Sicily is an island of contrasts, a mixture of thriving ecologies and stretches devastated by petrochemical pollution, of enchanting Mediterranean markets and dilapidated slums. The magnificent temples of Agrigent are set against monstrous high-rise apartment buildings; the peaceful tranquility of Madonie Park gives way to the noise and confusion of Palermo.
Visitors to Sicily should be prepared to face chaotic traffic conditions. Traffic signs tend to be either absent or confusing. The rules of the road do not enjoy the same status as they do in most other Western cities. Whoever comes to Sicily must be prepared to accept the good with the bad.
No one will forget a visit to this island. Travellers who are prepared to embrace south European nonchalance will discover friendly, helpful citizens and soon learn to love the island.
Medieval village center with Hebrew and Arab quarters
Built about 15 km from the sea at 870 meters above sea level on the walls of ancient Triokala lies Caltabellotta, embedded in what resembles a shell within the mountains. Their appearance is in some areas reminiscent of the Dolomites. The breathtaking views from the village to the olive and orange groves and finally the sea impress every guest.
Dating back to prehistoric times, remnants from all eras can be found. The medieval town center with winding streets and courtyards and its Hebrew and Moorish quarters is particularly charming. Especially during summer, the village – characterized by its rugged beauty – has a pleasantly cool and dry climate. Spring on the other hand invites to long walks with its incredible abundance of mountain flora.
Having been cut off from the rest of the world for centuries due to its special location, Caltabellotta has retained to this day its original character of a Sicilian mountain village. The near pristine nature surrounding the town must also have fascinated director Michael Cimino: For his film “The Sicilian” (with Christopher Lambert in the leading role) almost the entire outdoor shoot took place in and near the special location around Caltabellotta.
Bright white sand at the foot of chalk cliffs
Below the excavation site of Eraclea Minoa, a smaller version of Selinunt, lies Capo Bianco at the foot of a chalk cliff. In ancient times the beach with its bright white sand served as a landmark for sailors and is still unspoilt today. A beautiful path leads along the coast from Eraclea southeast to Torre Salsa. You can walk back above the cliffs.
A 2,400-year-old abandoned construction site
There is a quarry close to the Greek temple of Selinunte, where stones were cut for the ancient city. When the Carthaginians arrived with their warships in 409 AD, the slaves dropped everything and fled. Today, everything is just as it was 2,400 years ago. You can still see some of the unfinished stones and others that were ready for transport. Back then, this place could have been the scene of a massacre, but now it is beautiful and peaceful.
Origin of the Mafia
Camporeale is situated in the back country about 30 km southwest of Palermo. The area consists of many feudal estates that were once given to aristocrats by the King of Spain. Most of the towns in the region were originally populated by labourers who did farm work on the estates. One of those towns happens to be Corleone, considered the birthplace of the mafia. The Cosa Nostra, as the Sicilians refer to it, arose around the beginning of the 19th century, as the age of feudalism was drawing to a close. The aristocracy used merciless gangs to keep their privileges out of reach of the law and to protect themselves from the lower classes. The organization soon became more powerful than the nobility it was serving and eventually took their place. Although the Mafia is an international organization today and its main area of activity is no longer agriculture, the region south of Palermo is still considered its main base.
“Balcony of Sicily”
The city with 28,000 inhabitants is located in the geographical center of Sicily at an altitude of almost 1,000 meters. Because of the fantastic views to the sea and Mount Etna, it is also known as the Balcony of Sicily. The Castello di Lombardia, which – apart from the cathedral – is the main attractions of the ancient city, is testament to the great importance of the town owed to its central location. Connected with it is the octagonal tower house of the German Emperor Frederick II by an underground passage.
Medieval mountain village with views of the sea
The age-old mountain village, founded by the Phoenicians, is perched 750 meters above the sea. Its location and the medieval cityscape make it one of the most beautiful places in Sicily. In ancient times it was home to a sanctuary that was initially dedicated to the Phoenician goddess Eryx, followed by Astarte of the Carthaginians, the Greek Aphrodite and finally the Roman Venus. The Chiesa was built from the remains of the temple in the 14th century. From the square of Aphrodite's temple, where today stands the Venus castle, you have a tremendous view over Trapani and the other western islands.
