Category Archives: Festivals

Cartwheeling in Bronte

Bronte is synonymous with pistachio nuts which were brought to Sicily by the Arabs. It is also home to Nelson’s castle, although it isn’t really a castle (more like an English coutry house); Nelson never set foot in Bronte (not sure why); and it is located in Maniace which is now an independent municipality (but people will tell you it is in Bronte). Bronte is also home to a Sicilian Cart Museum and last Sunday the town held a celebration of the Sicilian Cart due to its inclusion as a candidate for recognition by UNESCO for its intangible cultural heritage.  I found about this event at the last minute and by chance, which is normal for events in Sicily. At least I didn’t find out about it after the event, which is again, the norm.

I have seen Sicilian carts before, with horses attached and everything. I have been to Bronte before too, but it rained and I didn’t stay long. When we first arrived, I saw a cart all on its own. A little further along, another cart, and so on. My first thoughts were ‘is this it?’ and, ‘where are the horses?’. There were a few people milling around, a lot of old men mainly, it felt a bit surreal. Soon, however, more people arrived (still lots of old men and few women) and then more carts. There was even a horse, although it was made of plastic. We also passed a very interesting photographic exhibition on a wall. Then, we arrived in the main square and saw more carts than I could ever have imagined. So many carts that it was hard to take it all in. There were even a few women milling around but these were still outnumbered by old men who I have noticed are very good at sitting or standing around doing nothing.

A lone cart

You could spend hours looking at a Sicilian cart. Richly decorated, full of intricate details, they are each an example of amazing craftmanship and are themselves a sort of storybook. They depict religious scenes (less keen on those ones) and historical scenes. Think, knights in shining amour! They are a wooden, cart version of a pop-up picture book. They have been cleverly thought out too, there is a place for a wine jug, an umbrella, a bag and an oil lamp underneath. They are a feast for the eyes but your eyes won’t be able to take everything in, they are moving works of art and are definitely part of Sicily’s cultural heritage. They scream ‘Look at me! Aren’t I beautiful!’ Actually, they were the Ferraris of their day, which means you had to have had money to have them. Yes, there would have been more simple carts around but those highly decorated ones must have cost something. Who knows how much those on show today are worth. As I later sat in traffic, I wished they could be the main means of transport today, I wouldn’t care if it meant being exposed to the elements and going slow, it would be far more extravagant and romantic. However, I soon came to my senses and realised that it is far better to speed past the vast amount of rubbish which is strewn along the roads all around Bronte, I even saw a back brace at the side of the road.  If only people took as much pride in their surroundings as they do in their carts! Time will tell if they make the UNESCO list. They sure impressed me!

Noto: Blooming Lovely!

Around every third Sunday in May, Noto holds a flower festival. Now, I am familiar with Cities in Bloom in the UK but this festival is something else. It would knock every city I know out of the competition. I first went two years ago and was taken aback by how colourful the display was and amazed by how creative the designs were. This year was even better. There were flower displays everywhere! Noto is a pretty city anyway but the festival really brings it alive. I would go as far as saying that it is the best festival in Sicily and that says a lot as there are many.

We arrived early in the morning to beat the crowds. I am so glad that we did as we were the first up through a narrow and winding staircase to get a bird’s eye view of this year’s main display. The theme changes every year and this year it was ‘Ospiti il Mondo’ or ‘The world is our guest’ (or close enough). The displays are made up of soil, petals, flower heads and even vegetables. I have posted a photo which shows the damage a bit of wind can do but these ‘temporary works of art’ are taken care of and any dying flowers are quickly replaced. The main display takes up a whole street, there are churches either end where for a small fee you can admire the displays from their rooftops (worth it) and withoutany fee whatsoever you can walk alongside the flower displays but patience is a must as everyone wants to stop to take photos and who can blame them? First time visitors should take note and not forget to look up from the eye-catching art as the baroque balconies are outstanding. This year there were further displays near to a church and along another street further along. There were also lots of craft stalls, some traditional entertainment and lots of refreshments on offer, including some lovely craft beer which was I could go on and describe in detail what I saw but as a picture says a thousand words, I will post a lot of pictures instead. Although if you can get here and see it for yourself next year, even better!

Infiorata di Noto – Noto Flower Festival

On the third weekend in May, Noto holds a festival of flowers which it has been doing for a number of years. Every year they take on a new theme and cover a street called Via Nicolai in a carpet of flowers. This year the theme was ‘Incontro con la Russia’ or An Encounter with Russia which is interesting given the current political situation. Regardless of politics the carpet of flowers was extremely impressive, at 22 metres long it featured 16 different designs representing among others the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, Yuri Gagrin, Matryoshka dolls and Russian ballerinas. In this fascinating cultural exchange you will also find Russian artists giving concerts, performances, exhibitions and working with Sicilian artists throughout the ‘Baroque Spring’.

Hannibal Lecter Eats Ricotta – no added salt!

