Sicily Mixes Nature, History and Culture With The Unexpected

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In Sicily, drama of another kind plays out in three sprawling outdoor fruit, vegetable and fish markets.

By Victor Block

“You can steal my money but not my food.” “If you want things to go exactly as planned, don’t come here.”

Those words, spoken by my Overseas Adventure Travel tour guide in Sicily who actually loves his homeland, tell a lot about it.

Yes, food is held in a place of near reverence. Plans don’t always work out, and the locals have learned to go with the flow.

Residents of the triangular-shaped Italian island exhibit a friendliness and self-deprecating humor that make them one reason to visit. Other reasons include archaeological and architectural treasures, intriguing history and Mother Nature’s magnificent handiworks.

One surprise is how much diversity exists in such a small space. Packed into an area about the size of Massachusetts, Sicily offers variety equal to that found in entire continents.

RELATED: Sicily: Where What’s Not The Itinerary is as important as What is

Invaders and settlers from many places and civilizations have dropped by, leaving behind tangible evidence of their stay along with influences on the culture and lifestyle.

Architectural Treasures

For visitors, the first impression relates to the assortment of architectural riches. By about 750 B.C. the island was home to three Phoenician and a dozen Greek colonies. Later, much of it fell into Roman hands. Others who held sway over Sicily included the Germanic Vandals, Berbers and Arabs, Normans and the Byzantine Empire. Reminders of their stays abound.

Valley of the Temples

The Valley of the Temples is home to remnants of Greek structures built between 510 and 430 B.C. Sprawling across more than 3,200 acres, it’s said to be the largest archaeological site in the world.

The well-preserved Temple of Concordia is ranked among the most notable remaining examples of Greek civilization. The Temple of Juno was damaged by fire and restored in Roman times. Also strewn about the site are sections of defensive walls, gates and portions of vats where grapes were pressed.

The Villa Romana del Casale near the town of Piazza was built in the 4th century A.D. for an unknown nobleman. The 43-room mansion was lavishly decorated with what today are among the finest examples of Roman mosaics in Europe.

Scenes range from Homeric escapades to depictions of daily life. One portrays a veritable zoo of African animals, both real and fanciful.

While the capital of Palermo lacks the magnificence of major cities around the world, beneath its jumble of nondescript buildings hides a wealth of architectural gems, interesting museums and other attractions.

A History of Conquests

Among them are remnants recalling the parade of conquerors who descended upon Sicily. Traces of Phoenician walls and gates are visible. Magnificent Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches and palaces adorn the setting.

The Teatro Massimo (Greatest Theatre), which opened in 1897, is a reminder that hundreds of small opera houses once were sprinkled throughout the city. The ornate building is the third largest opera house in Europe, after those in Paris and Vienna. If it looks familiar to visitors that’s because of its role in the Godfather Part III movie.

At the markets vendors yell out to passers-by to stop and shop.

Drama of another kind plays out in three sprawling outdoor fruit, vegetable and fish markets, which are leftover vestiges of 9th-century Arab souks. Crowds of people mill around the stands, as many are looking as buying. Vendors alternate entreaties to passers-by to stop and shop with good-natured jibes they shout about their competitors.

Food plays a major role in a visit to Sicily because it plays a bit part in the lives of Sicilians. Mealtimes are as much a celebration of the cuisine as a time for eating.

Given its fertile land and sunny climate, Sicily served as the granary for the Roman Empire. The long history of producing a variety of noted cuisines, influenced by those of Greece, Africa and the Arab world among others, has earned it the nickname of “God’s kitchen.” In this gastronomically rich setting, every region has its specialties which are touted by those who cook, and consume them as il migliore (“the best”).

That sense of pride also extends to wine, not surprising given Sicily’s 2500-year past as a center of viniculture. Italy ranks first in the world in the volume of wine produced, and Sicily does its part to contribute to that standing.

From Mountains to Valleys

Residents of the triangular-shaped Italian island exhibit friendliness and self-deprecating humor.

Despite its small size, Sicily’s varied landscapes provide a dramatic setting. Deep valleys rise up to rocky mountaintops. Fields and rolling hills are blanketed by the silver-green leaves of olive trees, low-lying grape vines and golden wheat. The 10,922-foot peak of massive Mount Etna looks over the eastern side of the island. “The Mountain,” as locals refer to it, is the highest active volcano in Europe, although that activity fortunately usually takes the form of lava flows rather than eruptions.

The natural beauty of Sicily vies for attention with its treasure-trove of man-made architectural gems that span many centuries. The story of the island’s long history is told by its archaeological riches. Against that background, it’s the peoples’ joy of life, pride for their compact homeland and intriguing multi-cultural mixture that provide the most lasting memories for visitors.

If you go. For more information about Sicily, log onto italiantourism.com/sicilia.html. For information about Overseas Adventure Travel tours to Sicily and elsewhere call 800-955-1925 or log onto oattravel.com.

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