Why you need to go to Sicily

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on August 9, 2018.

The dazzling interiors of the Capella Palatina are a must-see in Palermo.

The hairpin bends to Forzo d’Agro, a village made famous in The Godfather, will test your driving skills.

The Scala dei Turchi is backed by white formations of eroded marlstone, consisting of clay and lime, that provide a natural staircase down to the sand.

There are a few markets to explore in Palermo.

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It bears the marks of the many civilisations that conquered it over the centuries
Located just off the toe of Italy’s boot, Sicily bears the marks of the many civilisations that conquered it over the centuries: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, Normans, Spaniards, and the modern Italians. Visitors will find Roman temples, Greek theatres, and Norman cathedrals — and a cuisine with a dash of North Africa.

The island’s natural beauty is equally impressive, from its stunning Mediterranean beaches to the looming presence of Mount Etna. The active volcano gives off regular snaking clouds of smoke and periodically menaces with deep orange lava flows, but it’s also responsible for the island’s fertile, ash-rich soil, which is producing some of the world’s most exciting wines. There’s been a cultural renaissance in recent years, evident in the architectural restoration of cities, museums, and palazzos, which many hope is a harbinger of the loosening grip of La Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia.


The view over Cefalù

Cefalù sits on the northern coast of the island, on the Tyrrhenian Sea. An hour from Palermo by train, it contains an impressive, two-towered Norman cathedral full of Byzantine mosaics, surrounded by winding medieval streets and squares.

Rising above the centro storico, the Rocca, a towering crag topped by the ruins of the Temple of Diana, provides amazing views over Cefalù and beyond. Be prepared to hike.


Time at the beach

It’s all a picturesque backdrop to a long stretch of golden sand beach with calm waters that’s perfect for kids. There are, of course, the obligatory lines of colourful beach umbrellas from local hotels through summer, but the determined can always find an empty patch of sand.


Temple of Concordia

The ancient Greek Doric temple of Concordia — a ridge-top structure built around the 5th century BC as a beacon for sailors — is one of the best-preserved monuments in the Valley of the Temples, an archeological site. Rediscovered at the end of the 18th century in southwestern Sicily near the town of Agrigento, the temple was named after the Roman goddess of harmony because of a Latin inscription found nearby.

There are a few theories about how it stayed in such excellent condition: One credits its conversion to a Christian basilica in the 6th century, saving it from the destruction that befell other pagan monuments.


Catania fish market

Located behind the Baroque Amenano Fountain near the Duomo, the bustling pescheria in Catania is a must-visit, with impressive displays of swordfish and all manner of other glittering seafood, which shouting stallholders keep cold with regular pourings of icy water. Grab lunch at the popular market restaurant, La Paglia.


Exploring Mount Etna

Europe’s highest volcano, at 10,922ft (3,329m), is an imposing presence on the skyline, often smoldering gently as a reminder that it’s still active. Forming around 500,000 years ago, the volcano has long been an influential presence; the ancient Greeks believed Etna was home to the Cyclops, and it was featured in Homer’s Odyssey. The constant eruptions have led authorities to try numerous methods to divert lava flows over the years, from concrete dams to explosives.

To explore its lunar landscape, either walk from Rifugio Sapienza, on the mountain’s southern side (the trek around the crater from here takes about four hours), or catch a cable car to the chilly peak, which offers beautiful views of the richly fertile island stretching below its barren volcanic slopes. An official guide is required at the summit.


Gold mosaics at the Capella Palatina, Palermo

The dazzling interiors of the Capella Palatina are a must-see in Palermo. The 12th- century golden mosaics were the handiwork of the Normans, who were as adept at architecture as they were at military conquest.

In the private chapel of Roger II, on the second floor of Palazzo dei Normanni, craftsmen from three different religions worked on the three-aisle nave, which includes a wooden vaulted roof decorated with “muqarnas,” traditional Islamic geometric designs likened to a honeycomb. The mosaics are mostly Byzantine in style, but some are Roman in character; they illustrate scenes from the Crusades as well Bible stories, including the Creation and St John in the desert. The motif in the central cupola is Christ Pantocrator, surrounded by angels, prophets, and saints.


Palermo’s markets

There are a few markets to explore in Palermo. La Vucciria around Piazza San Domenico is the city’s oldest and was once a huge chaotic place. It’s a smaller, more tourist-driven market these days, and a good option for souvenirs and local handcrafts. To see a bustling local food market in action, try Il Capo on Via Sant’Agostino or the Ballarò, southeast of the Palazzo dei Normanni.


Greek-Roman theatre, Taormina

Its dramatic location, perched on a cliff-top outside Taormina’s city walls, with views of Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea, seems apt for a theatre. The Greeks began construction in the 3rd century BC, and it’s fascinating to see Greek inscriptions on the limestone seats. The Romans added to the amphitheatre. Through the summer you can still see performances and movies in this stunning spot.


