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Of all the islands of the Mediterranean, Sicily is the largest, spread across 40,965km (25,454 miles), and lying halfway between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. It is surrounded by several archipelagos, the most numerous of which are the Aeolian Islands. Other island groups include the Egadi in the west and the Pelagie, the latter centered at Lampedusa. Two other islands are Pantelleria and Ustica.

Sicily enjoys a Mediterranean climate -- it's the first part of Italy to heat up in the spring and the last to get chilly in winter. It also suffers the longest, hottest summers, with July and August being veritable scorchers.

An island of rivers, many of which dry up in summer, Sicily is also volcanic, the most threatening menace being Mount Etna, on the eastern coast. Some of the islands in the various archipelagos also have volcanoes, notably Stromboli. Most are long dormant, but Vulcano is known to huff and puff now and then.

Geology

The geology of Sicily is similar to that of other Mediterranean islands, which were conditioned by the slow contraction of the vast ocean between Africa and Eurasia. In the last 50 million years, this process has pushed the predominantly limestone sea bed of the Cretaceous period toward the surface, causing the formation of mountain and hill ranges. This has also been accompanied by volcanic activity, making Sicily rich in tuff (lithified volcanic ash) and widely used for building materials. It is also characterized by the formation of precipitated sulfur, which had enormous importance to the economy of the island until the 1970s, as mines were set up to extract the much-in-demand mineral for export. (Salt deposits are also abundant, though, like sulfur, they are not part of today's Sicilian economy.) The sulfur deposits resulted from a tectonic event in the western Mediterranean, which caused the rising and the subsequent closure of the Strait of Gibraltar. The lack of water flow from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean determined the hypersalinity that derived from excessive evaporation. Once the Pliocene era began, a new tectonic event lowered the threshold and thus generated the flow once more of oceanic waters into the sea, covering the evaporated sediments with the deep-sea formations of fine clay and pelagic carbonates.

Flora & Fauna

The deforestation of Sicily has been disastrous for the island from as far back as Roman times. Once rich in forests that provided it with abundant water, Sicily had vast tracts of woodland razed over the years to turn the island into the grain belt of the Roman Empire. The brush fires set deliberately by arsonists haven't helped much, either. Massive deforestation has left Sicily with a hotter, drier climate.

The ancient Greek settlers brought with them the cultivation of the grape and the olive tree. The Arab conquerors brought date palms from Africa and encouraged the cultivation of citrus groves. From the New World came the prickly pear cactus, which has now become one of the symbols of Sicily.

Typical Mediterranean flora is still present in the maquis along the coastlines and on the islands, while cities at higher altitudes -- such as Enna, Erice -- and towns in the foothills of Etna have Alpine vegetation, namely oaks and chestnuts. Aleppo pines are present along the coastlines. Broom bushes set the countryside alive in spring, with miles of sunflower-yellow coloring. The spiny shrub, the so-called bastard olive, grows wild almost everywhere.

Island fauna have been horrendously affected by the gradual deforestation of Sicily. Other than sheep grazing in country fields, it is rare to see much wildlife as you travel the country roads of Sicily. Along the coast, of course, there is still plenty of birdlife, notably cormorants, herons, and seagulls. The viper is the only poisonous snake on the island, frightening tourists as it suns itself at various archaeological sites in summer. In the Madonie and Nebrodi mountains, you might run into the occasional wild boar.

The western coast dwellers of Sicily, who for centuries have depended on the mammoth schools of tuna for their livelihoods, are now facing diminishing returns. Huge Japanese trawlers in international waters are capturing more and more of these fish for shipment to the markets of Tokyo.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.