Text and production Martina Hunglinger Photographs Mads Mogensen
The asphalt-stained walls and battered roof tiles of houses in a Sicilian hill-top village say much about their island home. Separated from its capricious mainland mother by the treacherous Straits of Messina, scarred by volcanic activity and occupied by one foreign culture after another, Sicily has an abrasive edge, an intriguing magical quality. Yet the true nature of Sicily, and its island neighbours to the north, still survives, showing through the layers of ash and cultural domination in bright patches of local colour.
Ever since the first wave of invaders, the islands have accepted occupation by stronger and more organised forces. The Greeks, Romans and Normans, to mention but a few, have all left their ruins scattered across the dramatic and rocky landscape. More recently, a latter-day invasion has occurred in the form of tourism. This too has been accommodated in Sicilian style. The main centres have been established in the natural harbours along the rugged Tyrrhenian Coast, as typified by the part-fishing village, part-cathedral city and part-holiday resort of Cefalù. On the east of the island, the Ionian Coast offers spectacular excursions to the barren slopes of Etna and windswept ruins of long-abandoned temples. In dramatic contrast, the capital, Palermo, is a city of busy squares and bustling colourful markets, but one that also reveals Sicilian apathy in its crumbling baroque facades and labyrinth of poverty-ridden streets.
North of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the seven islands (Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi and Alicudi) and islets of the Aeolian archipelago were designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2000. There are two active volcanoes, Stromboli and Vulcano, and the black sand of the beaches and petrified-lava coastlines are testimony to their fiery past. While permanent residents amount to a mere 10 000, summer brings the rich and famous to party, in particular to Hotel Raya on Panarea, ‘the hippest, sexiest and priciest hotel in the Aeolians’ (hotelraya.it).
Away from the coast, Sicily’s quiet, mountainous interior is populated by remote villages where crafts supplement an agricultural existence. Off shaded narrow streets, teams of local women piece-work their way through the day, picking out delicate designs in cool lace cloths for little more than subsistence wages. While the countryside is timeless and hints at a pastoral idyll with ancient olive and lemon groves giving shelter to biblical-looking sheep, the volcanic nature imbued in the black-grey rock formations gives a reminder of the hardness underlying the rural life.
The food of the islands reflects this dramatic simplicity with a rustic quality and is dominated by locally grown products. Aubergines are essential to many Sicilian dishes. A fine example of which is Melanzane alla Parmigiana, where the fleshy textured slices make edible platters for slices of full-flavoured fresh tomatoes and vibrant green basil. Grilled until the aubergine turns a warm and appetising ochre, scattered with coarsely grated Parmesan and served on colourful, locally crafted ceramics, the dish is undoubtedly Mediterranean, but also unmistakably Sicilian in its healthy simplicity.
If the local food reveals something of the islanders’ character, it is the fabric of everyday life that has the final word. The Eolians’ whitewashed homes are built of elemental materials: stone, lava, pumice and tufo; on Sicily, long-suffering masonry provides a surface for parasitic lichens and moss.
Rising prosperity is creating a new social climate evident in unprecedented demonstrations against political corruption and a new independent attitude towards old restrictive orders, especially among women. With a refreshing sense of purpose, the true colours of Sicily may at last edge out from the lingering shadows of the past.
HOW TO GET THERE
Sicily has two major airports: Catania Fontanarossa and Palermo. The former is the best if you’re planning an excursion to Etna and to Taormina. Catania Airport, aeroporto.catania.it.
While a car is unnecessary (and mostly not allowed) on the Aeolian islands, it’s a necessity on Sicily. Major rental companies are represented at Catania airport. If you’re driving from the mainland, or wish to visit the Aeolian islands, you’ll need to catch a ferry: Tirrenia Navigazione (Genoa or Naples to Palermo). Grandi Navi Veloci (Genoa or Livorno to Palermo). Snav Aliscafi (Naples to Palermo). For more information, visit regione.sicilia.it/turismo and sicilyguide.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Visit accommodationsicily.com for a variety of accommodation options. italyby.com offers accommodation divided into categories including those that offer cooking courses, fishing, golf, are child-friendly etc. Also visit regione.sicilia.it/turismo.
This article was originally featured in the June 2009 issue of House and Leisure.