Sicily, crossroads of civilisations

Sicily
2018 03 01

The story

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Sicily, suspended between Europe and Africa, is a world apart. Syracuse, in the south-eastern corner, is the best starting point for a voyage of discovery across the largest island in the Mediterranean. In the historic heart of Ortygia, set on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, the food market is a nostalgia-inducing festival of Italian culture. The vibrant colours and flavours are matched by the equally vibrant gestures and cries of the locals. As you stroll on, gelato in hand, an immense shadow looms into view and you raise your eyes to behold the majestic, imposing spectacle of the Duomo in all its Baroque splendour. A little further on, back on terra firma in Neapolis, you can truly begin to appreciate just how important Sicily has been throughout the millennia as a cradle of civilisation. Plunge into the past, as you explore remarkable ruins in the shade of olive and lemon trees.

Up in the north-western corner of the island, the Trapani peninsula is well worth a visit, not least for its unspoilt port lined with white fishing cottages, and narrow streets dotted with Baroque townhouses. Further east, Palermo is and always has been a magnet for lovers of art and history, with its façades still bearing the traces of the successive occupations which shaped Sicily: Norman, Arab and Spanish. In this cultural melting pot, Byzantine mosaics, Baroque churches and souk markets exist side by side. Date trees tower over sublime palazzi, beneath the scorching sun. The contrasts which abound in this multifaceted city never cease to amaze: from the grand avenues, lined with palm trees and elegant boutiques, to the warren of winding alleys and lively market squares. No trip to Palermo would be complete without a visit to the museums. In keeping with the city’s protean image, Palermo’s Gallery of Modern Art displays Italian masters from the 19th and 20th centuries side by side with works by some of the most celebrated contemporary artists. As in the rest of the island, Palermo’s local cuisine is a beguiling combination of styles and influences. After a hearty main course of fish couscous, round off your meal with some delicious cannoli. The island’s gastronomic heritage is enriched by its diverse influences, and the sheer quality of the local ingredients: ricotta, crustaceans, pistachios, almonds…

To truly appreciate the scope of Sicily’s natural riches, set sail for the Aeolian Islands and weigh anchor at Lipari, the largest and most populous of the islands in this astonishing archipelago. These volcanic islands seem to emerge from another age, unchanged since the days of Odysseus. Framed by the endless blue sky and sea, white villages nestle amid the steep hillsides. The coast is wild, rugged, virtually untamed and utterly gorgeous. The beaches are inaccessible to cars, but the view is well worth the walk.

Sicily proudly retains its status as a bridge between east and west, and between different eras stretching way back into the mists of time. The influence of this storied past is everywhere visible in the island’s architecture, markets and cuisine. Visitors invariably fall under Sicily’s spell, and the fact that it feels like a raw, more authentic version of mainland Italy. As Goethe said, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”

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When to go?

Sicily is at its best between April and June. The temperatures are pleasant, without the scalding heat of the summer, while the sea is already warm enough for swimming. In winter, the island gets its fair share of wind and rain. Unfortunately many hotels and restaurants, even in the most popular destinations, are closed for the winter months.

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How to get there?

The best way to reach Sicily is by plane, with regular flights to the airports in Catania and Palermo. You’ll need a car to explore the island’s different regions – the coastal roads are particularly stunning. There are a number of daily ferry services to the Aeolian Islands, running from spring onwards.

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Experiences

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Freeriding Etna

Etna never sleeps, in winter or in summer. When the peak is dusted with white, grab your snowboard and glide down the slopes of this majestic volcano with a private freeride lesson. Our expert guide knows the Sicilian giant like the back of his hand, so follow him off piste as you slalom between smoking craters, fumaroles and cinder cones. All with a view over the Mediterranean, the Aeolian Islands or else the sea of clouds cloaking the slopes.

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In the footsteps of the Corleone clan

Make the pilgrimage to the iconic locations where The Godfather was filmed, and follow in the footsteps of cinema’s most famous mafia dynasty from Taormina to Savoca and Forza d’Agro. Led by our local guide and film-lover, relive some of the most memorable scenes from the trilogy in Bar Vitelli, the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and the forbidding crypt of the Frati Minori Cappuccini monastery.

