Zeus’ beautiful daughter Persephone was kidnapped and raped by Hades at Enna and Scylla devoured sailors in the Strait of Messina. ‘You’ll need extra insurance, of course,’ said the man at the car rental desk, ‘this is Sicily’. We insured ourselves to the hilt and headed for the mean streets of Palermo.
Palermo was an Arab caliphate until Roger II invaded and made it the Norman capital of the Kingdom of Sicily, which also included most of Southern Italy, for almost 600 years — the jewel in the Med’s crown. After a short dalliance with Naples and the Unification of Italy in 1860, it continued a long, slow decline, but has never forgotten its proud past. Grand, raw, self-assured and untamed, Palermo may be Italy’s most underrated city.
It’s not a particularly tourist-friendly place; there is no Foro Romano, the galleries aren’t bursting with Caravaggios, many of the grand palaces are barely held up by their scaffolding and the dusty air smells of concrete and cooking. We planned to drive across Sicily from West to East, then by ferry from Messina to Calabria and Southern Italy. A light-hearted idea by my fellow traveller, Helena, had somehow turned into a very real, and very wonderful, road-trip across an island that was to win our hearts.
We arrived hungry and tired, walked through the wrecked streets around the Vucceria and pounced on the first place we found — a stall with a rusty shutter and a few rickety plastic tables on the street. We ate grilled octopus with lemon, sardines, aubergine and courgettes in olive oil and fresh herbs while struggling to get a grip on the city layout with our Rough Guide to Sicily. The other tables were taken by locals, unhurried, chatting with the waiter and the occasional passer-by. It’s not for us tourists, it’s for them, and that’s what makes this place special; you won’t find this in Rome or Milan. A little three-wheeler carrying an unfeasibly large pile of fruit crates squeezed through the double-parked cars below the balconies festooned with rows of washing. We sat back and started to relax.
The crossroads of the Quattro Canti neatly divides Palermo into quarters or mandamenti. Taking the four seasons as its theme, each corner sports its own honey-coloured 17th century palazzo, complete with three tiers of Baroque statuary by Giulio Lasso. Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, the city’s two main streets, intersect here, so it’s a good place to get your bearings. Nearby, Fontana Pretoria is a fabulous 16th century confection of naked bodies and assorted exotic animals, sculpted by Francesco Carmilliani and subsequently shipped over to Sicily; it’s also nicknamed Piazza Vergogna (Square of Shame) and Piazza de la Nudi Pollo, though I didn’t particularly notice the chickens.
Piazza Bellini, just to the south of Quattro Canti, has two wonderful churches. Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, called La Matorana after the founder of the convent here, is an Arab-Norman stunner built in 1143 at the behest of George of Antioch (George’s title was Amir-al-Bahr, from which we get the word Admiral) and although partly altered in the 17th century, the upper walls have some of the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics I have ever seen. The church is now the centre for the Byzantine-Catholic branch of Albanian Greek Orthodoxy in Sicily. Chiesa di San Cataldo, with its three red domes and Saracen battlements, is literally next door, and the interior is every bit as beautiful in its unadorned glory, having been restored in the 19th century back to something like its original state.
A short walk westwards on via Vittorio Emanuele brings us to The Duomo, a massive structure built in 1184 by King William II on a mosque, itself remodelled from an earlier Christian basilica; it gained unwelcome Gothic additions in the 14th century and a finally a 19th century Neoclassical dressing. The outer walls have a row of passant guardant lions, later to become the heraldic emblem of the Norman Kings of England. Here lies buried Roger II, crowned King of Sicily in 1130 after a 70 year fight started by his father. Arab occupation had brought Sicily irrigation, political administration, and skilled workers, making it one of the richest parts of the Arab world and Europe’s most successful economy. Roger encouraged Islamic culture to flourish under Norman rule and Sicily enjoyed a brief but glittering period as the cultural melting pot of the Med. One of its finest monuments is just a little further along via Vittorio Emanuele. Built on successive Phoenician and Roman structures, the Palazzo Real (Palazzo dei Normanni) was an Arab building converted into a luxury palace and massively extended to become Roger’s administrative centre, and reputedly the home of his harem. Most of the original interior has been lost, but the fabulous Cappella Palatina remains, and the palace is now home to the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
Roger’s cook was an Arab, and, given Sicily’s convoluted history, it’s no surprise that our dinner menu was made up of the eclectic mix of Greek and Arab influences that is Sicilian cuisine. Legend has it that the Romans invented ice cream using the snow from Mount Etna, and the Arabs introduced Italy to pasta via Sicily. The seafood is wonderfully fresh and the local vegetables are almost obscenely delicious. Try an octopus salad with mint, or Pasta con le sarde (sardines, fennel, peppers and pine nuts) and see if you can find a nice bottle of Malvasia delle Lípari.
