A trip to Sicily has been on the back burner for quite a while and here I am, at last.
The Mediterranean’s largest island has been high on my list of places to visit, not least because of the combined attractions of wonderful food and wine, a vast wealth of history and a sun-drenched landscape that is clearly spectacular in parts. But despite all that and as well as it being the archetypal holiday destination I’ve tended to put off visiting for a couple of reasons. First, the locals have done a pretty good job over the past 2500 years in eradicating the native vegetation and, second, they shoot anything with feathers that’s not a hat or a bedspread. I know there are worse places – Sicily’s not as bad as Malta, for example – but when considering the undoubted delights that I’d find here I’d struggled with the notion of developing a lasting affection for a land bereft of birdsong and comprising nothing but olive groves, vineyards and endless rows of cultivation. For someone who finds equal joy in an unsullied natural environment as he does immersion in a cornucopia of culinary and cultural abundance this would present, you’d appreciate, something of a dilemma.
The excellent Andrea Corso helped on the birding front. As the foremost expert of everything that is birds or birding in Sicily he was the man to call and duly provided both reassurance and guidance on where I should visit and, perhaps more importantly given my fear of being seduced by the gods of a land that played host to tourisme de masse, where to avoid. It was disappointing that he would be off the island while I was there.
I didn’t have to be in Sicily for long before feeling the first, subtle headiness of intoxication; I was captivated right from the caffè and cornetto at Palermo airport. There are birds – not a lot, but some and worth travelling for, too – and there are a few areas of native scrub and woodland – again, not a lot – that remain more or less as they were when the Greeks first settled here around 750 BC. And in-between, the vast, cultivated landscape is bespeckled with towns on precipitous cliffs, evocative vistas disappearing into heat-haze, breathtaking Baroque extravagance, awful road surfaces and scruffy, litter-strewn villages.
And then there’s the food and wine – enough to make even the most reluctant suitor submit.