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Off the coast of Taormina

With the help of our expert skippers, take the rudder of a sailboat and set off to explore the superb Bay of Taormina. Glide across the sparkling waters around Naxos, Mazzaro, Isola Bella and the Baia delle Sirene, and on the way home stop off just outside Taormina for an aperitif on the open seas, watching the sun sink beneath the waves.

Our address book

La Cambusa

A taste of the east

To get the measure of just how much Sicilian cuisine owes to its Arabic roots, don’t miss out on the famous “pasta con le sarde” at Cambusa. This pasta dish, made with sardines, raisins and breadcrumbs, is one of Sicily’s greatest recipes. The restaurant is well-known and much-loved by Palermo locals, and we recommend booking in advance.

Piazza Marina 16, 90133 Palermo

Caseificio Borderi

A traditional deli

After whetting your appetite with a stroll through Syracuse’s food market, head for this classic “deli” stocked with the finest Sicilian produce. That means a huge selection of wines and olive oils, cheeses and local cured meats, presented with artistic flair on wooden boards known as “taglieri”. Calm and spacious are not words you’d use to describe Caseificio Borderi, but the quality of the food more than makes up for it.

Via Emmanuele de Benedictis, 6, 96100 Siracusa

Lo Scudiero

An exceptional trattoria

Ask any local for a restaurant recommendation and they’ll point you in the direction of Lo Scudiero, a family-run trattoria serving no-nonsense Sicilian classics in the heart of Palermo. The atmosphere is relaxed and the dishes are simple yet delicious, in a quintessentially Italian décor with photographs all over the walls. The menu is packed with classics, but our favourites have to be the “linguine a la Mediterranea”, the almond and pistachio cake and the superb wine list.

Via Filippo Turati, 7, 90139 Palermo

Caffe Mamma Caura

Coffee with a view

If you’re passing through Marsala, you absolutely must not miss the chance to stop off at Mamma Caura for a coffee with an incredible view of the salt marshes. It’s also a perfect opportunity to taste their famous arancini, fried risotto balls with ricotta and spinach. What’s more, the prices are eminently reasonable.

C.da Ettore Infersa, 91025 Marsala

Enoteca Picone

Local wine bar

If it’s a broad range of Sicilian grape varieties you’re after, look no further. The staff here are knowledgeable and attentive, always happy to provide more information about the wines on the menu. Locals consider this to be the best wine bar in Palermo.

Via Guglielmo Marconi, 36, 90141 Palermo

Antico Caffe Spinnato

Award-winning "caffe"

Antico Caffe Spinnato has been voted Italy’s best café on multiple occasions. Italians take their coffee, and the rituals which go along with it, very seriously indeed. So when it comes to choosing a good café, you can trust their judgement. The coffee at Spinnato is strong, and the pastries and ice creams are to die for. Special mention goes to the Avola almond and Bronte pistachio croissants.

Via Principe di Belmonte, 107, 90139 Palermo

Valley of the Temples

An archaeological adventure

A listed UNESCO World Heritage Site, Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples is a must-see for all visitors to Sicily. These eight majestic temples are framed by the clear blue sky, with the eternal hillsides in the background. A spectacular site which takes a few hours to truly experience and appreciate.

92100 Agrigento

Scala dei Turchi

A spectacular beach

Sparkling white in the Sicilian sun, Scala dei Turchi is a beach with an other-worldly charm. Literally the “Turkish steps”, the clay and limestone shelves form a landscape which seems somehow out of place in this corner of the Mediterranean. To get the best photos of this lunar landscape, come early in the morning or outside of peak season, before the bathers take over the extraordinary natural terraces.

13km west of Agrigento

The market at Ortygia

A legendary market

This historic market, open every morning except Sunday from 7am to 1pm, looks out over the sea. There are not many markets of this size and significance left in Italy, and while Ortygia’s market partly owes its survival to the many guided tours that stop off here, it is also an integral part of local life in the town. Tomatoes, asparagus, fish and cheeses all vie for space with the colourful fruits (blood oranges, lemons and other citrus fruits) which make the rest of Italy so jealous of Sicily.

By the seaside in Ortygia, Syracuse