There are few places in the Mediterranean that can equal Sicily (Sicilia)’s striking landscapes and colorful history. There are noticeable differences between the eastern part of the island, culturally of Greek origin, and the Phoenician and Arab western side. However, Sicily is much more than an east/west side: every village and town has its own unique story. You can identify different layers of civilization side by side or overlapping one another. It is not that uncommon to see Greek, Arab, Norman, and Baroque influences in the same site, sometimes even in the same building!
The ancient name for Sicily (Sicilia), “Trinacria” (a three-cornered island) is aptly named. Sicilian shores are washed by three different seas: Ionian Sea, Tyrrhenian Sea, and the Mediterranean. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and is in some aspects its focal point, home to heavenly beaches, majestic mountains, and Europe’s largest natural wonder, Mt. Etna. The main island is surrounded by a number of smaller picturesque islands, including the Aeolian islands to the west and the Pelagie islands to the south.
The typical landscape consists of coast and sun-baked hills and its geographical make-up is also quite varied, with sulfur mines in the center and volcanic activity in the east. Sicily’s many volcanoes, in particular Mount Etna (the largest in Europe) have created a landscape that is unique in the Mediterranean. Sicily’s coasts are gold with orange and lemon orchards; in northeastern Sicily you will find lush forests; in the central regions you will encounter rugged land and rolling hills; vineyards, olive groves, almond orchards, and endless wheat fields.
The people of Sicily (the Siciliani) regard themselves as significantly different from the rest of Italy, especially in the matters of ethnicity, culture, and language. Sicily’s diverse heritage can be traced across a span of 2,000 years during which it has been dominated by many different rulers: from the Greeks and Romans, to the Byzantines and Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish. This combination has made Sicily and its people unique, and these mixed roots are reflected in their dialect, cuisine, and architecture.
points of interest
Sicily's plentiful architecture provides a visual demonstration of its diversity. You can discover Greek temples and amphitheaters, Roman settlements, unique Norman-Arab churches and palaces (whose style is somewhat similar to Moorish but with Byzantine Greek elements), Byzantine (Orthodox) churches, early Gothic churches, fortified medieval castles, Catalonian Gothic palaces, Baroque churches and mansions, and even a Chinese Revival villa built in the first years of the nineteenth century. Foundations of Phoenician buildings have been discovered beneath some of the Roman structures of Old Palermo, the hilltop temple at Cefalù is thought to be Sicanian, and the museum at Termini Imerese houses the stone Arabic inscriptions of 9th-century Saracen palaces.
Palermo, the capital, was founded by Phoenicians who sailed there from their native Carthage. Since the eighteenth century, Catania has been the second most important city in Sicily. Subjected to Etna's fickle temperament, Catania has been damaged by lava flows and earthquakes on several occasions. Taormina is also medieval, though its fame derives from its ancient Greek theater (and from its view, probably the most spectacular of any theater built by the Greeks, who certainly loved their views).
There’s plenty to do and see in Sicily: sailing the coastline and inlets and the islands, fishing and diving in the crystal-clear waters of the coast and of the islands, hiking along the Madonie and Peloritani mountains or up Mount Etna (and in the winter, Mount Etna is also the place to go for downhill and cross-country skiing). You can visit the magnificent beaches, particularly at Taormina and the Golfo di Castellammare by Capo San Vito, which is part of a huge nature preserve.
Or do what Sicilians enjoy doing: take a passeggiata (stroll) to shop, enjoy a pastry or café, or just meet friends in the main piazzas and streets.