We spent the week before last on holiday in Sicily, mainly on the west side of the island, but with a couple of days in the east so we could go up Mount Etna. Here are a few impressions, primarily of the history…
- If, as Alan Bennett rightly observed, ‘history is just one f*****g thing after another’, then the history of Sicily is just one f******g massacre after another. There were already plenty in the island’s historical record when, in 310BC, the Carthaginians burned dozens of their own children in the hope of convincing the gods to aid them against Agathokles, the fearsome Sicilian tyrant. Their pleas were heard, at least in the sense that Agathokles abandoned the campaign and returned home – where he promptly ‘vented his frustrations with massacres at Segesta and Syracuse’. Arguably the most famous event in Sicily’s history, and the only one that became something of a byword, was the ‘Sicilian Vespers’, a wholesale massacre of the French on the island in 1282 – the test of Frenchness being whether the potential victim pronounced the word ciciri with a French accent. And so on through the centuries, just one f – yes, well, you get the idea – up to more recent slaughters, such as the 1992 killings by the Mafia of the prosecuting magistrates Falcone and Borsellino; Palermo’s international airport is now named after them. Add in more than its fair share of natural disasters, such as the eruption of Etna in 1669 that wiped out Catania and the earthquake of 1693 that devastated the south-east of the island, and it’s definitely not a history for the squeamish.
- Sicily had a King Roger. Now, I have several friends called Roger; it’s a very fine name, and I’m not disparaging it in any way. But somehow, King Roger just sounds a bit odd, in the way that John Goodman’s fictitious ‘King Ralph’ did. Moreover, he was King Roger the Second. There was no King Roger the First.
- And this is his tomb, immediately adjacent in Palermo Cathedral to those of not one but two Holy Roman Emperors, including the famous Frederick II, nicknamed stupor mundi, probably one of the cleverest people who lived during the thirteenth century, and one of the most intelligent monarchs of all time (not that there’s a lot of competition in that field). Eat your heart out, Leicester Cathedral.
- King Roger did many great things, but this was arguably the greatest: he ordered the building of the astonishing Palatine Chapel in the royal palace. This is it.
- Both the cathedral and the chapel demonstrate in spades the old cliche of Sicily being the crossroads of the Mediterranean, held in turn by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Normans and Spanish, with elements of all of those cultures plainly apparent everywhere you go. It’s said that Sicily has better Greek ruins than Greece itself, and Selinunte, below, relatively close to where we were staying, was certainly impressive.
- On one of the days, we took a hydrofoil from Trapani on the west coast to Favignana, the largest of the Egadi islands. Trapani began as a Carthaginian naval base – Carthaginian! – while the town on Favignana is overlooked by the St Catherine castle, which started life under the Saracens, was rebuilt by the Swabians, remodelled into its current form by the Aragonese, and then served as a prison under the Bourbon dynasty in the nineteenth century, holding prisoners who supported the cause of Italian unity. Favignana used to be famous, or infamous, for the mattanza, essentially a wholesale massacre of tuna. Fortunately, and much to the relief of my Guardianista ‘significant other’ (who was ready and willing to chain herself to the nearest innocent tuna), this practice was stopped in 2007.
- Sicilian history has a surprising number of crossovers with that of Britain, apart from those pointed out in the previous post on this site. Joanna, the sister of Richard the Lionheart and King John, was Queen of Sicily thanks to her marriage to William II, Roger’s grandson, while John’s daughter Isabella also became Queen of the island; its throne was actually offered to Henry III’s younger son, Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, who was never able to make good his claim. Now that would be an alternate history with knobs on: the Mafia speaking with Lancashire accents. ‘Ee oop, lad, theer’s trouble at meth factory. Tonight, tha sleeps wi t’feeshes’.
