Sicily: an island apart

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Palermo's Ballaro market
Palermo's Ballaro market

How do you explain Sicily, that sunbaked, three-cornered island just a stab-kick off the toe of Italy?

The German writer Goethe tried in 1787. “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all,” he wrote, “for Sicily is the clue to everything.”

But a Sicilian friend put it best. Sicily may be of Italy, he explained, but Sicily is not Italy.

“Sicily is Sicily.”

And there’s the perfect tourism slogan. Sicily is Sicily: a place, a people and a feeling not quite like any other. Like its food, it is a melange; like its art, it is a mosaic. Like its people, perhaps, it is a mystery.

It sits at the middle of the Mediterranean, as close to Africa as to Rome, and so has been desired and fought over for all its history.

Teatro Massimo in Verdi Square
Teatro Massimo in Verdi Square

Island of treasures

It has suffered 13 foreign dominations – including Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spanish. As Vincent Cronin put it, in The Golden Honeycomb, Sicily is an “island out of time… a beach on which the tides of successive civilisations have heaped in disorder their assorted treasure”.

For mine, the unique hybridisation that resulted – in art, architecture, cuisine, temperament and even landscape – is what makes Sicily so special to visit. (Notwithstanding what Shakespeare celebrated as “the climate delicate, the air most sweet” or the limpid sky and brilliant sea.)

There is art and architecture from all eras, from near-perfect Greek temples to ornate Baroque churches. More often, like the Sicilian people, it is an amalgam: the wondrous cathedral in Syracuse is built around the 480 BC temple of Athena, whose Doric columns still stand at its centre. The Byzantines turned it into a church, the Arabs into a mosque and the Normans back again.

Sicilian food tells a similar story. The Greeks brought olives, grapes and pomegranates; the Romans wheat and barley; and the Arabs contributed the bright elements that make Sicilian food so different from the rest of Italy: citrus, eggplants, nuts, dates, sugar cane and sorbet; the Spanish, tomatoes, chocolate and peppers. The seafood was always there.

A perfect mashup, pasta con le sarde
A perfect mashup, pasta con le sarde

The perfect mashups

And so you eat the perfect mashups: pasta con le sarde – tossed with fresh sardines, wild fennel, saffron, raisins and pine nuts, or for the most decadent breakfast, a fresh brioche stuffed with gelato.

Start in Palermo, the capital and largest and most vibrant city. When I first visited, about 25 years ago, I took a late-afternoon “shortcut” through a run-down neighbourhood and was greeted with sullen stares as rubbish fires smouldered on broken footpaths.

It was just after the worst Mafia atrocities, the murders of the judges Borsellino and Falcone, and a decade since the end of the Sack of Palermo, when the Cosa Nostra and corrupt politicians hollowed out the historical centre of the city, allowing palazzos and villas to crumble, asphalting parks and forcing the inhabitants into shoddy apartment blocks in soulless suburbs.

But the Palermitans fought back. Today the Cosa Nostra is in decline (though nowhere near extinct), Palermo has been named the Italian culture capital 2018; and UNESCO has nominated the resurgent centre as a world heritage site.

The beach village of Cefalu
The beach village of Cefalu

Promenade in the passeggiata

So each evening, join the smiling people in the passeggiata along Via Maqueda from Piazza Bellini to the Teatro Massimo, the magnificent opera house, spilling out of drinking spots like Monkey on Piazza Sant’Anna or the chic L’Acanto Blu, or having loud, late dinners of involtini di spatola (stuffed rolls of scabbard fish) at fine restaurants such as Osteria dei Vespri.

In the morning, haunt the bustling, vibrant Ballaro market; climb to the roof of the cathedral, marvel at the extraordinary cycle of mosaics in the Arab-Norman Cappella Palatina, rest beneath the giant fig trees in Piazza Marina, and have a lunch of Palermitan street food (I tried the pane ca meusa – boiled spleen in a roll – so you don’t have to.)

Take a day trip to Cefalu, a shining beach village whose 12th-century cathedral houses the Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, considered by many the greatest portrait of Jesus in Christian art.

Salt marshes and windmills
Salt marshes and windmills

Taste of North Africa

Or grab a car and head west to the port city of Trapani, windmills dotting its salt marshes, and a taste of North Africa in its couscous served with rich fish broth. Drive the precipitous climb – with more hairpins than an ancient aunty – to mist-shrouded Erice. At Segeste, in a fold of hills off the motorway, a superb Greek temple sits among wild flowers.

To the south, in the Valley of the Temples below Agrigento, you might find folk dancers beneath the Temple of Concord. Inland, past towns whose names sing on the tongue – Caltanissetta, Calascibetta, Racalmuto – is the mountain town of Enna, highest provincial capital in Italy, fought over for millennia.

Equally spectacular is Ragusa Ibla, jutting out on its promontory, and Modica, climbing one side of a steep valley (and renowned for its chocolate). Noto, the most pristine Baroque town in Italy, was rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1693 – and is as renowned for its gelati. Try the chocolate spiked with mandarin.

The island of Ortygia at Syracuse is the perfect place to wind back and soak Sicily in. Taormina is a spectacular taste of the European high life. And towering over it all is Etna – fire and snow – “a huge house cat that purrs quietly and awakens every so often”, said the author Leonardo Sciascia.

Just go. To pinch a Sicilian proverb: Unni mancianu dui, mancianu tri – There’s always room for one more.

Written by Gary Tippet
June 21, 2017

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