Sicily: The Mediterranean Heart – part 2

Cefalu Catherdral's Christ Pantocrator Mosaic by The Yorck Project
Cefalu Catherdral's Christ Pantocrator Mosaic by The Yorck Project

Sicily was occupied by Arabs for 250 years, until the Norman Roger I captured the island.  His son Roger II became the first King of Sicily ruling from 1130-1154.  His reign was characterized by openness to people of different beliefs including the Muslims and Orthodox Christians.  And he built several great churches including the royal Palatine Chapel in Palermo and a large church at the tiny port of Cefalu.  These constructions blend Norman, Byzantine, Romanesque and Arabic elements into the simple elegance of the Sicilian style of that era and feature stunning religious mosaics such as this one of Christ Pantocrater (righteous judge and lover of mankind) at Cefalu.

Roger II’s grandson William II built the great church at Monreale, considered the masterpiece of Sicilian Norman architecture.  William was the last of the Norman rulers and the following centuries say Hohenstaufen (German), Aragonese-Catalan (Spanish) and Bourbon (French) kings.  During this period of foreign rule, the Sicilian culture began to emerge as a result of the influx of Italians during the Norman period.

In the late 17th century the Black Plague,  a series of Etna eruptions and finally a devastating earthquake shook Sicily and destroyed the cities of Catania and Acireale on the eastern coast of the island.  What was built from the ruins in both places is a stunning flowering of Baroque creativity which in the case of Catania has warranted the UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Catania Cathedral by Louisvhn
Catania Cathedral by Louisvhn

History and architecture are certainly a major part of the appeal of Sicily, but its geology is equally important.  Dominating the eastern half of the island is Mt. Etna, the world’s most active volcano.  Because the pressure from beneath the surface is relieved regularly the volcano is not the time bomb that Mt. Vesuvius is.  So the threat to life is not significant and approaching the smoking cauldrons is a relatively safe and common activity for tourists.  The massive mountain which has resulted from the outflow covers over 450 square miles and is over almost 11,000 feet tall.

The culture of Sicily has long focused on food.  The fertility of the valleys and challenges of the terrain have created a culture of independent spirit and creativity.  While it is certainly possible to find haute cuisine on the island, the most famous items are often served by street vendors.  The most famous street food of Sicily is arancina, a fried rice ball flavored with saffron and filled with meat sauce and vegetables.  Other popular items are stewed octopus, sea-urchins and snails.  And for those with a liberal SOA (Sense of Adventure) you could try the Caldume, frittola (fried animal parts left over when the butcher is done) or Stigghiola (grilled beef entrails) both of which are liberally spiced.

Sicilan Blood Oranges by allentchang
Sicilan Blood Oranges by allentchang

The beaches of Sicily attract thousands of Europeans each summer and each has its unique character.  Below Taormina in the area around Giardini Naxos is a popular and scenic bay filled with swimmers and sunners offering nice restaurants and facilities to suit any taste.  Or you can take a cable car down from Taormina to Lido Mazzaro to another lovely beach.  For an urban beach you can hardly do better than Mondello near Palermo.  Harder to get to but accessible from Palermo or Trapani is San Vito do Capo at the end of mountainous northwest corner of Sicily.  And for a black beach on the island of Vulcano an excellent choice would be Spiaggia Sabbie Nere, surrounded by the dramatic Aeolian islands (where the ancients traded for obsidian).  The list of Sicilian beaches is endless, but that should get you started.

Finally, there is natural Sicily.  This is an island of mountains and valleys with ancient villages dotting the landscape and offering stunning views of the island Mt. Etna made.  The most popular area for discovering nature is Etna itself.  You can take a 4-wheeler journey through the lunar landscape of the craters.  Or you can hike the trails and see villages that are from a byg0ne era.  Another popular area for getting close to nature are the Peloritani Mountains near Messina in northernmost Sicily.  Besides Beaches the Aeolian islands off the north coast of Sicily and the Egadi islands to the east of Trapani offer nature in dramatic settings.

Sicily is a great destination to touch history, to see beauty both natural and man-made and to relax and enjoy the wealth that nature provides.  If you haven’t been there already maybe it’s time!

Monreale Mosaics by tango7174
Monreale Mosaics by tango7174

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