Sicily – a land steeped in culture and diversity

By March 22, 2017Travel

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, just short of 26,000 square kilometers with a population a little over five million. To put things in a Maltese perspective, our island covers 316 square meters and has a population of 408,000. Sicily is separated from Malta by the 65 kilometer wide Malta Chanel and from mainland Italy by the Straits of Messina, a mere 3 kilometer wide, sometimes quite turbulent, waterway.

The relatively scant population means that Sicily boasts stretches and stretches of virgin countryside, with rolling hills, mountain ranges, rivers and an ever changing panorama.   Mountain ranges include the picturesque Hyblaen Mountains around Ragusa. This is a truly delightful mountain range that takes you almost all the way to Syracuse.  With a very gentle climb to the peak of Monte Lauro at 986 meters, this unique and tranquil landscape with rivers cutting steep canyons and sharp valleys and with  gentle hills covered in alternating groves of olives, carob and almonds and an abundance of isolated forests. Look out for deer and wild boar roaming the hills and if you are lucky enough you will catch a glimpse of a golden eagle or two gliding around the peaks. The Hyblaen, or Iblea Mountains are a real must.

A particularly attractive river is the Alcantara which flows from Monti Nebrodi  at 1,250 meters all the way down to the to the Ionian Sea at Giardini-Naxos at the foot of Taormina. The gorge, Gole dell’Alcantara, a few minutes from Giardini-Naxos, is a fun family swimming area with the rays of the sun bouncing off in all directions from the multifaceted lava sides of the gorge; the cold waters from melted snow adding to the excitement and adventure.

Sicily would not be Sicily without Mont Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano rising 3000 meters above sea level. The mountain’s fertile soil slopes are a boost to Sicilian agriculture and the periodic eruption attract wide European interest that keeps Sicily in the news for the right reason.

The climate in Sicily is typically Mediterranean, mild winters and warm summers – but with a difference, so typically Sicilian. In winter you can ski on snow-capped Mount Etna in the morning and take a boat trip from some quaint fishing village in the afternoon. In the long summer months you can divide the day between the vast unpopulated beaches with crystal clear waters and an invigorating evening mountain walks to enjoy, the refreshing breezes. All within easy reach.

SHORT HISTORY

The first people to inhabit Sicily were the Sicani, who probably came from the Iberian Peninsula around 8000 BC. They were followed by peoples from all over the Mediterranean. The Greeks arrived in Sicily in 735 BC and within a very short time further arrivals from various Greek City States colonized the whole island. The local population of Sicani was rapidly absorbed into this newly found Hellenic culture. Sicily became Greek not only in every aspect of everyday life, including Greek mythology,  but also in name – together with the southernmost tip of the Italian peninsula it became known as Magna Graecia. Sicily’s world renowned monuments of antiquity date from this period; the Greek Temples at Agrigento, Selinunte and  Segesta to mention but a few.

All good things come to an end and the wars between the colonies of the different City State vying for dominance over the whole of Sicily helped to bring about that end after almost 500 years – Sicily’s glorious 500 years. In 242 BC, after a bitter war and the long siege of Syracuse, Greek Sicily capitulated.  Rome became the new colonial master and Sicily the Roman Empire’s first province outside Italy. Sicily soon assumed a new role, that of the granary of Rome. To this very day agriculture lies at the heart of the Sicilian economy.

The fall of the Roman Empire, at the hand of invading northern European tribes in the 5th Century AD eventually saw Sicily becoming part of the Byzantine Empire. From that time on until the arrival of the knights of St John of Jerusalem in Malta in 1530, Sicily and Malta shared the same rulers. The Arab period was a particularly productive one which saw important changes in agriculture, especially the introduction of systems of irrigation and a variety of fruit and vegetables we now take for granted. The Arabs promoted international trade and a very liberal multinational community that included Jews as well as Christians.

