Letter from Sicily
The eyes, the belly, the heart
You think it’s going to be similar to the rest of Italy, but it really isn’t. Sicily is a different animal, a cultural fact underlined by the water that physically separates it from the boot-shaped mainland. This is Sicilia, an island with its own soul.
Sicily was quiet when I arrived, subdued by a religious holiday and covered in a cold, wet sheet that never really lifted while I was there. This is why I instinctually pull my shirt closer at the neck when I talk about Sicily, but this is not the story I want to tell. The place is carved out of history, its cities dripping with elaborate baroque architecture to overwhelming effect. Curvy, deep façades form the backdrop for dozens upon dozens of stone sculptures, showing us the detailed faces of the saints, the cuddliness of the cherubs, the angels swaying gently, all in slight decay. I mean this in the best way possible, as the polished squares of Northern Italy have nothing on the lived-in heritage of Sicily. The relative poverty of the south has a lot to do with it, but it also means you see the squares filling with ladies in black at lunchtime and coppola-clad men at dusk, claiming these spaces as their own instead of leaving them to the visitors.
3000-year-old Palermo remains a city the making, proud and ready for its next heyday. Everyone said Palermo would be chaotic, but on Christmas Day the city was quiet, giving me its streets to wander almost on my own. They also said it would be run down, in the best sense of the word, and it is; Palermo carries its heritage on its back even though it’s got better things to do than to stay on top of all this upkeep. So many little churches, all those charmingly narrow streets, not to mention the massive cathedral, covered in pillars and statues, and the Norman palace, both historical attraction and seat of the Sicilian Assembly. Best of all is the Fontana Pretoria: a concoction of naked nymphs rummaging around in the waters, their intentions obvious for all to read in their stone faces. When it was built in 1573, the spectacle shocked the church-going locals to the extent they named it the Fountain of Shame. In the best way, surely.
Wandering around an empty Palermo feels akin to arriving at the party once people have left: you can still feel the energy of what has just happened. Teatro Massimo is the pride of the newer part of town, as the third-largest 19th century opera house in Europe and a symbol of the island’s classical themes: cultural creativity versus old world bureaucracy and Mafia influences. Don’t mention the Mafia, the books say, but sometimes a local, ever-friendly and eager to set things right, will bring it up: ‘You do what you can and try to make an honest living’, one man told me, ‘Sicily is so much more than just the Mafia.’
Like the food. The food! The Sicilians may have invented the Mafia but they also created the wonder that is gelato. This island has gelato shops the way the rest of the world has tobacco shops, always there to provide a hit of creamy, sweet goodness in a whole alphabet of flavours, be it black chocolate, Sicilian almond, or maybe best of all, the local pistachio. Some of the best gelato is found on Sicily’s east coast, which I reached after a surprisingly long bus ride from Palermo that demonstrated it’s not so small, this island. Siracusa’s Ortygia peninsula looks like it’s dug out of yellow stone, stacked within the walls like a perfect timepiece. Myriads of alleys open onto little piazzas, where coffee is served to patrons stood at the counter, one foot resting on the low-slung rail. The cathedral incorporates columns from the Greek temple which once sat there, renowned throughout the ancient world for its large golden statue of Athena. Mary stands in her place today. Armed with recommendations by the proud hostel keeper, I ate some of the best food of my life in Siracusa, starting with the plates of tomato-salty linguini topped with piles of claims, all the way to the gnocchi which were made not from potato but clouds.
And the gelato. South of Siracusa is Noto, a little town boasting the most stunning and compact historical centre, which I ran past in an effort to get to Corrado Costanzo. This is supposedly one of the best ice cream shops in the entire world, and it is no lie; clutching the almond and cinnamon concoction I swooned up the street, taking in one after another of the dramatically imposing buildings. It’s all in proud neo-classical and baroque styles, the stone glowing red as the sun is setting. Earlier that day I’d been to Modica, another hillside town with a medieval centre, exhausting myself on its steep streets as I took in one cattedrale and one chiesa after another. While Noto is the place for ice cream, Modica attracts compliments for its chocolate, specifically that of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. Everything is made in the kitchen behind the counter, where traditional recipes churn out hardy chunks of chocolate flavoured with vanilla, lavender or chilli pepper that goes straight to your head.
Chosen primarily for its airport proximity, Catania was my last stop in Sicily; maybe my complete lack of expectation is why I came to like it so much. The second-largest city on the island, Catania’s historic centre is small but packs a punch in terms of churches, this time made from black stone. Catania’s building materials mostly come from the slopes of Mount Etna, the highly active volcano looming large over the city. A little bus takes people up the volcano, dressing them in heavy coats and shoes as they trek up the jet-black landscape, snowy in patches as it’s always winter up there. The air is thinner too, the guide explains, as our chests ache for oxygen after just a short walk. Smoke rises from the nearby crater as the lava bubbles deep below. Six days later, Etna would erupt.
The sun comes out at last on my last morning in Sicily, just as I’d stuffed my pockets with pistachio and almond cookies from the café by Catania’s landmark elephant fountain. I’d had a few cannoli by this point but everyone said Catania had the best ones, so I tried one more: creamy ricotta, crispy shell, sprinkled in pistachio. The pastry cracked in my mouth as the creaminess took over, and all thought left my mind in favour of a language I couldn’t speak but instantly recognised. I pulled my scarf closer at the neck and promised to come back one day, and do it all again in the summer.