I’ve been to Sicily four times now. Twice recently on tours with the most recent being just last month. The other two visits were more in the past and I’ll come back to them later.
The first that most people think of when you talk of Sicily is the Mafia and its culture and these have become bywords for corrupt societies and repressed communities. Just last week in the Guardian George Monbiot referred to a ‘Sicilian silence’ in an article about a climate of fear in the English countryside.
I’ll come back to the Mafia connection later but whether or not it’s an issue today Sicily is so much more and it surprises me that it doesn’t push its identity more. It’s surely got as much going for it as Catalonia and Scotland which are forever telling us that they deserve to be independent.
Let’s start with the facts. Sicily is the largest Mediterranean island and somewhat larger in area than Wales. It’s population is about 5 million which is similar to Scotland’s and a little smaller than that of Catalonia.
Although there are Sicilian dialects which include elements of French, Catalan and Spanish there’s no official Sicilian language to be kept alive through print and other media. In this respect it’s very much bought into being a part of Italy and of course Garibaldi’s Risorgimento started in the island so maybe it’s natural that it should not aspire to leave a country which it was instrumental in creating.
My two recent trips to Sicily have revealed an island defined by its location which has put it at the crossroads of Mediterranean history and given it a climate which supports a vibrant rural economy. And of course its location also puts it on the boundary between the African and European tectonic plates which gave it earthquakes and Mount Etna.
For me this means that Sicily is defined by its history, its natural environment and by Mount Etna. And OK, if you must, by its association with the Mafia.
To some extent Sicily’s history parallels the one which I’ve also seen in Puglia, down the south east cost of Italy, and Sardinia. First the Greeks, then the Phoenicians, then the Carthaginians, the mainland Italians, the Normans, the Spanish and the French. Not necessarily in that order but all with a presence and all leaving their mark.
There’s great visual evidence from the Greek temples at Selinunte and along the Valley of the Temples, the Roman mosaics at Piazza Armerina, through the Byzantine churches around Palermo and the baroque towns of the south. But although a timeline can be constructed it is blurred with Greek amphitheatres becoming Roman ones and churches combining Byzantine, Norman and Arabic styles with a nod to a simultaneous Jewish presence. Although it has a history of wars with some undoubted persecution there was also, apparently, tolerance and co-existence.
Some of what you see is pretty jaw dropping stuff and I’d recommend at a minimum that visitors take a look at the original Greek settled island of Ortygia at Syracuse, the mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale, the Byzantine Palatine Chapel in Palermo and the baroque town of Noto. If you do visit Noto you’re close to the heart of Montebalno territory so you can swan around the relevant TV sets at the same time!
On an earlier, less culturally rich visit to the island in the late 70s we visited the mosaics at Piazza Armerina. I don’t recall them being as extensive as they are now but we still managed to lose our son. We found him shortly perched on a rock with a sketch book. He was just about 6 at the time and we marked him down then as a potential historian.
Probably the big attraction of the island to invaders was its agriculture. It was a granary that supplied the Spanish voyages of discovery to South America. You don’t see much grain any more but you do see olives and oranges, artichokes and eggplants, and vineyards. You also, sadly, see poly tunnels which dominate parts of the landscape of the south coast.
There’s also the sea of course and the abundance of fish and sea food and at the same time the right condition for salt extraction. It all adds up to an island with abundant raw materials with which to feed itself and its visitors.
Agriculture isn’t just about growing stuff to eat though. It’s about what just grows and last month we saw Sicily’s wild flowers. Carpets of yellow brock daisies, wild fennel and thistle, red poppies and russet Sulla fuchsias.
Mount Etna is something else. If you’re lucky, and with Sicily’s climate you generally are, you get a good view of it and on a fine day its seems pretty benign. You’re told that it’s a little chilly and maybe windy when you get close to the top. It does. It’s wild and the landscape is alien. It takes the breathe away and it’s an iconic element of Sicilian life. Our guide last month said that when she lived in Milan she didn’t miss the weather so much, she missed the sight of Mount Etna.
It’s not just the sight of Mount Etna though it’s the impact which it’s had on the island as its eruptions have laid waste to substantial communities. In Catania the impressive rectilinear street plan with its long straight streets and splendid squares, and its black and white buildings are all the result of rebuilding following the 1693 eruption.
So finally the Mafia. You’ve got to believe that the worst is behind us with the assassinations and trials and imprisonments of the 1990s but you can’t be sure. Certainly as a visitor I sensed nothing but I remember my first visit to Sicily in about 1985 when I visited a customer called Gattocel which made wallpaper paste. It still does and appears to be thriving with a factory close to Palermo
I met the owner Sr Della Gatta and his two very muscular sons. I worked for an American company at the time and he asked if I could help him to export his product to the US. I wondered how this could be worth doing but he told me ‘we have good contacts in Chicago’. Given that wallpaper paste is a white powder I can’t imagine what US customs would have made of it being imported from Sicily. I’m sure it was all perfectly legit but can’t help but think it would be a good plot in a subsequent Godfather movie.
Sicily is a wonderful place to visit. So rich in history and as a consequence of its geography. Join the Godfather tourist trail if you must but don’t let that be all that you do. There’s so much more besides. But give yourselves enough time and enjoy it.