Sicilian exoticism feeds into everything – from the fusion architecture to the fabulous food. I’m with my strawberry-blonde Sicilian guide Pilar, blessed with a Spanish name, Norman looks and a baroque mind. Pilar tells me that politically-incorrect Sicilians still refer to dark-haired girls as "Moors" and blondes or redheads as "Normans."
We’re eating an orange and fennel salad, a legacy of Arab rule, and shedding stereotypes with every bite. The Mafia will not feature on our tour, except through the eyes of Montalbano, the fictional inspector often on our screens. South-eastern Sicily is seen as a haven beyond the Mafia’s reptilian gaze. Centred on Ragusa, this aloof rural region is “an island within an island.” While the west of Sicily was neglected by absentee barons, here the local gentry cherished the land. My eyes take in the well-tended olive groves, gnarled carob trees, dry-stone walls and tawny farmhouses.
As for baroque, the region’s calling card, “It goes beyond buildings - it’s about how we see the world.” The devastating 1693 earthquake ushered in a golden age for Sicilian architecture. The Unesco-listed towns of Ragusa, Modica, Scicli and Noto are a riot of baroque ornamentation, fanciful balconies and flowing staircases. It’s a game of silhouettes and tricksy perspectives. But baroque is also about Sicilian excess, distortion, decadence and disguise – light and shade in all senses.
Ragusa, set on the same latitude as Tunis, sits atop a dramatic mountain-spur riddled by ravines. The 1693 earthquake didn’t entirely wipe the slate clean here. Ragusa Ibla, the broodingly baroque lower town, was recreated on a medieval street plan by nobles too enamoured to leave. In Ibla, all roads lead to Piazza Duomo, Ragusa's sublime central square. The sloping square is lined with palms and princely mansions but dominated by Gagliardi’s San Giorgio, a baroque masterpiece. My gaze is drawn up from its convex centre, seemingly writhing with statues, to its wedding cake crescendo. Sicilian film director Roberto Ando believes baroque is “a paradigm of Sicily - tortuous, eccentric, secretive, the endless search for a form.”
I idle away the morning, exploring secret shrines, family crests and baroque fountains. Ibla is deeply intimate, shifting from showy staircases and tawny mansions to hidden gardens and filigree balconies hung with washing. For a gastronomic feast, Pilar recommends Il Duomo, by the main square. Here, Ciccio Sultano creates magic with local lamb, pistachios, fennel, almond sorbet, ricotta cannoli and Nero d'Avola wine. The celebrity chef can also talk the talk: “My cooking is voluptuously baroque because I am baroque: I never remove anything from my recipes but just pile on more.”