Eternal crossroads of the Mediterranean, the gorgeous island of Sicily continues to seduce travellers with its dazzling diversity of landscapes and cultural treasures.
Seductively beautiful and perfectly placed in the heart of the Mediterranean, Sicily has been luring passersby since the time of legends. The land of the Cyclops has been praised by poets from Homer to Virgil and prized by the many ancient cultures – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Elymians, Romans and Greeks – whose bones lie buried 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.
A delectable layer-cake of culinary influences, Sicily's ancient cuisine continues to rely on a few key island-grown ingredients: shellfish and citrus, tuna and swordfish, pistachios, almonds and ricotta. Talk to the septuagenarian chef at a Catania restaurant and she'll confide that she still uses her grandmother's recipe for pasta alla Norma, joyfully sharing the poetic imagery that links it to Mt Etna: the tomatoes are lava; the eggplant, cinders; the basil, leafy greenery; the ricotta, snow. Modern chefs may play with the details, but Sicily's timeless recipes – from the simplest cannolo to the most exquisite fish couscous – live on.
Sparkling Seas, Restless Mountains
Sicily's varied landscape makes a dramatic first impression. Fly into Catania and the smoking hulk of Etna greets you; arrive in Palermo and it's the sparkling Golfo di Castellammare. This juxtaposition of sea, volcano and mountain scenery makes a stunning backdrop for outdoor activities. Hikers can wind along precipitous coastlines, climb erupting volcanoes and traipse through flowery mountain meadows; birders benefit from the plethora of species on the Africa-Europe migration route; and divers and swimmers enjoy some of the Mediterranean's most pristine waters. Whatever your personal predilections, Sicily and its dozen-plus offshore islands offer enough activities to build an entire vacation around.
Byzantine to Baroque
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 and Norman palace walls. Circle around to southeast Sicily and you'll find a stunning array of baroque architectural masterpieces, from the golden-hued domes and palaces of Noto to the multi-tiered cathedral facades of Ragusa and Modica. Meanwhile, throughout the island you'll find yourself stumbling upon the evocative remains of Arab and Norman castles. This embarrassment of cultural riches remains one of the island's most distinctive attractions.
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Villa Romana del Casale is sumptuous, even by decadent Roman standards, and is thought to have been the country retreat of Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, Rome's co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286–305). Certainly, the size of the complex – four interconnected groups of buildings spread over the hillside – and the 3535 sq metres of astoundingly well-preserved multicoloured floor mosaics suggest a palace of imperial standing. Following a landslide in the 12th century, the villa lay under 10m of mud for some 700 years, and was thus protected from the damaging effects of air, wind and rain. It was only when serious excavation work began in the 1950s that the mosaics, considered remarkable for their natural, narrative style, the range of their subject matter and the variety of their colour, were brought back to light. The villa's recent restoration has covered almost the entire complex with a wooden roof (to protect the mosaics from the elements), while an elevated walkway allows visitors to view the tiled floors and the structure itself in its entirety. Architects report a dissatisfaction with the structure for the lack of light, and the shadows that obscure the colours and vivacity of the mosaics, but the condition of the mosaics has been much improved. To the north of the villa's main entrance, which leads through the remnants of a triumphal arch into an elegant atrium (forecourt), is the villa's baths complex. Accessible via the palaestra, which has a splendid mosaic depicting a chariot race at the Circus Maximus in Rome, is the octagonal frigidarium, where the radiating apses contained cold plunge pools, and a tepidarium, where you can now see the exposed brickwork and vents that allowed hot steam into the room. The main part of the villa is centred on the peristyle, a vast covered courtyard lined with amusing animal heads. This is where guests would have been received before being taken through to the basilica (throne room). Of the rooms on the northern side of the peristyle, the most interesting is a dining room featuring a hunting mosaic called the Little Hunt – 'little' because the big hunt is over on the eastern flank of the peristyle in the Ambulacro della Grande Caccia. On one side of the Ambulacro is a series of apartments, the floor illustrations of which reproduce scenes from Homer and other mythical episodes. Of particular interest is the triclinium, with a splendid depiction of the labours of Hercules, where the tortured monsters are ensnared by a smirking Odysseus. Just off the southern end of the Ambulacro della Grande Caccia, in the Sala delle Dieci Ragazze, is the villa's most famous mosaic. It depicts nine (originally there were 10) bikini-clad girls working out with weights and dinky dumbbells, in preparation for the Olympic games. The site is equipped with enough interpretive panels (in English) for you to explore the villa autonomously. If you do want to arrange a guide, however, contact the STS Servizi Turistici in Piazza Armerina; otherwise you can organise one directly at the site.
