Sicily at Sixty

Ortygia waterfront in Sicily. Marina Pascucci photo.
Ortygia waterfront in Sicily. Marina Pascucci photo.

Turning Sixty in Sicily

By John Henderson

Pounding grapes Nero d'Avola in Pachino Sicily. Marina Pascucci photos.
Pounding grapes Nero d’Avola in Pachino Sicily. Marina Pascucci photos.

When I was 20, 30 and 40 years old, 60 had the same ring to it as Mesopotamia. The number even sounded old. It seemed like an age I felt challenged merely to reach, let alone enjoy. Well, I turned 60 in March and it became the best birthday of my life. I found a simple solution. I almost taped the idea to my laptop as the date neared.

Sixty in Sicily.

Chiesa di San Domenico Cattedrale di San Nicole in Noto. John Henderson photo.
Chiesa di San Domenico Cattedrale di San Nicole in Noto. John Henderson photo.

Here’s how to feel 20 years younger when you turn a year older, even at 60: Go to a beautiful place with a beautiful woman. I spent four days in Syracuse — the one in Sicily, not upstate New York.

How a city in a North American icebox could be named after a beautiful, sun-splashed town on the banks of the Ionian Sea is like calling your pet iguana Beyonce. In Italian it’s called Siracusa. Maybe Italians have been to New York and tweaked the name.

But Syracuse meets all the criteria for an exotic birthday for the ages: adventure, history, seas, romance, architecture, wine and the best seafood I’ve ever had. Sicily has so much more to offer than the well-tread themes of mafia and Mt. Etna.

Farmers and Fisherman

After all, both have been fairly dormant for a long time. Sicily is a land where farmers still pound grapes with their feet, where fishermen sell sea urchins on street corners and merchants sing Sicilian love songs on the sidewalk. Sicilian is still the mother tongue. Everyone on the island who speaks Italian is considered bilingual.

I took my best birthday present of all, Marina. Marina Pascucci, a graphics design editor and one of the best photographers I’ve known, is a “Romana per Romane” (a Roman woman for Roman women).

What she says that I don’t understand I can interpret through her myriad of Italian hand gestures. She comes to Sicily often, and Syracuse is high on her list of weekend getaways.

Gate of Noto John Henderson photo.
Gate of Noto John Henderson photo.


Syracuse is on the southeast coast of Sicily, almost the direct opposite side of Palermo, the cleaned-up, once-depraved capital.

Syracuse is often overshadowed by Taormina, 50 miles to the north where you get breathtaking views of Etna and Europe’s beautiful people.

It’s the one place in Sicily to see and be seen. I took Marina’s advice and chose Syracuse instead.

As she told me, “Taormina is no more Sicilian than Capri is Neapolitan.”

Syracuse, meanwhile, still has charm. I thought staying young at 60 is difficult. Syracuse has stayed young at 2,750.

The Corinthians from the big Greek island of Peloponnese settled Syracuse in 734 B.C. and it became the most beautiful city in the Greek Empire. It was nearly as powerful and prestigious as Athens.

The island neighborhood of Ortygia, which sits like a teardrop off the mainland, became an ideal location to spend time for the next two millennium. Plato, Aeschylus and Archimedes hung out here.

It all eventually got swept up in the continual mass colonization of Sicily by the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the French, the Spanish, the Trumps … oh, sorry. They only got to Taormina.

Grand Hotel Villa Politi

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Villa Politi. Built in 1871, the Villa Politi has a grandiose presence with a statuesque palm tree in front of a staircase that wraps around a hedge leading to a stately porch area. Guests sit outside and sip Sicilian wine. Winston Churchill used the Villa Politi as his base during the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. After returning during a holiday in 1955 he said, “I never rested so well in my life.”

Churchill was 80. Yes, I picked the right hotel to turn 60.

Agua SanLorenzo 1
San Lorenzo Beach. Marina Pascucci photo.

We walked about a mile down the hill and to our left we saw two long, rocky jetties. Children sat on the rocks with fishing pools in royal blue water so clear you could see the ocean bottom from where we walked. Beyond the jetties stood Ortygia. At one time this was an R&R spot for the Greek navy.

Today it is a hodgepodge of windy, narrow alleys lined with millennium-old churches, cozy restaurants, bakeries and simple apartment houses. Ortygia is shaped like Thailand with a big, round mainland and a tail that narrows to a point where a renovated 12th century castle glistens in the sun. Seafood restaurants and bars line a street opposite the small harbor.

Lungo la Notte Caffe

Ragusa, an abandoned city in Sicily. John Henderson photo.
Ragusa, an abandoned city in Sicily. John Henderson photo.

We took a seat at Lungo la Notte Caffe, where a long yellow awning shaded tables with white tablecloths facing the harbor. The sun was just setting. A lone sailboat passed through the bright yellow ball dipping into the blue Ionian Sea. It was the day after Easter, a massive Italian celebration known as Pasquetta.

At Lungo la Notte (Long the Night) we ordered glasses of Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s signature ruby red wine, and were served wonderful finger food.

Out came small plates of ascolani, the breaded green olives stuffed with meat, and a lovely local dish called vota vota, warm prosciutto wrapped in little baked pastries and rolled. I thought, GettingSea urchins old isn’t so bad. You just have to find the right place to do it

Sea urchins for sale in Sicily.
Sea urchins for sale in Sicily.

