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Sizzling Sicily

History, heat, and heart-stopping views. Oh, and plenty of pizza!

Sicily's landscape is often harshly rugged; its coastline soothing sweeps of golden beaches and warmly inviting waters.

But that is only the beginning. It is an island yet, somehow, it feels like a separate country. The way Sicily infiltrates your senses is profound: after a week there, we found ourselves talking about 'going back to Italy', when all we really meant was Rome.

Sicily is an enigma; a riddle wrapped by sparkling beaches and terrifying cliffs. It is shot through by ancient legends and webbed with more modern mysteries.

They even eat differently there.

An unlikely favourite, this fruit grows on the ubiquitous cacti, Fichi d'India, known in other places as prickly pear, and seen everywhere inland.

And, yes, that is a gum tree you see in the background (above). They are everywhere too, maybe brought back by Italian-Australians when visiting. Who knows? Some say they were planted in the 1930s to dry out wetlands as a means of eliminating malaria. Not everyone knows that this disease was a major killer in southern Italy until mosquitoes and their breeding grounds were eradicated in the 1950s. 

Most people who, like me, have not been brought up to eat these, can't quite see the point of them. Pun intended.

You certainly need a love for their vaguely strawberry-flavoured flesh to find the courage to brave those hair-like spines - because they really hurt. Just imagine peeling all these! Yet Sicilians love this fruit.

The famous European 18th-century author, Goethe, called Sicily the 'clue to everything' about Italy, but what did he mean by that?

I think it goes something like this: Sicily is Italy magnified. It's a more vibrant Italy. More colourful, more real, more authentic, maybe. It is Italy-plus, standing firm on thousands of years of civilisation and many invaders. It is separate, yet washed by three seas - the Tyrrhenian, Mediterranean and Ionian seas. Read more....

This kneeling-running symbol turns up everywhere, and it stands (if that is the right word!) for the triangular island's three capes - north-east, south and west. 

More 'Italian' than Italy? Maybe, however most locals speak an ancient dialect, called Sicilian, with different words, accents and pronunciation. Watch out for them on signs and menus - and remember its proper name is really Sicilia.

Above, is Castellammare al Golfo on the northern coast, and there's the castella (castle) located protectively at the entrance to the port and its city.

Local artisans craft beautiful objects from ancient olive trees, and sell them to tourists from roadside stalls. It is said some of the oldest olive trees on Sicily are near Agrigento in the south of the island. We visited that area to see an amazing landmark, so read on, and watch for it in the video.

This is Scopello, with a side view of the faraglione, or limestone 'stacks' as the locals call them. Scroll up to see them again from another angle. A former tuna fishing village, Scopello is small, but so stunning that the tiny beaches have featured in several movies and fashion shoots.

As in many countries, tourism has radically changed many parts of Sicily. Mondello, close to Palermo, was an ancient fishing town (tuna again). In fact it was an unsightly malarial marshland. Not until the beginning of the 20th century when a local nobleman had the swamp drained, was its future assured. The grand building above, the 1910 Liberty-style former bathhouseAntico Stabilimento Balneare, is now a restaurant and spa hotel.

Today - if the waterfront with its rows of umbrellas and chairs and sun lounges is anything to judge from - the town is a busy tourist venue.

Sicilian food varies in more ways than just prickly pear consumption. At lunchtime, we did the only sensible thing and followed the locals to a queue snaking out of a streetside eatery.

Inside, there were so many customers that it was almost impossible to see the glass-fronted counters packed with the various foods we could choose. The signs weren't much help either, so it was more point-and-nod, or 'I'll have what they're having'. Many things were familiar, but there were some new and interesting options such as timballo de pasta and sciacchiata, see the sign above.

Ordering followed the usual (and initially confusing) Italian method of telling the cashier what you would be buying, paying for it, and only then joining the queue and taking your precious receipt to the counter where the food was passed to you. Seating was at a premium too, of course, but hey - we were in Sicily, at the beach, and it was all good.

And, yes, there was a gelato bar in there too, with umpteen flavours. Ours came complete with the bonus of a mini ice cream upturned on top! We certainly needed something to cool us as by then the temperature was 33C even though it was only the beginning of June.

Here, that grand old bathhouse is backdropped by Mount Pellegrino which Goethe, in his book Travels in Italy, described as the most beautiful promontory in the world. Those round concrete structures you can see on the hillside are the four hairpins on the head-spinningly steep Via Monte Ercta which leads to a magnificent scenic lookout across the bay.

Two icons of Sicily come together (above): lushly flowering shrubs and a Vespa scooter. More of the latter soon.

