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Sicily: Italy claims her, but the island stands alone

Scott McMurren
The fortified sea front of Ortigia (Siracusa, Sicily) Scott McMurren

Italy claims her, but Sicily definitely stands alone. The island kingdom was settled by Greeks in the seventh century B.C. The ancient cities of Siracusa and Messina prospered long before Italy existed as a nation. Palermo, the regional capital, once was the richest city in the Mediterranean. The island, which is south of Italian peninsula and just off the coast of North Africa, has been conquered and settled not just by the Greeks but also by the Arabs, the Spanish and the Norman kings, among others. 

Many recall Sicily as the birthplace of the Mafia. In fact, an entire industry is thriving based on “Godfather” T-shirts and the image of Marlon Brando. But the T-shirt shop is probably as close as you’ll get to any “deal you can’t refuse,” unless you’re offered a slice of cassata, one of the “official” desserts of Sicily: sponge cake, Ricotta cheese and candied fruit. 

Getting to Sicily, or other Italian destinations, is easy in the summer with Condor’s nonstop flights from Anchorage or Fairbanks (Thursdays only) to Frankfurt. Condor has refurbished its fleet of 767s with new seats and seatback entertainment. The Premium Economy level offers a few more inches of legroom and free drinks. The new Business Class features lie-nearly-flat seats (170 degrees) and a nonstop feast of snacks and beverages. 

On the ground in Frankfurt, we switched to Alitalia for our flight to Palermo. The airport is 20 miles out of town and features frequent bus service to the city center (5.80 euros each way). Although the website (prestiaecomande.it) touts free Wi-Fi, it doesn’t work. That was the case in many places throughout Sicily, which is one reason we brought a prepaid “MiFi” hotspot from XcomGlobal.com. The cost is $15 per day and you can connect up to 10 devices (laptop, phone, iPad). The device comes pre-loaded with an Italian SIM card and taps into the local cellphone network. With that connection, you can call using Skype or a similar VOIP phone service. It’s also valuable for Google Maps -- making your phone a mini-GPS while driving around the countryside.

We opted to rent a car from Europcar, although there is good train and bus service around the island. Driving in Palermo is insane. Don’t rent a big car. It’s not just about driving. It’s also about parking. We rented a Fiat 500L, a four-door stretch version of Fiat’s popular 500 model. The car is well-designed for Sicily’s conditions -- if I was smaller I would have gotten the “Panda” or something similar. The roads between towns are very nice, particularly the toll roads. But in most of the towns, the streets get skinny very quickly and there’s no place to park. 

Cefalu

We spent a couple of days in Cefalu, about 60 kilometers east of Palermo. This popular beachside getaway was first mentioned by Greek writers in the third century B.C. The dominant feature of the skyline is the giant “Rock of Cefalu,” which towers 270 meters over the town. At the top of the rock is a Greek temple dedicated to Diana. The walk from the base starts at the cathedral. When we were there it was raining, so the trail was closed.

Instead, we looked in the cathedral. Construction started in 1131, but it wasn’t completed until 1267. One of the outstanding features is the gold mosaic work. The Norman king at the time, Roger II, brought artisans from Constantinople (Istanbul) to work in their Byzantine style. This is typical of the cultural mash-up we witnessed during our visit: a Roman church built by a Norman king using artisans from the east. 

Even though there are only about 14,000 residents in Cefalu, it feels like they’re all crammed into about six blocks. The streets are narrow and during the day the vendors and shopkeepers spill their wares from either side of the slim thoroughfares. Accordingly, we parked our car and walked, dodging the motorscooters.

We stayed right on the water in a small bed-and-breakfast called Dolce Vita. It was a great location, about three stories straight up from the street (about 70 steps). There is no elevator. The good news is that our window looked over the rooftop to the ocean. Be prepared to pay in cash (about $80 per night), regardless of what the website says. On check-in, you will receive a voucher for a croissant and an espresso at a nearby cafe. You can choose from all manner of stuffed croissants. Nutella, it appears, is one of the major Sicilian food groups (along with gelato and Ricotta cheese).

Mt. Etna and Taormina

At the closest point, Sicily is about three miles from the Italian Peninsula (the toe of the boot). In fact, you could describe Italy as the boot -- with Sicily as the soccer ball. I wanted to visit Messina, where the ferries take cars, trucks and trains to the mainland. The city has been an active trading center for centuries. But we had to cut that corner (literally), so we headed inland for an up-close view of Mt. Etna, the giant volcano. Mt. Etna is an active volcano. But we only saw snow blanketing the top half of the mountain.

Our destination was the east coast of the island, near the tourist mecca of Taormina. We stayed at the nearby beach resort town of Giardini Naxos, one of the earliest Greek settlements. We stayed at Tano’s B & B, where the wireless was very fast and the fresh-baked croissants were delicious. The cost was about $75 per night. The room was quiet and Tano was a gracious host, offering tips on where to eat along the boardwalk (we opted for the gelato).

If you don’t have a chance to visit Greece, many of the historic sites in Sicily feature the same Greek architecture. Additionally, there are many Roman structures in the same area. For example, in Taormina there is an extraordinary Greek theater. Built around 700 B.C., it is one of the most popular ancient ruins in Sicily. The theater sits high above the sea, offering a stunning view for those who attend concerts and performances.

