Magazine article The Spectator

Island Reservations

Magazine article The Spectator

Island Reservations

Article excerpt

'You'll love Sicily', or so everyone said before we went there. And they were right: we did. But until one is actually there the nature of the appeal is hard to understand. It is beautiful, its cuisine is superb, its antiquity plentiful, its climate serene: but it is also in the grip of criminality, whose predations on the island (which houses a little under a tenth of the population of Italy) are everywhere visible. Its rural parts are shockingly poor, some of its urban ones downright dangerous: but its fascination is considerable.

Everyone goes to the east of the island, nearest the mainland, notably to Catania, to which you can fly from Gatwick. We decided to be aggressively different, and went to the west. It wasn't easy to find a decent-quality hotel in that mafia heartland but we eventually found a nice, clean, comfortable one about 50 miles southwest of Palermo in Valderice, the Baglio Santa Croce. It also had one of the best restaurants for miles around tacked on to it, and a large ballroom that seemed permanently busy while we were there. Each time it housed an event hugely expensive cars -- incongruous in this dirtpoor region -- thronged the car park, and large men in dark suits and black ties sat around outside. All part, we said to ourselves, of the local colour. The hotel overlooked the Tyrrhenian Sea, the coast enlivened by various volcanic outcrops; and it stood among olive and citrus groves under the gorgeous mediaeval hilltop town of Erice, where we spent a happy day admiring the views, looking at the shabby but marvellous churches, and experiencing a particularly fine restaurant, the Monte San Giuliano, whose marinated fish will stick in the memory for some time.

On another day we drove down the west coast to the imposing Greek remains at Selinunte, overlooking the sea. It was better to arrive than to travel hopefully. The west coast main road from the squalid port of Trapani down through Marsala -- not as nice as the wine that takes its name from there -- is reminiscent of some of the grimmer parts of west Africa, with endless shanties, dereliction, and a ribbon development of semiurban unpleasantness. Selinunte, though, was a vivid reminder of Sicily's varied cultural past: first the Greeks, as exhibited here, then later the Romans and the Normans. …

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