FOR me Sicily combines the best that Italy has to offer. Its warmth, extravagance of language and gesture, culture and history hiding behind crumbling facades and faded edifices all have huge appeal. Add to this a coastline dotted with coves and bays and soulful promontories plus a gossipy, openly curious people who not only guide you where you want to go but are interested in why you want to go there in the first place.
So when I got an email from a lady called Marcella suggesting a trip to the largest island in the Mediterranean, which was bathed in sunshine, while the rest of southern Europe was shivering in November, it was a simple decision.
Marcella and I, along with some 44,000 others throughout the world are members of website Homeexchange.com.
I live in London, half an hour from the West End and theatreland while Marcella lives in Palermo, in the middle of town, practically on top of the famous outdoor markets. I had five free days in November, and my friend Judith agreed to join me.
Marcella and I emailed each other, phoned each other and finally skyped each other and found we shared that quality that can only be properly described in Italian. We were 'simpatiche'. For Marcella, five days in London was her idea of total bliss, as she adores the city.
When we entered her apartment I felt as if we'd stumbled into an old Italian movie. Marble floors, shaded rooms filled with brooding, baroque furniture, chandeliers tinkling above our heads and lush plants everywhere. This was faded Sicilian grandeur in miniature, but also comfortable, cosy (especially in the kitchen) and much more fun than any hotel. With the help of friendly neighbours we slotted into local life within hours.
We didn't just take photographs in the market, we took home supper; fresh local fish, caught that morning, purple and green artichokes brought in from nearby fields, aromatic sesame bread, still hot from the oven and baskets of fat, green grapes, so sweet they tasted of liquid honey. Marcella had left a bottle of Sicilian red for us, Nero Nero d''avolo, which we sipped on our balcony overlooking the old city.
Our view was of muddled buildings each jostling the other for position, all boasting spiky television aerials and just over there, with glimpses of the sea in the background, a roof-top garden, tended by a lady in a dressing gown. Although we enjoyed catering in our own home from home, we had to try authentic Sicilian cucina, which is famous for its spicy, Arabic undertones. We discovered …