Repeat adventures in Italy have given me insights into ‘the Italian way’, but on my first trip to Sicily – a two-week circumnavigation of the island with my mother and an Italian-speaking GPS – it’s immediately clear Italy’s southernmost region turns it up to 11.
Like Sicily’s incredibly vivid arancia rossa (blood orange), the region’s characteristic flavours are concentrated, distilled into an island measuring 25,460 square kilometres. Everything seems louder, more pronounced, more in-your-face.
Besides an overabundance of prickly pears and The Godfather souvenirs, here’s what makes Sicily so Sicilian:
1. They do the Passeggiata.
The Passeggiata is to Italians what Vegemite is to Australians: you’re born doing it. The best place in Sicily to observe the phenomenon of evening promenading is Trapani. Night after night the locals trot out plenty of attitude – but never the same outfit twice – while doing multiple laps of Via Garibaldi and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The point of the Passeggiata is not to actually go anywhere, but to see and be seen. Like the word allora, it defies explanation.
2. There’s a beach scene.
La spiaggia (beach) is broadly defined as a patch of pebbles or a stretch of sand. Arguably the best white-sand beach resort in Sicily is Cefalu, where overbaked, crisp-skinned nonnas flaunt their life experience in teeny bikinis.
3. There’s other great old stuff.
Some old stuff in Sicily is really new stuff that just looks like old stuff. Call it rustic if you’re a romantic, or run-down if you’re a realist. It’s all Greek to me. Yes, the really old stuff is.
Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world, with Sicily boasting six, including the Archaeological Area of Agrigento. The Greek colony of Akragas (now Agrigento) was one of the greatest cities of the ancient Mediterranean world. Today, you can still walk the talk in the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), a monumental row of Doric temples – some remarkably intact – flanked by century-old olive groves.
The archaeological museum on Lipari houses an impressive collection of grave goods dating back to the Aeolian island’s ‘classical Greek’ heyday in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Marvel at the survival of splendid Attic red-figure pottery and chuckle at the first ‘situation comedy’ character types represented by expressive miniature terracotta masks.
“Lines on the forehead signify a reflective, meditative character; their absence, an empty-headed person. Lowered eyebrows and half-closed eyes are a sign of kindness and gentleness,” says the signage explaining the Athenian New Comedy theatrical masks that predate the Golden Age of Botox.
4. They drive like they’re in the Targa Florio Classic.
The train system in Sicily is patchy, so get behind the wheel and strap yourself in for an interesting ride. Here’s how to navigate the road rules like a local:
• If the scenery looks blurry, it’s because the standard speed limit on the autostrade (highways) is 130km/h.
• Why waste time driving around the mountain when you can drive straight through it? Impatience being the mother of invention, the tunnels along the autostrade are a feat of Sicilian engineering.
• Traffic lights will slow you down. They are just a suggestion.
• If a parking spot (designated or otherwise) isn’t big enough, it’s not a problem. Stick your nose into the space and park on a perpendicular angle to the adjacent cars. Shrug your shoulders and utter “Eh” as you walk away. If your car isn’t dented or scratched, you’re not doing it properly.
5. They speak with their hands.
This can be useful if you don’t have the language. However, mention disgraced former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to your chatty taxi driver while on the autostrada and hands-free takes on a whole new meaning.
6. It’s an island.
Fish swim around it, which means fresh seafood in anyone’s language. Except for the frozen prawns (Eh).
Il Saraceno Ristorante in Cefalu does a delicious spaghetti with clams and mussels. Reserve a table on the terrazza sul mare, a timber deck that extends over the rocks to the sea, at sunset and listen to the gently lapping waves while you watch the fireball-red sun disappear behind the Tyrrhenian Sea.
7. It’s a celebrity hotspot.
Celebrity-spotting is a summer sport in Taormina during the annual concert series at the spectacularly sited Teatro Greco (ancient Greek theatre). The venue attracts international performers, including Patti Smith and Mark Knopfler in 2013.
A regular visitor to Sicily’s poshest town is Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr, who owns the hotel Villa Angela.
We spot his ex, Patsy Kensit, and her two sons (by Kerr and Liam Gallagher) having lunch at the next table at a shady trattoria off the tourist beat. She’s in good company: the restaurant’s brag wall of famous diners features Robert De Niro (‘Vito Corleone’ in The Godfather II), Franco Zeffirelli, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and John Malkovich.
“The clams were amazing!” Patsy gushes to the nonna in charge, who responds by holding the English actor in an affectionate headlock between a hirsute armpit and a grandmotherly bosom.
Sure, Sicily can sometimes feel like hard work, but if you embrace her, she’ll hug you back. What’s not to love about that?
Get an eyeful of Sicily in my Gallery.
La Finestra Sulla Valle B&B
B&B Alla Marina