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In Sicily, summer seems to go on for ever. In March it feels like June. In October, when folk elsewhere in the Mediterranean are starting to reach for their sweaters, the island is basking in hot sunny days. In November, Sicilians are still swimming in a blue Mediterranean and lunching on outdoor terraces. It is autumn, but not as we know it.
Though it may lack the familiar chill, this is still harvest season. All over the island, as the aroma of new wine wafts through the cantinas, there is a quickening of the pulse, a flush to the face, a glint in the eye.
At Azienda Agricola Mandranova, Giuseppe di Vincenzo can hardly contain himself. He could be the poster boy for what style magazines have dubbed the “New Sicily”. Clichés about southern indolence are being swept aside by an unexpected entrepreneurial energy. Chic boutique hotels and agriturismi are springing up in ancient palazzi and rambling farmhouses, while a new generation of restaurateurs and chefs, wine and olive oil producers are creating one of Italy’s most exciting culinary scenes.
Di Vincenzo’s splendid property could be the template: stylish accommodation and world class food, fine local wines and excellent olive oils, all set in the embrace of an agricultural property a few miles from the sea.
He begins by telling me about the “old” Sicily. “Fifteen years ago,” he says bluntly, “we made the worst olive oil in the world.” Ancient olive trees stand innocently in the shadows as a splendid risotto arrives at our candle-lit table. Di Vincenzo leans forward conspiratorially. “Even worse than the worst oil from Cyprus.”
A banker based in Milan, Di Vincenzo came home to Mandranova, the family farm, in his fifties, keen to change the rhythm of his life and the reputation of the local oil. He planted 10,000 trees and set about learning the secret of turning olives into world class oils. In April, he won an award at the prestigious International Olive Oil Awards; these days, Jamie Oliver buys the oil by the vat, with New York delicatessens taking the rest.
Along the coast at Torre Marabino, a boutique hotel based in a 12th-century Saracen tower, the owners are similarly focused – but about wine. Part of the hotel’s production is biodynamic, a traditional process that involves burying cow manure, quartz and herbs in animal skulls and bovine intestines to be dug up the following year for compost. Oh, and they play music to their cherry tomatoes – classical, of course. The University of Palermo is assessing the results. I know what they will find: that Beethoven string quartets do nothing for a tomato but Bach cantatas have them sprouting like sweet peas.
I’m not sure what they’re playing in the kitchen but the sophistication of the food in the Torre Marabina restaurant, La Moresca, would turn heads anywhere in the world.
It is easy to get carried away with the slow food, the biodynamic wine, the artigianale olive oil, the musical tomatoes. But I didn’t come to the southeast corner of Sicily just to pile on the calories. “New Sicily” is all very exciting but the truth is, I want to see the old Sicily. At Agrigento, five Greek temples are arrayed along a ridge overlooking the sea, in various states of romantic ruin. Further north, at Piazza Armerina, the vivid floor mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale offer a striking and beautiful portrait of Roman life in the third century AD. And the city of Syracuse, which once rivalled Athens, hosts the magnificent theatre where Aeschylus saw the opening night of his plays.
Suspended from the tip of the mainland, the island of Ortigia is the heart of old Syracuse, where medieval and baroque palaces stand corbel to corbel. In an age of shabby chic, Ortigia is in a league of its own. A long way from the neat renovated hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria, the town has a tropical lassitude, a dark sexy charm. Boats jostle in its two harbours, fat palm trees stand in the square and sea breezes waft down the old streets.
Standing on one of the most beautiful squares in Italy, the cathedral is all of Sicily in a single building: a catalogue of the islands’ invaders. It was built on the site of a Greek temple whose splendour was talked of from Ephesus to Carthage. The Romans expanded it. The Byzantines converted it into a basilica. The Arabs made it a Great Mosque. The Normans raised the level of the roof and added side chapels. The Spanish put in a new ceiling of chestnut wood. All these elements remain, including the peristyle of the original Greek temple: two full lines of thick Doric columns embedded in the cathedral walls like an ancient skeleton, still visible more than 25 centuries after they were built.
Southeastern Sicily has another charm up its commodious sleeves – a cluster of small cities, each of which counts as a baroque masterpiece. They owe their existence to an earthquake that struck on January 11 1693. Said to be the largest earthquake Italy has ever suffered, it destroyed 70 towns and villages, and killed 60,000 people. “It was impossible to keep upon our legs,” a witness wrote at the time. “Those that lay along on the ground, were tossed from side to side, as if on a rolling billow.”
In the wake of this disaster, eight of the devastated towns were rebuilt by local architects – most of whom had never been to Rome – in a style that came to be known as Sicilian baroque. Unesco has declared them World Heritage sites. Over time, they became a blur of honey-coloured stone, of graceful curving facades, of balconies and balustrades, of cupolas, cherubs and corbels in the form of galloping horses and lithesome mermaids. And people.
On a Saturday afternoon, Ragusa is overflowing with weddings. Women in killer heels hurry to celebrations of monogamy, while down in the Giardini Iblei, a public park, two flower girls flit between the rose bushes like butterflies.
In Scicli, small groups follow the ghost of Inspector Montalbano down Via Mormino Penna – crucial scenes of the popular Italian television series were filmed here – while around the corner, a young boy, hiding behind his father’s legs, gazes up at the grinning grotesques on the façade of the Palazzo Beneventano. In Noto, which the art historian Cesare Brandi called “a garden in stone”, the decorative elegance feels hopelessly romantic.
At night, the labyrinthine alleys of Modica feel less like a town and more like a rambling castle of mysterious passageways and dimly lit staircases. As I sit outside for dinner on a terrace overlooking the town, a full moon rises over the rooftops, balancing for a moment on the cupola of San Giorgio, before flooding like liquid down its 250 steps.
When the waitress arrives with glorious homemade pasta, she pauses for a moment. “When I lived in Milan, I longed to come home,” she says. “On nights like these, I remember why.”
Stanley Stewart was a guest of Real Holidays (www.realholidays.co.uk), which offers 10 nights in southern Sicily from £1,200 per person, including return flights, car hire, and B&B accommodation in five properties. Sicily’s Comiso Airport (www.soaco.it) opened to civilian flights this summer