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Sicily

Photo © dpedler

Travel Guide Europe Italy Sicily

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Introduction

Beautiful Cefalu

Beautiful Cefalu

© All Rights Reserved Gurt

The island of many contrasts and colours fiercely fought over down the centuries, living to tell the tale today through all its glorious battle scars, cast into the sea like a jewel. Sicily sparkles in the hot mezzagiorno sun off the southern boot of Italy, reminding us all the time, to travel a little bit further down the coast until we reach the straits of Messina.

Over the years Sicily has found many different forms of fame such as the homeland of the Mafia and Europe’s most active volcano (Mount Etna) to name but a few.

Many films have been shot in and around the Island such as Francis Ford Copolla’s Il Padrino (The Godfather), as well as the films Stromboli and Il Postino (The Postman), filmed in the Aeolian Island of Salina and on the island where you can find the active Stromboli.

From mountain peaks to breathtaking coasts, UNESCO World Heritage Site to some of Europe's best wines it's all squeezed into one island. For people looking for a gastronomic tour, Sicily is home to some of the best seafood in the Mediterranean basin and historical dishes that have formed the backbone of the cuisine of this land.

The hot southern sun produces rich ripe wines, which when tasted on a warm balmy night under a deep sapphire sky is sure to become a lasting memory.

For those wanting room service 24/7 and large hotel complexes catering for every need, ultra modern facilities and English beer on tap then you will not find it in Sicily. What you will find is an authentic experience of island life coupled with some awe inspiring sights, from Greek temples to Norman Cathedrals, Roman Villas to quaint hilltop towns. All this incorporated into some of the best food and wine you will taste in Southern Italy today.

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Geography

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean (followed by Sardinia and Cyprus) and roughly in the centre of it. It is only narrowly separated from Calabria, Italian mainland, by 3.1 kilometres, but they still aren't connected by a bridge. There are also a number of lesser islands, like the Aeolian Islands off the northeast coast, among which you find Stromboli which is world known for its extraordinarily frequent volcano eruptions (usually at least 3 eruptions per hour!), the Egadian Islands off Trapani, Mozia near Marsala with Phoenician remains and Ustica and Pantelleria in the Palermo and Trapani areas respectively. Sicily is slightly larger than 25,000 km2 and has approximately 5.5 million inhabitants. Nearly all of them are catholics. The unemployment rate on Sicily is quite high, almost 25% in the worst periods (not taking criminal work into account, which is assumed lowers this percentage quite a bit).

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Sights and Activities

Mount Etna

Mt. Etna, Sicily

Mt. Etna, Sicily

© All Rights Reserved Rika884

Mount Etna is the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy, and also one of the most active in the world. It is situated on the eastern part of the island of Sicily, near the city of Catania. The mountain is almost always in a state of eruption the last couple of years. The best way to get onto the mountain is from the south, via a road that leads up to the mountain. At an altitude of 1,900 metres, there is a parking lot. There used to be a cable-car going up the mountain, but this was destroyed and hasn't yet been rebuilt. From the parking lot most trails lead to the Valley of Oxes (Valle del Bove). The first of the four active craters is not that far away. There are buses going up the mountain until the parking lot, and there are a couple of tour agencies in Toarmina offering tours to the mountain.

Agrigento

The oldest and one of the best known historical sites in Sicily, Agrigento hosts a collection of ancient structures, the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), the Archaeological Park and the medieval town itself. Also well worth a visit are the Hellenistic-Roman Quarter and the Museo Archeologico (Archaelogical Museum).
The Valle dei Templi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits on a windy bluff and has a series of ancient temples and old city walls. The structures are part of the remains of the ancient city of Akragas. The city was founded as a lookout post to warn of Carthaginian invasions in 581 BC by settlers from Gela and Rhodes. The city changed hands many times over the centuries, from Greek, to Carthaginian in 406 BC, to Roman in 210 BC, to Saracen at the start of the 9th century and then to the Normans in the 11th century. In the 7th century there was a mass evacuation of the city from the ancient settlement to the adjacent hill which is the site of the modern city, it is suspected by historians that the reason for the move was to try and defend against the threat of the Saracen invading armies. But it was to no avail. The city of Agrigento did not change much from the 9th to the 19th century until the western half of the city was built. In the 20th century the expansion of the town slipped back down into the valley and in the later half development effected the appearance of the valley. There has been many accusations that the heritage of this historical site has been sacrificed for profit and development.

