Experience 1000 Years of History in Sicily
Rugged, brooding Sicily crashes up through the waters of the Mediterranean, the wild and secretive ball to Italy’s slinky boot. Home to thousands of years of human history, the starkly beautiful island has fallen to the Greeks, Moors, Arabs, Romans and the French. But in the past 200 years, it has fallen to more modern conquerors, the Mafia, whose stranglehold over the island has only just begun to loosen. The Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’) turned Sicily into an impenetrable fortress of fear and the island is peppered with ‘relics’ of its reign of terror. Modern tourists today should eschew the ubiquitous Mafia tourism and instead go in search of Sicily’s real history – vertiginous amphitheatres, haunting temples and Roman mosaics.
Start near Agrigento, in the famed Valley of Temples, a sprawling national park that includes two complete temples and the partly reconstructed ruins of three more. Scattered along a high ridge, the temples are the remnants of Akragas, a powerful city founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC. The Temple of Concordia is widely acknowledged to be one of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world.
More temples dot Sicily’s south coast, namely Selinunte, where atmospheric ruins are perched on a headland jutting out into blue waters. It’s worth seeking out nearby Cave de Cusa, the little-visited site where the stone for the temples was quarried. Work was abandoned in 409BC, leaving vast carved stone columns still anchored in the mother rock.
Taormina is Sicily’s star pupil, a picture-postcard town of crumpled stone houses with jaw-dropping views over the sea and Mount Etna. For the best seat in the house, climb up to the top of the Greek amphitheatre. A true marvel of the ancient world lies intact at Piazza Armerina, a Roman villa buried by a landslide in the 12th century and only fully excavated in the 1950s. The villa contains the most extensive Roman mosaics ever discovered.
Fancy an Ice Cream Sandwich?
Sicilian gelato has an unparalleled reputation in the world of ice cream. What you might not know, however, is that summer breakfasts in Sicily rarely consist of anything but brioche di gelato, a toasted brioche bun filled with ice cream. Knocked back with a double espresso, it’s one hell of a way to start the day. Try Noto’s Caffe Sicilia or Corrado Costanzo for what is arguably Sicily’s top gelato.
Monaci Delle Terre Nere (from $150, monacidelleterrenere.it/en) is a boutique country house hotel set in the foothills of Mount Etna, with rooms that are built entirely from stone from the volcano. This historic hideaway was once a monastery, chosen by the monks of Saint Anna’s order for its extraordinary energy. The ruin was rediscovered in 2007 by Guido Alessandro, who decided to devote himself to its resurrection. It is now a design buff’s dream, where traditional Sicilian architecture fuses with contemporary art and furnishings. Produce from the 40-acre organic estate is used in the simple Sicilian cuisine served on the property’s panoramic terrace.
Brand new and near the baroque town of Vittoria is family-run Baglio Occhipinti (doubles from $100, sawdays.co.uk), a handsome, low-slung stone house on a wine estate (the wine produced here is sold in Ottolenghi). With views of the volcano and sea, the property features minimalist spaces where oversized sofas, family antiques, art books and prints mix with open stone walls, pale terracotta tiles and a rustic stone fireplace.
In the Footsteps of Montalbano
Everyone's favourite Italian sleuth and the TV detective who made subtitles bearable, Inspector Montalbano is Sicily’s adopted son. Visitors can take a night tours and visit the church of the fictional town of Vigata (actually Saint George’s Cathedral), plus the commissioner’s office, port and, of course, the home of Salvo Montalbano himself (for prices visit mountalbanotour.com).
Addipizzo, a grassroots movement that encourages Sicilian businesses to refuse to pay the ‘pizzo’, or racket money, to the Mafia is slowly gaining pace. The website currently lists around 300 businesses who have signed up, although many prefer not to advertise the fact.
Visitors can check the website (addiopizzo.org) or look for stickers on pasta, oil and wine, all of which testify to the fact that the Mafia won’t profit from the sale.
For something altogether more political and spooky, you could stay at one of the guesthouses run by Libera Terra (liberaterra.it), the Addipizzo-affliated organisation that uses land confiscated from the Mafia to promote tourism. Libera Terra’s guesthouses are all in renovated Mafia strongholds; country estates used by the crime syndicate to plot their campaigns. For less than $100 you can sleep and dine in rooms where the unspeakable may – or may not – have happened.