Sicily: Standing at a spectacular crossroads

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Centuries of Arab rule helped forge the uniquely Sicilian way of life. It's a cultural influence that's still felt by visitors today, says Sarah Merson

It was another scorching hot day in the seaside town of San Vito Lo Capo on Sicily's west coast, so I sought shade under one of the tented canopies belonging to Thàam, a charming little restaurant tucked away on a side street, with a menu centred around couscous dishes. The tables were decorated with ornate North African lanterns; scatter cushions shone with ethnic colour.

In 1768 German polymath JW Goethe pronounced that "without Sicily, Italy cannot be fully understood". Yet Sicily – and certainly San Vito Lo Capo, which occupies the tip of a north-western promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean – cannot be understood without understanding the influence of North Africa. Geographically, it is closer to Tunisia than the Italian mainland. And from a culinary point of view, such is the reverence felt for the couscous specialities in San Vito Lo Capo – they are found in almost every restaurant in town – that this week marks a six-day festival dedicated to the dish. Among the highlights of "Couscous Fest", which runs every September, is a couscous cook-off, where local chefs compete with their African counterparts, who arrive from as far away as the Ivory Coast and Cape Verde.

Multiculturalism in action? It's certainly a contrast to Sicily's ancient history, which is a tapestry of invasions, intrigues and internecine battles. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish have all fought for and dominated the island in turn over the centuries. The result is a complex heritage – yet a significant part is still based around Arabic culture.

At the tip of the headland, San Vito Lo Capo has been developed as a seaside resort, with sun seekers flocking to make the most of the sugary-white sand of the crescent-shaped beach and glittering waters. Patrolling among them are Tunisian beach vendors proferring fresh coconuts sourced from Tunis. Earlier in the day, I'd sipped the deliciously sweet milk, sand between my toes, with my back to the Mediterranean. The view beyond the orange-coloured buildings was dotted with giant carobs and windswept palm trees in a scene reminiscent of the North African landscape.

From San Vito Lo Capo, I travelled 120km (75 miles) down the coast to the town of Mazara del Vallo which, back in the 9th century, was an Arab stronghold. Arriving from Morocco and Tunisia, the first Arab settlers – called in by a Byzantine governor who was rebelling against the emperor – gained an immediate foothold here. There followed the most important period in the town's history, when it became the capital of Val di Mazara, one of the three administrative districts into which the Arabs divided Sicily, which roughly corresponded to the island's three corners: Val di Mazara in the west, Val Demone in the north-east; and Val di Noto in the south-east.

The streets here are laid with golden tufa, and the whole town dotted with graceful squares. More run down is the old quarter, known as La Casbah, which itself is redolent of a North African souk and has a substantial Tunisian population. It's a labyrinth of narrow streets that wrap around one another, and is sprinkled with magnificent 11th- and 12th-century buildings – courtesy of the Normans, who dominated the island from 1091 to 1194.

As well as being responsible for some of Mazara's much-celebrated buildings, particularly churches, the Normans also had a hand in the harbour. As I walked down to the colourful waterfront at the mouth of the muddy River Mazaro, it was easy to see that Mazara del Vallo remains today – as when the Arabs first developed it – a bustling commercial port. Maghrebin fishermen from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria crew the fishing fleet, one of the largest in Europe.

It hasn't always been easy for these fishermen, and there's an ongoing dispute with Tunisia over fishing rights. However, as I watched, the commotion of activity began; everyone working in unison. Voices were raised, nets were hoisted, emptied and finally washed, while local restaurateurs waited to take ownership of a catch of fresh swordfish, cuttlefish, lobster and prawns.

Within 50 years of their arrival, the Arabs, ruled by three different Arab dynasties, had taken over governance of the whole island. In Palermo during the early part of the 9th century, churches were converted to mosques and Arabic was imposed as the common language. Palermo, now the Sicilian capital, became a strategically vital city in the Arab world, rivalled only by the Moorish city of Cordoba in Spain.

The Normans ended this control of the island when they seized Palermo in 1072, borrowing and improving on what they found. The city lies on Sicily's north coast, at the foot of Mount Pellegrino. These days it is magnificently dishevelled, with a mix of architectural styles. Grand historic buildings such as Palazzo Pretorio, and La Martorana – a luminously beautiful medieval church – contrast with poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.

I visited the Palatine Chapel at Palermo's Palazzo Dei Normanni, long considered Sicily's greatest work of Arab-Norman art. Unveiled last year after a painstaking five-year restoration, the chapel's interior is extraordinary. The beautifully carved and painted cedar wood ceiling has the sort of detailing associated with Islamic art, and contrasts with the white marble and biblical figures, inlaid in red, green and gold, on every inch of the walls.

From there, I strolled through one of Palermo's busy street markets. Amid the colourful displays of fruit and vegetables, I sampled panelle (fried chick pea flour fritters) and arancini (rice balls stuffed with ragu, coated with breadcrumbs and fried). Both were introduced to Sicily by the Arabs. However, I resisted the temptation of pane con la milza (a bread roll filled with calf's spleen, cheese, a drizzle of hot lard and a squeeze of lemon juice).

Later, I settled in a street café on Piazza Marina. I sipped a cooling lemon granita (crushed ice mixed with lemon syrup), the origins of which lie in the Arabic sharbat, which was then developed into the crushed ice drink.

I was staying at Renèe, a white-washed villa close to the village of Scopello, which lies to the south of San Vito Lo Capo. Inside, the terracotta floor tiles keep it cool, while the kitchen is festooned with 19th-century ceramics. The owner, Renata Plaja, was keen to stress Sicily's unique character:

"I'm Sicilian," said Renata, "but like most Sicilians, I've adopted a social attitude which is inherent in the Arabs: we don't like to live life in a hurry, and we enjoy lengthy siestas... We are welcoming and hospitable, openly accepting of people from other countries and cultures, and over time those people have come to identify themselves as Sicilians too."

As I reclined on my sun-lounger by Renèe's swimming pool, the Mediterranean shimmering in the distance, it seemed a reasonable moment to indulge in a lengthy Sicilian siesta of my own. Whether a snooze in the afternoon is profoundly North African or Italian, there's little doubt that Sicily's epic history has shaped the island and its people in myriad ways. And the couscous, you can be assured, is always excellent.

Travel essentials



Getting there

easyJet (0843 104 5000; www.easyJet.com) flies to Palermo from Gatwick. One-way prices start at £29.99. Palermo is also served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted.



Staying there

Solo Sicily (020 7193 0158; www.soloSicily.com) offers a week's rental of Renée, which sleeps six, from £1,650.



More information

Italian State Tourist Board: 020 7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Fraud contributes 11p to a £2.00 box of half a dozen eggs
Environment
The plant ‘Nepenthes zygon’ was donated to Kew in 2004
environment
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer snapped celebrities for 40 years - but it wasn’t all fun and games
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Investigo: Group Financial Controller

    £50000 - £55000 per annum: Investigo: A growing group of top end restaurants l...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital