From the Phoenicians to the ancient Greeks, the Romans to the Arabs even the Normans, it seems that every conquering nation wanted a piece of Sicily. You will discover why this understated island in the Mediterranean has been the "it" destination for thousands of years. Today, much a Sicily remains untouched by modern technology and progress. My favorite day in Sicily was when I was driving down a country road near Piazza Armerina, home to the most magnificent of Roman villas, when I came across a grove of cherry trees laden with red ripe fruits. The summer heat subsided as the trees provided cool shade, not to mention a large proportion of that day's lunch and snacks.
This is a bountiful land, where the locals are friendly (even if they can't speak your language), the food is tantalizing, where eclectic history and archaeology unfold at every turn and you can still get off the beaten track and discover secluded beaches, undulating hills and quaint villages. Enter one of these villages at siesta time, mid-afternoon on a warm summer's day and you will find the men congregating in bars, playing cards, hanging out at local political party offices and often not a woman in sight. The locals will invite you in for a glass of iced tea and before you know it, they'll be inviting you home for dinner to meet the family as well. The Sicilians have largely been given a bad rap, thanks to the fact that they have become synonymous with organized crime, the mafia and some lesser-appreciated qualities. That is not to say that there isn't any cosa nostra activity going on here, but Sicily has so much more to discover and generally at fewer Euros than its mainland counterpart. If you really feel the need, the town of Corleone, home of real-life crime bosses and immortalized in The Godfather is accessible to tourists, but don't expect a close encounter with the Don, and a helpful hint -- do not discuss the mafia with local Sicilians.
There are more intact Greek temples here than in Greece, a multitude of Roman amphitheatres, aqueducts, villas and bathhouses, not to mention one of the most active volcanoes in the world -- Mount Etna. There are two UNESCO World Heritage sites located in Sicily. The historic city of Agrigento is situated on Sicily's southern coast, and its Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) is one of the greatest remnants of the ancient Greek domination of the island. The magnificent Doric temples, which were once part of the Greek city of Akragas, date back to the fifth century BC. The valley is easily accessible from Agrigento by bus or on foot. In the southeastern corner of Sicily, Noto is famous for its imposing and grandiose Baroque architecture. The entire city was rebuilt after a massive earthquake in 1693, therefore creating a homogenous design of fashionable Baroque palaces, churches and houses. The best way to see Noto is to wander around the streets and marvel at the stunning but often crumbling building facades and balconies.
Sicily is rather large so if you really want to see a lot, I would recommend renting a car (avoid Palermo by car if at all possible) or taking an organized tour. Public transport is generally okay however summer tends to bring various slowdowns and often scioperi -- strikes. It may be advisable to forget about your usual US-style schedule here as life is a little slower going, for example in the rural areas when a train is approaching, boom gates are lowered for up to half an hour in anticipation. Locals line up their cars, get out, start chatting amongst themselves, even cracking open a bottle of wine or preparing a small picnic on the hood of their cars while they wait. There is a certain charm about so many Sicilian-isms.
Reaching Sicily from the Italian mainland is relatively easy, with regular train services to Palermo, Siracusa, Catania and the resort town of Taormina from Rome via Naples. Train carriages are transported via large ferries over the Straits of Messina (a half-hour crossing), generally overnight and you awake to find yourself in a very different Italy indeed. Make sure you get into the right carriages though, as the trains get split up for various destinations. The train from Rome to Palermo takes about 13 hours, 10 to Catania and 13 to Siracusa. Naples to Palermo takes approximately 10 hours. Italian train ticket prices are generally lower than elsewhere in Europe. A one-way overnight fast train from Rome to Catania (nine and a half hours) is $50 in second-class and $70 in first-class (www.trenitalia.com/en/index.html).
