IMG_2641It’s a very narrow stretch of water that separates Sicily from the mainland – just over 3km  wide in parts – but one can’t help feeling that, at one time or another over the centuries, the whole world has passed through it  – and that each passing has left a subtle, but permanent, imprint on sea, sky and coast.    It’s a very beautiful part of the Mediterranean and one that tugs at the imagination.

Here in the Straits, two seas, the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian, meet, creating intense tidal currents and natural whirlpools, and supporting a unique and rich marine ecosystem.  It’s also an important migratory route for birds (birds of prey and storks making their way from Africa to Europe) and fish (tuna, swordfish, whales and dolphins moving from deep ocean waters to mate in the warmer shallower waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea).

At at this time of the year, from May to August,  you will see very strange looking boats moving up and down the coast.  Many of them.  They look like fine insects preying on the surface of the water.  These are the passarelle, boats specifically designed for hunting  swordfish, part of an ancient tradition.  The story of the swordfish hunt is fascinating and romantic  – but it’s also a sad story.

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The Good Friday procession at Enna ,  with its rows of silent, eerily hooded figures preceding a blood stained Christ and anguished Madonna through the city’s narrow streets, is so well known and widely publicised that, when I visited Enna at Easter,  I was half expecting to have the feeling that I’d seen it all before.    Instead, I found I was part of an ancient, but living and surprisingly moving, ritual – and that all the images and preconceived ideas  I’d brought with me completely disappeared.

It all started with a chance encounter on the street that morning.  It was a perfect Spring morning, sunny and warm, but the narrow streets of the city were still shaded and we had set out to find somewhere for coffee in the sun.    The young man, possibly a university student,  who gave us directions continued, spontaneously and with irrepressible enthusiasm, to tell us something about the procession that would take place later in the day.  He talked, in particular,  about his church and confraternity which, being  the oldest in Enna, has the honour of carrying the statue of the dead Christ in the procession.  His enthusiasm was compelling and, as he talked, I realised that, unwittingly, he had given me just what I had been looking for –  a way in.  The Confraternity of the College of SS. Salvatore would be my starting point.

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 a conversation about sea sponges on the island of Lampedusa

Last year when I visited Lampedusa, I hadn’t even noticed the little freshly painted shop at the end of the main street selling natural sea sponges.  This year, visiting the shop and talking to Giovannino, its owner, turned out to be one of the highlights of my stay on the island.

The shop is small, but very attractively set up, with sponges of different types and sizes displayed on tables, and hanging from the walls, and a series of photographs showing the various stages of processing.  It is obviously a shop run by someone who knows, and cares about, what he is selling.  That someone is Giovannino, a dark haired, strongly built man, probably in his 50s, with that distance and deep reserve Sicilians often seem to have, at least on first meeting.  I made a small purchase, complimented him on his shop, and asked if I might come back some time to talk to him about sea sponges and sponge ‘fishing’.  He graciously agreed. 

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They are brilliant, sun-bright, images – there whenever I close my eyes. I feel full of them:  sun-bleached, rocky landscapes;  fine white beaches;  clear, still seas shading from light, bright turquoise to deepest blue; splashes of vivid pink bougainvillea;  faded pink and cream buildings; sharply angled shadows.  I have just returned from another visit to Lampedusa, and these images remain as clear and persistent as ever.  But this time there is an extra one – and it’s one I can’t get out of my mind:  the remains of abandoned and broken refugee boats piled neatly on a tiny beach at the head of a steep, rocky, inlet.   It’s not an image that negates the others, not at all;   it adds to them, creating a new perspective on the island, and opening a window, however small, into the experience of those who are risking everything to reach it.     

For at least thirty or forty years now, Lampedusa has been a paradise for holiday makers – mostly Italian.  In recent times, it has also become a place of hope, a gateway to Europe, for the desperate and disenfranchised, who are forced to flee their homelands in North Africa.    

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Like many other Sicilian families of their class, every year, in May, the Agnello family would pack up and travel to their country estate – and there they would remain for the summer months. It was a short journey from the family palace in Agrigento to the large airy farm house at Mose’, but a major excursion. At Mose’, the family entered into a completely different way of life.

For those who made the journey many years ago, the Mose’ of today is obviously greatly changed. The farm, which still produces olives, almonds, pistachios and wheat, as well as fruit and vegetables, is greatly reduced in size, and the house and surrounding buildings have been extensively restored and opened to guests. Nevertheless, thanks largely to Chiara who now manages the farm and Agriturismo business, it is still possible to feel something of the rhythm of a past way of life. Something of those magical summers that linger on in the family’s memory can now be shared by anyone who visits.

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This week I visited Salina, one of the Aeolian Islands off Sicily’s north-east coast, and came upon Da Alfredo, a tiny waterfront bar, famous, I’ve since discovered, for its granita.  I had never heard of Da Alfredo, but one taste of its granita and I knew it was something special. 

The bar’s location is perfect: it is in a tiny piazza on the waterfront in Lingua, a peaceful and attractive little village on the south-eastern tip of Salina, looking out over the water to the islands of Lipari, Panarea and Stromboli.    

