A Sicilian affair

When his guidebook vanishes inside a church, Dugald Jellie knows it's a sign — one of many mysteries on a family road trip.

Our imaginations fail us. It's in Palermo, a city of baroque illusions in the heart of the Mediterranean, that I find myself returning a hire car that not an hour earlier I'd driven away. I did so with all the bravura expected of someone embarking on a 17-day road trip of Sicily in a red, low-slung Alfa Romeo. Destiny beckoned. She snarled under the hood.

But on returning to our lodging I'm excommunicated; I'm told to swap the Alfa for something "more sensible". Part of me dies inside.

Our booking was for a compact rental car with four doors, luggage space and room in the back for a child seat. But now we're abroad - removed from peer restraint, in a place known for its flights of fancy - why not upgrade and live the dream? Besides, exchanging an Alfa is hardly the Italian way.

Journeys are sometimes like old marriages. Ours begins in something grey, with legroom, made in Germany, in quiet resignation.

Sicily has this effect - exciting desire, seductive, full of flamboyant possibilities. This land has beguiled and waylaid travellers since the days of Odysseus; since Arab interlopers planted its palms and sugar cane; since British dandies made it a last stop on their grand tour.

Maybe it's the drugging sun, but not four days into our loop of the island I've fallen headlong for the pageantry of Sicily and its folly. I gesticulate wildly over bocconcini. I wear black in the midday heat. I become consumed by the idea of a red Italian sports car.

"Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery," says Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's virtuoso novel The Leopard. It's a lament that seems both true and thrilling on our arrival at Palermo, via Rome, woozy with jet lag and burdened by my acute self-consciousness of having the worst shoes and luggage on the plane. I didn't know to wear Dolce&Gabbana. Flight attendants look with disdain at my carry-on plastic bag.

Our reason for arriving in Sicily is my partner's paid maternity leave and a shared curiosity about an island that has touched the world - and not only through Coppola's Godfather films. My mother taught us a cartographical jingle as children: "Long-legged Italy kicked poor Sicily out into the middle of the Mediterranean Sea." It put on the map a place that has loomed large in Australian life - the postwar source of the second-largest regional migration - after Calabria - from Italy.

The exodus began in the 1920s, mostly among peasants who scratched plots with spade and pick in the shadow of Mount Etna, who sought to escape poverty and Italy's crippling law of equal inheritance. They left through Messina, on a voyage via the Suez to Port Said, Colombo, Fremantle and ended invariably with hard labour and in distinct settlement patterns. Paesani (fellow townsmen) from Vizzini in the south-east, for instance, tilled market gardens in Werribee, Victoria. Communities from the north-east cut sugar cane in north Queensland. Families from Capo d'Orlando fished at Fremantle.

Pleasure seeking is our other motive: to have a family holiday on the Mediterranean's largest island, off the toe of Italy, in a region locals call Il Mezzogiorno, meaning midday. It's a land reputed to have everything to fulfil a hungry man's desire. Gelato awaits. And pizza. And we have a baby on board, so we're in no hurry. We fancy back roads in low gear.

Brash sunshine and the scalded slopes of Mount Pellegrino are the first conclusive evidence we've arrived elsewhere. The Phoenicians named the city Panormus - all port - looking across water to the continent but also over its shoulder to a forsaken interior and Africa beyond. In Lampedusa's astonishing novel, published posthumously in 1958 and Italy's first international bestseller, he described it as a city of palaces and convents, lending an air of sedateness and a "sense of death which not even the vibrant Sicilian light could ever manage to disperse".

I'm disoriented by mediaeval town planning; Palermo appears as a labyrinthine drama. It starts with our room, in the attic of a pension booked by phone by our Italian-speaking neighbour after my translated emails caused only confusion. Finding the address leads us down a one-way crooked alley lined by Muslim shopkeepers who specialise in curtain rods, to a soup kitchen on the ground floor of a 17th-century palazzo, which serves lunchtime bowls of tripe. Up six flights of scalloped stairs is where we need to be.

