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  • Writer's picturePete Jonson

Henry Thornton, News&Views, No. 35

Dear readers.

Many thanks for reading our latest messages. Today I am presenting key points from a wonderful book, called 'Sicily' by John Julius Norwich. I work mainly from his 'Preface' and 'Introduction, but I recommend reading the full book, as I shall read shortly. Sicily is an approximately triangle of 10,000 square miles. The Northern coastline has Cape Passero at the bottom, Syracuse, Catania, Taormina and near the top Messina. The coast on that side is called the Ionian Sea and the Strait of Messina faces Calabria. We started at Syracuse for several days, then took a train to Catania, about 70 miles up the Northern coast and Taormina approaching Messina. At Catania we were due to catch a new train to the city of Palermo, via a long train trip cross country of around 9 hours. Matters were confused, however, as our new train was due to leave at 2.20, after arriving at 2.12 pm. We hurried to Platform 6, but there was nothing but some lonely rubbish. A railway worker arrived and told us the new train had left early. Has anyone seen an early departure Italian train? We were told after a long yarn by the railway worker with his boss, 'Go to Platform 2. At 5.20 pm the train for Palermo will be due to leave. Luckily Mrs Thornton had prepared three roles with salad, the eating of which covered the 20 minutes of a new 3 hour train to Palermo. We awaited more or less patiently for the next train. Palermo is well along the Northern coast, and Tyrrhenian Sea. As in Syracuse the sea was deep blue, lovely hills and both agricultural and industrial enterprises and on the trip to Palermo some sheep and robust cattle were in evidence, as were a number of moderate sized villages. The city itself had many lively clothing, food and artistic contributions. A beautiful city scene, painted on oils in wonderful oil colour, was quoted for me at 1,500 euros, well beyond my usual limit for art on my trips. Our third serious visitation was Taormina between Messina and Catania on the Northern coast. Frequently described as a special treat, we too have fallen for that particular place. John Julius Norwich visited Sicily with his wife for two weeks in the early 1960s. 'It was, I think, not only the quality but the extraordinary variety of what we saw that impressed me most; the ancient Greek, then the Roman, the Byzantine, the Arab and finally the baroque; but it was in the Normans to whom I lost my heart'. 'I was utterly unprepared for the wonders that awaited me: to mention just two examples, the Palantine Chapel in Palermo, Latin in its plan, its walls encrusted with dazzling Byzantine mosaics, its roof purely Arab - a wooden stalactite ceiling of which any mosque would be proud; and, better still, the huge twelfth-century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator at Cefalu, the greatest advertisement for Christianity that I know anywhere on earth.'

Christ Pantocrator at Cefalu, Sicily

'The history of Sicily - as I have remarked more than once - is a sad one, because Sicily is a sad island.. Visitors coming, as most of then do, for a week or a fortnight will not, I think, notice this. The sun will shine, the sea will be unbelievably blue, the monuments will evoke wonder and amazement. 'If those visitors are wise enough to go to Cefalu, they will find themselves face to face with one of the world's most favourite works of art. But the sadness is there of course, and every Sicilian knows it.'

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