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Frommer's Shortcut Sicily

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The current growth of tourism to Sicily is so great, and the need for easily-consulted travel information so acute, that guidebooks to Sicily are presently appearing on numerous lists of travel best-sellers. The Shortcut Guide to Sicily will surely be among the most popular sources of recommendations and advice on this uniquely-Italian experience. From the museums, marketplaces and cathedral churches of Palermo to the mountain-side resorts and nightlife of Taormina, from the ancient Greek temples of Agrigento to the Roman-era culture, statues and streets of Siracusa, our Shortcut Guide covers them all in colorful (and intensely practical) prose.

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1 INTRODUCTION

ePub

Agrigento at Sunset.

Sicily has been conquered, settled, and abandoned by dozens of civilizations, from the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians in antiquity, to the Arabs, Berbers, Moors, and Normans in the Middle Ages, to the Spanish and Bourbons in the Renaissance, and finally, finally the (at least nominally) Italian modern era. It’s an intricate and violent story that nonetheless left a fascinating legacy. Touring the relics of Sicily’s tumultuous past can sometimes make you feel that you’re visiting several different countries at once.

At 25,708 sq. km (9,926 sq. miles), Sicily is not only the largest island in the Mediterranean but also the largest region in Italy. This triangle-shaped land is home to the first known parliament in the western world (Palermo), the oldest continental tree (Sant’Alfio, near Catania), the highest and most active volcano in Europe (Mount Etna), and the most extensive archaeological park (Selinunte).

Though it’s only separated from the mainland by the 4km-wide (21⁄2 miles) Stretto di Messina, Sicily has a palpable, captivating sense of otherness. Some Sicilians will refer to a trip to the mainland as “going to Italy.” The island offers the full package of Italian travel experiences: evocative towns, compelling art, impressive architecture, and ruins older than anything in Rome. Alongside the jewels of Sicily’s glorious Classical past (Agrigento, Siracusa, Segesta, Tindari, Morgantina, Piazza Armerina) you’ll see unique baroque cities rebuilt after devastating earthquakes (Catania, Noto, Scicli, Ragusa, and Modica)—and, sadly, also hideous postwar concrete monsters (Palermo, Catania, Messina, Agrigento).

 

2 SICILY IN CONTEXT

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Cathedral Santa Maria Nuova of Monreale.

As with any destination, a little background reading can help you to understand more. Many Italy stereotypes are accurate—children are fussed over wherever they go, food and soccer are like religion, the north–south divide is alive and well, bureaucracy is a frustrating feature of daily life. Some are wide of the mark—not every Italian you meet will be open and effusive. Occasionally they do taciturn pretty well, too.

The most important thing to remember is that, for a land so steeped in history—3 millennia and counting—Italy has only a short history as a country. In 2011 it celebrated its 150th birthday. Prior to 1861, the map of the peninsula was in constant flux. And you'll find Sicily to be very different than other parts of Italy.

A Brief History of Sicily

Sicily’s tenuous position—strung between North Africa and the European mainland, just 160km (100 miles) from Cap Bon in Tunisia on one side and 3km (2 miles) from Calabria in Italy on the other—has made it a natural stepping stone for settlers and invaders throughout its long history. The earliest-known inhabitants were the Sicanians, who most likely came from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean in the 3rd millennium b.c. A Latin people called the Sikels arrived around 1200 b.c., and the Elymians from Asia Minor came to the island around 1100 b.c. The merging of these three early peoples formed the basis for the uniquely Sicilian ethnicity; it was added to, of course, over the next 3,000 years.

 

3 PALERMO AND THE NORTH COAST

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The Cathedral of Palermo erected in 1185.

Boisterous, clamorous Palermo is one of Italy’s most fascinating and treasure-laden cities. The island’s capital is also within easy reach of other intriguing places that include Monreale, with shimmering mosaics in its medieval cathedral, the Greek ruins at Segesta, and Cefalù, a fishing village turned resort.

