their former palaces, churches and houses in the Baroque style.

Ragusa Ibla dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and was a thriving urban centre during Roman and Byzantine times. It continued to be an important economic hub during the 200-years of Arab occupation before the 11th century conquest by the Normans, after which it was a provincial capital in the Kingdom of Sicily. This epic history can still be glimpsed as you wander the streets of Ibla, or more conveniently in the archeological museum.

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

We made our way back into Ragusa Ibla, and wound our way around the streets to the Piazza Duomo  and then to the scenic public gardens at the bottom of the town. The gardens have a lovely avenue of palm trees, three attractive churches (none of which was open), and, best of all, sweeping views across the countryside. We sat on a bench in the shade and watched the world not go by, before heading back into the maze of Ibla. Unbeknown to us, we had timed things well because all the churches suddenly seemed to be open … finally.

Exploring the ancient streets and stairways of Ragusa

Our first sight of Ragusa Ibla, the ancient heart of a town that is split in two halves, was breathtaking. The spectacular collection of tightly packed houses, churches and 17th century palaces cling impossibly to the sides of a steep hill. The baroque architecture, bathed in the early morning sunlight, is a magnificent sight. If there’s one thing the old town of Ragusa doesn’t lack, it’s a dramatic location. This extends to the hairpin bends of the road that plunges into the deep valley below, where the town’s car park is found.

This first sight of Ragusa is seared into my memory, yet in twenty-years time it isn’t the thing that I’ll most remember about the town. No, that accolade goes to the donkey salami we were served along with a glass of local white wine while we sat admiring the exquisite Cathedral of San Giorgio. Please don’t ask what it tasted like, I’m still trying to forget that I ate burro. Donkey features regularly on the menus of Ragusa, I drew the line at one restaurant which was serving a daily special of roasted donkey ribs.

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di San Giorgio. Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di San Giorgio. Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Donkey salami, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Donkey salami, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa has an outstanding collection of restaurants, ranging from the Michelin-starred Duomo Ristorante to the more humble Enoteca Il Barocco, which is a wine shop with a good line in platters of local cheeses, meats and pickles. I would go as far as to say that Ragusa is worth visiting just to sample some of its restaurants. The €190 tasting menu at Duomo Ristorante was a bit pricey, but the chef has a second restaurant, I Banchi, which doesn’t require such deep pockets. The prize for ‘best pizza of the holiday’ goes to Ragusa’s Ristorante ll Barocco. Delicious.

We arrived in Ragusa Ibla after driving through the workaday modern town of Ragusa Superiore, which involved daredevil driving during Sicilian rush hour and a reasonable amount of ‘course correction’. This is a town of two halves, and after the dreary streets of Ragusa Superiore the sight of Ragusa Ibla, crowned by the dome of the Duomo di San Giorgio and the massive Universitario Della Provincia Di Ragusa, was special. Our next task was to locate our B&B amongst the maze of streets and steep stairways.

No one who isn’t Sicilian would ever want to try to drive in the streets of Ragusa Ibla, it is a terrifying prospect. So we abandoned our hire car in the municipal car park and set off to search out the Giardino Di Pietra, our B&B in a restored 18th century house run by the most recent generation of an old Ragusa family. We found it with relative ease, and had the delight of being driven back down to the car park in the owner’s tiny 1948 Fiat 500 to collect our bags.

I don’t typically make recommendations on this blog, but Giardino Di Pietra is so good it deserves a mention. Our room at the top of the house had fantastic views over the tiled roofs of the town towards the 18th century part of Ragusa Superiore, and was furnished with original art nouveau furniture. Better still, the breakfast of homemade jams and other local delicacies was the best of our trip. Elena, who runs the place, was fabulous. Infomercial ends.

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di San Giorgio. Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di San Giorgio. Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Map in hand, we headed into the warren of streets to find lunch. A little like the Grand Old Duke of York of nursery rhyme fame, we marched up to the top of the hill, and then marched back down again, went around and around for a while, before eventually, and unexpectedly, landing in the Piazza Duomo, dominated by the magnificent cathedral and surrounded by baroque buildings. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be our first (and possibly last) encounter with donkey-based delicacies.

The exploration of the rest of Ragusa would have to wait for the afternoon.

