It is worth it to go off the beaten path to see the beauties of Sicily. Southern Italy’s heat can be searing, but we visited Sicily in early spring, and the weather was perfect. The air was mild, almond trees bloomed in green valleys, and the stony fields were ablaze with wildflowers.
The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, 3 kilometers from Italy’s mainland, Sicily has been a strategic crossroads for millennia. It’s crammed with the history of many conquerors, yet has its own unique character.
John and I rode the overnight train from Rome, and by early morning we had crossed the Strait of Messina and were gazing at Mt. Etna’s ever-present smoke plume. The 10,910-foot volcano has erupted hundreds of times, most recently in May, 2008.
We started in Taormina, where bougainvillea, bright geraniums, and sweet-scented orange blossom lined the narrow streets. This international resort is a favorite of celebrities, but we didn’t spot any (not that I’d recognize them). More interesting was the 5th-century Greek theater, high above the sparkling Mediterranean. Tiers of well-worn stone form the seats, and concerts and performances are held there to this day.
We stayed at Villa Paradiso, next to a lovely public garden, in a small suite with a balcony. The hotel was fine, but another time I might choose Villa Ducale, an attractive place that combines modern amenities with tasteful tradition, or Hotel Baia delle Sirene, a restored villa with spectacular sea views, gardens, and a rocky beach nearby.
Driving in Sicily is not for the faint-hearted. Fortunately John has nerves of steel, and in our rental car I tried not to watch the road as we circled the island, marveling at the beautiful landscape interrupted by patches of dreary industrial and housing development.
We spent a night in Syracuse, mainly to see the well-preserved Greek theater. Centuries ago, Aeschylus’ plays premiered on this stage, and plays are still performed. Syracuse was crowded and noisy and we weren’t sorry to leave.
Out in the countryside, we passed olive and almond trees, flower-carpeted hills and stone farmhouses. Several roadside stands sold huge oranges and lemons. We stopped for a flock of goats tended by a toothless, smiling, weathered old man. These are less common sights now, as modernity encroaches.
A few of Sicily’s attractions:
– Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples, on the south coast. The ruins that stand above the olive groves and cactus are echoes of their former glory but still impressive. We stayed at Villa Athena because of its stunning setting, next to the temples. The 40-room hotel, in an 18th century villa, is faded and the food mediocre, but the staff was kind and the location unbeatable.
– Selinunte, the immense stone ruins of a 7th-century BCE city. Nearby Pierrot is a restaurant with a lively atmosphere and a sea view, where we feasted on fresh seafood and homemade pasta.
– Segesta. The hilltop temple stands aloof and alone, save for the birds that nest in its crumbling columns.
– Erice, a stone village perched high on a mountain in the west. We walked through misty fog to the Norman towers and ancient walls, and explored shops on cobblestone streets so narrow we had to walk single file. The not-to-miss treat here is Maria Grammatico’s pastry shop, famous for its torrone, a delectable candy of almonds, pitachios and honey.
– Palermo, Sicily’s major city. The maze of streets and wild traffic induce terror; my advice is to never drive here. But it was worth the entire trip to see the 12th-century Palatine Chapel, a magnificent work of art. Its Arab-Norman mosaics are dazzling. We also found grandeur in the Palermo Cathedral, La Martorana, and the churches of San Cataldo and San Giuseppe. We did not get to the Capuchin Catacombs but those 8,000 mummified bodies from centuries past are not going anywhere; we’ll see them next time.
On the way to all the gilded Byzantine and baroque splendor, we wandered streets that teemed with vivid Italian life. Outdoor vendors sold sweaters and purses, oranges and eggplants, olives, rabbits and fish. Motorbikes zipped among them.
Bar Pasticceria Recupera provides a delicious gelato or cannoli break. The “recovery bar” has outdoor tables in summer.
Palermo has many hotels. The Ambasciatori, near the town center and train station, is known for its welcoming staff and great views from the roof terrace (upper floor rooms are best). B&B Castiglione is in a 19th century palazzo facing a tree-shaded square. It offers 3 rooms and a full breakfast. The Hilton Villa Igiea, once an 18th century mansion, is by the marina, away from the heart of town. This calm, expensive oasis with a lovely garden is famous for its interior architecture and remarkable art nouveau decor. The food is so-so (and pricey.)
Of Palermo’s restaurants, we liked Casa del Brodo best. It’s well-known for excellent traditional cooking. Another noted spot is Cucina Papoff, serving good Italian foods and wines. For a casual lunch, Spinnato and De Martino both offer sandwiches, pastas and salads. Stylish, serene Cin-Cin serves superb cuisine and offers cooking classes. The restaurant’s unusual seafood pastas and grilled meats are top quality, and ice creams are homemade.