Clive Aslet

Sicily – notes from a large island

This isn't some Italian Isle of Wight. It's an ancient cultural treasure with enough variety in landscape for a continent

Sicily – notes from a large island
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Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Sicily is anything like the Isle of Wight: it’s 70 times the size, and mountainous. Despite some beautifully engineered roads, it always takes longer to get around than one expects. Even my Sicilian friend has to stop to ask the way. Autostrade are closed, bridges under repair. It doesn’t help that every other motorist drives as though he’s your enemy. Which, unless he comes from your village, he probably is.

Beautiful, fertile, sunny, with fabulous wine and cuisine — no island is so blessed by nature. Even the terrible communications, which meant that neighbouring communities couldn’t reach each other, have bestowed a legacy in the form of teeming variety. Each town has its traditions. ‘Sicily is a continent,’ say the farmers, who grow pistachios, capers, blood oranges, grapes and almonds, depending on their location.

If you only visit the province of Ragusa, whose stone walls and (in springtime) green fields could have come from the Cotswolds, you will have no idea of the weird, white landscape around Trapani, where they’ve been extracting salt from the sea since Roman times. Someone who has spent a holiday amid olive groves, or driven through the biscuit-coloured plains of summer, will be astonished to find that the Nebrodi national park remains as green as Switzerland. On the edge of it, incidentally, is Gangi, the Mafia stronghold which Mussolini’s Iron Prefect, Cesare Mori, besieged in 1928, crushing the organisation. (It came back, via America, after the second world war.) Gangi is rated as one of the most beautiful towns in Italy — although such is the difficulty of living here that the council recently put some ruined houses on the market at €1 each. It gets cold in the winter around here: there was a big industry in the 19th century supplying ice.

Sicily is an ancient place. That’s obvious from the Greek temples around the coast. Syracuse became so powerful in the late 5th century BC that it defeated Athens. The Roman mosaic pavements at Piazza Armerina showing wild animals and girl gymnasts are astonishing. The Byzantines came, then the Arabs. When the Normans arrived in the 11th century, it took them 30 years to winkle the last Arab soldiers out of fortresses built on top of sheer crags. But these Normans, unlike ours, were a decent lot, tolerant of other faiths. Who wouldn’t be? The kings kept harems, after all, andlc  Sicilian pasta is still scattered with (Arab) raisins and pine kernels.

The finest Byzantine masters were brought over to decorate Monreale and the Cappella Palatina at Palermo with mosaics. At Enna, a pagan cult of Ceres was celebrated until the 13th century — when the church simply transferred some of Ceres’ attributes to the Madonna della Visitazione, who is kept locked in a box (like Prosperine visiting the underworld) until harvest time.

Virgins are important in Sicily — Catania has Sant’Agata, whose amputated breasts are remembered in a type of cake. Her veil is supposed to be the one thing that can keep the lava of Mount Etna at bay. Even that didn’t stop Catania being destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. It was rebuilt, largely out of lava, by the Bourbons: it is black and Baroque. Thrilling.

Clive Aslet is editor at large of Country Life. His novel The Birdcage is published by Cumulus.