Enchanted garden at the Temple of Castor and Pollux
Near the Temple of Castor and Pollux at Valle di Templi, the enchanted garden is situated in a fertile and well-watered valley. 2000 years ago irrigation channels already existed and today lemon and orange groves cover the area. Among them shady places lend themselves to a picnic.
Exotic plants and lizards in the Ionian Sea
The small island in the Ionian Sea just off the coast of Taormina was owned by Florence Trevelyan around 1900 who bred exotic plants there. Today it is a paradise for birds, lizards and artists with its Mediterranean and tropical plants. Currently four tours per day are offered free of charge to the otherwise closed to the public island. The number of participants is limited to 15 people.
Dessert wine made the traditional way
The old city of Marsala is renowned for its dessert wine, which has an alcohol content of 20%. A Marsala Fine has to age for one year in wooden barrels. Among the wineries of Marsala, an insiders' tip is Marco De Bartoli's Azienda di Marsala, which employs a traditional method of pressing grapes. Tours are available by appointment. Tel. 09 23 96 20 93.
Gateway to the Aeolian Islands
The city on the northeast coast is situated on a narrow peninsula, protruding well into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Greek sailors have settled there as early as 700 BC. Even today it is the port that funds the lives of the 22,000 residents of the town, which is the gateway to the Aeolian Islands. Worth seeing are the Norman Castle and the Cathedral dating back to the 17th century.
Day trip by boat
The islands which are named after the Greek god of the wind are of volcanic origin. One of them, Stromboli, still has an active volcano. The ferry company TAR-NAV (Taranto Navigazione) offers day trips to the archipelago in the northeast of Sicily. They start at the port of Milazzo and last from 8:00 – 20:00 o’clock or from 12:00 – 22:30 o’clock. During the stops on the islands one can either take a stroll or enjoy something to eat. The tours should be booked locally, as they are dependent on the weather.
Ancient city between wine and olives
Between vineyards and olive groves lies this ancient city. Its remains are much less visited than the neighboring Villa Casale. Only the foundations of the pre-Christian town can still be seen, but with a little imagination one can picture life on the agora, the marketplace, in the gymnasium or in the baths. The most important discovery is the statue of Aphrodite, which is displayed on site in the regional museum.
Species-rich oak forests, evergreen Macchia
The Nebrodi Mountains, together with the Madonie Mountains to the west, make up the Sicilian Apennines. The mountain range borders the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north and Mount Etna to the south. The Arabs named the region Nebrodi (“island on an island”) because of its rich vegetation and lush marshlands. The thick oak forests and green mountain pastures are inhabited by many species of tortoises, wildcats and porcupines.
Ghost village in the Gibelline Mountains
The old village in the Gibelline Mountains existed from 1642 to 1968, when it was destroyed overnight by an earthquake and has since been completely abandoned. This makes Poggioreale one of the Paesi fantasma, the ghost towns of which there are over 1500 in Italy. From a distance, the village looks intact. But those who venture into the deserted alleys are fascinated by nature that reclaims everything.
Historical small town at the foot of Mount Etna
The small town to the northwest of Mount Etna has four preserved city gates and several churches from the 12th and 13th centuries. In some narrow streets of the city center, such as the Via degli Archi, the pavement dates back to ancient times when they used the lava rock from Mount Etna. Another attraction is the museum with the Pupi Siciliani. The characters of handmade puppets, such as the good Franconian Knight Paladin, evolved during the Middle Ages. The access to Randazzo from Tortorici is particularly beautiful.
Eating like the salt workers in the museum restaurant
For centuries salt was recovered from the sea in Trapani. Today a museum in an old mill tells the story of the ancient tradition of salt mining. Lunch can be enjoyed in a warehouse from the 17th century, guests sampling "a salt worker's lunch ” consisting of bruschetta, sardines, cheese and wine, while looking over the salt flats as far as the Egadi Islands.
Picturesque village in the shadow of a Norman castle
The picturesque village crouches in the shadow of a Norman castle. The place high above the Tyrrhenian Sea became famous as a location in the legendary film “The Godfather” by Francis Ford Coppola with actor Marlon Brando. Then it was eerie and deserted. Today Savoca is beautifully restored – especially around the church.
The ideal Greek temple
This is one of the best preserved ancient temples in the world. Although it embodies the ideal Greek temple, it was not built by the Greeks, but rather by the Elymians – a people group made up of local natives and the Trojans. Today, this structure, which is 61 meters long and 26 meters wide, stands alone in the gently rolling hills of western Sicily. Yet at the time of its construction it formed the centerpiece of the flourishing city of Segest, which was, however, later razed by the Vandals.
