Once called Trinacria, which roughly means the Triangle, Sicil is a three-cornered island at the edge of western Europe that tips towards North Africa and points at Greece, connecting East to West. Six thousand years and eleven periods of foreign domination have enriched the island’s architectural history along with its folklore and gastronomical traditions to create a social and cultural patrimony of great distinction. Over centuries, Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Moorish, Norman, Swabian, Angevin and Aragonese all arrived to enjoy Sicily, and all left their own mark on the island’s art, food, and culture.
Visit Sicily and you step back into mythology and history, as alive today among the Sicilians as their ties to the electronic age; the unfamiliar human kindness, the astounding architecture, otherworldly landscape, alluring sea and, of course, the food and wine.
You will hear the lore: Cyclops constructing Zeus’s lightning bolts on the slopes of the Etna; Arethusa, fleeing from the avid attentions of the river god Alpheus in Greece, transformed by Artemis into a stream which traveled to the island of Ortygia; a handsome shepherd catching the eye of Galatea, to be killed by the jealous Polifemo under a rock, creating the Aci river.
Two-weeks in Sicily by car would afford you time to visit all the important sites circling the coast, where all the main cities lie: Palermo, Catania, Agrigento, Trapani, and historic Syracuse. An additional week for the seven islands of the Aeolian volcanic archipelago is most enjoyable, especially in June, for unforgettable landscape and water sports.
Start your trip by flying into Palermo, the remarkable city of tree-lined boulevards and jasmine-scented gardens, a Phoenician settlement which the Romans failed to develop but flourished under the Arabs. To this day, many streets by the fish market bare their names in Arabic. Not to be missed is Monreale’s 12th century cathedral displaying the Arab-Norman art and architecture with remarkable mosaics and bronze doors.
If you are in search of the ancient Roman Empire, Naples and Rome understandably offer the strongest glimpse. However, the Romans depended on Sicily’s wheat fields and its strategic military location, leaving behind their huge estates built to control the harvesting and the Roman navy. The town of Piazza Armerina is a prime example. Now converted into hotels and resorts, these estates take you back the luxuries of the ancient world (not actually true—the ancient world remains in ruins).
Long nurturing intellectual cultivation and scientific progress, Sicily has a rich culture all its own. At the court of Frederick II the arts flourished, judicial laws established, and poets, scientists, philosophers, astrologists, and historians explored their world. Long before Tuscany reached its golden age, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies was recognized for its great accomplishments to Western Civilization.
The food on the island has a similarly dizzying effect as the architecture and landscape. One list citing the twenty-five best restaurants in Italy includes six in Sicily, and of these, Syracuse has four. This isn’t too surprising, since Syracuse cooking schools were established as early as the 5th century B.C. where Greeks often sent their young to study.
The sea is not too far from any vantage point in Syracuse, as you stroll down the wide avenues with high fashion boutiques, myriad antique stores and cafes. Palatial hotels lined with blossoming lemon trees offer among the best views. Two restaurants hold court each night to international guests and their own compatriots: Don Camillio and La Terrazza both have worldwide recognition. The tiny seaside trattorie grill fish and produce good Pasta alla Norma, named after Bellini’s opera, under the flapping canopies and sounds of seagulls.
Remember the goddess Arethusa? The stream of her namesake still gurgles on in Ortygia, just meters away from the site where in 735 B.C. the Corinthians established themselves in Syracuse, and where in 415 B.C. they fought valiantly against the invading Athenians. As the story goes, the Gods appeared as an eclipse, which the Athenians interpreted as a sign that the battle displeased the Gods. However, the Syracusians believed the Gods desired them to win, and as the Athenians retreated, their vessels were set ablaze.
Allow a budget of 60 euros a head at dinner for at least four meals during your two-week adventure. You won’t regret it. Imagine cold almond soup, sea urchin risotto, pastas with hourly fresh seafood, pistachio cakes, jasmine ice cream, watermelon gelatin with chocolate bits, all consumed along the Mediterranean seaside. Your palette will be overwhelmed as your eyes devour the landscape, trying to hold the memory of this first visit to Trincaria, island of the Greek temples to the Gods.
Dr. Angela Iovino is founder and principal of Cultural Study Abroad, offering educational tours of historic locations around the world. She has taught at Georgetown University and The George Washington University for over 25 years. Get in touch with her at info@culturalstudyabroad. com.