Selling Sicily, The Undiscovered Island
PHOTO: Aeschylus premiered tragedies at the ancient Greek theatre in Siracusa. (Courtesy of Visit Sicily on Facebook)
Don’t be fooled by the 18thcentury façade of the Cathedral in Syracuse, this jewelry box of Sicilian identity was a place of worship long before there even was Christianity. Inside the church you’ll find 2,500 year old Doric columns from when it was a temple to Athena. In the seventh century AD, it became a Byzantine church; a century later a mosque and then the Normans returned it to Christianity. After an 18th century earthquake cleared space, the Baroque façade we see today was erected. Popular with sophisticated travelers, mainstream visitors remain uncertain about Sicily. “I’m always being asked if Sicily is safe,” says Mario Scozia, the president of Chicago-based A&A Ciao Italy Tours and a Sicilian himself. “The movies have many people thinking there are gangsters behind every stone. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Sicily, the destination, began to emerge when new luxury hotel brands began applying their marketing muscle. In 2009, when Rocco Forte opened the Verdura Golf and Spa Resort near Sciacca, it sent a branding message throughout the travel world that Sicily was now an elegant option for discriminating travelers. That message was underscored the following year when Taormina’s Grand Hotel Timeo and Villa Sant'Andrea joined Belmond.
Though Europeans see Sicily as a beach destination first, Americans go there for culture and/or ethnic connections to family roots. About the size of Massachusetts, Sicily packs a potent cultural component that is fed by several powerful cultures. Sicily was at turns a Greek colony for 600 years, a bread basket for the Romans, a Byzantine and Norman stronghold, an Arab emirate, a possession of Spain and of the French Bourbons. Though Garibaldi brought it into the fold of a unified Italy in the 1860s, the island has its own character; both part of and separate from Italy.
There’s a lot to see in Sicily: the Greek ruins of Agrigento, Syracuse and Selinunte; the medieval charm of villages like Enna and Caltanissetta; the seaside beauty of Sciacca, the Baroque complexity of Palermo and Caltagirone. You can add a hydrofoil journey to the Aeolian Islands or a few days in a beach resort. Sicily also combines beautifully with Sardinia, if you want more beach and nature, or Malta if you want more culture.
PHOTO: The Valley of the Kings in Agrigento is among the finest reserves of Hellenic archeology anywhere.
In summer, Syracuse and its adjacent island of Ortygia, which is really part of the city, put their ancient theatres to work with open-air productions of Greek tragedies and comedies. Aeschylus himself staged tragedies at the Greek theatre. The western shores of the island Agrigento and Selinunte (Sciacca) are home to some of the Mediterranean’s best preserved Greek ruins.
Palermo, founded by Phoenicians, peaked under the Umayyad Arabs, originally from Syria, who governed between 830 and 1172. Though Baroque churches and palaces dominate the landscape in Palermo today, the city was once home to hundreds of mosques. The Emirs of Sicily brought irrigation and a culture similar to the one that flourished in Andalucía.
After the Arabs it became the Norman capital of the Kingdom of Two Sicilys, which also included Naples. The Normans became a decadent lot and their palaces outside of Palermo were the original pleasure palaces. Palermo’s Piazza Pretoria is known by every Sicilian school boy as the Plaza of Shame because of its 16th century Fountain and its erotic sculpture.
One of the emblems of Sicilian culture to Italians is its pottery and much of that pottery comes from Caltagirone near Catania. The town, whose names comes from an Arabic phrase relating to pottery, has as its most signature feature in the 142 ceramic stairs in the middle of town. Enna is a mountaintop town in the center of Sicily’s geography and its history. The castle at the peak is built on the foundations of a temple to Ceres, whose daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Pluto on the meadows below. The last of the Emirs was defeated here by the Normans.
Sicily combines nicely with the Maltese islands, which are just a two-hour catamaran ride away from Palermo.
The Sicily Tasting Network is a group of food, wine and tourism interests doing joint promotions of Sicilian wine cellars and lodgings, both in hotels and farm stays. The Streets of Sicily Wine itineraries combine cellar tours with broader, more general itineraries.
The Thinking Traveller has very deep roots in Sicilian villas that are reflected in their Think Sicily properties. The living room in their Villa San Tommaso was made from an old oil and wine press, and features a raised living area, complete with an old stone oil pressing wheel, and a dining area with easy access to the kitchen. It sleeps six through three bedrooms/ three bathrooms.
Pure Adventures’ seven-night self-guided bicycle tour of Sicily is priced from about $1,250 per person double. The trip, Italy - Sicily Cycling the Crossroads of History, begins and ends in Palermo. It gets hot in Sicily, so the best periods to travel are spring and early summer and from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15.
A&A Ciao Italy Tours, owned and operated by Sicilians, knows the island inside out and creates itineraries that reflect the most detailed understanding of what the island has to offer.
More by James Ruggia
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