Traveller's Guide: Sicily

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In the second of a six-part series produced in association with Footprint Travel Guides, Mary-Ann Gallagher celebrates an epic island

The island of Sicily floats off the toe of the boot of Italy, in the centre of the Mediterranean. This was the land of Persephone and Aphrodite for the ancient Greeks, who believed its rich pastures and miraculous natural beauty were endowed by the goddesses of fertility and love. Each succeeding wave of colonisers, from the Romans to the Spanish, have left their mark – physically, in the magnificent temples, palaces and churches, but also less tangibly in the island's unique language and traditions. The Arabs' subtle legacy is felt in the islanders' generous hospitality and the rich cuisine, and the Normans left golden cathedrals at Monreale and Cefalù.

Modern Sicily, however beguiling, is a flawed beauty. First impressions are intense, but paradoxical: beautiful and brutal, anarchic and serene, exuberant and insular, the island doesn't surrender its charms easily. Grinding poverty, institutionalised corruption and La Cosa Nostra (the Mafia) have taken a heavy toll, but the last decade or so has seen a remarkable renaissance. The historic centres of Palermo, Catania and Syracuse are being slowly restored; great swathes of the glorious landscape is now protected in nature reserves; and grassroots organisations have found the collective courage to stand up against the Mafia. The result is one of Europe's most complex and fascinating destinations.

Tourists have been coming to Sicily since Goethe first rhapsodised about the island two centuries ago, establishing Taormina as an essential stopover on the Grand Tour. Taormina is still Sicily's most captivating town, but the trio of Baroque beauties – Noto, Modica and Ragusa – in the south-west, and elegant seaside Cefalù to the north, are vying for its crown. Hilltop Erice, with its head quite literally in the clouds, is another contender, as is the little island of Ortigia at the historic heart of Syracuse.

For sheer sensory overload, make for the two biggest cities: Palermo, the capital, or Catania, its eternal rival. Each enjoys a spectacular natural setting: Palermo embraced by rocky headlands, and Catania at the foot of Mount Etna. Palermo might have the edge in terms of culture, with some excellent museums and a gilded opera house, but Catania's heady nightlife is second to none.

Respite from the frenzied cities is never far away. From the mountains and forests of the north, to the drowsy olive groves of the south, the Sicilian hinterland is spectacularly beautiful. Agriculture is still the main economic activity, but increasingly working farms are offering accommodation to visitors. These agriturismi run the gamut from sumptuous hotel-like properties with every imaginable amenity, to simple cottages at basic prices. Food prepared with locally grown produce is almost always available.

Sicilian Experience (00 39 0921 999 011; sicilianexperience.com), which aims to promote environmental awareness, is based in the village of Sant'Ambrogio, and offers a range of accommodation, plus tours of the surrounding mountains on foot or horse-back, as well as the opportunity to participate in traditional activities such as cheese-making and harvesting manna (the delectable sap produced by the ash tree). Alternatively, Think Sicily (020-7377 8518; thinksicily.com) offers a range of luxury villas, and can also arrange flights and car rental.

Some of the best hiking is to be had around Mount Etna, the largest volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. To reach the craters at the summit, you'll need to be accompanied by an official guide (such as Etna Trekking; 00 39 095 647877; etnatrekking.com, prices from €70 per person for a full-day trek), but there are fine hikes to be had on the lower reaches. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an island, Sicily and its satellites offer superlative opportunities for diving, particularly in Ustica (just off Palermo) and the Pelagie Islands. As for beaches, take your pick from the black volcanic sands of the Aeolian islands, or the long white strands at San Vito lo Capo, Cefalù, and along the southern coast.

The two main international airports are at Palermo and Catania. Palermo is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted, and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com) from Gatwick. Catania is served by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick and Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; thomsonfly.com) from Gatwick and Manchester. There is also a smaller airport at Trapani on the west coast, which is served by Ryanair three times a week from Luton.

Travelling from the UK by rail is a slow business, but of course there are superb opportunities for stopovers along the way from London St Pancras via Paris, Milan and Naples. Seat61.com is, as always, the best source of information.

Once there, getting around can be problematic due to poor investment in local infrastructure, although things have improved in recent years. Trains are generally slow, but are very useful as a connection between Palermo and Catania (which takes about four hours; trenitalia.com; from €12.30 one way). The huge number of bus companies and destinations can be bewildering for visitors: enquire at tourist offices for timetables. Roads vary considerably, with some fast and well-kept motorways and others pot-holed and reduced to single lines. Approach all forms of transport with a Sicilian shrug of the shoulders and don't expect to get anywhere fast.

