Our Travel Guide to: Sicilia

Make Torre don Virgilio country hotel, Modica, your headquarters for your stay in Sicilia.

 
Sicilia. One of the most exotic places in Europe. A place that brightens your eyes and enlivens your spirit. A place that teaches you to squeeze joy from the simplest of things. A place where man’s main purpose in life is preserving the land, their traditions and values, and where many mainland Italians are turning to in search of that almost forgotten back-to-the-land ideal, but also a place where lots of Arabic and Greek influences remain. A place that has all the history of Rome, but which is also defined by a romantic and unspoiled small-town charm. And it’s best that you experience it as a traveller, not as a tourist.

Here is our su misura travel guide to Sicilia. A blend of high culture, great food and relaxing seascapes that makes the largest island in the Mediterranean an ideal destination for the summer holiday. But if you are to take just one recommendation from us, let it be this one: Live it your own way, make your own discoveries. Because the most beautiful days will often be the ones when you have no plans whatsoever.

Note: Sicilians have a respect for their origins and take great pride in their language, so please allow us to refer to their island as it is meant to be called, Sicilia, throughout our travel journal.
 

View down to the town of Scicli

 
 

When to Go

During the high summer months, July and August, it gets stifling hot in Sicilia. Choose either June (bear in mind that in the second part of the month it can already be getting too hot) or September. An off-season trip will also mean that you will avoid the suffocating tourist hoards and it will give you the chance to get a real feel of authentic Sicilia and experience the local way of life.

 

 

Above: Torre don Virgilio country hotel | The inner courtyard, where breakfast is served each morning al fresco,
exhibits antique tools and decorative elements (the property dates back to the 1660s)
and there is a strong sense of continuity with the past and tradition here.

 

 

Above: Torre don Virgilio country hotel | Wake up at sunrise, before everybody else, and have the amenities
to yourself to wander around or read a book (this is my reading recommendation).

 
 

Where to Stay

The south-eastern tip of Sicilia, between Siracusa and Noto in the east and Ragusa and Modica to the west, is less raucous and touristy than the north-eastern part, and the best option not only for families with little children, but also for living the full Sicilian experience. With its concentration of steeped-in-character hilltop towns, Greek ruins (it is incredible how close all the historic towns in this region are) and quiet, natural beaches, it is the perfect destination for someone looking for a summer vacation that has it all: great culture and small-time relaxing possibilities.

Modica is a charming, historical town in the south of Sicily, close to the coast and which goes back centuries. The steep alleys, winding stairways, historic squares and little cobbled streets make it one of the most atmospheric towns on the entire island. It provides both an intimate feel and exciting sightseeing.

Not far from the city, at a ten-minute drive by car, serependitiously tucked away in the middle of the green fields as far as the eye can see, surrounded by secular olive trees, there is an old Sicilian country house, Torre don Virgilio Country Hotel. An oasis of tranquility in Val di Noto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it feels more remote than it is and where you can set your base for exploring the region and even the whole of Sicilia. Combining the hospitality and flavourful food of an agriturismo retreat with the understated design and elegance of a history-filled noble estate (including exposed stone walls and ancient wooden beams), Torre don Virgilio looks and feels like the ultimate luxury, like a stay at the family house of old friends. With a capacity of not too many rooms, most of them on the ground floor, each room with its own terrace overlooking the lush garden lined with olive trees, citrus and carob trees, and with an inviting swimming pool in the center, this boutique hotel is the place where, once you arrive, you tend to stay and look forward to returning to after a long day of exploring the region, close or far away.

They also serve a great breakfast, having a regional approach to sourcing their ingredients, in great respect to nature, its seasons and the origin of the products. From home-made bread and fresh tomatoes and basil, to the best mozzarella and ricotta you have ever tried, traditional home-made pear and apple cakes and fresh fruit, the breakfast is simple but hearty and rich in flavours. The olive oil is made in-house. Sicilians seem to know what the abundance of less means.
 

Exploring the surroundings of Modica

 
 

Get a Feel of the Place

Ask for recommendations and go out to familiarize yourself with the surroundings as soon as you’ve checked in at your hotel. Even if you have a well planned out itinerary, the locals always know best and will guide you to some truly special places you might otherwise overlook. If you are staying close to Modica, head to town at the magic hour in late afternoon (it is a clever call to arrive before the evening, when everybody goes out and you will find it more difficult to find a good parking spot). Take a stroll along the main street, Umberto Corso, soak up the atmosphere, then head for dinner at La Contea and call it a day by exiting the city through the highest point, which has an absolutely breathtaking view of the town and the surrounding countryside for miles around. And just like that, the south-eastern Sicilia has revealed itself in all its splendour in full solar meltdown, setting the tone for the rest of your stay on the island.
 

View down to the town of Modica at dusk

 
 

Getting Around

Rent a car to travel the island. If you want to move around and discover the beauty of the island, you need a car. When you arrive to a town, find a safe parking spot on the main street and walk everywhere. It’s the best way to experience the many fascinating towns and villages Sicilia is packed with, as you will be amazed how many beautiful edifices, hidden palaces and churches lie among the buildings left to decay.
 

La Contea, Modica | Choose a table on the back alley
of the restaurant for a lively and authentic ambience.

 
 

Where to Eat

Each region has its own specialty throughout the island. From Sicilian fish couscous, which reflects the island’s Arabic heritage, and the widest variety of pizzas, to the pastries of Noto and the traditional dish of Sicilia, bucatini con le sarde. Make sure to stop by the outdoor food market as often as you can.

