Lying between southern Italy and northern Africa, Sicily presents an attractive, all-year-round climate with which to indulge in its many activities. Following a recent 2,000-kilometer drive around its winding coastline and into its more mountainous territory, here are a few ways to enjoy its many offerings.
Palermo – Like many capital cities, this one offers diverse choice. Two of the most interesting – and contrasting in many ways – are the International Museum of Marionettes and the Capuchin Catacombs, with the first – even though it focuses on wooden ‘lifeless’ puppets – much more dynamic than the second.
The former represents a Sicilian tradition dating back hundreds of years, to the time of Socrates, but ‘opera dei pui’ (puppet theater) reached its peak around 100 years ago on the island. With the support of the Association for the Conservation of Popular Traditions, visitors to the downtown Palermo museum can see hundreds of beautifully-designed puppets, their masters’ equipment (mestiere) as well as other memorabilia, and regularly-staged shows involving bandits and chivalrous heroes such characters as Orlando, Rinaldo and Gano di Maganza.
The Capuchin Catacombs provide a somewhat macabre tourist attraction as well as an extraordinary historical record. Here in tunnels beneath the street lie hundreds of bodies dehydrated on the racks of ceramic pipes and sometimes later washed with vinegar. Some of the bodies, men women and children, many over 100 hundred years old, are embalmed, others are enclosed in sealed glass cabinets. Monks were preserved with their everyday clothing and sometimes with ropes they had worn as a penance.
No better way to contemplate life after such exuberating experiences, than to dine at the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, an elegant property oozing old-world charm on the outskirts of the city. Here – under a high-vaulted, sandstone ceiling, with a marble fireplace and painted frescoes covering the end-walls – is depicted the history, everyday life and historical Sicilian monuments including its patron saint, Rosalia, the Norman Palace, the Cathedral and Puerto Nuevo, the ancient entrance door to the city.
Taormina – this inspiring, cliff-top town is the next stop on the island tour, and no better place to stay than the San Domenico Palace Hotel, a former 15th century (Dominican) monastery with commanding views over the ancient Greek theater to one side, the imposing slopes of Mount Etna on the other and the smooth, curved Sicilian coastline in-between. Proximity to the center of Taromina means easy street shopping on the cobblestoned Corso Umberto 1 and a short walk to the medieval amphitheater, Teatro Antico, where the annual Taormina Film Festival is held.
Of course, a visit to Sicily is not complete without a hike up the famous volcano, the largest one active in Europe. Interesting tours are organized by Etna Experience. Local guides who are multi-language speakers, take guests on a walk up the volcano’s side to around 2,000 meters; to a delightful lunch at a local restaurant; then into a cave formed by the molten lava and finally, to the impressive Alcantara Gorge.
Syracuse and Ortigia Island – anyone visiting Sicily must, out of courtesy if nothing else, embark on a traditional evening ‘passegiatta’ (promenade) and the island of Ortigia (linked by bridge to Syracuse) with its narrow, interlinking streets, provides a wonderful opportunity to do so. It’s a therapeutic delight to mingle with young and old as they leisurely wander along, talking and laughing incessantly as if there is no tomorrow. The five-star Grand Hotel Minareto – a deluxe resort with detached and semi-detached suites (mini-villas) on circular roads, some with sea-views, all within a short walk of a large central swimming pool – is an enticing accommodation option, located as it is along the coast road, away from traffic and the hubbub of the town.
Ragusa – enthralled by the Templars and their colorful, medieval history? Then a hilltop palazzo near the town of Ragusa is the place to go. Eremo Della Giubiliana, a five-star hotel, was home to the mysterious group known as the Knights of Malta (KoM), but is also where there’s a fifth to eleventh century limestone necropolis on the grounds in which ceramic pottery, bronze jewels, necklaces, as well as seven ‘box’ tombs. It’s also where you’ll taste wonderful homemade drinks such as the digestive, Amaro, and a red wine made from Nero d’Avola grapes.
Dining in the property’s Don Eusebio Restaurant, named after the present owner’s grandfather, is nothing less than regal – under high-vaulted ceiling crisscrossed with varnished wood struts, limestone archways and a polished marble floor. Furnishings include a suit of armor, framed ancient maps of Sicily and medieval oil paintings on the walls, candelabra, a piano, a cozy corner with soft, flower-motif sofas, two small bookcases and a table full of glossy photographic and historical books. A small bar and coffee corner stands beside some marble steps leading down into the restaurant.
No better way to end the evening than a scenic to drive to the nearby town of Scili for a leisurely stroll to absorb local life at the base of its impressive cliffs that end at the roof-tops, then to enjoy a cannoli (tiny tube), a succulent Italian dessert, accompanied by an espresso in the harbor area of Marina de Ragusa.
Sciacca – If it’s outdoor sports you’re interested in, look no further than the Rocco Forte Verdura Golf Resort & Spa. Here in a luxury property encompassing 230 hectares of gently undulating land in south-west Sicily you can enjoy boat rides along the coast; indoor and outdoor swimming; soccer; tennis; outdoor hydrotherapy pools with Jacuzzi-like jet streams; and golf (on two 18-hole courses and a 9-holer) under the excellent guidance of Niall Cameron, a Scottish ‘seanachai’ (storyteller) and an experienced, former European circuit player. For relaxation afterwards, try cocktails on the terrace at night gazing up dreamily at the twinkling lights of Caltabeltotta, a tiny town high above in the mountains. One of the most beautiful scenic drives is from the resort up to this mountain town and then back down along the coast to Sciacca to enjoy an ‘ice-cream burger’ – a Sicilian brioche filled with ice-cream (choose pistachio as these nuts grow abundantly on the island).