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THE ISLAND OF SICILY

Sicily's varied landscape makes a dramatic first impression. Its perfect balance of sea, volcano, cultural sights and mountain scenery makes a stunning backdrop for outdoor activities. Sicilyand its dozen-plus offshore islands offer enough swimming, diving, hiking, climbing, visiting, exploring, to build an entire vacation around. Sicily is an autonomous region of Italy and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea . It extends from the tip of the Apennine peninsula, from which it is separated only by the narrow Strait of Messina, towards the North African coast. Its most prominent landmark is Mount Etna, which, at 3,350 m (10,990 ft), is the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. Mount Etna is widely regarded as a cultural symbol and icon of Sicily. Sicily also includes several neighbouring islands: the Aegadian Islands, the Aeolian Islands, Pantelleria and Lampedusa. The terrain of inland Sicily is mostly hilly.

 

 

The island has a typical Mediterranean climate. Sicily's Mediterranean location places it directly in the middle of the Mediterranean climate zone, also called the dry summer subtropical climate. The Mediterranean climate is characterized by moderate temperatures, wet winters and dry summers. Sicily's temperature is moderated by the warm Mediterranean sea and its location in proximity to the equators. Sea temperatures around Sicily range from around 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to approximately 80 degrees in the summer. The coastal regions of Sicily have pleasant spring daytime highs from March through May that begin around 60 degrees and warm to the mid-80s in May. When the Sicilian summer arrives, coastal regions have daytime highs in the 90s that last into September until the temperatures fall throughout autumn. Beach season goes from April to October. It almost never falls below freezing on the coast, with daytime highs dropping no lower than 50 degrees in January, Sicily's coolest month. The island's inland mountain regions host temperatures about 15 degrees less than the coast throughout the year. In December and January, Mount Etna often receives snow and slush for skiing and sledding.

Seductively beautiful and perfectly placed in the heart of the Mediterranean, Sicily has been luring passers by since the time of legends. The land of Scylla, Charybdis and the Cyclops has been praised by poets from Homer to Virgil and prized by the many ancient cultures – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Greeks – whose ruins still lie here. Whether in the classical perfection of Agrigento 's Concordia temple, the monumental rubble of Selinunte's columns or the rare grace of a dancing satyr statue rescued from Mazara del Vallo's watery depths, reminders of bygone civilisations are everywhere.

As if its classical heritage weren't formidable enough, Sicily is bursting at the seams with later artistic and architectural gems. In a short walk around Palermo you'll see Arab domes and arches, Byzantine mosaics, baroque stuccowork and Norman palace walls. This embarrassment of artistic riches remains one of the island's most distinctive attractions.

 

 

FIVE TOP SIGHTS:

Palermo

At the crossroads of several important Mediterranean trade routes and subject in its long history to Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantine Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards, Sicily’s regional capital is a fascinating historical palimpsest – and, with its palm trees, prickly pears and banyan trees, a botanical melting pot.

Don’t miss the glorious 12th-century mosaics in the church of La Martorana or Roger II’s private chapel, the Capella Palatina; and set aside half a day for the trip up to lofty Monreale, whose cathedral boasts yet more dazzling Norman-era mosaics.

Syracuse

One of the great cities of the Western Greek diaspora (it was home to mathematician and engineer Archimedes), Syracuse (Siracusa) is today undergoing something of a Renaissance.

Visitors and second-home buyers are discovering the charms of Ortygia, the old town, surrounded by the sea on all sides and connected to the city’s “modern” westward extension by three short bridges.

Essential sights include the Parco Archeologico, with its fifth-century BC theatre where Ancient Greek plays are still performed in summer (information and booking at indafondazione.org), or the Duomo, a cathedral made by filling in the gaps between the columns of the Greek temple of Minerva – eloquent testimony to this beguiling town’s depth of history.

 

 

 

Greek temples (Agrigento, Selinunte, Segesta)

The three great Greek temple complexes of western and southern Sicily are the equal of anything you’ll see in Greece itself. Agrigento is the most famous, where the archaeological site known as the Valle dei Templi (“Valley of Temples”) spreads over a vast area and includes two almost complete temples and the partly-reconstructed ruins of three others.

Selinunte, on the south coast between Mazara del Vallo and Sciacca, may not have such well-preserved ruins, but its position on a coastal promontory carpeted with wild flowers and the celery that gives the site its name is hugely atmospheric. If you seek out Cave di Cusa, seven miles to the north-east, chances are you'll have it all to yourself. Suddenly abandoned in 409BC, this was where the stone used in Selinunte's temples was quarried, and it's a fascinating place, with great fluted column sections, carved in situ, still anchored in the mother rock.

So is that of Segesta, the closest of the three sites to Palermo: though it was never finished, the elegance and fine state of preservation of the fifth-century-BC Doric temple that perches romantically on the crest of a hill makes it perhaps Sicily’s most impressive and affecting Greek ruin.

 

Taormina & Etna

Discovered by European travellers and winter-sun seekers as long ago as the 18th century, Taormina combines a breathtaking position – on a distant spur of Etna, dominating the island’s eastern coast – with a balmy climate that allows jasmine and bougainvillea to flower even in December.

Its fame, and the picture-postcard views of Etna from the town’s Greek Theatre (actually a predominantly Roman construction from the first century AD), make it one of Sicily’s most touristy towns.

In high season (Easter through to the end of October) there are days when the place bursts at the seams. But it’s still an undeniably pretty place to while away a few days, and its proximity to Etna means it’s easy to combine with eastern Sicily’s other great visitor attraction – the ascent of the volcano.

 

 

Piazza Armerina

The Roman mosaics unearthed in the 19th century at Casale, three miles south of Piazza Armerina, are among the richest and most complex in situ collection anywhere in the world.