Luxury at Capofaro resort, Salina

The sophisticated resort of Capofaro sits on a cliff on the verdant Salina, one of the eight Aeolian Islands off Sicily’s northern coast. The renovated farmhouses are owned by Tasca D’Almerita, one of the island’s top wineries, famous for its Malvasia. Six new rooms in the Capofaro lighthouse keeper’s lodgings join 21 bungalows scattered among 17 acres of vines, fruit trees, and flowers. Interiors reflect the dazzling white exteriors, a combination of discreet luxury and minimal Aeolian design. Highlights of the resort include its bar and restaurant, which serves dishes created to complement wines from Tasca d’Almerita’s estates, as well as a teak-terraced pool, tennis court, and garden cottage that’s now used as a massage treatment room. One of the island’s attractive beaches is within walking distance, while a yacht is available exclusively for guests.


Climbing the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, Caltagirone

Constructed in 1608, the staircase has 142 steps, each edged with a different hand-decorated tile to showcase the southern town’s historic reputation for ceramics. Once a year, the Scalinata is used as a backdrop for images of saints and local themes created from flowers or candles.


The winding way to Forzo d’Agro

Founded in the Middle Ages, the village of Sant’Alessio Siculo on the east coast is worth a visit for its charming narrow streets and architecture. It’s most significant attraction, built between 1048 and 1118, is Sant’Alessio Castle, which is actually two strategic fortifications connected by a narrow ridge.

From there, take the road inland and up, up, up — the hairpin bends will test your driving skills — to Forzo d’Agro, a village made famous in The Godfather.


Grilling Magnia e Bevi

Sicilian street food is as varied as its multicultural past, with plenty of stalls peppered around local markets. Magnia e Bevi is green onion wrapped in bacon, grilled, and served with fresh lemon.


Manifesta 12: The Planetary Garden

Palazzo Butera in the Kalsa district hosts an immersive wallpaper installation and Public Fruit Map of Palermo by Los Angeles-based artists David Burns and Austin Young. The installation is part of Manifesta 12, a major European nomadic biennial, which presents the work of 50 artists at 20 different venues in the city through Nov 4.

The rebirth of Palazzo Butera is part of the changing face of Palermo, which has also been named Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2018. Art collectors Massimo and Francesca Valsecchi bought the 18th-century building in 2015 and restored space to open a museum to house their impressive art collection, which includes varied offerings from old masters to pieces by Warhol and Richter.

Elsewhere in the city, catch a performance at the neo-romantic Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house, which was shuttered for 23 years at the height of Cosa Nostra’s power. Its reopening is seen by many as a success story in the backlash against the Mafia. The reopening of the Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonino Salinas is another example of the city’s cultural and artistic revival.


Pilgrimage to Tindari Santuario Maria Santissima

Located high above the Tyrrhenian between Capo d’Orlando and Milazzo, the Tindari Sanctuary looks down to a series of little lakes and a sandbank that stretches nearly a mile into the sea. The church was originally built in the 16th century, but the current gleaming dome dates to the 20th.

A place of pilgrimage, the sanctuary houses the Byzantine Black Madonna of Tindari. According to local legend, the statue was smuggled out of Constantinople along with other works of art in the 8th and 9th centuries, but a storm forced the ship into the port of Tindari, where the sailors left their precious cargo for safekeeping.


A Vespa in Erice

Riding through the Sicilian countryside and coastal roads by Vespa is an exhilarating experience. But you’ll need all your nerve to take on the mountain roads climbing to historical towns such as Erice, 2,460ft above sea level. Plenty of locals manage it with ease, but if you’d rather, a newly reopened cable car from Trapani can get you to the top as well.


An elephant in Catania

Sicily’s second city, Catania, had to be rebuilt when it was partly destroyed by lava in 1669 and flattened by an earthquake in 1693 — the result is the dramatic Sicilian Baroque architecture you will see all across the southeastern corner of the island.

At the heart of the city is Duomo Square, a favourite meeting point with a bizarre fountain designed by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini. The local architect included a much older basalt elephant, believed to date back to Roman times, and put an Egyptian-style obelisk on its back. The existence of the elephant was recorded in the 12th century as a local statue believed to predict Mount Etna’s eruptions. Catania was known in Arabic as Madinat al-fil, the City of the Elephant, under Muslim rule from the 9th to 11th centuries.


Bathing at the Scala dei Turchi

The Scala dei Turchi (Stairs of the Turks), outside Agrigento, is one of the island’s most unique beaches. It’s backed by white formations of eroded marlstone, consisting of clay and lime, that provide a natural staircase down to the sand. The beach is named after the pirates (or “Turks”) who were said to drop anchor here. Today, you’ll find locals and visitors sunning themselves on the stairs or beach below, some covered in the mineral-rich marl mud, which is believed to give skin a healthy glow. — Bloomberg