Mary-Ann Gallagher is the author of the Footprint Travel Guide to Sicily. To receive a 50 per cent discount (excl P&P) off any Footprint Italia guidebook, visit footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde11 in the coupon code at checkout. Valid until the end of July.

Capital of chaos

Brace yourself for Palermo. The Sicilian capital doesn't just assault the senses – it bludgeons them. Ravaged for centuries by poverty and corruption, the old centre is still blighted by bomb damage from the Second World War and, destruction wrought by Mafioso speculators. But Palermo's fortunes have taken a turn for the better and the city is experiencing a revival. Baroque palazzi have been restored; designer hotels are springing up; and the city's restaurants are lauded around the world.

Must-see sights include the gilded Norman Palace with its jewel-like royal chapel, the Capella Palatina (00 39 091 705 6001; www.ars.sicilia.it; €9 for admission to chapel and Royal Apartments), and the mosaics at the 12th-century Cattedrale di Monreale (free to cathedral; €3 for treasury; €6 cloister). The 18th-century Palazzo Riso, now the contemporary art museum (00 39 091 320 532; palazzoriso.it; free), has been restored. But to really get under the skin of the city, make for its markets, with their displays of offal and gaping fish. Pick up the classic Palermitani snack pani cà meusa (veal spleen sandwich) from the friggitorie (fried-food stands); if you prefer something less meaty, try pannelle (chick pea fritters in a roll). Either way, you can soak up the street theatre.

To stay, choose among the new generation of designer B&Bs, such as BB22 (00 39 091 611 1610; bb22.it), where doubles cost from €110 or Attic 12 (00 39 091 564 7700; attic12.com) with doubles from €70. Or, go old school and splash out on the grand Art Nouveau Villa Igiea (00 39 091 631 2141; hoteligieapalermo.com) with its amazing sea views. Doubles are from €280, including breakfast.

Mafia-free tourism

According to a confederation of local business groups, organised crime accounts for approximately seven per cent of Italy's gross domestic product.

In Palermo, it is estimated that four of every five businesses pay pizzo (protection money) to the Mafia. Historically, those that stood up to the so-called "men of honour" – such as Palermitan clothing manufacturer Libero Grassi – were killed. But things have changed dramatically over the last few years.

The Addio Pizzo ("Goodbye Pizzo") organisation was established in 2004 to encourage Mafia-free commerce and support businesses that refuse to pay protection money. Its website ( addiopizzo.org) now lists almost 700 shops, restaurants, cafés and other businesses which have resisted the Mafia, all identified on a downloadable city map (also available in English). In 2010, the organisation set up Addio Pizzo Travel ( addiopizzotravel.it) which promotes travel to Mafia-free businesses around the island.

Libero Terra ("Free Land") is an organisation which works to return confiscated Mafia land back to local communities. Cooperatives farm the land, producing organic wine, pasta, oil and other goods, which are sold throughout Italy. The organisation offers a range of tours throughout Sicily (00 39 091 857 7655; ilgiustodiviaggiare.it), with accommodation at agriturismi on confiscated estates and meals prepared with their own produce. A five-day tour of western Sicily costs from €295 per person. You can pick up Libero Terra products at its Palermo shop at Piazza Castelnuovo 13 (00 39 091 322023).

Ancient legacy

The Greeks, the first in a long line of foreign rulers, loved Sicily best. They built as though their civilisation would last forever, and the island is still strewn with remarkable ruins which have survived for more than two millennia.

Siracuse, was once the most powerful city-state in Magna Graecia. The city preserves extensive ruins, including those of an enormous theatre which accommodated 15,000 spectators. Stay in the beautifully restored old quarter of Ortigia, or check in to the bijou hideaway Caol Ishka (00 39 093 169 057; caolishka.com), with doubles from €190, including breakfast, just outside the city next to a nature reserve, which combines ultra-stylish rooms with an excellent restaurant.

