Noto Parking, run by Maria and Ana and their brother Michele, turns out to be a lovely space to stay for a few days. We are tucked in between lemon trees and for company we make friends with a ginger cat called Ballina.
The family is a hard working lot – Michele works in the docks in Syracusa as well as keeping up the lemon and orange groves. Maria, Ana and their nephew Alessandro run a mushroom farm in one of the poly-tunnels in the neighbouring fields. We are allowed to help picking, although we probably aren’t much help, having to ask all the time, which clusters of ‘pleurotta’ mushrooms are ready to pick. There seems to be a right moment, which doesn’t just have to do with the size of the mushrooms. The harvest on this day is 75kg, and we go on a trip with Maria to a wholesaler in a nearby town. The family doesn’t want to continue the mushroom farming in the future – it was a means to an end: 6 years of it helped finance the renovations of the buildings in the campsite: an old olive mill, now restored and turned into a set of rooms for accommodation. Everything is done with great care and good quality.
Maria is the perfect kind of person to run a camp site: she loves communicating with people. A retired school-teacher, she tells us she really didn’t want to leave school but that the running of the camp site helped her over the loss of her work.
The weather is stunning, and we’ve come to a nice and peaceful stride in our days. I walk around the orchard practising the violin in the morning, enjoying the fresh air and the possibility to play while walking.
One day, Alessandro takes us to a beautiful Laguna by the sea, just south of Noto. It’s like a warm british summer day, and much to the amazement of Alessandro and his friend, Frank and I strip to our bathing suits and jump into the sea (which is warmer than the British sea in summer!). After that, we walk around the Laguna for a while, looking at Cormorants, Coots, Kingfishers, and even some Flamingos in the distance. We pass by some salt marshes and a disused tuna factory. The ruins have been lovingly restored, and one can see the big brick oven structures where they used to smoke the fish. I could spend hours in this place, but Alessadro has to get back in time for lunch with his mum (1pm really is a sacred time in Italy, and grown-up kids join their parents for lunch).
That afternoon, Maria and Ana take us into a neighbouring field, where the orange trees have reverted to bitter oranges. Maria explains how every cultivated, sweet orange or mandarin is grafted onto a wild base and if they are not properly maintained, they revert to their wild base. This overgrown orchard has examples of this: one part of a tree may have sweet oranges, grapefruits, mandarins or lemons, and on another part of the same tree, there are bitter oranges which we normally associate with Seville and they are perfect for making marmalade. We pick a big bag full for Frank to make marmalade.
When we come back to the van, Maria has a jar of Mandarin jam for us, so we give her a jar of our home-made Spanish Apricot jam in return. The three siblings have been a bit reluctant to accept barter as part of the payment for our stay, but eventually Michele accepts a treatment from Frank, despite his protestations that he doesn’t need so much a massage as a miracle for his body. Meanwhile I go foraging for wood with Ana, stepping through kneehigh grass, avoiding low-hanging oranges and olives.
It is time to leave. It’s been a good place to stay, but we want to go on – to follow an invitation we’ve had to go horse riding on mount Etna, as well as going dancing in Catania. After a hearty good-bye, we set off just as the sun is setting.
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Our first port of call is Noto, where Susan lives, having moved to Sicily from Totnes about 8 years ago. Ciccio, her partner, is from Noto. We arrange to meet them at 9pm on the steps of the main cathedral. As we drive up to the town, we stop off at a fuel station to ask where we can park with a vehicle like ours. Turn the first road left and there’s a car park on the right hand side, we are told. As soon as we turn into the road, we are in trouble. The road itself is narrow, never mind the fact that there are cars parked along one side. The car park is no use for us either, the entrance being too narrow. We pull up by the side and consider our options. We can either reverse down a narrow one-way road, or try and navigate the next, fairly tight looking corner. We plumb for the latter. There’s a street sign to avoid at the back, a really high curb at the right hand front and a badly parked car on the left hand. After a few forward and backward manouvres, we are well and truly stuck and have to wait, amid hooting cars from all sides, for the owner of the car to come out of the hairdresser’s and move her car forward by a few inches. Frank is driving, and we try to exercise our newly found insight of keeping calm and taking things slowly, regardless of mounting anger and horn concerts around us. A ‘helpful’ Sicilian gaily waves Frank forwards, not taking account of the front wheel scraping hard against the curb for a couple of inches, and shrugging his shoulders when we discover what’s happened: ‘I didn’t see the wheel’, he says. Hello???!!!??? How else would the lorry drive around??? Another lesson is learned the hard way: When navigating a tricky situation, we must ignore other people’s advice, as ultimately it’s us who have to bear the responsibility for any damage done to our and another person’s vehicle.
Anyway, in another way, he is very helpful, as he escorts us to a campsite just outside Noto. Normally, we don’t tend to go to campsites, but for today, we’ve had enough of driving around in narrow streets and are happy to arrive somewhere safe and quiet.
Poor Emma, after a year of driving around in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and Switzerland, she’s had three knocks in the space of three weeks in Italy. Nevertheless, Noto is well worth a visit, despite the tricky roads for Emma. The baroque city centre is impressive and once a year one of the central streets gets completely covered in flower designs.
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