Sicily's most enthralling archaeological site encompasses the ruined ancient city of Akragas, highlighted by the stunningly well-preserved Tempio della Concordia, one of several ridge-top temples that once served as beacons for homecoming sailors. The 13-sq-km park, 3km south of Agrigento, is split into eastern and western zones. Ticket offices with car parks are at the park's southwestern corner (the main Porta V entrance) and at the northeastern corner near the Temple of Hera (Eastern Entrance). Eastern Zone If you only have time to explore part of the site, make it the eastern zone, where you'll find the three best-preserved temples. The 5th-century-BC Tempio di Hera, is perched on the edge of a ridge. Though partly destroyed by an earthquake in the Middle Ages, much of the colonnade remains intact, as does a long altar, originally used for sacrifices. From here, the path continues westwards, past a gnarled 800-year-old olive tree and a series of Byzantine tombs built into the city walls, to the Tempio della Concordia. This remarkable edifice, the model for Unesco's logo, has survived almost entirely intact since it was constructed in 430 BC. In 1748 the temple was restored to its original form and given the name it's now known by. The last of the zone's temples, the Tempio di Ercole, is the oldest, dating from the end of the 6th century BC. Eight of its 38 columns have been raised and you can wander around the remains of the rest. Down from the main temples, you can see a little temple set on a high base. This is known as the Tomba di Terone, although it dates to 75 BC, about 500 years after the death of Theron, Agrigento's Greek tyrant. Western Zone The main feature of the western zone is the crumbled ruin of the Tempio di Giove. Covering an area of 112m by 56m with columns 20m high, this would have been the largest Doric temple ever built had its construction not been interrupted by the Carthaginians sacking Akragas. The incomplete temple was later destroyed by an earthquake. A short hop away, four columns mark the Tempio dei Dioscuri, a 5th-century-BC temple that was destroyed by an earthquake and partially rebuilt in the 19th century. Just behind is a complex of altars and small buildings believed to be part of the 6th-century-BC Santuario delle Divine Chtoniche. In a natural cleft near the sanctuary is the Giardino della Kolymbetra, a lush garden of olive and citrus trees interspersed with more than 300 labelled species of plants and some welcome picnic tables.
Inspired by a vision of the Virgin and determined to outdo his grandfather Roger II, who was responsible for the cathedral in Cefalù and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, William II set about building the Cattedrale di Monreale, 8km southwest of Palermo. Incorporating Norman, Arab, Byzantine and classical elements, the cathedral is considered the finest example of Norman architecture in Sicily. It's also one of the most impressive architectural legacies of the Italian Middle Ages. Although the cathedral's mosaicists hailed from Sicily and Venice, the stylised influence of the Byzantines pervades their work. Completed in 1184 after only 10 years' work, their shimmering masterpieces depict biblical tales, from the creation of man to the Assumption, in 42 different episodes. The beauty of the mosaics cannot be overstated – you have to see for yourself Noah's ark perched atop the waves or Christ healing a leper infected with large leopard-sized spots. The story of Adam and Eve is wonderfully portrayed, with a grumpy-looking, post-Eden-eviction Eve sitting on a rock while Adam labours in the background. The large mosaic of Christ, dominating the central apse, is stunning. Binoculars make viewing the mosaics easier, although they are still impressive to the naked eye. For a guide to the various scenes, print out the handy key and map at www.seepalermo.com/monrealekeyprint.htm. Adjacent to the cathedral is the entrance to the cloister, which illustrates William's love of Arab artistry. This tranquil courtyard is an ode to Orientalism, with elegant Romanesque arches supported by an array of slender columns alternately decorated with shimmering mosaic patterns. Each capital is unique, and taken together they represent a sculptural record of medieval Sicily. Especially interesting is the capital of the 19th column on the west aisle, depicting William II offering the cathedral to the Madonna. For a bird's-eye view of the cloister, its geometric garden and the cathedral's mountainous surrounds, climb the stairs to the cathedral's terrace, accessed from inside the cathedral.