Brilliant cerise bougainvillea, in full bloom, thrives in this Mediterranean climate, loving that hot sunshine.

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Did you learn this joke-jingle at school? 'Long-legged Italy, kicked little Sicily, out into the middle of the Mediterranean Sea'. 

It's a ditty to help children to realise where Sicily is. However it's rather appropriate as Sicily has spent much of its history being 'kicked around' by various invited and uninvited nations. The island's location at the crosshairs of three seas certainly played a part in its destiny through the ages.

Anyone and everyone has owned or requisitioned real estate here over many centuries: Greeks, Carthinagians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians and then the Aragonese from northern Spain. Sicily only became part of the Italian kingdom in 1861.

As part of Magna Grecia, some of its temples, built several centuries BC, are bigger and better than those in Greece itself, we were told. And then of course there are also Roman ruins.

Cefalù (pronounced Chefa-LU) began as a Greek city and followed the pattern of occupation by other nations from there, like most other Sicilian outposts. That high point you can see above, provided the town with a natural defence. Unimaginatively, it is called La Rocca (the rock) and it is possible to climb to the summit for great views over the town and bay,  and include a visit to Diana's Temple.

Cefalù's beaches are like most others on the northern coast of Sicily, with lavish stretches of golden sands and good waters for swimming. Understandably, they are very popular with beach-goers, and the towns keep busy serving gelati and pizze and all the other things hungry holidaymakers want.

I promised you Vespas!

Our visit to Cefalù coincided with a 'tour of the three capes' - well, that's how my rudimentary Italian translated the signs around the town. It was a holiday weekend and this was just one of scores of bikes parked near the waterfront park. The Polizia was there in force (my guess mainly to enjoy the excitement of the event) and the riders and their bikes were kitted out in full biking gear covered with logos and advertising.

The cobbled streets in old towns are atmospheric and the tiny lanes of Cefalù had many cafes and bars, as well as shops ideal for browsing for clothes and souvenirs. In this town, though, vehicles and scooters also use the tiny spaces with makes for a slightly more hair-raising shopping experience!

Yes, we had to get to the food eventually.

Count yourself lucky if you have a super sweet tooth, as Sicilian pastries and confectionery will be perfect for you. Cannoli is one of the less sweet options with its winning combo of creamy and crispy as its enticement. The pastry tubes are deep-fried ahead of time and, for maximum crunch-appeal, they are kept waiting until the last minute before the filling is piped into them.

Every town has pastryshops and confectioners showcasing the pastries and frutta martorana, tiny realistic marzipan fruit, for which Sicily is justly famous. Their kaleidoscopic beauty seem symbolic of this flamboyant island, and a plate of these is always a popular gift.

Because of the island's multicultural history, eating here is always a fun experience.

End of service and the tired chef gets a breath of fresh air and makes a phone call. The sign proudly announces that this place has the best takeaway seafood in Ortigia, in southern Sicily. That part is in English, so perhaps British visitors beat a path here for fish and chips!

In an island surrounded by water which is rich in all sorts of seafood, it is certain you will find many fish and seafood dishes on any menu, with some places like this one specialising in it.

What is 'typical' Sicilian food? This may help you.....

On a cold day in a market in Palermo, Sicily, this was the ultimate comfort food, its fragrance wafting through the alleys of stalls. Irresistible!

Sicily's southern coast is just a hundred or so kilometres from the northernmost tip of Africa, so it is no surprise that continent has influenced the cuisine. Often you will see signs like this advertising the fact that couscous is being served here 'today'.

Another Moorish addition to recipes was agrodolce or sweet-sour flavours, and you will see these in sauces or savoury dishes to which fruits, dried or fresh, honey or sugar has been added.

Sicily's hot Mediterranean climate makes for ideal growing conditions for many of the staples of Italian cuisine. These tomatoes are doubly interesting. The tag saying where they have been grown reveals they have come from the town which is widely believed to be the hub  of the Mafiosi.

And of course the breads: panini, focaccia, pizza, are always available, along with other snacks most of the rest of the world has already learned to love.

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One day we took a drive across the island from near Palermo in the north to Realmonte in the south to see a fascinating and unusual landform. The name means the 'stairs of the Turks'....

...and legend has it that this was the way - by literally climbing the 'stairs' - that the Saracens (Turkish pirates) gained access to the island to commit their ransacks over the centuries.

The cliff's limestone and clay mixture makes for a blinding effect against the clear cobalt blue waters of the Mediterranean.  

The effect of stairs continues into the water as a rocky reef, ideal for beachgoers to enjoy without the climb.

When you've made the thirsty climb back to the road and your car, luckily there is this place to relax in while you enjoy the view far below.

