Monday, 7 March 2016

Arrividerci Sicilia - a few final reflections.

We've been in Sicily for 48 days. Little wonder we felt that returning to the Italian mainland today was a bit like crossing back to a different country, because Sicily does feel different, certainly as different, for example as England compared to Scotland or Wales. 

Intellectually, I understood that Sicily was the biggest island in the Mediterranean, but until we explored it I did not really appreciate what that meant. Analogies can help, such as the island is roughly the same size as Wales, it has a mountainous interior and a few major cities and a significant industrial heritage. However comparisons can mislead too. Palermo has double the population of Cardiff, and overall, there are twice as many Sicilians as Welsh. Even the most enthusiastic supporter of Plaid Cymru would struggle to assert that the Principality has been at the epicentre of European civilisation for at least 2500 years. Furthermore, as beautiful as Snowdon looks from the Menai Straits, its snow-capped peak rising to 3525ft. is somewhat dwarfed by Etna, which towers 11,037ft. over the Straits of Messina. I suppose the real point of this somewhat spurious comparison is that like like Wales within the UK, perhaps the best way to understand Sicily is to regard it as a small nation couched within Italy, politically dependent but culturally autonomous.

Discovering Sicily is to become enmeshed in contradictions, it is not a straightforward place to be in. It was not quite what I expected. To begin with, it's more densely populated than I anticipated, more so than neighbouring parts of the mainland. The coastal stretch from Messina to Catania is really a semi-urbanised sprawl with a surprising amount of industry, some working, but lots defunct. In the south, provincial towns such as Ragusa, Agrigento Gela and Sciacca turn out to be sizable places and they too have outskirts that are grim, alternating between retail tat, half ruined industrial wasteland and acres of utilitarian apartment blocks. As in much of Southern Italy, crumbling concrete prevails. Litter strewn verges and overflowing skips do little to alleviate what at times can seem a disconsolate and desolate landscape. Yet there is real beauty and a vibrant culture couched within the desolation. Sicily has among the most exquisite Baroque architecture anywhere; it also contains hidden gems. Agrigento and Marsala have interesting buildings from the 1920s and 30s, overlooked possibly because of their association with the era of Il Ducio.

However, there is more to Sicilian towns than interesting architecture. They have a vivacious street life. Outside spaces are social places, somewhere to gather, chat and pass the time of day.  You will never be very far from somewhere to have a lovely coffee and delicious cakes or gelati. Lunch is inexpensive and the local food based on fresh ingredients may be simple, but it is subtly seasoned and skilfully cooked.

Wandering around the open air market in Palermo or Syracuse the reason why this food culture developed becomes obvious. The local produce is superb. The island has a varied climate, ranging from almost sub-tropical in the far south to temperate in the mountain valleys and uplands. Consequently it grows everything from spuds to bananas. Menus reflect what is in season or the catch of the day. Fresh herbs abound, and everywhere we stayed sold virgin olive oil grown by an uncle or a cousin. It's as far away from a Waitrose exotic vegetable aisle as you can imagine. 

Recent years have seen great strides forward in the quality of local wine, many using grape varieties unique to the island. The only one that escapes its shores in any quantity to grace the shelves of Tesco is Nero d'Avolo, but there are many others: reds like Nerello Mascalese or Frappato; whites like Grillo from Marsala, or Insolia. We never sampled one that disappointed and we never paid much over 4 euros for a bottle. Something I learned about ancient Sicily as we wandered through its many archaeological sites - it was famous as a centre of the cult of Demeter, goddess of fertility and the harvest. One senses the island has been a cornucopia for millennia.

Just as the cities and towns are a striking mixture of the tawdry and the beautiful, so the landscape presents contradictions, wild in some places, worked intensively in others. The southeast corner in particular is a sea of plasticulture dedicated to producing the world's sweetest cherry tomatoes and aubergines the size of rugby balls. The countryside around Trapani and Marsala is no less intensively worked, but not on an industrial scale. Small-holdings of vines, olives, nut-trees and vegetables create a landscape of small square fields defined by mud-brick walls. The flat-roofed cubic houses, each beneath a clutch of tall palms, give the region a North African appearance, reminding us that occasionally the mountains of Tunisia are visible from the nearby peak of Erice which rises high above the coastal plain.

Above all else, Sicily is a lived-in landscape, its beauty is workaday, and the remnants of ancestral habitation co-exists with the present. Some ruins are ancient - Valli di Templi, Selnunte, Segasta - these have been granted world heritage status. Some ruins are more recent, abandoned quarries, roofless post-war factories like the gaunt ironwork of the old cement factory at Finale. These are dismissed as eyesores. Others float in-between in a kind of heritage purgatory. Like the old 'tonnara' at Capo S Vito or Vendicari. These may be abandoned industrial buildings, but already the brown tourist signs point to them from the main road. Some kind of cultural apotheosis is being bestowed upon them - a process of historical beatification.

The cultural geographer, Tim Ingold talks of 'taskscapes' rather than landscapes, seeing in the human habitat not somewhere that is simply dwelt within, but a place of making and remaking, of construction and decay across generations. My over-riding impression of Sicily is of a rich and complex taskscape, moulded by past generations, but reinvented by a vibrant living culture today. This is refreshing and life affirming. So much of our contemporary sense of culture asserts virtuality, an outcome of re-branding, a creation of likes and re-tweets, ephemeral, facile - a chimera of insubstantial pixels. Above all, what is splendid about being in Sicily is it feels palpable, immediate and energetic. It exudes a quality that is deeply unfashionable and regarded these days as somewhat culturally suspect - it has authenticity, and we loved it.


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