Sicily left its mark on European history with the Vespri Siciliani – the pride of Sicily. In 1282 the Sicilians rose as one nation against their colonial ruler, something that never happened before or since. The entire French population was massacred together with all French sympathizers and the French fleet, awaiting orders in Messina, to attack Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, was burnt. It was Sicily’s finest hour, one which changed the face of Europe for ever. Was this European history’s “greatest conspiracy” or a spontaneous uprising triggered by a hot blooded Sicilian knifing a French soldier trying to flirt with his pretty wife?  History has not told us, at least not yet.

With Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Expedition of The Thousand, the passing of the Kingdom of The Two Sicilies and the Unification of Italy in 1860, Sicily became an autonomous region of Italy in 1861, the Regione Siciliana. A status enjoyed to this very day; economically dependent on Italy but proudly nationalistic.

CUSINE

The Sicilians have a knack of sitting back and observing and nowhere have they done this better than in their cuisine which reflects Sicily’s multicultural past with each and every ruling nation leaving their mark –  the Greeks, the Arabs of North Africa, the Normans, the Hohenstaufen’s from Germany, The Angevins from France and finally  Spain. To put it simply the Sicilian cuisine is an absolute delight, to put it another way if you have no reason to go to Sicily, just going there for a meal or two is a good idea.

The love of fish, especially in the coastal areas, dates from the time of the Greeks who also introduced olives and pistachios to Sicily. Sicilians have a preference for pistachios from Bronte, where the inclusion of pistachio in so many dishes and desserts can be quite bewildering. The best olives and olive oil come from the Iblea region. The Arabs introduced so many things we now take for granted the list is endless. Rice, saffron and spices immediately come to mind but not so citrus and melons. Meat dishes are a feature of the Sicilian countryside and find their origins in the Hohenstaufen period; cingiale nero you just must taste, osso bucco originally an Italian dish, but alla Siciliana and you’ve never tasted better.  The Spanish introduced a number of items from the new world which we now find in all sorts of dishes peppers and tomatoes for example, the choicest coming from Paccino.

No meal is complete without a taste of caponat; the anti pasto, if you are not careful, becomes a meal in itself. The pasta is a must:  ai ricci, alle sarde, alla Norma or spade e melanzane are typically Sicilian, Maccu (fava bean soup) is as Sicilian as you can get. Secondo:  all sorts of fish done in all sorts of ways but they do pride themselves on their spada, tonno and a nice big fish al sale. Talking of fish – you must try Sicilian bottarga (dried fish roe) which you can pick up at most Specialita Siciliana shops, there is a grand one in Marzamemi. There are all sorts of dessert but cassata siciliana is a classic and the regional differences of the cannolo  siciliano are most interesting and you really have to be careful what you say; Sicilians are very proud of the regional specialties.

Sicilian wines owe a lot of their success to the lava eruption from Etna whose slopes abound with vineyards. House wines can be very nice but if you are finicky about wines stick to a nice Nero d’Avola or a Cerasuolo di Vittoria.

Well, you might as well finish off in style – almond are found in abundance, the pasta di mandorla (almond pasties) is a year round thing, you need a sweet tooth for pasta reale, the fruit shaped coloured almond marzipan pastries. Try a little lemon liqueur? But of course- limoncello, or perhaps a digestivo, which you probably need, Amaro Siciliano – herby taste but nothing else will do. When the bill comes you will be pleasantly surprised – how do they manage to do it? If you like a dessert wine – Marsala, remember the British Royal Navy made regular stops in Sicily to stock up with Marsala in the rum ration days.

The closest you get to fast food is arancini, delightful rice balls or cone shaped, crispy on the outside and minced meet on the inside. You must thank the Arabs for this.

MOTORING

Sicily boasts a road network worthy of Ancient Rome. The builders of the Via Apia, from Brindisi to Rome, would be proud of their Sicilian descendents. Sicily is crisscrossed by a road network that makes every corner of the largest island in the Mediterranean accessible. Couple that with a speed limit of 130 kilometers on the autostrada and anything up to 110 on a superstrada and you will find getting from one interesting place to the next is no big deal. You are minutes away from most places you want to get to.