Alternatively, most US carriers can fly you into Palermo via Rome and Alitalia (www.alitaliausa.com/?no) offers several flights from major European and Italian cities into Palermo, or from the US to Palermo or Catania via Rome or Milan. The sample lowest fare from New York to Palermo or Catania during the month of September is $740 plus taxes on Alitalia for a Saturday departure. Budget UK airline Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies regularly into Palermo from London's Stansted Airport, making going through London an affordable option. Round-trip flights on Ryanair start from $146 including taxes for midweek departures in September, 2005. Sicily is also a hop, skip and a jump away from Malta, so you may wish to consider catching a ferry between the two islands to extend your Mediterranean vacation and add more international spice. Virtu Ferries (www.virtuferries.com) offers high-speed crossings from Catania from $52 round-trip (or $36 if you are doing the return trip in a single day). Add $49 for your car.
Fall is an excellent time of the year to visit Sicily as the extreme summer heat subsides and prices also recede. 1-800-Fly-Europe (tel. 800/359-3876; www.1800flyeurope.com) has discounted flights to Rome for departures from September 1 to October 31, 2005. Prices start as low as $379 plus taxes and fuel surcharges for midweek departures from New York. Add $26 from Boston, $142 from Chicago, Miami or Raleigh and $209 from Los Angeles or San Francisco. Car rental through 1800 Fly Europe is also very competitive with seven-day economy car rental starting at around $300 picking up your vehicle in Catania. Or save even more if you try one of their Fly/Drive packages from as low as $542 plus taxes from New York to Rome, including seven-day's rental.
Academic Tours (tel. 800/875-9171; www.academictours.com/sicily) offers a 15-day "Archaeological Tour of Sicily" in September and October from $2,199 per person (land only). Visit dozens of significant historical sites including Agrigento, Caltagirone, Cefalu, Erice, Marsala, Mothia, Pantalica, Piazza Armerina, Ragusa, Santa Maria Ganzaria, Segesta, Selinunte, Siracusa, and Taormina. You'll even get back to the mainland with a hydrofoil ride to Reggio di Calabria and a ferry ride to the black sand Aeolian islands of northern Sicily. The loaded tour features 14-nights accommodation in three and four-star hotels, daily breakfasts and dinners (except one night), two lunches, an English speaking guide and all transportation and taxes. Entrance fees of approximately $50 are additional.
Pilgrim Tours (tel. 800/322-0788; www.pilgrimtours.com) run a variety of land only and land/air combination Sicily tours throughout the year. Its weekly seven-night "Sicily Tour" departs from Palermo each Saturday from April to October. The tour visits Monreale, Segesta, Trapani, Agrigento, the Valley of Temples, Villa Romana del Casale (Piazza Armerina), Siracusa, Latomie, Ortigia Island, Ragusa, Catania, Mt. Etna, Taormina, Messina, Reggio di Calabria, Cefalu and Messina. It includes seven-nights accommodation in four-star hotels, three meals per day, all ground and sea transportation, a tour guide and local taxes. Entrance fees of approximately $70 are additional. The price starts from $963 based on double occupancy and they can arrange a discounted airfare to get you to Palermo.
Their "Sicilian Country, Castles and Cellars Tour" also departs from Palermo regularly in September and October and starts from $939 per person for seven-nights accommodation at three and four-star hotels, 21 meals, ground and sea transportation, English speaking tour guides and local taxes. Entrance fees of $50 are additional. The emphasis of this tour is on the culinary and wine delights of Sicily as well as cultural, historic and archaeological splendors. The 15-day "Malta and Sicily All Inclusive Tour" includes round-trip airfare from New York, flight from Malta to Catania, first-class lodging for 14-nights, transportation, breakfast and dinner daily, most lunches and all sightseeing from $2,695 per person. This tour departs on October 9, 2005.
Gate 1 Travel's (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) "Affordable Sicily" is an eight-day tour including flights from New York to Palermo, Catania to New York, six-nights accommodation (two in Palermo, one in Agrigento and three in Taormina), transfers, daily buffet breakfasts, one dinner, sightseeing per itinerary in an air-conditioned motor coach (visits to Palermo, Mt Etna, Agrigento, the Valley of Temples, Erice, Monreale, Piazza Armerina and Taormina) an English-speaking tour escort, local guides and entrance fees. Departures in November 2005, February and March 2006 are $1,399 plus taxes per person or $100 less for January 14, 2006 departure. Other departure cities are available for additional cost.
For more information to help you plan a Sicilian vacation, visit www.frommers.com/destinations/sicily.