Lying between southern Italy and northern Africa, Sicily presents an attractive, all-year-round climate with which to indulge in its many activities. Following a recent 1,242-mile drive around its winding coastline and into its more mountainous territory, we discovered a few ways to enjoy Sicily’s many offerings.
Like many capital cities, this one offers diverse choices; two of the most interesting (and contrasting) are the International Museum of Marionettes and the Capuchin Catacombs. Even though the first focuses on wooden, lifeless puppets, it is much more dynamic than the latter.
The former represents a Sicilian tradition dating back hundreds of years, to the time of Socrates, but opera dei pupi (puppet theater) reached its peak around 100 years ago on the island. With the support of the Association for the Conservation of Popular Traditions, visitors to the downtown Palermo museum can see hundreds of beautifully-designed puppets, their masters’ equipment as well as other memorabilia, and regularly-staged shows involving bandits and chivalrous heroes characters such as Orlando, Rinaldo and Gano di Maganza.
The Capuchin Catacombs provide a somewhat macabre tourist attraction as well as an extraordinary historical record. Here in tunnels beneath the street lie hundreds of bodies dehydrated on the racks of ceramic pipes and sometimes later washed with vinegar. Some of the bodies, men women and children, many over 100 hundred years old, are embalmed, others are enclosed in sealed glass cabinets. Monks were preserved with their everyday clothing and sometimes with ropes they had worn as a penance.
No better way to contemplate life after such exuberating experiences, than to dine at the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, an elegant property oozing old-world charm on the outskirts of the city. Here, under a high-vaulted, sandstone ceiling, with a marble fireplace and painted frescoes covering the end walls, the history, everyday life, and historical Sicilian monuments are depicted, including its patron saint, Rosalia, the Norman Palace, the Cathedral and Puerto Nuevo, the ancient entrance door to the city.
This inspiring, cliff-top town is the next stop on the island tour, and no better place to stay than the San Domenico Palace Hotel, a former 15th century (Dominican) monastery with commanding views over the ancient Greek theater to one side, the imposing slopes of Mount Etna on the other and the smooth, curved Sicilian coastline in between. Proximity to the center of Taromina means easy street shopping on the cobblestoned Corso Umberto 1 and a short walk to the medieval amphitheater, Teatro Antico, where the annual Taormina Film Festival is held.
Of course, a visit to Sicily is not complete without a hike up the famous volcano, the largest one active in Europe, and can be arranged by Etna Experience. On tours, multi-lingual local guides take guests on a walk up the volcano’s side (around 6,561 feet) to a delightful lunch at a local restaurant. Then you head into a cave formed by the molten lava and finally, to the impressive Alcantara Gorge.
Syracuse and Ortigia Island
Anyone visiting Sicily must, out of courtesy if nothing else, embark on a traditional evening Passeggiata (promenade), and the island of Ortigia (linked by bridge to Syracuse) with its narrow, interlinking streets, provides a wonderful opportunity to do so. It’s a therapeutic delight to mingle with young and old as they leisurely wander along, talking and laughing incessantly. The five-star Grand Hotel Minareto—a deluxe resort with detached and semi-detached mini-villas within a short walk of the large central swimming pool—is an enticing accommodation option. It is located along the coast road, away from traffic and the hubbub of the town.
Enthralled by the Templars and their colorful, medieval history? Then a hilltop palazzo near the town of Ragusa is the place to go. Eremo Della Giubiliana, a five-star hotel, was home to the mysterious group known as the Knights of Malta (KoM), but is also where there’s a 5th to 11th century limestone necropolis on the grounds in which ceramic pottery, bronze jewels, necklaces, as well as seven 'box' tombs rest. It’s also where you’ll taste wonderful homemade drinks such as the digestive Amaro, and a red wine made from Nero d’Avola grapes.
Dining in the property's Don Eusebio Restaurant, named after the present owner's grandfather, is nothing less than regal under its high-vaulted ceilings crisscrossed with varnished wood struts, limestone archways and a polished marble floor. Furnishings include a suit of armor, framed ancient maps of Sicily and medieval oil paintings on the walls. A candelabra, piano, cozy corner with soft, flower-motif sofas, two small bookcases and a table full of glossy photographic and historical books also sit in the restaurant.
Our repast began with a combo of prawns, crunchy fragments of baby calamari, and an assorted salad of oranges, walnuts, herring and fennel. Veal modicano, with local mozzarella cheese from a farm around six miles away followed, topped off with poppy seeds, a large smear of rocket salad sauce and a separate one of golden olive oil. Firm yet smooth, the small tower of minced veal came rare, moist and bursting with flavor. Then it was time for Marsala-flavored Tagliolini pasta cooked with rabbit and chocolates from the nearby town of Modica, a plate of sublime authenticity, combining native creativity with locally-sourced products.
No better way to end the evening than a scenic to drive to the nearby town of Scicli for a leisurely stroll to absorb local life at the base of its impressive cliffs that end at the roof-tops, then to enjoy a cannoli, a succulent Italian dessert, accompanied by an espresso in the harbor area of Marina de Ragusa.
If it's outdoor sports you're interested in, look no further than the Rocco Forte Verdura Golf Resort & Spa. Here in a luxury property encompassing around 568 acres of gently undulating land in south-west Sicily you can enjoy boat rides along the coast, indoor and outdoor swimming, soccer, tennis, outdoor hydrotherapy pools with Jacuzzi-like jet streams, and golf under the excellent guidance of Niall Cameron, a Scottish storyteller and an experienced, former European circuit player. For relaxation afterwards, try cocktails on the terrace at night gazing up dreamily at the twinkling lights of Caltabellotta, a tiny town high above in the mountains. One of the most beautiful scenic drives is from the resort up to this mountain town and then back down along the coast to Sciacca to enjoy an ice-cream burger—a Sicilian brioche filled with ice-cream (choose pistachio as these nuts grow abundantly on the island).