My impression of Sicily, sad to admit, has largely been informed by Godfather movies and tabloid tales of grimy, crimey underworld doings. Sure, I knew about moody Mt Etna, and I’d imagined honey-coloured hilltop towns, bowls of tomatoey pasta, blue-water beaches and fresh-caught fish. I didn’t realise, however, just how long Sicily has been on the globetrotter’s radar―from Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks and Normans to 18th-century British elites completing their rite of passage Grand Tour of Europe. It’s a dizzying, mesmerising imprint.
Sicily is up there with Greece in terms of ancient Greek architecture. The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento has some of the largest and best preserved of all ancient Greek buildings, with the Temple of Concordia looking like its toga clad residents have just stepped out of frame. Remarkable up close in vivid sunshine, as well from the terrace of the swanky Villa Athena at nightfall, over gnocchi with fresh tomatoes, and black sesame seed encrusted tuna with sweet orange sauce. The postcard-perfect hilltop town of Taormina also possesses a Greek theatre, this one boasting sweeping views of the Ionian Sea and Mt Etna. Built in the 3rd century B.C, it’s Sicily’s second largest ancient theatre after Syracuse, but for me it towers over that one―dramatically. Taormina has long drawn thespians and literary lights, including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, D.H. Lawrence and Goethe, as well as British aristocrats to belle epoque villas. These days, though, it’s no longer an exclusive enclave of the rich and fabulous; colossal cruise ships and double-decker coaches proving the great leveler. Syracuse is another tourist magnet, thanks to its ancient Greek ruins and baroque piazzas. The Duomo, a former Greek temple turned cathedral, is worth braving the snarling traffic for the vast Doric columns, marble baptismal font, and a glimpse of the silver statue of St Lucia, the patron saint of Syracuse, with a dagger theatrically protruding from her throat – although be warned she’s only displayed at very special times.
Born to Rome
The island is no stranger to skimpy swimwear, but according to the mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale it’s a Roman invention. Thats where you’ll find the so-called “Bikini Girls”―female gymnasts way back in the 4th-century cavorting in clothing bearing a striking resemblance to the modern bikini. The women are actually athletes, shown running, throwing a discus, lifting weights and being awarded for their efforts. Throughout the 3,500 sq m luxury villa are myriad mosaics of hunters killing a wild boar, capturing a rhinoceros, an elephant, a buffalo and transporting them by boat to Rome for beastly spectacles. There’s a tiger leaping at its own reflection in a mirror sphere, a technique used by the hunters to deflect it from care of its young cub, plus children conducting mini chariot races, a Cyclops, a horned devil, the Queen of Sheba, and sea gods and goddesses. Miraculous! We ducked the choking mid-morning queues by staying overnight in nearby Piazza Amerina. Billed as an “art design gallery hotel”, Suite d’Autore is a hilariously modern contrast to the Roman palace down the road. Our room, dubbed “Fluidity”, came equipped with a spacy round bed, a red-lipped resin sofa, a hand-painted ceiling with central cherub motif, a corregated cardboard chair, a wardrobe with garish, entwined nudes, and squidgy blue plastic floor tiles that moved whenever you stepped on them. I think, though, I prefer mosaics underfoot.
Glimpsed atop the hill, around a corner, presiding over a piazza, or deep down a country road there are hundreds of churches, some with a little more pulling power than others. Just out of Palermo lies the Duomo di Monreale, with its somber Norman exterior and a sumptuous mosaic interior, comprising more than 2000kg of gold. The story of Noah and his ark sprawls across the central nave, along with Adam and Eve’s sorry tale. Elsewhere, there’s a depiction of the Madonna and child flanked by angels and saints, including Thomas à Becket. In town, the Palatine Chapel on Piazza Indipendenza is a sort of mini Montreale, while the pint-sized La Martorana, with its 12th-century mosiacs, including the crowning of the Norman King Roger 1 by Christ, along with a host of angels and saints, is another Norman treasure. The city’s Vucciria Market is all about culinary loot, a maze of market stalls spruiking fat inky eggplants, slim fennel bulbs, spiky artichokes, tiny teardrop berries, blood red oranges, sardines, swordfish and squelchy squid. Much reappeared on our plates at no-frills Trattoria Il Maestro del Brodo (Via Pannieri, 7, Vucciria). Clients eyed the seafood offerings as soon as they blew through the door, then the antipasti table sporting dozens of homemade plates of yum – zucchini fritters, polenta slices, grilled radicchio, eggplant parmigiana, artichokes topped with parsley & garlic, deep-fried risotto balls, huge round green olives, and slippery sun-dried tomatoes. All night the patron forked fish from ice platter to hot plate in seconds. UNESCO-listed Modica is an antidote to pasta overload with its labyrinth of heart-pumping stairs, including the 250 that glide up to the San Giorgio Cathedral. Inside it’s 18th-century Sicilian baroque – blue, gold, silver – and a depiction of the life of its namesake Saint George by Girolamo Aliprandi, Sicily’s version of Raphael. Other places deserving of equal devotion include La Locanda de Colonello―an elegant little eatery devoid of pretension and full of flavour: a pyramid of cous cous studded with vegetables lapped by prawns in a shellfish broth, rabbit stuffed with sausage and pistachio, glistening pink tuna with a puddle of hummous, halved tomatoes and red onion, pineapple millefeuille with white chocolate and orange jam―and Casa Talia. Overlooking Modica, this chic BnB is the inspired work of two Milanese architects who have heartily embraced the concept of ‘slow living’. From the ancient stone rooms with pressed iron beds and pristine linen to the garden lounges shaded by lemon blossoms, and on to the sedate breakfast cooked up fresh each day: mini ricotta and strawberry tarts, feathery chocolate and almond cakes, doll-sized croissants, tomato, and peach jam that tastes of sunshine, home-baked bread, and organic eggs dished up just how you like. Nearby Ragusa Ibla, a jumble of grey stone houses and piazzas clinging to a cliff, offers up another cathedral dedicated to San Giorgio. It sits on the Piazza Duomo, which features in the cheesy but endearing Italian detective series Inspector Montalbano.
The slopes of the country’s most famous volcano are anything but the lava wasteland you might expect due to the efforts of an enterprising bunch of wine growers. According to Guido Coffa, owner of the boutique rural retreat Monaci delle Terre Nere in the foothills of Mt Etna, the volcanic soil and unique micro climates combine to create wines high on flavour and minerality. Coffa is as passionate about the local wines, as he is his own 40-hectare estate with its organic vegetable and herb gardens and eco-friendly arty rooms. Monaci’s “eco-bio” certification is only one of three in Sicily. The guest-only restaurant is heavily locavore. Bread is baked on the premises, the groves of lemons and oranges supply the jam, and chef is frequently spied sitting outside shelling just-picked beans, clipping zucchini flowers, and sorting tomatoes. Mt Etna wines selected by Coffa, including Benanti, Biondi and Graci, accompany the four-course degustation menu, which might run to eggplant parmigiana, rocket and pistachio pasta, pink lamb chops or grilled sea bream with spinach, and caramelised pear with homemade vanilla ice-cream. Given the calming surrounds, the pool and the hairline roads in and out (and little appetite for the daredevil must-hug-the-middle-of-the-road driving habits of locals), it’s easy to take root. A bottom line blow out is entirely possible, what with that invitation to nightly cocktails, which are not complementary, and a growing addiction to the country fresh €48 p/h evening menu. Drinks not included, but breakfast, is.