Small Wonders: Sicily and the Egadi Islands
14 January, 2020
I'm dipping my fingers into the crystal-clear sea by Ortigia. It's the end of summer and several boats bob in the distance. On land, a winding road is lined with colourful houses decorated with cacti. It's like a painting.
I had previously dreamed about Sicily in a synaesthetic way: yellow sand, olive green and a splash of ocean blue. I'd seen its sun-baked buildings in The Godfather and Cinema Paradiso. Yet in person, what struck me most about the island was its nooks and crannies, each one filled with prickly pears and obscure ornaments. Walking along bar-lined streets, I see ceramic heads and ornamental pine cones adorning balconies that hang above places serving coffee, granita and brioche - a sort of national breakfast here.
After a couple of weeks wandering between Ortigia, Ragusa, Modica, Noto and Cefalù, I've become accustomed to the joy, laughter and a slow-pace of Sicilian life. I've noticed, too, the many influences at play: the Sicels, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans have all left their mark on the island.
I feel like an archaeologist searching for stories of the past. Arabic style is visible in the architecture of Cefalù; the Cathedral of Syracuse is built on the pillars of the Greek temple to Athena; Noto, once occupied by the Normans, is filled with baroque buildings.
As I make my way to the little-known Egadi Islands off the northwest coast of Sicily, I'm happy to be on the road again. Views of olive groves, aloe plants and almond trees are interspersed by roadside melon sellers. Mount Etna looks angry yet beautiful. I spend a week on the island of Favignana, people-watching each morning from a café, where I order brioche and granita di mandorle.
I may not be far from Sicily, but these streets feel very different: the buildings are more bare, the palette is paler. Favignana is so small that I always feel close to the sea as I wander. When I pitch up in a tourist-free piazza for aperitivo, I am struck with a sense of belonging.