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The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily may be just a short hop from the Italian mainland, across the narrow strait of Messina, but it's worlds apart in atmosphere and attitude. Everything Italian seems a little more appetising here - not only the food, but the history and culture too.
For a long time, Sicily was ignored as a holiday destination, largely because of the mafia stranglehold and the poverty of the people. But today, the island is experiencing a tourism boom and a surge in development as the destructive influences of the organised crime wane. Visitors discover that the Sicilian people are gracious and welcoming, and that the island itself offers natural and historic attractions of great beauty and interest.
The main cities of Palermo and Catania feature some of the most exquisite architecture in the world, a legacy of the many great civilisations that have vied for control of this strategically-situated island over the centuries, from the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans, to the French, Spanish and Italians. There are massive Romanesque cathedrals, the best-preserved Greek temples in the world and Roman amphitheatres, as well as magnificent Baroque palaces.
The continuous blue skies and temperate climate, lush vegetation and rich marine life all add to the island's appeal. Indeed, nature has given Sicily Europe's tallest active volcano, Mt Etna; a dramatic coastline; and fertile soil that gives forth much of the bounty on which the island's unique and delicious cuisine is based.
Sicily has a coastal Mediterranean climate of mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. The mountainous interior has cooler temperatures, with snowfall during winter; while along the coast, winter temperatures average about 50°F (10°C), and summer temperatures about 84°F (28°C).
Palermo's largest art museum is housed within the Gothic Palazzo Abatellis, built in 1488. The collection is fascinating and includes several particularly interesting works. The Bust of Eleanor of Aragon by Francesco Laurana, for example, dates from 1471 and is considered to be the epitome of Renaissance Sicilian sculpture; while the beautiful masterpiece painting Our Lady of the Annunciation is considered Antonello da Messina's greatest work. Also renowned is the chilling Triumph of Death fresco by an unknown 15th-century artist that covers an entire wall. The art is wonderful but so is the building, and you get a good sense of the layout of the palace as you wander from room to room.
One of Palermo's most unique attractions is the engaging Museo Internazionale delle Marionette, a museum dedicated to the age-old Sicilian art of puppetry. The Opera dei Pupi of southern Italy is famous, with Palermo, Catania and Naples all having distinct marionette traditions. The museum was opened to preserve local traditions and the collection consists of more than 3,500 puppets. Adjoining the museum is the library of Guiseppe Leggio, housing about 3,000 books on puppetry and folk traditions; there is also a video library documenting theatrical folk performances and puppet shows from different cultures. Most of the antique puppets on display evoke Norman Sicily, representing chivalrous heroes and Saracen pirates, nobles and troubadours. The collection includes puppets from the Far East and even some 'Punch and Judy' dolls.
Of all the many architecturally beautiful and fascinating places of worship in Palermo, the most renowned is the 12th-century cathedral in the mountain suburb of Monreale. This dazzling cathedral is a mixture of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic styles, blending medieval Christian and Muslim architecture. The magnificent mosaics cover 68,243 square feet (6,340 sq m) of the cathedral's dome, and all of the walls on the interior are unsurpassed. The adjacent Benedictine abbey features a cloister with 228 carved stone columns, many inlaid with mosaics depicting scenes from Sicily's Norman history. Entrance to the breathtaking cathedral is free, but there are small admission charges for the Treasury, Cloisters and Terraces, which are worth exploring.
The fascinating subterranean world of the Capuchin Catacombs contain the remains of about 8,000 inhabitants of Palermo. The friars began mummifying and embalming bodies of the city's nobles back in 1533, a tradition persisting for centuries until 1920. After embalming, the corpses were hung along the walls of the catacombs dressed in their best like the military officer in their 18th-century uniform complete with tricorn hat. The bodies are arranged according to profession, sex and age, with separate sections for virgins, children and lawyers, among other things. Cool and dimly lit, the atmosphere is one of respect and care for the ancestors. While quite emotional for some, it can be disturbing for others.
The excessive opulence of the Baroque period is best demonstrated in the magnificent Palazzo Mirto, offering visitors to Palermo a glimpse into the lifestyle of Sicily's noble 19th-century families. Most of the princely rooms and salons are furnished with original artefacts, while visitors can also see the old stables and stagecoaches. The feeling of visiting a home is amplified by the fact that the palace is not thronged by tourists, many of whom don't know it exists. Signage and information is in Italian, so it might be worth getting a guide.
An underwater city and a landscape of petrified black lava are the characteristics of the unusual little island of Ustica, just a short ferry ride from Palermo. The ancient volcanic island was once inhabited by the Phoenicians and often fell prey to pirate raids during the Middle Ages. There are many shipwrecks off the island and the Greeks believed it was inhabited by sirens that lured ships to their doom on the rocks. The Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans all left their mark on the landscape too. Today, the island is a designated national marine park and its crystal-clear waters and undersea treasures, particularly the submerged ancient city of Osteodes, attract divers from all over the world. The snorkelling is also brilliant, as the waters around the island teem with marine life.
The Roman ruins at Solunto overlook the coast near Santa Flavia on the slopes of Mount Catalfamo. The site was originally a Phoenician village, expanded by the Greeks who conquered it in 396 BC. By 255 BC it had fallen to the Romans, who rebuilt much of the original town. The ruins consist mainly of floors and the lower portions of walls and columns. Portions of mosaics and paintings are still visible and really exciting to stumble upon. An impressive view of the Gulf of Palermo can be had from the hilltop above Solunto, and there is a small archaeological museum at the site, although most of the artefacts from Solunto are in Palermo's Regional Archaeological Museum.
