Separated from the Italian mainland by the Strait of Messina, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. Multicultural and cosmopolitan, its history stretches back 3,000 years. Fought over by warring nations for much of its existence, the island has been colonised by Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans. These diverse influences, all of which have left distinctly noticeable traces, have shaped the island’s character into the truly unique place it is today.
There is plenty to keep the visitor occupied on this fascinating island, but certain places simply should not be missed, especially a certain renowned volcano.
The tallest active volcano in Europe at 3,329 metres high, Etna is also one of the world’s most active, having been in a virtually constant state of activity for almost half a million years. Called a stratovolcano due to the layered structure caused by successive eruptions, this major tourist attraction has to be experienced up close. At Sapienza Refuge, south of the crater, is a parking area, bars, a hotel and a cable car terminal. The cable cars take the visitor up to 2,500 metres. From here there’s a choice of walking or taking an all-terrain vehicle up to the crater area. A narrow-gauge railway also runs around it.
Sicily boasts some of the world’s most magnificent Greek temples. The island was a Greek colony for some 600 years and is dotted with remnants of classical antiquity. The Valley of the Temples can be found, quite curiously for a valley, on a ridge outside the town of Agrigento. This Italian National Monument encompasses some seven Doric temples in various states of preservation. Of particular note is the most complete, the Temple of Concordia, a truly magnificent archaeological wonder. Some Roman era relics and tombs can also be found on this site.
A World Heritage Site, the Necropolis of Pantalica contains some 5,000 tombs dating from the 13th to the 7th centuries B.C. The blackly gaping tomb entrances testify to an age scarcely imaginable today.
In Selinunte on Sicily’s southern coast, formerly one of the most important Greek colonies, stands a large archaeological park featuring the Temple of Hera, a massive and imposingly impressive building perfectly capturing the spirit of classical Greek architecture.
Also well worth a visit for those who love history is the highest town in Sicily, the walled and castle-crowned town of Erice, 800 metres above sea level, where you can wander the picturesque, winding medieval streets.
The exquisite golden-stoned buildings of the city of Noto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt in glorious Baroque style, certainly deserves the visitor’s attention.
Palermo, the capital city of Sicily, constitutes a feast of culture. It has fascinating museums and palaces, opera houses, the largest botanical gardens in Italy and the macabre fascination of the Capuchin Catacombs, with its collection of mummified bodies in various states of preservation.
Also of note are the churches of Palermo, especially the amazingly architecturally diverse Palermo Cathedral. Added to and altered over the years, it shows a charming mixture of Norman-Arab, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque architectural styles.
But should you simply prefer to relax and enjoy some glorious beach scenery and water sports, the Aeolian Islands off the eastern Tyrrhenian coast of Sicily have rugged scenery, volcanoes, castles, cliffs and caverns as well as great beaches.