Sicily: Standing at a spectacular crossroads

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; flies to Palermo from Gatwick. One-way prices start at £29.99. Palermo is also served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; from Stansted.

Staying there

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

More information

Italian State Tourist Board: 020 7408 1254;