Exuberant Baroque in Noto Overshadowed by Italy’s Darker Side

Baroque in Noto! What's not to like?

Dave the motorhome’s handbrake is firmly clicked tight, a few meters from the quayside at the most-definitely-working fishing port at Portopalo di Capo Passero (N36.67121 E15.12756). There are a couple of other motorhomes here, Italians, and a German motorhome parked further up into the dock towards the larger industrial fishing boats.

On the quayside at Portopalo di Capo Passero, note the abandoned wrecks
View from Dave, on the quayside at Portopalo di Capo Passero. There are two huge wrecked ships slouching and collapsing slowly ahead of us.

Italy has the power to delight and to sicken me within a couple of hours of one another. I guess it’s part and parcel of travelling about as we do, parking up in odd corners of Europe as we go. Sometimes we find something we really didn’t expect, and which, perhaps, we wished we’d not uncovered. Portopalo di Capo Passero is a stone which, frankly, I wished I’d not lifted.

Portopalo
Portopalo

Flipping back in time to this morning, the rain came. Not much, just enough to tap-tap us awake on our beach-side parking place. With Charlie walked on the beach, we were grateful we’d eaten when Ju spotted that the wild dog next to us what making a meal of his one-time nemesis. It pulled half-heartedly at the limp, rag-like body of a cat for a while before slinking off to a nearby hut. There are plenty of wild dogs here, they lie around alone or gathered together. When they walk, they stalk, ears and tails wrapped downwards, fearful and submissive. A local last night pulled up in her car and threw out, bag and all, stale bread for a Labrador which we’d warily watched moving around for the past day.

Wild dogs roam the streets of Southern Sicily. We don't trust them, although most keep their distance some eye Charlie as a wrapped meal.
Wild dogs roam the streets of Southern Sicily. We don’t trust them, although most keep their distance some eye Charlie as a wrapped meal.

The cat got us moving. Later on we’d pass the dark, dusty, mangled body of a dog. Ju remarked she’s seen a dead fox too. We’re on the same latitude as North Africa here, and Sicily is doing a good job of easing us back into the 3rd world.

The Mafia stays unseen to tourists like us. This is the only direct evidence we've seen of their existence.
The Mafia stays unseen to tourists like us. This is the only direct evidence we’ve seen of their existence.

Avoiding a low bridge and a blocked road, we found our way into Noto and onto the tourist trail. Noto is one of a huge number of Sicilian towns and villages which were razed to the ground by an earthquake in the late 17th century. It hit a couple of times, two days apart, killing and destroying with a combination of tsunami and good old collapsing masonry. The Spanish had control of Sicily at the time, managing through a local ruling class of, well, toffs rich from the profits of wheat a hundred years before the US got into growing the stuff and wrecking the Sicilian economy. Within days plans were being drawn up to replace or rebuild the towns. Noto was one of those moved and rebuilt in a modern grid. It’s now coach-load-of-Japanese-tourist famous for the result. It’s baroque, a style of architecture and art which I would describe as ‘wedding cake’ – over the top exuberance – lively movement and fun.

Baroque in Noto! What's not to like?
Baroque in Noto! What’s not to like?

I would have, a year or so back, described myself as a function over form kind of guy. Seeing the stark contrast between the old and new Italian styles has opened my eyes though. These days anything new in Sicily seems to be a crude, rude squared off concrete, painted if you’re lucky. Back a few hundred years, and it was probably pretty much the same for almost everyone, replacing concrete with mud. Those lucky enough to be part of the gentry mind, they built things of beauty which no-longer seem possible.

The Noto Duomo, built in the centre of town to reflect the church's central position in society.
The Noto Duomo, built in the centre of town to reflect the church’s central position in society.
Noto cathedral dome, rebuilt after collapsing in 1996.
Noto cathedral dome, rebuilt after collapsing in 1996 and now suspiciously perfect.

Noto held us for an hour or two, walking the main street, popping into side streets and grabbing some weird flavoured ice creams. The label for mine was basil, although it tasted of nothing after some of the cake-filling-thick gelato we’ve had recently. A mild downpour shifted us back to Dave, parked for free on the edge of town, next to the weirdly-paid parking spots.

Come here in late May and you may see Corrado Nicolaci mosaiced in flower petals!
Come here in late May and you may see Corrado Nicolaci mosaiced in flower petals!
A Honda CBR600 sports bike. Completely unsuited to Sicily's flipping awful roads!
A Honda CBR600 sports bike. Completely unsuited to Sicily’s flipping awful roads!
Noto was lively with locals and tourists alike.
Noto was lively with locals and tourists alike.

That brings us on to here, Portopalo. The road was in general a dream, wide and smooth. It ran through a plain stuffed with almost-glowing lemons trees, thick with fruit, olives, ploughed fields and tomato-ripening poly-tunnels. Through a Morocco-esque edge-of-nothing town and out to here, we found the port with another couple of motorhomes parked up. I popped ‘Portopalo’ into Wikipedia, and my view of the place changed forever.

Portopalo fishermen streamed in all afternoon, selling trays of iced fish direct into chilled vans on the quayside.
Portopalo fishermen streamed in all afternoon, selling trays of iced fish direct into chilled vans on the quayside.

I won’t repeat what I read. It’s on the article here if you want to see that happened. I can understand why the fishermen did what they did. This is a poor place, the boats are rotting, decks rounded thick by repainting hold rough hand-made floats. The faces of the older men are hard, they’re battered, they have dangerous work. The mayor, the priest, the port officials, the Italian government? They have no such hand-to-mouth existence, just their own backs to cover. It is hard not to feel sickened by the twisted, black, unchangeable politics of this country.

Jay

 

2 Comments

  1. Probably a bit late now? But last time we did Italy there were lots of warnings relating to packs of dogs, in particular they were attacking people in motorway service areas and remote areas, some people were quite badly injured as I remember, and there have been fatalaties, stay well clear!

    Mike and June

    • Thanks guys. We learned in Morocco to keep our distance and to have a stick or stone handy (no need to use it, these animals have learned to fear them). Cheers, Jay

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