Celebrating Sicily: Italy at Its Most Extreme
It may lack the Botticellis, Guccis, and touristic icons of Venice, Florence, or Rome, but Sicily still packs a punch. This island — a little smaller than Massachusetts — is home to some of Europe's most important ancient Greek sites, the most active volcano in Europe, and some of Italy's most intriguing architecture and tastiest food.
While part of Italy, Sicily really is a world apart. Midway between Africa and Europe in the middle of the Mediterranean, over the last 2,500 years it's been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards. Its complicated past makes it distinct — with spicier food, a more festive lifestyle, and people who are Sicilian first, Italian second. Italian Americans have a special bond with the island — almost one-third of all Italians who arrived in the US between 1880 and 1930 were from Sicily.
This past spring, I found Sicily had changed quite a bit since my last visit. Years ago I considered Palermo, the capital city, seedy and sketchy. My latest visit demolished my lingering Mafia images. The city is still gritty and colorful…yet its bustling center feels safe and trendy. Quattro Canti, the fountain-filled intersection of Palermo's two main thoroughfares, is a fine focal point to a pedestrian area where people enjoy their evening passeggiata. As I strolled, I found that thriving marketplaces abound in the morning and squares in nearly every neighborhood are lively and inviting after dark.
The Cathedral of Monreale (just outside of Palermo), one of Sicily's greatest art treasures, is something that hasn't changed. While dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this massive church was built to show off the power of the Norman King William II. Famous for its exquisite 12th- and 13th-century mosaics, each panel tells a story: Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent, angels climbing Jacob's ladder, and Noah building his arc.
Palermo also offers a great "bone" experience — skull and shoulders above anything else you'll find in Europe. Its Capuchin crypt is a subterranean gallery filled with 8,000 "bodies without souls." For centuries, people would line up to be "not buried" here. They'd actually choose their niche in death and even stand there getting to know their macabre neighborhood. Then, when they died, dressed in their Sunday best, this is where they'd end up.
On this year's trip, I made a point of exploring the entire island. On the west coast, I sailed through salt flats and across a lagoon to the humble little island of Mozia. This salt-making region was a Carthaginian stronghold centuries before Christ, and you can still see Carthaginian ruins amid Roman ruins: Here, like elsewhere on the island, you'll enjoy many layers of history.
Near Sicily's south coast is Agrigento, with its "Valley of the Temples" — the largest, best-preserved collection of ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece. Its top temple rivals the Parthenon — not a surprise, since Agrigento was one of the richest Greek colonies and a thriving democracy 2,500 years ago.
One of Sicily's most famous sights is Taormina, a spectacular resort city on the east coast. Hanging high above the sea, with handy cable car access to the beach, it's long been the island's romantic cliffside haunt of aristocrats at play. Taormina's setting impressed the ancient Greeks — probably more for its strategic location than the view. Its Greek-Roman theater must be the most dramatically situated theater from the ancient world — and it still hosts open-air concerts. (Paul Simon, Tony Bennett, and Elton John have performed here.)
Nearby looms Mount Etna — at over 11,000 feet, it's Europe's biggest volcano. It's anything but extinct — a serious eruption comes about every three years. On my visit a gondola swept me up into a barren land of spent lava flows. At the edge of the volcano, I surveyed the landscape: The flows seemed to rumble like big black buffalo toward Sicily's teeming second city, Catania. In the distance, a crescent beach stretched all the way to Taormina. And to my right was the hazy, high, and harsh interior. In a vineyard on the slopes of this steaming volcano, I was served a glass of full-bodied red wine by a woman who could have been Sophia Loren's younger cousin.
In addition to the wine, the food is what nearly all visitors rave about. The cuisine is Mediterranean and rich in seafood. Along with pasta, you may see couscous on the menu — a reminder that this island is just 100 miles from Tunisia. And for dessert: cannoli, which tastes best here in its homeland. Connoisseurs of cannoli insist on having one freshly filled — not with cream, but with sweetened ricotta cheese. I now know why they say, "Holy cannoli."
Sicily — with a culture enriched by wave after wave of conquerors — is one of Europe's most fascinating corners. I think of Sicily as "Italy in the extreme" — if you like Italy for its people, tempo, and joy of living, you'll love Sicily.