“You can steal my money but not my food.” “If you want things to go exactly as planned, don’t come here.”
Those words, spoken by my Overseas Adventure Travel tour guide in Sicily who actually loves his homeland, tell a lot about it. Yes, food is important, plentiful and held in a place of near reverence. Plans don’t always work out as intended, and the locals have learned to go with the flow. Here is your Sicily Travel Guide.
Residents of the triangular island off the toe of Italy’s boot exhibit a warmth, friendliness and self-deprecating humor that make them a major reason to visit. Others include the vast collection of archaeological and architectural treasures, countless chapters of history and examples of Mother Nature’s magnificent handiworks.
One surprise your Sicily Travel Guide will point out is how much diversity exists in such a small space. Packed into an area about the size of Maryland, Sicily offers variety equal to that found on entire continents. Over the centuries, people from many places and civilizations have dropped by. Invaders and settlers came and went, leaving behind tangible evidence of their coming and going along with influences on the culture, lifestyle and other facets of everyday life.
For visitors, the first impression relates to the rich assortment of architectural riches that serve as reminders of those who were here. By about 750 B.C. the island was home to three Phoenician and a dozen Greek colonies. Later much of it fell into Roman hands, and it became Rome’s first province outside of the Italian mainland. Others who held temporary sway over Sicily included the Germanic Vandals and Ostrogoths, Berbers and Arabs, Normans and the Byzantine Empire. Reminders of their stays abound.
The Valley of the Temples is home to remnants of graceful Greek structures that were built between 510 and 430 B.C. Sprawling across more than 3,200 acres, it’s said to be the largest archaeological site in the world. The Temple of Concordia is one of the best-preserved and is ranked among the most notable remaining examples of Greek civilization. The Temple of Juno was damaged by fire and restored in Roman times. Also strewn about the site are portions of defensive walls, gates and portions of vats where grapes were pressed.
The Villa Romana del Casale near the town of Piazza Armerina is a near-perfect preservation. Constructed in the fourth century for an unknown nobleman, the 43-room mansion was lavishly decorated with what today are among the finest remaining examples of Roman mosaics in all of Europe. Scenes range from Homeric escapades to depictions of daily life. One portrays regions of the Roman Empire at the time, including a veritable zoo of tigers, lions and other African animals, both real and fanciful.
To some, the capital of Palermo may lack the magnificence of major cities around the world. However, beneath its jumble of nondescript buildings your Sicily Travel Guide advises there waits a wealth of architectural gems, interesting museums and other attractions. Among them are remnants recalling the parade of conquerors who descended upon Sicily. Traces of Phoenician walls and gates are visible. Magnificent Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches and palaces adorn the setting.
The Teatro Massimo (Greatest Theater), which opened in 1897, is a reminder of hundreds of small opera houses that once were sprinkled throughout the city. The ornate building is the third largest opera house in Europe, after those in Paris and Vienna. If it looks familiar to visitors, that’s because of its role in “The Godfather: Part III” movie.
Drama of another kind plays out in three sprawling outdoor fruit, vegetable and fish markets, which are leftover vestiges of ninth-century Arab souks. Crowds of people mill around the stands looking and buying. Vendors alternate entreaties to passers-by to stop and shop with good-natured insults they shout about their competitors.
Food plays a major role in your Sicily Travel Guide on a visit to Sicily because it plays a big part in the lives of Sicilians. Mealtimes are as much a celebration of the cuisine as a time for eating. Given its fertile land and sunny climate, Sicily served as the granary for the Roman Empire. Its long history of producing a variety of noted cuisines, influenced by those of Greece, Africa and the Arab world, among others, has earned it the nickname of “God’s kitchen.” In this gastronomically rich and diverse setting, every region has its specialties, which are touted by those who cook — and consume — them as il migliore (“the best”).
That sense of pride also extends to wine, not surprising given Sicily’s 2,500-year past as a center of viniculture. Italy ranks first in the world in the volume of wine produced, and Sicily does its part to contribute to that standing.
Despite its small size, Sicily’s varied landscapes provide a dramatic setting. Deep valleys rise up to rocky mountaintops. Fields and rolling hills are blanketed by the silver-green leaves of olive trees, low-lying grapevines and golden wheat. The 10,922-foot peak of massive Mount Etna looks over the eastern side of the island. “The Mountain,” as locals refer to it, is the highest active volcano in Europe, although fortunately it usually takes the form of lava flows rather than eruptions.
The natural beauty of Sicily vies for attention with its treasure-trove of man-made architectural gems that span many centuries. The story of the island’s long history is told by its archaeological riches. Against that background, it’s the people’s joy of life, pride for their compact homeland and intriguing multicultural mixture that provide the most lasting memories for visitors.
For more information: www.italiantourism.com/sicilia.html