Visiting Sicily is a true feast for the senses

A vendor cuts fish at the traditional fish market in Catania. Picture: Shutterstock
A vendor cuts fish at the traditional fish market in Catania. Picture: Shutterstock

An incredible 3000-year history of occupations has left Sicily a world apart from Italy - and the island's melting-pot of culinary influences is driving a gastro-tourism boom.

Sicily doesn't taste like anywhere else in Italy. This is a place where sardines are served stuffed with raisins and pine nuts, where seafood is often accompanied by couscous and where you can cool your thirst with a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice or an icy serve of granita.

Sicily's unique flavours have become a major tourism draw, with the island identified as one of Italy's hotspots for gastro-tourism by the Italian Food and Wine Tourism Report. It's not just the island's restaurants that are reaping the rewards of the boom, either. Visitors are also keen to taste their way through the island's artisanal produce, from pecorino cheese to Ribera oranges, pistachios grown on the slopes of Mount Etna to chocolate made in the town of Modica using a process dating back to the Aztecs.

In Palermo, the island's atmospheric capital, visitors can graze their way through the city's street markets - try Ballaro or Capo or, later in the day, head for La Vucciria, which only comes alive after the sun sets. Another must-visit for foodies is Libera Terra. The shelves at this food store are laden with local produce, from pasta to honey to buffalo mozzarella, all of which share an interesting back story - these artisanal producers all operate on lands confiscated from the mafia.

While you're in Palermo, it pays to look beyond your plate.

Just as Sicily's cuisine was re-shaped by the Arabs who occupied the island in the ninth century, introducing now-staple ingredients such as eggplants, pine nuts and citrus fruits, the streets of Palermo also have a distinctly Arab feel, from the decorative date palms to the many domes that stud the skyline.

The Norman rulers who drove out the Arabs in the 11th century appreciated the beauty of Islamic arts, which is why traces of Middle Eastern art and architecture can be still found throughout town.

The monastery of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, for instance, was a mosque before it was reconsecrated as a church and its gorgeous gardens, filled with orange trees, palms and prickly pears, bear a distinctly Islamic influence.

Even the royal chapel of the Norman rulers, the Palatine Chapel, has unlikely Islamic touches, although you may not notice them at first. All your attention will be absorbed by the glorious, glittering mosaics that cover the walls, featuring detailed depictions of tales from the Old Testament and stories of the saints.

Cast your eyes toward the wooden ceiling, however, and you will see it is also a work of art, covered in star-shaped polygons, each one of which contains a colourful scene that bears no relation to Biblical stories. Instead, decidedly secular scenes are depicted, featuring musicians and gamblers, lively hunts and seductive dancing girls. These gorgeous artworks were doubtless created by Islamic workmen employed by the Christian court.

And that's how it goes in Sicily. For more than 3000 years, this island has been ruled by a diverse range of powers, and each one has left its mark.

The island's ancient Greek temples rival the most impressive ruins found in Greece, particularly the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento which is among Sicily's most popular attractions. Peak time to visit is in February-March, when the surrounding almond orchards burst into bloom.

Rather discover some Roman relics? Then head for the town of Piazza Armerina in the centre of the island, where you will find the World Heritage-listed Villa Romana del Casale. Once the home of a successful entrepreneur, this villa is world-famous for some of the most remarkable Roman mosaics in Europe.

The identity of the villa's owner may be a mystery, but both his wealth and his taste are on clear display. More than 3500 square metres of floorspace is covered with elaborate mosaics, ranging from scantily clad women to a vivid depiction of hunters capturing wild animals including elephants, leopards and even a hippo. Presumably these animals were destined for some of Rome's famous gladiatorial combats.

These ancient mosaics owe their survival to a landslide that covered them up for centuries. It's not the only time in Sicily's history that disaster has led to triumph. The devastating earthquake of 1693 destroyed a slew of towns in the southeast of the island, including Catania, Ragusa and Modica, each of which was rebuilt as stunning baroque showpieces.

The reconstruction of Catania, for example, was mostly undertaken by the princes of Biscari and the Benedictine monasteries of the San Nicol priests and Santissima Trinità nuns.

Perhaps the loveliest town of all is Noto (population 25,000), which manages to pack an extraordinary amount of magnificence into its tiny city centre, anchored by just three main streets.

The grand churches and palaces, all made of butter-coloured tufa rock, seem to glow in the sun, while a stroll down the side streets reveals townhouses that are elaborately decorated with carvings of horses, women and gods.

If you visit in May, you may catch the colourful Infiorata, or flower festival, when the streets are carpeted with elaborate designs, all created with thousands of colourful flower petals. The huge array of flowers along Via Nicolaci covers about 700 square metres of the street. The arrangements are made by local artists with the emblem of the city also reproduced in petals by the local Institute of Art.

The crisp, sticky, sweet goodness of cannoli. Picture: Shutterstock

The crisp, sticky, sweet goodness of cannoli. Picture: Shutterstock

Leave some time to explore Sicily's natural wonders as well. Base yourself in picture-perfect Taormina to explore the hiking trails winding around the slopes of Mount Etna, although a cable car will take you near to the summit if doing it under your own steam feels too strenuous. Be aware that from October to April, extensive snow covers the higher slopes.

Other highlights include Cavagrande, a picturesque canyon where visitors enjoy waterfalls and swimming holes just outside Avola. The canyon's trails are steep in places, so it's best for travellers who are fit and have proper hiking shoes.

If you are looking for something less strenuous, the sea village of Avola focuses on its history as a tuna-fishing port while its restaurants, cafes and pastry shops provide modern-day eaters with treats such as cannoli dotted with candied citrus and nuts. The town's tuna-fishing history is celebrated every summer with the Sagra del Vecchio Mare festival at the remains of the tuna factory on the wharf.

One final thing to add to your to-do list: try some Sicilian wines. Red-wine drinkers should explore nero d'Avola - perhaps Sicily's most popular red wine, known for its fruit and spice flavours - frappato and nerello mascalese. Popular whites include grillo and catarratto, while the dry, slightly acidic carricante, grown on terraces on the slopes of Mount Etna, has its own dedicated following. To finish a meal, nothing beats the dessert wine passito di Pantelleria, made from sun-dried grapes on the tiny island of Pantelleria off the Sicilian coast.

Fast facts

The island has a population of five million.

Siciliy is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, including cultural sites such as the archaeological area at Agrigento and the city of Syracuse, and natural sites such as the Aeolian Islands.

Mount Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe. The other active volcano in the Sicily region is Mount Stromboli on the Aeolian islands.

Sicily is home to the largest opera house in Italy, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo. Constructed over 22 years, it was opened in 1897.

Sicily is separated from mainland Italy by just three kilometres. Plans for a suspension bridge over the Strait of Messina have not yet come to fruition.

Fly: Qatar Airways flies from Australia to Palermo via Doha and Milan. Fares from $1512. Etihad Airlines flies from Australia to Palermo via Abu Dhabi and Rome. Fares from $1650.

Stay: Big chain hotels are still rare on the ground in Sicily; some of the best properties are family-owned. Near the Vucceria market in Palermo, BB22 was one of the city's first boutique lodgings and is still one of its best. The seven rooms tucked into this 15th-century palazzo are decorated with Venetian mirrors, blue velvet armchairs and black lacquer cabinets. Rates from $120 per night. See bb22.it

Explore more:visitsicily.info

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