Sicily – Seeking Inspiration

Without Sicily, Italy creates no image on the soul: here is the key to everything. – Goethe

 

It is no great secret that Italy is a country that I adore. Since first travelling there just before my 30th birthday I have made it my mission to return as often as possible. Despite many travels to Italy, last year was the first time that I journeyed to Sicily, and needless to say, I fell in love. I had been fascinated with this enchanting island long before I even set foot on her ancient soil. Sicily is a land of many contrasts.  Naturally the multilayers of a turbulent history are visible everywhere, both in the natural and built environment; yet an optimism for the future is also evident when encountering and meeting the Sicilian people. At first I was struck by her decaying beauty. The crumbling monuments of past civilisations are dotted across the landscape, and they are a visceral reminder that you are not the first to be cast under the intoxicating spell of the island and you definitely won’t be the last. There is a spirit that endures despite times of much hardship including the suffocating grip of corruption. There is also a youthful prosperity to the island, particularly in the city of Palermo, the capital of the island. Walking through Palermo’s chaotic back streets is a journey of contrasts. Surprisingly, vendors selling their aromatic exotic spices sit comfortably alongside contemporary wine bars filled to capacity with young Palermitani and tourists alike. Una bella confusion- A beautiful confusion. This statement is an Italian adage I heard many years ago which perfectly captures the essence of this stunning yet incongruent island.

 

Of course any trip to Italy is not only about the people and places but also experiencing the wonderful food. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sicily. Perhaps because of the history of isolation but most especially because of the many diverse cultures which have invaded these shores, the Sicilian cuisine is very special. A coastline abundant in fishing practices, combined with a vast area of the island’s fertile soil producing a variety of agriculture, results in a rich culinary tradition. I have enjoyed the flavourful rice arancini at local markets, ate my fill of freshly caught tuna accompanied by pistachio pesto on the water’s edge, tasted the best cannoli while visiting a cheese farmer, indulged in the delicious pasta con le sarde, and of course tasting many of the beautiful regional Sicilian wines.

 

Travelling around this small yet diverse island, I have found so much joy in experiencing the simple pleasures. Watching in awe as the sun’s last rays stretched out across the horizon and melted the sea into a pot of liquid gold is always breathtaking.  I journeyed west, to the ancient salt pans of Trapani, where the combination of hot African winds, long sun-drenched days and shallow waters present the perfect environment for natural salt, rich in minerals and free from any chemical treatment. Entering the heart of Sicily, the vast fields of blood-red poppies and wildflowers scatter the landscape like an old patchwork quilt. Little stone farmhouses surrounded by their crops of pale wheat remind you why this fertile land was once known as the breadbasket of Rome. Moving towards the south, I visited the sedimentary rock formation known as the Scala dei Turchi (Stair of the Turks). I watched as local Sicilian boys took running leaps from the edge of the cliff, to land with a mighty splash into the deep turquoise waters below. I sat and wondered how I could possibly make this moment last for an eternity. The scirroco (the warm Mediterranean wind) reminded me that I was now closer to Africa than to mainland Italy. I made my way to the beating heart of Sicily on the island’s far east to see the sleeping beauty Mount Etna. Europe’s largest and most active volcano, Mount Etna’s rich volcanic soil dotted with lush verdant vegetation left me feeling like I had entered a parallel universe. It is easy to see why the ancient Greeks wrote so many myths surrounding this sleeping giant. As I stood staring into the eye of one of the smaller craters, I could almost see the eye of Polyphemus staring back at me.

With a culture born out of bloodshed and sunshine, Sicily has turned writers into poets, and painters into artists, and it has given new inspiration to my ceramics. It’s hard to put into words why we fall in love with a country. There can be a myriad of reasons why are our hearts and minds are drawn to one particular place over another, some logical others simply emotional. However, there is a certainty that I can count on. Sicily will be a long-standing romance, and a place I will visit again and again, to seek out new inspiration and to visit old friends and make new ones.

 

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