Sicily Report - Polarizing Paradise

 Mt. Etna, Taormina

Mt. Etna, Taormina

When I first got the idea to go to Sicily and mentioned it to my friends, I generally got one of two reactions.  On the one hand, some people couldn’t control their raves.  It’s so beautiful…amazing…nothing like it…you’ll adore it.  They described its perfection in such glowing terms that I was expecting some sort of flawless Mediterranean paradise. On the other hand was the group who warned of its dangers, cautioning me to watch my purse, not bring any jewelry and generally painting a dim portrait of the safety level of the island.  Clearing it was a polarizing subject. 

In the end, neither extreme was correct, although I will say the scales tipped pretty heavily towards the Mediterranean paradise side of the equation.  Were there parts of the region that felt unsafe and not particularly attractive?  Sure.  But they were no seedier than the outskirts of many a large city in the US or other parts of Europe.  Did I hold my purse a little more tightly in the Piscaria Mercato, the bustling fish market in Catania? Yes.  Would I have done the same in the train station in Naples, in touristy areas of Venice or in any number of crowded places in New York, Baltimore, Boston or my hometown of Washington DC for that matter? Yes.  Was the section of the town of Gela traversed by the highway possibly not the most attractive urban area I’ve ever seen? Absolutely.  But once again, this is hardly unusual.  Highways are rarely built in the swanky part of town.

 Piazza del Duomo, Ortigia, Syracuse

Piazza del Duomo, Ortigia, Syracuse

There were, however, shining examples of beauty and shocking spic and span cleanliness that almost seemed unreal.  Piazza del Doumo in Ortigia, the small island quarter of Syracuse, was so pristine that one might imagine it a Disneyesque recreation of an Italian town square.  Likewise, the coastal hilltown of Taormina in the shadow of Mt. Etna, with it’s steep cobbled roads, picturesque staircases and colorful ceramic shops would not have seemed out of place perched on a hill in Provence or Tuscany. 

Italy’s largest region, the island of Sicily is dotted with Greek ruins—the Greek Theater in Taormina with its expansive views of Mt. Etna is a must see, and the Valley of the Temples high on the hills near Agrigento is stunning. But be warned, both require a quite a bit of walking if you want to see them up close.  Baroque Ragusa, a World UNESCO Heritage Site is also quite lovely.

 Isola Bella, Taormina

Isola Bella, Taormina

My husband and I visited beaches where the sand was dark gray, no doubt a remnant from the Mt. Etna volcano.  Below the water level, the footing was a bit slick with stones tumbled smooth from the gentle waves of the Mediterranean. The water was crystal clear and calm albeit quite cold despite the brilliant Sicilian sun.  Views like the Isola Bella below Taormina and beach cafes with chilled glasses of Aperol Spritz didn’t hurt the cause one bit.

The Piscaria Mercato, Catania’s famed fishmarket and Le Saline, the salt ponds with their quaint windmills between Trapani and Marsala on Sicily’s western coast are food lover’s meccas--examples of for-the-most-part unspoiled food tourism.  My biggest regret was not having a kitchen in which to cook all the lovely fresh seafood (some types I had never seen before) and not having a suitcase big enough for all the salt, olive oil and pistachios I wanted to bring home.

 Le Saline, Salt Ponds and Windmills, Trapani

Le Saline, Salt Ponds and Windmills, Trapani

Two other oftheard comments regarded the weather and the food.  Beware the hot weather, they would caution, which considering the relative pallor of my skin was not a misplaced concern.  The topic of food I’ll get to later, however, the temperatures when we were in Sicily were a good ten to fifteen degrees cooler than on the mainland of Italy.  In fact, one day when we were enjoying 85° F weather in Taormina, it was 106° F in Rome—Yikes!  I don’t know if this is universally true in Sicily but though the weather we encountered there was warm, even hot, at times, it did not reach the oppressive heights that I had expected.  According to Arianna Occhipinti, the young Sicilian winemaker I wrote about in my previous blog entry, this is the norm for her neck of the woods—altitude and cooling winds helping regulate the temperature somewhat.  It rendered an already enjoyable vacation even more fun.  Perhaps it wasn’t paradise, but it was certainly worth the trip!