Olive groves, clear blue waters, Vineyards and one of the most fascinating collection of temples in the Mediterranean: Selinunte ranks among the leading archaeological sites in Sicily. Large sections of the ancient Greek colony have been uncovered in recent decades. The acropolis at the center of four temples surrounded by fortified walls verifies that Sicily was occupied by Greeks during the pre-Christian era. Archaeologists estimate that the lost settlement reached its zenith around the 5th to 6th century BC. Its population must have peaked at about 100,000 inhabitants, making it a huge metropolis by the standards of the day. The city's fate was sealed when it got caught in the middle of a fierce war between Rome and Carthage. 409 BC Selinunte was taken by an army of Carthaginians and destroyed after a battle in which at least 16,000 residents were killed. It was rebuilt, then destroyed again, this time by the Romans, around 250 BC. The once-thriving city was then abandoned forever.
Nature trail with a great view
This nature trail high above the streets of Messina is very special – not least due to the lovingly written display boards offering information about the rich plant life here. The trail will lead you through rugged gorges up to the vast mountain chain of the Monti Peloritani and to overlooks that are among the most beautiful in Sicily. (round trip: 5 hrs, 15.8 km, elevation change: 520 m)
Largest cork oak forest in the centre of Sicily
The Sughereta of Niscemi is the last large cork oak forest in the center of Sicily. The clearing of the Niscemi area began at the beginning of the 17th century under the new feudal lord Branciforti. But after more than 100 years the senseless waste of resources could be stopped – by laws for the sustainable use of the wood. They were issued in 1718 and have ensured that to date 3,000 hectares of cork oak forest have remained standing. Between the cork oaks grows Ilex and evergreen Macchia. Botanists will be interested to know that recently the Helianthemum sanguineum was discovered, a relative of the sun rose, which otherwise only occurs in Morocco and Portugal and has been considered extinct in Italy for centuries. A path following a handrail rope leads through the reserve.
Field of ruins overlooking the Strait of Messina
Tnydaris was founded in 396 BC by Greek sailors from Syracuse. Part of the city broke off into the ocean during an earthquake in the 1st century AD. The town was destroyed again in 836, but this time by pirates. Nevertheless, excavations have revealed that many structures are in surprisingly good shape, especially the theater and the remains of the city wall. A pilgrimage church dedicated to the Black Madonna was built next to the ancient city in the 1950s. According to legend, the statue had washed ashore in a box bearing the inscription: NIGRA SUM SED FORMOSA (“I am black, but beautiful”). The church offers a magnificent view of the Strait of Messina.
5000 graves, more than 3,000 years old
Pantalica is one of the large necropolis in Sicily. More than 5000 tombs were carved into the soft rock over 3000 years ago. Their builders were the Sicani who in those days were pushed back from the mainland by settlers. In early Christian times, the cave tombs must have been inhabited. From the carpark one can take a three and a half hour walk through the gorge. It leads to a Byzantine church and the Anaktoron. Good footwear, food and water are essential. (round trip: 3 hrs, 8.8 km, up and down: 270 m)
Ancient temple city
One of the most important archaeological sites in the world, the Valley of Temples, whose origins date back to the 5th century B.C., is located to the south of Agrigento. Sprawled on a ridge called “Valle”, the site consists of a series of temples that were built to symbolize the prosperity of the city. All of the temples face east in accordance with classical Greek and Roman tradition. There are two groups of temples: the eastern group consists of three buildings from the years 500, 425 and 450 B.C. dedicated to Hercules (Heracles), Concordia and Juno (Hera). The most important structure in the western group is the temple dedicated to Zeus – or what is left of it after it was destroyed by an earthquake. The Temple of Concordia was used as a church for over 1,000 years and has therefore remained largely intact. Classic mythology comes alive in this fascinating ancient city of temples.
Late Roman art and luxury villa
The 3,500-square-foot old Roman luxury villa is located in a water-rich valley near Piazza Armerina. It is due to a landslide in the 12th century that it is still so well preserved. The excavations only began in the 1950s. Today, the magnificent building is one of the most important archaeological sites in Sicily and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Notably, the mosaics are exceptional in their artistic quality.