The day before we left for Sicily, there was an earthquake in south-east England. It measured 4.3 on the Richter scale, which, according to the US Geological Survey, can lead to "a noticeable shaking of indoor items and rattling noises." A local woman was admitted to hospital with neck pains.
The consequences were slightly more serious on January 11, 1693, when an earthquake flattened the town of Noto in southern Sicily. But out of the cataclysm that struck that day emerged a thing of extraordinary beauty. Within a week, an aristocratic architect, the Duke of Camastra, had been commissioned to rebuild the place and went on to produce one of the most beautiful baroque towns in the world.
It took nearly two hours to drive from Catania airport to our hotel just outside Noto - almost as long as it took to get out of the airport itself. It is not recorded which day of the week the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans and the rest chose to invade Sicily, but it probably wasn't Sunday. By the time the baggage handlers had unloaded their kit, the element of surprise would have been lost.
The journey south is not one that prepares you well for your destination. After a couple of dozen kilometers of Catania's ugly suburbs and Syracusa's zona industriale, we started to feel slightly uneasy. I hadn't put Sicily and industrialization together. Which is daft when you consider that Palermo is the fifth biggest city in Italy, and Catania the ninth. Big cities need concrete, and workers need factories. They also need cars. Which are driven by mad people. I had driven on the island before, so I knew what to expect: utter, unmitigated terror.
The article I had photocopied that was headlined "50 foodie things to do before you die" began to take on a rather literal meaning as I found myself stranded on a roundabout outside Catania, in the automobile equivalent of the Mexican standoff scene at the end of Reservoir Dogs.
Beyond Siracusa the traffic thinned, my heart rate slowed, and suddenly the countryside was all flowers and hills and we were in a different Sicily. The Antica Masseria Corte del Sole calls itself a hotel, but it's really a very posh agriturismo. It's a couple of kilometers outside Noto at the end of a dirt track, the turning to which is easy to miss (we missed it twice), and is surrounded by fields and orchards. The building is a meticulously restored 19th- century farmhouse - white stone walls, terracotta roof, tiled floors - with 24 rooms on two floors surrounding a central courtyard that would make a perfect setting for a shoot-out in a spaghetti western. An old mill and olive-pressing room has been turned into a bar, and the restaurant is a converted outhouse.
Our room was on the first floor, reached by an outside stone staircase lined with flowering jasmine in pots and bright red perlagoniums in window boxes. And, as we discovered the next morning, an extraordinary view across a nature reserve: the Vendicari, an 8km-long expanse of wild fields, lagoons and marshland stretching to the sea, dotted all the way with wild flowers. The wilderness beckoned, but we decided to head for Noto. It would be silly not to.
We entered the town from the east through the public garden, where the air was sweet, this time from rows of blossoming pittosporum. Then it was through the Porta Reale, built in 1838 as a sign of the town's allegiance to the Bourbons, and on to Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, named to formalize its new-found loyalty to the House of Savoy after the Bourbons left in a hurry a couple of decades later. The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia called Noto a "garden of stone, a city of gold, a theatrical city," and the drama begins with Vincenzo Sinatra's (creativity clearly ran in the family) church of San Francisco at the east end of Corso Vittorio Emmanuele and unfolds with a stunning sequence of ochre and honey-colored churches and palazzos that sway and swerve, concave then convex, light then shade, all the way to Rosario Gagliardi's Chiesa di San Domenico in the west. It may be the most thrilling street in Sicily. Along the way, the duomo, at the top of a grand staircase, is still closed, as it has been since the cupola collapsed in a thunderstorm in 1996, but the scaffolding is slowly (very slowly) coming down, and it's still a breath-stealing sight.