I hail from a time and place that dictates when a woman arrives home after sunrise wearing a black dress with sequins, she’s performing the walk of shame. In Modica, Sicily, it’s merely the morning walk of the poodle. In this small, medieval town buried deep in Hyblaean Mountains, women dress for the day and men gather to smoke, play cards and read La Stampa.
Not unlike many cities in Italy, Modica is built into the hillside, protecting itself from history’s hordes of marauding invaders. This invader had to ascend and descend hundreds and hundreds of stone steps in the blazing heat to reach the main boulevard, leaving me in a constant sweaty stupor but feeling pleasantly liberated to indulge in the city’s gastronomic delights: freshly filled cannolo for breakfast, ropes of thick-cut pasta with mint, tomato and tuna bottarga for lunch, and the region’s famed, succulent black pork from the Nebrodi Mountains for dinner; its lovely layer of delicious fatback and sweet yet gamey meat the stuff of food fantasy.
Founded in 1360 B.C., Modica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its houses and palazzos impressively built on top of one another. Despite being ravaged by earthquakes and floods, the decaying city boasts notable Sicilian Baroque architecture, usually situated next door to the collapsing rubble of a long-abandoned house, decorated only with a rusting padlock and Virgin Mary statue.
In addition to Baroque arts, Modica is also renowned for its 400-year tradition of chocolate making. As Sicily was part of the Spanish kingdom for many years, it was often the recipient of new foods hauled back from South America, including cacao. This diminutive city is filled with dozens of shops hand-making an unusual, granulated chocolate produced with only cacao and sugar, and often flavored with spicy pepperoncino, jasmine or orange blossom.
Sunset found me propped in a chair on our little patio, a generous tumbler of chilled Amaro in hand, watching the gauzy pink sky wash over the ancient city, and awaiting the tiny sparrows which emerge each evening to hunt their dinner. So close they fly I can hear the flutter of their wings and feel the air move above my head. As if obeying a higher power, they return to their nests as church bells announce 9pm.
Huffing and puffing and disheveled as I made my way to our hotel perched atop Modica, it was somewhat inconceivable that I’d just returned from an elegant midday meal in a neighboring town. The delightful wine high so thoughtfully acquired at lunch now sweated out, I sat on a stone step in the shade to compose myself. In these old stone alleyways, it’s not unusual to catch a trace of frying garlic, roasting game, sweet night-blooming jasmine or tangy piss. At this moment, however, I was completely overwhelmed with the heady scent of wild herb. On the patio below, an old lady in a blue housedress was picking through an enormous bundle of dried oregano, sold quite commonly throughout southern Italy. She sat quietly in the shadow of a fig tree, its trunk sprouting through a crack in a crumbling stonewall, separating the herb’s leaves from its stems into a well-used colander, her patio looking out on the medieval town, the view unchanged over hundreds of years.