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SICILY ISLAND, ITALY

Sicily is a mountainous island dotted with lemon, orange, almond and pistachio orchards —an extension of the Apennine Mountains separated from the mainland by the Strait of Messina. La Sicilia is the largest island in the central Mediterranean, with some 9,927 sq mi of variegated terrain.

Many powers have occupied and governed this strategically important area 310 mi south of Rome: Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Muslims (Arabs), Phoenicians, Normans, Spanish, the royal houses of Hohenstaufen, Savoy, Habsburg, the Aragon and, for brief periods, the U.K. and the U.S. Historic sites related to these powers are part of the island's attraction.

For touring, the island can be roughly divided into the north-shore and south-shore areas. The north shore has reefs, olive groves, secluded coves and countless seaside resorts, including Cefalu, a gorgeous Arab-Norman city with good beaches. Also on the north coast is Palermo, the ancient (and current) capital, and the island's largest city. West of Palermo lies the ancient village of Erice, atop a mountain: It still has remains of a temple dedicated to Venus.

The southern coast has an even milder climate, so there's swimming most of the year (although it can get cold there November-March). Among the areas not to be missed are Agrigento, Acireale and Taormina, a distinctive, beautiful town perched on cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

Mount Etna is a 10,902-ft-high active volcano on the east coast—its crater is difficult to reach, so join a guided tour and dress warmly. There are great ocean views from the mountain, and (depending on volcanic activity) it's possible to ski there in winter. You can also drive or take a train along the 120-mi route around its base to see a wide variety of scenery.

Sicily is a wonderful spot for a vacation with a unique mix of history, culture, nature, fine cuisine and a variety of activities to experience.

There visitors find water sports, beaches of rock and sand (including black sand), rugged mountains and volcanoes and beautiful vistas, good food, prized ceramics and other quality shopping, and friendly people.

History

Sicilian history is a cavalcade of invasions, one after another, and each of these invasions has added another dimension, a rich layer, to Sicily's extraordinary fusion of cultures and customs.

The first inhabitants of Sicily were Stone Age settlers from the Siculi tribe in 12,000 BC, originally from the region of Calabria on the mainland, who in turn gave the island its name. They were joined by the Elymi, descendants of the Trojans, and then followed by the Phoenicians who arrived from Carthage and settled on the west coast.

The Phoenicians founded Palermo and established important trade routes on the coast from Palermo to Trapani. The Greeks arrived by 735 BC as the island's prosperity increased, and they established their first colony at Naxos, today Giardini Naxos, just south of Taormina. The Greek colonies grew more prosperous and powerful in the east, causing tension with the Phoenicians (in alliance with the Carthaginians) who were settled in the western part of the island. In 480 BC, the Carthaginians were defeated by the Greeks at Himera, and what followed was a golden age for Sicily with the building of the largest of the Greek temples at Agrigento.

The Romans invaded and sacked Siracusa 264-211 BC; the island remained under Roman rule until AD 468. Following the Romans came the Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spanish.

The Spanish remained in control from the 12th through 17th centuries. During this time, the Mafia first emerged as a result of the feudal system forcing peasants off their land, breeding frustration and oppression. The island became free of Spanish rule only in 1860 after the arrival of Garibaldi, who began the process of the Unification of Italy. (Almost every major city and town in Italy has a Garibaldi square or street in his honor.)

During World War II, when the Allies invaded Sicily, they were greatly aided by the Mafia, who were eager to rid Sicily of the Fascists who had attempted to eliminate them under earlier rule by Mussolini. It was not until 1946 that Sicily became an autonomous region of Italy. At that time, the Mafia formed ties with the Christian Democrats and the Roman Catholic Church in their common goals of suppressing Communism.

Although there are many milestones in the anti-Mafia crackdown, one in particular is notable. In 2006 the top Mafia boss, Bernardo Provenzano, was arrested after 40 years on the run. Sicilian business groups continue to work with the police and local government to prosecute members of Sicilian Mafia groups.

In recent years, the Addio Pizzo movement in Palermo has been working against the payment of extortion money to the Mafia, and tourists visiting the island are encouraged to support the war against organized crime by frequenting businesses that no longer pay protection money to local criminal organizations.

