Where can you visit a village on the sea, with a fabulous view of a real volcano? On the island of Sicily, two miles off the southern tip of the Italian Peninsula. But to say its Italian is not exactly correct. Sicily has its own government, its own version of the language, and definitely its own way of doing things. There’s history, culture, and incredible beauty. Welcome to Sicily.
We’re going to start on the east coast of the island, in Taormina. Built at the base of a hill and upward, from above you see the typical village square, the shopping and business districts, which are in contrast to what’s up on the hill. There, you’ll find the Theatro Greco. The Greek theater dating back to the third century BC. Forget Mount Olympus! I’ve found the true home of the gods…and it’s definitely Sicily! From the views of Mt. Etna, to its beautiful beaches and rugged gorges, your camera will forever thank you! Sicily has to be one of the most beautiful places in the Mediterranean.
But it’s not just the landscape that’s won me over. It’s also the tranquil little towns and villages, the island’s thought provoking past and the Italian hospitality that inspires me to appreciate all that’s Sicilian.
So much of Sicily is a photographer’s dream, but my favorite location has to be the town of Taormina. Here, you’ll discover ancient ruins, beautiful beaches and spectacular views. After you’ve looked out across the town to the sea, turn around. The little church at the top is built right into a cave on the cliff, called Madonna del Aroco, or Madonna of the Rock. It’s dedicated to all sailors of all nations who died at sea. It’s open on Sundays, but if you come up on any other day, make sure you go to the door and peek in that little window to look at the ceiling. It’s all jagged rocks and stalactites from the cave itself. No wonder it’s the most popular place on the coast for weddings.
Taormina has to be one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever seen, with original stone buildings and windy little cobblestone streets! The greatest thing? No cars! This is great! Especially since the pedestrian zone is also the shopping zone! Now, what’s a vacation without souvenir shopping, right? We need to find something typically Sicilian to buy. Ah, perfect! A Sicilian carreto, a little cart. Back in the old days, it was drawn by a horse and the drivers would go from village to village selling the goods. The more elaborately painted it was with stories and things on the side of the cart, the more customers they would get. So the drivers would come into town, start singing really loudly and bang on a drum to draw attention that they were there. The ladies would look out their window and they would come out to buy the goods. At the same time, the driver would tell the news of the region. He would tell what’s going on in the last village.
You can still see a real carreto. There are four museums around Sicily that have the real ones from a couple of hundred years ago. If you are here at festival time, they may even bring them out for the Sicilian Fiesta. From puppets to pottery you’ll find plenty of stuff to purchase…perfecto! Take a necklace made out of lava Mt. Etna. You’ll see all kinds things carved from lava stone here. Jewelry and little statues abound!
When you’re walking and shopping, you get a little tired. I have one place for you to stop. A gelato stand. So many options and so many unfamiliar names… what to choose, what to choose! The best is bacio, a mixture of chocolate and hazelnut gelato, fabulous! If you’re committing the biggest sacrilege in Sicily, dieting, there are options!Since we are looking for items that are typically Sicilian, we can’t forget the wine. The wine in Sicily it’s fantastic. They say there’re over a hundred wineries here. But, the wine is just the beginning, you’ll have to try some liquor made at Mt. Etna. It’s basically herbs and alcohol, and it’s either 50% or 70% alcohol. They tell me it’s a little bit like, Guapa. The call it Fuoco del Volcano. Oh! If you can’t handle the liquor, you can get a bottle as a souvenir that’s actually covered in volcanic ash. I’m going to forgo the lava wine for something that’s a little more refreshing.
Have you ever seen a blood orange? This is what they’re famous for here. It’s the sweetest orange you can taste. It’s red pulp on the inside, makes orange juice that looks like tomato juice, but it is sooo sweet. It’s fantastic! The best part, is you can find these gems in any of Sicily’s open air markets. I’ve heard people say they’re so sweet, that you can even eat the skin and the pulp… supposedly it’s not bitter at all. Shopping, gelato and blood oranges, now this is Nirvana.