Pigeons flutter on terracotta roof tiles. Stray dogs wander among parked cars with side mirrors folded flat. A crowd quarrels, gesturing as if they're expecting us, one man ringing a bell for a key to be lowered on a string.

If The Leopard is a tale of decline and fall, an evocation of the dying days of the Bourbon nobility who ruled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until Garibaldi and his red shirts intervened in 1860, then maybe nothing has changed.

In the nearby Vucciria market, the belly of Palermo made famous by Renato Guttuso's vibrant 1974 painting, we seek respite under faded red canvas awnings and in icy cups of lemon granita. A merchant sings in baritone to his olives. Fishmongers scrub innards off white marble slabs, water splashing on buttery tufa flagstones that give the city a golden hue.

The market becomes part of our daily routine. Here we eat panelle, a snack of fried chickpea-flour pancakes introduced by the Arabs. We shop for pesca spada (swordfish), seppia (cuttlefish), and ripe pomodori and salad greens that come wrapped in newspaper cones. Because we're travelling with a child and locals start eating long after we're thinking of bed, we cook in the kitchen of our pension, which is owned by a divorcee of independent means who is at her beach house. Her glamorous daughter, also a single mother, calls occasionally when her busy social schedule permits.

That is, we have the house to ourselves.

Under a blazing sun, which Lampedusa had said "kept all things in servile immobility, cradled in violence and arbitrary dreams", we push a stroller through perplexing streets, admiring piazzas of outrageous ostentation and visiting palazzos that transmute old money into ornament and luxury. We shelter from the heat in Teatro Massimo, a grand opera house with a mahogany royal box that features in the closing scene of The Godfather: Part III and find pleasure in an afternoon downpour that unlocks odours of soap and a "centuries-old aroma of simmering stew of tomatoes, onions and mutton".

In our first two days here we manage to gatecrash three weddings. All are fabulous affairs, dynastic in scale and attended by men in dark suits with folded silk handkerchiefs and women in backless satin frocks and giddy heels. Children run between back pews in pint-size waistcoats. Never have I seen so much organza, or heard so much organ music.

We can barely step inside a Palermo church without witnessing a marriage. We should have thought to have brought confetti.

If you do only one thing in Palermo, it should be this: catch a bus to nearby Monreale. A hillside town above the fertile curve of La Conca d'Oro, which is carpeted with almond and orange orchards, it's feted for its 12th-century Norman-French cathedral that harmoniously blends Byzantine and Arabian styles and has a ceiling of shimmering gold-leaf mosaics. I've never seen anything like it. Tour guides speak in German, French and Italian, though the beauty of it needs no explanation.

But it's next door in a restrained paradise garden, in the cloistered courtyard of the Romanesque abbey, that I have my epiphany. It's kindled by four trees - a fig, olive, pomegranate and palm - in a symmetrical planting that I think of as a great metaphor of Sicily. Here's an island where four worlds have collided, a crossroads where east meets west and north abuts south, a stepping stone used by Greeks, Carthaginians, Roman landlords, Byzantine tax collectors, Berber emirs, Spanish viceroys, Bourbon princes, German generals, Allied infantrymen - all of whom came and lingered and looted and left.

"We are old, Chevalley, very old," Don Fabrizio mourned in The Leopard. "For over 25 centuries we've been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilisations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none we could call our own."

Goethe said you couldn't understand Italy until you had seen Sicily and to this end we find a bookshop in Palermo. I'd left our guidebook on a pew at Monreale where it promptly vanished, as if by an act of God. As well as a replacement guidebook, we're also after Peter Robb's Midnight in Sicily, an absorbing account of La Cosa Nostra ("our thing"), also known as the Sicilian Mafia. It was particularly active in 1981 and 1982, when more than 200 bodies were collected from the streets of Palermo. Gunfire and car bombs were daily rituals. Even the orange and lemon blossoms were said to smell of corpses.

