Michael Portillo’s 1936 Bradshaw’s Guide brings him to the Italian ‘treasure island’ of Sicily, full of natural beauty and ‘scenery of the greatest charm’. But the interwar guide book also tells Michael that the head of government in Italy is the fascist leader Signor Benito Mussolini.
On a railway journey from the capital, Palermo, through the ancient town of Agrigento and the port of Siracusa, to Europe’s largest volcano, Mount Etna, Michael explores Sicilian life under the dictatorship. Michael finds out how the dictator took on the mafia and asks whether it is true that under Mussolini, the trains ran on time. In Palermo, Michael takes in the art and architecture of the futurists and feasts on a Sicilian speciality – spaghetti and sardines – in the city’s Ballaro street market. In the Capo district, Michael learns how the island’s distinctive puppets are made and is enchanted to see them in action.
Among the spectacular ancient Greek and Roman temples of Agrigento, Michael hears of the passionate ten-year search by a British archaeologist at the time of his guide for a long-lost ancient Greek theatre. The drama of the interwar period comes to life in front of Michael’s eyes as he joins six characters in search of an author at the Teatro Pirandello.
Michael takes the helm to explore the port of Siracusa by boat before visiting a controversial monument, which depicts a dark chapter in Italian history. He concludes his Sicilian journey on the circular railway around Mount Etna, aboard the sleek, futurist-inspired train inaugurated by Mussolini in 1937 – La Littorina.