The more I learned about Da Alfredo and its granita, the more impressed I became.  Perhaps not surprisingly!  I always derive pleasure from seeing traditional products being made with great care and skill, and family traditions developing as sons or daughters pick up the skills of their parents with energy and enthusiasm and take them to a new level.  Both these things are part of the story of Da Alfredo.

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One of Palermo’s most interesting five-star hotels, the Villa Igiea, sits on a rocky headland overlooking the Bay of Palermo, just north of the city centre.  Below it, at the bottom of sheer rocky cliffs, is the tiny fishing village of Acquasanta, so called because of the curative thermal waters that have flowed through its rocky caverns since ancient times.  By the end of the 19th century, these ‘miraculous’ waters were attracting the rich and famous to the thermal baths that had been established there; now the thermal baths are deserted and the precious waters left to flow into the sea.  Acquasanta has seen better days.  If they come to this part of the world at all, the rich and famous are now likely to remain on top of the cliff at Villa Igea, completely unaware of the existence of the little village of Acquasanta and its precious waters below.  

Villa Igea’s history, however, is closely linked to that of Acquasanta and its healing waters.  There are those who wish that its future might be too.         Read the rest of this entry »

This week I took a bus south from Palermo through the panoramic  countryside of vines, olive groves and sweeping tracts of golden stubble almost to the south coast. I was visiting a recently opened Ceramics Museum in the small hill town of Burgio. The museum, housed in a beautifully restored 16th century convent, was well worth the visit. But more of that another time! At the end of my visit, I was lured, not at all unwillingly, down a side-track that  produced the most intriguing tale of the byzantine icon that once again resides in Burgio’s main church, the 12th century Chiesa Madre.

The attendant at the ceramics museum was a young girl who had grown up in Burgio, and was both knowledgeable and passionate about the town. She had the sort of ‘passion for place’ that I am often struck by here. and rarely encounter outside Sicily. Or perhaps it’s just that on this subject  Sicilians tend to be particularly eloquent!  As I was leaving the museum, she asked if I had already visited the small church next door, the church of S. Maria delle Grazie. When I said I hadn’t, she said I really must see it, and offered to accompany me. Had she not, I might never have heard the story of how a precious byzantine icon had been stolen during the 1960s and returned more than 25 years later. Read the rest of this entry »

Sicily’s north west coast is mountainous and dramatic. Steep rocky promontories, one after the other as far as the eye can see, jut out into a clear, turquoise sea; layer upon layer of mountains, in varying shades of the softest blue, dissolve into the sky like a Japanese watercolour.
The steep promontory of Capo Gallo forms the northern end of the ring of mountains that surrounds Palermo, separating Mondello, Palermo’s famous beachside suburb, from the nearby fishing village of Sferracavallo. It is a headland of sheer, pale limestone rock walls, well known to rock climbers and cavers, but also readily accessible to walkers.  And the climb to the top is well worth the effort. The air there is fresh and pure, the light bright and clear; and everything is silent, except for the sound of wind in the trees, birds in the sky, and an occasional boat far below leaving a white trail behind it on the water. The sky and the sea seem vast – endless – and on a clear day, looking back over Monte Pellegrino and the city, along the coast to the east, you can see as far as the Aeolian islands.

Fourteen years ago, a bricklayer by the name of Antonino was living with his wife and four daughters in the city below Monte Gallo when God spoke to him and told him he should go and live on the mountain. Antonino answered God’s call and has been there ever since, living as a hermit in an abandoned lighthouse, working silently and industriously to decorate every surface with mosaics and paintings.  It is an act of devotion, in praise of God. I had heard about the hermit of Capo Gallo before, and I’d been to the top of the mountain and seen the paintings on the outside walls of the lighthouse.  But the building had always been locked and silent. I had seen no sign of the hermit, or had any opportunity to see inside the building.  This time, thanks to Pippo, a knowledgeable local who was acting as our guide, I was able to do both.  Read the rest of this entry »

Arenella was once an isolated and picturesque little fishing village at the foot of Monte Pellegrino on Sicily’s dramatic north coast.  Now it is part of Palermo, just a short bus ride from the centre of town: still picturesque, still with fishing boats, but no longer isolated!  Even so, when I visited this week, I felt I was a million miles away.  At this time of year, it is a peaceful and beautiful little haven.  Like most things here, it has an interesting past.        

The tiny bay is dominated at one end by the remains of a tuna fishing establishment and an intriguing little neo-gothic style stone building – a tiny palace, with four small turrets.  At the other end of the bay, a little bar has been established by the water, looking out over the Gulf of Palermo and back towards the city.

I was there on a perfect Spring afternoon.   Across the water, the craggy mountains that encircle the city were various shades of blue, and the city, behind a slight white haze, a faint pink.  It looked beautiful.  Hard to believe it was the city I had left 20 minutes before!   Everything was quiet.  Just the occasional clank of a boat mast or the sound of a voice from the breakwater where small groups were chatting in the sun, and young boys coming and going  up and down the old stone steps to swim and then dry out in the sun.  Read the rest of this entry »