Marzamemi and a lazy lunch on the Noto Coast

In the scorching Sicilian summer months, the picturesque fishing village of Marzamemi  is bursting at the seams with tourists. Not so much in November, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a good restaurant serving fresh fish at tables overlooking the sea with a boisterous Italian family eating at the next table for company. We’d come here just to have lunch, and were happy to find a clutch of restaurants near the small square, Piazza Regina Margherita. The village may still support small scale fishing but it’s clear that the main catch these days is tourists.

How times have changed. In 1824, a British naval officer called William Henry Smyth was far from polite about Marzamemi, describing it as “a small filthy village, which, during the fishing season, is strewed with the blood and intestines of the tuna.” Far from the idyllic and charming village that welcomes visitors today. Smyth goes on to describe the coast south of here as having a “barren, desolate appearance”. These days at least, its inhabitants no longer live in “dread of the Barbary cruisers”.

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

The history of Marzamemi has a strong connection with tuna, dating back to the 11th century when Sicily was controlled by the Arabs. By 1824 it was one of Italy’s most profitable. Near the small port you can find the Tonnara, the building where tuna were processed. Alas, no more. The decline of tuna thanks to overfishing has put the Tonnara out of business, although there are still some people producing tuna products on an artisanal scale. They’re available to buy for what might be described as a small fortune.

We opted for fresh fish and a glass of a chilled local white. The sun was shining and we sat in the shade outside listening to the waves. We’d arrived in Marzamemi after visiting the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata in Noto, not knowing the same person was responsible for founding the historic area that surrounds the main piazza. He built the village in 1752, including a palace for himself, to manage trade through its port and to develop the tuna fishery.

Lunch was delicious, and afterwards we walked back through the more modern village, which seemed largely closed for the season. Back in the car we headed south, or at least tried to. After driving through the village several times (it’s really not that big), we finally found the right road and set off down the coast. It would be fair to say that what Smyth described as “desolate” is no less true today, and the landscape hasn’t improved with the addition of plastic tunnels for growing vegetables.

Smyth also ventured down this same stretch of coastline, passing the Vecchia Tonnara di Portopal, another tuna processing plant, the ruins of which can still be seen today – ironically next to a luxury hotel built like a castle. Smyth was, again, less than flattering about this southerly point of Sicily. He wrote of the Island of Capopassero, just off the coast, as: “The arid island, at the extremity of the deserted wilds of Sicily, appeared, as if intended by nature or man, to be a place of banishment for the worst of criminals”.

Island of Capopassero, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Island of Capopassero, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Vecchia Tonnara di Portopal, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Vecchia Tonnara di Portopal, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

That’s a bit unfair.

Smyth was a well regarded scientist, principally a hydrographer. In Sicily he produced many hydrographical charts which were still in use in the mid-20th century. Here he was also introduced to the science of astronomy, and when he retired from the navy he studied the stars – an area of the moon is named after him. He also wrote observations of his time on Sicily, later publishing a Memoir description of the Resources, Inhabitants, and Hydrography of Sicily and its IslandsDespite coming across as a curmudgeon in the memoir, he’s a fascinating character.

Baroque glories in magnificent Noto

Noto is a town that tends to bring out the superlatives. It’s a small place of only twenty five thousand people, but it punches well above its weight. Following the devastating earthquake of 1693, which laid waste many towns and villages across this region, Noto lay in ruins. It was decided to abandon the old medieval town and start again on a hill about 10 kilometres away. Some of the finest architects of the age were employed to design the new Noto, and what emerged from disaster is a masterclass of early-18th century Baroque town planning.

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque Cathedral of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque Cathedral of Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

Walk down the town’s main street, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and you’ll soon see why Noto is known as the ‘Baroque Capital of Sicily’. The street – pedestrianised – is flanked by utterly magnificent palaces, imposing churches and small squares, all done in a riot of Baroque architecture. We arrived in the town in the mid-morning, but it seemed like things were still just getting going, that included other tourists, who were noticeable by their absence.

As we wandered down Corso Vittorio Emanuele it seemed like every building had little Baroque flourishes: balconies supported by lions or mermaids, sublimely carved capitals on top of fake Ionic columns, and ‘goose-breast’ wrought iron balconies, vie for attention with grotesque masks and cherubs on ornate facades. We started our day at a small cafe with coffee and traditional Sicilian brioche – sweet enough to dissolve teeth – in a small square bathed in sunlight and watched as the town came to life.

