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Isle of raw, ravishing beauty

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There is nowhere quite like Sicily. The big Mediterranean island is emerging from its troubled past to become one of Italy’s top tourist draws. This is my list of things not to be missed in this place of raw, ravishing beauty, high style, great ice cream and some of the best Greek remains outside Greece. Photo - courtesy of Sicilia Tourist Board. Sicily has some of the richest, largest and most complex Roman mosaics.

Style island

I love Sicily''s mix of raw beauty, fading grandeur, simple yet fabulous food,
and rich and fruity white wines. If you have time, take the train instead of
flying. It’s a leisurely scenic ride from Rome down Italy’s west side to the
Straits of Messina. They ferry the whole train across. It continues to the
gorgeous hillside resort of Taormina, favourite holiday spot for the men who
put Sicily on the style map - Dolce and Gabbana. Use buses, or hire a car -
demand the new Fiat 500, just right for mad, fading, glorious, deafening
Palermo, with its tiny dusty streets with no name, beautiful baroque churches,
old squares and raucous markets.

No Cosa concern

On my first visit to Sicily in the 1980s, my guide confided quietly: “The Mafia -
it’s a fuss about nothing.” To an extent he was right. Tourists never meet
Mafiosi. No armed hood will spoil your visit. But why deny Sicilian emigrees''
contribution to American organised crime, and their inspiration for a host of
movies? The Mafia are still here after 150 years, but weaker than they were.
Coppola ignored the town of Corleone (too developed) when he filmed parts of
the Godfather trilogy here. His best locations include Palermo’s fabulous
Teatro Massimo, where he shot the opera scene for Godfather III (coming
soon [2009] - Rigoletto, Madame Butterfly). He filmed a bar scene in Bar
Vitelli in Forza d''Agro, and a wedding at Chiesa di Santa Lucia, in Savoca.

High and mighty

Sicily has two great natural light shows, Etna and Stromboli. Mount Etna, a
perfect 10,000 feet high cone, is geological powerhouse, snowcapped in
winter, fuming gently all year round, and every so often exploding into life.
Snow from Etna may have been an original ingredient in Italian ice cream,
gelato. You can walk much of the way up, and take guided tours to the very
top. Or stay in one of Sicily’s finest hotels, the Palazzo San Domenico, above
the medieval hilltop town of Taormina for the best views. The other active
volcano is Stromboli , on one of the string of pretty little islands (plenty of
places to eat and stay) off the north coast, a day trip away by ferry or
hydrofoil from Milazzo, Palermo, Cefalu and Messina.

Rare remains

The UN’s cultural body UNESCO has been piling the accolades on Sicily (five
separate World Heritage sites). The finest mosaics still in place anywhere in
the Roman world are in the Villa del Casale near Piazza Armerina. They include,
eerily setting the fashion for the distant furure, the remarkable “Girls in Bikinis”
mosaic. The villa, a display of pure luxury, would have been owned by a Bill
Gates or Madonna of the day. UNESCO called nearby Agrigento''s Doric
temples “one of the most outstanding monuments of Greek art…in an
exceptionally intact condition.” There are more outstanding ruins in Syracuse.
Roman writer Cicero called it “the greatest Greek city, and the most beautiful
of all”.

Top towns

If there’s ever a silver lining to natural disaster, it is in the eight Val di Noto
towns in SE Sicily, a combined World Heritage site for the high quality of their
buildings. Flattened by an earthquake in 1693, the towns, Caltagirone,
Militello, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli, were quickly
rebuilt . They represent one of the finest flowerings of Baroque architecture,
the bold, elaborate, ornamented C17th style. if you see just one, make it the
gorgeous hill town of Noto. A bonus here is Caffè Sicilia, where the
enterprising Assenza brothers make delectable marmalades and jams, torrone
(nougat) and other sweet delights with inventive combinations of local
natural ingredients.

Taste of Sicily

“The Leopard”, Visconti’s opulent 1963 movie, starring Burt Reynolds as a
Sicilian prince coming to terms in the 1800s with the decline of his way of life,
is a great scene setter for any visit to this island. They have stopped the
slide, and many of those great old houses have been turned into fine hotels.
Now today’s aristocracy are finding other ways to make their properties work.
The grand country estate at Regaleali, near Vallelunga, is a leading winery and
cookery school. Call in for a tour of the vineyards and wine tasting and stay
for lunch, or book in for a five day cookery course. www.tasca dalmerita.it.
But there is good food everywhere. Convivial restaurants, many of them simple
and cheap, are one of the joys of Sicily.

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