I like Sicily extremely – a good on-the-brink feeling – one hop and you’re out of Europe…
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- 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.
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.
The Tyrrhenian coast
From Palermo, the whole of the rugged Tyrrhenian coast is hugged by rail, road and motorway, and for the most part, pretty built up. The first attraction is Cefalù, a beach resort and cathedral town. Beyond Cefalù, there are several resorts tucked along the narrow strip of land between the Nebrodi mountains and the sea, most of them not worth going out of your way for. Most people tend to head straight for the port of Milazzo – Sicily’s second-largest port – the main departure point for ferries and hydrofoils to the seven fascinating islands of the Aeolian archipelago.
Despite being one of Sicily’s busiest international beach resorts, Celafù has a parallel life as a small-scale fishing port, tucked onto every available inch of a shelf of land beneath a fearsome crag, La Rocca. Roger II founded a mighty cathedral here in 1131 and his church dominates the skyline, the great twin towers of the facade rearing up above the flat roofs of the medieval quarter. Naturally, the fine curving sands are the major attraction but Cefalù is a pleasant town, and nothing like as developed as Sicily’s other package resort, Taormina.
The Ionian coast
Sicily’s eastern Ionian coast draws the largest number of visitors, attracted by Taormina, most chic of the island’s resorts and famed for its remarkable Greco-Roman theatre, and Mount Etna, Europe’s highest volcano. Further south, out of the lee of Etna, Siracusa was formerly the most important and beautiful city in the Hellenistic world, its enchanting centro storico surrounded by water.
Under ancient Greek rule, Siracusa was the most important city in the Western world. Today it is one of Sicily’s main draws, thanks to its extensive archeological park, a Greek theatre where plays are still performed and a charming historic centre occupying an offshore island where Greek, Roman, medieval and Baroque buildings of mellow golden limestone tangle along a labyrinth of cobbled streets. In between the two, is modern Siracusa, a busy and functional city of undistinguished apartment-lined boulevards.
Brief history of Siracusa
It’s hardly surprising that Siracusa attracted Greek colonists from Corinth, who settled the site in 733 BC. An easily defendable offshore island with fertile plains across on the mainland and two natural harbours, it was the perfect site for a city, and within a hundred years, ancient Syracuse was so powerful that it was sending out its own colonists to the south and west of the island, and soon became the power base of ancient Sicily’s most famous and effective rulers.
Syracuse assumed an almost mythic eminence under Gelon, the tyrant of Gela, who began work on the city’s Temple of Athena. It was an unparalleled period of Greek prosperity and power in Sicily, though this troubled Athens, and in 415 BC a fleet of 134 triremes was dispatched to take Syracuse – only to be destroyed. Those who survived were imprisoned in the city’s stone quarries.
In the fourth century BC, under Dionysius the Elder, the city became a great military base, the tyrant building the Euryalus fort and erecting strong city walls. Syracuse more or less remained the leading power in Europe for two hundred years until it was attacked by the Romans in 215 BC. The subsequent two-year siege was made long and hazardous for the attackers by the mechanical devices contrived by Archimedes – who was killed by a foot soldier as the Romans finally triumphed.
From this time, Syracuse withered in importance. It became, briefly, a major religious centre in the early Christian period, but for the most part its days of power were done: in the medieval era it was sacked by the Saracens and most of its later Norman buildings fell in the 1693 earthquake. Passed by until the twentieth century, the city suffered a double blow in World War II when it was bombed by the Allies and then, after its capture, by the Luftwaffe in 1943. Luckily, the extensive ancient remains were little damaged, and although decay and new development have reduced the attractions of the modern city, Siracusa remains one of the most fascinating cities on the island.
The southern coast and the interior
The southern coast and hinterland mark a welcome break from the volcanic fixation of the blacker lands to the north: here the towns are largely spacious and bright, strung across a gentler, unscarred landscape that rolls down to endless long sandy beaches and the sea. Sicily’s southeastern bulge was devastated by a calamitous seventeenth-century earthquake and the inland rebuilding, over the next century, was almost entirely Baroque in concept and execution. Noto, closest to Siracusa, is the undisputed gem, but there are Baroque treasures aplenty both at Modica and Ragusa. The coast, too, has some jewels: 10km south of Noto is the magical Riserva Naturale di Vendicari, and though certain stretches of the coast are marred by industrial development and pollution, there are some magnificent sands further west. Further west still, is Agrigento, sitting on a rise overlooking the sea above its famed series of Greek temples.
