The largest island in the Mediterranean, and the first multicultural society in the world, Sicily is the eye of the needle of European history. Strategically placed at the tip of Italy, it has served as the clearing house for occupying powers from the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, Greece, the Balkans, Iberia, northern Europe, and even (recently, briefly, but with equally profound influence) America.
It’s big enough to absorb and small enough to transform by osmosis every culture imposed on it, and with a sense of identity strong enough to influence other cultures in turn. Blessed with a near-perfect climate and fertile, volcanic soil, the island promises the best kind of Mediterranean beach holiday, then subverts its own hedonism with the competing magnet of cultural riches.
Sicily is a triangle with a 1,000 km (600 mi) coastline, mainly rocky in the north, and sandy in the south. In the east Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano rises to 3,330 m (10,800 ft) above a plateau of lava and limestone scarred by ravines and dramatic gorges. Mountain forests give way to great plains of wheat, and whole ranges of terraced vines, oranges, lemons, olives and almond trees; a rural culture as ancient as the ruins they surround.
But history is very much alive in Sicily: in the palaces of Palermo, the Baroque fantasia of Noto, Agrigento’s spectacular temples, medieval Monreale or Greek Taormina you feel the continuum of the Sicilian character – explosive, indulgent, amused and amusing. In these places, and even in the dusty, traditional farming villages of the interior uplands, Sicily is glamorous. It’s a glamour earned by millennia of Hard graft, recycling what history has left there for the benefit of new visitors.
When to visit
Year-round. Come for the film festival at Taormina, or any of the dozens of major and minor festivals all over the island.
How to reach
By air to Palermo or Catania; or by ferry from Reggio di Calabria to Messina
- The valley of the Temples at Agrigento. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temples were built in the 5th century BC.
- The Teatro Greco in Taormina was built by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC and adapted by the Romans for gladiatorial combat in the 1st century. It’s where Elizebeth Taylor broke a guitar over Richard Burton’s head in the 20th century.
- The Greek Theatre at Siracusa, one of the finest and largest anywhere – and still in use for summer performances.
- The Baroque city of Noto – was completely rebuilt in the style after the major earthquake of 1693.
- The Necropolis at Pantalica.
You should know
The casa Natale (birthplace) of the playwright Luigi Pirandello is in Agrigento in the suburb of Caos.