On The Road: Finding sanctuary as modern-day pilgrims

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

The sounds of the Sicilian countryside wake me up early: the whine of electric chainsaws, and the screech of ancient Fiats taking the turn at the end of the road at hair-raising speeds. Our little house is buried deep in groves of hazelnut trees in a remote valley in the Nebrodi mountains, and it's harvest time. The ground between the trees is covered in luscious brown nuts, and we'll be collecting a bucketful later to entertain our toddler. Before he wakes up, I head out to the balcony to snatch 10 minutes with my hero, Commissario Montalbano, the Sicilian detective created by Andrea Camilleri, who is unravelling another mystery in Excursion to Tindari.

We are also off to Tindari today. It's a notable Sicilian sanctuary which crowns a beautiful headland overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, and today is the feast day of the Black Madonna, a Byzantine statue which apparently dates back to the 8th or 9th-century. Pilgrims will come from across the island – some travelling barefoot through the night – to worship her. We arrive, more prosaically, in a battered hire car, and begin the hot, sweaty climb up the hill. Colourful bunting flaps along the winding road, which is packed with stalls selling sweets and souvenirs.

The sanctuary exudes a carnival atmosphere: kids are running up and down the steps, their mothers chatting animatedly, while the men hang out with the local policemen on the main square. Inside the sanctuary, two choirs try manfully to sing above the hubbub. Despite the chaos – or perhaps because of it – it's genuinely very moving. Half of Sicily is here, displaying their love for their patron saint.

From the little square in front of the church, we gaze down on to beautiful lagoons enclosed by fingers of pinkish sand. This is the Riserva Naturale di Laghetti di Marinello, a nature reserve which boasts spectacular beaches. They are reached from the little seaside town of Oliveri, at the foot of the headland. We tuck into some fresh hazelnut gelato stuffed in a brioche before heading out to the reserve. As our toddler splashes happily on a deserted beach, I return greedily to Commissario Montalbano and his latest conundrum.

Footprint's Sicily guidebook is available now (£13.99)