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History keeps popping up in many parts of Sicily. Take a bus for the easy way to explore the various ruins in what is called the 'valley of the temples' in the vicinity of Agrigento, about twenty minutes' drive from the Scala dei Turchi.

The area has been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997 and the valley (which is really a ridge) has seven temples, all built around the fifth century BC. If you know your architecture, you will notice they are in the Doric style, and well worth spending a day visiting. 

You might call them ruins, but for buildings constructed 2500 years ago on an island known for invaders and earthquakes, you have to agree they are holding up pretty well.

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Just by way of contrast, the Greeks did not have it all covered when it came to places of worship.

Just south of Palermo, Sicily's capital, at Monreale, this Norman-Byzantine cathedral, begun in 1174 is ornately decorated inside using tiny glass mosaics on a gold background. No pictures can do it justice. It has to be seen to be appreciated fully and is said to be one of the most stunning places of worship in the world.

Even though it is tucked in between other buildings, its exterior is also embellished with carving and coloured inlay, and if you sense it looks a little Eastern, then you are right. The architectural cultural mix is Norman-French, Byzantine and Arab.

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From worship to wine. If you return from Agrigento to Palermo, do take the wine route, probably called Strado del Vino on your map.

This area, Terre Sicane, has been called  is called The Golden Triangle of Sicilian wine growing. The area is also said to be one of the largest wine growing regions in Europe. The agriculture includes olive trees, vineyards, wheat fields, prickly pears, and vegetable gardens, making it a fascinating place for food and wine-lovers to visit.

One small town in the area obviously has a serious interest in wine.

If you drive, as we did, you will see many small villages like this that, in the afternoon heat, appear deserted. Look carefully though, and you will see that someone here in Siculiana is watching.

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Back to the north near Bagheria outside of Palermo where we were based for a few days.....

......and one evening we zigzagged up a steep hill for this view. Cape Town? No, we dined at a pizzeria overlooking Porticello and the mountains to the east. 

Oleanders are another shrub that brightens the sometimes harsh views on this island. Here at Porticello we are looking at Cape Zafferano.

And it is a busy day down at Porticello beach, too, as we sip camparis in one of the lunch places at the edge of the sand.

Across the tip of the peninsula, Aspra is bustling too in the late-afternoon sunshine.

It's a bigger town as the number of boats show....

...and the esplanade....

.....has a fun feel to it. For all ages.

Here is the drinks trolley getting into place....

...and my new friend the barman took a moment to pose and show off his apron with the Sicilian version of ''see no evil...etc.'

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Let's finish with food, as any good Sicilian would agree is the best idea - unless a digestivo is on offer.

This is not a digestivo, but a most unusual aperitivo served as an automatic starter to any meal at Don Ciccio Trattoria in Bagheria, an eastern area of PalermoWe are instructed to shell the hardboiled egg and eat it as we sip the sticky wine. OK, we did. It was unusual.

In keeping with the Mafia-esque name, there are plenty of pictures on Don Ciccio's wall. The place was packed, but there was no sinister feelings, just good food - mainly a variety pastas in rich slurpy sauces. Because of this, we were each handed a paper 'bib' to protect ourselves from splashes. Great idea!

Another night we returned to Bagheria because it claims that this is where stuffed-crust pizzas originated. True or not, the one we shared was certainly good, and that thick crust you can see is stuffed to oozing with melted cheese. Deliciosa!

Let's finish on a sweet note. Cassata is a Sicilian specialty. To get an idea of what it is, think of it as an over-the-top dessert conceived by a sugarholic; a sponge cake decorated by Gaudi, with baroque additions.

That's how it looks.

In cooking terms the cake is moistened with fruit juice or liqueurs, layered with ricotta cheese and chocolate chips, then covered with marzipan, colored icing, and decorative designs. It can be topped with candied fruit just to add to the effect.

And then, as if you needed anything else with your after-dinner espresso - no milky coffee after 10am, remember you are in Italy -  there are tiny biscuits and wafers, balls and nibbles.

 

And don't forget the frutta martorana, those tiny realistic marzipan fruit. Their kaleidoscopic beauty seems symbolic of the colour and vibrancy of this flamboyant island. 

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Finally, at the airport we say a sad farewell to this island. The panorama in the departures hall sums up Palermo and much of Sicily.

Goethe whispers in our ears: 'To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.'

We have certainly picked up some more clues on this trip ....but I think we will need a few more visits to understand this complex place entirely!

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Read more about Sicily....

Fun facts about Sicily....

More information about Sicily...

*****

Text and images: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

Sally & Gordon travelled to, and stayed in, Sicily independently. All opinions are their own.

 

 

 

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