Described as ‘Italy in overdrive’, ‘the real Italy’ and ‘the Italy you never knew existed’, Sicily is the heart and soul of Mediterranean culture. The ball at the end of mainland Italy’s boot, Sicily is largely rugged and rural – a refreshing juxtaposition to the razzle-dazzle of centres like Milan or Rome. But Sicilian cities such as Palermo, Catania and Messina aren't wallflowers, with all the trademarks of a quintessential Italian holiday like a distinct regional dialect, free-flowing vino and pasta just like nonna used to make.
“Storia” – History
Sicilia has been at the heart of many a tug-of-war throughout the ages. Taking turns as a Grecian colony and an Arabic emirate, Sicily has ridden waves of change as colonies tried to claim this piece of paradise for their own. The legacy left behind is a complex melange of cultures, mixing influences from wider Europe, Asia and Africa.
Split from Italia by the Straits of Messina, the Sicily we know and love today is wholeheartedly Italian, albeit with a very self-assured personal brand. In capital Palermo alone you can clearly see the beauty spots of an erratic past, from the souq-like marketplaces to Norman churches and Baroque embellishments on timeworn buildings.
“Spiaggia” – Beach
While visions of heaving olive groves and orchards of almonds paint an accurate picture of the island, it’s where the mountains meet the sea that Sicily truly shines. In 2013, a remote Sicilian beach – Rabbit Beach on the island of Lampedusa – was rated as the world’s best. Yep, you heard right: the best in the world.
From the Tyrrhenian north to the Ionian east, Sicily is fringed in glorious coastline. Offshore, the Aeolian Islands offer a beach retreat of a different kind. Spiaggia di Sabbia Nera is the polar opposite of Rabbit Beach’s translucent water and supple white sand, with its black volcanic shoreline appealing to both the eyes and feet.
“Dolce” – Sweets
While Sicily is perhaps the most estranged of Italy's 20 regions, it shares the mantra that to eat well is to live well. Sicily is blessed with especially fertile soils, thanks to geothermal wonders like the dominant (but definitely not dormant) Mt Etna in the province of Catania.
Fresh produce and seafood are a given and you can pretty much drink the olive oil straight, but it’s Sicily's dessert that takes the cake. Hazelnut gelato (nocciola), sweet ricotta cannoli and cassata are distinct Sicilian specialties. If you prefer a liquid dessert, the region produces some of the country’s top drops, including world-famous Marsala and syrupy Moscato.
“Calcio” – Football
‘The world’s island’ also has a passionate stake in the world game. Palermo Football Club has been kicking it since 1900, with teams in Messina and Catania keeping the competition heated. It’s perfectly acceptable to cheer on from afar at your nearest sports bar if you don’t want to brave the crowds at the Renzo Barbera stadium – nobody would blame you for taking that option!
Locals are fiercely loyal when it comes to their team, so it’s best not to go against the grain. Not too loudly, at least. If you want to fit in, wild gesturing and yelling are the norm, so try “forza!” (come on!) and “che gol!” (what a goal!) on for size.