A week in Scicli: people watching, Sicilian style

The old lady with a balconied apartment on the third floor winched down her basket. She looked like Rapunzel letting down her hair. But there was no prince at the bottom, just the local fishmonger. He placed the fresh produce into the basket, and it was winched back up. This happened a few times, subsequently with the butcher and fruit seller, both of whom had loudspeakers attached to their van bonnets to announce their coming.

We had arrived in Scicli (shick - lee), a lively Baroque town pitched against a craggy limestone face, for the second week of our holiday in southeastern Sicily in Italy. Although sad to leave Donnalucata, we were enjoying our new base, not least thanks to the people watching. From above (a view granted by ascending to the abandoned church of San Matteo), we watched the chaotic tangle of battered Fiats and nifty scooters - Sicilian roads are as bad as people say: double parking is the norm, and road markings? Not to be seen! - and listened to the bark of a dog chiming from one side of the craggy gorge to the other.

In the town streets, which were lined with stunning Baroque architecture, much of it crumbling but some of it carefully restored, we saw elderly locals grouped on benches having a chat, and well-heeled couples strolling between the bars and restaurants. We discovered that the way to the start the day is with a Sicilian granita (crushed ice blended with fruit pulp) served with a brioche, preferably while sitting on a Piazza and people-watching. Cafe Gritti on Piazza Busacca was our favourite spot.

Scicli is perfectly placed for venturing further afield. It is situated amid a rolling landscape of olive groves and golden-huded country piles that looks like a Mediterranean version of the Yorkshire Dales, and is within easy striking distance of both the coast and inland treasures such as Modica and Noto. One day took us to the Cava Grande del Fiume Cassibile. It had something of the Grand Canyon about it - all plunging cliffs and chilly turquoise pools some 450 steps from the main entrance. It was very steep and, as we passed lots of sweaty-faced people climbing back out, we started dreading the ascent. The pools were lovely though, if populated by the ubiquitous posing Italian and perhaps not as secluded as promised.

We concluded the day with a walk around Noto, a honeycomb of beautifully restored Baroque facades in golden limestone, to try what is thought to be Italy's best ice cream. Prize-winning Costanzo did an orange chocolate fondant that melted in the mouth. Just for good measure, we tried a scoop at Noto's other renowned gelateria - Caffe Sicilia is a regal affair producing eccentric flavours such as saffron and basil.

Of the region's Baroque treasures, we now just had Modica to tick off the list. There, it is all about the chocolate. Cioccolato di Modica has been made in the same way since 1880; contains only cocoa, sugar and a selection of natural flavours - think cinnamon, orange, pepper and lemon; and has a solid, honeycomb texture that is like nothing else. We spent an evening there, wandering the main drag with its intricate buttresses and chic boutiques, before dining at Osteria dei Sapori Perduti on the Corso. It specialises in regional fare: we shared an 'antipasti mixte' of caponata (vegetable stew), fried egg balls, bruschetta and filled focaccia, then I dined on topped aubergines. Oh, and for afters we must have bought more than 10 bars of chocolate from Sicily's oldest chocolate manufacturer, the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto.

A must when in the area is the Riserva Naturale di Vendircari. We spent a very sweaty afternoon there - it's further south than Tunis and suitably sweltering - exploring its salty lagoons (a habitat for ibis and flamingoes), flats covered in fan palms, papyrus and cacti against a sea of impossibly bold emerald, and its abandoned tuna processing plant and 15th-century lookout tower, which provided an austere point of interest. There was no shade, but a sea breeze that was welcome.

But my favourite day out was to Cava d'Ispica, where a rustling lizard made me think I was about to come face-to-face with Stig of the Dump. The canyon close to Modica is peppered with cave dwellings. Some date from the era of cave men, while others were living quarters for medieval folk. There was also a Roman training area and a vast cave cobwebbed with neat little catacombs. It was overwhelming, and I was pleased to emerge into the evening sun, which lent the caves a cliffs tint and cast a golden light on the bamboo plants and Indian fig trees. Between sightseeing, we spent a lot of time at the beach. Sampieri was only a short drive from Scicli - anyone driving that way should look out for the family-run Aprile olive oil shop, where you can sample three types of olive oil produced on the premises. We also sampled Punta Secca, a pretty stretch of sand where you can swim in choppy waves and admire the town's striking white lighthouse. It was perhaps fitting though that our stay in Scicli concluded not at the beach, but on the tacky tourist train that trundles around town during the evenings, twinkling and playing cheesy music. We were the ones being people-watched this time, or perhaps just laughed at!
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