Byline: Tim Ware
Ask a man in Sicily about the Mafia, says TIM WARE, and he'll
dismiss it as folklore or shake his head and change the subject - quickly
SICILY is one of the Mediterranean's most spectacularly beautiful islands. But it's also an island of mystery - a place where no visitor can feel totally at home.
Talk to a Sicilian about the most famous export, the Mafia, and he will either dismiss it as romantic but extinct folklore or shake his head sadly and change the subject.
As an outsider, it's all but impossible to touch this, the darkest Sicilian secret. But, in the final analysis, you're more likely to be troubled by a Palermo bag-snatcher than a member of the Mob.
In many respects, Sicily could have been created with tourism in mind. There are some great beaches, but much of its fascination is tied up with the past.
Most of the great European and North African civilisations washed over it at some time or other. Greeks and Romans, Moors and Saracens, Spaniards, Austrians and even the British all came here, leaving their own distinctive marks on the island's history.
Those who go to Athens for antiquity, Florence for art and Ravenna for mosaics might be a little surprised to find all these things thrown together here in glorious confusion.
Sicily, almost half way between Gibraltar and Suez, is at the centre of the sea that likes to be known as the centre of the world.
There is nothing exaggerated about the claim. When you first catch sight, as I did early one evening, of the floodlit temples at Agrigento, you might come to the conclusion that its Greek antiquities are finer even than those in Greece. The grooved sandstone pillars and broken columns speak volumes for the long-dead civilisation they once represented.
The following day, in the heat of the midday sun, I saw three dogs snoozing together in the shadows of these magnificent buildings where gods and goddesses once worshipped.
Palermo suffers a strange schizophrenia - it is hideously ugly in parts, but also has many attractive features. And although it is no longer the most economically significant city on the island - that accolade belongs to Catania - it is the place where the heartbeat of Sicily is at its strongest.
It is superbly situated on a wide bay at the foot of the huge limestone slab known as Monte Pellegrino. It is a fast moving, brash, exciting city set against a backdrop of architecture drawn from almost every period of history.
Some of its buildings are straight out of the top drawer. There are wonderful mosaics, for example, in the Palatine Chapel. And you could easily while away a half day wandering through the centre of the city, admiring the Cathedral and the magnificent, recently-restored opera house, the Teatro Massimo, the largest theatre in Italy. …