2014 Sicily

This article first appeared in the July/August 2015 edition of Perspective, the Journal of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects.

Sicily lies just off the toe of Italy. It sits in that space between Europe and North Africa and as a result has been the subject of a range of powers and influences, Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Islamic, Norman, Hohenstraufen, Catalan, Greek and Spaniard.

So while Sicily is now a part of the Italian political entity it retains its own identity and an architecture and built environment influenced by all of these cultures.

In this trip we stopped over in the capital, Palermo en route to the Aeolian Islands and then on to Cefalù before returning to Dublin. Palermo is attractive, nestling between hills. It's very walkable and worth getting into a tall building to fully appreciate the layout and setting.

A bumpy hydrofoil took us on the four hour journey from Palermo port out to the World Heritage island of Salina. This is one of the volcanic Aeolian Islands which includes ‘Vulcano' a dormant volcano from where we get the word ‘volcano' and ‘Stomboli' a volcano which continuously erupts at low level.

But back to Salina. This is one of the quieter of the islands which are all linked by regular hydrofoil.

As one of the locals reported the first construction in any village was to position the church close to the water followed by a piazza to act as the social focal point of the community. And so a short stroll from the ferry terminal and the church and piazza make themselves known with adjacent chic bar playing Pink Floyd.

The volcanoes on this twin peaked island have long since become dormant but the islands origins are laid bare in its topography.

A bus winds its way along a linear route to the extremities of the island including the small village where the Oscar winning Il Postino (The Postman) was filmed.The main street of the islands main town, Santa Marina, is a narrow pedestrianised affair to provide shelter from the sun and is accompanied by narrow alleyways that step down to fishermen's dwellings and individual boathouses adjacent to the shore.

A short evening stroll to the nearby village of Lingua can be accompanied by glimpses of Stromboli and rising vapours from Mount Etna in the distance.

Staying on Salina is a relaxing affair, time to read a book or

be handed out coffee by the locals as you sit and sketch. The architecture is a mix of the vernacular with the classical, but all in keeping with a reserved aesthetic and scale appropriate to their surroundings.

Next on to Cefalú. Another hydrofoil this time back to the mainland of Sicily followed by a train along the north coast. Cefalù is a walled town of Greek Origin but the architect

ure of the town provides ample evidence of its chequered history.

The natural fortification of the hill with escarpments that dominate the town was its origin and still contains the remains of the earlier settlements including the temple of Diana dating back to the fourth century. It's a steep climb to the top best undertaken early in the morning.

In 1131 the town moved down from the top of the hill to take advantage of the harbour on the end of the spur of land.

The harbour has become the little beach with the odd fishing boat and affords the classic view of the town with its walls abutting the seafront peppered with windows, openings and other adjustments from the centuries of occupation. And carrying on the Oscar winning theme the harbour was the setting for one of the scenes in Cinema Paradiso.

The town itself is laid out as a series of parallel streets running at right angles from the perimeter road up to a spine Road which leads though the main square containing Cefalù Cathedral.

This square is a lively hub of activity with restaurants and bars catering for the many tourists the town attracts. The twin towered Cathedral acts as a backdrop to the square and makes concessions to a mix of architectural styles. The two Norman towers to the main elevation are supplanted with later spires. The back of the church includes Romanesque arches and a pointed arch preceding the gothic period while the side aisles include Byzantine references.

The narrow streets and controls mean the old town sees little in the way of vehicular traffic save the odd delivery vehicle or a scooter. So this is very much a city for wandering along the streets and just looking out for what you might come upon.

There are the well preserved destinations like the Roman baths but for me it's those little encounters on street corners that make the best pictures.

Pieces of architecture that have long since been disregarded and now have casually juxtaposed pieces of the paraphernalia of modern towns.

And there's also that story of time and adaptation of old buildings to new uses carried out over the centuries in a totally disrespectful way but that is somehow accepted, maybe because of the story told by the works and the financial and technological limitations of such interventions.

Evening time and ‘La Passeggiata' kicks in with beautifully attired Sicilians strolling their way along the streets, a journey for the sake of it which is occasionally interrupted by a latecomer from the beach in togs and flip flops or the unknowing tourist. This is what urban living should be all about, the outside is your living space.

It's a short jaunt 70km down the road to Palermo and a flight back home.

Sicily, well worth the visit.