If you go down to the shore in Taormino, you’ll find a house with the only existing symbol of Sicily that there is on the coastline. Look up and you’ll see it on the Sicilian flag. There are three legs representing the three legs of the island and the face is Medusa. It may seem strange to have Medusa on your flag, but this symbol implies that the island is protected by the Goddess Athena who carried the head of Medusa on her shield after she was defeated.After a sinfully good day of sightseeing and shopping in Taormina, you may want to cleanse yourself in the Sicilian surf, but I want to see what else makes Sicily so magnificent. I want to discover the true essence of the island. And, the best way to do that, is to reflect on its past. Sicily was one of the most important islands in the ancient Mediterranean world. It’s been home to the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Muslims and the Normans, to name a few. The evidence of these civilizations is everywhere, including in its national symbols.
Medusa on the flag is not the only symbol you’ll see representing the island. There’s also the Catalina Elephant and the Birds of Syracuse. But there’s more to Sicily than just its symbols, and another reason it’s so special, is the natural beauty of the island. You know, my hope is that when you see Sicily, you’ll go, ‘Wow, I want to go there, that looks incredible.’ But, don’t even think about coming here in the heat of the summer. In July and August, it is way too hot. I mean, like over a hundred degrees hot. And when you do come, make sure you don’t miss Sicily’s largest city, Palermo.
Palermo has been a world class city for centuries. Its importance in the world, as well as its cultural development, has always been driven by its port. In fact, the Greeks called Palermo, “panormus”, which means all-port….and that name was used in official documents right up until the 18 century. While Palermo’s fascinating, there’s a lot more to explore on the island.
The little town of Randazzo is worth a stop. It looks like something right out of a movie! Sicily has some incredible little towns and villages you have to go exploring. Randazzo has a beautiful medieval old town. But for some real history, how about a visit to Agrigento? This area is known as the Valley of Temples, and for good reason. It has eight Greek temples and lots of other ancient buildings.
Agrigento was once the greatest city in the ancient Mediterranean world. All of the temples were built in the Doric style, which is the oldest and simplest building style designed by the ancient Greeks. While the Valley of the Temples was created to honor the ancient gods, it’s believed that the Piazza Armenia was created for more earthly purposes. Ongoing arguments rage over exactly who owned this villa, but scholars do agree, that this ancient Roman home is not only impressive for its size, but for its beautiful mosaics. The most talked about artwork in the villa is a wall with bikini clad women competing in various sports. Hey, who knew the bikini was this vintage?
If it’s mosaics that interest you, then you have to go to a building created by divine inspiration, the Cathedral Monreale. King William II began construction on the church after awakening from a dream. He said the Virgin Mary came to him in his sleep and asked him to build the church for her. The Cathedral Monreale is home to the most complete cycle of mosaics ever created in the Byzantine tradition. It contains 130 individual mosaic pieces of art! That’s more than St. Mark’s in Venice!
All the artwork is inspired by biblical stories, and seeing these incredible mosaics is an inspiration in itself. This cathedral is a must-see for anyone coming to Sicily but here’s a tip: there aren’t many parking spaces in Monraele so you may want to catch a bus into town.
Back in the car, it’s onward, to check out more of Sicily’s amazing sights. The most impressive is, undoubtedly, Mt. Etna, the active volcano, which can still erupt! There’s no stopping volcanic lava. It’s not stopped by cars, by roads, by barriers, by houses, anything. In fact, to give you an idea of how much lava came down Mt. Etna in1981, there is a wall that was the third story of a beautiful Italian villa before the eruption and lava flow. A gorgeous mansion, gone! Imagine a whole valley with beautiful houses, villas and vineyards gone in the course of a few hours. There’s a railroad track there, they tell me that it’s 25 ft. higher than it was in 1980. That’s incredible.
Sicily is an amazing vacation, and it definitely has its own personality separate from Italy, but the island is also known for something a little more infamous…the Mafia. I guess you could say Sicily is also known as a “family destination!” If you visit Savoca, you may think you are seeing something out of a movie, and, actually, it is.
The first time I ever heard of Sicily was watching The Godfather movie. Well, a lot of the important scenes were shot right in the town of Savoca. Do you remember the scene where Michael Corrleoni came to the bar and asked Appleonia’s father for her hand in marriage? Well, it happened at the bar right there in the middle of town. The bar, the tables, the chairs, they are all still here. And, if you are looking to meet one of the actors from the film, than you’re in luck.
