I decided to go to Sicily for my holidays this year for a number of reasons. The sun, obviously, the sea too but there were other reasons. I can no longer imagine not going to Italy at least once a year and I had never been to Sicily before and I liked the idea of going to a relaxing place where I wouldn’t get over-loaded by the cultural temptations that are a wonderful but unrelenting aspect of, say, spending two weeks in Tuscany.
I was wrong of course!
There was plenty of sun and sea, naturally and the people do speak Italian but it didn’t take long to find out that this is a unique place. This, the largest island in the Mediterannean with its rich volcanic soil (and volcanoes too but that is another story) attracted settlers from most of the ancient world’s leading cultures who all left their mark making this not just a lying-on-the beach kind of place but a living history book too. From the 8th Century B.C., Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs all came and settled here before the Normans, relatives of William the Conqueror of England, brought their Northern European, er, charms to the mix before the Spanish came and buried much of Sicily’s prosperity under a gloomy cloak of Spanish baroque and repression. Sicily then, is not really Italy at all – it is its own place as you can tell wherever you roam.
I was staying in the small town of Cefalù on the North coast with its Arabic-Norman cathedral complete with palm trees and espresso bars……
….where you can wonder round a warren of medieval streets and keep to the shady side if you want….
There is something surprizing round every corner….
…you can see some classic examples of Sicilian baroque architecture….
…and recognise Norman arches even in the strangest of places……
…you can of course just jump into the sea….
….leaving the hotest part of the day to the pigeons.
The sea! Actually it is the Tyrrhenian Sea but it is the Med to the rest of us. When I was there the temperatures were just creeping up from the high 20s (about 80 Fahrenheit) Celsius to the magic 30 (86 Fahrenheit) – quite hot enough for an English wolf. So the pull of the sandy beach and the pleasantly warm sea with its almost immeasurable tones of blue was impossible to resist for at least a part of every day.
I spent a lot of time under an umbrella reading about the Mafia, ssh, don’t mention the Mafia or the wryly humourous detective works of Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano. Beach football was quite out of the question unless you were born to it like these guys.
If even those umbrella’s were not protection enough from over-heating, then it was time to find the world of shadows that is the back street network of downtown Cefalù.
The middle of the day is not the time for climbing the mountainous rock that looms over the town either. La Rocca, as it is called, is visible from practically everywhere in town and it towered over the top floor apartment where I was staying….
… but it keeps glowering down at you……
…so I just had to find out what was up there.
A walk to the top of La Rocca is a strictly early morning activity and, if you don’t do it, you are really missing out because it feels like you can see the rest of the world as you climb.
Inevitably I was not the first one up here. Not only are there Roman remains, a Norman castle and the inevitable (let’s-get-in-on-the-act/no-show-without-Punch, ruins of a Catholic church….
…but there is also a rather handsome 4th century B.C. Greek temple – probably dedicated to the goddess Diana.
If you are lucky and, after-all climbing mountains isn’t everyone’s cup of espresso, you should get to the top in solitude and be able to listen, or so it seems, to the same sounds as those ancient Greeks would have heard too if they just sat on the temple’s steps – bird song and the distant wash of the waves.
When you get to the Norman fortifications you can, if you dare, look down (at least a million miles) and see just what Cefalù would look like to Diana if she still does descend from the clouds. I didn’t see her but I knew she was there.
It was with views like this that you realize why so many people fought for control over this majestic island. Soldiers standing here, from so many of ancient history’s major invading armies, would feel that they really had conquered the World.
Looking down from the parapets on the top of La Rocca, and I only dared for a moment or two, gave me an astounding view of Cefalù showing just how architecturally rich and varied this little town really is and, oh, have I mentioned the multi-toned blues of the Tyrrhenian Sea?
I went up La Rocca, well, part of the way, one evening and saw the beginning of Cefalù’s rapidly setting sun. I have never seen sunsets occur so quickly.
It looked magnificent from La Rocca…..
…pretty good too from the beach-side restaurant that became my second home……
…but maybe best of all from the balcony of my apartment in the company of the resident house martins
who ate all those insects that intended to bite me. Grazie amici miei.
If you like the sound of Sicily, look in tomorrow for some more.