With a population of six million people on an area of almost 10,000 square miles, it could easily be a country in its own right — and many Sicilians think it is!
It vastly overshadows its neighbouring island, the nation-state of Malta, which measures only 124 square miles with 390,000 inhabitants. Nonetheless when Giuseppe Garibaldi set about unifying Italy, the island at the toe was included in his ambitions.
Sicilians are of a far more mixed heritage than mainland Italians.
There are 13 different languages spoken on the island. There were Normans and Arabs as well as Romans and Greeks; Spanish and French as well as Italian. The Romans usurped the Greeks and were followed by the Arabs. Dialects of Arabic are spoken, particularly around Palermo on the west coast.
When the Normans arrived, the locals were so amused by their suits of armour that they began making puppets, or marionettes, of them and held theatrical puppet shows depicting the various battles between native Sicilians, Normans and Moors. There is even a marionette museum in Palermo.
No doubt this venture into folk theatre was inspired by the tradition of Greek and Roman theatre on the island. Sicily, it appears, is nothing if not dramatic. One of its great tourist trails is around the locations where parts of The Godfather were shot. Hard to beat the Sicilian Corleone family for drama!
Syracusa is most noted for its Greek and Roman ruins, including a magnificent theatre and a hewn-out quarry behind it. Remarkably this massive amphitheatre, and its sister site in Taormina, are both still used for performance.
The sight of high-tech stage lighting in the midst of an open-air theatre from the time before Christ creates a connection between us and the ancient Greeks; we all want to be entertained. 33,000 Greek tragedies says a lot about the pain and conflicts of human life.
The island of Ortigia is part of Syracusa and is accessible by three bridges. This is the place for strolling through narrow alleys, sitting over coffee on the main square, wandering through the welcome coolness of churches, or turning your face to the Mediterranean breezes at the sea front.
The mixed influences are everywhere but nowhere more starkly illustrated than in Syracusa’s cathedral on Ortigia. This church began its life as a Greek temple.
The base is still visible from the outside; the pillars still standing. It became a Christian church, an Arab mosque, and a Christian church again under Spanish rule. It then received a final makeover by the French so that it now has an extraordinary wedding cake facade. Every age of Sicily is stamped on this one extraordinary building.
Further north is the hilltop town of Taormina, home to another great old amphitheatre still used as an entertainment venue today. These days Teatro Greco still offers uplifting experiences.
From opera to rock to drama, the story is told here as the natural light fades over the Mediterranean and the supertroupers kick in. To see a performance — any performance — in a venue such as this is a marvellous experience.
On an even higher perch is the village of Castelmola where they simply cannot fit another house. Those already there appear to be in danger of toppling off the high rock. Streets are narrow and buildings high. The story goes that when Castelmola was in danger of being designated a suburb of Taormina, the residents rose up.
The requirement for town status was 1,000 citizens and they could only muster 600. So they embarked on a baby blitz, creating as many new citizens as they could. They eventually succeeded in reaching the quota.
A small bar in the town, Turrissa, celebrates this fertile drive with phallic symbols and images of the female breast in every possible space. Some find it titillating; others offensive and a few grasp the sacredness and celebration. The tiny tavern has three floors, including the rooftop, accessible on the narrowest of staircases. Almond wine is the local brew and makes a perfect digestif after a large pasta supper. In the matter of food, Sicilians are very much Italian.
To accompany the meal, try the native red wine Nero d’Avola and another good digestif is Marsala, a fortified wine named after a town on the north of the island.
Space may be at a premium on Castelmola but they can just about fit the 1,000 citizens required. The population has now dropped to 990 so the effort must be renewed.
In Sicily, even the volcano is considered fertile. Mount Etna is described locally as a female. She often produces little craters. The monumental explosion took place in 1693 but as recently as 2001 she gave birth to 19 new baby craters in a 38-second rumble that measured 8.1 on the Richter scale. Lava flow buried the buildings closest to the top, mainly wooden constructions housing cafés and souvenir shops. A few have been re-erected.
The ascent up Mount Etna begins at the agricultural base and climbs into a more barren landscape where growth breaking through the cooled lava is sparse.
Forests of chestnut saplings are planted here but no-one ever can tell when it will blow again. The University of Catania has a volcanology department studying her moods. That’s Mamas for you!
Sicily is a sun resort for those who can’t sit still, making it a good combination destination. Giardini Naxos is the beach resort from where you can gaze up at Taormina and contemplate taking a cable car up there for dinner and the evening stroll. Along the coast is the divine Isola Bella, a tiny island accessible by foot at low tide, which is home to Jurassic lizards and an 800-year-old tree.
Isola Bella was once the property of an English aristocrat, Florence Trevelyan, who also developed beautiful gardens, which are now open to the public in Taormina. Her time in Sicily was something of an enforced exile after she had an affair with Prince Edward VII and was promptly asked by his ’mama’, Queen Victoria, to vacate England. Like Mount Etna, Queen Vic was not a mama to be argued with.
Topflight is running 7, 10 or 14-night stays in Taormina and Giardini Naxos, using the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Catania on the east coast. Aer Lingus operates twice weekly flights from Dublin to Catania on Wednesday and Sunday.
For more information and to book, visit www.aerlingus.com or contact www.topflight.ie for package and tailor-made holidays to Sicily. Ryanair operates flights to Trapani on the west coast. www.ryanair.com
See Mount Etna. It’s such a completely different landscape to anything we are used to and is an amazing contrast to the rest of Sicily.
Sip almond wine at Bar Turrissa in Castelmola. It’s a homebrew unique to this town and it is best tasted in this naughty, endearing little tavern.
Catch a show in one of the ancient theatres, either in Taormina or Syracusa. It doesn’t matter what the performance is. The experience will be very special.