Palermo

233km (145 miles) W of Messina, 721km (447 miles) S of Naples, 934km (579 miles) S of Rome

In Palermo, street markets evoke Middle Eastern souks, and famous monuments bear the exotic artistic signature of the Arab-Norman 12th century, when Palermo was one of Europe’s greatest cultural and intellectual centers. The city is Sicily’s largest port, its capital, and a jumble of contradiction. Parts of some neighborhoods remain bombed out and not yet rebuilt from World War II; unemployment, poverty, traffic, crime, and crowding are rampant. Yet Palermo boasts some of the greatest sights and museums in Italy, and looming over it all is crown-shaped Monte Pellegrino, what Goethe called “the most beautiful headland on earth.”

 

4 THE AEOLIAN ISLANDS

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View of Vulcano island from Lipari island.

The Aeolian Islands can seem like exotic getaways, as close as they are to Sicily’s civilized north coast. Though the seven islands share sparkling waters and lava-etched landscapes, they vary widely. Lipari is the largest and most densely populated, while Stromboli is the most distant and the most volcanically active. Vulcano, with its sulfur-rich mud baths, is the closest to the rest of Sicily. Panarea is the smallest, and Salina produces the best wine. Filicudi and Alicudi are the wildest.

They are all sought-after summer retreats. The islands are still relatively quiet in May and June and become so again in September. They are also a scenic delight off-season, though many businesses close for the season at the end of September and don’t reopen until May. Whenever you come, expect a breeze. This is where Aeolus, god of the winds, dwelled, and when the winds kick up in the afternoon, it’s easy to imagine why.

Getting There    Ferries and hydrofoils service all the Aeolian Islands from the port of Milazzo, 40km (25 miles) west of Messina. Hydrofoils are faster than ferries, getting you to Vulcano in an hour (ferries take twice as long), yet ferries are roomier, and allow you to stay out on the deck on your way there. Ustica Lines, Via Rizzo (www.usticalines.it;  090-928-7821) operates numerous daily ferry and hydrofoil routes to all islands, as well as seasonal routes from the mainland at Reggio Calabria. From July to September, it’s possible to book hydrofoil tickets on Ustica Lines directly from Naples to Stromboli. N.G.I., Via dei Mille 26 (www.ngi-spa.it;  800-250-000 toll free from Italy or 090-928-4091) runs ferry services to certain islands. From Naples, SNAV (www.snav.it;  081-4285555) operates a seasonal service (late May to early Sept) to all the islands except Filicudi and Alicudi. Note that all ferry services charge a 1€ fee per person for entry to the islands. In the event of a storm or inclement weather, service can be halted for days.

 

5 TAORMINA AND THE EAST COAST

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A view of Taormina and its Greek amphitheater.

It would be easy to stay put in Taormina, with its commanding views and privileged mountainside location. Sooner or later, though, the beaches will entice you down to the coast. Or, you might be tempted to make the ascent up Mount Etna, looming to the south.

Taormina

53km (33 miles) N of Catania, 53km (33 miles) S of Messina, 250km (155 miles) E of Palermo

Guy de Maupassant, the 19th-century French short-story writer, played the tourist shill and wrote, “Should you only have one day to spend in Sicily and you ask me ‘what is there to see?’ I would reply ‘Taormina’ without any hesitation. It is only a landscape but one in which you can find everything that seems to have been created to seduce the eyes, the mind and the imagination.” Lots of visitors have felt the same way. The Roman poet Ovid loved Taormina, and 18th-century German man of letters Wolfgang Goethe put the town on the Grand Tour circuit when he extolled its virtues in his widely published diaries. Oscar Wilde was one of the gentlemen who made Taormina, as writer and dilettante Harold Acton put it, “a polite synonym for Sodom,” and Greta Garbo is one of many film legends who have sought a bit of privacy here.

 

6 SIRACUSA AND THE SOUTHEAST

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Siracusa.

Siracusa (Syracuse) retains copious ruins and enough of its grandeur to suggest its role as one of the chief cities of the ancient world of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece). This rather exotic seaside city, especially its old core on Ortygia island, is also filled with baroque palaces and churches. For a real taste of the baroque, though, you need to head inland, to Noto and Ragusa.