For us Maltese motoring in Sicily is a delight, just 90 minutes away by catamaran, to be able to enjoy the diversity of Sicily as much as the locals. Motoring in Sicily has, for many of us Maltese, become a way of life; if you are not one of the lucky many, you need to try it, any time of the year will do.

Pozzallo is just 10 minutes away from the new autostrada in Rosolini, this puts the major tourist attractions within easy reach. Fashionable Taormina is under 2 hours away and in another 30 minutes you’re in Messina ready to tackle the whole of Italy and beyond. You can make Syracuse in under an hour, Catania in under an hour and a half, from there take the Catania-Palermo A19 that crosses Sicily from East to West; a pleasant 2 hours plus drive puts the whole of Western Sicily at your feet, Palermo, the capital and La Citta Delle Belle Arte, Trapani, Mazara del Vallo, Marsala, enchanting Erice are just minutes off the autostrada.  On the way back a stop in Agrigento, Segesta and Selinunte is a pleasant must. Ragusa and Modica, with Rosario Gagliardi’s Sicilian Baroque masterpieces, as well as Noto, Il Capilale del Barocco Siciliano,  and the surrounding Sicilian Baroque country are mere minutes away from Pozzallo. What a pleasant change to zoom along, no traffic jams, wide open spaces and a feast for the eyes. A motoring tour of Sicily to take all this in is a family must.

If you are in the shopping mood for a morning, big shopping centres, Centro Commerciale, are located within easy reach of Pozzallo in whichever direction you happen to be travelling.

FUN, SPORTS & ADVENTURE

Sicily has excellent facilities for all sorts of sporting activities; moreover the vast stretches of countryside just lend itself to adventure and fun sports.

Cycling and mountain biking are becoming increasingly popular and have the advantage of bringing you as close to nature as you can get. The superb road surfaces, including the majority of country lanes and roads make a motor biking trip that much more worthwhile, one minute zooming along the superstrada next enjoying a panoramic mountain view. Much the same can be said for motorcycle county racing. Car racing to international standards, which is out of the question in Malta, is becoming increasingly popular with Maltese enthusiast. Be it Hill Climbing or Motor Circuit Racing, Sicily offers reputable facilities. This is a dangerous sport if not overseen by a supervisory body of international repute, Sicily provides all this. Motor and Superbike Circuit Racing are held mainly in the Circuito di Autodromo di Pergusa and the Autodromo Valle dei Templi di Racalmuto. Pergusa hosts such international events as Formula One, The Mediterranean Grand Prix and Formula 3000. The Circuito  is in a beautiful selling around Lake Pergusa which is a nature reserve and a vital stop for many migratory birds. Racalmuto has the added attraction of being close to Greek temples of Agrigento. Maltese drivers are becoming increasingly successful and walking off with top prizes. Maltese clubs find their Sicilian counterparts most helpful and welcoming.

Quad bike adventures that take you into the deep countryside, down into the valleys and across running streams are great fun. Here again one need to put safety first and professional Sicilian guiders do just that. If you happen to like going it alone you are better off tracking, this is great fun and bird watchers in particular have an absolute field day both when wondering around in the countryside and in the many nature reserves all over the island.   Pigeon racing, with custom built transporters all the way to the release points in Pozzallo, the Belvedere di Siracusa and Messina, are regular events between mid-November and the end of May.

People with young families are finding that a trip to Sicily staying at quaint, attractive and well priced Agriturismo, the home cooking, all done with local fresh produce is out of this world. These family run places go out of their way to spoil you and children are most welcome, this is Sicilian hospitality at its best. Children just love the freedom of the countryside and farm animals. All in all highly enjoyable and well worth it.

Old or young, sporty or not, a love for culture, a yearning for the outdoor life, shopping, lazing around and having inexpensive but lovely means; whatever you fancy the diversity of Sicily is awaiting you.

Book now at: www.virtuferries.com

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