The famous white cliffs of Sicily are defaced by an act of vandalism

ROME — Saturday was bad news, good news for Sabrina Lattuca, the mayor of Realmonte, a small town on the west coast of Sicily.

She awoke that morning to find vandals had thrown iron oxide powder on the white cliffs known as Scala dei Turchi, or the Turks’ Staircase, staining Realmonte’s main tourist attraction with bloody red spots.

But by nightfall, much of the damage had been repaired thanks to the efforts of a team of cultural heritage experts, city workers and local citizens who spent the day cleaning up the site at the using mops, brooms and water pumps.

“They are an example of the best of Sicily,” Ms Lattuca said of the people who helped clean up. In 24 hours, she added, “this teamwork was able to restore beauty and splendor to the Scala dei Turchi”.

Shaped by waves and wind over millennia into a grand natural staircase, legend has it that it was the favorite landing place for pirates and invaders from distant lands, such as the Turks, hence its name.

Long a seaside draw for Sicilians, the marl cliffs gained wider fame thanks to a series of mystery novels starring the Inspector Salvo Montalbano by the late Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, who rented the the “astonishing beauty” of the site. The works were later made into a popular television series.

And they also gained cinematic fame in “Malena” by Giuseppe Tornatore and other films.

Investigators from Agrigento, the region’s largest city, about 10 miles east of the Scala dei Turchi, are now combing through video taken by surveillance cameras on the roads leading to the site on Friday night in Saturday, when the vandalism took place.

Major Marco La Rovere, commander of the Agrigento military police branch, which is investigating the case, said his officers and local prosecutors had “an idea” of who might have vandalized the site, who had been degraded by graffiti in the past. Now they were looking for evidence to back up their hunch, he said, declining to elaborate. “It’s an open investigation,” he said.

Ms Lattuca had no doubt that the vandalism “was the work of a madman”.

“There is no other explanation for such an absurd act,” she said.

Michele Benfari, Agrigento’s top cultural heritage official, said instead that the “gaping wound” left by the oxide powder could have been a statement left by a “disillusioned artist” grappling with the tragedy of the pandemic.

He quoted an artist who made headlines when he threw red dye into Rome’s Trevi Fountain in 2007 and dumped it thousands of colorful balls on the Spanish Steps a year later.

“It could be an interpretation,” he said. Acts of vandalism had been rare in his region of Sicily, he said.

Fortunately, Benfari noted, the iron oxide powder used by the vandals is relatively harmless if not mixed with other chemicals. Special vacuum cleaners were used to remove the powder and the remaining traces were cleaned up using simple soap on some spots.

“We were lucky,” he said.

La Scala dei Turchi is currently closed to the public for security reasons, as well as fears that the site will be damaged by mass tourism. It is also the subject of a dispute to determine the ownership of certain parts of the site between the region, the local authority and an individual.

Before the pandemic, the site drew around a million visitors a year, said Giuseppe Taibi, local representatives of the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, an organization often called the National Trust of Italy, which has lobbied successfully in recent years to demolish two illegal structures that had been built there.

It was a major victory in a region of Sicily infamous for its dismal record in illegal building projects. In 2016, the Fondo Ambiente Italiano inaugurated a observation deck overlooking the cliffs on the former site of one of the demolished buildings.

“It sent a strong signal,” Mr. Taibi said. “It’s also a way to admire the site without destroying it”, by allowing too many visitors, he says.

The Fondo has also promoted the Scala dei Turchi on his list of places to save in Italy. “It is de facto a heritage of humanity that must be protected,” said Mr. Taibi.

Residents clearly agree.

“As soon as we learned that the Scala dei Turchi had been degraded, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work,” said Claudio Lombardo, who heads the local branch of the environmental association. Mareamico, which monitors and preserves coastal areas.

“As it is so white as snow, so pure”, the Scala dei Turchi “is the emblem of a clean and honest Sicily, and it must be preserved and protected,” said Ms Lattuca, the mayor.

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