La Contea, Modica. Situated in the heart of Modica, the restaurant fires up some of the best pizzas (as well as pasta, antipasti and salads) in Sicilia and is buzzing with locals and tourists, with tables overflowing onto the busy street and into the nearby alley.
Via Clemente Grimaldi, 15.

Caseificio Borderi, Ortigia. Hands down, one of the most authentic and certainly the heartiest food experience in Sicilia. Outside his small family-run shop located in the Ortigia Market, Andrea Borderi, the owner, creates his famous huge made-to-order sandwiches that are loaded with various Borderi-produced Sicilian cheeses (smoked mozzarella, provolone, ricotta), charcuterie (which can easily be left out if you want a vegetarian sandwich), olives, fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, greens, oregano, olive oil and Sicilian lemon juice. The line is long, but the Borderi family passes out food samples to the hungry crowd, and it’s exciting to watch signore Borderi in action, passionately talking to everyone and feverishly building his ridiculously big and incredibly delicious panini.
Via Emmanuele de Benedictis, 6.

Osteria dei Sapori Perduti, Modica. If you want to taste traditional Sicilian food, this is the place to go. It is good to know that it is also open at noon, unlike many Sicilian restaurants, and you can have a great lunch that does not involve pasta and pizza. Simple food is the best and Sicilia is the place to reinforce that belief.
Corso Umberto I, 228.

Trattoria Piccolo Napoli, Palermo. Operated by the Corona family since 1951, the restaurant determines the menu daily based on the local fishermen’s catch of the day, reserved specially for the trattoria. Try the national dish of Sicilia, bucatini con le sarde: long, tube-like pasta cooked with fresh sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins and breadcrumbs.
Piazzetta Mulino a Vento, 4.

Note: If you are up for it, try the Mercato del Capo, in Palermo. They say that street food was born in Sicilia.
 

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto is tucked away on a quaint and old alley, on Corso Umberto, Modica.

 

Each Bonajuto flavour comes with its own package colour and design.

 
 

The Best Chocolate in the World

While in Sicilia, make Antica Dolceria Bonajuto one of your destinations. Italy, and Sicilia, may be famous for its gelato, but it is the chocolate that should take the crown.

Without exaggeration, Bonajuto may very well be the best chocolate you have ever tasted. It is the most singular chocolate taste (not too sweet, but extremely rich), with a unique grainy texture that derives from the fact that the added sugar doesn’t completely melt, because the cocoa is processed at a relatively low temperature. Simply put, this is how chocolate should taste like.

La più antica fabbrica di cioccolato in Sicilia has been producing archetypal chocolate for six generations and for more than 150 years. La Dolceria is still in the same place where its founder, Francesco Bonajuto, opened his small confectionary in 1880, in the center of the city of Modica. Crafted through an old cold-processing method of cocoa used by the Aztecs in 16th-century Mexico (straight from cacao beans, with no cocoa butter or other additives you’ll typically find in chocolate), the Bonajuto chocolate is made exclusively from cocoa mass and sugar and sometimes a little spice or natural essence, each variety having no more than four ingredients in composition. Start your chocolate tasting journey with il cioccolato vaniglia (made of only cocoa mass, sugar and vanilla) and il cioccolato cannella (cinnamon).
Corso Umberto I, 159.
 

Looking for shade at midday, Noto. One of the most pleasant things to do is take your gelato
to go and savour it under the monumental trees in the piazza in front of the duomo.

 

Left: La Cattedrale di Noto, built in Sicilian Baroque style, dating from 1776. Many
of the new structures are built of a soft stone that renders a honey tonality under sunlight.
Right: A steepy street in Noto, a cityscape particularity of all the towns in the region, offers
both a scenic backdrop and a hairpin experience when trying to find your way around by car.

 
 

Un gelato, prego!

Or two! Little feet get tired quickly. The best remedy after pounding the pavement that works better than a piggyback ride and the surprise toy you’ve been saving up for difficult moments, is stopping for gelato.

Caffè Sicilia, Noto. A culinary institution that has stayed in the same family for over 100 years, a destination in itself for many visitors, and for us also. Veni, vidi, mangia… and the verdict was this: we came for the gelato, but what we loved the most were the cannolis and the almond-milk granita. But the gelato will still be one of the best you’ve had. Because, honestly, how can it not be? Corrado Assenza’s dishes are distinctly Sicilian, as he uses only the best local produce and dairy from the farms in the area. Chef Assenza is also responsible for saving the Roman almond, a quintessential Sicilian ingredient which was not long ago on the verge of extinction, by using it extensively in his products, making it known to others as well and facilitating trade for the farmers. Respect for land and tradition. Try the ricotta gelato and ask for lesser known specialties as well, like Caffè Sicilia’s own invention, terra nostra (“our land”), consisting of two layers of pistachio and almond sorbet. (Note: Caffè Sicilia is closed on Mondays, as are other caffès and restaurants in Sicilia, so you should check out opening hours and days before you go).
Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 125.

Belfiore Gelato e Cioccolato, Siracusa. Made of natural ingredients, with no artificial flavours. Try the extra dark chocolate for a less sweet option (especially if you don’t regularly eat sugar, but have decided to make vacationing in Sicilia that rare occasion worthy of breaking the rule). Have it outside, in the breezy air, with a view to the bridge over the channel connecting Siracusa with the city’s old town on the island of Ortigia.
Via Luigi Greco Cassia, 5.
PS: This might be one of the best gelati in the whole of Italy (the owners hail from Bologna, which is competing for the title), so you might very well bend the rules a little more. Try the mulberry. Or the pistachio. Or the mandorla.