 
 

Geography

Sicily is the largest region of Italy. The coastline of the triangular-shaped island is more than 620 mi long, and it takes about three and a half hours to cross the island from east to west by car and about two and a half hours to cross it from north to south.

The Greeks nicknamed the island Trinacria from the Greek words for "three" (tries) and "promontory" (akara). The island is shaped like an isosceles triangle lying down on one side. At its western point is the seaside city of Trapani, indicating toward Portugal and France. On the eastern tip lies Messina, separated from the mainland Italian region of Calabria by the strait. The triangle is completed in the south by Syracuse. The island is divided into nine administrative provinces, which take their names from their capitals. Sicily may seem small, but each province is made up of densely populated towns, each with its own particular history, dialect and landscape.

Sicily's highest point is Mount Etna at 10,902 ft, an active volcano on the eastern side of the island, with the Nebrodi and Madonie mountain ranges located along the northern coast. The area around Etna consists of very fertile, volcanic soil. Most of the rest of Sicily's topography is hilly and rugged, with the land being dominated by agriculture wherever possible.

There are many islands off the coast of Sicily.

Highlights

Sights—The well-preserved archaeological sites all around Sicily, including Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples, the Doric temple and theater at Selinunte Archaeological Site; the well-preserved mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina; the Teatro Greco in Taormina; the Teatro Greco & Parco Archeologico della Neapolis in Siracusa; the Monreale Duomo just outside Palermo; the medieval hilltop town of Erice; a cruise around the Aeolian or Aegadian archipelagos; a cable car up to Europe's most active volcano, Mount Etna.

Museums—Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonino Salinas in Palermo; Siracusa's Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi; Palermo's Galleria di Arte Moderno; Museo Regionale di Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, which contains some of Sicily's most famous works of art.

Memorable Meals—A steaming plate of seafood; melt-in-your-mouth cannoli; street food in the rustic Vucciria or Ballero markets in Palermo; irresistible stuffed arancini rice balls; a surprising meal at a little family-run restaurant or trattoria no one knows about yet.

Potpourri

The Sicilian word for Mafia is actually an Arabic word for "refugee," first used when the Sicilians hid in the mountains from the invading Arab and Norman armies.

Famous visitor and philosopher Wolfgang Goethe said about Sicily in 1787, "Italy without Sicily doesn't leave any trace in the soul: The key to everything is here."

Sicily is technically part of the Italian Republic, but it maintains a semiautonomous status with its own parliament and president. Its capital is Palermo.

Although Sicilian is referred to as an Italian dialect, it is so different that it can almost be considered a language in its own right. About 70% of Sicily's inhabitants speak Sicilian. Unfortunately, Sicilian is considered a dying language, as it is only spoken, no longer written.

Sicily boasts six UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Sightseeing

It is best to have one or two weeks to tour Sicily in order to fully experience the sights, culture and scenery of the island. If time is limited, however, a good strategy is to pick a region or an area of the island to visit for a few days, such as the northwestern part—Palermo and Trapani—where you can also plan a visit to the temple at Segesta, and the charming hilltop town of Erice. A side trip to the Egadi Islands is also possible.

Another good itinerary is a relaxing beach holiday on either the north coast at Cefalu, from which excursions to the regional parks of Madonie and Nebrodi are relatively easy, or the south coast to Marina di Ragusa where excursions to the archaeological area of Agrigento is possible.

A further possibility is to focus on the eastern side of the island, utilizing either the lively towns of Taormina or Siracusa on the Ionian Sea as a base. From the eastern coast, it is relatively east to visit the baroque southern towns of Ragusa and Noto or to take a day-long trekking tour to Mount Etna. From Taormina, it is also relatively easy to travel to Milazzo on the northeast coast to catch a ferry to the Aeolian Islands.

Among the ancient Greek and Roman ruins on the island are Taormina's Greek theater, San Domenico Monastery near Messina, the Greek theater and several temples in Syracuse, the fifth-century-BC Temple of Concord in Agrigento and the Casale Armerina—a mosaicencrusted jewel of a Roman villa—in the town of Piazza Armerina, near Enna.

