Bella Sicilia – more than Inspector Montalbano
I have had Sicily on my list of places to go to for quite some time so it’s been of those special trips, this summer, to get the chance of going there. My wife, Catherine was less keen, but Saturday evenings watching Inspector Montalbano, with all those shots of the Sicilian coast and leisurely lunches, have helped win her round.
It didn’t disappoint.
Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean and is bigger than Wales. While, at the closest point, only a few miles away from the Italian mainland, it is very much its own place with a distinctive and often sad history.
To add to the sense of adventure we decided to go the long way – by train. This involves an overnight sleeper from Rome which they actually put on the ferry to cross the Straits of Messina. As a result, our first sight of the island was as we pulled out of Messina on our journey down the Ionian coast to Catania. There is something always so captivating for a northern European in seeing the Mediterranean and it is particularly so seeing it from the top bunk of sleeper.
We were staying just outside Acireale, a town about 15 miles north of Catania and on the slopes of Mount Etna. While Etna is a less malevolent neighbour than Vesuvius, nonetheless Sicily has suffered a lot, over the years, from the consequences of seismic activity which has destroyed a number of its cities. However Etna has also brought some benefits and its fertile slopes support acres of lemon trees, whose fruit were just reaching ripeness while we were there. Etna brooding summit was equated with the single eye of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who was tricked by Odysseus in the Odyssey. A couple of miles down the coast at the town of Aci Trezze, a strange set of volcanic rocks in the sea are known as the “scogli dei Ciclopi”, the rocks of the Cyclops (in the picture) and represent the rocks supposedly thrown blindly by Polyphemus after the fleeing Odysseus.
The Sicilian coast is stunning and inviting. Brought up with summer holidays on the North Wales coast, I have always had an ambivalent attitude to swimming in the sea but I probably swum more in a fortnight in Sicily than I have in the last 30 years. And afterwards there are restaurants like they show in Inspector Montalbano, ones where you chose your fish, at the start of the meal, out of the catch of the day and which you can you enjoy half an hour later, beautifully fried, with a lovely glass of Sicilian white wine.
It was, however, the history which brought me to Sicily so that’s what I should move on to. This is the place that’s been held by virtually everyone but at the same time never totally belonged to any of them. The Greeks were the first to bring Sicily under their wings and the island was a major point for Greek colonisation in the West. Cities such as Syracuse and Agrigento were major hubs of Greek political power and culture and have left a stunning architectural legacy, still very much visible today. For a while the Greeks had to fight successfully with the Carthaginians for control of the island but it was the Romans who were the eventually the winners and who incorporated Sicily into their empire by the end of the second century BC. The Romans built on the civic legacy established by the Greeks, rebuilding temples and theatres and leaving their own mark, for instance in the stunning mosaics of the imperial villa at Villa del Casale.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire saw brief incursions by the barbarian Vandals, the return of the Byzantine Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire and by the middle of the 9th century by the Arabs. The survival of many ancient treasures such as the wonderful temple of Agrigento is often a product of their reuse as churches and mosques, a sign of a wider tendency in Sicilian history to look to respect rather than destroy the past.
The Arabs in their turn were superseded by the Normans, who spread to their acquisitive wings to other shores besides ours but who proved cultured and respectful rulers of the island, showing tolerance, in particular to their Muslim predecessors and making Sicily for a while the meeting place of eastern and western cultures in the Mediterranean. Normans in their turn were replaced by the Spanish although the island continued to be fought over intensely by the French and Austrians to name but a few. Finally the celebrated actions of Garabaldi and the Thousand in 1860 led to the overthrow of the Bourbon Kings of Naples and the Two Scillies and the incorporation of Sicily into the newly unified nation of Italy.
One of the more sinister associations of Sicily is of course, with the Mafia. Not necessarily visible to the naked eye of the tourist, the Mafia remain a major force on the Island. The first named reference to the Mafiosi dates to just after Italian reunification but the tradition of banditry on the island is much older, reflecting its troubled history and the unwillingness of the aristocracy to recognise central and foreign authority. As elsewhere long periods of weak Government and lawlessness leave a vacuum which is easily filled and which once established are difficult to eradicate. Mussolini tried and failed.
For all its beautiful landscapes and fantastic cultural legacy Sicily has a harsher side. There is much poverty and very visibly the island is in the forefront of dealing with the consequences of large scale migration from North Africa. In Sicily the ugly and beautiful can sit cheek by jowl and the most stunning views and the most elegant of buildings can be juxtaposed with ugly half-finished apartment blocks.
Sicilians, apart, perhaps, from when they are on the road, are down to earth and welcoming. It is very much, though, a place apart. As the garage attendant who I chatted with briefly about national idemntity said with feeling “Io non sono italiano, io sono siciliano” – “I’m no Italian, I am Sicilian”. However given the complex history of the island one might be tempted to ask and what exactly does that mean. I can’t wait to go back to find out more.