Having spent so much time on so many trips to Sicily, I have been afforded the luxury of covering much of the island at a leisurely pace. Each area of the island—north to south, east to west, and in the middle—has something to offer for every taste: Greek temples, ancient Arab and Norman palaces, and entire towns still reflecting their medieval origins.
Greek, Arab, French, and Spanish influences have dominated Sicily at one time or another, each having left a legacy of intriguing architecture and monuments, as well as a mark on the culture as a whole—and particularly the cuisine. The Sicilian Baroque, for instance, is a style all its own—fanciful, vigorous, curvaceous, sculptural—and it is especially evident in many of the places of worship on the island. On the exterior and interior of these structures, there is an abundance of detail; sculptures of angels set in relief on the façades and in niches abound.
Travel outside the major cities and you will discover the ruins of ancient Greek temples, especially in Selinunte and Agrigento. The Temple of Segesta, in the northwest, holds summer concerts and even the occasional fashion show. Likewise, the town of Taormina has its ancient Greek amphitheater, situated high and imperiously upon a hill, from which there are views of smoking Mt. Etna and the glittering Ionian Sea. The amphitheater still fills its seats in summer with plays ancient and contemporary, as well as with musical concerts.
Although it’s not a painted stage set, Mt. Etna, one of Europe’s most active volcanos, provides the spectacular backdrop for one of Sicily’s most popular vacation destinations, the town of Taormina. Despite its many micro climates that can appear almost within yards of one another, Sicily as a whole is generally mild in winter, while quite hot, though dry, in summer. The island is mountainous, and the waters around Sicily are a clear blue, which beckons boaters and swimmers. Some of Europe’s most beautiful beaches occupy discreet coves along unimpeded coastlines; such is the case on the smaller islands just off the mainland of Sicily. After all, there are three bodies of water that border the island—the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north, the Ionian Sea to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south—all swimmable, with waters warm and clear. The land is characterized by fruit trees, olive trees, pine trees, and the evocative fragrance of jasmine that wafts even into the streets of dense cities.
The distinctly Italian concept of la dolce vita is alive and well here. When the weather is pleasant, families and youngsters gather en masse in the piazzas, socializing, playing, sipping aperitivos. Life is lived outdoors, as well as in clubs and bars, many of which are open air. In summertime and early fall, people stroll late into the night through the streets, making for a cheerful, communal atmosphere. Socializing is the whole point of Sicilian leisure time, and family life is defined by a strong bond between generations. Even toddlers are included in all social activities, well into the wee hours.
Individuality is a trait of Sicilian cities. This is most evident with the island’s cuisine. Couscous is a prevalent dish on the menu in the beach town of San Vito Lo Capo, with an annual festival dedicated to the food. Palermo is known for panelle, a rectangular pancake made of chick pea flour that is put into a sesame seed sandwich. Palermo also invented cassata, a sweet and dense ricotta cheese and sponge cake dessert that is acclaimed throughout all of Italy. And there are the incredible ice creams, too, their flavors more concentrated, as well as granita, a type of Italian ice that is more creamy than its American counterpart. In Catania and Messina, considered to have the best granita, the sweet treat is often eaten with a brioche for breakfast on hot summer mornings. Catania is also the birthplace of Pasta alla Norma, a maccheroni or pennette pasta prepared with tomato sauce, fried eggplant, and ricotta salata cheese. I’ll confess that this is my very favorite dish, although I admit to substituting fresh ricotta for ricotta salata.
Sicily is noteworthy for its lemon and olive groves. Many local owners of groves gather their own olives when mature and take them to processing plants that press them for you. What results is a fragrant, spicy oil that will last you a good part of the year. I have done this myself. Now I know the significance of first cold press.
Sicily really is that melting pot of cultures and a mirror to history that extends back millennia. There are grand old hotels and resorts in which to stay, plus an abundant number of more modest accommodations. The resort town of Taormina recently opened a Four Seasons Hotel in the San Domenico Palace, consisting of two buildings, one a fifteenth-century convent—a glorious destination, with lush gardens and a view to the sea. There is an abundance of restaurants specializing in local dishes. Indeed, there is no lack of sites to see, towns to discover, foods to taste, and activities to experience in Sicily, be it actively exploring the island or simply languishing by the seaside. Here, la dolce vita is an easy activity to embrace and practice well.
This story appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of MILIEU. To purchase this issue in print, visit the MILIEU Newsstand. To purchase in digital format, visit zinio.com
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETER VITALE