Latest reports suggest "the family" is in the business of wind turbines, a way to launder dirty money and cash in on the European Union's subsidies for sustainable energy. In the island's west, a martyred landscape where tailgating seems a custom and the use of indicators an aside, we see hundreds of these contraptions, silhouetted on ridges above shallow valleys ribboned with olive and citrus groves. It's here that I come to think of myself as Captain Bellodi in Leonardo Sciascia's 1961 anti-Mafia novella, The Day of the Owl - an outsider who sees the hand of the crime syndicate around every corner.

"This fellow, my dear friend, has a fixation about the Mafia. [He's] one of those northerners with a head full of prejudices who begin to see the Mafia in everything before they even get off the ferry boat."

And it's true; I imagine their string-pulling as we drive across concrete bridges with needlessly long spans, when we pay inflated ticket prices to ancient ruins and even when we eat the sweet custard filling of cannoli at the picturesque hilltop town of Erice. At Trapani, a port on the west coast that's closer to Tunis than Rome and where the next stop in the 1980s trans-Atlantic drug trade was New York, we eat crumbed sardines and couscous in the old Jewish ghetto. When an old man asks for €2 after I park the car, I imagine it is protection money.

Almost everything about our anticlockwise saunter around this island of good and evil takes on an air of unreality. Walking among the magical snows on Mount Etna. Swimming with Donna Versace doubles at Taormina. Licking "sweet tears" onion gelato in the baroque folly of Noto. Sharing the shade of a gnarled olive tree with a busload of tourists while sightseeing among Doric capitals in the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento.

Even our missteps are memorable. At Piazza Armerina, a mediaeval hill town in the island's lawless interior, it takes us more than an hour to extricate ourselves from a maze of streets and travel just five kilometres to Villa Romana del Casale, the island's most significant Roman site with mosaic tile work that floors us. Our road map doesn't help. We have no GPS. At one point we think we should phone friends in Australia to see if they can summon Google Maps and offer directions.

But for all Sicily's beauty and wonders, I can't help but take from this dry and thirsty land a profound sense of melancholia.

Death is never far away.

My last sightseeing stop isn't included in guidebooks: a bleak stop on an autostrada outside Palermo, where two pillars commemorate five names and a fatal date: 23 maggio, 1992. A tricolour flies at half-mast. It was here that 500 kilograms of plastic explosives detonated in a drain under the road as anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone travelled in a three-car escort from the airport to his home. The blast killed everyone in the first car instantly. Falcone died on arrival at hospital.

"My account with Cosa Nostra remains open," the judge had said the year before. "I'll settle it with my death, natural or otherwise."

Falcone's lifelong friend and fellow magistrate, Paolo Borsellino, was murdered soon after.

A co-prosecutor in the mid-1980s Maxi Trial that put so many of the Mafia bosses behind bars, Borsellino died in Palermo with five of his bodyguards when a car bomb detonated as he pressed the bell on the gate of his mother's house. It was a Sunday afternoon.

It's from an airport named in their honour that I leave with a heavy heart, bags full of ceramics and a longing to return to this enigma of an island, a place I think of as unknowable. The artist Guttuso, whose painting of Palermo's Vucciria market illustrates Elizabeth David's 1954 cookbook, Italian Food, had no more luck after a lifetime of musing on its ways. "In Sicily you can find dramas, pastorals, idylls, politics, gastronomy, geography, history, literature," he said.

"... in the end, you can find anything and everything, but you can't find the truth."


Getting there

Lufthansa has a fare to Palermo from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2350 low-season return including tax. Fly with a partner airline to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Munich (13hr 11min) and then with a partner airline to Palermo (2hr 5min); see lufthansa.com. Alternatively, connect to a 40-minute ferry from Villa San Giovanni in Calabria to Messina in Sicily.

Getting around

All the main cities — Palermo, Catania, Messina, Syracuse, Agrigento, Taormina and Trapani — have rail links but buses are cheaper, more frequent and service smaller towns. For convenience, we booked a compact rental car before departure, costing €33 ($42) a day for 17 days.

When to go

Avoid "apocalyptic July" and August, when average temperatures in Palermo top 30 degrees. The ideal time to visit is April to June, or September and October, when the weather is milder, prices lower and crowds have thinned.


Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's baroque drama, The Leopard; Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb.

More information

See bestofsicily.com.