Gelateria Brioscia, Palermo. Brioche con gelato (a couple of scoops of gelato stuffed into a warm, fluffy brioche bun) is a Sicilian tradition and you can serve it any time of the day, but on a Sicilian summer day, go ahead and indulge yourself and have it for breakfast.
Via Federico Giuseppe Pipitone | Via M. Stabile, 198.

Al Gelatone, Palermo. The shop offers a wide variety of traditional and creative flavours using only fresh and raw ingredients, including dairy-free and sugar-free options. And if you are on your sixth day of gelato eating your away around Sicilia, believe me, you will want to go for the sugar-free. Try the pistachio.
Via dell’Autonomia Siciliana, 96.
 

Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista, Ragusa

 
 

Where to Go, What to See

Modica. I have already mentioned the town and its particular beauty, but I would like to add one more thing. Modica is known as the town of one hundred churches and I highly recommend you enter one, whether you are a religious person or not. Take a moment for reflection. It will do you good.

Noto. Located on the terraced slopes of Mount Iblei, Noto is an apotheosis of architecture and town planning, currently listed among Unesco’s World Heritage sites. After the devastating 1693 earthquake, it was rebuilt from scratch on a new site about 10 km from the old city, and the new town was meant to be a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque. And it is. The sensation you get walking through its Baroque center, especially passing by the duomo on one side and Palazzo Ducezio (the City Hall) on the other, is that you are witnessing something grand. You can easily cover the town on foot in a single afternoon along its two main streets, Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Cavour, which run east to west, at gelato-eating pace (Caffè Sicilia is right on Corso Vittorio Emanuele).

Siracusa and Ortigia. A microcosm of Sicilian diversity, Siracusa showcases a heritage of classical, medieval and baroque architecture. Ortigia, Siracusa’s tiny historic island center, is separated from Siracusa by a small channel. The food market is something you should experience at least once when you are in Sicilia, and if I have to choose, I would choose the smaller, more intimate Ortigia outdoor food market even over the ones in Palermo. Open every morning but Sunday.

Selinunte. Agrigento may be the most sought after archeological site in Sicilia, and if you are traveling with children, you might not have the chance to see but one such place (although you might find out, to your surprise, that any stone relic is incredibly fascinating for the little ones), so you may want to consider Selinunte, a little further up the west coast. It is the largest archeological site in Europe and one of the most important ancient Greek artefacts. The landscape is wilder there, as the remains of the five temples are set on a high plane and overlooking the sea. There are two entrances, one from Marbella di Selinunte to the east and one from Triscina to the west (Triscina is said to have the best peaches in Sicilia).

Menfi. Surrounded by rolling vineyard-covered hills descending into the wild dunes, white sandy beaches and the translucent waters of the north-west coast, Menfi is one of the centers of Sicilian wine-making. If you choose two destinations as home-bases for your trip, take Menfi into consideration after the southern part of the island, to continue the trifecta of the ideal summer holiday: cultural, food and seaside exploration. There is even a wine festival taking place each year in June, Inycon Festival, where local producers open their doors to the wide public.

Every little town and village in between the big cities holds a disarming humble charm. It may be the small town of Erice, where there are more churches than houses, or the antic Giarratana, on the way from Siracusa to Ragusa, where the men of the town still gather in groups in the side streets, sitting on white chairs and talking. Or it may be the famed Corleone, close to Palermo, where you can pass by a bar that has an image from The Godfather hung by the front door (the town was not a location for the film, but it was the birthplace of Mario Puzo’s character and, subsequently, the movie character – the bar used in the film was Bar Vitelli, in Savoca, Messina) and where children still play unhindered in the streets and shop owners give away their parking spot to you with a smile on their face.
 

Left: Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, Palermo, the biggest opera house in Italy, and the third in Europe, after L’Opéra
in Paris and the State Opera in Vienna. This architectural masterpiece in classic style, built with local stone and marble,
was inaugurated in 1897 with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” conducted by Leopoldo Mugnone. The final
scenes of “The Godfather Part III” were filmed here. | Right: Gardens, with flowering plants, trees and herb gardens,
are a highlight throughout the whole island.

 
 

Make the wine regions up north the base
for the second leg of your trip to visit Palermo

Once Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Roman, and ultimately Italian, Palermo is an exotic place, a cultural melting pot since antiquity. By entering the city by car and then exploring it by foot, you will inevitably see it in all its authenticity, social stratification and historical comminglings: a riot of poor neighborhoods, crumbling baroque buildings, superb palaces, Arabic domes and modern art, brimming with colour, heat, noise and saga. Palermo is probably the place that best epitomises Sicilia’s heritage of cultural richness and troubled community.

Grab a granita at an outdoor table and watch the Palermitani and tourists walk by, stop by the artists who make hand-crafted jewellery on the site on Via Vittorio Emanuele, make a tour of the Arab-Norman Cathedral of Palermo, i Quattro Canti (the center of the historic quarter) and Piazza Pretoria with its spectacular circular fountain. And do stop by la Feltrinelli bookshop (make it your only visit to a big store while in Sicilia – Via Camille Benso Cavour, 133) for a refill with the most beautifully illustrated children’s books (much needed to keep up the interest for hanging around in the city).

