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Articles

Sublime Steps through Sicily

Laine McDonnell

Built on the site of the Greek Temple of Athena, you can still see the original Doric columns. Andreas Zerndl / Shutterstock.com

Built on the site of the Greek Temple of Athena, you can still see the original Doric columns. Andreas Zerndl / Shutterstock.com

Rome may have an army of racing vespas and Milan its high speed trains, but Sicily moves at a gentle and more romantic pace, begging you to walk its beautiful cities and landmarks. It is an island to be appreciated through ambles and strolls, conversing with the colourful locals, meandering through markets, taking in the piazzas, and exploring the ruins of centuries of history. Here we’ll take a walk seemingly through time in some of the most spectacular, hidden spots of Sicily.

Syracuse: 3000 years of history in a a few kilometers

Syracuse, the city-state that famously defeated Athens and was home to the mathematician Archimedes, is a stunning reminder of both the height of Greek culture and classic Baroque Italian architecture. The town can be seen in a day, if you split it into two parts:

The Archeological site is well worth a morning of exploration. Although the ruins are expansive, the centrepiece is the massive Greek Theatre, the largest of the ancient Greek world. Constructed in the 5th century B.C. and reconstructed under Hieron II in the 3rd century B.C., it has remained largely unchanged since then. It has 67 rows and could hold 15,000 spectators for plays, and later, circus games. The perfect time to experience its magnitude now is during the Greek Theatre Festival, which takes place in the middle of May to the end of June, and this year features Electra by Sophocles and Alcestis by Euripides.

The second part is the island of Ortygia. Recharge from your historic morning by indulging in an al fresco espresso at a café in the Piazza Duomo. Make sure also to venture to the Piazza Battisti Cesare, known for its fresh fish from the nearby marina, and make sure to stock up on cheeses and prosciutto from the famous I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti (literally, the flavours of lost tastes).

The theatron above was dug directly into the rock and therefore undisturbed when the Spanish pillaged the site in the 16th century. imagesef / Shutterstock.com  

The theatron above was dug directly into the rock and therefore undisturbed when the Spanish pillaged the site in the 16th century. imagesef / Shutterstock.com

 

Mt. Etna according to mythology was the forge of Hephaestus (Vulcan), the god of fire. Anna Lurye / Shutterstock.com

Mt. Etna according to mythology was the forge of Hephaestus (Vulcan), the god of fire. Anna Lurye / Shutterstock.com

Mt. Etna: Imposing landscape you can climb or ski

Known as Mongibello to the locals, Etna is the largest and highest active volcano in Europe and is well worth the vertical trek. For the intrepid, you can hike from the base camp at 1,800m. Or you can journey up the mountainside in a funicular and then a specialized four-wheel-drive bus closer to the peak, where you can take in a series of craters that look more like a lunar landscape than a mountaintop. Even in the summer, it’s important to wear layers, as at 2,800m (where the 4x4 bus stops), the winds pick up. The total round trip with the cable car and bus takes two hours. Even with constantly changing terrain thanks to frequent eruptions, Etna is host to a lauded DOC winery and a no-frills ski resort.

Taormina: A ritzy resort town steeped in history

A jewel of the Mediterranean, Taormina is a chic resort town beloved by artists and celebrities such as Goethe, Gustav Klimt, Elizabeth Taylor, Francis Ford Coppola, Oscar Wilde, and Greta Garbo. It sits atop a bluff on the eastern coast, with sweeping views of the Gulf of Naxos and Mt. Etna. Taormina has become the most popular summer destination on Sicily ever since the Europeans discovered it on their Grand Tour in the 18th century. The town is replete with streets of high-end boutiques, cafés, restaurants and medieval churches, and you can stroll the Corso Umberto and then take a cable car down to small beaches on the seaside below. Those in the know stay at the lavish Grand Hotel Timeo and visit the Greek Theatre, which adds a historic depth to the property. Make sure to sip an Aperol spritz on the veranda as you behold the sunset. The perfect time to visit Taormina is after the summer crush, in September and October when the weather is still mild but the crowds have gone.

Top left: The Greco-Roman theatre of Taormina provides a stunning backdrop for fashion shows, concerts, plays, and film festivals. Boris Stroujko / Shutterstock.com

Top left: The Greco-Roman theatre of Taormina provides a stunning backdrop for fashion shows, concerts, plays, and film festivals. Boris Stroujko / Shutterstock.com

Saracen heads are ubiquitous in Taormina and emblematic of the majolica ceramic tradition of Sicily.

Saracen heads are ubiquitous in Taormina and emblematic of the majolica ceramic tradition of Sicily.

Tourists can take a cable car down from the top of Taormina to enjoy the beach of Mazzarò. Below: 

Tourists can take a cable car down from the top of Taormina to enjoy the beach of Mazzarò. Below: 

Palermo: European capital with an Arabic flair

Palermo, the stunning seaside capital, was formed over centuries by the confluence of diverse cultures, from the Carthaginians and Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, to the French and Spanish (to name a few), and this is evidenced in the wide-ranging architectural styles and local dishes. 

The Piazza Vigliena (Quattro Conti) four corners as seen from Vittorio Emanuele Street. futureGalore / Shutterstock.com

The Piazza Vigliena (Quattro Conti) four corners as seen from Vittorio Emanuele Street. futureGalore / Shutterstock.com

Arancini get their name from their size, as traditional Sicilian arancini are about the size of an orange (arancia).  AS Food studio / Shutterstock.com

Arancini get their name from their size, as traditional Sicilian arancini are about the size of an orange (arancia).  AS Food studio / Shutterstock.com

The best way to see Palermo is by walking the streets of the old city, which gives you a feel for the centuries of history. Start in the Quattro Canti (four corners) and visit the Norman Palace constructed in the Arab-Norman-Byzantine style and then take a stroll through the loud and colourful Ballarò Market, which evokes the Arabic influence with narrow labyrinthine streets full of stalls and vendors selling the freshest fish and produce. Here you must sample the famous Sicilian arancini, a ball of rice stuffed with meat and tomato sauce covered with breadcrumbs and fried. 

Arab, Byzantine, and Norman craftsmen worked on the cathedral lending to its fusion of techniques and religious symbolism. eFesenko / Shutterstock.com

Arab, Byzantine, and Norman craftsmen worked on the cathedral lending to its fusion of techniques and religious symbolism. eFesenko / Shutterstock.com

The cloisters at Monreale are comprised of 108 pairs of marble columns each adorned with a unique mosaic. eFesenko / Shutterstock.com

The cloisters at Monreale are comprised of 108 pairs of marble columns each adorned with a unique mosaic. eFesenko / Shutterstock.com

And finally, no trip to Palermo is complete without ascending to the hilltop Cathedral of Monreale. The church boasts a modest facade that belies an exquisite interior that lights up thanks to a glittering, nearly 70,000 square feet of celestial gold mosaic depicting biblical scenes, kings, saints, and angels, culminating with a tremendous Christ the Pantocrator in the triple-apsed choir. 

Text by Laine McDonnell

Translated by Zhao Wen

Produced by Peggy Liu