Changing Sicily

Sunday, October 17th, 2010. Filed under: Destination Guides Europe Italy Legendary Landscapes
A wedding near Marsala.

A wedding near Marsala, Sicily.

Having married into a Sicilian family and visited it often enough to consider it a second home, I still succumb to Stendhal syndrome within an hour or two of arrival, willing victim of its beauty and exoticism.
At the crossroads of the Mediterranean but on the fringe of Europe (it’s closer to Africa than Rome), Sicily’s history is a mosaic of light and shadow, complex patterns of repeated invasion, dark violence and dazzling cultural brilliance.

Highlights this year: taking the funicular at sunset up to cloud-bound Erice, visiting Segesta in the rain, staring in awe at the Byzantine mosaics (c. 1140 AD) of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, exploring the Etna Coast and the Baroque town of Acireale.

A Greek temple at Segesta.

The Greek temple at Segesta.

High above the ocean on the eastern side of the island, Acireale makes a great base for exploring this area which features large in Greek mythology as the home of the cyclops Polyphemus who, blinded by Ulysses, hurled rocks after his departing ship.  Huge “monster” with a single, red-gushing eye – gee, sounds like a volcano! Mt. Etna’s lava has reached the sea many times and the Riviera dei Ciclopi‘s dramatic coastline of contorted rocks and black sand makes it a popular resort area. The Etna Coast CVB has a great website with many accommodation links. We stayed at the Santa Tecla Palace and savored its saltwater infinity pool and delicious buffets. A great pick in the centre of town is the Michelin-starred Hotel Maugeri; their restaurant specializes in traditional Sicilian dishes featuring local seafood. You don’t have to be staying there to eat there, but if it’s Carnival season (Feb/Mar) you’ll want to. The Maugeri is right on the procession route.

Papier mache carnival float elements begin with clay sculpture.

Papier mache carnival float elements begin with clay sculpture.

Acireale is known for its traditional puppet theatre and exuberant Carnevale celebrations that draw 800,000 visitors every year. Visiting the carnival float workshops – meeting the artists and seeing how they create the massive floats from not much more than wire, clay and papier mache – was one of my top travel experiences ever.

Despite touring pleasures and joy on the family front (a wedding, a new baby), I was in tears several times by changes evident on the island since my last visit. More bare hillsides, their vineyards torn out (the government is paying people not to produce), increased signage (some for road safety, much of it for advertising) interfering with classic vistas in some spots, protective fences around monuments (a good thing and necessary, as are admission fees for their upkeep, but it wasn’t that long ago we could wander in as freely as Goethe did). Big box stores and shopping complexes like the new Poseidon center outside Palermo, more than one McDonalds…some see uglification, most see much-needed jobs. Prosperity has been long in coming and, to tell the truth, many of the new amenities (like the availability of EEC-mandated public washrooms) make life a lot easier for travellers as well as locals.

For all the development, Sicily is still one of the easiest places on the planet to incur Stendhal Syndrome. Change is accelerating, though, so I say again as I always do: the time to see Sicily is now.

Got a question? Email me and I’ll try to help.

View of the saltwater infinity pool at the Santa Tecia Palace hotel, Acireale, Sicily, Italy.

The saltwater infinity pool at Santa Tecia Palace hotel, Acireale, Sicily, Italy.

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