On a map, Sicily is right in the central Mediterranean Sea, south of the Italian Peninsula from which the narrow Strait of Messina separates it. Surrounded by three seas – Tyrrhenian, Mediterranean, and Ionian – it’s not too distant from mainland Italy, and its southernmost Island is astonishingly just a 113 km stretch from Tunisia. Laying between the civilizations of Africa and Europe, Sicily is a world apart. No wonder. A region separated from the rest of Italy not only by the sea but also by centuries of history and cultural experience. Yet, by traveling there, I discover, Sicily is also a vital part of the country.
Max, my husband, and I land in Catania, east Sicily, the ninth biggest Italian city, on a warm spring afternoon. In the distance, the smoking hulk of Etna. At first sight, Sicily is a tough sell. The appalling suburbs around Catania, the industrial buildings, the imperfect roads. But don’t wrinkle your nose. First impressions are, sometimes, misleading. As we penetrate its “old town,” the scenery changes. The majestic late-baroque architecture – prompted after the 1693 earthquake and today a Unesco World Heritage Site – in front of my eyes.
Then, we drive North to reach another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cefalu, on the Tyrrhenian coast. Just 70km from the Sicilian capital, Palermo, Cefalu is graceful. A long, sandy beach curves for a couple of miles away from a medieval town built under an enormous rock outcrop. There is a dramatic norman cathedral with a piazza, a labyrinth of steep Arab/Norman alleys, a Saracen washhouse, and sensational views along the coast. It’s touristic; millions of Europeans visiting this corner of Sicily every year. Yet this is June 2021, when Italy is slowly opening up from its last covid-19 lockdown. I hear Italian all around, walk on empty streets, and make no advance restaurant bookings. I also take the La Rocca trail, a compelling short day hike above Cefalu’s sandy beach and Arab-Norman cathedral, with no other human insight.
Packed away on the hills of Cefalù is Le Calette, the Sicilian family-run hotel where we stay, a sort of oasis ten-minute drive from the old town. It’s a vast property that mixes old and new Mediterranean architecture with a small private beach and ocean-view rooms. Though looking at the horizon on a clear day is what I love the most about this place—the Aeolian islands like little dots in a distant, faraway land.
Given the distances to be traveled, short-term visitors to Sicily might prefer to stick to either side of the Island – not me. There is no right or wrong, but it’s the east coast home to Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, the second most active on earth, and the Island’s most prominent landmark. That is also the side favored by the Greeks, who colonized Sicily between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C. (before the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, and the Bourbons), making a bustling capital out of Syracuse.
We, therefore, return east, stopping for a few days in Taormina, the hilltop town that has been the popular Sicilian eastern-facing destination (it was chosen as the site of the G7 summit in 2017). Dating from the 4th century B.C., Taormina hugs the edge of a cliff overlooking the Ionian Sea, majestic Etna looming in the background. It is just too good to remain unspoiled. Some say Taormina is the most beautiful town in Sicily, thousands and thousands of travelers coming here every year (in normal times). There are beaches too. Most of the action happens along the city center’s one main street, Corso Umberto I, filled with shops and restaurants. Piazzas and palazzi dating between the 15th and the 19th century. We stay at extraordinary Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea, the original 1919 villa decorated with old-fashioned Italian class and style, without being outdated. The location is on the spot, set on a picturesque pale sandy beach, the rooms with ocean views. At any time of the day, food is Sicilian at its best, which means lots of ricotta, aubergine, and the typical delicious pasta, especially the seafood ones. Sant’Andrea also runs a free hourly shuttle up to its sister hotel, the Timeo, near Taormina’s city center. Timeo is just next door to my favorite spot in this utterly charming town: the majestic ancient greek theatre.
Driving further south, we have a glimpse of the astonishing Val di Noto region – a historic area encompassing the south-eastern third of Sicily and, once again, a Unesco World Heritage site. With the first stop in Syracuse, notable for its rich Greek and Roman history, we drive to Noto, a town that Leonardo Sciascia, a Sicilian writer, often referred to as a “Garden of stone, a city of gold, a theatrical city.” As I walk across the streets of Noto, passing by the most compelling baroque churches, such as San Francisco and Rosario Gagliardi’s Chiesa di San Domenico, and gorgeous palazzos, I feel the drama that might have moved Sciascia. Then, there is the food – this is Italy after all. Around iconic Via C Nicolai is Caffe Sicilia, an institution in town dating from 1892 and renowned for its “granite” and delicious pastries, particularly the cannoli.
As we leave Noto behind, we do a short hike to reach Spiaggia di Calamosche and get reminded that in Southern Sicily, old-world architecture meets beautiful beaches. In the following days, we stop by Marzamemi – a charming fishing village, before heading to the towns of Ragusa and Modica, which are also part of the Val di Noto region. After the 1693 Sicily disastrous earthquake, locals rebuilt the cluster of cities belonging to this region with central piazzas anchored by stone churches with carved griffins and tiers of Corinthian columns. Unlike anywhere, in Sicily, such a natural disaster resulted in providing a fascinating glimpse at a period of ornate building featuring narrow but relatively straight streets leading up to stately Baroque churches.
Then, the road trip turns west, or to the wild west, leading to unfamiliar territories. The scenery changes. A new sensation takes hold as we drive along an expanse of green and yellow hills and fields. It feels closer to Africa than Italy, the Island’s West on the same latitude as the northern African coast. Tunisia is less than 100 miles away. Sicilian dusty villages have a Saharan feel, church towers look like minarets, and farmhouses are in the form of a Baglio (a fortified house inside an inner courtyard). We drive along a pristine coast where beaches don’t seem Italian: no military rows of sun loungers, no umbrellas, no entry charges. Scala dei Turchi, a white rocky cliff on the coast of Realmonte, a Unesco site, punctuates the diversity of landscapes. On our way to Rocco Forte hotel in Sciaccia, a charmingly rough port city, the road takes us past the remarkable Greek temple at Agrigento – a powerful reminder of Sicily’s blend of cultural influences. On the map, on our south is ancient Carthage, founded by the Phoenicians in what is now Tunisia, above is Rome; just to the right, Greece, and in the middle of everything is Sicily.
Yet, we don’t need a map to be assured we’re in the heartland of the Mediterranean’s crossroads. A lazy drive north along the shore leads to Selinunte, a ruined Greek city from 409 BC and an impressive archaeological site – with views to the blue sea. Then, further North, we end up at Scopello, a genuinely authentic coastal village in Castellammare del Golfo, west of Palermo. One of the village’s draws is its picturesque Tonnara, a tuna fishery, with fishermen’s cottages and old warehouses around a small bay. Another one is just a five-minute drive from it – the Zingaro nature reserve, a compelling 7km hike we pursue on a strip of unspoiled coast and soaring mountains.
After almost ten days of road-tripping across this land, I find it hard to favor either side of the Island. Moving from east to west is when Sicily gets more interesting, the docile present marked by past Greeks, Normans, Arabs, and Bourbons rulers. With such alluring geography and variety of landscapes, throughout the ages, Sicily has remained loyal to its roots and old-fashioned in its introspection, secrets, and rhythms.
We traveled across east and west Sicily in May 2021