When you think of Sicily, what do you think? Great place to vacation? Historically important? Impressive architecture? Good food and wine? Home of the Mafia? Yes, it is all of those things.
Helga and I have been there often. It is one of our favorite places. But it has been 16 years since our last visit. In early October, I took two other couples from the Algarve to Sicily (for their first time). Our primary objective was to sample the famous wines of Mt. Etna, but we left plenty of time to sample Sicily itself. My love affair with the island was rekindled. Here are my (very personal and selective) most recent impressions.
First some background. Sicily’s strategic location has kept it in the forefront of history for millennia. The Greeks settled Sicily in the 8th century BC and a number of their impressive temples survive today. Much of Homer’s Odyssey takes place in Sicily. Archimedes, the preeminent scientist of his day (first half 3rd century BC) was born in Siracusa.
The Romans had their turn for 700 years, followed by the Arabs for 600 years. Fast forward to 1061. Shortly before Normans invaded England (1066 and all that), other opportunistic Normans, mostly named Roger or William, were trying to take over Sicily, which they eventually succeeded in doing.
And so it went. Until Garibaldi united Sicily with the Kingdom of Italy in 1860.
The island is about five times bigger and 11 times more populous than the Algarve. Palermo alone has 50% more people than the whole Algarve. Interestingly, the two areas are at almost the same latitude.
Impressions of Palermo
This is a raucous city. There is complete chaos on the streets, as buses, cars, Vespas, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians play “chicken” with each other. It appears dangerous, but everyone seems to know the rules (push ahead when you can, give way if you have to). There is a vibrancy and sense of excitement in the air.
The streets are very narrow, and the haphazardly parked cars don’t make navigation any easier. The late 12th century cathedral is imposing, and is the resting place of Stupor Mundi, but of more interest is the Norman Palace with its Palatine Chapel. While modern Palermo sprawls, and most of it is drab, the historic centre is very worthwhile and can be seen on foot in two days quite easily.
Impressions of Catania
Sicily’s second city, Catania is half the size of Palermo but has wider streets, bigger, more elegant buildings, an older cathedral (late 11th century) and an older and bigger university (60,000 students). Where Palermo celebrates Garibaldi, Catania reveres the composer Vincenzo Bellini and many of the city’s most important places are named for him. Unlike the Palermitani, however, the Catanese live near Mount Etna and are often dusted by ash from eruptions (the airport was closed in mid-August this year by ash).
Impressions of Taormina
This resort town is famous for its Greek amphitheater and for its views. Its charm, however, has been diminished by hordes of tourists. The views are, indeed, breathtaking, but the amphitheatre’s interest has been reduced by the installation of modern seating and its use for various staged events. There are better Greek remains elsewhere. Give Taormina a miss, especially if you have limited time and are on a budget.
Impressions of the archaeological remains
The Greek temples of Segesta, Selinunte and Agrigento and the Teatro of Siracusa are outstanding, very well preserved, beautifully located and shouldn’t be missed. The latter two locales have a number of related Greek and Roman artifacts as well. Excellent museums abound.
Impressions of the countryside
Sicily is mountainous but particularly so in the eastern part, where Mount Etna dominates the landscape. Driving outside the big cities of Palermo and Catania is not particularly challenging but can be slow, because of autostradas in disrepair (or closed for repairs) and mountainous roads.
However, the beauty of the countryside merits the effort. The coastline is very scenic and the smaller towns and cities, like Erice in the west, Cefalú in the north, Gangi in the center and Noto and Ragusa in the southeast (Montalbano country), are well worth exploring. There is beauty, art and history everywhere.
Impressions of Sicilian food
Sicilian cuisine is very seafood oriented, with tuna and swordfish on most menus. Eggplant (melanzane) is ubiquitous as are tomatoes. Pasta alla Norma (named for Bellini’s opera) will be on every menu (pasta with eggplant, tomato, and ricotta) as will spaghetti vongole, but there won’t be many other pasta dishes. The cooking is excellent (although I didn’t like the pizza).
Impressions of Sicilian wine
Sicily is the largest winemaking region of Italy, and most of the best wineries in Sicily are found on the slopes of Mount Etna, where the ground is very fertile. It is only since the late 1990s that winemakers have concentrated on quality over quantity.
We visited five of the best Etna producers (Frank Cornelissen, Franchetti, Cottanera, Biondi and Barone di Villagrande), ranging in size from 25,000 to 350,000 bottles a year (very small by Portuguese standards). Their reds are all based on Nerello Mascalese, sometimes blended with a bit of Nerello Cappuccio. Nero d’Avola, perhaps the best-known Sicilian varietal, was nowhere to be seen.
The volcanic soils create a pronounced minerality and the proximity of the ocean gives a salinity to these light-bodied and pale red wines, to create a gorgeous mouth akin to a smoky Pinot Noir. We were tasting young reds, and they were a bit astringent, but these wines age well and last for many years. The whites use Carricante, sometimes blended with a bit of Catarratto, and are absolutely delicious and refreshing.
After this latest trip, I am still in love with Sicily, and what I have gained is a much better understanding and appreciation of Sicily’s unique wines.
Photos: LARRY HAMPTON