Sicily is one of those places that really have roots – in fact,
very large portions of the world’s population have their roots there. If you’re
an American of Italian descent, there’s a forty percent chance that your
ancestors came from Sicily. The reason for all that migration, of course, was
poverty: despite being rich and fertile, it’s always been one of the poorest
parts of Italy.
But it’s very far from being a slum. If you’re cruising around
the central Mediterranean, your itinerary will almost certainly feature a
Sicilian stop off, probably in the ancient city of Palermo.
In some ways it’s not really an exaggeration to say that the
island hasn’t changed that much in two thousand years. After the Romans got
hold of it they pretty well left it alone – back in those days most of
population of the island spoke Greek, and the legions made little effort at
Romanization – they just left the locals to get on with it. That was probably a
good idea. Back then, as now, the island was one of the main producers of
grain, olives, grapes and almonds in the Mediterranean.
A lot of the fertility of the soil is the result of a very high
level of local volcanic activity. If you’ve made landfall at Palermo, there’s a
good chance that your cruise company will have organized a coach trip for you
to go and see the mighty Mount Etna, which lies an hour or so drive to the
east, and dominates the upper north-east corner of the island. At over three
thousand meters (the height changes regularly because of eruptions), Etna is
the highest volcano in Europe, and the most active.
And boy is it active. Mount Etna is officially classified as
being in a state of virtually constant eruption. Don’t let this worry you,
however. Etna is not characteristically like its neighbor Vesuvius on the
mainland Bay of Naples. Vesuvius doesn’t erupt very often, but when it does it
does it in style, spreading destruction – and sometimes death – over a wide
area. Because Etna blows off smoke every day there is very rarely sufficient
build-up of gas and lava in the mountain’s interior to make a really big bang.
But it’s an unusual day when there’s no smoke coming from the caldera at the
summit, and on most days you can here the reports of small explosive eruptions.
If you can, it’s worth watching the mountain at night: when it has a slightly
more energetic blast than usual you can often see ‘fire fountains’ of red hot
molten rock jetting from the summit.
Back in Palermo there’s a lot to see and do. It’s a lively town
that’s been around non-stop for getting on for two and a half thousand years.
It’s taken some damage in its time, most recently during WWII, but life carries
on. It’s a fun city in which to eat: don’t expect lots of fancy cuisine here,
though. The food is basic, but excellent, and all made from the freshest
ingredients, as you would expect from a region that is effectively the
breadbasket of Italy. There’s less of an emphasis on pasta than you’ll find in
the northern Italian states, though it is still eaten in huge quantities.
Seafood is important – if you can stomach the thought of eating octopus, try
the excellent local calamari – as are breads made from locally grown grain.
There’s even a strong African influence, which is hardly surprising giving the
proximity of Tunisia across the water – you can find some excellent couscous
and similar dishes in Palermo.
If you feel like a little art and culture before boarding you
ship, you should try to get a seat at the Teatro Massimo. That in itself should
hardly be a problem – it’s one of Europe’s biggest theatres. The Teatro Massimo
was built in the late nineteenth century, and heavily restored a few years ago.
As ever, the Sicilians were eager to show their cousins in northern cities like
Milan, Venice and Turin that they weren’t backward yokels, but people of
culture – so the Teatro was built with the aim of directly competing with great
northern opera houses such as La Scala. Opera is still staged here every year,
along with conventional drama. If you can fit a performance into your schedule,
do you very best to attend. Even if you don’t really understand what’s going on
– which shouldn’t worry you, as opera is about music, and the stories are
usually ridiculous – you’ll have a great time soaking up the atmosphere.
A cruise stop-off of a night or two isn’t really enough to do
justice to this fantastic island and its centuries of accumulated history and
culture. But it might just be enough to make you want to come back for more!