If you are based in the southern part of the island for the entire duration of your stay, you can save a night to spend at an agriturismo retreat in one of the wine regions in the north, or you can plan an entire second leg of your trip here. The second option will give you the chance to appropriately explore Palermo and the surrounding areas.
 

Scala dei Turchi | The natural white rock contrasting with the azure waters offers a splendid view from the top.

 
 

Beach Days

The usual scenario: Wake up early, have breakfast and be at the beach by 08.30. Swim, play in the sand, run on the beach. By 10.30, you’ve had your healthy dose of salty sea air, vitamin D and beach activities, so you can pack your things and exit the beach while it is still pretty unpopulated. Heaven. If you love the sea, but don’t sun bathe, repeat the process in late afternoon – early evening.

The Sicilian way: The way of life is different in Sicilia. Many hotels don’t serve breakfast until 08.30 the earliest (if you consider asking why, don’t – “Perché siamo in Sicilia!” (“Because we are in Sicilia!”)). And if you are an early person and travel with children and breakfast is an important meal of the day (as it should be), you would want to book a hotel that serves breakfast. Also note that, if your accommodation is more inland, the beach (especially if you are looking for a wilder and more secluded beach) can be 30 minutes – 1 hour drive away. This leaves you for very little safe time in the sun before noon. So you have to plan your beach days very carefully, which means you can, for example, rule out a morning session and opt instead for a long afternoon by the sea. You can bring dinner to have on the beach.

Marina di Modica. Situated on the most southern part of Sicilia, this large bay with a low-key sandy beach surrounded by dunes is great for running, sports activities and playing in the sand.

Cala Mosche is a little known beach (one of the perks of asking for recommendations from the locals) in the Vendicari Nature Reserve, on the south-east coast of the island. Natural surroundings (it is set between two rocky formations, which means the sea is calm even on a windy day), no bars, sun loungers or beach vendors. Ideal if you are looking for untamed, peaceful beaches, for those who do not sunbathe but love the sea nonetheless. It makes the 15-minute walk through the reserve to get there worth it.

Scala dei Turchi. The blinding white limestone rock formation in the shape of a staircase was created by the greatest artist of all, Mother Nature, which, in time, has made the rock soft and sinuous, with the help of the sea and the salty breeze. Walking on the long strip of sand that takes you to the stairs can be pure madness if you happen to get there at an inappropriate hour, but put on a long-sleeve linen shirt, apply the high protection sun lotion and wear the right headgear and go for it, because the sensation of the steps looming over you as you get closer and closer is truly spectacular.

Lido Fiori, on the south-west coast. Backed by hills, child-friendly Blue Fag sandy beach close to Menfi, not far away from Selinunte. If you are based in the region and a very hot day is announced, skip breakfast the next day and have an early morning seascape.

Note: When you arrive at Scala dei Turchi, especially if it happens to be on the day you make your trip from the south to the north of the island and it’s already too hot, just for the fun of it, pay the 2€ per person (children ride for free) and take a ride in Antonio’s beach car from the top of Scala dei Turchi to get down to the beach. It’s going to be bumpy and speedy, but so much joyful for everyone, especially if the driver is a jovial Italian with a sense of humour and a taste for romantic songs (loud music coming out from the speakers of the car included in price). Not to be missed.

 

Left: Scala dei Turchi. The hot sun can make the walk on the beach towards the site seem even longer
than it is and the white steps look like a mirage. | Right: Finding shelter from the dazzling sun under a majestic cork tree
(they are everywhere in Noto, Modica and Siracusa, a heaven on a summer day), in the port of Siracusa.

 

On the way to Palermo

 
 

Good Manners for Travelling to Sicilia

Learn a few basic words and expressions in Italian and avoid talking English all the time in restaurants and shops. The Sicilians do not speak English, and even if they do, their vocabulary is very basic. And they will greatly appreciate the effort even if your Italian is middling. And by speaking a little Italian, you just might make new friends (at least for the rest of your stay), because you may not be the only guests of the hotel who have a problem with the air conditioning in the room and by speaking mild Italian you may be in the position of helping out the English couple from next door who have the same problem as you but do not speak Italian at all. Prego.

Sometimes you’ll get bread with diced tomatoes or olive oil to start your meal. Consider it an extra. You may eat it or not, but it will still be included in the general cover charge. It is called il coperto, which includes water, pane e grissini (bread and breadsticks) and the use of cutlery and tablecloth that must be washed. It also means that you can tip much less than you would usually do in other countries (a coin of 1€ or 2€ will be enough or you can simply round the bill to the nearest round number).

Children eat what their parents eat, so don’t ask for a kids’ menu. You will be met with a smile from the waiter when, after he has asked you if you want something special for your little one (kids’ menu or not, they are still polite and ask), you tell him that the child will have what his parents have.

Even if you are on an island, and even if Sicilians consider themselves Sicilians, not Italians, don’t forget you are in Italy. Try not to wear flip flops, not even to the beach, and don’t lose your sense of style just because you are on holiday. And putting a little effort into your dressing just might get you that table you are waiting for before others.

Note: Here is a great guide to Italian travelling etiquette.
 

Getting lost is not always bad (but do get yourself a map and don’t rely solely on Google Maps),
because you just might come across a scene that looks depicted from “The Godfather”.

 

Left: Laundry day, Siracusa. | Right: Oleander should be declared the official plant of Sicilia.

