We rattled over the slabs of lava stone that pave the streets of Catania. A statue of a nobleman stood near the entrance to the city, strikingly placed, but without a head. ‘It happened during the Second World War,’ said my friend, who was at the wheel of the car. ‘Almost everybody knows who’s got it now, but we don’t talk about it.’

The only person not in on the secret is the descendant of the man whom the statue depicts. I was lucky enough to have dinner with him. Behind his tall gates was a world that, like so much of Sicily, belongs as much to the deep past as to our own era.

Heavy, dark-stained sideboards displayed ceramics of museum quality and silver glittered. We ate fritters of ‘just born’ whitebait, caught by their million in microfine nets. Elephants’ tusks were among the many big-game trophies shot during a lifetime spent in communion with the wild.

A chill passed over me, despite the warmth of the night, but that’s Sicily-immensely fertile, administratively chaotic, suspicious, mentally detached from the modern world: an isle so full of wonders that it might be regarded as a Continent. Some romantics want independence. ‘Why not?’ they ask. ‘Look at Scotland.’

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