Think “Sicily” and one picture’s the stories of gang wars, intrigue and chivalry associated with the colorful lifestyles of the Sicilian clans and their larger-than-life exploits. But, few people know that Sicily is an ancient land with a distinct culture of its own and a history that goes back into the deep, dark recesses of time, stretching back for more than 3,000 years.
For those that are willing to listen, to witness and search out its secrets, it yields its mysteries through its diverse styles of architecture, unique cuisine and ancient ruins. Its capital city, Palermo, is a place of great joy and vibrancy that is reflected through its vivid and colorful street life with bustling, lively markets. Unique to Palermo are the byzantine mosaics at the beautiful Cappella Palatina. It is also home to Mt. Etna, Europe’s highest, active volcano that still throws tantrums and never fails to show its fiery temperament from time to time. It last erupted on December 3, 2015.
Sicily has the distinction of being the largest region of Italy. It is also the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Its culture has been variously shaped by successive waves of immigration and conquest that include influences from the Germanic Vandals, the Byzantines, the Normans, the Saracens and Spanish. Today it is home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites that display unique facets of these influences.
The musical-sounding names of the provinces that make up this picturesque island ring out like the beautiful soft, soothing notes of a symphony of chimes, tinkling gently in the soothing breezes that blow off the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea – Agrigento, Catania, Messina, Palermo, Syracuse, Trapani, Caltanissetta and Ragusa.
Ideally, a visit to Sicily should start at Palermo, the capital and principal city of Sicily. Amongst the many landmarks that jostle for attention in Palermo, the 12th-century Palermo Cathedral is the most prominent. The city houses the royal tombs, while the massive neo-classical Teatro Massimo is the imposing venue for the city’s famed opera performances. Located in the central district are the Palazzo dei Normanni – a royal palace dating from the 9th century – and the Cappella Palatina (a UNESCO World Heritage monument) with its impressive Byzantine mosaics. Busy markets include the central Ballarò street market and the Vucciria, near the port. Palermo is home to no less than 7 out of nine structures or sites that have been recently designated by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. Collectively known as the “Arab-Norman Palermo” circuit, it comprises a series of nine buildings and religious structures dating from the era of the Norman kingdom of Sicily (1130-1194) that include two palaces, three churches, a cathedral and a bridge (in Palermo), as well as the cathedrals of Cefalú and Monreale.
Off the Autostrada A20, the toll motorway that links Palermo and Messina, around 6 to 8 kilometres up into the mountains is one of Italy’s most impressive castles – Caccamo. It takes its name from the village of Caccamo, located on a western spur of the Monte San Calogero. Built by the Normans circa 1093, Castello di Caccamo was initially constructed as a fortress by the Arabs on an impregnable promontory of the mountain that was easy to defend from attack. It was rebuilt and expanded in the 12th century by Matthew Bonnellus. Later, around the 14th century, it passed into the hands of a powerful, local clan known as the Chiaramontes, who further reinforced, strengthened and modified it to what it looks like today with stepped and cobbled pathways leading up steeply to the main structure.
Cefalù, is a picturesque medieval town in the Province of Palermo that looks out onto the Tyrrhenian Sea. Local legend has it that it was founded by a race of giants. It once had a temple dedicated to Diana that was built single-handedly by Hercules. The local tourist brochure leans heavily towards legend when it says that the Naiad Daphne is still imprisoned in the rocks above the town.
Catania is an ancient port city on the east coast of Sicily. It sits at the foot of Europe’s best-known and most active volcano, Mount Etna, which is one of Sicily’s most famous landmarks. Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe and Sicily’s highest peak. It dominates the landscape on the North East coast. A tour to the crater at the top is a must for anyone visiting this part of the island. Catania’s wide central square, Piazza del Duomo, serves as a grand backdrop to the richly decorated Catania Cathedral and the quaint quirkiness of the Fontana dell’Elefante statue. At the southwest corner of the square is La Pescheria – the bustling, noisy, weekday fish market that provides a colorful setting for a host of classic Italian catering establishments that range from ristorantes and trattorias to osterias and bistros specialising in seafood exotica of every description to titilate the most demanding of palates.
Syracuse is a historic city and also the capital of the province of Syracuse, notable for a rich Greek heritage that is reflected in its history, culture and imposing Grecian amphitheatres and architecture. It is also known as the birthplace of Archimedes, the renowned mathematician and engineer. The Cathedral of Syracuse – also known as the Duomo di Siracusa or more formally, the Cattedrale Metropolitana della Natività di Maria Santissima – is an ancient Catholic church that makes up a part of the area that was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
For those die-hard travel buffs looking for a unique and memorable experience, I would urge you to take a very special peep into the beautiful and enigmatic soul of Sicily.
There can be no better hostess than true-blue, local Sicilian: Angela Macaluso who operates with a team of three like-minded experts – Rosario Turrisi, Giacomo Passalacqua and Giovanni DeCarli, under the business name “Sicily by Experts”. The charming and vivacious Angela is passionate about the historical, cultural and gastronomic treasures that her Sicilian homeland has to offer to the truly discerning explorer. With more than 20 years of experience in handling incentives and high-end clients, she has a native perspective of Sicily’s culture, history and traditions. She offers truly imaginative insights into Sicilian life through a specially crafted program of regular excursions and tours branded as “In the Soul of Sicily”.
More articles will follow in this series on Sicily. We will be taking a look at some interesting places that you just cannot afford to miss out on. We will also explore this beautiful region of Italy through its fabulous food, wines and unique traditions.