Slow cross-country trains and limited-exit motorways do little to encourage stopping in the island’s interior, but it’s only here that you really begin to get off the tourist trail. Much of the land is burned dry during the long summer months, sometimes a dreary picture, but in compensation the region boasts some of Sicily’s most curious towns. Enna is the obvious target, as central as you can get, the blustery mountain town a pace apart from the dry hills below. There are easy trips to be made from here, north into the hills and south to Piazza Armerina and the fabulous Roman mosaics.
Riserva Naturale di Vendicari
A line of small-town resorts stretches from Siracusa to Vittoria, and in between there are several sweeps of pristine sands: most notably at the Riserva Naturale di Vendicari, 10km south of Noto, a lovely coastal nature reserve. Paths lead to unspoilt beaches of white-gold sand and salt lakes, that, between October and March, attract flamingoes, herons, cranes, black storks and pelicans. Until recently turtles would nest on the beaches, but local appetite for turtle soup led to their disappearance. There are now projects under way to encourage the turtles back to Vendicari.
The Baroque towns
The earthquake of 1693, which destroyed utterly the towns and villages of southeastern Sicily, had one positive and lasting effect. Where there were ruins, a new generation of confident architects raised new planned towns in an opulent Baroque style. All were harmonious creations, and in 2001 eight of them were selected by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Funding has poured into the area, and in recent years there has been an explosion of new hotels and B&Bs. Noto, recently restored to perfection, is the most eagerly promoted by the tourist board, while Ragusa Ibla, a Baroque town built on a medieval plan, has become a destination for the stylish international set, with a handful of bijou B&Bs and a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants. Liveliest of the lot is Modica, a vibrant town famous for the production of chocolate.
Though handsome, well sited and awash with medieval atmosphere, Agrigento is rarely visited for the town itself. The interest instead focuses on the substantial remains of Pindar’s “most beautiful city of mortals”, a couple of kilometres below. Here, strung out along a ridge facing the sea, is a series of Doric temples – the most captivating of Sicilian Greek remains and a grouping unique outside Greece.
In 581 BC colonists from nearby Gela and from Rhodes founded the city of Akragas between the rivers of Hypsas and Akragas. They surrounded it with a mighty wall, formed in part by a higher ridge on which stood the acropolis (today occupied by the modern town). The southern limit of the ancient city was a second, lower ridge and it was here, in the “Valle dei Templi”, that the city architects erected their sacred buildings during the fifth century BC.
A road winds down from the modern city to the Valle dei Templi, which is divided into two zones. The more spectacular remains are in the eastern zone – to avoid crowds come in the early morning or (in summer) for the night openings. The western zone may be less architecturally impressive, but gives more of a sense of discovery – and holds the lovely gardens of Kolymbetra.
The eastern zone
The eastern zone is unenclosed and is at its crowd-free best in early morning or late evening. A path climbs up to the oldest of Akragas’s temples, the Tempio di Ercole (Hercules). Probably begun in the last decades of the sixth century BC, nine of the original 38 columns have been re-erected, everything else is scattered around like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Retrace your steps back to the path that leads to the glorious Tempio della Concordia, dated to around 430 BC: perfectly preserved and beautifully sited, with fine views to the city and the sea, the tawny stone lends the structure warmth and strength. That it’s still so complete is explained by its conversion in the sixth century AD to a Christian church. Restored to its (more or less) original layout in the eighteenth century, it has kept its lines and slightly tapering columns, although it’s fenced off to keep the crowds at bay. The path continues, following the line of the ancient city walls, to the Tempio di Giunone (Juno or Hera), an engaging half-ruin standing at the very edge of the ridge. The patches of red visible here and there on the masonry denote fire damage, probably from the sack of Akragas by the Carthaginians in 406 BC.
