I like Sicily extremely – a good on-the-brink feeling – one hop and you’re out of Europe…
– D.H. Lawrence in a letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith, 1920
Most Sicilians consider themselves, and their island, a separate entity. Coming from the Italian mainland, it’s very noticeable that Sicily (Sicilia) has a different feel, that socially and culturally you are all but out of Europe. The largest island in the Mediterranean, and with a strategically vital position, Sicily has a history and outlook derived not from its modern parent but from its erstwhile foreign rulers – from the Greeks who first settled the east coast in the eighth century BC, through a dazzling array of Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish, to the Bourbons seen off by Garibaldi in 1860.
Substantial relics of these ages remain, with temples, theatres and churches scattered about the whole island. But there are other, more immediate hints of Sicily’s unique past. Sicilian dialect, for example, is still widely spoken in both cities and countryside, varying from place to place; and the food is noticeably different from elsewhere in Italy, spicier and with more emphasis on fish and vegetables; even the flora echoes the change of temperament – oranges, lemons (introduced by the Arabs), prickly pears and palms are ubiquitous.
A visit here still induces a real sense of arrival. The standard approach for those heading south from the mainland is to cross the Straits of Messina, from Villa San Giovanni or Reggio di Calabria: this way, the train-ferry pilots a course between Scylla and Charybdis, the twin hazards of rock and whirlpool that were a legendary threat to sailors. Coming in by plane, too, there are spectacular approaches to the coastal airports at Palermo, Trapani and Catania.
Once you’re on land, deciding where to go is largely a matter of time. Inevitably, most points of interest are on the coast: the interior of the island is mountainous, sparsely populated and relatively inaccessible, though in parts extremely beautiful. The capital, Palermo, is a filthy, bustling, noisy city with an unrivalled display of Norman art and architecture and Baroque churches, combined with a warren of medieval streets and markets. Heading east, there’s no better place in Sicily for a traditional family sea, sun and sand holiday than Cefalù, with a magnificent golden sandy beach and a mellow medieval core overlooked by a beetling castle-topped crag. An hour or so further east is the workaday port of Milazzo, departure point for the Aeolian Islands, an archipelago of seven islands. Here you can climb two active volcanoes, laze on lava beaches, snorkel over bubbling underwater fumaroles, and wallow in warm, reeking, sulphurous mud baths.
The islands are also linked by hydrofoil with the major port of Messina, separated from mainlaind Italy by the Straits of Messina. If you are travelling to Sicily overland from Italy, Messina will unavoidably be your point of arrival. Devastated by an earthquake and tidal wave in 1908, it is a modern city of little charm and unlikely to hold your interest for long. The most obvious target from here is the almost too charming hill-town of Taormina, spectacularly located on a rocky bluff between the Ionian Sea and the soaring peak of Mount Etna. For a gutsier taste of Sicily, head to Catania, the island’s second city, intellectual and cultured, with a compact Baroque core of black lava and white limestone, and two exuberant markets. From Taormina or Catania, a skirt around the foothills, and even better, up to the craters of Mount Etna, is a must.
In the south of the island is Siracusa, once the most important city of the Greek world, and beyond it, the Val di Noto, with an alluring group of Baroque towns centring on Ragusa. The south coast’s greatest draw are the Greek temples at Agrigento, while inland, Enna is typical of the mountain towns that provided defence for a succession of the island’s rulers. Close by is Piazza Armerina and its Roman mosaics, while to the west, most of Sicily’s fishing industry – and much of the continuing Mafia activity – focuses on the area around Trapani, itself a salty old port with connections to the rough, sunblasted islands of the Egadi archipelago and Pantelleria.
To see all these places, you’ll need at least a couple of weeks – more like a month if you want to travel extensively inland or to the minor islands.