 
 

Prendiamo un caffè!

Italians take their coffee seriously and caffès are centers of the social life.

Sicilians take their coffee strong. Do not ask for cappuccino or latte after ten in the morning. Italians only enjoy milk coffee in the morning, never in the afternoon, and especially not after a meal. It is always espresso at the end of the meal, after dessert.

Prendiamo un caffè! (Let’s get coffee!) always refers to an espresso. Bear in mind that ordering un caffè doppio (a double shot of espresso) is not typical in Italy. If you need an extra shot of caffeine, stop at the next caffè again.

Stop by the gran caffè of Sicilia, Caffè Spinnato, dating back to 1860.
Via Principe del Belmonte, Palermo.
 

View from the winding road down to Corleone

 
 

Good to Know

Request a car with GPS since reception can be spotty if you are reliant on Google Maps. Don’t rule out the traditional map. Remember there was a time, not long ago, when you could navigate half a country by using only the trusty old school map and the road signs. Exploring a new place in the true sense should not involve too much technology anyway.

Diving can be an adventure, some even say notorious, in Sicilia. The roads can be narrow, the turns tight, and the drivers often seem to be guided more by timing than by respecting rules. Dolce far niente does not apply to driving, so pay double attention. And bear in mind that the speed limits are not taken too seriously, but don’t do what the Sicilians do.

Do not park in no-parking zones. If you are not sure whether you are allowed or not to park in one place, just ask the shop owner nearby. They will always be helpful.

Being a cinephile and a lover of Italian cinema can pay off when you least expect it. It may lead to your being offered one of the best wines made in Sicilia by the manager of the country hotel you are staying at. So, even if you are a convinced light traveller, you might consider checking in your luggage. Pack a bottle of olive oil from Agrigento (the best in Sicilia) while you are at it, too.
 

The country scape of Modica.
I would visit Sicilia again just for the Southern part.

 
 

What to Take Home

Almonds from Noto. Pistachios from Bronte. Chocolate from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Modica. Organic fig and arancia rossa jam. See also the “Good to Know” paragraph above.

Hand-made jewellery from the streets of Palermo. Look for beautiful brass necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Make sure you carry cash, because there is no ATM nearby and although you can pay by card, the process can get very long and your kid/kids might not have the patience for it.

Wooden toys, made in Italy, from the toy store Il Giocattolaio, Modica (on Umberto Corso). While in Sicilia, only visit the local boutiques.

But, most importantly, the experience. The landscape and atmosphere are one of a kind and you will often realise you have forgotten to take photos. And that’s the best sign that you are living la dolce vita, that you are being present and that you are paying attention to all the beauty and wonders around you. The best memories don’t appear in photographs.
 

One of the many honey-cream stonebuildings in Palermo (as in the whole of Sicilia), basking in the sun.

 
 

Buon viaggio!

Find a radio frequency that plays good music for your road trip. Italians do know good music and rock music, you may find out, and you may also find out that Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Western Stars, had been the best selling album that week in Italy and you will be happy to get that special vinyl edition you find when you stop by la Feltrinelli. But, honestly, the rhythm and buzz of the towns are the best soundtrack for your Sicilian summer. And watch the road!

 

Beautiful landscape close to the town of Corleone | An agriturismo retreat is a great alternative
to the busy cities and crowded and noisy seaside resorts.

 

Photography: Classiq Journal

Five photographic prints from this story are available here.

 

Posted by classiq in Photography, Travel | | 1 Comment

Interview with Photographer Amélie Laurin

Roland Garros | photo: Amélie Laurin

 
Wimbledon will start in just a few days, and, with it, the feeling that it will not be long before summer is at its pick. The thought that summer will not last forever slowly starts to creep in, making you aware that you must live your summer, not just dream it. A reality check of sorts. And it is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite. But before June ends, I want to take a moment and celebrate, once again, the event that, for me, year after year heralds the arrival of summer. Roland Garros. I revel in those two weeks of tournament leading up to the final, wishing for each day to last as long as possible, as a promise of an endless summer. I sometimes think of the slow red dirt surface that produces those long and absorbing rallies, testing the players’ skill, patience and endurance, under the sun at golden hour casting dramatic shadows on the clay, as a long hot summer day that tests one’s physical and mental strengths.

It is an image that has been, to a great extent, shaped by the photographers who capture this sport’s magnificence on clay and the unique atmosphere at Roland Garros. Amélie Laurin is one of the photographers of the French Open and what I appreciate the most about her Roland Garros portfolio is exactly this overview of the championship that it offers, capturing not just the game and the players’ actions (with the kind of pictures that make you sit straighter in your seat when you see them in motion, or rejoyce in their moments of triumph, or frown when you observe the physical and mental demands of the game on their face and their body), but also the crowds, the mood, the smallest of details, or a fleeting moment of solitude.

Last year, Amélie won the Roland Garros photo prize, but she doesn’t consider herself a sports photographer. Indeed, her work range is very wide, and her travel photography has the ability to make you stop and reflect on what you see. It communicates, with no artifice, the genuine beauty of the people and the reality and uniqueness of the place. It tells a story. It makes you curious and wanderous.

In my interview with Amélie, we have talked about Roland Garros, about Rafael Nadal, about taking, not making, a photograph, about the discoveries and self-discoveries during her two-year long trip throughout the Americas, and about the understated appreciation of the little things.
 

