Last Tango in Pisa

Sunday night in this opulent 18th century hotel that once belonged to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. I am here to review the spa. Massage is fine but mud wraps, salt scrubs etc make me anxious. Who has to clean this place once I have wafted off in my towelling robe and slippers? I always seem to find the draft, or get landed with the invasive piped music; I lie on the table fretting about the working conditions of the sweet spa girls. After pounding, pummelling and stroking all these strangers' bodies, do they have to sluice the place down?

I stub my toe in  the jacuzzi. It throbs, turns black and seems about to drop off which is a shame because on Sunday night in this hotel that once belonged to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, there is a Tango Evening in the ballroom. When was the last time any of us were in a hotel where the ballroom was used for dancing? The locals wander in - a few couples but most of them singles, of all ages and in their best clothes. They pay a few Euros to a woman who sits at the door and wander in. I wander with them and for the first time in my life, get to participate in that early 20th century ritual of standing on the edge of a dance floor, waiting for someone to ask me to dance. This is Italy - no dancing round your handbag or with your best friend. Men and woman strut solemnly  round the floor together while the piped  tango music plays.  

Bagni di Pisa's thermal waters were once visited by the Shelleys and Byron but the ballroom is more of  a scene from a Fellini film - not that the dancers are grotesque. They are optimistic and proud and valiant in their dedication to learning the steps that carry them across the floor. I, who grew up with the solo wrigglings of Mick Jagger, as my only model, watch them with envy for the romance that has never been mine.

Baroque and Chocolate

They make a strange sort of chocolate in Modica - not smooth and unctuous - the sugar granules are not smoothed out so it tends to trip the tongue up as opposed to rolling off it. But once you get used to that it's delicious - dark, dark and comes in orange, lemon and hot chilli flavours. On a sunny Sunday morning in early March, I'm sampling chocolate in a shop on Modica's main street.

Modica's main street was once a river. Two rivers met in the heart of the city - the town was called a little Venice. A great flood soon took the romance out of that notion and the good burghers of Modica decided to pave over the rivers in a massive engineering feat. So as I walk along the bustling Sunday morning-after church street, I'm walking over an enclosed river.

Modica, like the rest of the Noto Valley had already encountered natural disaster. The 1693 earthquake had destroyed most of the towns in the region. But it also resulted in their being rebuilt in the glorious romantic new Baroque style. Along with Ragusa and Noto, Modica is a wonderful little town in which to explore this extravagant, slightly delirious, building style.
Look out for the 'mascherone' or gargoyles that populate balconies and rooftops.

The countryside around these towns is surprising - drystone walls and kelly-green fields would have you believe for a moment that you have arrived in an Italian version of Yorkshire. Unlike many parts of Sicily, the beaches here are the real thing- long stretches of sand lapped by a turquoise blue sea. One almost science-fiction aspect of the landscape is the ubiquitous greenhouse. Or rather hundreds and hundreds of them. Agriculture is in sharp competition with tourism as an industry down here. For the time being agriculture, all the tomatoes, zucchini and oranges that grow here and head for our Northern European tables, has the upper hand.