Sicily: an attractive all-year offer
Lying between southern Italy and northern Africa, Sicily presents an attractive, all-year-round climate with which to indulge in its many activities. But what makes the island different from the rest of Italy is its multicultural society, having been ruled by Middle-Easterns, Africans and Europeans. As a result, Sicily is home of a stunning selection of architectural splendors, dating from ancient Greek and Roman times to impressive Baroque cathedrals and monasteries. Historic sights, such as the Val di Noto and Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica, attract visitors from throughout the world. During a visit to the island, you will be surprised by the many facets of Sicily’s enchanting landscapes, often wild and untouched, but always charming in their simplicity. Said that, get a car and follow a driving excursion around its winding coastline and into its more mountainous territory so that you can discover 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 Porto Nuovo, the ancient entrance door to the city.
This inspiring, cliff-top town is a mandatory stop for an island tour, and no better place to stay than the The Ashbee Hotel, the former Villa San Giorgio, was designed by English architect Charles Robert Ashbee, founder of English Arts and Crafts. With commanding views over the curved Sicilian coastline and the straits of Messina, this 5 star luxury Hotel provides intimacy, comfort and attention to details in an enchanting ambience. It has 25 rooms and suites, a Gourmet Restaurant, a Sicilian Restaurant on the Roof Terrace, a Panoramic Infinity Pool and a captivating bar lounge with great views between the sea, the city and the San Pancrazio Church. This latter is the oldest church of the city and it is a jewel to don’t miss up. Proximity to the center of Taormina means easy street shopping on the cobblestoned Corso Umberto I and a short walk to the medieval amphitheater, Teatro Antico, where the annual Taormina Film Festival is held. The center of Taormina is incredibly easy to visit, and you can view all the main attractions in under two hours. However the medieval cliffside town of Taormina is overrun with tourists, yet its natural beauty is still hard to dispute. The view of the sea and Mt. Etna from its jagged cactus-covered cliffs is as close to perfection as a panorama can get, especially on clear days, when the snowcapped volcano’s white puffs of smoke rise against the blue sky. Writers have extolled Taormina’s beauty almost since it was founded in the 6th century BC by Greeks from nearby Naxos; Goethe and D. H. Lawrence were among its well-known enthusiasts. The town’s boutique-lined main streets get old pretty quickly, but the many hiking paths that wind through the beautiful hills surrounding Taormina promise a timeless alternative. An informal alternative to The Ashbee Hotel, head to La Malandrina, a lovely building close to main street with recently renovated and re-decorated apartments and suites. It is perfect for a stay in Taormina thanks to its strategic location, well decorated rooms and friendly ambience. Of course, a visit to Sicily is not complete without an escursion to impressive Alcantara Gorges.
Mount Etna is one of the world’s major active and Europe’s highest active volcano (the highest volcano is actually Mount Teide on the island of Tenerife in Spain). The cone of the crater rises to 3.350 mt above sea level more or less, because it’s height varies with the eruptions. It is the highest mountain of Italy south of the Alps and covers an area of nearly 1.200 km2. From time to time spectacular lava fountains are glowing red in the night sky. Mount Etna is Sicily’s greatest natural tourist attraction with thousands of visitors every year. It’s a great place for travellers and Sicilians alike, you can whizz down its slopes in winter, hike the bizarre crater zone, mountain bike on forest trails, take a scenic train ride, enjoy the wines of its rich lava soils or wander the towns built from its volcanic rock. Mount Etna has been designated a “Decade Volcano” by the United Nations, due to its history of recent activity and nearby population and in June 2013 it was finally added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The mountain has always been the bane and boon for the Sicilians, bringing destruction and life. You will see that the lower slopes of Mount Etna are over boarding with plants. Citrus fruit plantations, orchards and vineyards spread across the feet of the mountain and in the plain of Catania, the fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture. There are several Park Centres, where visitors can inform themselves about the numerous possibilities to explore the volcano. Ideal base to explore the Mount Etna is the Shalai Resort. It is a boutique hotel located in Linguaglossa, halfway between mountains and sea. Shalai Resort is a former noble residence of XIX century with an antique taste which provides 13 rooms, a wellness centre, a restaurant and all the services to render each stay, close to Mount Etna, memorable.
Siracusa and Ortigia
Siracusa, known to English speakers as Syracuse, is a wonder to behold. One of the great ancient capitals of Western civilization, the city was founded in 734 BC by Greek colonists from Corinth and soon grew to rival, and even surpass, Athens in splendor and power. It became the largest, wealthiest city-state in the West and a bulwark of Greek civilization. Although Siracusa lived under tyranny, rulers such as Dionysius filled their courts with Greeks of the highest cultural stature, among them the playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides and the philosopher Plato. The Athenians, who didn’t welcome Siracusa’s rise, set out to conquer Sicily, but the natives outsmarted them in what was one of the greatest military campaigns in ancient history (413 BC). The city continued to prosper until it was conquered two centuries later by the Romans. Present-day Siracusa still has some of the finest examples of Baroque art and architecture; dramatic Greek and Roman ruins; a captivating main square (picture above) and a Duomo that’s the stuff of legend, a microcosm of the city’s entire history in one building. The modern city also has a wonderful, lively, Baroque old town worthy of extensive exploration, as well as pleasant piazzas, outdoor cafés and bars, and a wide assortment of excellent seafood. There are essentially two areas to explore in Siracusa: the Parco Archeologico (Archaeological Zone), on the mainland; and the island of Ortigia, the ancient city first inhabited by the Greeks, which juts out into the Ionian Sea and is connected to the mainland by two small bridges. Ortigia is becoming increasingly popular with tourists, and is starting to lose its old-fashioned charm in favor of modern boutiques. Siracusa’s old nucleus of Ortigia, a compact area, is a pleasure to amble around without getting unduly tired. In contrast, mainland Siracusa is a grid of wider avenues. 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 Siracusa) 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.
Agrigento sits in hilly countryside very close to the southern coast of Sicily, and because of its superb temple ruins, it’s one of the most rewarding towns in Sicily to visit. The numerous ancient buildings stand in vivid contrast to the modern high-rise blocks, which predominate, especially in the southern part of the old town. Besides these testimonies of antiquity, there are also buildings from both the medieval and Baroque periods that are well worth seeing. Beaches are only a short distance away at Lido San Leone and at Porto Empédocle. Agrigento’s main tourist attractions from the Christian era are in the present town center, between the railroad station and the cathedral. The ones dating from ancient times are southeast and south of town extending to the Valley of the Temples and beyond. The “Valley of the Temples” is a large archeological site outside town surrounded by olive groves and almond orchards. The almond blosson festival (in late February) is rooted in enchanting folklore. Agrigento boasts several ancient Greek temples, including the Temple of Concord, one of only two completely standing ones in Sicily. Overlooking the historic grandeur of the Temple of Concordia, the Hotel Villa Athena is a luxury property located in a Sicilian UNESCO World Heritage Site. This property is a magnificent residence of the end of the 18th century, it is at the same time a custodian of the classical traces that may be discovered almost everywhere, like in some treasure trove. The hotel is set in pretty landscaped gardens with 27 luxury rooms, a restaurant, bar, outside pool, spa and wellness centre, vegetable garden and amazing views of the temple.