This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
Sicily is distinct in so many ways from mainland Italy, of which it is an autonomous region. Washed by the waters of the Mediterranean, Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, this strategically placed ‘three-cornered isle’ has been a battleground for Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and other great powers of the ancient, medieval and early modern world.
Today, Sicily is perhaps most famous for food, wine, town-life, beaches and, unfortunately, its association with organised crime. For me, however, it is the diverse, unspoiled and monumentally impressive nature of its rural heritage that is its greatest attraction, although food and wine are a close second and third.
Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, grumbles petulantly at the eastern margins of Sicily, forever threatening to smother the towns, villages and farms that thrive upon its fertile soils. It was the combination of this good farmland and the strategic location that first drew ancient Greek and Phoenician colonists. To this day there is a Greek feel to the eastern half while the west sits upon more solid north African foundations.
I first visited in the late 1980s, having just graduated from university with no clear idea of what to do with my life. Within minutes of landing on the sun-scorched tarmac of Palermo airport, I was engulfed by the colours, sounds and organised chaos that typifies modern Sicily. I loved it. With its mix of Italian and African food, earthy red wine and well-preserved Greek, Roman and medieval architecture, the island is the ideal holiday location.
Within the hectic, car-filled streets of Palermo, Norman, Arabic and baroque buildings jostle for attention amid modern steel and glass. Notable treasures can be appreciated by the dedicated history tourist, including the 12th-century red-domed oriental roof of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, the fashionable square of Quattro Canti and the catacombs of the Convento dei Cappuccini (where mummified corpses of the city’s former elite are stacked in rows).
Away from the disfiguring and apparently uncontrolled property developments that blight suburban Palermo, sun-parched, rugged hills rise dramatically. Ancient cities hug the coastline while medieval stone villages, complete with villas, mansions and renaissance churches, cling precariously to the mountains
The diverse colonisers of ancient Sicily all left their cultural footprint upon the land. In Syracuse, I like to explore the atmospheric Greek theatre before wandering down to the shore where, between 215 BC and 213 BC, the townspeople resisted the might of republican Rome. The defence was aided by war machines invented by its famous inhabitant, philosopher Archimedes. His house, let alone his bath, has yet to be discovered archaeologically, but it is easy to imagine him running naked through the streets shouting ‘eureka’ to startled fellow citizens.
Elsewhere, in the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, a Greek colony once described as “the fairest city inhabited by mortals”, an energetic walk takes visitors past a dizzying array of classical temples. The imposing ruins of Selinunte –where column bases and decorated stonework lie in heaps like the discarded building blocks of a children’s toy – sit in majestic grandeur overlooking the sea.
Elsewhere the stone-paved streets and small open squares of Erice are beguiling, whilst at Cefalù the 12th-century religious splendour of the Norman cathedral and its golden wall mosaics is simply breath-taking.
My favourite place in Sicily, however, is Villa Romana del Casale, close to Piazza Armerina, a third-to fourth-century powerhouse with the finest mosaics to survive from the Roman world. Tourists flock to see mosaics depicting ‘bikini-wearing’ athletes. However it is the hunting mosaic, in which tigers, rhinos, boar and the fictional griffin are being pursued, that is the most spectacular.
Other floors depict chariot racing, then the premier sport in Rome, and scenes from Greek mythology including the labours of Hercules, and Odysseus with the Cyclops Polyphemus (shown confusingly with three eyes). We know nothing about the original villa owners, although many have speculated that they had imperial associations. Standing before these masterpieces, it is all too easy to believe you are an emperor yourself.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Spring is the best time to appreciate Sicily, although be careful to avoid Easter, unless you like big crowds and closed shops.
Sicily is served by three main airports: Palermo, Catania and Trapani. British Airways flies direct to Catania from London Heathrow or London Gatwick.
What to pack
A sun hat and a laid back attitude to road traffic.
What to bring back
Photographs, memories and olive oil – lots and lots of olive oil.
Villa Romana del Casale for some of the most stunning mosaics you’ll see – late Roman, very intricate & very beautiful
Loved it! Taormina beautiful, esp. Greek theatre. Local driver took us to Etna – wow! Montalbano or Godfather tours too
Selinunte Greek Temples, Modica and Ragusa for Baroque, Siracusa amphitheatres, Ortigia Duomo. All the food and wine
Dr Miles Russell is senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University. Read more about Miles’s experiences in Sicily at historyextra.com/sicily