By Emma Silverthorn
I wouldn’t generally review an airport, these liminal spaces being dull, if not depressing, but Comiso actually deserves a few words. The entry point to the south east of Sicily, this airport tells you much about this region of Italy. This was by far the friendliest airport I’ve ever been in.
The staff going above and beyond, they let our group go over our luggage allowance (don’t tell Michael O’Leary) and actually sought out a wine-saving solution for us when one member of the group accidently forgot to put his (delicious) bottle of Il Moro (from Valle Dell’Acate Winery) into his check-in luggage. Morals of the story: the south east are grateful for tourism, this area is untouched, Sicilians are hospitable and most importantly, understand the value of good wine.
Catania, Taormina and of course Etna are far better known Sicilian locations than the Ragusa province where I explored but this is surely down to logistics rather than a lack of culture, or natural beauty in this region: before Comiso, the airport was only built in 2013, the closest access to this region was Catania, a 90-minute drive away.
The whole of Italy is of course ripe with UNESCO Heritage sites and south east Sicily is no exception, boasting five UNESCO’s within travelling distance of Comiso. This is a holiday destination ideal for those of an architectural bent. In four days I visited three of these sites – Ragusa, Scicli, and Modica – and came away with a deeper appreciation of the weirdness that is the late Baroque style.
As our walking tour guide (from Eracle Travels) put it, ‘the Baroque is not attractive, it is mocking reality’. I especially enjoyed the gargoyles that adorned and guarded the balconies of the ancient noble homes. Each figure represented what was going on within, rather sweetly for the bedroom there was plump angels kissing, for the kitchen a bottle of wine and some olive oil, for the music room an exceptionally ugly lute player. I’m not a typically guided-tour-traveller-type but having one this time did give the trip a depth I may otherwise have missed.
Another example: the politics behind Catholic saints in Sicily for example would have passed me by. The town of Modica used to have a Berlin wall equivalent dividing rich from poor – and crossing the wall meant likely death. In the rich side the church is adorned with dragon-fighting ‘English’ St. George, a gaudier church interior, larger organ and a lot more stained glass. Meanwhile the poor side get St. Peter’s church – still an impressive site, just with much less Catholic bling.
Next time I would aim to return to this part of Sicily during one the Saintly festivals. These fiestas sound wonderful, religious feeling or not. The heavy, gilded statues of the saint are carried out of the church and into the street and bounced on shoulders through the crowds whilst they party and throw rose petals off balconies.
But if religious monuments and atavistic buildings aren’t your bag then there is still the food and wine worth coming to the South East for, even as a vegan (which I am). As much as I wish to promote the ease and accessibility of a vegan diet, I have to say often when I travel within Europe I get stuck. Vegetarian is one thing, vegan another. It often equates to a plate of boiled-to-death vegetables and not much else. Not so in Sicily.
Yes, I did eat a lot of vegetables during my stay but these were vegetables that a lot of thought had gone into. Caponata was already one of my favorite dishes thanks to Lardo (close to my home, in London Fields) and aubergine, (the ‘meat’ of the vegan diet, along with mushrooms), seemed to be the national vegetable. I could also get used to having a granita for breakfast, icy coffee, chocolate, (to be dipped in brioche for the non-vegans), basically the sophisticated version of a Slush Puppy. Though I’m sure this was made much more satisfiying in the blazing Italian sun than it might otherwise be on a London morning. Impressively the Valle Dell’Acate vineyard, (knowing I was coming), had even prepared vegan calzone and arancini balls to go with the wine-tasting. The sommelier told me it was the first time he’d made a vegan version of aranchini, these balls being considered the fast food of Sicily and usually being stuffed with meat and cheese.
The Valle Dell’Acate vineyard would be my top recommendation for this area, the tasting in the ‘Wine Cathedral’, (the old winery, a high ceilinged barn overlooking the vineyard and filled with buckets of purple flowers), left me feeling inebriated (not drunk, promise).
I stayed in the five-star Donnafugata Golf Resort and Spa, not a choice I would have made on solo travels – the last time I played golf I was twelve and it was of the Crazy variety. But my God, this is a place to access unprecedented levels of relaxation. Donnafugata is perfect for the adrenally fatigued, frenetic Londoner. Just fifteen minutes drive from the airport, the resort appears totally isolated. The only sound to be heard is crickets and there’s a real attention to detail when it comes to promoting tranquility within the resort. The indoor spa, for example, was elegantly laid out in muted turqouise and white with a succulent and cacti garden separating the swimming pool from the hydrotherapy. Outdoors there’s a gorgeous infinity pool to float around in overlooking the 500 hectare manicured course.
Parts of the buildings resort are ancient (this has been a site for visiting gentry since the fourteenth century) with the newer buildings adhering to the classic style, all this encouraging the pleasant feeling that one is caught in a time-warp. Best of all for me was the crumbling family chapel of the noble Arezzo Marquis family (who used to live where the resort now stands), with it’s cracked altar making it unfit for official worship but still a peaceful space to ponder life or induldge Gothic fantasies, a la Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian.
So to the most surprising part of this trip. I had absolutely expected to enjoy the sun, massage, wine, chocolate tasting whilst in Sicily, the golf lesson at Darren Clarke Centre of Excellence with Maestro Federale, (the Italian word for instructor being far superior to the English), Davide Terrinoni I was not so sure about. Out of my comfort zone, (I do yoga, Pilates and run and do not have a sports casual wardrobe), and lacking in hand to eye coordination I thought the lesson might end diastrously (i.e. tears, throwing of clubs etc.). In fact this lesson came second, (after the ‘Wine Cathedral’), as my favorite part of the trip. The enthusiasm and eccentric teaching methods of Davide putting the golfing virgin at ease. For actual golf aficionados this is certainly the place to go, the course is beautiful and these guys are golf-obsessives, to give you an idea the golf operations manager at the resort (Sebastiano Torrisi) has a crossed clubs tattoo on his wrist.
At the risk of sounding affected, the biggest pull for me though was the authenticity of this untouched part of the country. Much appears as it would have done hundreds of years prior. Case in point: I visited a seven generations family run chocolate factory in Modica – Antica Dolceria Bonauto – for tastings and to hear the music of the chocolate (you had to be there). This is artisan before artisan became a sought after thing for the likes of Dalstonites’ and Portlandias’. There is no need for a slow food revolution, there hasn’t been a fast food epoch yet.
Forget Cefalu – for idlers, burnt-out Londonders, European culture-fiends and epicureans, the south east of Sicily beckons.