Just off Piazza San Domenico, Santandrea restaurant (Piazza Sant Andrea 4, 90133 Palermo, +39 091 334 999) is chic and serves wonderful food sourced fresh from Vucciria market on its doorstep.
Shanghai restaurant (Vicolo Mezzani 34, 90133 Palermo, +39 091 589 702) is also near Vucciria and is Sicilian, not Chinese.
Caffè Spinnato (via Principe di Belmonte 111) has won awards for serving the best coffee in Italy, and Italians are very picky about their coffee. Kursaal Kalhesa (Foro Umberto I No 21, 90133 Palermo) is a trendy bar, restaurant, wine shop and internet café in the shell of a palazzo, once given as a present from a prince to his lover. We stayed at the lovely bb 22 (Palazzo Pantelleria, largo Cavalieri di Malta 22, 90133 Palermo, +39 091 6111610), a chic bed-and-breakfast, run by the always-charming Rossana, with an ideal location in a tiny alley behind Basilica San Domenico, off via Roma.
Retracing our trip into Palermo, we drove past the airport and into the West. First stop, Erice, 800 metres up a small mountain of hairpin bends, and the mythical touchdown point for Daedalus after poor Icarus fell into the sea. Balanced atop is a perfect medieval town of cobbled streets and picture postcard scenes, plus the usual collection of souvenir shops and touristy restaurants. The 14th century Gothic Duomo is handsome, but the interior has been extensively remodelled over the ages. What really makes Erice worth the trip are the views. Climbing up the Duomo’s accompanying tower to gain a few more metres height, we were rewarded with a dazzling panorama of the coastal plain, from Marsala to San Vito lo Capo, as the sun flickered over the sea. Apparently you can see Tunisia on a really clear day, but that will have to wait for another visit; thick fog swept over the mountain as we beat a hasty retreat for lunch before the heavens opened. We weren’t fortunate with our choice of restaurant either, but I’m told that Ristorante Monte San Giuliano (vicolo San Rocco, Erice, +39 0923 869 595) is good.
Sicily isn’t big on signposts once you are off the main roads and the scrappy car park in the pretty valley at Segesta was the first indication that we had arrived near one of the most splendid examples of ancient Greek architecture in the Med. This 5th century BC Doric temple is dominated by 36 huge columns, which have outlasted the waves of occupying foreigners and some of the worst earthquakes in Europe. Except it seems that this probably wasn’t a temple and its creators probably weren’t Greek. It started to dawn on us that here in Sicily things are usually not as obvious as they at first appear, so we headed for the Golfo di Castellamare for some fresh air and the unspoilt enclave that makes up the Costa dello Zingaro. A through-road around the stunning North-West coast was planned to connect the little village of Scopello with San Vito lo Capo’s beautiful beach, but was defeated by environmentalists. On the coast in front of Scopello is a disused tuna factory set in a gorgeous bay which can be reached by a steep path to one side. For the more adventurous, the scuba diving centre opens during the summer and boasts the intact wreck of a WWII battleship, the Capua, amongst others.
We arrived at Cefalu late at night and stopped for something to eat before arriving even later at one of the most unusual hotels I have ever visited: Antonio Presti’s Atelier sul Mare at Castel di Tusa should not be thought of as a hotel, more a work of art that you can sleep in. Read more about it on Atelier sul Mare art hotel: Obsessive But Compulsive.
