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Paradise found…and almost lost


I'm prepared to accept that I am anti-social. I don't much like people around me, close to me, and certainly not in significant numbers. By significant, I mean greater than five. This may strike you as odd if you have seen me at OHP surrounded by patrons, fulsomely socialising, but please be assured, as the saying goes, I'm drowning, not waving.


But it's work. It's habitual and it's just what I do, an act I have perfected over decades and there is a kind if silent terror bubbling away beneath, even when I'm telling everybody to piss-off. It's a terror - or perhaps a profound discomfort - that rises in crowds and situations you might find normal.  I furiously ask myself 'what the bloody hell are these people doing HERE?'.


So it is with something akin to frantic haste that I retire to sunnier climates once the season is done, to find some peace, tranquility and a calm space into which I breathe a desperate sigh of relief. This year, one week was spent in the film-set-beautiful Baroque town of Scicli in Sicily, a place where crowds, such as they were, didn't bother me as much; a small town that has an old master painting for a view at every corner can't possibly discombobulate or intimidate. Oddly, I have never before visited Sicily because whenever I considered it, I never knew where to go. Too many resorts seemed to represent all that I hate about summer holidays - crowds, crowded beaches, rampantly noisy families and their uncontrolled children, norovirus etc.). But one lunch with a friend gave me the sort of inside info that helps with destination decisions as she showed me outrageously pretty pictures of the town in which she owns a house - the aforementioned Scicli - and I therefore had a starting point, bolstered by the trusted advice and recommendations of a person I know to dislike many of the aspects of travel that plague me too.


The first week in Scicli, where food and drink is both swooningly authentic as well as eye-wateringly cheap, was something of a throwback, although Scicli is far prettier than my family's home town in southern Italy. It got quite emotional at times. The house we stayed in was the perfect blend of old-country architecture and brilliantly finished modern style and convenience. The nearby beaches of Sampieri, with their fine sands and everlasting shallows was a daily destination, best experienced at one of the beach clubs along the front, where beds and umbrellas are reserved and the sands scraped clean every day. In August, Italians retreat to the coasts for the whole month, so it is busy and you might find the 90 minute zumba class at the water's edge either deeply annoying (the music is loud) or uproariously entertaining, especially if you watch the fellas, who seemed utterly incapable of either keeping time or copying the moves. If you want an idea of what I mean, take a look at this on YouTube https://youtu.be/htCTWZqCMhQ


Some of you may have noticed that the town of Scicli is very closely associated with Inspector Montalbano - his office sequences are filmed in the glorious town hall there - and it has become something of a pilgrimage for people from all over Europe. It also happens to be in a square that features several bars and restaurants and I doubt I have quaffed Negronis in a more beautiful place, surrounded by Baroque churches and polished stone paving. You can point your camera randomly in any direction and come up with a scene from a Visconti movie. One outrageous pizza restaurant set its tables and chairs spilling down stone steps and landings in miscellaneous form and across into the breathtaking Piazza Busacca with its Palazzi and churches. Heavenly, and so extraordinarily Italian, you have to just smile. If Marcello Mastroianni were to rumble past in an Alfa, you'd just think, "well, yeah, obvs."



As exquisite as Scicli is,  I looked forward to the second week in the nearby countryside around Chiaramonte Gulfi. Imagine, then, arriving in what I can safely declare to be a paradise, the like of which I have rarely experienced, with landscapes so beautiful one wouldn't dare invent them, with delicious mountains clad in a tapestry of silvery green olive groves, pine and vine, and a town that sits atop an escarpment high above it all. Ensconced in a rustic building of wood and stone where an infinity pool acts as the foreground to all of this glory, the only sounds to be heard as one lounges beside it are the chirruping cicadas and the tweets of swallows swooping to drink from its waters. There are lawns, tended by the owner's mother, that are as green, dense and primped as a cricket outfield in Somerset, watered automatically by irrigation nozzles that emerge from the ground and emit a nourishing mist. There is even a picture perfect outdoor kitchen with a stone pizza oven and a barbecue, and you can wander the grounds and pick your own basil, or ruccola, or parsley, almonds, pomegranates, mulberries, plums and grapes. The family also produce olive oil and present you with a bottle on your arrival. The mother, Lucia, makes her own pesto, picking all the ingredients from her garden and includes in the recipe almonds (from her own grove of trees) as well as pine nuts and a soupçon of the local tomato which delivers an earthy depth and smoothness. You pinch yourself when you arrive in a place such as this, beside yourself with glee that you had found it at all.  The squawking family of nine who arrived soon after us did little to help the atmosphere, but the owners were as mortified as we were and have pledged to advertise a peace and tranquility policy in future. I know many people who would flock here on reading such a policy


You see, it becomes ever more difficult to find places in Europe that are not infected by people whose self-awareness stretches no further than the mirror, but the effects of such invasion are more profound when you find somewhere that should never be anything but tranquil; the landscape demands it, even the ancient town looking down upon it expects it. They aren't bad people but they are incapable of recognising that those around them may not actually find their whining children cute, or agree with them that every interaction they have should be accompanied by 'funny' noises, or that their jolly japes are anything but uncontrollably hysterical. 


Despite this, in this south eastern corner of this crazy island, I do think I have found a sort of paradise. And I would urge you to never, ever come here.


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