`At times, I felt closer to Africa than Europe'

Sicily, and in particular Palermo, may be the Mafia's traditional capital, but Jonathan Gregson is surprised to find a complete absence of lurking menace
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The Independent Travel
Every nation has some distant province whose inhabitants have become the butt of popular humour. In Ireland it's the Kerryman; in Canada, the Newfoundlander; in Italy, the Neapolitan or, weirder still, the Sicilian. And in Sicily, where the old east-west divide goes back nearly 3,000 years to when the Greeks colonised eastern Sicily while Phoenicians and Carthaginians settled in the west, the more urbane easterners regard the people living up the western end of their island as being rather peculiar - introspective, unwelcoming, scowling at all around them.

Arriving in Palermo some time after midnight, it was difficult to tell how much truth there is in this stereotyping. What struck me was how empty the city's historic centre is these days. There were no people in the streets, no lights emanating from the grandiose palaces along the Via Maqueda - only an unending stream of car headlights, since most Palermitans only use this historic thoroughfare as a short cut between the modern suburbs where they now live.

Come morning, there were more signs of life. The warren of old streets which is home to the Vucciria market filled up with shoppers intent on bagging the freshest of the morning's catch. Sea bass and bream, sardines and octopuses gleamed in all their slimy newness on the fishmongers' slabs. Sicilians take their fish very seriously.

As I wandered down narrow streets into the Kalsa, the old Arab quarter of town, housewives were hanging out the morning's washing overhead. Old men in flat caps sat in the shade, staring, seemingly, at nothing at all. They weren't unfriendly and, given Palermo's notoriety as the Mafia capital, I was almost surprised to feel no sense of lurking menace. As for my personal possessions, I felt far more secure against the threat of pick- pockets than, say, in Rome. But then the big boys discourage petty crime on their territory. As the saying goes, you don't shit in your own back yard.

That said, I noticed most tour operators steer clear of central Palermo. They bus in their customers from hotels outside to see the "historic highlights" - the morbid thrill of wandering past all the embalmed corpses in the catacombs of the Capuchin Convent, or the overwhelmingly golden mosaics of the Capella Palatine, the Norman kings' private chapel. This leaves the rest of the historic centre a virtually tourist-free zone. And while the delightfully arabesque San Giovanni degli Eremiti and its cloisters are now on the "tourist trail", all you have to do is cross the street to re-enter the real Palermo - where kids play street football while a randy billy goat is at his business.

I was astounded by the city's wealth of Baroque churches and palaces, and profoundly depressed by their state of disrepair. Many have been shut up for decades, their fine interiors left to rot away. There are some recent signs of urban renovation but all the blackened stucco and crumbling facades made me think of Palermo as the Calcutta of Italy - except that Calcutta is teeming with life, whereas central Palermo has been deliberately emptied of it. Forty years of corrupt government and Mafia-backed property speculation in the suburbs have seen to that.

Curiously enough, it was the Mafia's drug-smuggling exploits which helped preserve the most beautiful stretch of Sicilian coastline. The Zingaro's many hidden coves, protected by a mountainous and uninhabited hinterland, made it an ideal spot for transhipments; and with this going on, no hotelier in his right mind was going to set up in the immediate vicinity. So the Zingaro remained undisturbed, the haunt of eagles and falcons waiting to feed off the hordes of smaller birds migrating between Europe and Africa. Later, when the area's wild beauty, its forests of dwarf palm and giant cactuses, were better appreciated, environmental groups stepped in and prevented the building of a new road. Today, the Zingaro is protected as a natural reserve; and in springtime, when the wild fennel and rosemary burst into flower, it summons up everything that a classic Mediterranean coastline ought to be.

Heading ever westwards, I pushed our hire car through tortuous bends (as PJ O'Rourke once said, nothing handles as well as a hire car) towards Trapani, thinking about the Targa Florio, the last classic road race held on European soil - if western Sicily qualifies as such. For there is a distinctly un-European feel to the tip of Sicily's toe. The Arabs made this their principal base, and standing on the dock at Trapani where the ferry leaves for Tunis, with a bellyful of the local fish cous-cous inside me, I didn't need much persuading that I was closer to Africa than anything European.

I was waiting for a ferry to take me out to the Egadi Islands, three half-submerged mountains that I could make out on the western horizon. Earlier this century, the waters off them were the richest tuna fishery in the world; and as the hydrofoil pulled into Favignana's harbour I could see the derelict shell of the once-thriving Florio canneries.

Along the water-front fishermen were sorting small rock-fish or mending their nets. Not a tuna in sight; but then it was too early in the year for that. The annual slaughter, or mattanza, wouldn't happen until mid- May, when migrating fish swarm around the islands. Then they are tunnelled into the killing grounds. What happens next has been described as the bloodiest legal spectacle on earth. The great net is lifted, and thousands of frenzied tuna - some of them weighing 800lbs or more - are harpooned or gaffed by tonnorati (tuna fishermen) and lifted into waiting boats.

I spotted a big lighter, the kind of boat that looked as though it would be involved in the mattanza, moored alongside the quay. I expected the men who take part in this ritual killing (whose origins may go back to Phoenician times) to be gruff and uncommunicative - even by west Sicilian standards. But the crew were easy-going and only too happy to chat. "There's no need to hurry around here", one of them laughed, "so we talk."

"Yes, this boat goes out for the mattanza, but it is for tourists who come to see the spectacle. Others like this are used by the tonnorati. If you want to learn about the mattanza, why don't you ask of the Rais," he concluded, pointing towards what looked like a derelict wharf. Rais is Arabic for "captain", so the ritual slaughter must go back at least to the those times.

I entered a courtyard that was a hive of activity. Men wearing woolly fishermen's hats were busy straightening cables and unfurling nets. Among them stood a giant of a man. With his full beard and massive chest, he might easily have been a model for some classical statue of Neptune. "I am the Rais", he bellowed. "What do you want to know?"

But despite his intimidating appearance he showed nothing of the legendary taciturnity ascribed to west Sicilians. Once inside the small cubicle that served as his office, he explained that he was only the new Rais and introduced me to his predecessor, a small man with sharp eyes whom he said was the fount of all knowledge about the mattanza. Together they took me through the statistics: the record catch of more than 14,000 tuna way back in 1864, and the most dismal performance - "somebody must have cocked it up" - in 1987 when only 285 fish were caught.

"These men prepare all year for the mattanza", I was told, "which requires nets 10 kilometres in length and 31 metres in depth. We take out four motorised boats and 15 without motors, 63 men in all. They do no other kind of fishing."

It transpired that the Rais had spent some time in Germany, working in a carpet factory. "There I earned far more money", he said, "but here the sun shines 330 days a year and on every one of them I eat fish that has a real flavour. In these islands there is a sapore to life. I think I made the right decision coming back, don't you?"

FACT FILE

Lupus Travel (0171-306 3000) is offering Alitalia flights to Palermo via Rome or Milan for pounds 200 mid-week, pounds 210 at weekends until the end of June. Jonathan Gregson's hire car was provided by Avis in Palermo. A week's rental of a category B car with unlimited mileage will cost approximately pounds 186 (reservations 0990 900500).

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