Sicily is different from any place else either in Italy or in other parts of Europe, only 3km of water separate the island from the Italian mainland, but the historical and cultural gulf is far wider. To understand why, you need only look to the past. The events of history have left a distinct imprint on Sicily which is in evidence everywhere on the island.
The juxtaposition of classical temples, mosaic-filled churches and ornate piazzas lends a theatrical and decidedly unique presence to the island. In Palermo, the cathedral that the Spanish so richly ornamented is only steps away from the mosaic-filled palace that was the seat of the enlightened courts of the island’s Saracen and Norman rulers. The Baroque churches and piazzas of Catania incorporate columns of Roman temples. Medieval Erice is built near the site of a temple allegedly erected by some of the island’s earliest settlers, the Elymians.
The food in Sicily is different from that of the mainland: lemons, capers and almonds that the Arabs brought with them from North Africa still appear in many dishes.
Sicilians are welcoming to their visitors. Afternoon closures, which afford shopkeepers and office workers a chance to enjoy lunch and a nap, are a little longer than they are on the mainland, usually from 1-4pm.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and its landscapes of tall mountains, vast coastal plains and island valleys are more diverse than those of many countries. The Sicilian scenery is dramatic, sometimes harsh but seldom graceless. The island is also remarkably rich in what can only be described as spectacle. A traveller to Sicily soon notices that the countryside, towns and monuments here are a little more extravagant than they are elsewhere.
Mount Etna, Europe’s most forceful volcano, is also Sicily’s tallest mountain and most famous natural wonder. It dominates, and periodically threatens, the eastern coast. The Madonie are rugged mountains that rise behind the northern coast, and Capo San Vito, a rocky headland etched with beaches and secluded coves, is at the island’s northwestern tip. The volcano on Stròmboli, one of the Aeolian Islands that float off the northern coast, can be counted on to provide a round-the-clock performance: it sends fiery lava down the mountainside into the hissing sea about every half hour.
Topping a short and by no means inclusive list of other places to include on even the briefest tour would be Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta, with the largest and best-preserved Greek temples on the island.
Cefalù, on the northern coast, and Taormina, on the eastern coast, are justifiably the island’s most popular seaside resorts. Aside from their beaches, these pleasant towns also throw in some remarkable monuments: a Greek theatre and medieval palaces in Taormina, a Norman cathedral and an Arabic old town in Cefalù.
Erice, on the west coast, is the most dramatically poised town on the island, perched atop the rocky escarpment of a tall mountain high above windmill-studded salt pans and the sea.