Dip into the melting pot

Sicily has more Greek temples than Greece, a bustling city and a lot of wine. Gail Simmons drinks it all in

Sicily, it is often said, is a land of extremes. I put this cliché to the test as I follow a twisting road uphill through ilex and pine woods to the town of Erice, perched at 2,500ft on Sicily's west coast. This is the mountain where successive civilisations of Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans worshipped their goddesses of love.

Sicily, it is often said, is a land of extremes. I put this cliché to the test as I follow a twisting road uphill through ilex and pine woods to the town of Erice, perched at 2,500ft on Sicily's west coast. This is the mountain where successive civilisations of Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans worshipped their goddesses of love.

Today, cloaked in fog, mythical Erice feels like misty Edinburgh. The history of the place envelops me as I climb up through the town, past Punic bastions and medieval streets, to the site of the ancient temple.

Sitting in a sunless Giardino del Balio, it's hard to see why the goddesses chose this gloomy spot to be worshipped. I'm about to leave when a miracle takes place. The mist clears and I can see down, past the domes and terracotta roofs of the town, to the sun-burnished coastline and shimmering sea far below. Erice now seems like a little corner of heaven.

Magical Erice, though, is a far cry from my first experience of Sicily, over 20 years ago. Two weeks in a beach resort near Taormina passed in a blur of breathless heat, Hawaiian Tropic sun lotion and Marsala wine, though I was dimly aware of the ancient towns and classical remains beyond the beaches.

I now know that Sicily has more Greek temples than Greece itself and, as if to atone for past ignorance, I now find myself on an isolated hill a few miles inland from Erice. Here, majestically sited between Monte Barbaro and Monte Bernardo, is the solemn Doric temple of Segesta. Ranked in antiquity alongside the greatest cities of the Mediterranean, Segesta was sacked and abandoned, leaving 36 golden columns, pitted and worn by two and a half millennia of wind and rain, but still holding its pediment proudly aloft.

Climbing the slopes of Monte Barbaro above the temple, I seat myself in the semicircle of the ancient rock-hewn theatre and gaze out over empty, herb-scented country to the Tyrrhenian Sea beyond. I can imagine fleets of Roman galleons gliding towards the shore.

For where the Greeks went, the Romans followed. It was the Romans who transformed the magnificent Greek theatre at Taormina. And it was a Roman bigwig who built himself a 50-room villa at Piazza Armerina, employing North African craftsmen to lay the Empire's finest mosaic floor: colourful depictions of hunting scenes, animals and the world's first bikini.

I leave Segesta's lonely hillside and head 40 miles east to Palermo. Sicily's capital is now a favourite on the no-frills airline circuit, but visitors have been coming here for 3,000 years. The original Phoenician city of Ziz became the Greek Panermos, and the Arab Bal'harm turned into today's Palermo. Byzantines, Normans and Spaniards all passed through, each leaving their mark on the city's history. Sicily is on the cusp of Europe and Africa, and for me it is the Arabs who left the most evocative trace. The Capella Palatina in the Palazzo Reale, built by the Normans on the site of the Emir's palace, is an astonishing fusion of Arab and Norman styles, with dazzling gold mosaics and a carved Islamic ceiling. And the cathedral at Monreale, a short bus ride from the centre, is a triumphant blend of Arab, Byzantine and Romanesque.

But it's not just the architecture that gives Palermo a Moorish air. Wandering the food markets that line the city's back streets, it's as if I've stumbled into a Moroccan souk. Listening to the throaty cries of the traders, vying with wailing sirens and barking dogs, it seems the Arabs never really left Palermo.

The food also hints at Sicily's cultural stew: Mediterranean, but with distinct flavours from other civilisations thrown in. I plump for pasta alle sarde, an Arab-influenced dish with pine nuts, raisins, fennel and sardines, which I wash down with a glass of Bianco di Sicilia, grown in the island's volcanic soils.

Sicily is, after all, the Italian region with the most vineyards. There is real quality and renewed interest there now. Mick Hucknall has vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna; Gerard Depardieu is another investor. They're doing their bit to shake off Sicilian wine's reputation for quantity rather than quality.

As a digestivo (and for old time's sake) I finish with an amber-coloured Marsala. In many British households this wine has found itself relegated to the kitchen. But it was an Englishman, John Woodhouse, who, landing in Marsala in the 1770s, first recognised its similarities to sherry and port, and exported it to the world.

The following morning I set off on the coast road towards Marsala, Sicily's westernmost city. From Trapani I veer south on the Via del Sale. As I pass the smooth white heaps of salt drying alongside the road, I'm waylaid by signs pointing to the island of Mozia. Once, the thriving Phoenician colony of Mothya was linked to the mainland by a causeway. This is now submerged but still visible at low tide. Today a boat chugs out into the lagoon and leaves me on the island, utterly deserted but for half-buried ruins, whispering rushes and shady Aleppo pines. The 1880s villa of Joseph Whitaker, another Marsala wine baron, now houses Sicily's largest collection of Phoenician objects.

A land of extremes? Well, this is certainly a world away from my teenage experience of Sicily. The country is fast becoming Europe's most stylish destination. These days, Sicily is a little less Hawaiian Tropic, and a little more Mediterranean cool.

Getting there

Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies twice daily from London Stansted to Palermo; British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.britishairways.com) flies from London Gatwick to Catania four times a week; Air Malta (0845 607 3710, www.airmalta.com) flies three times a week from London Gatwick to Catania.

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