We could see the imposing dome of Noto’s most extraordinary building, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas of Myra. Itching to start exploring, we paid our bill and headed to the bottom of the stairs that lead to the Cathedral’s immense facade. It has the effect of making you feel pretty small and insignificant, a impression that only gets stronger as you climb the stairs to the huge doorway into the cavernous interior. The views across the valley from the entrance are wonderful.

Completed in 1776, the cathedral is a Baroque delight, but it has only survived into the 21st century with a lot of help. In 1996 the huge cathedral dome collapsed, largely as a result of failing to properly fix damage from an earthquake in 1990. It took a decade to repair the dome and reopen the cathedral, they’ve taken the opportunity to clean the exterior walls for good measure. The highlight of the new interior has to be the lovely frescoes by Russian painter, Oleg Supereko.

We emerged back into the brilliant Sicilian winter light and made our way to two more exquisite examples of the Baroque. The simple but imposing Church of San Francesco d’Assisi was very plain inside, and we soon found ourselves climbing the many stairs of the Church of Santa Chiara to reach the rooftop terrace with views over the town and the valley below. It was magnificent and gave us a real sense of the size and scale of the cathedral. It’s pretty obvious from up here why the town has UNESCO World Heritage status.

Despite the many steep staircases you’re required to climb, the central part of Noto is easy to get around on foot in half a day, although it’s the sort of place in which you can imagine spending several slow days. We managed to reach the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata before they closed for lunch, and went on a self-guided tour of the public parts of Baron Nicolaci’s former palace. It gives a glimpse of the extravagant lives of Sicily’s old aristocracy, but has nothing on the average French chateau.

The Church of St.Francis of Assisi, Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Church of St.Francis of Assisi, Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Church of St.Francis of Assisi, Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Church of St.Francis of Assisi, Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

We spent a little time exploring Noto’s step and narrow streets before deciding to skip town for lunch on the Noto coast. We’d been told by some people we’d met in Syracuse that there was a pleasant fishing village south of Noto that did excellent seafood, and it was to Marzamemi that we headed to sample yet more delicious fresh seafood.

Amongst the ancients in Syracuse

Syracuse is a city with an extraordinary history. It was founded in 733 BC by settlers from Corinth, one of the most powerful Greek city-states. The Corinthian colonisers were just the first wave of Greeks to be lured to Sicily, and they quickly established a flourishing Hellenic culture on the island, as well as building extensive trade with the rest of the Mediterranean. Syracuse grew in size and wealth and became one of the richest, most powerful cities in the region.

Greek Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Greek Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Greek Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Greek Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Fish market, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Fish market, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Fish market, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Fish market, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

This made it a very conspicuous target for would-be conquistadores. Over its 2,700-year history, it survived numerous attacks, sieges and capitulations. In around 400 BC it reached the peak of its power. First though it had to defeat Carthage, a powerful rival across the sea in Tunisia. This was no mean feat, after all this was the civilisation that gave birth to Hannibal and, in later centuries, went head-to-head with the might of Rome, like two prize fighters slugging it out.

In 480 BC, Carthage was sent packing back to North Africa, leaving Syracuse in peace, at least temporarily. It was only towards the end of the century that Syracuse did the seemingly impossible by defeating a powerful invasion fleet sent from Athens in 415 BC. Despite being fellow Greeks, the Athenians envied Syracuse’s wealth and power, waging war against them and their allies, Sparta and Corinth. After the invasion was defeated Syracuse became the most powerful city in the Mediterranean.

Over the next 200 years Greek culture thrived, Syracuse became a centre of learning and, to the north, the power of Rome grew. All good things must come to an end and, in the 2nd century BC , the Romans conquered Syracuse from the Greeks. The price was high. The city was home to the greatest mathematician of Antiquity, Archimedes, and although he’d used his genius to defend the city, the Roman commander gave an order that he shouldn’t be harmed. Tragically, the order was ignored and he was killed.

Roman rule would last several more centuries, but they never tried to rid the island of its Greek heritage. Which may be one of the reasons why Sicily continues to feel a bit different to the rest of Italy. Today, this ancient history can still be found in abundance in Syracuse, even if the centuries have worn away many remnants of Greco-Roman life. Perhaps most significantly, the earthquake of 1693 destroyed almost every building in the city, and when it was rebuilt it took on its new Baroque personality.

