Sicily: Introduction

  • © editha,

    © editha,


‘Araaaance, arance fresche dell’Etna!’ Carmine the market crier’s singsong echoes through the Baroque streets of Palermo’s Old Town with its flaking façades – a long drawn out falsetto like a plaintive Arab melody. Shutters are thrown open; widows dressed in black appear on balconies where canaries are kept in their cages. They lower their paniere – their wicker shopping baskets – on long ropes. The ‘Ape Piaggo’ three-wheeler van, with its colourful rusty patches, is piled high with blood oranges. The scent of the citrus fruit’s leaves in the blazing summer heat mingles with the smell of swordfish in garlic from a trattoria with bright flourescent lights and a flickering television. Sicilia eterna – the slow-paced ‘eternal’ Sicily of old really does still exist. But anyone who thinks that the few confusingly chaotic districts in the Old Town or the intoxicating hustle-and-bustle of the fish market are the real Sicily, is definitely behind the times.

Young Sicilians find cycling and hiking hip

Young girls in tight jeans with jet-black hair down to their waists, sounding their horns as they charge around on their vespas with their ‘Mafia: no grazie’ stickers, are neither ‘hot trophies’ nor ‘token women’, but simply part of everyday life. Their grandmothers, the older generation of nonna, used to be more hesitant about being out on the street, except when they went to church. An active lifestyle with cycling and hiking (escursionismo) has suddenly become hip among young Sicilians. Local groups put their new trekking shoes to the test in the Riserva dello Zingaro nature reserve in the far northeast, where their walks take them past abandoned tuna fisheries, swathes of yellow surge and turquoise bays. Renovated farms, now run as agriturismi, attract Italians from the north tired of the rat race as well as other Europeans who are into organic living. Nero d’Avola has turned into the local cult wine and top wine-makers refine the taste by completing the ripening process in clay amphoras.

In the one real tourist hotspot on the island, Taormina, with its view of Etna photographed millions of times, five-star luxury hotels are sprouting up all over the place like during the Belle Epoque. Solvent guests frequently include weekend visitors from larger cities, whereas during the lively and loud movida that rampages through Catania’s lavic stone centro storico on balmy summer evenings, there are few holiday-makers to be found. Celebrations are more boisterous here than in the melancholic metropolis of Palermo. Provincial towns such as Comiso or Acireale have a surprising number of elegant boutiques. The typical man on Sicily today is dressed in a dark suit and tie – or else in a pink T-shirt as a tifoso of Palermo Calcio. For the first time in decades, a Sicilian football team is at last back in the first division.

The south is no longer a region left out in the cold

The old picture of the hard-done-by south, always seeing itself as the exploited victim with little much to offer other than organised crime, a declining population and poverty, is a picture that no longer applies. Vittimismo as a frame of mind is now passé. Even the all-pavading Mafia has mutated into an economic driving force and an attraction for cineastes. Since the province of Palermo has been promoting its image at travel and tourism fairs with companies that refuse to pay the pizzo (protection money), the threat has boosted tourism: ‘We are anti Mafia’ has turned into a tourist experience. The flat cap worn by tanned farm-workers and Sicilian gangsters has returned as a cheekily striped piece of Hollywood headgear. Even the baristas at the aiport wear their coppola with charming nonchalance.

The largest island in the Mediterranean is closer to Tunisia than Milan

Sicilia est insula: this truism drummed into the heads of Latin pupils conceals more than first meets the eye. Covering 25,709km² (9927mi²), it is the largest island in the Mediterranean – and a very special one at that. It is closer to Libya and Tunisia than to Milan. And it is too powerful, too culturally important, too modern to pretend to be a mere provincial, Mediterranean outpost. The Ancient Greeks performed their first improvised comedies in Syracuse, while the temples in Agrigento continue to provide a fascinating display of harmonious proportion.

Whereas Italian once evolved into the language of literature at royal courts in central Europe, computer programmers and software engineers in Etna Valley today have long since had to come to grips with the niceties of English. After years of neglect, the Art Nouveau Teatro Massimo in Palermo resounds once again to the sound of Bellini, Wagner and Puccini. Star chefs from Trapani or Ragusa jet back and forth to Tokyo to let the Japanese in on the secrets of the cucina siciliana, while TV cookery shows enthuse about the cassata siciliana’s Islamic roots. Young Sicilians flirt quite openly with their oriental cultural heritage – ‘Arab revival’ is what they call it now. In the long term, the political upheaval in Maghreb will also provide Sicily with new possibilities. The fishing centre and port of Mazara del Vallo would long since have stopped trading were it not for workers from Tunisia.

Un ponte sullo stretto – even without the controversial bridge across the strait between Messina and Reggio di Calabria that is to be completed by 2016, Sicilians have been drawing ever closer to the rest of Europe. They have long become well integrated throughout mainland Italy as judges and poets, car mechanics and publicans, carabinieri and film directors. And yet, Sicily still sometimes seems like a continent unto itself, running at a different pace and according to different rules. Even the colours are different. Everything somehow seems more intense. Nowhere else are the cherry trees and prickly pears, the cucumbers and aubergines as bright and shiny.

In no other operatic performance is the public so vociferous as during Cavalleria Rusticana. Where else does the baleful music of Easter processions echo more sullenly through the mountain villages or do children, dressed as nuns and monks, drag along behind the decorated carts marking the Passion the evening before Good Friday? The Spanish and the Greeks, the Albanians and French, Normans and North Africans have all left their mark in the form of fortresses and cathedrals, sagas and culinary delights, music and facial features. The island has been multicultural for thousands for years, to which the mass of historical sights testify.

Sicilians love deep discussions and celebrations with friends

The luxuriant cascades of bougainvillea, the spikey orange cactus fruit and the silvery-grey olive and knarled carob trees of the coastal regions provide a stark contrast to the sulphury, seemingly uninhabited countryside further inland with its waving fields of corn, overgrown paths, flocks of sheep and the macchia. The variety of beaches is also quite considerable, ranging from fine sand along the north coast, such as the one framing the fishing town of Cefalù at the foot of the limestone Madonie mountains, to pebbly lava beaches on the Aeolian island of Lipari. With blue grottoes below Taormina, and the Gola d’ Alcantara volcanic gorge, all the delights of the south are concentrated on Sicily.

Sicilians like being together with friends or engrossed in conversation, and – like Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano – enjoy hour-long feasts. La bella figura, extravagant tips, demonstrative idleness and tireless commentaries and appraisals with erotic undertones are eternal traits of the Sicilian way of life, as is the exuberant joy at meeting new people – demonstrated sometimes just a little bit too fast. The friend that Carmine the orange seller wanted to photograph suddenly finds herself surrounded by a number of other photo models – ‘anche a me’, ’why not me as well,’ says Rosario, the gaunt owner of the trattoria opposite, as he forces himself into the picture, proudly holding up a tray of cannoli filled with fruit and ricotta…

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