If you go inside the bar, you’ll meet Maria. Maria’s the owner. When Francis Ford Coppola came here, he saw her face and said, “She’s perfect to serve the wine to Al Pacino.” Now if you come here she’s got a great little souvenir for you. She sells limon cello, a lemon liqueur. The label will either have Marlon Brando on it, or a picture of Al Pacino and Maria in a still from The Godfather. What a great souvenir. What a great face! While you’re inside take a moment to look around the bar because they have fascinating memorabilia from the film. Just down the road, you’ll also see the church where the wedding took place.
While I could stay and look at film locations all day, it’s time to head back to our home base of Taormina. This has to be one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever seen! In fact, it’s so well preserved, it’s been documented! Since Taormina is considered a world heritage site, it wasn’t supposed to be bombed during World War II. That’s why the town is so authentic.
Well, it didn’t quite escape the bombs, because when the Americans found out that Field Marshall Kesselring was staying at a little hotel in town, they bombed the place. Now he was the general commander of all the German troops in Italy, so that would have been a big score. Did they get him? Nah. He was staying over at the best hotel in town, the San Domenico, not the little one they had been told.
The San Domenico is still the best place in town, but it’s more than just a great hotel. It’s a sacred landmark filled with history and culture. It’s always exciting to stay at a hotel that’s a story in itself. San Domenico is a former 15th century monastery, transformed into a hotel in 1896. Parts of the building date back to 1372 when it was a private residence. That’s old!
Through the years political figures, nobles and celebrities have all visited here. In fact, as a hotel, its hosted Cary Grant, Kaiser Wilhelm II and President Harry Truman, just to namedrop a few! Actually, it’s no mystery why the rich and famous choose to stay here, this hotel is nothing less than divine! You won’t be disappointed in these lodgings, that’s for sure! From a massage in their spa to meditation in their vast gardens, to a divine dinner in one of their three restaurants, you’ll feel in league with the Gods of Sicily. If you don’t stay, at least come to visit and have lunch or sip a limon cello on the terrace over-looking the Mediterranean!
You know, limon cello may taste like the elixir of the god’s, but it’s not the most famous drink in all of Sicily. No, the drink of choice in Sicily will always be wine. They say here, a day without wine is like a day without sunshine, and since there’re over three hundred days of sun a year in Sicily, you can bet that the wine is flowing. There are over 800 wineries on the island, and you can visit one of the largest, Torre Palino.
Sicily is one of the world’s largest producers of wine. Per year, they produce more than Australia, New Zealand and Hungary combined. The Torre Palino winery produces 15 million bottles of red wine a year and 5,000 bottles of champagne, that small amount because they do the bottles one at a time. I learned a Sicilian toast. One person says, “To your health,” then a Sicilian replies, “health to whom drinks the wine.”
It is believed that grapes were brought to Sicily by the ancient Greeks. They found that the temperature and volcanic soil on the island was perfect for creating wines. Since then, Sicily has been known for its vineyards. But the history doesn’t end there. Two exciting things happened in 1492. Columbus discovered America and the Sicilians here at this winery invented the very first bottle of champagne. Now, when they first made it, the Sicilians didn’t like it. They’ve been drinking red wine for hundreds of years and they said, “What is this white wine with these little bubbles? We don’t like it.” So, it didn’t sell. Then, 120 years later, Dom Perignon discovers the Sicilian method of making champagne and the rest is history. Just down the road from the winery, there is a document displayed for the registering the very first bottle of champagne ever made in 1492.
What do Sicilians eat for breakfast? They have a cheese full of pepper, green olives, homemade bread, salami, and the same cheese without the pepper in it. That is a little bit sweeter. Then they have black olives, the salami again and bread covered with what they call spec, which is like a very special fatty bacon only found in the south part of Sicily.
Ah, great wine and delicious food. Now this is living! Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less from an island this incredible. According to local legends, Sicily was created for the god’s, and here, you’ll find nothing but the best… whether it’s scenery, accommodation, dining or shopping, where even the smallest detail is appreciated and savored. And if you’re looking for a romantic destination that you’ll always remember… Sicily proudly delivers!