Sicily has a long and fascinating history. From the ancient Greeks to the Habsburgs, empires have been drawn to the island for its strategic location. It is small wonder then that it is home to seven of Italy’s 58 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of these is in reality a cluster of nine sites in the north and west of the island – including churches, palazzi, castles and even a bridge – dating to the period of Norman rule during the 12th century. The result of the Normans’ policy of toleration towards the native Greek and Arab populations resulted in a distinctive hybrid Latin-Greek-Arab culture whose legacy lives on in its architecture. One of the finest expressions of this is the cathedral of Cefalù, a Romanesque building whose interior makes use of features of Muslim architecture. Most stunning of all is the colossal mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the eastern apse. Designed and constructed by Greek artists it is a piece of pure Byzantium in Sicily, and the equal of anything of its kind. It is possible to stand for hours revelling in the sumptuous use of colour, the boldness of its design and the intricacy of its execution. For me it is, quite simply, one of the most extraordinary pieces of ecclesiastical art in Europe – if not the world.
Not unusually for an island, Sicily is a great place for seafood. This might sound like an obvious thing to say but the reason it made an impression on me is that I used to be something of a seafood sceptic. I decided to make the most of my time on Sicily and expand my culinary horizons, and in the capable and expert hands of my companions I am happy to say that I became a zealous convert. From sardine meatballs and salmon ravioli to whitebait and calamari, by the end of my time away I had tasted the delights of monkfish roe, squid ink pasta, octopus and even raw prawns.
La Testa di Moro
One of the things I love about travelling is how you discover a place in unusual and unexpected ways. You can tell a lot about a people by the stories they choose to tell about themselves. Being a target for foreign invaders for thousands of years, Sicily has a past rich in diversity but tempered by extreme violence. Nowhere is this synthesis more evident than in the tradition of La Testa di Moro. These ceramic pot plants, shaped in the head of an Arab man and Sicilian woman, are ubiquitous. From the ostentatious to the outrageous we encountered them everywhere we went on the island – from hotel lobbies, restaurants and village piazze to apartment balconies and windowsills. Plucking up the courage to ask one of our hoteliers they explained that the tradition was inspired by a legend dating from the time of Arab rule in the 11th century. An Arab prince fell in love with a beautiful native Sicilian woman and seduced her but, after confessing to her that he was in fact already married, the woman took her revenge by deciding to cut off his head and use the offending skull to grow basil in. Another version of the legend omits the wife. Instead the two were forced to keep their love secret. When they were discovered the woman’s family, ashamed of their love, killed the lovers and displayed their heads on the balcony of their home. The romantic in me likes to hope the latter is true, though whichever legend you believe it is a fascinating insight into the complex and uneasy history of the island and its people.
Ferry to Favignana
It might seem an odd choice to include, but the ferry from Sicily to the small island of Favignana was a real highlight. Perhaps I should clarify by saying that I don’t necessarily mean the actual journey, which is pleasant enough, but more the nature of the travel itself. For me travel is an essential part of the holiday experience and any opportunity to use different modes of transport, especially public transport, all adds to the sense of adventure. The night before our trip to Favignana, which lies just off Sicily’s west coast, we stayed in the hill-top town of Erice. Erice is perched on a rocky outcrop high above the coastal plain and from here we could look down on the port of Trapani, our departure point, and out to Favignana – it was exciting to plot our journey on the landscape itself like some giant real-life map. The following day we made our way into Trapani where we took a short wander through its ancient streets and bought lunch for the boat ride. Queuing at the dockside was a very relaxed affair; the vast majority of passengers were locals who make this journey every day and few people were burdened by suitcases. When in Trapani do as the Trapanese do and it was a pleasure just to sit aboard the hydrofoil as it glided out of the harbor, eating our sandwiches and enjoying the view as the mainland shrank to the horizon.
As a traveller you experience Sicily through the mouth and the nose as well as the eyes. One of the things that struck me when reading accounts of veterans who fought here during the Second World War was how much the smells of the island lingered in their reminiscences – the citrus trees, the wild herbs and the olive groves. One of my most lasting memories came on my first morning on the island. Only hours after landing in Catania, and having been given a tour around the lovely Il Principe Hotel, our host, observing that we were flagging (the result of an early flight), graciously offered us a drink in the bar. Naturally, it was espressi all round, but would we like a glass of almond milk to accompany it? We were assured that it was a typical Sicilian drink. Almonds themselves were introduced by the Arabs in the medieval period and given the climate of Sicily, it was a preferable alternative as it did not spoil as easily as cow’s milk. It was also permitted by the church as an acceptable alternative during periods of religious fasting. It is one of the most incredible things I have ever tasted, just like liquid marzipan. Having a particularly sweet tooth I couldn’t quite believe that I had never tried it before. Now I always keep a carton of almond milk to satisfy my craving for something sweet. And with each taste I am transported back to that first morning on Sicily.