Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and its long history of invasion and colonisation means it has evolved a culture that’s distinct from the neighbouring Italian mainland. I spoke to Cristian Bonetto, one of the authors of the Lonely Planet Guide to Sicily, who described it as, “one of the most fascinating places on the planet.”
“You have a place that’s half the size of Tasmania, which by world standards is quite small, and yet it’s had so many different invaders and influences,” explained Cristian. “We’ve had the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans, the Moors and everyone else in between. It’s created a very intriguing melting pot that reflects itself in so many ways – in the cooking, in the architecture and in the landscape itself.”
Cristian told me that the Arab world in particular has had a big influence on Sicily, which can still be seen today. “Sicily is actually much closer to North Africa than most of the rest of Italy and that’s strongly reflected in the landscapes – the palm trees, the dates and the carob trees,” he told me. “You have what are now churches in Palermo that wouldn’t look out of place in Jerusalem, with their domes and Arab-style windows.”
And that influence is also strong in the food, said Cristian, which isn’t the typical Italian fare. “There’s a town in the west of Sicily that celebrates a couscous festival every year. That’s not a staple of Italian cooking generally, but in Sicily it’s a standard part of the repertoire. And the use of honey and dates harks back to those Arab times.”
Cristian told me that this diversity could still be seen in the appearance of people as you move around Sicily. “I have friends in Palermo, in the northwest, who are very, very fair and basically look French or English. That’s because the Normans had a strong influence in that part of Sicily,” he explained. “Then you go to Catania on the east coast, which had a stronger Greek influence. People there are darker, with face that look eerily like the ones you’d find on those ancient Greek vases in museums.”
I asked Cristian where he’d recommend visitors should stay on a trip to Sicily. He told me that anyone interested in history and archaeology should include Syracuse, on the south east coast. “You have the 5th century BC Greek theatre there, with performances in the spring, around May and June. Some of Italy’s greatest actors go there to perform outdoors. That’s magical.” Cristian also recommended Agrigento, the Valley of the Temples, as somewhere you should visit.
Sicily’s most famous natural feature, the huge, active volcano Mount Etna, is another popular tourist attraction. “It’s a fantastic place to go,” said Cristian. “There are lots of small tours that will take you up to the crater. That’s an incredible experience. It is an active volcano though, and the tours will depend on what’s happening at the top.”
And if you’re thirsty after a trip up the volcano, Cristian said the nearby vineyards, on the northern slopes of the mountain, are well worth checking out. “Many are renegades and really progressive. They’re world leaders in creating natural wines without too many chemicals or artificial processes.”
Mention Sicily and most people will think of the Mafia. Cristian told me the group, famous for being involved in organised crime, aren’t interested in tourists. But you can actually visit a museum to find out more about them while you’re there. “There’s a Mafia museum in a little town called Corleone, which is famous from the Godfather movies. It’s run by a group of people who are anti-mafia. They’re activists who do a lot of good work. It’s brave of them to put up a museum in what’s the heartland of the Mafia. I encourage people to go along to the museum to support them.”
Cristian said you should try to avoid visiting Sicily in the summer if you don’t like heat, queues and high prices. The shoulder periods, in spring and autumn are nicest. And his top tip is to give the big, international hotel chains a miss and book one of the smaller, historic properties on the island. “A lot of the big hotels are quite generic or soulless. We have lots of beautiful guesthouses and B&B’s that are often in very old buildings and run by people who are really passionate about the place because they live there. They’re decorated with antiques and local art.”
To start planning your trip, take a look at the Lonely Planet Guide to Sicily, which is available on Amazon.