“Nun si po’ aviri la carni senz’ ossu”. This Sicilian proverb meaning “Take the good with the bad” (literally: you can’t have meat without the bone) is a decent mantra for travelling in Sicily, which is as rewarding as it is challenging. Here are some tips for sorting an itinerary.
Palermo has cleaned up its act since the 1980s and is full of historical buildings – none more so than gold-festooned Monreale Cathedral, half an hour out of the city.
Head clockwise and you’ll reach Cefalù, a mediaeval beach town overlooked by a precipitous rocky headland. There’s great hiking in the nearby Madonie National Park.
Thanks to WWII bombs and earthquakes, Messina isn’t the prettiest place in the world. Instead, head for Taormina, playground of the rich and famous, and spectacular when not swarming with summer crowds.
Bypass grim Catania – unless you’re there in early February for the chaotic Festival of St Agata – and head up Mt Etna instead (if it’s not churning out lava).
Syracuse is in Italy’s lowly fifth division of soccer – quite a comedown for a city that once annihilated Athens to assert supremacy over the Mediterranean. Fortunately, the legacy of those glory days remains. A highlight.
Turn another corner to Agrigento, whose “Valley of the Temples” are as good as ancient ruins get. More of the same can be found at Selinunte, also on the Sicilian south coast, before you head up the west coast of the island for Arabian influences in Mazara del Vallo and booze in Marsala.
Offshore island options include the famous Aeolians – half a dozen volcanic plugs rising from the ocean and rimmed by beaches and playboys’ yachts.
Which leaves the interior. Too often omitted from travel agents’ itineraries, central Sicily includes the atmospheric hilltop town of Enna. Google its Easter festival for a look.
Oh, and the mafia? Yeah, they’re still around. But they’re hardly concerned with bumbling tourists speaking shabby Italian. Keep an eye on your wallet though.
The weird & wonderful of Sicilian cuisine
Sure, there’s plenty of pizza and pasta available in Sicily, but you’ll also find that they do things a little differently in the south. Here’s our pick of five dishes to try.
1. Pane ca meusa
Palermo’s famous spleen sandwich is waaaay better than it sounds. A soft roll is stuffed with thin shreds of boiled and fried spleen then topped with ricotta.
The reverence Sicilians have for this tubed pastry dessert filled with sweetened ricotta is clear from the immortal line of Clemenza in The Godfather: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
3. Cous cous alla trapanese
It’s only 150km to Tunisia from Sicily, and North African food influences are felt strongly, nowhere more than in Trapani, whose famous seafood couscous will knock your socks off.
The word means “little oranges” but there’s not a shred of fruit in these deep-fried rice balls. Most of them come filled with ragu, or mozzarella and peas. Supreme.
5. Minni di Virgini
Cakes shaped like breasts. Not just shaped like breasts, but covered in skin-coloured icing and topped with a cherry for the nipple. Recommended to purchase in pairs.
Other must-eats: caponata, granita, pasta alla Norma, anything with tuna