For my birthday, we went to Don Camillo. It’s one of Syracuse’s elegant spots, set in in a 600-year-old building with stone walls, an arched stone ceiling and a massive window illuminating an entire wall stacked with Sicilian wine.

A waiter in a sharp, blue suit brought me spada miele (honey swordfish), a big fat chunk of swordfish atop a pile of sour vegetables with a spray of honey on the side. It was simply the best swordfish of my life, light but bursting with flavors of the sea. The honey’s sweetness added the perfect contrast to the sour veggies below.

Syracuse, however, is merely the anchor of an extraordinary region that is southeast Sicily. It is home to the Baroque Triangle, a road that leads through a series of towns dripping with Baroque architecture. The day after my birthday we took the rental car and headed along the coast. We passed the town of Avola, the birthplace of Nero d’Avola wine. We climbed a hill to Noto.

 Corso Vittorio Emanuele

Honey swordfish in Sicily.
Honey swordfish in Sicily.

A huge, ornately decorated sand-colored archway led us into what many call Sicily’s prettiest street. Walk through the gate, which looks like something that once greeted victorious Roman armies, and pedestrian-only Corso Vittorio Emanuele is one long Baroque boulevard. It is pedestrian only.

Honey swordfish in Sicily.Baroque architecture was born in Renaissance Italy during the late 16th century and designed to show off the wealth and power of the rapidly expanding Catholic Church. Baroque churches are extravagant, abnormal, garish and, depending on your taste, either ostentatious or jaw-dropping gorgeous. By the middle of the 17th century, Baroque architecture had spread, like the invention of pizza, throughout Europe and South America.

How Noto became a Unesco World Heritage Site is a tip of the fisherman’s cap to Sicilian architecture, not to mention resolve. In 1693, a 7.4-Rictor earthquake, the largest in Italian history, hit southeast Sicily.

Fontana Aretusa. Marina Pascucci photo.
Fontana Aretusa. Marina Pascucci photo.

It covered 2,200 square miles, leveled 70 towns and killed 60,000 people. Following the quake, tsunamis hit off the Ionian Sea. Two-thirds of Catania’s population died.

Town nobles rebuilt Noto into the finest Baroque town in Sicily and one of the finest in the world. Walking up Corso Vittorio Emanuele is like walking through an outdoor art museum. To our right was Cattedrale di San Nicole, a huge confection of gold atop a long, broad staircase which makes it look as if it sits upon a throne.

A few minutes later we came across the Chiesa di San Domenico and the adjacent Dominican monastery. Rosario Gagliardi, one of the leading Baroque architects at the time, designed both of them. Built from 1703-1727 following the earthquake, San Domenico is a big pile of off-white marble lined by tall narrow columns.

Deep into the Hills to Ragusa

Marina Pascucciand John Henderson in Sicily.
Marina Pascucci and John Henderson in Sicily

The next day we went further inland, deep into the hills of rural Sicily. Ragusa rests along the side of a cliff and didn’t survive the 1693 earthquake, either.

It is rebuilt in two parts: Ragusa Superiore, the somewhat ordinary modern town, and Ragusa Ibla, the old town farther down the hill. From the road, Ragusa Ibla looks older than the earthquake.

A hodgepodge of off-white buildings rest upon each other with the 18th century Cathedral of St. George hovering atop it all.

We parked the car and ascended a hill past old worn buildings and padlocks and chains on doors. No one was in the streets. This is Ragusa’s ghost town.

The earthquake chased away the residents in this area. They never came back. Apartment buildings built in the 1700s are boarded up. Even the church was closed. We stopped in one shop and a middle-aged lady told us apartments can be had in these buildings for as little as 150 euros a month.

Bonaiuto cioccolateria
Bonaiuto cioccolateria

Running water and plumbing? Well, that might run you a little more.

Ragusa Ibla changed when we walked to the residential area. Cast-iron balconies, giving it a feel of New Orleans’ French Quarter, hovered over streets so narrow residents on their balconies can nearly shake hands with neighbors across the street.

The buildings blocked the sun which in the distance illuminated the grand dome of St. George in the Piazza del Duomo. The piazza is a long stone square anchored by the beautiful cathedral with its neo-classical sky blue dome in arrears.

Singer outside a gelateria in Noto. John Henderson photo.
Singer outside a gelateria in Noto. John Henderson photo.

Starting to tire and going through withdrawals from Sicily’s mouth-watering desserts, we continued down the hill to Modica. In 1902, a flood nearly destroyed the town. What survived was Dolceria Bonajuto, the oldest chocolate shop in Sicily. Started in 1880, Bonajuto looks more like a high-end independent bookstore than a chocolate shop.

Its dark wood (or is that chocolate?) shelves are lined with designer candies made in the big work room in the back. We sampled chocolate bits and pieces from Peru, Kenya and Colombia, then we ended our Baroque trail run with the ultimate Sicilian treat.

A cannolo.

They filled their crisp tube crust with fresh pistachio and another with thick creamy chocolate, then covered the tube’s openings with pistachio bits. We sat on a bench outside and ate the best cannoli of our lives.

On our way back to Syracuse we wanted to wipe off the day’s grime from the road with a dip in the Mediterranean. Marina led me to a spectacular beach near the town of San Lorenzo. Add a few more palm trees, and this beach could pass for something out of the Caribbean. It’s a wide swath of thick white sand and a crystal clear royal blue sea.

Sixty is old? In Sicily, I felt like my life is just beginning.


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