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.Read More
Regional food and wine
Regional food and wine
Sicily’s food has been influenced by the island’s endless list of invaders, including Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, even the English, each of them leaving behind them traces of their gastronomy. Dishes such as orange salads, unguent sweet-sour aubergine and, of course, couscous evoke North Africa, while Sicily’s most distinctive pasta dish, spaghetti con le sarde – with sardines, pine nuts, wild fennel and raisins – is thought to date back to the first foray into Sicily, at Mazara, by an Arab force in 827. The story goes that the army cooks were ordered to forage around for food, and found sardines at the port, wild fennel growing in the fields, and raisins drying in the vineyards. Religious festivals too, are often associated with foods: for example at San Giuseppe, on March 19, altars are made of bread, and at Easter you will find pasticcerie full of sacrifical lambs made of marzipan, and Gardens of Adonis (trays of sprouting lentils, chickpeas and other pulses) placed before church altars to symbolize the rebirth of Christ. The last has its roots in fertility rites that predate even the arrival of the Greeks to the island.
Sicily is famous for its sweets too, like rich cassata, sponge cake filled with sweet ricotta cream and covered with pistachio marzipan, and cannoli – crunchy tubes of deep-fried pastry stuffed with sweet ricotta. Street food is ubiquitous in cities such as Palermo, dating back to the eighteenth century when wood was rationed, and few people were able to cook at home: deep-fried rice balls, potato croquettes and chickpea-flour fritters compete with dinky-sized pizzas. Naturally, fish such as anchovies, sardines, tuna and swordfish are abundant – indeed, it was in Sicily that the technique of canning tuna was invented. Cheeses are pecorino, provolone, caciocavallo and, of course, the sheep’s-milk ricotta which goes into so many of the sweet dishes.
Traditionally wine-making in Sicily was associated mainly with sweet wines such as Malvasia and the fortified Marsala – in the nineteenth century many a fortune was made providing Malvasia to the Napoleonic army – but the island has also made a name for itself as a producer of quality everyday wines found in supermarkets throughout Italy, such as Corvo, Regaleali, Nicosia, Settesoli and Tria. There are superb wines too – notably Andrea Franchetti’s prize-winning Passopisciaro, from the north slopes of Etna – as well as wines across a wide price range from producers such as Tasca d’Almerita, Baglio Hopps, Planeta, Morgante and Murgo.
Whatever else the Mafia is, it isn’t an organization that impinges upon the lives of tourists. For most Sicilians, mafia with a small m is so much a way of life and habit of mind that they don’t even think about it. If a Sicilian lends a neighbour a bag of sugar, for example, both will immediately be aware of a favour owed, and the debtor uncomfortable until the favour has been returned, and balance restored. As for allegiance to friends, it would be very rare indeed for a Sicilian, asked to recommend a hotel or restaurant, to suggest that you go to one that does not belong to a friend, relative, or someone who forms part of his personal network of favours.
The Mafia, with a capital M, began life as an early medieval conspiracy, created to protect the family from oppressive intrusions of the state. Existing to this day, Sicily continues to endure this system of allegiance, preferment and patronage of massive self-perpetuating proportions, from which few local people profit. In many parts of the region, owners of shops and businesses are expected to give pizzo (protection money) to the local Mafia. Though efforts to resist the Mafia continue, with local businesses in Palermo and Siracusa, for example, banding together to refuse to pay pizzo, it is not uncommon for the Mafia to have the power to close down the enterprises of refuseniks.