Designed by Roger II in 1130, this extraordinary chapel is Palermo's top tourist attraction. Located on the middle level of Palazzo dei Normanni's three-tiered loggia, its glittering gold mosaics are complemented by inlaid marble floors and a wooden muqarnas ceiling, the latter a masterpiece of Arabic-style honeycomb carving reflecting Norman Sicily's cultural complexity. Note that queues are likely, and you'll be refused entry if you're wearing shorts, a short skirt or a low-cut top. The chapel's well-lit interior is simply breathtaking. Every inch is inlaid with precious stones, giving the space a lustrous quality. These exquisite mosaics were mainly the work of Byzantine Greek artisans brought to Palermo by Roger II in 1140 especially for this project. They capture expressions, detail and movement with extraordinary grace and delicacy, and sometimes with enormous power – most notably in the depiction of Cristo Pantocratore (Christ All Powerful) and angels on the dome. The bulk of the mosaics recount the tales of the Old Testament, though other scenes recall Palermo's pivotal role in the Crusades. Some of the mosaics are later and less-assured additions, for instance the Virgin and Saints in the main apse under Cristo Pantocratore. Fortunately, these don't detract too much from the overall achievement. It's not only the mosaics you should be gazing at – don't miss the painted wooden ceiling featuring muqarnas, a decorative device resembling stalactites that is unique in a Christian church (and, many speculate, a sign of Roger II's secret identity as a Muslim). The walls are decorated with handsome marble inlay that displays a clear Islamic aesthetic, and the carved marble in the floor is stunning: marble was as precious as any gemstone in the 12th century, so the floor's value at the time of its construction is almost immeasurable by today's standards. In case of special events, the chapel may close early or for part of the day; always check the website before heading in.
For nature lovers, climbing Stromboli is one of Sicily's not-to-be-missed experiences. Since 2005 access has been strictly regulated: you can walk freely to 400m, but need a guide to continue any higher. Organised treks depart daily (between 3.30pm and 6pm, depending on the season), timed to reach the summit (924m) at sunset and to allow 45 minutes to an hour to observe the crater's fireworks. The climb itself takes 2½ to three hours, while the descent back to Piazza San Vincenzo is shorter (1½ to two hours). All told, it's a demanding five- to six-hour trek up to the top and back; you'll need to have proper walking shoes, a backpack that allows free movement of both arms, clothing for cold and wet weather, a change of T-shirt, a handkerchief to protect against dust (wear glasses not contact lenses), a torch (flashlight), 1L to 2L of water and some food. If you haven't got any of these, Totem Trekking hires out all the necessary equipment, including boots (€6), backpacks (€5), hiking poles (€4), torches (€3) and windbreakers (€5).
One of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples in existence, the Temple of Concordia has survived almost entirely intact since it was constructed in 430 BC. It was converted into a Christian basilica in the 6th century and the main structure reinforced, giving it a better chance of surviving earthquakes. In 1748 the temple was restored to its original form and given the name it is now known by. Another reason why it has survived while other temples have not, is that beneath the hard rock on which the temple stands is a layer of soft clay that acts as a kind of natural shock absorber, protecting it from earthquake tremors. Whether the Greek engineers knew this when they built the temple is the subject of debate, but modern scholars tend to think they did.
Home to Sicily's regional parliament, this venerable palace dates back to the 9th century. However, it owes its current look (and name) to a major Norman makeover, during which spectacular mosaics were added to its royal apartments and magnificent chapel, the Cappella Palatina. Visits to the apartments, which are off-limits from Tuesday to Thursday, take in the mosaic-lined Sala dei Venti and King Roger's 12th-century bedroom, Sala di Ruggero II.
Lipari's best coastal views are from a celebrated viewpoint known as Quattrocchi (Four Eyes), 3km west of town. Follow the road for Pianoconte and look on your left as you approach a big hairpin bend about 300m beyond the turnoff for Spiaggia Valle Muria. Stretching off to the south, great cliffs plunge into the sea, while in the distance plumes of sinister smoke rise from the dark heights of neighbouring Vulcano.
Taormina's premier sight is this perfect horseshoe-shaped theatre, suspended between sea and sky, with Mt Etna looming on the southern horizon. Built in the 3rd century BC, it's the most dramatically situated Greek theatre in the world and the second largest in Sicily (after Syracuse). In summer, it's used to stage concerts and festival events. To avoid the high-season crowds, try to visit early in the morning.
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