A Postcard from Sicily
A couple of thousand years ago, Ortigia was at the heart of some pretty heavy business. The birthplace of Artemis, god of the hunt, the heart of the ancient city of Siracusa, connected by a pair of bridges to the rest of Sicily. Greeks, Romans, Aghlabids, and even the Normans have staked their claim. A seat of Great Wealth and Great Power. It was as big as Athens at one point! On a warm night in early summer, a gentle breeze rising off the Ionian, we jam our way into a backstreet, surrounded by young Sicilians singing and smoking; spritzes and beers dangling precariously from uneven ledges. Beneath us is a crumbling amphitheatre, spotlit against the weight of midnight.
Like seeing cars parked in front of the Coliseum in Rome, it’s a uniquely Italian (and Greek, to be fair) juxtaposition of the old world intermingling with the contemporary. It’s all just… there.
We’re in Sicily to, amongst other things, see our friend Michael McGregor: artist, cheerful hedonist, and an especially talented pursuer of a good time. Michael likes to say that he doesn’t really travel, he visits a place and stays put for as long as he wants to be there. He left Paris for Ortigia several weeks ago, and hasn’t crossed the bridge to Siracusa yet.
He reads, he draws in cafes, or at the desk in his bedroom, he watches Casablanca on repeat in an apartment with high ceilings that he’s been sharing with his friend Hyuna. Bay windows facing out against the hum of the street below. It’s been raining a lot, a strange amount of rain for this place and time of year, so he loads up Casablanca again. He queues up tracks on an old Sony CD player and leafs through a book of sketches. One is annotated with the words, “Eating spaghetti alle vongole while listening to 'What if god was one of us' in Ortigia.”
It’s a pretty good set-up.
It’s tuna season. In fact, Michael and Hyuna sometimes go to a party on Sundays that’s run by a guy called Marco Capuccio, whose father is the “most famous fisherman in all of Siracusa.” We eat fritto misto and mussels in a restaurant called Appolonion while a family celebrates a 70th birthday on the table next door. “Tanti auguri a te,” they sing around us.
We sit outside of a bar called Solaria and drink wine from nearby Etna as stray cats weave between the tables. Two women in matching floral dresses lean against a door painted blue and smoke idly, exhaling into the cool evening.
An hour on the motorway past Catania, a wide and desolate stretch of lonely petrol stations and arid scrubland, past a few bored kids popping wheelies on bikes, the landscape begins to change. The sun-sapped and post-industrial palette of Sicily’s interior gives way to steep mountain roads, wildflowers, giant cacti and wisened men in plastic chairs reclining on the roadside, watching the world go by.
There are hand-painted signs for vino hung wonky against people’s houses. This is wine country after all. Towering above it all is Etna, snow-capped and imperious. The Greeks reckoned a deadly giant called Typhon was trapped under the mountain by Zeus, his restless toing and froing causing the volcano to erupt.
A few thousand feet up the volcano we meet Frank Cornelissen, a Belgian master winemaker who moved here two decades ago with not much more than a bicycle and an idea to revive the area’s viniculture, which was devastated by economic fallout and a ruinous lava flow in ’81 – Typhon up to his old tricks again.
“It was a hobby that got out of hand,” he says with a laugh, surveying one of his vineyards. It feels like a long way from Ortigia, a chilly wind rising up through the vines and old olive trees, a couple of pickup trucks and a church with a bell that dings solemnly on the hour. “There’s a storm coming tomorrow,” says Frank matter-of-factly, “so we’re lucky.”
On the way down the volcano, the sun peels from behind the clouds, casting the tiny mountain villages in a warm amber glow, the pharmacies and Fiat Pandas illuminated in golden hour. We drift past slowly, away from Etna and back towards the sea.