Travel Writings


Sicily, known as ‘the crossroads’ of the ancient Magna Graecia world, due to its geographical location smack bang in the middle of the Mediterranean, right at the toe of Italy, is an island roughly one third the size of Ireland, but with a population, at just over 5 million, of only a million less than ourselves. We spent two weeks there at the tail end of our second consecutive non-existent, wet ‘summer’, mostly just to heat up the bones and replenish the fraying energy cylinders with a much-needed dose of sunshine. So this will not be a story of tiring treks into the interior, but of lazing by the pool and frolicking on the beach. But although based in a fairly typical seaside resort, we did manage a couple of interesting day trips. However, I was left with the perhaps inevitable feeling that there was a lot we didn’t get to see.
Having visited every other region of Italy at some point, and mindful of Goethe’s exhortation, after his six week soujourn there in 1787, that, ‘To have seen Italy without seeing Sicily is not having seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the key to everything’, it was easily decided that it was high time this last domino fell. That way we could combine the best of both worlds, getting to venture outside our comfort zone to somewhere new, but in a country we nearly always go back to because we feel comfortable there. Besides, I was fascinated by what I’d heard about the rich cultural and ethnic mix, a hybridised heritage which is the result of the island’s many invaders. They came because Sicily has been considered a crucial strategic location due its importance for Mediterranean trade routes, but they stayed because Sicilian soil was very fertile, and the introduction of olives and grape vines flourished, creating a great deal of profitable trading. The trouble is, because of its very personal, complicated history, lending it an idiosyncratic independence you don't come across further north, familiarity with the Italian mainland isn't always of much use when trying to get a handle on Sicily.
Apart from the ancient tribes who were the earliest inhabitants, the Greeks began their colonisation around 750 BC. The crowning glory of their governance was Siracusa, described by Cicero as the greatest and most beautiful city of all Ancient Greece. They also left their mark with the many temples built across the island, the most famous being the complex at the Valley of the Temples, near Agrigento. By 242 BC Sicily had become the first Roman province outside of the Italian Peninsula, a rule which lasted for around 700 years.
As the Roman Empire fell apart, Vandals and Ostrogoths took over, followed by Byzantines. Arabs of various hues controlled the island from the 8th to the 11th centuries, giving way to the Norman era, which spawned brilliant artistic achievements, like the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalu. Sicily’s fate then became bound up as a bargaining chip in greater European dynastic feuding and wars, with periods of German, French, Austrian and even English occupation. The Sicilian Baroque of the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in the palaces and churches of Palermo, reflecting the elaborate ritual of the Spanish Viceregal court, tending towards extravagant display. At Noto, Ragusa, Modica, Siracusa and Catania the buildings are a useful vehicle for Sicilians’ love of ornamentation, itself a remnant form the island’s early fling with the Arab world. The style is an expression of the nature of Sicilians, whose sense of pomp and pageantry is both magnificent and extreme.
After the Expedition of the Thousand led by Garibaldi, whose conquest of the peninsula actually started at the western Sicilian town of Marsala, Sicily joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1860 as part of the risorgimento. This period of unification, and the death throes of the island’s feudal nobility, are brilliantly evoked in one of the finest novels of the last century, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard, published in 1958. The paradox proffered by Tancredi, Don Fabrizio’s (aka The Prince) favourite nephew, “If we want things to stay as they are, they will have to change”, can be read as an ironic comment on the entire history of the island.










