To the sea
One writer travels to Sicily to make sense of history, politics and his place in the world
In southern Sicily, from atop piles of stones that once made up the pillars and walls of a vast temple at Selinunte, one can look out at the soaring, intact columns of another edifice, and then, below, at the aqua blue sea. This is the razed landscape of the Punic Wars, of a time eons ago when Greek city-states and Carthaginians fought for supremacy in the western Mediterranean.
Off to the side are the more modern buildings of a fishing village, low-key structures, the colors of which are designed to blend into the arid landscape. It’s an extraordinary image, history layered upon history, all surrounded by the water that the Homeric heroes and their descendants wandered thousands of years ago.
There’s a stark, raw, beauty to this place, a little bit of Italy that is actually far closer to the shores of Tunisia than, say, to Rome or Milan.
Not too many places on earth have this concentration of history, this distillate of the human story. In Sicily, Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman architecture all jostle for one’s attention. Before the Greeks, there were the Phoenicians. And before them, probably numerous others, now forgotten, seafaring adventurers.
Byzantine palaces, and Norman jewels such as Palermo’s wondrous 12th century Cappella Palatina, complete with intricate mosaic patterned walls and floors and arches—the stories of the Bible replicated in grand permutations of tiny, ceramic tiles— vie for attention with medieval fortress towns such as Erice, its narrow, cobbled roads, perched atop a rugged mountain aerie, lined with soaring churches, towers, monasteries and castles.
In between the monumental architecture of Erice, people still live in houses and apartments that have been inhabited for generations. There’s a specialist pastry shop founded, for fundraising purposes, by nuns hundreds of years ago. There are potters, selling the bright red-patterned wares so emblematic of this island, who operate out of shops that could well have sold the same goods to medieval clientele.
We arrived in late summer. Flying in, we passed over what looked to be a castle on a promontory jutting out into the sea.
“Look,” I called over to the kids. “A castle.” “No, the woman next to us said, laughing. “That’s a tuna factory.” A tuna factory it may have been, but its thick, turreted walls smacked of romance, antiquity and chivalry.
That a tuna factory could pass as a castle ought to have been an omen. There’s something a little bit crazy about Sicily. Our first night’s accommodation, for example, was listed as a B&B in the center of Palermo, just down the road from a sandcastle-like cathedral; but it turned out to be something more approximating an empty residential building that had been informally taken over (by whom was unclear) and converted into a cash-only hotel for travelers and businessmen.
It took us nearly an hour to finally navigate the one-way system toward the town center, our GPS device gamely trying to issue instructions fast enough to see us through the warren of ancient streets. When we finally got to the Palermo Cathedral, we discovered the road toward our hotel was a pedestrian-only route. And after we zigzagged around the pedestrian zone and finally found its address, it turned out to be a residential tower block, clearly not marked as a hotel, and with no one there to open the door for us.
Tired and more than a little angry, I went into a bar across the street and convinced the bartender to try to locate the man, Antonio, who apparently possessed keys to the building. The bartender knew someone in the building was running a hotel moonlighting operation, and sure enough he phoned a few people who knew a few people, hoping that someone would come and take us off of his hands. But no one came down. When I desperately approached a lady entering the building and, in a patois of Spanish, English, French and largely made-up Italian, asked her whether this was, indeed a hotel, she, too, mentioned Antonio.
After several phone calls, Antonio finally appeared and led us up four floors to an unmarked door, behind which were two bedrooms, air conditioning units and a dubious pirated internet connection. He left us with keys, and instructions as to which unmarked room a few floors down would serve breakfast for us in the morning.
It was, quite possibly, the strangest hotel I have ever stayed in. But, at the end of the day, it was also utterly perfect: a five minute walk from a medieval square with several restaurants serving up heaping portions of Sicilian fare; six minutes from the cathedral—which we saw, that first night, all decked out in the dull halos of light from street lamps, the padlocked exterior fencing running from one magnificent stone statue to the next; and all of about 12 minutes from the exquisite Cappella Palatina.
If Palermo is Naples-on-steroids, seedy, dilapidated and beautiful all rolled into one, Trapani, an hour’s drive to the west, is far more navigable. The port town, from which one can take ferries out to the surrounding islands, boasts a small, elegant center. It’s made up of a series of ancient cobbled streets, along which sit vast Renaissance-era churches, and terrific, very reasonably priced trattorias.
Sicily is famous for its fish dishes—swordfish, tuna, salmon farfalle and other pastas, fish couscous—and its desserts. And the restaurants didn’t disappoint. For about $60 between the four of us, we could eat until we were more than full, drink good wine and gorge on gelatos. One meal out each day; one meal in the garden at our Airbnb; fresh tomatoes, avocados, an array of hams and salami, and, of course, copious amounts of bread and olive oil. Eating is a treat in Sicily, each meal to be relaxed over and savored.
Using Trapani as a base, there is a lot to see. There are salt plains, dotted with ancient windmills, which have been vital sources of salt for close to 5,000 years. There are sprawling ruined Greek cities at Segesta, at Selinunte, and, slightly further southeast, the massive remains of the ancient city of Agrigento. One can see, there, the remains of the 12-kilometer city walls; temples, villas, even vast, toppled stone statues of Zeus. There are wondrous little coastal villages such as Scopello, San Vito lo Capo, and Castellammare del Golfo, their roads curving up into the mountains and down again towards the sea. There are castles, fortresses, cathedrals. There are huge marble mines and there are grottos pockmarked into the cliffs in which small communities lived for thousands of years. And, of course, there are the beaches—ranging from the tiny little sand cove of Bahia Santa Margherita through to large, uninterrupted, stretches of soft, dark orange sand on the edge of the nature preserves that line the coast.
It gets very, very hot in Sicily in high summer—but, if one waits until late in the afternoon to hit the beaches, that water is powerfully refreshing, and the sun more therapeutic than cruel.
We swam each afternoon, staying on the beach late into the evening, until the sun started to sink into the horizon and the heat began to be replaced by something approximating an evening coastal breeze. We ate dinner even later and let our sense of time start to dissolve.
As a political journalist, I struggle this election season to put things in perspective. Too often I read the news and think it’s time to throw my hands up in sheer horror, but Sicily helped put it all in perspective. History is a very big canvas. And the travails of one country at one moment in its history are, ultimately, just that: the bleatings of a single place at a single time. Somehow, that makes it all just a little bit less unfathomably grotesque.