The Valley of the Temples contains several Doric temples which despite the name, stand on a ridge which makes them highly visible from the surrounding area and to home bound sailors through the centuries. Even today they are light nightly throughout the year as a beacon to those approaching the coast. The temples include the “Temple of Hercules”, “Temple of Concord”, “Temple of Juno”, Temple of Olympian Zeus”, “Temple of Disoscuri” and the “Temple of Asclepios. The temples are in various states of ruin from a few standing columns to reasonably complete, restored and strengthened structures. The curse of the valley has been the ravages of time, earthquakes and the invading armies who have one after another tried to destroy the structures. Interestingly the best preserved is that of the temple of Concord, after the invasions of the cartheginians the christians converted it to a temple for there faith, hence it was never totally destroyed.

With the hot sun and sirocco winds, the heat in the valley of the temples can be unbearable, if visiting at this time of the year avoid the mid day sun. Please take plenty of water, ensure that you have protection against the sun and on windy days a cotton scarf for your face to protect against the wind blown sand. Also it is advisable to try and beat the crowds and the heat and get to the valley for opening time at 8:30am or arrive in the afternoon before closing time at 6:00pm.

Selinunte

If Selinunte were as well served by transport as Agrigento or Siracusa, it might vie with them for popularity. It is a really great (in both senses) site for Greek remains with (like Agrigento) one reconstructed temple and many ruins. In fact it is only served by an occasional local bus from Castelvetrano, whose punctuality - or rather lack of it - could be a thing of legend. However those who get there will not be disappointed and there are numerous reasonably cheap places to stay in the adjoining village of Marinella.

Segesta

This is an archaeological site in onrth-west Sicily reachable from Palermo by car but only easily from Trapani by public transport. There is a Doric Temple, one of the best anywhere, and near to it by private bus an amphitheatre and the remains of a mosque and a castle.

Segesta Doric temple

Segesta Doric temple

© All Rights Reserved davidx

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Events and Festivals

  • The Festa di mandorlo in fiori (almond blossom festival) takes place in Agrigento at the end of the second week in February.
  • Taormina Film Festival is, as the name suggests, a film festival in the city of Taormina, usually held in July. It attracts celebrities, and new films are being shown in a congress hall or, even better, in the majestic greek theater that lies on the hill with amazing view of the nearby beach-town Giardini-Naxos, which looks beautiful from a distance at night. The theater is also used in the subsequent months for music concerts. Most artists are typically Italian, but at least one "big name" appears every year. Elton John performed there September 2010, for instance.

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Weather

Sicily benefits from its southern Mediterranean location as far as the weather it experiences. The mild climate is defined by hot, dry summers followed by mild winters with little rain. However due to the different terrains and the mountain ranges the weather can be very varied across the island. In general the higher you climb into the mountains the cooler it gets and also more rain is experienced. This is due to moisture in the air being forced upwards, forming clouds and then falling as rain.

The coastal areas are where you will find the warmest weather in general, as the sea moderates the climate. The island is sometimes effected by the warm Saharan sirocco (desert) winds which can raise the temperatures considerably, this is usually experienced between the months of April and September. The flat interiors and coastel regions experience hot dry summers, these can be sometimes with temperatures above 35 °C in the months of July and August. The evenings remain balmy and warm with humidity sometimes quite high.

The islands warm up nicely by April and stay hot through into October, however there is nothing to beat a crisp winter morning in the mountains for walking or skiing between these months. In fact the best months for walking are between November and March, also the island is much quieter and peaceful at these times of the year.