On our second morning in town we woke to grey skies and rain. It was warm enough to have breakfast outside overlooking the Temple of Apollo, one of Greek Syracuse’s great temples, and as we ate the clouds cleared and the sun came out again. We were leaving the island of Ortygia and venturing into the modern town of Syracuse (dreary modern buildings, terrible traffic and great ice cream parlours), and then to the truly wondrous Parco Archeologico Neapolis.

The wealth of ancient buildings is breathtaking, as is the utter lack of care they seem to have received over recent years. I know Italy has had a bad few years economically, and that they have an abundance of historic structures to conserve, but it was a shock to see the dereliction of parts of the site. The Roman amphitheatre was overgrown, the path around it falling to pieces and closed beyond a certain point. There were plenty of staff ‘working’ there, their main job seemed to be standing around doing nothing.

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Temple of Apollo near the fish market, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Temple of Apollo near the fish market, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Mussolini calendar, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Mussolini calendar, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Greek Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Greek Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Roman Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Roman Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Greek Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Greek Theatre, Parco Archeologico Neapolis, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

We wandered around trying to interpret the faded information boards and trying to work out where our €10 entrance fee was being spent. It certainly wasn’t being used to maintain the 2,700 years of history on display. To compound matters, the museum was closed. We finally reached the site of the ancient Greek theatre, which is magnificent and has splendid views out to sea. Afterwards we visited the old quarry and the vast man made cave known as Dionysius’s Ear.

The ancient history of Syracuse was palpable. Sadly, without much needed care and attention, I’m not sure it’ll be possible to say that in a few years’ time. We wandered back to the modern town for ice cream and then to explore more of Ortygia. In the morning our destination would be the Baroque glories of Noto.

Syracuse, exploring the labyrinth of Ortygia

The gorgeous island of Ortygia, the oldest and most fascinating part of the ancient city of Syracuse, is criss-crossed by a sprawling labyrinth of narrow alleyways and streets. At night, under a bright moon, meandering through them is a wonderfully enjoyable and atmospheric experience, the town’s long and glorious history seems to seep from the crumbling walls of centuries-old buildings. It’s a truly extraordinary place that can be visited on a day trip, but which benefits from a couple of days slow exploration.

Duomo di Siracusa, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di Siracusa, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Fontana di Diana, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Fontana di Diana, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Daytime wanderings reveal the many hidden delights amongst the nearly 3,000 year history of this densely packed area. This was the first city to be founded in what would become Magna Graecia, colonies established by Ancient Greece across Southern Italy and Sicily. The Greeks began arriving in the 8th century BC, and reminders of Hellenic civilisation can be found dotted around Sicily. Emerging out of the maze of streets in Ortygia brought us face-to-face with the remains of the Temple of Apollo.

A more dramatic example can be found in the Duomo di Siracusa, the 17th century cathedral that began life as the great Greek Temple of Athena in the 5th century BC. Today, you can still see the massive doric columns that were originally incorporated into the walls of the first Christian temple in the 7th century. The 1693 earthquake badly damaged the building, but the Greek columns withstood the disaster and were incorporated into the reconstructed cathedral.

The original Temple of Athena was famous across the Greek world, both Plato and Cicero mention it in their writings, and it stood proudly at the highest point of the island to welcome home sailors. The cathedral sits at the top of the beautiful, semi-circular Piazza Duomo, the town’s main square surrounded by Baroque palaces. It’s a calm and relaxed place in which to start your explorations of the island. A short walk from here either plunges you back into the warren of streets or brings you to the sea.

Ortygia’s labyrinth makes the island seem a lot larger than it really is. Even at its widest point, it takes less than ten minutes to walk from one side of Ortygia to the other. On our wanderings, we regularly found ourselves staring out over the brilliant blue waters of the Ionian Sea. We spent a couple of days slowly acquainting ourselves with the relaxed pace of life, visiting churches and museum, eating at some of Syracuse’s famed restaurants, and sampling Sicilian wines. When the time came, it was hard to leave.

In November, even one experiencing unusually high temperatures, there were few tourists around. Which meant Ortygia wasn’t as crowded as it can get in summer, but some of the more famous restaurants were closed for a holiday that extends for much of the month. Luckily, there seems to be a new wave of restaurants and bars opening that are not focused on business from tourism. In a town that can feel like a strange mix of down-at-heel but touristy, these green stems of regrowth seem very promising.

