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Did You Know…?
- The worst earthquake in Europe’s recorded history destroyed Sicily’s Messina and killed an estimated 100,000 (1908).
- Opera composer Vincenzo Bellini was born in Sicily (1801) as was the dramatist Luigi Pirandello (1867).
- Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini is credited with creating the sonnet form, in the 13th century.
- Mount Etna at 10,902 feet is the tallest active volcano in Europe.
- The word mafia came from Sicilian-Arabic slang for acting as a protector against authority.
The Mafia and a mountain
Sicily, the island at the toe of the Italian peninsula, is best known to outsiders as the Mafia’s birthplace and site of a volcano, Mount Etna. The fact the Mafia still burdens Sicily’s economy doesn’t have much direct effect on tourists, but Etna can — even should — be a highlight for visitors of all personality types, whether they take a rail trip around the foot of the volcano or hike to a safe point near a crater.
In many ways, Sicily’s location in the middle of the Mediterranean has dictated its fate and, as a side effect, its touristic appeal today. Everyone, it seems, found the location attractive; the island was occupied by outsiders — among them, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish — from the eighth century B.C. until Italian unification (1861).
Sicily boasts that its Greek ruins are better than those in Greece. True or not, must-sees for history buffs include the Greek temples and/or theaters at Agrigento, Segesta, Selinunte, Syracuse and Taormina. The same goes for newer attractions like the medieval hilltop town of Erice and the Norman-built Monreale Duomo near Palermo.
More about location: Sicily — a largish island the size of Vermont — boasts a Mediterranean climate. It sits in warm waters and is surrounded by several considerably smaller islands. Active tourists have choices, such as diving, kayaking, surfboarding waterskiing and windsurfing, as well as swimming. They may also go fishing, cruise along the coast or take ferries to neighboring islands for further explorations and beach time. Sicily also is known for its own cuisine, influenced by past occupiers as well as climate, and for an evolving wine industry.
Again, about the Mafia: There is a sizeable slice of society, including officialdom, which strives to rid the island of organized crime. Visitors might hear about this from guides and may be encouraged to patronize businesses that don’t pay protection money. Palermo has a map identifying such businesses.
Although mob violence isn’t a tourist issue, street crime can be. This calls for being alert, watching out for pickpockets, purse-snatchers and the like and using taxis (but no rides from friendly strangers) at night.
Things to do for Venturers
- For a dose of the macabre, see the Capuchin catacombs just outside Palermo’s city center. They contain about 8,000 mummified bodies of Palermo citizens from the 17th to 19th centuries. Be warned: Corpses are in varying states of decay.
- Come to Sicily at Carnival time when countless towns come alive with parades and feasts. The festivities in Acireale and Sciatica are considered the most elaborate.
- At Taormina, choose a fishing excursion that lets you cook and eat your catch while still out to sea.
- Hike across lava deserts on Mount Etna. Etna treks can take you to the Ice Cave, a lava tube with a glacier inside (best April to June), or to the impressive Bocca Nuova crater. Volcanic activity at the time of a visit dictates the possibilities. It’s advisable to go with a guide, and sometimes required, depending on where you want to go.
- Scuba diving is an option in many places, as are parasailing or wakeboarding or windsurfing. Choose your spot and your sport.
- Make for the Pelagian Islands, to Sicily’s south, where many of the sunbathers on the beaches are topless or nude.
Things to do for Centrics
- For great views of Mount Etna, take a bus from Catania up to Rifugio Sapienza and, from there, a cable car up to 8,200 feet (April to November). In winter, using the same cable car, ski on Etna — provided volcanic activity at the time won’t make that a bad idea.
- In summer, attend a performance (theater or concert) at the fifth century B.C. Teatro Greco in Syracuse. Round out the experience with a good look at Taormina’s third century B.C. Teatro Greco.
- Eat the popular caponata, a cooked vegetable salad whose main ingredient is eggplant topped with a sweet-and-sour sauce. Sicily is known for street food; eat samples.
- Choose a cruise around the Aeolian or Aegadian archipelagos. Or take a ferry so you can spend time on the ground exploring an offshore island or just relaxing on the beach.
- If a birder, look for the rare Bonelli’s eagle at its refuge, Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro. Or, look for bird-watching sites, available all year, at major parks such as Etna, Madonie and Nebrodi.
- Towns and cities across the island celebrate their patron saints in a big way. Look for a saint’s celebration that coincides with your trip and attend to see a true Sicilian tradition. Or, purposely time your visit for one of the big ones.
Things to do for Authentics
- Take the private railway Ferrovia Circumetnea, following a 71-mile trail around the base of the volcano, with the option of taking breaks in Etna towns along the way.
- Sample the spa experience at the Thermae of Acireale, where underground seawater mixes with sulfur water from Mount Etna. Also, play golf on the island that hosts the Sicily Open.
- Delve into ancient history by visiting Greek temples at any or all of these sites: Agrigento, Segesta, Selinunte and Syracuse.
- Sample Sicilian wines on a wine tour, or in enotecas (wine bars) and restaurants. If you like dessert varieties, head to Marsala to taste the libations that carry the city’s name.
- Attend a performance at Palermo’s huge opera house, or hear the singing at Teatro Massimo Bellini, the opera house in Catania, which was built to showcase the works of Sicily’s Vincenzo Bellini.
- Allot time for archaeological museums in Palermo or Syracuse; ditto for the 12th century Monreale Duomo, the best of Norman architecture in Sicily, just outside Palermo.
For more information, consult the Italian Government Tourist Board at www.italia.it and choose your language if necessary.