The first time I saw Sicily the island seemed to surface into the dawn, dead ahead of the ferry from Naples. Silvery cloud crowned dark mountains. Monte Pellegrino, the nearest peak, brooded over the dusty ochre spires and palaces, the apartments, churches and domes of Palermo. Viewed from the Tyrrhenian sea on a winter morning the city is a prospect serene in its antiquity, beautiful in its detail, infinite in its charisma and so magnificent in its setting – the crescent of land known as the Golden Shell – that it seals itself in the eye’s memory. ‘Ai, Palermo!’ cried a man dressed like a dishevelled lawyer, as if greeting the chaotic love of his life as she returned from another brink. I love Sicily for every reason, but above all because here all myths, philosophies, horrors and miracles are true. Winter bares souls, and Sicily’s, from first moment you sight it, is tangibly magnificent.
Goethe did not want to leave his ship, so seized was he by the scene. There was a phenomenon, so a long-time resident of the city told me, of elderly emigrants to America, returning at last to the old country, suffering heart attacks at the sight of their longed-for land. Time accrued in Sicily lives on inside you as a splendid kind of longing. The winter months are my favourites, with their lance-bright days, the stretched blues of sky and sea, the grey-green rainstorms and the nights when the stars above my flat burned like watch fires. I have been thinking of that time a lot, recently. Returning to healthy society after a breakdown finds me in a small flat in Hebden Bridge. It was well known, when I lived in Palermo, that the Mafia had heavy holdings in refuse collection. At midnight their trucks came to take away the day’s garbage. This week, in a pleasing echo, flashing lights and heavy vehicles have been manoeuvring outside my window: not the mob, but the gritters of Calderdale, defending us against ice.
Etna, la muntagna in the local dialect, the mother-mountain of the Mediterranean, keeps her snows all year round. Below her the mountain towns and villages are strung across the peaks of Sicily in cold beauty. In winter the remoter settlements inland feel like sacred places. ‘Palermo is a mountain town,’ my Sicilian friend explained, ‘It just happens to be by the sea.’ He comes from Piana degli Albanesi, a rock-pool community, centuries old, where antique Albanian still decorates the signs and the dialect. Go into a restaurant there and begin the riddling game with the waiter over what you should order. There is a right answer; decorum insists you should identify it, rather than be told, but everyone else is eating it. Tomato sauce from last year’s crop, olive oil from the November harvest, pasta of course (brought here by the Arabs – the perfect portable food for campaigning armies) and baked ricotta on top, thickly grated over the steaming dish.
The Ballaro market, my favourite in the world, is ideal in this season: a place for cool strolling among the jewel-hoards of fruit, rather than the listless drifting of the heat-struck months. A tour of Sicily in the winter reveals almost no visitors to Mazara del Vallo, Europe’s venerable deep south (the bronze dancing satyr, recovered from the sea, one of the greatest sculptures ever cast, lives there) or Enna, where Persephone returned to the world, bringing spring with her. Even Siracusa is quiet. Aeschylus said there was never a day without sun in his and my favourite town in all the world. Ruffed by the warm winds of the Maghreb, with the accumulation of Europe’s gods all present in the cathedral architecture – Pagan, Greek, Roman, Arab, Christian – and the most perfect piazza outside, beautifully bowed, north to south and east to west, I only have to think of Siracusa’s semi-island, Ortygia, where the Fountain of Arethusa bubbles sweet water through the sea, for the blues of a British winter to brighten.
‘He who leaves Sicily without seeing Monreale arrives a fool and leaves an ass,’ as the Sicilians put it. There will ever be amazed gazers under the celestial mosaics of this cathedral overlooking the Golden Shell. Norman overlords commanded figurative biblical art from Arab and Venetian mosaicists; here, and in the Capella Palatina in Palermo, art, tolerance and faith combine in something words fail.
The most perfect arrangement of sound and sense, the sonnet, was invented in Sicily. I paced my iambics through the streets of Europe’s warmest winter capital marvelling that old Palermo’s signs are still in triplicate: Italian, Hebrew and Arabic. Idealists’ dreams of poly-cultural harmony came true long ago. You can live in them in Sicily in winter; mighty, multiple, quiet and unforgettable.
This is the first installment of Horatio Clare’s series on continental winters. The second in the series will be published on Spectator Life soon.