Tom Sutcliffe recalls his visit to splendid but neglected Sicilian churches followed by a mad dash through a flightless Europe

Churches in England are appreciated by atheists and agnostics as much as – or even more than – by paid-up Christians. The local church may be a burden, but not such as to cripple the congregational will to stop the place falling down and keep it alive. I doubt the same can be said for Sicily, where I just spent ten days, looking at ruined or never-completed pre-Christian temples in Segesta, Selinunte and Agrigento, and all too many crumbling places of Catholic worship.

I hoped it would be like Sicilian baroque in Siracusa, Ragusa, Noto, Catania and Palermo – which is spectacular. But the locals have an inferiority complex about their sometimes marvellous churches and cathedrals. Churches in Erice have rather inflated sheets of info (in fact, Erice despite its dramatic location is not interesting). But many fine shrines in Enna and Piazza Armerina were sealed and rotting. Beardlike growths of well-established plants and shrubs hide architectural details. Not a postcard or any information can be seen.

Damp and decay

The Collegio next to the Duomo in Trapani had some glorious plaster reliefs full of witty cherubs, but damp was rampaging through the building. The tapestries which Marsala Cathedral owns are worth a look – in their ‘museum’ round the back – more than the duomo itself. The chiesa madre on top of Agrigento has a fabulous painted sixteenth century ceiling and an exuberant chancel with sometimes headless plaster putti. The cathedral in Piazza Armerina dominates the hill-town from any angle and, apart from its gothic bell-tower, is a thrillingly grand baroque unity with fine golden organ cases on either side of the nave just before the crossing, and a lovely blue distinguishing the plasterwork.

In Enna the cathedral is a mixture of romanesque and baroque with an excellent coffered wooden ceiling from 1586. Either side of the nave are an organ and a choir platform from 1592, like the walnut stalls in the chancel. The carved Corinthian capitals at the west end are worth getting dizzy for. The white marble carved pulpit from 1605, and the massive 1675 Adoration of the Magi by Ruggeri, from Caltanissetta, above the south transept altar, were also notable.

Ageing grandeur

Most other churches in Enna are firmly locked or dangerous or dull and vulgar. Cefalu on the north coast with its famous Christ Pantocrator mosaic dates from far earlier and is unbeatable. Yet it was sad to see parties marched into seats in a dark nave on a rainy day being lectured about the beauties of the place, rather than left to find their own way round one of Sicily’s most inspirational Christian shrines.

I struggled back from Palermo overland when my Easyjet flight home on Tuesday 20 April fell victim to volcanic dust from Eyja~allajokull. It took me 60 hours, including almost 16 spent on trains from Palermo to Rome to Turin, and overnight courtesy of the Anglican vicar of Rome and Archdeacon of Italy and Malta (including Sicily). That was the easy bit. Getting from Turin to Chambery where I had booked a vehicle for a dash up to Calais (870 kilometres, which I managed on 22 April in eight and a half hours) was harder to suss out, though cheap when I had.

Convoluted travel plans

Thank God for the girl in the Informazione office on the main station in Turin. I thought the clever and quick thing might be to rent a car just to get into France – but the Hertz fee for not getting it back to Turin and leaving it in Chambery would have been 700 euros, and even a taxi was exactly half that. So my Turin angel told me to take a crowded local train at 5pm to Bardonecchia (for five euros, and a trip lasting 95 minutes), then wait till 7.30 for a bus, which turned out to be a 14-seat local mini-bus through the Alpine tunnel to Modane (a mere two euros), followed by a night in the Hotel Perce Neige (Snowdrop) and a 6.20 start to Chambery (15 euros, 90 minutes, stopping everywhere).

Madame at the hotel had warned that M le Président Sarkozy (Basta cosi!) was visiting Chambery that very day to mark the sesquicentenary of the incorporation of Haute-Savoie and Nice into France. But an early start avoided any problems, and after taking the brilliant and economical Ford Fiesta diesel to the extemporised Europcar drop-in point just outside the ferry terminal, and paying 50 euros as a walk-on passenger, the white cliffs of Dover eventually hove into view. ND