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Nota Bene – Sicily's Baroque Treasure, Noto NOTO, Italy | After a splendid morning spent driving through a sunlit landscape spangled with orange groves, lemon trees and palms, I steer our little rental car up a series of narrow, meandering stre

Nota Bene – Sicily's Baroque Treasure, Noto

NOTO, Italy | After a splendid morning spent driving through a sunlit landscape spangled with orange groves, lemon trees and palms, I steer our little rental car up a series of narrow, meandering streets. My friend doesn't say a word as I negotiate hairpin curves—after two days driving in Sicily, we have an unspoken rule not to talk during what could be stressful times.

However, this hilly route to the town of Noto turns out to be rather peaceful. We see no signs of life, and many of the streets are one-way. For a time, it seems as if we are lost in a maze. Then we arrive at our destination and gasp in delight at what is surely one of Europe's prettiest tucked-away baroque treasures.

Noto (pop. 23,000), in the southwestern tip of Sicily, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. It has a disaster four centuries ago to thank for the designation: in 1693, the town was the epicentre of a massive earthquake, which led to its rebuilding in a lavish style that came to be known as Sicilian baroque. The result is an architecturally splendid city of flamboyant churches, palaces and civic buildings, decorated with richly carved columns, grotesque masks, towering belfries and elaborate wrought-iron balconies.

A stroll along the old town's main avenue, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and connecting streets shows us some of the highlights. As we enjoy the Palazzo Ducezio, once one of Noto's fine private homes, now the town hall, we can't get over how quiet everything is. Here we are in the central piazza and we see so few people! (The modern section of Noto, along Viale Marconi, we will later find, is much busier.)

Touring with guidebook in hand we feel a little bit like we're visiting a deserted movie set. We climb the ornate staircase of San Francesco church and admire the balconies of the Palazzo Nicolaci, festooned with weird faced masks and mythological characters. One of my favourite buildings, among the many memorable sights, is the Palazzo Landolina, once home to the city's oldest noble family. It was one of this family's members, Giovanni Battista Landolina, who planned and laid out the new baroque town.

Noto's elevation to UNESCO World Heritage status has helped with the restoration of some of its exquisite buildings to their former glory. The best example is the Palazzo Villadorata, aswirl in richly brocaded walls and sumptuously frescoed ceilings.

As well as enjoying the wonderfully florid baroque architecture, my friend and I have another quest in Noto: to find dessert heaven. My friend had seen a story in the New York Times on the Caffè Sicilia, whose fourth-generation owner/chef, Corrado Assenza, is well-known by food lovers, especially those fond of ice cream and pastries.

We easily find the café, then the difficult choices follow: do we go with a Sicilian favourite, the yummy cannoli, or try the unique basil gelato or a cake that oozes with pistachios and orange peel? Or do we just go baroque and have a helping of everything?

Cooking with Mama at a school in Italy

AGRIGENTO, Italy | "Mama always says pasta needs a strong heat," says Chiara Agnello as morning sun streams in the windows of Fattoria Mose. The air is filled with the enticing aroma of garlic and just-snipped parsley. Friendly chatter intermingles with directives from Chiara, who is sharing her family recipes and techniques with us, five, eager Canadian cooks.

A Sicilian kitchen on a sweet, April morning is a fine place to be, I decide as I stir the vegetables. I'm here as part of a week's cooking and sightseeing tour organized by Mediterranean Kitchens Cooking Vacations of Toronto.

Chiara, a retired architect, and her partner, Ernesto, welcome guests to Fattoria Mose, an 18th-century farmhouse that was the summer home of Chiara's family when she was growing up. (Fattoria means "farm." Mose is the village on the outskirts of Agrigento in southern Sicily.) Now with rooms to accommodate 30 people, the 45-hectare [110-acre] farm still retains the warmth of a family home. The farm has been organic since 1987, producing mainly olive oil, but also almonds and pistachios, among its many fruits and vegetables. It also houses sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, dogs and cats.

Each morning we awaken to sunshine and farm sounds. After breakfast, we meet in one of the three kitchens in the sprawling villa and Chiara demonstrates and sets us to work. Her method can be casual: "My grandmother told me to measure in teaspoons, but I don't bother," she says as she throws a handful of rosemary into a bubbling chicken-with-red-wine dish. Nevertheless, it's important to know just how much a dish needs. We North Americans often cook pasta too much and are heavy handed with the sauce, she says. "You want to really taste the flavours."

Then 86-year-old Mama, dressed immaculately, complete with pearls, arrives to stuff the silvery sardines, one of the dishes of the day. It's heartwarming to see mother and daughter combining talents.

As much fun as kitchen time is, the best part of the day is lunch. On a sunny, wisteria-draped patio we sip wine and indulge in the delicious Sicilian dishes we helped create. If artichokes, olives and tomatoes are not on your taste-bud hit parade when you arrive, they will be by the time you leave.

The well-paced week with Mediterranean Kitchens includes more than cooking and eating: a tour of Agrigento's Valley of Temples—amazingly well-preserved Greek ruins highlighted by the Temple of Concord, a Doric sanctuary from the 5th century B.C.; visits to markets; a wine tasting at a trendy wine bar with a gregarious owner; a day trip to the hill town of Caltigirone, known for its ceramics.

The week I was there we also had a cooking lesson with chef Anna Tasca Lanza. In her upscale kitchen, this diva of Sicilian cuisine (her latest cookbook is The Flavours of Sicily) produced a meal to match the exquisite setting. Looking out on her vineyards and gorgeous garden was a "pinch me" moment. And, tomorrow, we would be back in the kitchen with Mama.


For information on travel in Italy visit the Italian Government Tourist Board website at

Mediterranean Kitchens Cooking Vacations also has trips to Israel, Morocco, Turkey and Jordan. For more information visit its website at