It was a beautiful day when we left our apartment but by the time we reached the Hyblean Mountains the sky had already started to turn grey and a fine drizzle had started to fall. Not to be put off and despite not having the right clothes on for getting drenched we decided that we would stick to our plan and visit the ‘Sagra della Ricotta’ – a ricotta festival in Vizzini that had already been taking place for two days. Now, I don’t mind a little bit of rain but it would seem that for everyone else this was too much and we arrived to an almost deserted centre with a lot of closed stalls or, if not closed,  in the process of closing. Also when I say almost deserted there was, in fact, a crowd of old men gathered under the canopy of the nearest bar, staring at the obvious foreigner who had come to their town in summer attire and who by now had rather wet feet. Maybe it is me and food festivals, maybe someone is trying to tell me that I should be doing a little less celebrating of food and more time hitting the gym, but this was not the first time a food festival that I have been too has been a complete wash-out. The last time was at the Pistachio Festival in Bronte when it rained buckets.

So, there were only a handful of stalls open but they were, and had started the process, of making  ricotta. Therefore, we stuck around. There were at least 6 caldrons on the go heating up the sheep’s milk for the first stage of the ricotta making process but only one of these groups were at the stage of slicing up the newly formed cheese so that they could recook it again hence why it is called ricotta – recooked. This meant that we had quite a wait until we were able to try the freshly made warm cheese with a bread roll (as standard). This was also confirmed when on asking when the ricotta would be ready we were told ‘at midday we can talk about when the ricotta will be ready’. With time on our hands and drizzle turning to rain we decided to  check out Vizzini.

Once home to Giovanni Verga for part of his life and a setting for one of his short stories which was later turned into a play, Vizzini is littered with brown UNESCO signs, I expect all related to Verga but then there are also some fine examples of baroque architecture. However, this was not the day to be looking down alleyways for his family house, so we instead headed to the church we had seen earlier. Churches always have their doors open, right? Wrong! Turns out it would not offer us shelter after all. Looking rather worse for wear and like the whole town, with weeds and plants growing in its cracks and from its spire, it didn’t look like it had opened its doors for ages; although I am sure that this can’t be the case. So we headed back up the hill towards the main square again, passing tractors parked outside houses and climbing up overgrown stairways, we even spotted cacti plants growing out of one person’s roof.

Now thoroughly soaked through (and a little out of breath) we hung around one of the few stalls that were open. It offered us some shelter and it wasn’t long before the stall holder was passing around bits of salami for us to try too. Except, I don’t eat salami. On refusing said salami with ‘Sono vegetariana’ and a slight shrug I was met with a flabbergasted response from one of the customers ( note – not the stallholder). With a stern face, as if I had mortally offended him, he said ‘What do you mean a vegetarian? What, like the cow?’. Then to top it off and with that same stern, serious stare  ‘Then I should eat you as you would surely taste good’. So in his opinion because I was vegetarian like cows and sheep are, I am ripe for eating. If he had had a bottle of Chianti with him I would have scarpered but instead I watched in disbelief as he finished buying his cheese and salami and then fortunately left without seeing if I did indeed taste good!

Anyway, it was at this point that we decided to buy fresh ricotta from the previous day and leave the increasingly  deserted Vizzini. It was just too wet and we were beginning to feel damp and cold and I was worried I had come across a town of cannibals. We bought some fresh garlic to ensure a good aroma for the journey (at least it cancelled out our damp smelling clothes) and switched on the sat-nav which promptly took us the wrong way. Finally on the right road we passed the most gorgeous cluster of poppies  and discovered some wild fennel and artichokes growing nearby, After collecting some fennel (as the artichokes weren’t ready) and taking some photographs we headed back to Catania discussing what we could make from the ricotta.

In the end we gave the ricotta to the mother-in-law who promptly gave us a long list of what she could possibly make (Sicilian ‘mammas’ are the best cooks). The next night everyone came round to our place to make ‘Frittelle di Ricotta’. Everyone got involved under the direction and strict supervision of ‘mamma’, except ‘mamma’ didn’t supervise too closely when her son ground down the sugar to dust over the ricotta parcels. Instead of picking up the sugar my beloved partner had picked up the salt. He didn’t lightly dust the parcels either. His, slightly ravenous by this stage, brother was the one to discover the mistake. As he bit into the supposed sweet his face turned to disbelief and he uttered ‘No, e sale?’ (No -it’s salt?) Now I would have instantly removed the offending dessert from my mouth and would have made a big spectacle of doing so but he didn’t. He carried on looking confused, shocked, disappointed even but continued to eat the now savoury, sweet dessert whilst the rest of us did our best to brush of the salt and save the other ricotta parcels.That is how hungry he was. However, this mistake led to so much laughter and they still tasted good so although I am not sure I will go back to the ‘Sagra delle Ricotta’ next year, I am definitely glad we made the effort this time (and I have since labelled the salt in the cupboard to avert future disaster).