11 July 2010

ON THE ROAD: Notable Noto

This is another in what has become a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a recent New York Times article on places to see in 2010. All of the towns on my list are in Italy, most are small, rich in history and art and for the most part off the beaten track which, for me, makes them all the more interesting.

NOTO, SICILY – There is something about Sicily that makes me break out in adjective-itis. Words like fanciful, fantastic and extraordinary seem to pop up out of nowhere and take up residence in almost every sentence I write about the place.

Noto City Gate

Take Noto for example. Strictly speaking it’s just another small town on a island full of small towns, but unlike my adjective heavy sentences that are forgotten as soon as they are read, there is something about the place that sneaks in and takes up residence in your soul.

It may have something to do with all those baroque nymphs, mermaids, lions, trolls and other mythical creatures that look down at you as you walk along the streets.

Piazza Duomo

Or it may be the way the town glows in the late afternoon as the sun slowly sets in the west, reflecting off of the soft limestone buildings. I don’t know. My only consolation is that I’m not alone in my unabashed admiration for things Sicilian, and Noto in particular. It seems to affect everyone who comes here.

“Go to Noto,” wrote the Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino, “it is a place where if one happens to come in, he is trapped and happy and never goes away.”
Bufalino was right. The danger is real.

Via Corrado Nicolaci

The day I got there the town artists were on their hands in knees on Via Corrado Nicolaci, putting down the outlines for the various sections of a brilliant tableau of flowers that would soon decorate the street. Via Nicolaci is one of the prettiest streets in town, rising gently toward the Church of Montevergine. Elegant baroque buildings line the street, and under the ornate balconies artists were working off patterns that resemble the canvases in paint-by-number kits.

The town was preparing for the annual spring celebration called the Infiorata, a week long affair celebrated with concerts, handicraft fairs, parades and special events.

The Baroque balconies of Noto
The Noto we see today is a relatively new town, at least new by Italian standards. The original town, Noto Antica, is about ten miles away, up on one of the nearby hills. In 1693 Noto Antica was completely destroyed by an earthquake, and rather than rebuild on the damaged site, the survivors decided to try their luck elsewhere. That makes Noto Nuovo only a little over 300 years old.
Earthquakes are a problem in this part in Sicily. In 1990, a minor earthquake caused a wing of Noto’s Jesuit College building to collapse, and a few months later cornices from building facades began to tumble to the ground. But the most tragic event of all happened in 1996 when the roof of the 18th century Cathedral of St. Nicholas fell into the nave, leaving a gaping hole and exposing the treasures within to the elements.

Noto Cathedral

I remember standing in the Cathedral shortly after it happened, looking up at the lions, winged horses, allegorical putti, bizarre Hellenic demons and grotesque stone masks that make up the interior. Pained faces frozen in time and space staring out at me through eerie, hollow eyes, as if to say, do something.

The roof is repaired now but it took more than ten years of plowing through bureaucratic paperwork and complicated maneuvers through the world of Italian and Sicilian politics. In the meantime, as the roof waited, Noto was added to the list of Unesco World Heritage sites.

Noto City Hall

Noto today is what it has always been: an eighteenth century country town standing on the slope of a hill in the southeastern corner of Sicily, about thirty miles from Siracusa. The town may be new, but its DNA is pure Noto Antica, whose historic tentacles reach deep into the past.
By the 8th century, when Sicily was controlled by the Arabs, Noto Antica was the administrative center of the Noto Valley, one of the three provinces created by the Arab governors. The Arabs introduced lemons and oranges to Sicily, and with them the complex irrigation system these new crops needed. The Arabs also introduced sugar, sukkar in Arabic, and almonds, which they used to make marzipan. They candied fruits and put them in cannoli, thought to have been invented by the women of a harem in Caltanissetta.

Rice, saffron and many fruits and vegetables owe their place in Italian gastronomy to the Arab traders and invaders. The list is long and not complete but anise, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, pistachio, spinach and watermelon come to mind. The most obvious dish with Arab ancestry is couscous - called cuscusu in Sicily, but Sicilian food today is truly a compilation of many intertwined bits, and that may be why it is varied and so good.

The Greeks brought olives, black and green, the Romans brought chickpeas, fava beans, lentils and even some forms of pasta. From cold northern shores the Normans brought in dried codfish and bacalĂ , now an island staple. The Spanish are responsible for pan di Spagna, a type of sponge cake used to make cassata. And what’s a calzone if not a giant empanada?In Noto you don’t need Greek temples or Byzantine artifacts to feel its history, just walk into any restaurant or trattoria. It’s all there. Thirty centuries of history. And along with it a unique style of baroque that is only found in Noto. It’s the reason Unesco put the town on it’s coveted list of World Heritage sites.

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