Adjacent to the theater are the public gardens. Although it’s set high atop a cliff, with views of the sea and Mt. Etna, this is very much an English-style garden. It was designed by Florence Trevelyan, an Englishwoman who lived here in the 19th century. The site is also a war memorial to Sicilians who died in the first and second world wars.

It’s possible to drive up the dizzying heights to reach Taormina from the beach, but I recommend taking one of the frequent, economical buses (the fare is 1.20 euros each way). Otherwise, you will be playing a nasty game of chicken with these huge buses as you negotiate the many switchbacks on your way up (and down) the hill. 

Save time to stroll the main shopping street in Taormina, Corso Umberto I. Aside from the high-end name-brand stores like Prada, you’ll find lovely restaurants and delicious pastry shops selling the “official” dessert of Sicily: cannoli! 

Ortegia and Agrigento

Heading south along the coast, Mt. Etna is an imposing sight. You can take a narrow-gauge train around the mountain on a day trip. It’s called the Ferrovia Circumetnea and was built between 1889 and 1895. You can travel from Riposto or Catania.

We drove through Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city, on our way to Siracusa. At the tip of Siracusa, a former capital of Sicily, is the small island of Ortegia. 

Ortegia is a tightly constructed community with many pedestrian-only areas. Even where cars are allowed, you’re hard-pressed to squeeze all but the narrowest Fiat through the passage. The island is a popular destination and offers a great selection of shops and restaurants. Right around the corner from our rented apartment, we found “Taverna Giudecca Ortigia.” In addition to some delicious local wines, the staff offered local meats, cheeses and snack plates.

There’s no shortage of pastry shops and gelato stands in Ortegia. Nobody goes hungry. But nobody gains weight, either, since there are all those stairs to climb!

Walk across the bridge to Siracusa to explore the giant Greek theater (bigger than Taormina, but without the view) and the catacombs beneath the tomb of St. Lucia.

St. Lucia (St. Lucy) is the patron saint of Siracusa. She was killed in 304 A.D. Beneath her tomb is an extensive network of catacombs where early Christians were buried. The remains were removed when the catacombs were used as a bomb shelter during World War II.

In fact, St. Lucia’s body is not in her tomb. It’s in Venice -- but that’s an entirely different story. Each saint has a defining feature, and St. Lucia is usually seen holding her eyes on a plate. This is because legend has it that her eyes were gouged out prior to her death.

Be sure to plan a visit to the “Valle dei Templi” near Agrigento. This city on the south coast of Sicily has some of the best-preserved Greek temples remaining. When these temples were constructed in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., they were the largest in the world. The temples are not built from the alabaster that you see in Athens. Rather, the artisans used the limestone that was available locally. There are several temples on the site, but the best-preserved is the Temple of Concordia. This temple was turned into a church, which was common practice (that’s what happened at the Pantheon in Rome, for example).

The historic site is huge, so bring some water and plan to stay awhile. After you’ve walked the grounds and taken some pictures, go eat dinner at Osteria ex Panificio Sri. This was one of our favorite restaurants, and we just stumbled upon it. The fresh pasta was exquisite. I chose the busiate pasta with pesto; another favorite was the ham and melon plate. When it’s hot outside, this is a great choice.

After the sun goes down, exit the restaurant in the Piazzetta Sinatra and walk across to a small viewing area. It’s the perfect place to see the temples lit up at night.

In Agrigento we stayed at the Bibirria B & B (about $80 per night). This is a new bed-and-breakfast, so the service is great. The Wi-Fi was fast and the breakfast was delicious. Keep in mind that “breakfast” for Sicilians means pastries and coffee. You’re unlikely to find bacon and eggs. Yes, there are stairs -- three floors' worth.

We planned to spend three full days in Palermo at the end of our trip. Between the markets, the historic sites and people watching, you need that much time. 

Palermo

Our first stop was the incredible Cathedral of Monreale, about nine miles south of the city center. Like the church at Cefalu, Monreale was constructed by the Norman kings in the 12th century. Construction started in 1174. The church is a national monument. 

To hear the story of the cathedral and the glass mosaics in the interior is to travel back in time. In the 12th century, only nobility and the clergy could read. Accordingly, many of the famous Bible stories are displayed, comic-book style, on the walls: the Annunciation, the Passion of Christ, Noah’s Ark, the Feast of Pentecost. All of these events are visible on the walls of the cathedral. Don’t miss it.

The Cathedral of Monreale is extraordinary. But it’s huge. If you want to see another example of the extraordinary mosaic work, visit the Palatine Chapel in the city center. 

Like Monreale, the Palatine Chapel features gold mosaic from floor to ceiling in a dazzling array of sacred art. The difference is that this chapel was the private worship space for the king, Roger II. Construction began in 1132 and went on for eight years. 

By the end of our journey we learned how to say “yes” to wine at lunch, “no” to the dessert menu and to always have our cameras with us. We also fell in love with the hospitality and generosity of the Sicilians. We made some new friends and look forward to returning soon.