Sometimes you just have to get away.
On more than a few occasions during this past year or so I’ve felt that sanity would only be preserved by getting into the car and heading for the sunset. Essential work on the house, on-off moving dates, packing crates, keeping the peripheral life-forms that are estate agents at arms-length and – perhaps worst of all – agonising over what to keep and what to dispose of have sometimes felt like insurmountable problems.
You get by it of course, but while squeezing the content of a four-hundred year old farmhouse into a much smaller and completely modern apartment remains a work in progress, life – at last – appears to be taking on a measure of control. That didn’t seem possible even a few weeks ago. Yes, luxury problems when you consider the unspeakable horrors that people are suffering around the world in Asia, north Africa and the Middle East but those are problems almost too big to comprehend and strangely, where one stores dozens of photo albums and what one does with a large portfolio of artwork of nothing more than sentimental value have taken on a disproportionate importance.
Now, with curtains hung, most of the boxes unpacked and some of the furniture relocated we have carved out a little space for ourselves and have, at last, got away – to Sicily, which is draped in wild flowers and the green of early summer. Days are now filled with the scent of wild fennel and orange blossom; nights with calling Scops owls and barking dogs. You feel history here and you find perspective; to be in Sicily is to immerse oneself in Baroque splendour and indulge in culinary delight so the hours spent seeking shade are punctuated with cous cous di pesce and moscato-flavoured granita.
There is a timelessness about this place that is almost somniferous. It’s in the decaying buildings and the muted colours; the easy friendliness of Sicilians and the undulating cultivation. And it’s in the food – a coalescence of influences that simultaneously stimulate the senses and calm the spirit. Essentially, a perfect place to take time, walk narrow streets and live life for a while without an agenda.
Long lunches, a glass of chilled grillo and the shadow of weathered stone give you time to ponder and absorb its essence but with it comes the realisation that, for all its history and all the influences that make it such a magical place, this most fascinating of islands remains ancient and unmoved by the comings and goings of its visitors. Occupation is transitory; Greeks and Romans to Byzantines and Muslims; Normans to Spanish and Bourbons have come, left their mark and eventually gone. Now it’s generation TripAdvisor, grading antiquity and hotels on a scale of five.
I guess the unique richness that permeates time here is the result of Sicily mellowing across eons and that was probably just fine until the advent of mass tourism and Sicily by Car. Lunch, in view of the sea or in a stone-paved piazza, is frequently memorable but the ingenuous mood it generates can evanesce quickly. Like the intricate details on balconies and hand-cultivation of steep hillside plots, Sicily’s road network – aside from a few kilometers in the north and east – belongs to a time past. Even the shortest of journeys requires an unreasonable degree of concentration as potholes, mis-aligned joints, adverse camber and seemingly random deposits of tarmac or concrete combine in common assault. Sicily doesn’t do maintenance – manutenzione – and, as though that weren’t enough, encounters with Sicilian drivers are often heart-stopping. No, Sicily isn’t the place to come to if you like to drive, need to be busy or move around a fair bit – this is the place to run to when you want new life breathed into you; what you get here is something else – ringiovanimento; rejuvenation.