Sicily is the large island off the tip of Italy’s boot, in the far southwest of the country. Because of its strategic location, protruding into a fairly narrow stretch of the Mediterranean Sea, it has been inhabited for thousands of years. Visitors will find remnants of Greek colonization as well as numerous Roman ruins, besides the typical Italian villages of today.
Dominating the island is Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Despite its unpredictability, many tourists and locals routinely climb the immense shield volcano (not a particularly difficult climb) to peer into its steaming crater. Much of the island’s history has been fashioned by the whims of this geological monster.
In addition, Sicily was heavily bombed in World War II since it was a major embarkation point for Allied troops in the attempt to liberate Italy. Some areas have never been restored or rebuilt.
Thirdly, Sicily is the birthplace of the “mafia” and the corruption and violence associated with this criminal enterprise has hindered the development of the island, for instance, funneling much needed post-war money into illegal operations and away from reconstruction. The center of the capital of Palermo, dingy and crumbling, is an excellent example.
Notwithstanding these problems, Sicily is alive and well, and a major player in Italy’s and Europe’s travel scene. Despite its internal problems, Palermo is still a must-see city, with its beautiful churches, such as San Cataldo, La Martorana, which possesses some exceptional mosaics, and the famous Cattedrale, a hodgepodge of architectural styles, and its palaces, especially the Royal Palace (Palazzo Reale). Don’t miss the controversial fountain, the focal point of the Piazza Pretoria.
Just a few miles southwest of the capital is one the most important tourist attractions on the island. The Duomo of the town of Monreale has some of the most extensive mosaics in the world and should not be missed.
On the southern shore of the island lies the Greek colony of Agrigento; its Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) has some of the most extensive and best preserved remnants of Greek civilization in the world. Spend several hours wandering through the ruins and pay special attention to the Temple of Concord, considered by many the best preserved of all the Greek temples in the world.
Siracusa (the ancient Greek settlement of Syracuse) sits on the southeastern coast of the island and also contains numerous Greek and Roman ruins. The Duomo beautifully incorporates the columns of an ancient Greek temple.
Finally, the medieval town of Taormina clings to a cliff east of Mount Etna and is perhaps the most “touristy” of Sicily’s villages, but it definitely must be seen, if just for the views of the coast and the volcano. Be sure to check out the Greek amphitheater and the Parco Duca di Cesaro, the lovely public gardens.
Just southwest of Taormina, along the coast is the town of Noto, an example of failed architecture. The town’s architects had the opportunity to construct a city from scratch, to replace the old city, destroyed by an earthquake. They resolved to make this city the showplace of the entire country. And they did. However, the buildings were made with a local limestone which, unfortunately, does not weather well, and the city has been crumbling ever since. It is still worth a visit, if just to see the good intentions.