We stumbled upon a fantastic bar that served only local wines and Sicilian craft beers. It had been recently opened by a woman who’d returned to the island after ten years in New York. On our last night in Ortygia, we ate at a restaurant serving modern takes on traditional Sicilian dishes. Run by a young Sicilian woman, it was only the second night it had been open. It served up some of the best food we had on our entire trip. We were still talking, in slightly awed tones, about the squid ink arancini a week later.

Duomo di Siracusa, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di Siracusa, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di Siracusa, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di Siracusa, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

A Sicilian road trip

Sicily is a fabled island, with a history going back millennia. Some of the most enigmatic civilisations from ancient history have called it home, normally after conquering it from its previous owners. Ancient Greek temples rub shoulders with Roman amphitheatres; stunning Byzantine mosaics sit a short distance from magnificent Baroque churches. In addition to Greeks and Romans, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Normans and even the Habsburgs all sought to control it over the centuries.

At times over the last three or four thousand years, the Mediterranean’s largest island could lay claim to being the political, economic and cultural centre of the region. After all, the greatest mathematician in ancient Greece, Archimedes, lived most of his life in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. Times, though, change, and Sicily’s more recent history has been less kind to the island and its people. Low levels of development, poverty and lack of opportunities typified the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries.

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

This led to mass migration, much of it to the United States, and the exportation of the island’s culture and cuisine, including the Cosa Nostra, the criminal syndicate better known as the Mafia that was born and flourished on the island for three hundred years. This is the Sicily that plays an evocative backdrop in The Godfather films. In part, it was the romantic landscapes and picturesque villages of Francis Ford Coppola’s opus that made me want to visit Sicily. It’s taken a while to get there, but the wait was worth it.

It was no great hardship to leave the increasingly grey and cold Berlin winter behind for a little Mediterranean sunshine, which even in November gave us temperatures of 22ºC. The weather has been seriously unsettled in Sicily though, and the days before we flew torrential rain led to flooding in different parts of the island. We were lucky to only have one such day, in Catania, the streets turned to rivers and large hailstones fall from the sky.

We flew to Catania, a formerly elegant port city now filled with the decaying grandeur of past glories. It’s a city that many has rough edges, but is worth a visit for its vibrant nightlife, architecture reminiscent of Havana, and untouristy atmosphere. We decided to spend a couple of days there at the end of our trip, and from the airport picked up a hire car and headed south to the wonders of Syracuse and the ancient marvel that is the island of Ortygia. Even though Ortygia is tiny, you could spend days wandering its narrow medieval alleyways.

After the delights of Syracuse, we headed to the ‘Baroque Capital of Sicily’, Noto. We couldn’t quite believe that, when we arrived at the bottom of the vast flight of stairs leading to the massive entrance to the Cathedral of San Nicolà, we had the place to ourselves. A quick diversion for lunch in a coastal village, and we we then on our way to spend a few days in the utterly unbelievable Ragusa and Ragusa Ibla, its wealth of 17th century buildings teetering precariously on the steep flanks of a hillside.

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Limited time forced us to choose between a visit to another Baroque town, Modica, or the utterly extraordinary Roman mosaics found at Villa Romana del Casale, close to the humdrum town of Piazza Armerina. After disappointing lunch in a trattoria, we headed to an even more ancient site, the ruins of the Greek town of Morgantina. The views alone made a trip worthwhile, being able to wander around without any other visitors was priceless.

Throughout our trip, we ate delicious seafood along the coast and more hearty fare in the hills of Sicily’s interior. It will be a long time before I forget the donkey salami that was served up at a small cafe in Ragusa. I demurred on trying the baked donkey ribs on offer for dinner one night. It’s no surprise that Sicily is increasingly on the oenophile map , and we were able to sample many delicious wines from South East Sicily, as well as wines from the slopes of nearby Mount Etna. One way or another, this first visit to Sicily will live with us for a while.

Faces … Berlin street art

Kreuzberg, the Berlin neighbourhood famed for multiculturalism and a radical counter culture epitomised by annual May Day riots, is, unsurprisingly, also a hotspot for street art. Rampant gentrification has taken some of the edginess off Kreuzberg’s reputation, but it still retains a gritty underbelly. Exploring the area is fun, especially as it’s home to some very good restaurants. At times it seems like every turn in the street throws up new surprises.

