The immortal German poet was absolutely spot on. The more you entangle yourself in the magic maze that is Italy, the more you will find that the heart and soul, the very essence of its mixed cultural heritage is to be found in this island, Sicilia: a place of legend, and a dream location for visitors: tranquil and private in your own traditional country villa if you like, but if you emerge yourself you'll find it lively to the core and high spirited by default. Sicily has a face.
There's a wealth of beaches and sun filled hang-outs by the sea, some truly spectacular. Sicily is an island and around its coastal areas it breathes island life.
But it's as big as Belgium and there's more than cocktails and shrimps, much more. So let's look at it from a different perspective.
Everywhere you go, everywhere you stick a shovel in the ground, there's the paradox of an ever present past, wether it's Greek temples in better shape than they are in Greece or ancient sites that give us a glimpse of an earlier history, mostly shrouded in mystery. It often feels like being a fly on the wall in a forgotten age, and we're not exaggerating in the slightest.
The Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina is a perfect example. Depictions of life in around 50 AD adorn the tiles of the mansion in the form of incredible mosaics, some of which are unique in the world. The bikini girls are a everyone's favorite, for obvious reasons as well as for their artistic value. Who needs an ipad when you can practically touch the days of yore on location?
The first known tribes were probably not indigenous to the island, which already establishes Sicily's reputation as a much wanted no-man's land that happened to be rich in raw materials and formed a stronghold on the edge of three worlds; Europe, Africa and in a lesser sense Asia.
The Sicans for example came from North Africa, and the Sicels, after which Sicily was named, came from Italy, as far as Rome even. They occupied the eastern part of the island, where Mount Etna gave fertility to the soil and by capturing the clouds gave way to plenty of rainfall. More to the south they inhabited parts of what later became Syracuse, and a large necropolis at nearby Pantalica is a silent witness to their existence.
Through a string of wars and battles different fractions were trying to gain control of the island. Especially the "Sicilian Expedition" during the Peleponnesian Wars is a prime example.
The Greek in the first place around 750 BC, but many were to follow, all the way up to the Italians led by Garibaldi. Liberation has always meant something else for Sicilians. To them, it's just another foreign ruler.
Europe, Africa and Asia are rolled into one here in one of the world´s first multicultural societies. With over over thirty centuries of history and culture to be explored, Sicily is the perfect place to enjoy nature, culture and cuisine, while basking in the Mediterranean´s famous climate.
This incredible melting pot of cultural styles still echoes in the original Sicilian language, which consists of, amongst others, Greek, Arabic, Catalan, French and Spanish loan words. It also had an important influence on the development of modern day Maltese. Sicilian is a different thing all together and speaking Italian won't do you much good, but Sicilians are bilingual, which means they speak Italian, and the old language is changing to a more Italian based dialect as time goes by, unfortunately. English is finally developing as a secondary language, albeit mainly with the younger generation. And it's still possible for two grandmothers to converse without even their grandchildren having a clue of what they're on about.
I once asked an old 'contadino' (farmer) where a certain road was leading, and he answered: "Il panificio", meaning 'bakery'. He had to repeat it three times before I got it, and not before he put his thumb on his index finger, shook his head, and shouted: "Dove s'compr'il pane!", or 'where you buy bread!'. My exclamation: "Ah, the panificio!" didn't make things better. But it's this willfulness that defines Sicilians, and without it, it just wouldn't be Sicily.
The cultural blend is most impressive in the arts though. The fore mentioned Roman mosaics in the Villa Romana del Casale for example are North African in style; the Norman buildings of Cefalu cathedral, the Palatine chapel and La Martorana in Palermo all have spectacular Byzantine and Greek art. Arabic influences are everywhere to be found, and very visible in the Moorish architecture and geometrical decoration in buildings such as San Cataldo.
Tradition and modernity are in perfect balance, as one can see all over the island. For example, the unique tiled staircase in Caltagirone's ceramics stronghold is complemented by a modern mosaic pointing towards Sicily's great heritage.
Don't forget to visit the late-baroque towns of Enna and Noto in South-Eastern Sicily to see the mind blowing decorations that adorn churches and buildings alike. This style of intricate baroque carvings, that seemed to have been conjured up by the melted mind of a mad wizard genius, is typical for Sicily around 1730 and is influenced by developments in Italy as well as Spain, the country that supplied the ruling class for that period.
