Sicily, the Mediterranean’s largest island, has a culture entirely of its own and harbours a sinister history. Lift the lid on Italy’s volcanic island with Lonely Planet Magazine’s guide.

Diverse Sicily: Palermo

Sicily’s indefinable qualities are apparent in the island’s food. A fantastic dish like pasta con le sarde - pasta with sardines and raisins - has its roots in the Arab invasion, with a sweet and sour taste that you will find nowhere else in Italy.

Sicily’s capital Palermo is a layer cake, each tier representing a different outside influence. Walking its streets is like travelling through time. The Cappella Palatina, or Palatine Chapel, is an extraordinary blend of Norman, Byzantine and Arab art, and a few streets away is the castle of La Zisa, built for a Norman king by Arab craftsmen. The post office is a huge, white, Neoclassical fascist temple, now a monument to Mussolini’s failed experiment to destroy the Mafia’s power and popularity. Veering off behind it in every direction is a honeycomb of tiny little streets - so narrow that it would be pointless trying to squeeze through in any vehicle larger than a three-wheeler - each with lines of washing hanging all along them.

Dark history

During the 14th century, the Spanish empire sucked Sicily dry - people were treated as serfs and retreated inland to form their own, separate society. By the 19th century, this vagabond culture was completely entrenched, with the whole of Sicily being ruled by nameless, shadowy figures who became the Mafia.

The Mafia is the idea of the family turned into an alternative political system. The notion that your family is what you cleave to - rather than the state - is an ancient one in Sicily because, traditionally, the island has been ruled by outsiders.

The tide began to turn in the 1980s when a Mafioso broke the code of silence and mass trials led to hundreds of prosecutions. Since then, the anti-Mafia movement has gained strength and support from across society. And in the summer of 2004, a group of youths frustrated that they couldn’t open a bar without paying pizzo, protection money, started a guerrilla campaign. The anti-extortion movement has gathered pace, with the youths’ organisation ‘Addiopizzo’ (‘goodbye pizzo’) at its helm.

Spiritual Sicily: Modica

To participate in Sicily’s communal and genuinely popular approach to religion, there’s nowhere better than Modica on Easter Sunday. This southern town of higgledy-piggledy houses tumbling down a steep hillside is home to the Madonna Vasa Vasa - an enactment of the sorrow and the joy of the Christian story as a huge piece of public theatre.

On the morning of the Madonna Vasa Vasa on Easter Sunday, everyone dresses in their finest. The street becomes a catwalk, from three-piece 1960s suits that you might otherwise only see in a Fellini film to teenagers in coordinated colours. Two huge processions, one carrying the Virgin Mary and the other carrying Christ, make their way through the streets to music with a sombre drumbeat, each purposely evading the other. By midday, 30,000-odd people have congregated in the town square, as mother and child finally come face to face. Mary - a sort of life-size puppet in this portrayal - opens her cloak to release a clutch of doves and the audience waits to see what happens next. If the birds fly skywards, it is taken as an augury of a good harvest.

The climax of the ceremony is the vasa vasa (‘kiss kiss’). At the moment the statues are brought together in an embrace, it’s as if the local football team has just won the cup, the crowd erupting with cries and shouts of celebration. The festival celebrates life after death, and in Sicily the contrast between light and dark, life and death, has always been extreme.

Green Sicily: the road to Enna

Though the island, historically, has been poor, things have always grown very well here. A drive along some of its long, straight, inland roads - like that from Modica to the hilltop town of Enna - passes huge tracts of unpopulated land, great wheat fields and wild, empty landscapes. From Enna, it is possible to look out in all directions across this vast, fertile island.

Volcanic Sicily: Etna

Sicily was just a satellite of Greece’s empire, but Mount Etna obviously had a huge impact on the Greek imagination, because it was the birthplace of so many of its myths. It’s where Persephone, daughter of Zeus, goes into the underworld; it’s where Zeus’s son Hephaestus (Vulcan is his Roman god equivalent) has his forge. Then there’s the myth about the cyclops Polyphemus.

Etna is a ‘multi-flue’ volcano, which means that there’s no central crater, so an eruption can take place anywhere. Today Etna is a strange and mysterious place, with dark black stone that looks like somebody’s just given the surface of the moon a going-over with a digger. Because the volcano is still active, the landscape is constantly changing.

Although Etna is a world apart on Sicily, it encapsulates the island’s extremes. It’s created a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape that seems like it’s all about death, but just a stone’s throw away is the most incredibly fertile volcanic soil, where everything from grapevines to tomatoes flourish and grow.

This is an excerpt from an article by Andrew Graham-Dixon, first published in Lonely Planet Magazine. Andrew Graham-Dixon is an art critic who has presented several BBC series in the UK, including BBC Two’s recent Sicily Unpacked with Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli.

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