I’m somewhat amazed now, after visiting Sicily, to have delayed for so long this journey. Or I shall rather say that I’ve always chosen to visit other and other places, without even thinking that Sicily could be the most beautiful and inspiring island one could visit, at a stone’s throw from nearly anywhere in Europe.
Yes, you read well! Sicily, from a greatly unknown destination, turned abruptly into one of the greatest islands in which I set foot on up to now, gaining rightfully the top position together with my heart.
I researched thoroughly before going to Sicily; I read about the history of the largest island in the Mediterranean, about the dozens of cultures overlapping one another, about the Sicilian cities that boost with artworks and stunning palazzos from which you cannot take your eyes off; I have seen documentaries about the Sicilian Mafia and, from behind the screen, I witnessed cooking demonstrations which have left my mouth watering; I was left speechless and somewhat frightened while watching and reading about Etna’s eruptions and about the love and only love relation between the Sicilian and this imposing volcano that dominates the island’s East coast; I saw the most awarded films whose directors were either born or found inspiration in this realm of gods; I browsed the travel guides full of tips and suggestions and photographies of paradisiacal beaches, crowded with tourists. And, in my naivety, I thought I knew enough about Sicily.
After 10 days in Sicily (way too few, I shall add now), I concluded I still know very little. And I managed to see, more or less, everything that I had planned; just that what I had planned is unbelievably little compared to what Sicily has to show to travelers. I would not want to mislead you. Yes, I crossed the island from East to West and from North to South, but I suffered whenever I had to choose between visiting one place over another. Because it’s impossible to see them all, even if some would argue that “it’s just an island.”
Italian journalist and travel writer Matteo Collura says in one of the best books I have read about Sicily, “Sicilia Sconosciuta/ Unknown Sicily that ” it can happen that a tourist, after having visited the island, would be left with the common erroneous impression that Sicily can be resumed with three essential attributes: sea, sun, and a never-ending blue sky.” In other words, Sicily “made” by the travel agencies. He adds that “you can go to Sicily and you can very well return without having seen Sicily”.
I really understood the meaning of his words only after we started “to dig into” Sicily and after the local people opened their doors for us and unarguably had a recommendation, or more than one, to make. Those people about whom the same author says, “They know all about the place they were born and nothing about other places, be they even neighboring places.”
Today I believe that Matteo Collura could not have chosen a more accurate title for his book, that reveals so many beauties and secrets of Sicily. Sicily is clearly an unknown land and I am almost certain that few, very few even, of those who arrive in Sicily know that it has something else besides the beautiful beaches, a volcano and a town extremely well promoted in the tourist brochures, respectively Taormina. And no, I’m not saying that Taormina is not to be seen! It’s a gem and eventually, Guy de Maupassant said it better than anyone “Were a man to spend only one day in Sicily and ask, “What must one see?” I would answer him without hesitation, “Taormina.” It’s just that Sicily abounds in cities and towns, “borghi” and villages one more beautiful than another, hidden between valleys or perched on some lonely mountaintop. Moreover, I think you can take whatever direction, without a previously established plan and you will end up staring eyes wide open at splendors about which no guidebook ever told you.
Because Sicily is so full of surprises for those who have the patience to discover it and adapt to its temperament. If the buzz of a big city like Palermo (which has about 1.3 million inhabitants) – yes, more than one million, I have not mistaken the number – that hides one of the largest historical centers in Europe (possibly the biggest!), 350 churches and many other unexpected art masterpieces, can get you dizzy and suffocate you with hundreds of winding streets, not far from the capital you may end up walking alone on any street of any village of which you know nothing about, but impacts you with glorious pieces of baroque architecture. Some of them, maybe more than just a few, will be turned into ruins, with windows and doors locked but still protected by the presence of a Baroque angel, dusted and crippled, fallen asleep in the splendor of those times long gone. However, the heartbreaking beauty of Sicily stands even in these ruins, among the falling walls where, like out of nowhere, trying to cover any sign of ugliness, any scars, grow rich bushes of bougainvillea or ivy, in a desperate attempt to defeat the present and the abandon.
I sincerely do not know what else I could say to convince you to add Sicily to your travel bucket list. If my lines did not inspire you, perhaps the simple fact that Sicily is the Italian region with the highest number of sites recorded by UNESCO Heritage Patrimony will raise at least a question mark. Or will prove to be a decisive factor, at least for those of you who are passionate about art and history. I can only assure you that beyond what is promoted assiduously, Sicily has an extremely well-hidden face. And because of that, you will sincerely love it.
“They say here, between splendor and squalor, there’s nothing left for pleasure; that our land is not a land of passion. They say…”
Gesualdo Bufalino “L’Isola Nuda”
P.S. I illustrated the text with a photo taken before dawn in Ragusa-Ibla, a town that reached my soul before I have even wandered its streets and before I have climbed the hundreds of steps that take to a church or another. I loved Ragusa for this tiny piece you see in the photo, unbelievably beautiful, melancholic and rich in stories. Just like Sicily. Useless to say, however, that Sicily cannot be rendered in a picture. Nor in a million. No matter how much you photograph, somehow, a side of Sicily will always remain hidden.