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Seeking out Sicily’s treasures

Money, care and time has been spent on restoring the historic sights of the island

By on Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A temple built in the 5th-century BC by Greek colonisers in Selinunte, Sicily (AP)

A temple built in the 5th-century BC by Greek colonisers in Selinunte, Sicily (AP)

My time away from from writing for this website was spent in Sicily, as it was last winter. This time I undertook a tour of the western part of the island, and fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition by seeing the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, and the temples at Selinunte and Segesta. I also spent time in Palermo, Erice, Trapani and Marsala, as well as Mussomeli, one of the less visited towns of the interior.

I was last in this part of the island about twenty years ago, and back then I was struck by the evident poverty of the place. Much of Palermo, in those days, had fallen down. It is thus good to report that a huge amount of money, care and time has been spent on Palermo’s historic quarters, and that Via Alloro, for example, is now quite pleasant, having once been a row of hideous bombed out slums. Two decades ago, not a single fountain in Palermo functioned: now they all do. Places that once were grim, too, such as Trapani, are now pleasant.

It is also good to report that there are numerous outstanding museums in Sicily. The Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo is justly famous, but the new Museum of Modern Art (which means nineteenth century art) is equally impressive; and there is also a very fine museum in Trapani, which, among other things, contains a nineteenth century guillotine. Marsala has a museum that contains the remains of a Punic ship. These are unique sights.

The perennial curse of sightseers in Italy is to find things shut for restoration: so it proved with Agrigento Cathedral, which is very old, and which is built on a hill that is cracking up under it. But the Capella Palatina in Palermo is open after five years’ of restoration, and that is one of the world’s great must see sights.

It is also worth pointing out that Sicily’s population, once again, showed itself very friendly and welcoming to visitors, with lots of people going out of their way to be helpful. This is not always the case in places such as Rome.

And yet, as with all places that are worth visiting, it is the surprises that one takes away with one. Mussomeli is roughly half way between Agrigento and Palermo, accessible by a good state road for the whole way bar the final climb up from the valley to the mountain top on which it sits. It an ancient place, and many of its natives now live in England. The mountainous countryside is surpassingly beautiful, wilder and more savage than Tuscany, and at this time of year very green. The town is home to the Madonna of the Miracles, and on the day I arrived, quite by chance, I walked into a Blessed Sacrament procession, where the Sacrament was being solemnly processed between two of the town’s fifteen churches.

It was a magnificent sight, for Sicilian feasts are not modest things, and the decoration of the Church of the Madonna, which was the destination of the band-led procession, was most impressive. I was only a day in Mussomeli, but it is the part of the island, so little visited, that urges me to return.