Cori Gauff, Roland Garros, 2018 | photo: Amélie Laurin
The photograph won the Roland Garros photo prize in 2018.

 

Last year you won the Roland Garros photo prize. Can you tell us a little about the awarded photograph?
It was a picture taken during the girls final of Roland Garros 2018. The tennis player is Cori Gauff, an American. She won that match and the title for juniors. She was then only 14 years old, hard to believe when you see her shape. The posture of her body is beautiful and I love her blue suit contrasting with the clay. Her movement really shows the beauty of tennis.

I would like to stay a little on the subject of Roland Garros (I am a big tennis fan). Does the French Open hold a special interest for you that goes beyond your work as a photographer?
Of course Roland Garros is special. It is a very important tournament known all over the world, where the best tennis players in the world fight for the title. Besides, the atmosphere is unique and as good to photograph as tennis actions. Moreover, the French Federation of Tennis staff and the team of free lance photographers are truly great and I have a real pleasure to work with them. It is part of why I enjoy so much to photograph this tournament.
 

Rafael Nadal winning La Décima, Roland Garros, 2017 | photo: Amélie Laurin

 
 

”To me, a good sport photography
has to show a sport action under an unseen
angle or light, or to catch a perfect instant.”

 
 
Which was the highlight of this year’s French Open for you?
Rafael Nadal’s 12th victory was great. And his match against Roger Federer also.

Do you have an all time favourite photo of Rafael Nadal that you took at Roland Garros?
Rafael Nadal is highly photogenic while playing tennis. I have many pictures of him that I like, not only one.

For many, tennis doesn’t seem like a sport that could be the subject of great photographs. Yet, there’s something about the emotion, loneliness and athleticism of tennis that contradicts that conception. What is it about tennis for you, as a photographer, that fascinates you?
I can’t believe many people think tennis isn’t photogenic. The movements are wide, powerful and beautiful. Sometimes the player is sliding on the clay, sometimes almost flying for an instant, and when the sun shines it creates fabulous shadows. Besides, there are so many details you can catch with your eye and the camera, like the tennis player interacting with the ball kids, and many other situations.

What makes a good sports photography?
To be honest, I’m not a sports photographer, even though I won the Roland Garros photo prize in the sport category. Of course I take shots of tennis actions, but I mostly catch the atmosphere of the tournament. To me, a good sport photography has to show a sport action under an unseen angle or light, or to catch a perfect instant.
 

A rare moment of solitude in the stands, Roland Garros | photo: Amélie Laurin

 

How did you get into photography? What is your background?
I started working as a freelance photographer right after completing my studies in a photography school in Paris. I got my diploma, after a two-year course, in 2002, and since then I have done my best to create a network and get clients. I left all that to go traveling for 2 years, and I started it all over again when I came back. At that time, I had the idea of changing work, as I had to recreate everything from scratch, but my interest in photography was too strong and I followed it.

Do you always carry a camera with you?
No. A camera is heavy and big. I work a lot, so I enjoy also not carrying a camera sometimes. One exception, when I travel, I always carry my camera with me, because it inspires me and if I don’t have my camera I see all the pictures I am missing out on.
 

Egypt | photo: Amélie Laurin

 
 

”Any place is fine if the people are good.”

 
 
Is it make or take a photograph? Do you wait for a good photo? In this sense, is, for example, sports photography (where speed of reaction is paramount) different than travel photography or other kind of photography?
For me, it is take a photograph because I mostly do reports. I capture moments. Sometimes I make a photo when I ask models to pose and I create the picture that wouldn’t exist otherwise. I like both, but I mainly take photographs rather than make.

I often wait for a good photo, even though I’m not very patient. It happens that the frame is good with nice elements or people and a good light, but it is not complete, so I can wait for something to happen, some people to appear, the right light to show up… This can happen in travel photography as well as sport photography.

What is the most important lesson your travels have taught you?
I’ve learned so much while travelling. It’s hard to choose one. I’d say that the main lesson I’ve learned is that people are good. Of course not all of them, but I have experienced that everywhere you can find good people if you are a good person yourself. You need to trust and also have a good sense of intuition to feel the situation.
 

Egypt | photo: Amélie Laurin

 

Do people make the place?
Absolutely. Any place is fine if the people are good.

If you could choose, do you have a favourite moment of the day for shooting? Do you swear by the golden hour?
Yes, that particular time of the day when the sun gives warm colours and long shadows is particularly beautiful. Any time is good, but, if I can, I avoid shooting when the sun is too high in the sky. I also like sometimes when it’s cloudy and the light is soft.
 

The Grand Canyon, USA | photo: Amélie Laurin

 

In this time and age, what do you wish people appreciated more?
I wish people would slow down more and enjoy the simple things.

How do you yourself unwind? Where would we find you when not working?
I enjoy meeting friends. If it can be in the nature, even better. When living in a big city such as Paris, there’s not much choice other than a city park if the weather’s ok, but if I can go away from the city for a bit, I’m even happier.

If you could be anywhere in the world right now (old or new location), preparing to take a photo, where would you want to be?
Difficult question. There are so many places I like. I think I would go to India again. I have gone there 3 times and I loved it. A fourth time would be awesome.
 

India | photo: Amélie Laurin

 

How would you describe India in one word?
Powerful.

