Jennie Carr: Sicily has, I think, quite a romantic, dramatic image in people’s minds. What three words would you use to sum it up?
Aldo Bevaqua: I would say romantic, dramatic and unexpected. It is very different to that which people expect. It is much bigger than expected, in Sicily you can discover an entire continent.
JC: I have an image of the Sicilian people as being quite reserved and proud, are they keen to welcome tourists?
AB: Yes, they are reserved and proud. Reserved to one another but not to tourists who are no threat. Agriturismo puts tourists in touch with real people, from aristocrats to farmers. And they help people fit in. This started about ten years when agriculture became less effective and not so profitable. So they created tourists spots within a farm (places for visitors to stay). The owners are particularly keen to please. The service is not like hotels, here the people are naturally welcoming and tourists like it.
JC: And what about the language, a separate Sicilian language exists, doesn’t it? Does this mean that standard Italian is no use on the island?
AB: There was a strong influence from Greece across the Mediterranean. Sicily was first colonised in 850BC, then came the Romans with Latin, then the Byzantines who spoke Latin and Greek. The Arabs, who arrived 800AD, didn’t have time to influence the language too much. So Greek and Latin were spoken, with Sicilian as a neo Latin dialect, which was used as a literary Language from 1250AD at the time of King Frederick II, called the wonder of the world. This went on until C16th, when many people adopted Florentine Italian. However, when I was a child, they spoke Sicilian in the law courts here otherwise local people didn’t understand. And when Italy unified, and the army moved northerners south and vice versa, the soldiers couldn’t understand each other! Nowadays due to the influence of TV and radio standard Italian is understood everywhere and many Sicilians speak good English as they start to learn it in primary school.
JC: Shall we talk about Palermo first, a city that is really rich in culture and history, with extraordinary and unexpected Norman buildings as well as Byzantine churches and renaissance style palazzos. Someone once told me it is an architectural historian’s dream.
AB: It’s amazing. The Normans, who had their first regional government here, built the Palazzo dei Normanni followed by the Cappella Palatina. There are Baroque churches, beautiful streets, areas that look like a casbah as markets are very important. You need to spend at least a week here to see everything..
JC: Food plays a huge part in society here and agriculture is very important despite the hilly terrain. There must be hundreds of special dishes on Sicily, however do you have a favourite?
AB: A favourite dish of mine is the typical caponata, which is like ratatouille, it is popular all over the island. Each village has slightly different ingredients and of course each village says theirs is the best! It is made only from vegetables, using the ingredients of the local area. Vinegar and sugar are added to make it sweet and sour. Parmigiana made from aubergines and Parmesan cheese, flavoured with basil is another favourite. In the south of Sicily there are North African dishes: you can get couscous everywhere.
JC: The recent popularity of the Salvo Montalbano detective novels have made me curious about your island, he certainly seems to be a total foodie! And there is a constant feeling of heat in the books too, does it get unbearably warm in the summer?
AB: It is good to see a policeman with hankie, showing he’s hot! As Sicily is on the Sicilian Channel with North Africa on the other side, there is always a pleasant breeze. In the summer season you must expect to have 32 to 35 degrees, so it’s best to avoid this peak season. The best time to visit is the end of April to the end of May. The island is so different to what you’d imagine. It is green and lush: the contrast of the blue of the sea and sky with the green of the fields is amazing. In the Ragusa province there white dry stone walls like those in Yorkshire and at this time of year, you could be in Yorkshire.
JC: Of course Mount Etna cannot be escaped, it’s far bigger than Vesuvius, and still one of the most active volcanoes in the world! That’s quite scary I would think, even if it does provide the really rich soil for agriculture. Is it a constant threat to life here?
AB: It’s not really scary. The people in the area affectionately call it ‘the mountain’. It is part of their life, not like Vesuvius, with dramatic eruptions. It does constantly erupt, although I can’t remember that a single person has died. The lava flow is very slow, it does take houses and properties, the people try to hold back, sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. The people live with it. Often two generations later a new house is built where one was destroyed before. Tourists can take excursions up the mountain in 4 wheel drive vehicles, then walk to the crater. It is very pleasant.
AB: Marsala and Trapani were very well known in England at one time. It was an English merchant called Ingham discovered Marsala wine and started to export it. In 1798 Lord Nelson used these ports for the English Navy. Ragusa is becoming well known, it’s the Switzerland of Sicily, the people there are content, happy with what they have. It’s a balanced region. I would go for the centre, to Enna, this region has no access to sea. They have very good meat, it’s different to cuisine by sea: they have lamb cooked with herbs and pulses, which they make taste extremely tasty. As it’s hilly it is different from the rest of Sicily.
JC: And finally, Aldo we have to talk about the beaches! Once done with food, architecture and volcanoes, a wonderful day or two of relaxation beckons. It seems as if there are beaches for everyone, sandy, rocky, little coves, the saltpans near Marsala, everything seems available, with water sports, fishing and sailing too. Where would you head to for a beautiful piece of paradise?
AB: I would go to the northern coast, the beaches there are not long, smaller than on the south coast. Gioiosa Marea is peaceful except for the Italian bank holidays for 2 or 3 weeks in the middle of August, it’s about 80 kilometres from Messina. In August it’s a good time to visit the mainland cities, Florence and so on, they are all empty, you have them to yourselves. On the southern coast visit Masarla to Trapani, there’s one continuous beach, with sand, the sea is not deep and it’s hundreds of kilometres long. The Ionian Island of Vulcano is wonderful, although avoid peak season, with black volcanic sand. Clearly, a week is not long enough. The Arabs divided the Sicily into three administrative areas, in the south east the Val di Noto, in the west the Val di Mazara and in the north the Val Demane. I suggest you spend a week exploring each area, perhaps over three years.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Sunvil Discovery for travels to Sicily.