Of course there's is absolutely no need to visit overdecorated churches, emerge yourself in a more than murky past, slide down volcano's, or in fact go anywhere but the grocers. And of course the porch of your temporary home near a bustling beach, on a beautiful hillside or somewhere tucked away in a serene valley.
Holidays are enjoyed best at one's own pace, if any pace at all. Hire a car at the airport and you are free as a bird. But one thing you'll have to do anyway is eat, and that is one of the greatest secrets of Sicily; its food is unmatched, unprecedented and unbelievable.
Every foreign power that laid his hands on the island added an ingredient or two for the locals to keep or discard after they were gone. The Arabs for example left couscous, dried fruits, peppers and so on. This variety created rich and tasty dishes made from ingredients ranging from fresh seafood to indigenous vegetables, all treated with a passion for cooking and love for the product. Perhaps the most legendary of all is the timpano, or timballo, basically a mountain of yummy stuff like tomato sauce, ham, cheese, eggs, meatballs and more, set in a thin pie crust (like a 'timpano', or, tada: eardrum!). It's a lot of work and the result is usually the size of a small Italian car, so don't expect to find it on the menu much. It's featured in the excellent movie 'Big Night'. Don't try this at home.
For lesser gods there's a foray of pure and simple dishes like the classic pasta alla Norma, made with eggplant, ricotta and basil, allegedly named after the opera 'Norma' by Bellini. And you must, by all means, eat arancini. It's absolutely local and absolutely delicious. Sold as street food, it's mainly an orange ball containing risotto and sauce, sometimes a pinch of meat, made fresh everyday and deep fried before consumption. It fills and it thrills. Warning: you will end up making them at home and they won't be the same. Sorry.
When you eat, you drink, and when you drink it needs to be wine. Sicily's recent surge in the wine market is a great story; farmers have been experimenting with all kinds of 'imported' grapes and never really hit a spot that would secure a good base for wine making. Until they started messing around with the Old Ones, the grapes of their ancestors so to speak. They succeeded in bringing those back, and since they've been used on this particular soil before, they did well. The world started drinking nearly original Sicilian wine. Now it's everywhere, especially the Nero D'avola, and rightly so. With some of these foods and beverages a day on the porch sets itself in a warm glow, slowly rolling towards the sunset and into the evening. Enjoy.
Wether or not Sicily's natural beauty is among the most stunning in Italy or not, this section has one argument that kills all other arguments and the argument is this: Volcano. Nothing beats a live volcano. Mount Etna, the highest volcano in Europe and on top of that a very active one, has a bit of a reputation. Because of her liveliness she doesn't form any kind of danger to her surroundings, it's the silent partners on the mainland that pose a real threat, those that lay dormant, sulking and suffering from withheld anger issues. If the Vesuvius erupts it's a disaster of some proportion, if Etna does the same we can take an umbrella and gather around her mighty campfire to look at the fireworks. And that's something you will never, ever forget.
The sky over the grand dame lights up at night in a way that's hard to even grasp, flames shooting up hundreds of meters or more. There is no need to worry though, these people have lived with her for thousands of years and have the ability to read her every twitch. Meanwhile, new craters keep forming as old ones close, and the Hundred Horse Chestnut tree, the largest and oldest chestnut tree in the world, stands untouched just 8 kilometers from one of the main craters, as if nothing ever happens.
There are many national parks in Sicily, some mountainous and rugged, like Nebrodi National Park, which is densely forested, or the more open spaced Madonie. Both are home to foxes, deer and wild boar as well as birds of prey. There are many hiking trails to be found and the views are certainly worth it.
The more you go inland, the more barren the landscape gets. Deforestation for ship building has largely robbed the island of its forests and what remains as you approach the midsection is something not unlike the moon. I personally love it, it's dramatic and majestic, especially when the sun sets, with the surrounding mountains standing guard to this otherworldly place.
And then there's agriculture. Ok, it's not nature as such, but it's edible and I like that in an environment. Oranges, lemons, avocado's, figs, artichokes, mushrooms (from the hills), broccoli, purple cauliflower and of course tomatoes, just like they're supposed to be. Living off the land is no punishment here, it's bliss.
What can we say? Wether you are planning on a sun filled beach holiday, or you want an active time outdoors , or maybe a cultural vacation that will take you from one highly memorable highlight to the other, or perhaps you just want to sit in the shade, by the pool, sipping wine like there's no tomorrow: come to Sicily, we have it all.