- As I predicted last time, we weren’t able to get to ‘Nelson’s castle’, to the west of Mount Etna. But I did some further reading about it while we were out there, and was reminded that Nelson’s Sicilian title, Duke of Bronte, still exists. While his brother William’s title of Earl Nelson went to their nephew and his heirs, the duchy went to William’s daughter, the first ‘duke’ to visit the castle (she hated it and stayed for only three days). So the duchy of Bronte passed to her descendants, two of whom are buried in the castle’s private English cemetery, and is held today by the fourth Viscount Bridport, seventh Duke of Bronte – whose names, Alexander Nelson Hood, reflect the fact that he’s descended from the families of not one but two of Britain’s greatest admirals. It’s probably some sort of a comment on the course of British history over the last two centuries that he’s not an admiral, but an investment banker.
- Talking of Mount Etna…nothing quite prepares you for your first active volcano. There’s the sheer scale of it, not to mention the lava flows from previous eruptions, most recently those of 2001 and 2002 (one of which stopped 300 metres short of our tour guide’s house, as he informed us with black humour). There’s the fact that you can pick up a handful of ‘soil’ and it’ll warm your hands. There’s the wildness of the weather, where you can be in brilliant sunshine one moment and dense low cloud with howling, freezing winds the next. Then there’s the sheer incongruity of the fact that you drive most of the way up it and find yourself in a large tourist park, with cheap cafes and souvenir stalls galore. All of which will be swept away if the next eruption, when it inevitably comes, sends its lava flow that way. Sicilian buildings insurance documents must be both comprehensive and exceptionally creative.
- We stayed near Menfi, which was close to the epicentre of the catastrophic 1968 earthquake that destroyed many buildings in the town and completely devastated several neighbouring communities within roughly a twenty mile radius. So it was somewhat ironic that we woke up one morning to news that there’d been an earthquake in…umm…Kent.
- Finally, let’s explode the myth about Sicilian driving. Yes, OK, ‘give way’ signs tend to be optional, especially at roundabouts; speed limits seem to be regarded as bingo numbers placed at random intervals along the road; and as far as Sicilians are concerned, ‘lane discipline’ is probably something naughty involving nuns. But apart from in the dodgem-like quality of driving in the bigger places, which ensures that Sicilian divers flaunt the dents on their cars in much the same way that German students of old flaunted their duelling scars, much of the driving in Sicily is arguably more pleasurable than in the UK – certainly on the autostradas, which are much quieter than motorways in the UK, partly due to the relative paucity of HGVs – and, in some respects, more logical, too. The locals drive either very, very fast or very, very slowly: there’s hardly any of the meticulous, pedantic driving at precisely the speed limit in force on any given stretch of road, or at (say) 40 on a 60mph road, that you find on the roads of Britain. And people overtake. Yes, sometimes they overtake far too close and far too fast when a very large lorry is hurtling towards them (and you) from the opposite direction; and those who fail to execute the manoeuvre successfully earn, not a transient roadside floral tribute, but a proper marble or faux-marble memorial stone with their name and life dates. But at least Sicilians are prepared to overtake, unlike the rapidly-multiplying legions of petrified fainthearts who refuse to overtake even a tractor on a perfectly straight and wide English country road. (Here endeth the Clarksonesque rant.)
- The exception to my relatively charitable comments about Sicilian driving in the previous point is the traffic in Palermo, which is the tenth Circle of Hell that Dante’s copy editor insisted on cutting from his final draft. Quite apart from the anarchic havoc created by scooter riders (no cyclists to be seen; presumably they’re in the cemeteries) and the cars that cut in from all angles as they circle the city endlessly, like the Flying Dutchman, searching forlornly for a parking space – quite apart from that, there’s the glorious refinement added by the city fathers themselves. (‘I say, Giuseppe, I’ve had a spiffing idea!’ ‘What’s that, Luigi, old bean?’ ‘Bus lanes that go the wrong way up one way streets! What’s not to like?’)
Absolutely finally, there’s a supermarket in Castelvetrano which, about 45 minutes from its alleged evening closing time, unleashes a ferocious dog that’s clearly been trained to growl at late-shopping customers as they attempt to get trolleys, and to bark furiously at customers’ cars as they leave the site, seemingly so that the staff can finish work early. Seriously. Don’t tell Tesco, or they’ll start doing it.