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No one goes to Modica

When I said I was going to Modica, they asked me why. When I said I’d found a nice hotel, they looked  askance. Surely I could find a nice hotel in a city that was worth seeing. No-one goes to Modica. It’s one of those cities you pass by on the way to somewhere else – to Catania, or to Siracusa, or even to Ragusa. But no-one goes to Modica. Well, in February, they’re probably right. I’m sure we were the only tourists in town. It felt as if we had the place to ourselves and it was lovely. We briefly thought about venturing further afield but both agreed that there was more to the city than people had led us to believe.

About 20km from the port of Pozzallo, the city of Modica dates back to around 1300 BC and is known mainly for its baroque architecture. It’s home to about 60,000 very stylish, if slightly extreme Sicilians. They’re either very friendly or very dour – no half measures. The city is known for its one hundred churches (and while there are lots of them, 100 might be a bit of  a stretch, unless you venture out into the hinterland and count the ruins). It’s also the birthplace of  Salvatore Quasimodo, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959 and of the 18th century philosopher Tommaso Campailla. Seeing the typewriter that Quasimodo used and the room in which he worked was  inspiring. The view from his balcony would do wonders for me, too.

Mind you, I was far more impressed when I discovered that it was one of the locations for the Inspector Montalbano series – a delighful set of novels by Andrea Camilleri featuring the irrepressible Salvo Montalbano, a man who loves his food.

Three days wasn’t enough to see the insides of all the churches or indeed to sample the wares of all the chocolate shops. It would seem that Modicans are religious about their chocolate. (Apparently it’s made from an ancient Aztec recipe.) Even the pizzas come with chocolate! And the hot chocolate isn’t your usual chocolate flavoured milk – it’s a full mug of melted chocolate. So add some Italian shoe shops into the mix and you have a city break from heaven.

But things weren’t always so great in this gem of a city! Earthquakes in 1613 and 1693 left their mark, the latter killing 2400 people. The floods of 1833 and 1902 also left their mark – 5.5 metres above ground!

Next time I go, I’d like to see the Cava d’Ispica (a series of limestone grottoes containing cave dwellings) and prehistoric and early Christian tombs. I missed out on my cemetery fix this time round.

One thing for sure though, I’ll be booking back into the Palazzo Failla. Had I been born into eighteenth-century Sicily, I’d have lived here. It’s beautiful and the service is second to none. I could get used to that sort of treatment.

Behind closed doors

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – or so said Aldous Huxley, a man who died before I was born and a man I’d very much like to meet, if for no other reason than for him to explain my fascination with doors.

Someone commented quite recently that I never take photos of people. I don’t like posed portraits and I feel that taking someone’s photo without asking them first is quite invasive. And if you ask them, they invariably pose and we’re back to the portrait thing. This comment prompted to me to take a look at what I see when I have my camera; if I’m not shooting people, then what I am shooting? What are my obsessions? One is flowers behind bars and another, oddly enough, is doors. Judging by the number of photos of doors (sometimes half a dozen of the same one from different angles, and in different light) I would seem to have a bit of a door obsession going on.

Zagreb, Croatia

I have vague memories from my TV days of quiz shows where you could pick what was behind one of three doors, so perhaps my preoccupation has something to do with the endless possibilities that lie behind a closed door. Maybe it’s something to do with that feeling of exclusion – of being on the outside – waiting for a knock to be answered or waiting for the key to get in. And then the ensuing feeling of inclusion and belonging when you do manage to get behind it all. Or perhaps it’s the secrecy. My parents’ generation wisely cautions that one never knows what goes on behind closed doors. What might seem enviable from the outside looking in, could be light years removed from reality.

Wakkerstroom, South Africa

Until you actually open the door, you’ll never know for sure what’s behind it. Until you take that blind leap of faith and open that door, you’ll always wonder what might have been. And even if what’s behind the door is not what you’re looking for, or anything close to what you expected to find, the adrenaline rush alone is worth it! That deep breath before the ‘here goes nothing… and everything’ is probably the sweetest one you’ll ever take.

Then again, maybe it’s not the doors I’m obsessing about at all… maybe it’s just the colours!

Seven islands in the Med

No. I couldn’t have heard him correctly. A history spanning 7000 years? Malta? It seems like just a couple of years ago that I first heard of the place. Could it be that old? So I checked. And the guide was right. Malta was first settled in 5200 BC. So then I checked Ireland. It was first settled in 8000 BC. Conclusion: I have no clue about history and even less about geography. How sad is that?

St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta

Some trivia for you: Malta is a group of seven islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Only the three largest are inhabited:  Malta, Gozo, and Comino. They stand on an underwater ridge that extends from North Africa to Sicily (which is about 100 km north – you can get there by hovercraft and it’s high on my list of things to do). The islands were once submerged and the bones of elephants and hippopotami have been found in caverns along the coast. Phoenicians, Cathaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Normans all came and stayed awhile before the King of Spain gave it to the Knights Hospitaller of St John in 1530. Verdi’s opera Sicilian Vespers immortalised the 1283 naval battle of the same name, a battle that ended French/Norman control of Sicily and the Maltese Islands. The Turks made a bid for the islands in 1565 but the Knights saw them off. In 1607, a young painter by the name of Michaelangelo Merisi was vested as official painter of the Knights of St John – you might know him as Caravaggio. Two of his greatest works – St Jerome writing and The beheading of John the Baptist still hang in the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valetta. There’s another new one for me: co-cathedral. The Bishop of Malta had his cathedral in Mdina; the Knights had theirs in Valetta. In 1820, the Knights allowed the Bishop (was chess invented in Malta???) to use their cathedral as an alternative see – hence the ‘co’ in co-cathedral.

Napoleon stopped by in 1798 on his way to Egypt but didn’t get a great reception. When he was refused water, he sent in the troops and the Grand Master capitulated. He stayed only a few days but spent his time pilfering anything worth taking. Before he left, he established an administration to run the place in his absence. During his tenure, he freed 2000 muslim slaves and established a liberal lay system to replace the existing feudal one.  The locals welcomed the French… for a while… but when they started closing convents and seizing church treasures, a line was drawn. They asked the British for help and Nelson arrived, blockaded the place, and in 1800 the French surrendered.

Malta then voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the terms of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, Britain was supposed to evacuate the island, but sort of forgot to leave. Although small in size and not initially given much importance, Malta’s harbours soon became a jewel in the Empire’s crown, headquarters to the British Mediterranean fleet. While Home Rule effectively started in Ireland in 1870 (but it was a long and arduous process), the Maltese had to wait until 1921 (interestingly, the same year as Northern Ireland).  Malta got its independence in 1964 and joined the EU in 2004.

Before the British arrived, the Maltese spoke Italian and had done so since 1530. In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the official languages. On 21st September 1964 Maltese officially became the national language of Malta, although English and Italian are also spoken. Their accent is unique and a joy to listen to. Now that I have my head around the 7000 years, and have overcome my shame at being so ignorant, I’m looking forward to seeing a little more of these seven islands in the Med with Air Malta.