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

It’s a fascinating area, and one that provides an insight into Berlin’s recent past and its inevitable future. A new international crowd had descended upon Kreuzberg, creating much consternation amongst locals. The changing demographics have driven up prices to a point where even hardcore leftists have migrated to nearby Neukölln. It would be fair to say that much of Kreuzberg is now officially bourgeois, even if many rough edges still exist.

A ten minute walk from our new apartment brought us to Mehringplatz, alongside the Landwehr canal and the unofficial border between between Kreuzberg and Mitte. This was once an elegant Baroque ‘circular square’ known as the Belle-Alliance-Platz. It was completely destroyed during the Second World War, and rebuilt as a dreary complex of social housing in what has traditionally been a poor area. Recent improvements have included the addition of some outstanding pieces of street art.

Just north of Mehringplatz, a set of apartment buildings between Wilhelmstrasse and Friedrichstrasse are resplendent with murals painted by Graco Berlin. Wander through the car park and communal gardens and you’ll come face to face with a couple of dozen portraits of people reflecting the diversity of the area. The ‘faces’ were created by five different street artists but all if them are expressive. It’s not a place that attracts many tourists, so if you visit you’re likely to have this open air gallery to yourself.

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Back in the GDR, remembering a divided city

The classic end of communism comedy, Goodbye Lenin, is critical viewing for anyone moving to Berlin. It was first released in 2003, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with memories of communist rule still ever present. The film charts the final days of the German Democratic Republic through the eyes of a family that represents two conflicting, and conflicted, views of the totalitarian state. The mother of the family, a convinced communist party member; her two children, rebelling against the tedium and repression of GDR society.

GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

GDR-era mosaic, Berlin, Germany

GDR-era mosaic, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

Much of the comedy, and the tragedy, comes from the fact that, after the mother wakes from a coma during which she ‘slept’ through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the family have to find ever more inventive ways to recreate every detail of former GDR life to protect her from a relapse. This sparks a quest to find food, drinks, toiletries and many other items from the former GDR that had all but vanished as Western commodities flooded the market. This involves a near-futile search for a special type of pickled gherkin.

Today, the film remains a poignant reminder of a world that has rapidly disappeared in the 28 years since the reunification of Germany. Communist East Germany existed for only 41 years, and the self-styled socialist “workers’ and peasants’ state” that emerged from the Soviet Occupation Zone at the end of the Second World War, disintegrated with few tears shed. Unless they were tears of joy as the Berlin Wall fell, and thousands of East Germans exercised a sudden and unexpected freedom to travel.

A recent viewing of Goodbye Lenin reminded me to visit the small, informative and fun GDR Museum, which sits opposite the Berliner Dom cathedral in the former eastern part of the city. The museum explores the history of the GDR through personal stories and everyday objects. One of the highlights is the reconstruction of a typical East German apartment from the 1960s. In the living room a TV blares programmes from the era, and is decorated with wonderfully period designs.

Housing was in short supply, and the woefully inefficient centrally planned economy incapable of providing material goods. When new apartments were built they were all identical, choice was a Western decadence. A common East German joke ran that if you woke up in bed and your wife had a new hairstyle, the chances were that you were in the wrong apartment. More seriously, there’s also a listening station as used by the State Security Service, the Stasi, to spy on citizens in their homes.

The museum is fascinating, but small and can get very crowded. That said, I learned a lot, including nuggets of wisdom such as East Germans were the heaviest consumers of alcohol in Europe, some 17 litres of pure alcohol per person per year, presumably to anaesthetise themselves from the reality of daily existence. Then there is naturism, and how being nude in public turned into a subversive political movement – a freedom of expression in a country where there were few other freedoms.

Outside the museum, reminders of the GDR are increasingly scarce – if you discount the regular sightings of Trabant tours. Segments of the Berlin Wall remain, as do the jolly green and red Ampelmännchen road crossings, and some iconic GDR buildings and artworks. We passed statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels en route to the former GDR parliament, in an ironic twist now a business school. Here symbols of the GDR regime have been preserved, and occasionally it’s possible to visit the interior to see stained glass windows as propaganda.

1960s mural at the Haus des Lehrers, Berlin, Germany

1960s mural at the Haus des Lehrers, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Ampelmännchen, Berlin, Germany

Ampelmännchen, Berlin, Germany

Statues of Marx and Engels, Berlin, Germany

Statues of Marx and Engels, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Today, these leftovers from the former GDR seem almost exotic, and it’s easy to forget the misery and repression that they represent. Near our apartment is an old GDR-era building that has a beautiful mosaic of a dove of peace, a much used and abused symbol of a regime that was anything but peace loving. It sits neglected and largely unnoticed by a main road, a relic like the country it once represented.