A travel writer once told me that the most fulfilling thing about her work is being able to change the false impression that somebody has on a country and people. What is the most rewarding thing about your being a travel photographer?
I agree with that writer. I also wrote a travel book with my sister (Jusqu’au bout de la terre – “To the End of the Land”), and changing the idea that we have about a country was one of the main reasons to write it. It happens also with the pictures. In travel photography, I like too show the beauty of the people. If it can give somebody the will to go and meet people, I’d be happy.

The book is, unfortunately, not available in English, so could you tell us a little about it?
The book I wrote with my sister is about our trip hitch-hiking from the very south to the very north of the American continent, during 2 years. It is a travel diary illustrated with pictures. We talk about travelling as backpackers, as women, as sisters, about how good the people we meet are, about the way we change ourselves while travelling, the feeling of a nomad life, about how we manage to travel with a very small amount of money finding solutions for our needs such as eating, sleeping, moving…
 

India | photo: Amélie Laurin

 
 

Website: amelielaurin.com | Instagram: @amelielaurin
The book “Jusqu’au bout de la terre”, by Amélie and Marion Laurin,
is available, only in French, here.

 

Posted by classiq in Interviews, Photography, Travel | | Leave a comment

Journeys to the Other Side of the World

Why David Attenborough’s stories are the best read for your summer vacation.


 
David Attenborough needs no introduction. His pioneering role in surveying almost every aspect of life on our planet is unwavering. And the fact that, for decades, he has been keeping the whole world keen on anthropology, nature and the wildlife is extraordinary.

I started to read his book, Journeys to the Other Side of the World, a few weeks ago and then put it aside. The moments I managed to steal from a day to read a few pages just did not seem the right setting (simply too mundane) for diving into David’s treacherous stories and adventures. Then, a little while ago, I picked it up again. The setting was different, while on a trip that had been carefully planned to include accommodations as remote as possible from touristy destinations. And when I realised that there was hardly an internet signal on the site, I embraced the experience that enabled me to enjoy David’s travel journal even more fervently. Every morning right after dawn I would wake up without an alarm clock, pick up a relaxing spot on the amenities, before anyone else was up, and have the place entirely to myself, at least one hour to read peacefully, in the midst of secular olive trees and only with the trilling of the birds in the background and the caretaker of the retreat who would wake up even earlier than myself to tend to the garden and water the lawn and the flowers.

David Attenborough writes in a way that truly has the ability to transport you, through his absorbing stories, to another place and time. It was indeed a different place and time, but this book is a vital reminder that there was not too long ago when we did not know much about our world and that we shouldn’t take the knowledge we have today too lightly and for granted. Part of that knowledge wouldn’t have been possible without David Attenborough’s extraordinary passion for going places, for the wildlife and for discovery. And the fact that the young, even in this age distorted by technology, continue to show a vivid interest in his work gives me great comfort and satisfaction.

That said, there are a few other things that David’s travel diary made me reflect upon. It has to do with slow living. With doing something for the benefit of others, too. With remaining curious and free and starting anew each day. With resisting to develop the obsession to possess things that so easily can take hold of many of us. “If I’ve learned one thing in my life, it is that the measure of a man’s riches are the fewness of his wants. I’m happy enough,” says Jack Mulholland in the book, a no-hoper whom Attenborough encountered in Borroloola, in the Northern Territory, Australia. “A no-hoper is a man who has forsworn the comforts of civilization, shunned society and gone to live in solitude,” explains the author. The term however should not be taken (nor is it David’s intention to introduce it) as disconsolately as it sounds. I think each one of us would benefit from affording ourselves to live, if only for a week of summer vacation, as a no-hoper.
 
Related reading: Oyibo: An African Travel Diary / Photo Diary: Torres del Paine, Chile / One Day That Summer: Rome
 

Posted by classiq in Books, Travel | | Leave a comment

Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations

 

”Dressing interested me then for the same reason it does now.
How you present yourself to the world, how you convey
what matters to you, what you aspire to (and what
you don’t) – these things are never indifferent.
And in the ideal case it’s an expression of self-knowledge.”

 
 
I was introduced to David Coggins’ book, Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations, by Todd Ritondaro (a regular guest on Classiq) who interviewed David on his podcast. I ordered the book immediately after I listened to the episode and one of the first things that came to my mind after just starting to read it was why is it that there is such great writing about men’s style and so little about women’s style – I think women’s style (yes, style, too, not only fashion) is so wrongly approached. That’s exactly why all the style books in my home are about men’s style. Because that’s where I take my style advice from. Because it is men’s style that has taught me that style is about so much more than clothes. Because it is men’s style and men’s talk about style that have taught me that it is not trivial to talk about clothes. I can not and will not do small talk with my girl friends about clothes and fashion (and I do what David does: “I would prefer that people aren’t able to tell where my clothes are from. And I don’t usually tell them.”) They know where I stand and avoid the subject. But I will, at any time, engage in any discussion about style with my husband, my father, my brother or any of our male friends.

There are many definitions of fashion vs style. And every man and woman with a strong sense of dress and self that I admire is perfectly right in their opinion. But none of them has sounded more true than Glenn O’Brien’s words in the forward to this book: “Fashion is industry; style is culture. That’s why this book is important… It’s about ideas and themes, arts and rituals, the things that constitute culture.” Style is culture. And indeed, that is why this book is so important. It does not teach men what style is, what they should wear and what they shouldn’t. It instead shows that the only rule to great style is authenticity.