Sicily is a curiosity, and the legacy of the past is redolent everywhere. The fact that it is an island has intensified the cultural impact of each successive occupier. They say that today there is less Italian blood in Sicilian veins than there is Phoenician, Greek, Arabic, Norman, Spanish or French. The resulting mixture – exotic, spicy and highly inflammable – has created what is almost a separate nation at the foot of Italy.
We fetched up in Giardini Naxos, on the east coast between Messina to the north and Catania further south, notable as the site of the first Greek colony in Sicily. Prior to the 1970s Giardini was a quiet fishing village. Today it put me in mind of ‘Bray with sun’, full of terrible tourist tack, the generic ‘seaside town they forgot to close down’ of Morrissey’s ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’. In my many trips to Italy, it is the first time a waitress tried to short change me in a bar.
Fortunately our hotel, the Hotel Villa Daphne, was superb, probably the best small hotel I’ve ever stayed in. Really a boutique affair, it is a 21 room, family run business, presided over by the quiet yet authoritative proprietor Tano, whose daily presence insures nothing is let slip. We were sceptical about having to book half-board, since sampling different restaurants is part of the fun of holidaying, not to mention the fact that hotel kitchens do not enjoy the best of reputations, catering as they do for a largely captive audience. But every one of our evening dinners on the enchanting terrace was a delight, the highlight of the week being Thursday’s Sicilian night.
Nominally a three star establishment, it is really at least a four star, Tano explaining that if it was he would have to pay more tax and charge higher prices, and so might not have the same volume of occupancy. But this is still not the kind of place where you’re going to encounter the fights by the pool about who baggsed the loungers with their towels that one associates with the larger chain groups. Nor is Giardini itself all that bad. Beautiful, un-tacky ceramics are to be had in Terra e Fuoco on Via Naxos (run by Tano’s cousin, of course), while the sandy beaches and clear sea are a must, although you would be better off going to one of the well-tended lidos (€10 a day, complimentary pass provided by hotel on first day) rather than the littered public areas (well, it had been a long high season). Don’t hesitate either to get a salutary back-rub from one of the Chinese girls offering them: they know what they’re doing. The town also has the rarely visited Archaeological Gardens and Museum. But with service from the gorgeous Carmen (Tano’s sister) on Reception, and the genial Head Waiter Salvatore, it was tempting to just stay by the pool and never go out.
We chose Giardini Naxos to be beside the sea, but in many ways it is the poor relation of its more famous neighbour on the hill, Taormina, for which it serves as a port. Indeed, the unending stream of day-trippers off the cruise ships, similar to what happens in other quaint Med towns like Capri or Corfu, is one of the more annoying features of time spent in Taormina. But long before it reinvented itself as a honey trap for tourists (halfway up a mountain, you are obliged to pay cartel prices unless you feel like a dander down to the coast) it was a real place, and its churches still sit defiantly among the frenzied commerce that goes on around them. The place is at its best in the evening, when it is a pleasure to stroll in its narrow medieval streets. The third century BC Greek amphitheatre is also a must, with its inspiring views of Mount Etna and the sea below. It still hosts concerts all summer long, against a backdrop of Etna’s glowing embers. It is also worth ascending even further, along fiendishly twisting and winding roads, to the charming if isolated hilltop village of Castlemola. Bus drivers regularly garner a round of applause from relieved passengers on safe arrival. Or you could always take your chances on a moped, if you’re that kind of daredevil.
Sicilians are often portrayed as intensely proud of their island, and its separate identity and culture, and it is not uncommon for people to describe themselves as Sicilian before the more national description of Italian. Despite the existence of major cities like Palermo, Catania, Messina and Siracusa, popular stereotypes of Sicilians commonly allude to ruralism. For example, the antiquated article of headgear known as the coppola – one of the chief symbols of Sicily – is derived from the flat cap of ‘rough-up-north’ rural England, and arrived in Sicily in 1800 when Bourbon king Ferdinand I fled to Sicily and was protected by the British Navy. You could sample some of this rustic flavor on the Godfather tour into remote countryside, or by visiting the Aeolian Islands off the Tyrrhenian coast. Our day trips were to see the Baroque splendours of the immaculately well-kept Siracusa, which also included the spectacular Teatro Greco and Teatro Romano in the Parco Archeologigo in the Neapolis quarter; and, of course, to Etna, the Europe’s highest active volcano, thought by the ancients to be the forge of Vulcan, God of fire. On the way back we basked in the sun in the scenic Alcantara Gorge, by the Alcantara River, north of Etna near Taormina. This beautiful rock formation, composed of basalt, was created by volcanic activity.
I must go back and see the rest of Sicily sometime.

Getting there: Sunway (01-2886828; operates a weekly charter service from Dublin to Catania from May until September. Ryanair fly to Trapani, on the north coast, in June and July. Otherwise, connect with an internal Alitalia flight at a major city.

Commissioned for Magill magazine.









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