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Best of Sicily - Ten things you mustn’t miss when visiting the largest island in the Mediterranean

By Martin Li

Pure Drama

Taormina is the perfect microcosm of Sicily’s rich cultural history and extraordinary wealth of classical treasures. Its fine medieval buildings, narrow picturesque streets and ornately decorated palazzi prepare you for perhaps the most heart-stopping vista of them all - the view from the Greco-Roman theatre. Hewn from the hillside, the theatre’s setting is pure drama with its spectacular backdrop of glistening sea, jutting coastline, rolling hills and the smouldering Mount Etna.

Smouldering Smokestack

Mount Etna dominates eastern Sicily. Ride on the Circumetnea Railway to appreciate fully the mountain’s grandeur. The circular route from Catania to Riposto passes fragrant citrus and olive groves, orchards, nut plantations, medieval Randazzo and the fine castles of Paterno and Andrano. If feeling energetic, hire a guide and climb to one of the summit craters. The view on a clear day extends across all Sicily. In winter try skiing on Etna with views of the sparkling Mediterranean far below. After all, how many people can claim to have skied on a live volcano?

Capital Contrasts

Like many capitals, Palermo is a city of stark contrasts. Forlorn, sultry and decayed it might be in parts, but here lies the soul of brooding Sicily. It’s also one of Italy’s most underrated cities, endowed almost to the point of artistic overkill with medieval palaces, Baroque churches, Arab cupolas and Byzantine street markets. Explore Palermo’s markets (Vucciria market is the best) to find the tastiest traditional snacks.

Cooking Like Mama’s

The fusion of Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish cultures, year-long sunshine and fertile volcanic soil creates a grand, exuberant and intensely-flavoured cuisine. Essential Sicilian dishes to try include involtini (thin strips of seasoned meat rolled onto a skewer, coated with breadcrumbs and grilled over a wood fire), vegetables “alla Norma” (fried aubergine, tomato, ricotta cheese and herbs) and pane con sato (ciabatta bread moistened with olive oil and filled sparingly with finely-chopped onions, tomato, herbs and anchovies). For idyllic rural dining, visit one of the remote agri-tourism farmhouses such as La Palma and Azienda Casabianca.

Land of the Gods

Marvel at the Valley of The Temples, a stunning series of Greek temples and tombs just outside Agrigento. These substantial remains have been described as “Athens with improvements” and the Tempio della Concordia is one of the best preserved Greek temples anywhere. It’s worth a trip at night to see these monuments lit up in their full glory.

Natural Fireworks

Mount Etna is Europe’s largest active volcano and provides regular fireworks displays. Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and its pyrotechnics are possibly even more spectacular. Take a night-time boat trip to Sciara del Fuoco and experience close-up the rumblings, bellowings and glow of incandescent lava from Stromboli’s mysterious cone.

Lover’s Lane

Walk the beautiful and secluded, tree-lined cobbled path that winds down from Acireale to the small, picturesque fishing village of Santa Maria La Scala. Huddled around its 17th century church, Santa Maria La Scala is a charming hideaway and boasts several fine restaurants. After you have feasted your eyes on the stunning panoramas of the Ionian Sea, feast your taste buds on the shaded, seaview terrace of Ristorante Al Morino.

Aeolian Odyssey

Take the ferry from Milazzo and watch the romantic and other-worldly Aeolian Islands slowly emerge from the mists above the clear blue Tyrrhenian Sea. Walk the winding coastal circuit of Lipari, the largest of the Aeolians, and discover craggy shorelines, sleepy villages, pumice slopes and beaches of volcanic sand. Luxuriate on the small but perfectly-formed Panarea, the most exclusive. Indulge in a therapeutic hot sea-spring bath on sulphurous Vulcano.

Fishy Business

Hidden behind a fountain in one corner of Catania’s Piazza Duomo lies the city’s bustling fish market (la pescheria). From the hectic central area, red-canopied stalls sprawl through the adjoining labyrinth of narrow medieval streets and shadowy alleys. Vendors peddle all varieties of translucently-fresh seafood, meat, fruit, vegetables, cheese and nuts. Souk-like haggling is expected, if not required. Afterwards you may need to refresh yourself with an ice-cold granita from a café in the piazza.

Eureka!

Syracuse was once the supreme power in Europe. The island of Ortigia, the city’s ancient hub, remains charged with historical resonance. Witness the staggering diversity of monuments from the Greek, early Christian, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras. Then cross the Ponte Nuovo to the mainland and visit Neapolis with its sprawling archaeological park and one of the greatest Greek theatres. You might find yourself sitting in the same place Plato or Archimedes once sat for a night out on the town.

 

Martin Li is a freelance travel and lifestyles writer based in London. Born in Hong Kong, his family moved to London when he was three. After graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in physics, Martin worked initially in high level positions in financial services and capital markets.  Martin has published a number of books and articles and his topics frequent include his parchment for hideaways destinations, adventure trips, and sports travel. (More about this author).

Martin Li

 

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