A dazzling, sun-soaked drive across the centre of Sicilian interior brought us to Siracusa and its island fortress, Ortygia, founded by the Greeks in 734 BC. Joined to the mainland by narrow bridges, its defences designed by Archimedes, Siracusa became the most powerful state in the region, rivalling Athens itself, and one of the last to resist Roman domination. Both Aeschylus and Plato performed at the huge theatre on the mainland hillside overlooking the harbour. Ortygia is a delight to explore and the bridges keep traffic to manageable levels; the Temple of Apollo greets your entry to the island and a short walk up the street to the right takes you via the Fontana di Diana to Piazza del Duomo, certainly one of Italy’s most impressive piazzas. The Duomo itself was constructed over the 5th century BC Temple of Athens, and the huge Doric columns of the Greek temple can still be seen embedded into the walls of the church. Continue forward to Fonte Aretusa, an ancient walled freshwater spring which is now the main staging point on the Ortigian passeggiata. Our passeggiata was cut short by the rain, so we found refuge at our hotel’s welcoming spa. The onehotel (via Diodoro Siculo 4, 96100 Siracusa, +39 0931 411 355, www.onehotel.it) is on the mainland but is fairly accessible. They cheerfully turned the steam back on and brought us tea and aromatherapy as we simmered gently, while the rest of Siracusa shivered.
Trattoria La Foglia (via Capodieci 29, Siracusa, +39 093 166 233).
Still enervated from onehotel’s spa and driving at night, we weren’t really prepared for Taormina. ‘Is that it up there?’ we both asked simultaneously. The satnav said, ‘Yes!’ and up we went. Since its beginnings as a bolt-hole for dissidents from nearby Naxos and also Siracusa, Taormina’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed, splendour alternating with decline. It’s currently enjoying a resurgence as both a tourist hot-spot during the summer and a discrete hideaway out of season. This was the capital of Byzantine Sicily, peeping down from the balcony of Mount Tauro, and Taormina has been a favourite ever since, provoking OTT comments from all and sundry, including Goethe who dubbed it, ‘The greatest work of art and nature.’ All we need to know is that both Dolce and Gabbana love it, and celebs like Antonio Banderas are regulars at the magnificent San Domenico Palace (Piazza San Domenico 5, 98039 Taormina, +39 0942 61 31 11, a staunchly traditional hotel blessed with both perfect pedigree and location; it was a Dominican monastery in the 14th century and has, in addition to several peaceful cloisters, a garden to die for, overlooked by Mount Etna and lit by flickering torches at night. If you can get up early, visit the Greek amphitheatre on the mountain a short walk north of the town: it’s a bit ordinary at the bottom, but climb to the very top for a sensational view of the coast and Etna.
Gambero Rosso (Via Naumachia 11; 011 39 0942 24863) for great seafood, La Giara (Vico La Floresta 1; 011 39 0942 23360) lively bar – after 11pm.
The Romans hero-worshipped the Greeks, and the Greeks left their fingerprints all over Sicily. As did the Romans, Arabs, and Norman — you get the picture. Goethe thought that Italy without Sicily was incomplete. Cato called it, ‘The breast at which the Roman people are fed’. Rick Stein said it was, ‘Like Italy, but more so’. Of course, it also gave us the mafia, but there are signs that things are slowly changing. You can now visit addiopizzo.org to find restaurants and hotels that don’t pay pizzo, or protection money, to the Sicilian mafia. Berlusconi’s re-election has revived the multi-billion euro bridge to join Messina with Reggio Calabria on the mainland; either a sign that Sicily is becoming very much part of mainstream Italy or a horribly expensive folly, depending on your point of view. Property prices are rising as more people discover its charms and the scaffolding sprouting all over Palermo’s crumbling buildings points to a new-found prosperity.
The extra car insurance pressed upon us wasn’t needed and, as we looked back at Messina from the ferry to Reggio, we thought of all the roads untraveled. We’d have to come back. Perhaps after Calabria… but that’s another story.
Words & Photos: © Ken Sparkes All Rights Reserved
First published in Spaces magazine, July 2008.
The Rough Guide to Sicily was good on background, culture, sightseeing and off the beaten track, as you might expect. Read Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: Travels in Sicily on a Vespa by Matthew Fort to get a foodie’s insight into the Sicilian psyche.