Mosaics on Sicily show ancient Romans cavorting in bikinis
You can ski on a volcano
The ancient Greek ruins are as good as the ones in Greece
Sicily has beautiful black- and white-sand beaches, a volcano to ski on and desserts to satisfy the sweetest tooth. Plus 8,000 mummified citizens in the catacombs of Palermo, to keep you awake at night.
Oh, and all those €1 homes you can buy for the price of a cup of coffee. Here’s what to know before you go.
1. Sicily isn’t all that Italian
All of Italy retains a strong regional identity.
Calabrians, Apulians and Tuscans often feel at least as strong an affiliation with their home regions as they do with the Italian state, formed only around 150 years ago.
However, Sicily’s island status makes this ambivalence even stronger.
That sense of separateness explains a lot, from the way the rest of Italy views Sicily to the strength of the Sicilian dialect – which some linguists have argued constitutes a separate language.
Sicilians also often have a darker complexion, with stronger facial features, than many mainland Italians, reflecting the presence of Phoenician and Arab ancestry among the island’s population.
2. Forget what you thought you knew about the Mafia
The Mafia: Popular culture may as well have made it Italy’s brand.
But what films like The Godfather don’t mention is that the Mafia follows the money – so while it began in Sicily, today it’s far more prevalent in the north of Italy and abroad. Mafia expert Roberto Saviano has said that London is the city with the most financial corruption in the world.
The chances of a tourist getting caught up with the Mafia are effectively zero.
Having said that, the Mafia continues to exercise a influence on Sicily, especially with the protection money – pizzo – many hotels, restaurants and shops are forced to pay, and the corrupt investment climate that helps to keep businesses away and keep Sicily relatively poor among the Italian regions.
But you can help those who have suffered by getting hold of a “pizzo-free” city map of Palermo and eating, shopping and sleeping in establishments that have signed on to an anti-extortion charter. Addiopizzo Travel organizes group tours and trip planning around the entire island.
3. The bikini is very old news here
Concrete, aqueducts, particularly violent spectator sports – we attribute a lot of things to the Romans, yet not often a skimpy item of women’s sportswear.
However, the evidence is there in Sicily, in the form of beautifully preserved mosaics, that female Roman gymnasts were prancing around in garments very similar to the modern bikini as early as the fourth century.
The so-called “Bikini Girls” – depicting muscular women running, lifting weights and throwing a discus – are the most celebrated mosaics on display at the Roman Villa (Piazza Duomo 20; +39 0935 687 667) in the town of Piazza Armerina.
Other mosaics within the UNESCO World Heritage site depict crashing chariots, a bare-breasted Queen of Sheba, and female nudes dancing in pagan abandon.
4. Sicily rivals Greece for ancient Greek architecture
In classical times, Sicily was the star of Magna Graecia, Greater Greece.
The Valley of the Temples, in the southern city of Agrigento, is where the ancient world comes most vividly alive on the island. The city, ancient Akragas, rivaled Athens in its splendor but may also have been a kind of Los Angeles of the ancient world.
Pindar, the ancient poet, declared – sniffily or with longing, it’s hard to say – that the hedonistic inhabitants of a city “built for eternity … feasted as if there were no tomorrow.”
Now the remains of the Doric temples within the Valley, another world heritage site, are among the largest and best preserved of all ancient Greek buildings.
The Temple of Concordia, in particular, looks as though it needs only a slap of paint and a statue or two for toga-clad types to fit right back in.
5. Desserts will satisfy the sweetest tooth
Blame the early Arab settlers, who spiced up Sicilian cuisine with citrus fruits and cloying sweets. Their legacy is cassata, a cake filled with ricotta cream and decorated with almond paste and candied fruit.
Also blame Sicilian nuns, closeted away in convents with little to do but pray and bake cakes. Novice nuns made marzipan concoctions, transmuted today into rather more sacrilegious-sounding nibbles such as “virgins’ breasts” and “chancellors’ buttocks,” which look as vivid as you’d imagine. Marzipan is also sculpted into the shape of peaches, oranges and prickly pears throughout the island.
In the town of Modica, sweet pastries combine chocolate and meat in a surprisingly tasty combination.
6. Manners remain very formal
The Sicilians don’t conform to carefree southern Italian stereotypes – life has long been too bittersweet.
Don’t expect the locals to break into song while a stereotypical cuddly mamma serves your pasta. At first, Sicilians can seem sullen, inscrutable and fatalistic. Sicilian family life is a cocoon. Personal loyalty is sacrosanct and little exists beyond that. But persevere and you’ll find that chill can melt into something as sweet – sometimes as cloyingly sweet – as cassata.
7. You can ski on a volcano
The snow capping one of the most active volcanoes in Europe, constantly smoking and spitting lava, seems unlikely enough.
Perhaps even more improbable are the two ski resorts, Rifugio Sapienza and Piano Provenzano, on Mount Etna’s flanks. You can ski down the north face of the volcano and jump over lava bumps.
8. Mummies are a weird attraction
The dead are very much still family in Sicily, and mummification rites practiced on the island until 1881 sought to keep them looking more or less alive for as long as possible.
Using arsenic baths and quicklime, Capuchin friars preserved the corpses of aristocrats, the clergy, doctors, lawyers, women and children and laid them to rest in Palermo’s Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Piazza Cappuccini; +39 091 652 4156; admission $4).
Around 8,000 embalmed Sicilians, rictus grins aplenty, are now on display to the public in the underground vaults. Among the spookiest is “Rosalia,” a toddler with a face that looks scarily perfect, 90-odd years postmortem.
9. The beaches are black and white
Some of the most dramatic beaches are on the tiny Aeolian Islands, to the north of Sicily. There you’ll find midnight-black beaches – a legacy of volcanic activity – and sand dunes split with rust-red seams of iron. Or, as on Lipari, the largest of the islands, beaches of silvery-grey pumice stone.
On the mainland, the cleanest white sand beaches are to be found around the city of Ragusa, to the south.