If you haven’t been to Sicily, wrote the Romantic author Goethe, you haven’t experienced Italy at all, because “Sicily is the clue to everything”. The island is the beating heart of the hot, beautiful, edgy Italian South.
At the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Sicily has survived and absorbed the legacies of its Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish invaders, making it one of the most culturally diverse destinations in Italy. Added drawcards are the perpetual sunshine, low prices, fabulous seafood, and world’s best cannoli and gelato. Here are five suggestions for an unforgettable Sicily experience.
Catch the local bus (#389) from Palermo to this ancient hilltop town, once a mafia stronghold. The cavernous central piazza, rumoured to have been the site of many executions, leads to the famous Norman cathedral, which is a marvel of medieval craftsmanship.
Its shimmering interior is a soaring space entirely covered with gold mosaics that depict stories from the New and Old Testaments – watch out for the fabulous Noah’s Ark. The cloisters next door are almost as beautiful, their elegant rows of decorated columns providing an oasis of green shade in a parched land.
Seven miraculously intact Greek Doric structures from the fifth century BC make Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples on the south side of the island one of the most concentrated and best-preserved examples of classical Greek architecture anywhere. As you wander the wonderfully atmospheric site amid olive trees and wild goats, the modern world just seems to slip away. Honey-coloured stone pillars tower and crumble against a background of cloud-feathered sky, while the deeper blue of the Mediterranean marks out the horizon – magic!
Val di Noto
This UNESCO Heritage Site in Sicily’s southeast encompasses eight towns that were all rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1693. Nature’s fury led to the creation of a bevy of baroque beauties including Noto, Ragusa and Scicli.
Their loveliness and artistic coherence is a lasting testament to the visionary town planning and bold architectural innovations of the time. With luck, your visit might coincide with the Infiorata flower festival (held each year during the third weekend in May), when the streets of Noto are paved with petals arranged by competing flower-artists.
Don’t miss the chance to walk the lunar landscape of Europe’s largest volcano. Book a private jeep tour to the top, or park your car halfway up at Rifugio Sapienza, where a huge parking lot is lined with stalls selling local honey (tempting), luridly coloured postcards (no thanks) and plastic volcanoes (are you kidding?). Next comes a jolting cable car ride, followed by a 4WD bus from which you’ll alight to a world created in equal parts by fire and ice.
The active craters are off limits, but tour guides will lead you over the mountain’s upper slopes through a weird environment of snow, ash and rock. Feel the heat emanating from the earth and admire the mineral colours of its dynamic geology, before returning to the world of plants and people below.
A magnet for tourists since its discovery by English and German visitors in the 19th century, Taormina on Sicily’s east coast is the place to buy fine Italian crafts and enjoy upmarket dining. The spectacular Greco-Roman amphitheatre hosts operas, rock concerts and film festivals, as well as offering breathtaking views of Etna and the Mediterranean. You can also enjoy the coastal panorama from the city’s charming, cliff-top public gardens, where few tourists venture: those who do will experience one of the most lush and idyllic of Sicilian locations.
*Featured image: The Greco-Roman amphitheatre in Taormina.