With dry wit and self-deprecating attitude, David writes about situations, traditions, rituals, manners, aging, imperfection, and, yes, about clothes, but always in a bigger context. He writes about why he has always driven a car with manual transmission, about the intimacy and pleasure of another person’s company that a long lunch provide in today’s world lived on fast-forward and in the social media hum, about why a man should have enough cash for his evening on the town, about Ralph Lauren, about being “suspicious of any man who doesn’t have a weakness for books”, about the fact that all good things take time. Style is in the details, in the way you conduct and present yourself, in knowing certain unwritten rules.
 
 

“The best dressed men create their own sartorial world
with its own internal logic and controlled anarchy.”

 
 
Coggins’ contributors (some of the world’s most dapper men whom he interviewed for the book) examine their lives, talking about their fathers, childhood, school uniforms, college, mistakes, their first cars, their first crush, drinking, sports, music, cooking. They talk about the examples set by their fathers, about learning from their mistakes, about bettering themselves. Because style is about hard-earned individuality (you are not born with it, nor is it acquired in a day, nor, thank God, can it be bought), it is a long path towards self discovery, it is about refining your sensibility and not about constantly reinventing yourself, it is the slow distilling of culture that, only in time, seeps into our being and gives us a sense of who we are.

Men and Style tells us about how the world views of this group of stylish men (from the author to his interviewees and editorial guests, including Gay Talese) have been shaped, providing the perfect space for them to pass on their knowledge, appreciations and sense of selves. Men and women alike have something to learn from that.

David Coggins is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Esquire, Interview, Kinfolk and The Wall Street Journal, and he is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler. He is one of the world’s most respected men’s style writers and his second book, Men and Manners: Essays, Advice and Considerations, the follow-up to this one, was published last year.

 

Website: davidrcoggins.com | Instagram: @davidrcoggins

 

Posted by classiq in Books, Style | | 3 Comments

This Summer We Are Channelling: Jennifer Connelly in Blood Diamond

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly in “Blood Diamond”, 2006
Warner Bros., Virtual Studios, Spring Creek Productions

 
Revisiting some of your favourite summer movies can provide the best style inspiration. The usual likes of Plein soleil, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and all these other films easily come to mind. But there are other movies less obvious at first sight that offer great sartorial advice for the warm months ahead and I will bring them into our rotation, and your attention, this summer.

In Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio, as Danny Archer, is a South African diamond smuggler, or “soldier of fortune”, as he likes to call himself, and Jennifer Connelly, as Maddy Bowen, is a dedicated journalist who makes him think about interests bigger than his. “She’s about as fiery and feisty as they come,” Connelly said about her character in an interview for Marie Claire. “She has a passion for life, drinks her minibar, flirts a lot. But she’s striving to do some thing good — she’s sort of frustrated by herself and her limitations. She wants to be a toughie, but she’s not.”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Edward Zwick’s film remains one of his best. It’s one of his most singular roles. He explores the complexity of emotions he is capable of and especially a darker side that we didn’t get to see much until Blood Diamond. Too bad the film does not end on the same tough, risk-taking note it starts with and falls into the all too well-known safe Hollywoodian ending, seeking a hopeful and sentimenatal closing.

“I wanted someone who could give Leo a run for his money, who was confident and would not be overawed and would help him raise the level of his game. There are any number of actors who are perfectly talented who wouldn’t have had that effect on him. He sensed that from the beginning, and I saw him sit up straigther in his chair,” the director said about casting Jennifer. “The camera can always tell whether someone knows what they are saying in the deepest meanings, and she inhabits the lines.”
 

Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Blood Diamond”, 2006
Warner Bros., Virtual Studios, Spring Creek Productions

 
Sharp intelligence, lightness of being, passion for her profession can all be used to describe the character of Maddy Bowen, and Jennifer simply inhabits her role. “You find yourself a good man,” Danny tells her when they part. “I have three sisters. They are all married to good men. I like my life,” she answers. That, is obvious. That she has a commanding presence is obvious, too, even if her clothes have nothing to do with that. They are simple clothes, the kind every journalist in the field is wearing. Cargo trousers, plain t-shirts, chambray shirt, a navy tailored vest she wears over her khaki t-shirt (the most effortless take on masculine tailoring), a stack of bracelets, a metal necklace, a man’s watch. These are utilitarian items a reporter throws on without thinking about them because they are part of the job. But that is exactly where their appeal lies: in their sheer functionality, the well of so many timeless garments.

And it’s true that basic items can always find a place in one’s closet, whether you see them in a film or not. But it is Maddy’s attitude that draws most attention and added interest to her look and makes you want to make it part of your overall style. The minimalism of her wardrobe is something else to reflect on, and something to aim for in this society of consumerism that we are confronting with and which the film itself brings into our consciousness – the hellish reality of a country, Sierra Leone, that serves as source for the illegal diamond trade of the white-collar criminals in the Western world.

But that’s not the only reason her look is worth channelling. I read that Jennifer spent her days off while filming Blood Diamond, which was shot mostly in Mozambique, at a local orphanage. But unlike other celebrities, whose African humanitarian appearances make tabloid headlines, Connelly’s presence there didn’t get any press coverage. It was in fact director Edward Zwick who mentioned it in the Marie Claire interview. And that’s something else I want to channel: live life for yourself without constantly looking for the approval or admiration of others, do good without showing off. “Have more than you show. Speak less than you know.”
 

Jennifer Connelly in “Blood Diamond”, 2006
Warner Bros., Virtual Studios, Spring Creek Productions

 

Posted by classiq in Style in film | | Leave a comment