Sicily, an island unique
Sicily is the Mediterranean’s largest island and, placed right at its centre, it is also the most richly influenced by those civilizations that have reached its shores, from the Greeks to the Arabs and all those European dominators – who at times were also smitten by it – that have held the crown, from the Norman and Swabian to the French and Spanish. It is the southern shore of Europe, and in the words of the writer Gesualdo Bufalino “its destiny through the centuries was to act as a hinge between the grand western culture and the temptations of the desert and sun, between reason and magic, tempering sentiment and the heat of passions”. And it is these opposing influences that have forged the culture, customs, and landscape, together with the eternal contradiction of the Sicilian spirit, those two forces that Bufalino calls “light and loss”. The Sicilian author from the province of Ragusa writes that we need to “remind tourists that they are not only crossing the threshold of a paradise, but also a place of shadows (…). It is here, in peril of these contradictions, that Sicily awaits you. It is as if sailing between the devil and the deep blue sea, two sirens emerge in the wake of the ship luring you with two contrasting calls: one heavenly, speaking of Arabian jasmine, moonlit nights, and beaches like golden cheeks; the other, grim, infernal, with the noon sun beating down upon ancient country roads and blood slowly drying at the foot of an old olive tree. It is in the relationship between these two voices, in their encounter, consonance and dissonance that lies the painful secret and richness of our history”.
It is a history that, together with a fortunate geographical position, makes Sicily so much more than just an island, it is almost a continent where not only can you find testimony of all the great seasons of European art and culture, from the classic to the renaissance, baroque and liberty, but in which also nature, from one place to another, changes its features completely.
Nature and landscape
The widely varying seascapes – from golden beaches, black volcanic sands and crystalline waters along shingle shores, to rock-strewn azure bays and impervious cliffs above a cobalt-blue sea – alternate with the wooded, mountain landscapes of the Peloritani, Nebrodi, and Madonie ranges which are in turn different from the majestic and solitary Etna – the highest volcano in Europe that caused wonder and curiosity among the many 18th-c, northern-European visitors to the island. It frequently spews fiery-red lava into the older flows that enrich the black, fertile soil around Catania. At the centre of the island among rolling hills and plains lies the open landscape of the large landed estates, yellow with sun-drenched wheat in summer, green with grasses and red with clover in spring: mythical places of the goddess of agriculture and the harvest, Demeter for the Greeks, Ceres for the Romans.
And different again from all this, along a mountainous shore dotted with dwarf fan palms and bewitching sandy coves, the first of many nature reserves set up on the island: lo Zingaro, set between the sea stacks of Scopello and the white, sandy beaches of S. Vito Lo Capo, in the province of Trapani, though not far from Palermo.
Sicily by Three
In olden times Sicily was divided into three areas corresponding to the points of its characteristic triangular shape: Val di Mazara, Val di Noto, and Val d’Emone, each very different from one another both from the scenic and cultural viewpoint though joined together by the mysterious thread of Sicilian identity. In Val di Mazara we find Palermo, the capital, and Trapani the town on the westernmost point of Sicily; Syracuse is in Val di Noto the southern point; Messina in the Val d’Emone is at the north-eastern point separating the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas.
A Window Upon Italy
Though it is only by leaving Sicily across the straits of Messina – the city closest to the southern tip of the Italian peninsular, and separated from it only by a narrow stretch of sea – that you remain spellbound by what is perhaps the most extraordinary panorama of the island: an amphitheatre of hills framing the city and looking out to the Calabrian coast across a silver sea steeped in ancient myth. Messina is the third point of the triangle that gives the island its unmistakable identity, an island unique in its plurality, its cultural stratifications and the variety and beauty of its nature. Take heed of Wolfgang Goethe, who wrote “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything”.