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.