The western zone
The western zone, back along the path and beyond the car park, is less impressive, a vast tangle of stone and fallen masonry from a variety of temples. Most notable is the mammoth construction that was the Tempio di Giove, or Temple of Olympian Zeus. The largest Doric temple ever known, it was never completed, left in ruins by the Carthaginians and further damaged by earthquakes. Still, the stereobate remains, while on the ground, face to the sky, lies an eight-metre-high telamone: a supporting column sculpted as a male figure, arms raised and bent to bear the temple’s weight. Other scattered remains litter the area, including the so-called Tempio dei Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), rebuilt in 1832 and actually made up of unrelated pieces from the confused rubble on the ground. When you’ve had your fill of the ruins, make for the Giardino Kolymbetra, an enchanting sunken garden of shady citrus, almond and olive groves, with a stream running through it, set between cave-pocked tufa cliffs that once formed part of the city’s irrigation system.
From a bulging V-shaped ridge almost 1000m above sea level, Enna lords it over the surrounding hills of central Sicily. The approach to this doughty mountain stronghold is formidable, the road climbing slowly out of the valley and looping across the solid crag to the summit and town. For obvious strategic reasons, Enna was a magnet for successive hostile armies, who in turn besieged and fortified the town, each doing their damnedest to disprove Livy’s description of Enna as inexpugnabilis.
A thirty-minute drive to the south of Enna, Piazza Armerina lies amid densely planted hills; it’s a quiet, unassuming place mainly seventeenth and eighteenth century in appearance, with a skyline pierced by towers and houses huddled together under the joint protection of castle and cathedral. All in all, it’s a thoroughly pleasant place to idle around, though the real local draw is an imperial Roman villa that stands in rugged countryside at Casale, 5km southwest of Piazza Armerina. It was hidden under mud for seven hundred years, until excavations in the 1950s revealed a lavish villa, probably a hunting lodge and summer home, decorated with polychromatic mosaic floors that are unique in the Roman world for their quality and extent.
Trapani and the west
Out on a limb, and with more than a little North African atmosphere about it, Trapani is an attractive old port town, rediscovering its charms after years of neglect. Halfway point between Europe and Tunis, it was a rich trading centre throughout the early Middle Ages, then flourished again in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a stronghold of the tuna-canning industry. After that, it went into decline, and became a salty old port with a crumbling, sun-scorched historic centre high on atmosphere, but with few creature comforts. Then, it was selected to host the 2004 Americas Cup and received a massive injection of cash – buildings were restored, streets in the historic centre pedestrianized – giving the town and its people a new confidence. These days Trapani is a thoroughly pleasant and authentic place to hang out for a couple of days. Adding to its reviving fortunes, the nearby airport of Birgi is undergoing a renaissance too, and on the way to becoming Sicily’s main low-cost airport. Trapani’s Easter celebrations are justly famous, involving dramatic processions around town, particularly poignant on Good Friday.
The west of Sicily is a land apart. Skirting around the coast from Trapani – the provincial capital – the cubic whitewashed houses, palm trees, active fishing harbours and sunburned lowlands seem more akin to Africa than Europe, and historically, the west of the island has always looked south. The earliest of all Sicilian sites, the mountain haunt of Erice was dominated by Punic influence; the Carthaginians themselves entrenched themselves in Marsala, at Sicily’s westernmost point, for several hundred years; while in medieval times the Saracen invaders took their first steps onto the island at Mazara del Vallo, a town still strongly Arabic at heart. The Greeks never secured the same foothold in Sicily’s west as elsewhere, although the remains at Segesta and Selinunte count among the island’s best. Also worth seeing are the three islands of the Egadi archipelago, and the stunning stretch of coastline protected by the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro.
Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro
The Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro, Sicily’s first nature reserve, comprises a completely unspoiled 7km stretch of coastline backed by steep mountains. At the entrance, there’s an information hut, where you can pick up a plan showing the trails through the reserve. It’s less than twenty minutes to the first beach, Punta della Capreria, and 3km to the successive coves of Disa, Berretta and Marinella, which should be a little more secluded.