A huge complex that was in use from the fourth century BC right through the 12th century AD, the villa most probably belonged to the owner of a large estate, and would have been used to entertain guests and as a base for hunting parties. The site is well worth a detour.

LOCAL PRODUCTS:

Food in Sicily is local, especially fruit and vegetables: bananas & pineapples are usually the only imported fruit. You’ll find the freshest fish in the coastal towns, whereas the mountain villages are famous for their cheese (formaggi), salami, sausages (salsiccia), mushrooms (funghi). Tomatoes (pomodori) and aubergines (melanzane) are widely used and have a special taste and perfume. You will find a large variety of ice creams (gelati) all year round, the fruity ones being more popular during the summer. The Sicilian way to have it is in a freshly baked brioche!

 

Food and Wine

About food... Sicily’s complex history has left its mark in architecture, landscapes, culture, and customs. But nowhere is it more evident than in the food. Greeks brought grapes and olives and introduced the incumbent population to wine making. Romans introduced fava beans, chick peas, lentils and some forms of pasta and devoted huge areas of previously forested land to grain production. Arabs brought almonds, aniseed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio, pomegranates, saffron, sesame, spinach, sugarcane, water melon and rice. They introduced many tastes that are now considered typically Sicilian, including the sweet and sour combinations of raisins and pine-nuts with vegetables and fish that form the basis of several common dishes. They also started a long Sicilian love affair with sweets, including ice cream and granita (made with snow from Etna and other mountains), marzipan and candied fruits. Arabs also introduced the most advanced farming and irrigation techniques and distilled grape must to create grappa. Apart from putting the final touches to sweet specialities such as the Cassata, the Spanish brought many vital ingredients of today’s Sicilian diet. The New World provided chilli and sweet peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and maize and all of these were incorporated into existing recipes so that they would now be unimaginable without them.

Food in Sicily is seasonal: take the time to go to a local market to see what’s in season. A few things “not to be missed” for each season:

Winter - oranges (arance), mandarins (manderini) and grapes (uva) fill the markets with theirsea many varieties. Arancine (rice balls filled with meat or ham and mozzarella) or the many kinds of panini (sandwiches) make a perfect quick lunch or snacks. Cassate and cannoli (made with ricotta cheese) and marzipan sweets (frutti & paste di martorana) are well presented in all the “pasticcerie”. Restaurants often offer the delicious “semifreddo di mandorle o pistacchi” (almonds or pistachios parfait –“solid” ice-cream- with hot chocolate sauce.). Spring - medlars (nespole), the little orange fruit originally from Japan) and strawberries (fragole) are followed, towards the end of May by apricots (albicocche), cherries (ciliegie) and tiny, sweet pears (perine). The countryside is full of wild fennel (finocchio selvatico), asparagus (asparagi) and artichokes (carciofi).

It’s the best time to try the “pasta con le sarde” (with fresh sardines, wild fennel, and pinenuts), the tuna (tonno) and the sword fish (pesce spada).

Summer - different kinds of prunes (susine), peaches (pesche), cantaloupe (delicious with ham as an appetiser or served cold, with fresh mint and red wine or port as dessert), watermelon (anguria). Try the “gelo di melone” (watermelon gelly with chocolate and jasmine) and the “granite”: our favourite ones are coffee and almonds (caffe’ e mandorla), lemon and peach or cantaloupe….or figs, towards the end of August.

Autumn - it’s time for the olive harvest. Prickly pears (fichi d’india) and roasted chestnuts (caldaroste) are sold in little kiosks in many towns. Specialties such as caponata (vegetarian dish with aubergines, celery, olives and tomatoes) and peperonata (with peppers) are worth trying.  

 

About wine:

Sicilian red wines include...  Nero D’Avola, made of one of the oldest indigenous grapes and Sicilian wine-makers are justifiably proud of the recognition that this variety is now receiving, Etna Rosso, born on the rich, fertile volcanic slopes of Mount Etna and Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the most famous wine of the province of Ragusa.

Sicilian white wines include the Bianco D’Alcamo, produced in the rich area between Alcamo and Trapani.

Sicilian dessert or aperitif wines include the Marsala: though it has a reputation as a sweet wine, there are also some excellent dry aperitif varieties. Then the Passito di Pantelleria, made from Zibbibo grapes which have been dried in the sun to increase the sugar concentration. Pure heaven from Sicily's southernmost offshore island, Pantelleria! Malvasia delle Lipari, an excellent sweet wine. Known as Malmsey to Shakespeare in Loves Labours Lost, George, Duke of Clarence (brother of King Edward IV of England ) was possibly executed by drowning in a "butt" of it. Malmsey was also well known to Nelson’s sailors (who allegedly drank a lot of it). Passito di Noto: a harmonious sweet wine, with honeyed hints.

 

HANDICRAFTS OF SICILY :

Shopping in Sicily is best done outdoors. The outdoor markets on the island are an experience in and of themselves. Visitors can purchase plenty of quality handicraft items, ceramics, artifacts and antiques; generally at lower prices than in traditional stores. Sicily boasts several flea markets, two of which are famous throughout Italy. In Masculucia there is a good flea market held every second week in the Piazza Trinità, where among other things visitors can purchase beautiful ceramic food moulds. On the third Saturday and last Sunday of every month a market is held in Giardini Naxos. Here visitors can purchase many types of antique items and locally made handicrafts. These items are generally sold at low prices making them perfect for souveniers. Children also love markets because of their painted carts and traditional marionettes.

 

AIRPORTS OF SICILY:

Sicily has four international airports

  • Palermo (PMO): Falcone Borsellino airport / Punta Raisi

  • Trapani  (TPS): Birgi airport 

  • Catania (CTA): Fontanarossa airport

  • Comiso  (CIY): Comiso airport