Siracusa

This small, out-of-the-way southern city packs a one-two punch. Siracusa was one of the most important cities of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece), rivaling even Athens in power and influence, and the still-functioning Teatro Greco, where Aeschylus premiered his plays, is one of many landmarks of the ancient metropolis. The charming historical center, on miniscule Ortigia Island, belongs to a much later time, the 18th century, when palaces and churches were built in an ebullient baroque style following the earthquake of 1693.

Siracusa might seem far removed, but in making the trip to the southeast coast you’ll be following in the illustrious footsteps of the scientist Archimedes, statesman Cicero, evangelist St. Paul, martyr St. Lucy, painter Caravaggio, and naval hero Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, all of whom left a mark on this rather remarkable place.

 

7 THE SOUTH

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A mosaic in Piazza Amerina's Villa Romana del Casale.

It’s easy to think of the rugged coast, plains, and hinterlands of southern Sicily as undiscovered, but that’s only relative. Granted, these lands have little of the sophistication of Taormina or the urban clamor of Palermo, but to consider them unexplored backwaters is to forget history. The Greeks and after them the Romans found their way here millennia ago. The Greeks built magnificent cities in Agrigento and Selinunte, and their well-preserved temples still stand. Meanwhile, the Romans left a rich collection of mosaics at the Villa del Casale, outside Piazza Armerina. If you’re making a sweep through the south, it’s easiest to reach these far-flung attractions by car. By public transport, they’re most easily accessible from Palermo.

Piazza Armerina

134km (83) miles NW of Siracusa, 158km (98 miles) SE of Palermo

Why do travelers make such an effort to get to this dusty, sun-baked hilltown in the center of Sicily? There’s one very simple reason: To see the richest collection of Roman mosaics in the world, at the Villa del Casale, in the countryside 5km (3 miles) outside of town. Here, from elevated walkways you’ll gaze down upon wild beasts, bikini-clad exercisers, superheroes, and the monsters of myth, depicted in glorious and colorful mosaic tableaux. The masterful ancient craftsmanship is in a near-miraculous state of preservation, and provides a fascinating window into 4th-century a.d. preoccupations—but even more than that, looking at these brilliant mosaic scenes is as entertaining as watching a good film, one in glorious Technicolor.

 

8 THE WEST COAST

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Pepoli castle in Erice.

The western stretches of Sicily are a little off the beaten track, but the headlands and peaks are dramatic, the coast is ablaze with the blue sea and white salt pans, and sun-bleached cities show off Arab and North African influences.

Erice

96km (60 miles) SW of Palermo, 14km (82⁄3 miles) NE of Trapani, 45km (28 miles) NW of Marsala

The enchanting medieval city of Erice, high atop Mount Erice (743m/2,438 ft.), is all about views. On a clear summer’s day, you can see west to the Egadi Islands, east to Mount Etna and south to Africa, glimpsing Tunisia’s Cape Bon. Views aside, Erice is an impressive place in its own right, with beautifully preserved medieval squares and palaces that seem a world removed from the rest of the often unruly and ungainly island below. Even the mist that can descend upon Erice in the course of few minutes doesn’t diminish the spectacle. Seeing the city’s towers and craggy rocks poking through a hazy blanket of gray is a memorable sight in itself.

 

9 PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO SICILY

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Enjoying the view in Cefalu Sicily.

Sicily is loaded with “must see” cities and sights, and most of us have limited vacation time. You want to get there efficiently, get around by road or rail without hassle, and spend as much time soaking up the atmosphere of Bella Italia as you can. This chapter shows you how. It may be a long way from home, but when you get there Sicily need not be expensive: Below you’ll find advice on where and how to shave travel costs without trimming your fun.

Getting There

By Plane

If you’re flying across an ocean, you’ll most likely land at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO; www.adr.it/fiumicino), 40km (25 miles) from the center, or Milan Malpensa (MXP; www.milanomalpensa-airport.com), 45km (28 miles) northwest of central Milan. Rome’s much smaller Ciampino Airport (CIA; www.adr.it/ciampino) serves low-cost airlines connecting to European cities and other destinations in Italy. It’s the same story with Milan’s Linate Airport (LIN; www.milanolinate-airport.com).

 

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