For two weeks in Ragusa Ibla, a baroque UNESCO world heritage site in southern Sicily, the streets were alive with the sound of music as young musicians from around the world gathered for the Ibla Foundation’s annual classical music competition. For 25 years, the Foundations’s founder and organizer, Dr. Salvatore Moltisanti, has accepted musicians, singers and composers to participate. This year’s roster included a 16-piece accordion group from China. The musicians perform several times in the town’s charming venues: Piazza Pola, the courtyards of Palazzo Arezzo and Palazzo Ottaviano Bruno, as well as churches and villas outside the town. All performances are free.
Having never been to Sicily, before going to the competition, I decided to snoop around a bit.
The elegant, old fashioned Grand Hotel Wagner in the middle of Palermo was perfect: high ceilings, plenty of marble and gilt, crisp linen sheets, and a bonus, “The Ride of the Valkyries” piped into the elevators.
Probably the most visited site in Palermo is the Palatine Chapel built by King Roger II in 1130. Because of its location in the ancient European world, many of Sicily’s churches and monuments display an amazing fusion — and sometimes confusion — of architectural influences. The Chapel is an astonishing example. It’s hard to believe the delicately expressive faces of the figures decorating the chapel are not painted, but are actually mosaics. Oh, if only I had had opera glasses and a flashlight.
At the Norman cathedral at Monreale, about 45 minutes outside Palermo, not only did I see another architectural marvel, but also stumbled across a wedding. In front of the church were two poles topped with giant transparent balloons. The emerging newlyweds were each handed a long thin needle with which they then pricked the balloons releasing an explosion of little ones as someone fired off a confetti-filled bazooka. Maybe a new trick for stateside wedding planners.
After a glimpse at the seaside town of Cefalu and a challenging, twisting, seemingly endless mountainous drive through a national park, I found my way to the Villa Romana del Casale.
Historians debate the how and why of this 62-room ruin but many believe it was built about 334 AD for the emperor Maximian Hercules as a hunting lodge. Luckily, although probably no one thought so at the time, an earthquake in 346 AD and a mudslide in 1161 AD buried the villa, preserving the amazing mosaics that cover the floors of every room. The mosaics are of such intricate detail that one scholar has even recognized the notably recorded squint of the Emperor’s son in some of the mosaic portraits, lending credence to the idea that this was Maximian’s villa.
On to Ragusa Ibla, on the southern coast where music filled the air. In the main piazza, we often had dinner al fresco while competitors performed on the outdoor stage built for the competition. Lucky tourists sightseeing in the town, as well as families, friends and judges of the competitors, strolled the main street, dropping in at the various venues.
One night we lounged in the moonlit garden of Villa Anna, a beautifully restored villa available for private parties, to hear contestants perform.
Another evening’s concert was at the nearby Villa Criscione. Daily non-musical diversions included Noto, a beautifully restored town or Marzamami, by the sea, or Siracusa and Ortygia (the much more picturesque part of Siracusa) or a dip in the sea at Marina di Ragusa, a few miles away from the divine Villa Zinna, where I stayed. I had to leave before the final votes were counted so I’m looking forward to next May when the winners will be presented at a concert in Carnegie Hall.
On the way to Catania, from which I would fly to London and thence to NYC, I stopped at a gas station to top off the tank. Exchanging a very basic chat in Italian with the attendant, I was startled to hear him murmuring “Bella donna, bella donna” … then some words including “la toilet” … I may be wrong, I often am, but I think he was suggesting a quickie! Ah Italia!