Uppdaterad: 25 nov 2018
To me, Southern Italy, and most of all, Sicily has always been the "true" Italy. With the alarming sounds, the vespas, the food and the mandatory line of clothes hanging across the streets. At least that was how I imagined it to be. Is it so in reality as well, you may ask? Yes - of course. But there is also much more to discover than old clichés.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, located in the South of Italy, between the Italian peninsula and the north of Africa. The easiest way of getting here is by airplane, to one of the two international airports, either in Catania (Fontanarossa) or Palermo (Falcone-Borsellino).
Sicily has many well-known cities and places that are worth a visit. The most famous destionations are probably the two major cities, Catania and Palermo, which both are good starting points of your Sicily tour.
Since the beginning, Sicily has always been deeply influenced by its different conquerors throughout time. Carthaginians, Vandals, Arabs and of course the Greeks are some of the conquerors who have affected and changed the island and its people. That's probably why many inhabitants see themselves as Sicilians firstly, rather than Italians. Self-confidence is high and local patriotism sometimes great. And the distance to the rest of Italy, with Rome in particular, is sometimes noticeable. This has made Sicily a very special place in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. An island full of history, culture and religion. It is also a mythical place, where the Greek occupiers played a major role.
A more modern "conqueror" is the organized crime, the Mafia. Cosa Nostra (Our Thing) is an organization with a slightly unclear past, but it is said to have originated among Sicilian lemon farmers* who rebelled against their landlords and extorted money from them.
Much has happened since the early 19th century, and the Mafia quickly became a part of the island's identity. In a way, it can be seen as a kind of parallel society, where the leaders (mafia bosses) established their own "laws", demanded money from residents for protection and convicted sentence (punishments) for people who did not obey their rules. Some researchers believe that the work of the Mafia was facilitated, partly because of the absence of the Italian State. For example - For many years, the tax was not collected directly from the state, instead, private collectors were hired to collect the tax funds. This was not ideal, partly because of the obvious risk of corruption, but also because the state (this way) distanced itself even more. People paid but couldn't see the result of their sacrifice. Instead, local Mafia bosses started emerge. They took credit for the things that were indeed working, and solved "problems" that the state couldn't.
In this way, the Mafia could get away with what was negative. People were overlooking the increased crime and amount of violence, as they in many cases experienced an improvement in their own lives.
Obviously, there were many opponents of the Mafia and more and more people started to show their dissatisfaction. During the 1980s and 1990s, the situation was so difficult in Sicily that the Italian State was forced to invoke the military to try and calm down the situation. Up until then, the Mafia had mostly had internal fights and power struggle, but as the police became better at investigating the crimes (and the organization itself) the pressure on the organization began to rise. As a consequense of this, the Mafia started to kill police officers and judges. The most noted case was the murders of the two judges Borsellino and Falcone, in connection with the great trial in Palermo (the so-called Maxi process).
These events shocked Italians and ultimately led to the arrest of many of the infamous Mafia bosses. Nevertheless, the mafia is still present in Sicily and is a major problem in Italy as a whole. Society is hardly tested by corruption, and the Mafia, like a squid, has its tentacles deeply involved in both economics and politics. The Mafia is also becoming more successful in washing money and transforming crime into legal business.
However, there is hope and many organizations are showing great courage and determination, as they try to raise awareness and combat the illegal activity, including getting business owners to refuse to pay protection money (Pizzo) and to regain mafia property and instead engage in lawful activities. And please, don't let this discourage you from visiting this beautiful island and to talk to the warm hearted people that inhabits Sicily.
Quick tips of where to go:
Catania is located on the east coast facing the Ionian Sea. It is one of the ten biggest cities in Italy and a popular destination for tourists, much thanks to the proximity of Etna, Europe's highest active volcano. It is also because of the volcano and the seismic activity that the city has been destroyed several times. Many buildings in the area are made of volcano-stone or have been stained by the ashes, and therefore Catania is sometimes called the black city. It's also well-known for its baroque architecture.
Just north of Catania we find Mount Etna, this volcano is the highest (3 350 meters), now active, volcano in Europe.
Mount Etna has regular eruptions, but is still a popular tourist destination among people from the whole world.
Palermo is the biggest city in Sicily, located in the Northern parts of the island. Religion is a big part of the city's identity and you will find several impressive (and important) churches in the area. One of them is Palermo Cathedral, located at Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Its long history has led to an accumulation of many different architectural styles, the latest being the 18th century.
About 70 kilometers east of Palermo is the medieval city of Cefalù. The city is located right by the sea and next to a giant rock formation. That - along with the cathedral - is the main landmark of the small city. The rock is also the origin to the name of Cefalù, founded by the Greeks. On the rock there is the ruins of a small temple, dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana.
Ragusa in the South, is built on a limestone hill between two deep valleys. Together with seven other cities in the Val di Noto, it is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is also known for its part in the tv-production of the series about "Inspector Montalbano".
Taormina is located in the East coast, on the clifs, overlooking both the majestic Mount Etna and the city of Catania in the far distance.
Taormina has for many years been a meeting point for the European culture elite and the Italian jet set, partly because of the antique theater, but also for its well-known film festival that brings some extra glamour to the little city inhabited by more than 11,000 people.
Just south of Taormina is the Isola Bella, a nature reserve; and further south, is the popular seaside resort of Giardini Naxos.
You can't really visit Italy (in general) and Sicily (in particular) without trying some of the local food, because it's truly amazing! Italy is divided into 20 regions and all of them has their own history and traditions when it comes to food.
Famous features of the Sicilian cuisine:
Arancine (deep-fried rice croquettes)
Cannoli (pastry dough filled with ricotta)
Caponata (cooked vegetable salad)
Limoncello (lemon liqueur)
Pasta alla Norma (pasta with aubergines)
As you can see on the image, Sicily is a paradise if you like fresh fruits and vegetables. It's sold and distributed all across the island. And most of it is locally produced. Many farmers live on the slopes of Mount Etna, with its nutrient-rich soil, it is a great place to grow fruits and vegetables. The Sicilian red oranges are one of my personal favorites. The oranges themselves are ordinary oranges, but since they grow at high altitude on and around Mount Etna, the oranges produce a substance to protect themselves against the cold temperatures that might occur. This substance gives the oranges their beautiful red colour. Some scientists claim this make the oranges extra healthy to eat. But the taste itself is a good sales pitch.
Sicily is really a fantastic place to visit. The island is rich of culture, interesting stories and spectacular views. Words are not enough to describe this place, but I've found a couple of people who dared to try:
Going to Sicily is better than going to the moon - Gabriel García Márquez
(Actually - if you go to Sicily and visit Mount Etna - it really feels like you're walking on the moon, stepping on tiny, dark/grey pebbles. Just like moon rocks!)
Sicilians build things like they will live forever and eat like they will die tomorrow. - Plato
And anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it. - D. H. Lawrence