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Getting There

By Plane

The main airports serving Sicily are in Catania and Palermo:

1. Catania-Fontanarossa International Airport (CTA) is the main gateway to Catania if you are arriving or leaving by plane. Around 25 airlines serve the airport at the moment, though most of them only fly to one or a few cities. Currently, Catania-based Wind Jet has the most flights, including to Barcelona, Madrid, Malta, Milan-Linate, Moscow-Domodedovo, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Parma, Pisa, Rome-Fiumicino, Saint Petersburg, Tel Aviv, Turin, Venice and Verona. Other airlines include Transavia to Amsterdam, Thomson Airways to London, Brussels Airlines to Brussels, Aer Lingus to Dublin, Air Malta to Geneva, Air Berlin to Berlin, Munich and Zürich, Egyptair to Cairo, Luxor and Sharm el-Sheikh and several more airlines to cities lik Bucharest, Bratislava, Prague, Vienna, Pescara, Genoa and Naples.

To/from the airport
The airport is conveniently located close to the A19 motorway, which links Catania with Palermo and central Sicily, while the European route E45 runs to Syracuse in the south. A shuttle bus service provides transport into Catania city centre and the Central Train Station, while scheduled bus services to other parts of the island are also available direct from the airport.

2. Palermo Airport (PMO) is the main gateway to the northwest of the island. A few dozen of airlines serve the airport, and from late 2010, Ryanair will expand their services to Palermo from quite a few other European cities.

3. Trapani-Birgi Airport (TPS) offers flights to destinations throughout Europe. The bulk of flights is with Ryanair, which flies to/from Billund, Bologna, Bratislava, Brindisi, Brussels, Cagliari, Dublin, Eindhoven, Genoa, Gothenburg, Girona, Ibiza, Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden, Krakow, Liverpool, London, Maastricht, Madrid, Malta, Memmingen, Milan, Oslo, Paris, Perugia, Pisa, Rome, Trieste, Turin, Valencia, Venice, Weeze (Düsseldorf) and Stockholm.

By Boat

Malta

  • Virtu Ferries between both Pozzallo and Catania and Valetta. Services from Licata seasonal and just twice a week.

Tunesia

There are regular crossing to mainland Italy and Sardinia as well, for example with Moby Lines and Grimaldi Lines:

Mainland Italy and Sardinia

Neighbouring smaller islands

  • Ustica Lines between Pantelleria and Trapani, Porto Empedocie and Linosa and Lampedusa, Napels to Ustica Island, and Trapani to the Egadi Islands, Levanzo, Marettimo e Favignana.
  • SNAV Ferries between Napels and Eolian Islands (Stromboli, Panarea, Lipari, Vulcano, Alicudi, Filicudi, Salina).
  • Traghetti Siremar between Palermo and Ustica Island, Trapani to Egadi Islands, Levanzo, Marettimo, Favignana. Also Trapani to Pantelleria, Porto Empedocle to Pelagie Islands (Linosa and Lampedusa). And Milazzo (Sicily) to Eolie Islands (Stromboli, Panarea, Lipari, Vulcano, Alicudi, Filicudi, Salina) and Naples.

Messina Strait

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Getting Around

By Train

Most of Sicily's greater towns and villages can be reached by train, except for a major gap in the network between Castelvetrano and Agrigento in the southwest. The hubs in the Sicilean railroad network are Palermo and Caltanissetta. Trains are slow and not always particularly comfortable, but an excellent way to see the island. Furthermore, Palermo and the other cities on the northern shore have a very good connection to the mainland.

By Car

Car rental is recommendable if you feel like going off the beaten path and visit the smaller towns up in the mountains. These are much less influenced by tourism, meaning the menus are only in italian, there are just the locals and you, everything is cheaper and more genuine. Some real pearls can be found up in the mountains. Note that on most highways on Sicily you have to pay a small toll to access them.

By Bus

The busses can take you along most of the east coast, and sometimes also between Messina and Palermo (roughly speaking, the eastern and western ends of the north coast).

By Boat

Not a viable means of transport to get around. Sicily's ports offer numerous connections to the mainland and nearby islands, though.

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