The Ponte Nuova connects the mainland city of Syracuse to the island of Ortygia, where most of the area's worthy sights are located. The island was fortified by Greek colonists and the remains of the Temple of Apollo from 565 BC can still be visited in the Piazza Pancali. The cathedral in the nearby Piazza Duomo is uniquely made up of the original walls of a 5th-century BC Greek temple known as the Athenaion, and near the sea, reached along Via Capodieci, is the mythical Spring of Arethusa. There are medieval relics on the island too, including Maniaces Castle, dating from the 11th century.
Catania is ancient, having been founded in 729 BC. The second largest city in Sicily, Catania sits in the shadow of Europe's highest volcano, Mount Etna. Its elegant old buildings were constructed from white marble and black lava, many of which have since fallen into ruins or been destroyed by war, earthquakes and lava flows. There are two Roman amphitheatres, one reminiscent of Rome's Colosseum, and a 13th-century fortress and now museum, Ursino Castle. The cathedral contains some royal tombs and was built in the 11th century, and much of the historic downtown dates back to the 17th-century and is a listed heritage site. Catania is regarded as the hottest city in Italy, with temperatures often soaring to 104ºF (40ºC).
Sicily's greatest natural attraction is Mount Etna, an active volcano which has been spewing lava and shaking the earth for centuries. The craters below the summit can be reached from the town of Piano Provenzana at the base by bus or on foot. This town also serves as a ski resort in winter, while during summer it's a base camp for hikers intent on enjoying the wooded scenery and exploring the area's interesting caverns. Various species of oak, pine and birch grow over the lower mountain slopes, while toads, tortoises and lizards hide in the forest streams. Foxes, weasels and other small mammals stalk the forests as a plethora of bird species fill the trees and the Gurrida Lake area.
Palermo, Sicily's capital, enjoys some fascinating historic Byzantine, Baroque and Norman buildings and artefacts, as well as some great museums. It has remained a rich heart of arts and culture through much of its history, having endured for some 2,700 years. Some of the more breathtaking sites include the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cattedrale and the simply stunning interiors found in the churches of La Martorana and the Capella Palatina. The creepy yet intriguing Capuchin Catacombs may fascinate those interested in the macabre, while the Botanic Garden is perfect for a stroll after catching a performance at the splendid Teatro Massimo.
The Valley of the Temples is one of Italy's oldest and most interesting archaeological sites, filled with some of the most outstanding examples of Magna Graecia architecture in the world. The Doric-style structures, built in the 5th century BC, are dedicated to gods and mythological characters, including, quite rarely, an imposing structure dedicated to Vulcan. There are also some fascinating commemorative structures, built in celebration of Rome's victory over Carthage and in memory of Roman soldiers who were killed in the Second Punic War. In the tradition of Greco-Roman architecture of the period, all the structures face east to be illuminated by the rising sun.
Found along Sicily's Ionian coastline, Syracuse once rivalled Athens as the most important city in the ancient Greek world. Its Greek heritage can still be found in the abundance of ruins and in the myths and legends centred particularly on its oldest quarter, the island of Ortygia. Archimedes once strode the streets here and today tourists can still get a feel for Syracuse's golden age of power and prosperity. As well as the Hellenic relics, Syracuse also boasts more than its fair share of Roman ruins and some fine medieval Gothic architecture and art. Most visitors prefer to make day trips to the city from the more comfortable resort areas nearby, where soft white beaches and fine wines can be enjoyed on the shores of the Ionian Sea.
Taormina has it all: stunning surroundings, lovely nearby beaches, medieval charm, great shops and restaurants and interesting archaeological remains. Sicily's most famous holiday resort town, it boasts what is surely the most photographed view in Sicily: across the beautiful ancient Greek amphitheatre to the sea with Mount Etna in the background. Taormina is ancient, inhabited since before 734 BC when the Greeks arrived on the Sicilian coast. Its winding medieval streets and tiny passages hide some great restaurants, cafes and ice-cream parlours, while the beach at Giardini-Naxos is particularly popular. The stone walls of the old city enclose some fascinating archaeological monuments and medieval palaces, including the Palazzo Santo Stefano.
Sicily draws droves of sightseers to its beautiful beaches and countless ancient archaeological sites. Palermo, Sicily's capital, enjoys some fascinating historic Byzantine, Baroque and Norman buildings and artefacts, as well as some great museums. Sicily's second largest city, Catania spreading beneath the shadow of glorious Mount Etna is similar to Palermo in that it's not the most aesthetic but has ancient remnants and historic gems interspersed in its urban sprawl.
Visitors passing through Sicily's big cities will find plenty of diversions. But for most tourists, the smaller villages like the stunningly picturesque Taormina are where the real Sicilian charm can be found. Syracuse, once rivalling Athens as the most important city in the ancient Greek world, is perhaps an exception to this rule, because its historic quarter on the island of Ortygia is one of Sicily's greatest attractions. Must-see archaeological sites on Sicily include the Valley of the Temples, just outside Agrigento; the Roman ruins at Solunto, on the slopes of Mount Catalfamo; and, for those keen on diving, the underwater city of Ustica.
Sicily is also in demand for its stunning beaches, its dramatic, rocky coast giving way to some beautiful sandy beaches. Rabbit Beach at Lampedusa has been called the best beach in the world, but it has some local competition: Mondello Bay, near Palermo, is very popular; San Vito lo Capo, between Trapani and Palermo, is one of the island's best resort areas; the Aeolian archipelago off Sicily's northeast coast boasts some magnificent beaches; and the southeastern coast of Sicily is beautifully unspoiled. It's warm enough for swimming between May and October.
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