The lofty town of Taormina contains what must surely be the most beautiful Greek amphitheatre anywhere. A golden arc of stone, it is perched on a headland with Mount Etna herself providing an unforgettable backdrop. The city is packed with luxurious hotels and restaurants, but more affordable stand-outs include the Villa Schuler (00 39 0942 23481; hotelvillaschuler.com), with doubles from €142 including breakfast, and the restaurant a' Zammàra (00 39 0942 24408; www.zammara.it), where you can dine under the orange trees.

The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento (ancient Akragas) is the most impressive surviving temple complex outside mainland Greece. Erected between the Sixth and Fifth centuries BC, the site includes the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest Doric temple ever built. The best base here is the agriturismo Mandranova (00 39 393 986 2169; www.mandranova.it) set amid olive groves, which serves delicious farmhouse dinners. Doubles from €120, including breakfast.

Sicily goes lux

Sicily, for all its rustic charm, offers plenty for the luxury-loving traveller. Unsurprisingly, the chichi resort of Taormina, long a celebrity magnet, has the island's greatest concentration of premium accommodation, ranging from the Grand Hotel Timeo (00 39 0942 627 0200; grandhoteltimeo.com; doubles from €649, including breakfast) which has been receiving guests in its opulent salons since the mid-19th century to the waterfront Villa Sant'Andrea (00 39 0942 627 1200; hotelvillasantandrea.com; doubles from €430, including breakfast) in a classic Italian palazzo surrounded by gardens.

The island's biggest luxury resort is the 230-acre Rocco Forte Verdura Resort (00 39 0925 998001; verduraresort.com; doubles from €472, including breakfast), which boasts two 18-hole championship golf courses, six tennis courts and a 60m infinity pool. The Kempinski Giardino di Costanza Resort (00 39 092 367 5000; kempinski.com; doubles from €288, including breakfast) was one of the island's first luxury options, but remains hugely popular with discerning travellers for its private beach and outstanding restaurants .

For a more intimate experience, consider the Villa Neri Resort and Spa, which will open its palatial doors on the slopes of Mount Etna later this year (00 39 095 7703084; hotelvillaneri.it; special opening offer of doubles from €220, including breakfast).

Sicilian cuisine: the Med on a plate

Even in a country famed for its passion for food, the Sicilians stand out. The cuisine is rich and varied, combining local produce with an infusion of flavours bequeathed by Greeks, Normans, Spanish and Arabs. Few cuisines place such emphasis on the importance of fresh, seasonal produce, or so carefully cherish their traditional foods. Dining out is sheer pleasure, whether standing at a street stall in Palermo or Catania, or savouring the two-Michelin-starred delights of La Madia (corso Filippo Re Capriata 22; 00 39 0922 771443; ristorantelamadia.it) in Licata.

If you want to experience a Sicilian kitchen, several agriturismi offer cookery lessons, including Tenuta Stoccatello in Menfi (00 39 0925 195 5499; tenutastoccatello.it) which has doubles from €70 including breakfast, and Tenuta Cefalà (00 39 091 931545; tenutacefala.it; doubles from €90 including breakfast) just outside Palermo.

The undisputed doyenne of Sicilian cookery is Anna Tasca Lanza, who established a cookery school 30 years ago on the Regaleali Estate, which has been in her family since 1800 (00 39 380 754 1320; annatascalanza.com). It is now run by her daughter Fabrizia, and offers options, including five-day cookery holidays (from €2,000 per person including accommodation and meals) or day courses from €150 (minimum two people).

Love Sicily (00 39 0932 950 222; lovesicily.com) based in Modica, runs week-long courses around south-eastern Sicily from €1,770 per person, which includes transfers, accommodation and meals.

Walk this way

Far from the frenetic cities and beach resorts, life goes on in Sicily's inland villages much as it has for centuries. Although trails are rarely well signposted, the island offers some superb hikes, particularly in the adjacent Madonie and Nebrodi mountain ranges in the north-east of the island. These forested peaks are scattered with appealing hilltop towns, such as Castelbuono, Petralia Soprana and Montalbano, all of which make excellent bases for hikes. In the south-east, there are more fine walks in the honeycombed gorges of the Vall d'Anapo and around the wetlands of the Vendicari reserve, a haven for waterbirds. The Zingaro Reserve in the north-west is an excellent walking destination if you want to combine hikes with a swim. Several tour operators offer walking holidays to Sicily, including Headwater (01606 720199; headwater.com) which has an eight-day Secrets of Sicily Walk from £869 per person, excluding flights; or from £1,104 with airfare included.

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