What a lovely relaxed breakfast at the Torre di San Virgilio country house, a buffet with fresh fruit, pastries, yoghurts, eggs, cold meats and cheeses, good bread, jams.A very enjoyable stay here, a lovely place all in.
Ragusa was next, a short drive away and another of the beautiful Baroque towns in the World Heritage Site of the Val di Noto. We got parked at the edge of Ragusa Ibla , which is the loveliest half of this split -in-two city. There seemed to be one main fine street, full of pale golden stone and pastel coloured palazzos which was very lovely to stroll through. It was prettier than Modica, more pristine and well kept with the usual Baroque cathedral, with its grand tiered wedding cake design. A cafe in the piazza beside the Duomo di San Giorgio was too nice to resist so it was a cafe con leche for Chris and a granita di limone for me.The heat was already quite stifling.
It only took 10 minutes or so to stroll down the main street to the lovely formal public gardens with a palm lined avenue and fountain.
The much earlier 16th century Chiesa di San Giacomo Apostolo was very appealing, more so than the 18th century Duomo.I had felt this also in Noto; it was the older buildings which drew me in more deeply.
We walked down to the edge of Ragusa Alta for a view over Ibla then made our way back to the car. The whole location of the city above a gorge is quite dramatic and we had a final excellent view of it from the road.
To the Roman Villa…..
It was a 1hr 45 drive from Ragusa to our next World Heritage Site – the Villa Romana del Casale in Central Sicily and what were billed by many as the world’s finest Roman floor mosaics.I love Roman mosaics so this was a must see. Our route took us past unremarkable vistas of farmland and low hills on good , very quiet roads.
The Villa’s car park wasn’t busy, nor was the adjacent cluster of little shops selling touristy stuff and fast food.The heat was exhausting, the air as heavy and humid as ever and I was looking forward to being indoors, despite just emerging from the car.
Guides assailed us as we made our way up from the ticket office – 50 euros to have a personalised tour. No grazie!
In fact, we spent nearly 2 hours at the Villa, stunned at the exquisite mosaics and the sheer scale of the place, all 3,500 sq feet of it. I’ve never seen anything to match it for quality, even in Pompeii. The floors are incredibly well preserved having lain undisturbed under mud for 700 years so the colours are vibrant and the images – exotic animals being herded into ships, bikini clad girls playing games, feasts with the gods, battle scenes – give an insight into Roman life and times, as seen through the eyes of the incredibly rich aristocrat who commissioned them.
The Madonie Mountains
It was time now to head north towards the Madonie Mountains of Northern Sicily, 90 mins away. ‘Agriturismo Cuca’ was our next B&B, a small villa and farm near the hill town of Polizzi Generosa. It was, our host told us, the birthplace of the grandfather of one of my favourite film directors, Martin Scorsese.
We passed the highest capital in Sicily and Europe – Enna.Sitting at over 3,000 feet, it looked interesting and our idea was to visit it again in 2 days, en route to Mount Etna.
It was quite overcast now and I can’t say the landscape was any more interesting but we finally made it through PG’s plain and quite scruffy main street. It looked deserted, the houses sitting atop a long ridge with a tiny atmospheric church teetering on a small cliff. The mountains were now partly clothed in mist. We stopped at a mini market and picked up some milk and food and the usual goodies for dinner, terribly boring I know but I’m never a huge fan of eating out. Too often, I feel disappointed at the quality and value. Restaurants are of course out to make a profit so they cut corners all the time. Rarely do I feel I eat as well as at home! Not that I am an amazing cook but I enjoy good, home cooked food and especially, great desserts; chefs today mostly make very disappointing puddings, over refined and ignoring or making a mess of the classics.Rant over!
As ever, the Parma ham was cut paper thin and SO carefully, as if with reverence, placed in separate slices on greaseproof paper, before being wrapped in delightfully old fashioned patterned paper. Not how we are presented with cured meats at home! It was like a labour of love.
My heart sank a little as we drove up to the Agriturismo. The grounds were poorly maintained. Two large dogs came bounding towards us, lovely as it turned out but slightly alarming at first glance; plus I am a cat person rather than a dog lover.
But doubts were quickly dispelled; our room was delightful, simple, very clean, with small posies of fresh flowers laid on our beside tables. We were invited to sit out with the young man who ran the property. He brought us fresh, strong coffee and a jug of water and placed in front of us a huge bowl of freshly picked figs. I’d never tried the pale green varieties before and they were gorgeous.He joined us and we asked him about the small farm he ran with his elderly mother. He talked about the lack of employment in Sicily, the low incomes. This was the cheapest room we had booked, at £60 per night.
No mozzies here either, so we stayed out with our wine after the sun went down and enjoyed the slightly cooler air. It wasn’t a particulalry attractive, this area of the Madonie (it improved vastly once over the northern side of the mountain range, towards the north coast). In fact we were both quite disappointed in the countryside so far. I was beginning to think I wasn’t ’getting ‘ Sicily (outwith the fantastic World Heritage Sites), it wasn’t making an impression on me overall the way I’d imagined. I love photography but there had been no sudden stopping by the roadside to admire wow views as usually happened during our travels in abroad.
The dogs woke us up a couple of times during the otherwise silent night, barking wildly, maybe a predator about or a badger or just some deer.
The north coast beckoned next day – Cefalu and its World Heritage listed Duomo plus some lovely accommodation for 2 nights outside Palermo , near Aspra.