“We had arrived.” It was later than expected but Gianluca was there to greet us at La Rosa Sul Mare, our apartment hotel in the Plemmirio nature reserve, just south of Syracuse in Sicily. A tall, bald, lugubrious man who we gradually experienced wore a number of hats – manager aka waiter aka guide aka coffee maker aka cook – Gianluca had that charming way of adding an ‘a’ to everything he said in English. ‘Welcome! Buena Sera! Ia hope youa hada a gooda flighta?
So it’s not surprising that the urge to scribble something of our week on Sicily is overwhelming. But why Sicily? Well, neither of us had been there and it’s almost in Africa so it must be drenched in the yellow stuff even in September. Think Sicily and I think Mafia, an insidious and dangerously important part of the Sicilian society, I think seafood and wine, I think active volcanoes (Mount Etna and Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands off the north coast), and I think Inspector Salvo Montalbano, a fictional detective created by Andrea Camilleri and the TV series of the same name, filmed around Ragusa.
The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily’s strategic location has ensured a colourful history; part of Greater Greece, a Roman Province, an Arab caliphate, a Norman kingdom and now part of a unified Italy. Scratch its poor soil and you’ll find remnants of its past everywhere, but broken columns and ancient theatres, Greek or Roman, don’t really interest me. It’s today’s inhabitants that make this island, them and the incessant flood of tourists. A fascinating article by Maria Luisa Romano in a magazine called ‘Best of Sicily’ gave me a rather negative view; here’s a synopsis: “Around 55% of the population is either unemployed or underemployed, the economy is still based on agriculture, and literacy rates are some of the lowest in Europe. There is a very small middle class and among the people themselves, envy and jealousy, not charity or empathy, have been the rule of the day for a long time. There is little sense of community outside the smallest towns. If history is any guide, there seems not to have been any real sense of civic awareness or community spirit in Palermo or Catania for centuries. And of course organised crime in the form of the Mafia, with its extortion and economic control, preclude any serious development of businesses.” (see note 1)
I took a photograph of the Temple of Apollo, built in 575BC in the Syracuse suburb of Ortygia, but didn’t spend hours looking at how its scattered stones might have looked.
Surprisingly there was little mention in the guide books of the importance of Sicily in the planning of the invasion of Southern Europe, by the Allied forces in 1943 during World War Two. There seemed to have been two main options, one to invade Greece and drive up through the eastern flank and one to invade Italy off the springboard of Sicily. In one of the most successful deceptions of the conflict, Operation Mincemeat, the body of a supposed Royal Marine Officer was allowed to float ashore in Spain. In his satchel were plans for the invasion of Greece; German intelligence accepted their authenticity and moved forces to reinforce that area. The subsequent invasion of Sicily was highly successful and completed in 60 days. Mussolini was toppled and Italy’s participation as an Axis power was over. (See note 2)
La Rosa Sul Mare had about ten small self-catering apartments and the other guests were couples who had come to relax, see the local sights, sleep, snooze, swim, sip, sunbathe, snorkel and chill. Peace and quiet writ large; sea birds cry, small waves break over the rocky shore, the wind gently rustles leaves in the vegetation, whispered conversations drift across the rocks and it’s heads down in one’s book. Until a large group of big Russians, or maybe a big group of large Russians (?) arrived half way through our week. Any ‘group’ is bound to dominate a small place but these people had no respect for others, demonstrating a lack of understating of acceptable behaviour; and because there were 8 of them they became a real nuisance. Their second morning they occupied more than 50% of the sun deck (tut! tut!) and plugged their USB into the loudspeaker; there was nothing quiet about this Russian playlist!! One of the men was a real comedian, or so he thought, as after everything he said he screamed with laughter and his chums joined in too; a nightmare if you’re trying to concentrate on a story!! After a couple of hours I asked the pneumatic blonde whether she could turn her loudspeaker off. She turned questioningly to this head of family. He rose up to his full 1.9m height, his belly extending way over his trunks: “Wot? You no like music?” ……..
The Sicilian symbol
The flag of the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, a self-governing British Crown dependency, is red with a Triskelion, consisting of three legs conjoined at the thigh, at its centre. Its origin is thought to be from when the Norse ruled the island in 1260. I was surprised to find a similar emblem, a Trinacria, a three legged symbol with Medusa as the central face and three ears of wheat here in Sicily. The feet represent the three capes of this triangular island.
On the second night we decided to eat on the charming terrace overlooking the sea and we advised Gianluca at breakfast that morning accordingly. He asked us to select what we wanted as they didn’t have many people eating in and had to get the ingredients!! I chose as a starter Palma ham & melon (yum yum) and a favourite pasta dish, linguine da mare. Later that evening we sat expectantly under the awning and waited. Gianluca eventually appeared with a huge tray carrying everything we had ordered. As he set the dishes down, he muttered: ‘Maybe you ‘ad better eata pasta first as it hota, then starter. Eh?’
On our last day we drove north to Taormina; the place was crowded with tourist coaches wheezing their way up the steep roads and those on foot coming up from the car park. We hurriedly turned around and found a quiet beach. Here it was a little more tranquil; time for a swim and some lunch before returning the car to Avis in Catania airport.
Taormina’s pink beach with mainland Italy a smudge on the horizon
If you go to the trouble of putting up signs saying ‘return cars’ etc at least make them work. After two circuits and endless dead ends, dangerous U turns, reversing up a one-way lane etc eventually we worked out that the signs had been put up by a nincompoop. Ignoring them, we made our way towards the terminal building, where we recognised the Avis operation. I gave the keys back to Fabio – ‘You found us then?’ he asked, clearly embarrassed by the lack of sensible workable directions for his customers.
Mount Etna smoking quietly, seen across the airport apron
We left on time, climbing into the night sky, set our watches back an hour and read and chatted. It was good to get home; we even unpacked our damp beach towels before falling into bed around midnight!
Richard 4th October 2018
Note 1: http://www.bestofsicily.com
Note 2: Operation Mincemeat is the subject of a book of the same name by Ben Macintyre. Hugely interesting.