Dos & Don’ts

Do make sure you have comprehensive car rental insurance if you rent a car. Sicilians aren't the most careful drivers, and there are a lot of narrow, one-way cobblestoned streets to negotiate, so your car is very likely to get scratched or damaged. Better yet, use public transportation or hired drivers.

Do spend a morning in one of the city produce, meat or seafood markets—such as the fish market in the Piazza Carlo Alberto in Catania or the Ballaro in Palermo—where you will get a true feeling for the pace of day-to-day life in Sicily.

Do eat lots of ice cream—it's what the locals do. A traditional Sicilian breakfast consists of an icy granita (in fruit or various other flavors) eaten along with or inside a brioche (a bun with the texture of a croissant), or scoops of ice cream directly in the bun. For the ultimate iced coffee experience, order a granita al caffe con panna (coffee granita topped with fresh cream).

Don't mention the Mafia, and in particular do not make a joke about the Mafia. It's a sure way to make a Sicilian angry, and they've heard all the jokes anyway.

Do leave space for spontaneity. For example, in the summer there are many free concerts and food festivals all around Sicily. Since these events are organized each year according to budget requirements, they are often advertised at the last minute. If there is a celebration of a town's patron saint, go along to witness an ancient tradition typical of Sicily.

Do eat the seafood: Sicilians are great lovers of fish.

Don't expect Sicily to be efficient. It's an old place filled with bureaucracy and inefficiency, so don't be in a hurry, and be patient.

Don't be afraid to ask. If you ever get stuck, lost or need advice, feel free to ask a local. Sicilians are very open and generous of their time, so if you need help, simply ask for it.

Etiquette

Sicilians have the strongest cultural identity of Italians, considering themselves Sicilians first, then Europeans, and then Italians. Their culture is similar to southern Italy's, which is more relaxed, informal and warm, but at the same time less efficient than their northern counterparts.

Tradition is a huge deal for Sicilians, with much of tradition revolving around or related to the church. Family events and celebrations are very important.

If you are visiting a church or religious site, be sure to dress appropriately: Cover exposed shoulders with a scarf and wear long trousers. Inappropriate dress may result in being denied access. Flash photography is frowned upon in churches, art galleries and archaeological sites. Be sure to ask before taking photos inside any shop, out of courtesy.

Geostats

Passport/Visa Requirements: Citizens of the U.S.,need passports but not visas. All visitors must present proof of sufficient funds and onward passage. Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departure.

Population: 5,043,480.

Languages: Italian, Sicilian.

Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic).

Currency: Euro

Time Zone: 1 hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+1 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October.

Voltage Requirements: 220 volts

Weather

May, June and mid-September to October are the best months to take a trip to Sicily. Temperatures are very comfortable, and swimming in the sea is possible. High temperatures in May and June reach the high 70s F and lows don't often go below 50 F. In September and October high temperatures are in the mid-70s F.

August is the hottest and most humid month to visit Sicily, and it can be uncomfortable. Additionally, most Sicilians and Italians go on vacation during August, so the country slows down, many shops are shuttered, and beaches are always overcrowded.

Seasonal rainfalls begin at the end of October, accompanied by high winds. Most tourist attractions begin their reduced hours, and resorts have a skeleton staff. November is the month with the most rainfall, and it can get quite cool at night, close to the mid-30s F.

February is the coldest month, with temperatures barely reaching highs in the low 40s F on average. January-April are relatively cool with average highs in the 50s F. In winter, temperatures tend to be milder on the coasts, but the mountains are cold and often covered in snow, which is great for skiers and snowboarders.

What to Wear

If you're going to Sicily in the winter months, be sure to take some layers, long pants and a warm jacket—in particular, waterproof outerwear for the rainy season, which is generally November-February.

In summer, shorts and skirts are acceptable, as well as T-shirts; however, the dress code in churches is very strict, with shorts required to be knee-length and sleeveless tops prohibited for both men and women. Be sure to pack a swimsuit if you'll be there June-September, as the sea is lovely for swimming at that time. Days in spring and fall can be warm, but it cools off in the evenings, so dress in layers.

Travel 42

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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon

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