Sicily sits at the toe of Italy’s boot, just 3.2 kilometers from the mainland, at its closest point, and a short ferry ride from the town of Messina. But our gateway to Sicily was on the other side of the island, flying into the capital Palermo.
We have holidayed in Italy before, but now with my partner and our 6-year-old daughter Kitty in tow, and two weeks at our disposal, we were ready for a road trip. Sicily’s size, culture, food and weather make it an enticing destination.
Located in the Mediterranean, Sicily has been of strategic importance from ancient times. The Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Saracens and Normans are just a few of the civilizations that invaded, each leaving their mark.
A rainy day led us to Palermo’s Royal Palace. Construction began in the ninth century during the Arab era, and it was later expanded by the Normans, invaders from northern France, who assimilated designs of the Islamic and Byzantine courts that preceded them. Sicily’s Arab-Norman architecture is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
The jewel of the Royal Palace is the Palatine Chapel built in Byzantine style with lavish golden mosaics of saints, Arabic patterns and a wooden muqarnas-style ceiling — a type of ornamented vaulting often associated with Islamic domes.
Sicily’s Opera dei Pupi, which dates to the 19th century, features wooden puppets in tales of medieval chivalry and battles. Some of the opera’s puppets, and others from around the world, are on display at the International Museum of Marionettes. An in-house show stars Orlando, a medieval knight who must rescue his beloved Angelica from a legion of Saracens. Parents, be warned: It is a rather violent plot (though our daughter loved it), with the hero slaying dozens of marionettes, which ended up in heap on the tiny stage. Some lost their heads, one lost its face.
A few days later we were sitting on the terrace of our hotel in Taormina, on the island’s northeast coast, enjoying the sunshine, when Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest active volcano, emerged from behind clouds and appeared to float, emitting two white plumes from its snow-covered summit.
Taormina is Sicily’s plushest resort, more Capri than Naples, with an ambiance that recalls “La Dolce Vita.” Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are just a few of the famous names who have stayed here. The resort’s main attractions are the ancient Greek theater and a cable car that takes you down to a rocky promontory called Isola Bella.
Our quest to circumnavigate the island led us next to Syracuse on Sicily’s south eastern corner. We stayed in Orytiga (Ortigia), a small island which was once the historic center of the city, connected to the mainland by two bridges.
Syracuse’s main cathedral, il Duomo, is built on the site of a Greek temple. The original Greek columns, which can still be seen, were incorporated into a church in the seventh century. A massive earthquake in 1693 devastated much of the region and many towns were rebuilt in a late baroque style, which became known as Sicilian Baroque. Syracuse’s Duomo is a good example and we also visited the nearby town of Noto, also famous for baroque buildings. Even if you’re not a fan of the opulent style, it’s fascinating how Sicily’s history can be explored through its architecture.
In the middle of the island’s southern coast, a road leads to the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, an ancient Greek and UNESCO World Heritage site with seven temples dating to the sixth century B.C. We visited two, the Temple of Juno (also known as Temple of Hera) and the Temple of Concordia. Concordia, which was eventually turned into a church, is considered one of the world’s finest surviving examples of a Greek temple.
Our road trip through Sicily had taken us across the island and through history. But a winged bronze figure lying languidly outside the temple dozed in the sun as it has for centuries, oblivious to the stream of picture-taking tourists and to the passage of time. Siobhan Starrs, Palermo, AP