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Notes from an author: Catherine Banner

The slow train from northern to southern Italy has Sicily as its destination, a fabled island where the ghosts of the past continue to shape its future

Notes from an author: Catherine Banner
Catherine Banner. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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In the summer of 2009, I made a 36-hour journey by train from the UK to Sicily to visit my Italian family-in-law. The train route between north Italy and the south is a well-travelled one, though usually in the other direction. During Italy’s economic boom, fresh migrants from the south arrived in Turin and Milan on the treno del sole each morning, climbing from the carriages with cardboard suitcases. Now, for €30, you can travel overnight the other way. The cabins are so small you have to take it in turns to enter and exit. For 16 hours, the train edges down the coast, gathering passengers, until one in the morning when it slows even further, passing through the backstreets and peripheries of southern towns, coasting for long periods with its engine switched off to let the passengers sleep, while slatted orange light passes rhythmically under the blinds.

On that first journey, I shared a cabin with two women from France, a student from Naples, her grandmother and her 96-year-old grandfather. Around dawn, we were woken by an ominous creaking and clanging, as though the train were breaking through an ice floe. “Siamo sulla nave,” someone murmured. (‘We’re on the ship.’) And we were, still aboard the train. It was 5am, but the elderly couple were already eating breakfast. Leaving the train, I climbed the metal staircase to the deck, which had miraculously appeared above us. A few passengers, already awake, took their first cigarettes and drained coffee from tiny paper cups as we watched Sicily approach.

For centuries, people have come to Sicily by sea, usually as conquerors. The Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Barbarians, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Spaniards and — during the Second World War — the British and Americans. All have left behind ruins. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, perhaps Sicily’s most famous writer, wrote of ‘these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing around us like lovely mute ghosts’. 

In Monreale is a cathedral whose stonework was made by Catholics, its mosaics by Byzantines, its cloister by Muslims. In Taormina, the Greek amphitheatre frames the ocean. At Pantalica is a necropolis with 4,000 rooms, where children play in the river pools. There are recent ruins, too: drive along the new highways, where dust and blown paper circle in the riptides of hot air at the feet of the oleanders, and you’ll come upon modern ghosts. Perhaps a half-built multi-storey car park built to serve a village of a thousand, or a viaduct crossing some valley full of dusty orange groves, incomplete, leading nowhere. 

But even on that first visit, I began to sense this was a land full of stories. Returning home, I discovered Giuseppe Pitrè, a kind of Sicilian Brother Grimm, who, as a travelling doctor in the late 19th century, amassed a collection of his patients’ tales. Many tell of sea crossings, of sea transformations. It was with these I started when I wanted to understand the island’s past.

It was two years before I returned to Sicily. This time, as I travelled again along the train line from Messina to Palermo, I became aware of a new kind of monument. In abandoned shops and on dust-blown industrial estates, among the prickly pears on which young lovers have always carved their names, were new shops advertising a single trade: ‘Compro Oro’ (‘We Buy Gold’). In following years, I began to write about them. But somehow, the other stories of Sicily crept into the narrative.

I wanted to see the island as previous inhabitants had seen it: to capture the dust-blown torpor of small pious towns on July afternoons; the courtyards full of bougainvillea so bright it seemed to pulse with ultraviolet; the grace of Palermo’s half-Norman, half-Arab streets; the saints’ festivals with their echoing generators and solemn plaster figurines. For an island so full of monuments to the dead, Sicily is oddly alive. It was this life that crept into my work, complicating the melancholy of the past.

Seven years after that first sea crossing, I moved to Italy. And gradually, the process of research turned into a personal search for understanding. Because part of learning to belong here, I’ve found, is learning to live peacefully among the lovely mute ghosts of its past.

The House at the Edge of Night, by Catherine Banner, is published by Windmill. RRP: £7.99. catherine-banner.com

Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)