The Wannsee Conference, the past overshadows everything

There is nothing about the sleepy and picturesque lakeside hamlet of Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin, that prepares you for the fact that this is the place where, in early 1942, the implementation of the systematic annihilation of the European Jews was discussed and agreed. I strolled along tree-lined streets, with occasional glimpses of the glittering waters of the Wannsee between imposing 19th and early 20th century villas, trying to grasp the absurdity of that reality.

On January 20, 1942, fifteen high ranking Nazi officials, who together represented the various military and civilian agencies needed to coordinate the mass extermination of millions of people, came to the villa of a former industrialist to discuss how they would implement the Final Solution. There is still some debate about the timing, but Hitler had given instructions for the Final Solution some months earlier, and everyone around the table that day knew they were discussing what we now know as the Holocaust.

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

Memorial to Jehovah Witnesses, House of the Wannsee Conference, Berlin

Memorial to Jehovah Witnesses, House of the Wannsee Conference, Berlin

Wannsee, Berlin

Wannsee, Berlin

Wannsee, Berlin

Wannsee, Berlin

Anyone who has watched the excellent and utterly chilling film, Conspiracy, knows that during the Wannsee Conference the discussions were purely bureaucratic. At no time did the attendees explicitly mention that they were agreeing upon the destruction of millions of lives. It wasn’t necessary, the coded language was understood by all. They knew “evacuation to the east” meant mass deportation of Jews to death camps already under construction or in operation in German-occupied Poland.

It’s not a coincidence that only a few months after the meeting gas chambers were installed in places like Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. The Wannsee Conference streamlined the smooth running machinery of a genocide that had been planned for years, the preparations for which had started in earnest with the invasion of Russia, and which was an extension of mass killings that were already happening in the east. The meeting took less than ninety minutes.

The infrastructure of the Holocaust was already in place and the Wannsee Conference was held to rubber stamp its full implementation. Even in 1942, when German armies were victorious across Europe, the men in the room were cautious about recording their conversations. Only one copy of the minutes, belonging to the Foreign Ministry’s Martin Luther, was ever found. Although heavily edited, they provided a vital insight into what occurred inside the villa that day.

I found myself reflecting yet again upon the phrase used by Hannah Arendt to describe Adolf Eichmann: the banality of evil. Eichmann was one of the participants at Wannsee, and would go on to be responsible for the transportation of millions of Jews and others to their deaths as part of the Final Solution. The phrase could easily be applied to the fifteen technocrats sat around a table in 1942 planning genocide. Somehow that makes it all the more troubling.

An hour walking through the house reading about the origins and implementation of the Final Solution left me feeling a little claustrophobic. Outside I walked around the side of the villa into the gardens that overlook the lake. The views are magnificent. Adding to the sense of absurdity, out on the lake people were sailing and having fun, and on the opposite shore sat the Wannsee Lido. A handy information board informed me that the lido had been a centrepiece of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s.

As I stared out over the water, a quote from the daughter of a Holocaust survivor that I’d read inside the house came back to me, “the past overshadows everything”. That is especially true when you discover the fate of the fifteen people who orchestrated mass murder that winter’s day in 1942. We know Reinhard Heydrich was killed by Czech patriots, that Eichmann escaped to Argentina only to be captured, tried and executed in Israel in 1962. Others, like Rudolf Lange and Alfred Meyer, committed suicide.

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

Wannsee Lido, Berlin

Wannsee Lido, Berlin

Statue of Bismarck, Wannsee, Berlin

Statue of Bismarck, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

What, though, about those who survived the war? Otto Hofmann, Head of the SS Race and Settlement Office, was released from prison in 1954 and went on to become a business clerk in Württemberg. He died only in 1982. Gerhard Klopfer who worked for the Nazi Party Chancellery, was released from prison in 1949, worked as a lawyer and lived until 1987. Georg Leibbrandt, responsible for the Occupied Eastern Territories, was released in 1949 and lived openly until 1982, even returning to the United States to continue his studies.

It was with growing incredulity that I read and re-read the information on the fortunes of the men who had sat in the very place I now stood and planned genocide. Truly eye-opening.