Sicily: Standing at a spectacular crossroads 21 September 2011
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.[...]
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.
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.
Solo Sicily (020 7193 0158; www.soloSicily.com) offers a week's rental of Renée, which sleeps six, from £1,650.
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