Sicily

You can’t walk two paces without tripping over a bit of ancient history in Sicily. The Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina cracks open below the foothills of Mount Etna. The rock stacks off Catania were said to be thrown by Cyclops chasing away Ulysses. And over in Agrigento, pirates would use the Daz-white ‘Turkish Steps’ cliffs to make their landings. Absolutely everything, it seems, comes with a tale – and Sicilians are more than willing to share a yarn or five.

Sicily’s lived-in history

A holiday to Sicily is one big history lesson. Balanced between mainland Italy, Spain, North Africa and the Greek Ionian islands, it’s been a trading crossroads for around 10,000 years. To get your head around it all, you’ll need two things: great walking boots and a great local guide.

The Ancient Greeks left behind some of the most grandiose architecture, setting up outposts on the coast from the 8th century BC. The theatre at Taormina serves up swooping views of Mount Etna and the Aeolian Islands. And the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento lays out some of the best examples of Doric temples in the world.
The Romans arrived in the 3rd century BC, pouring their wealth into villas, palaces and ports. Syracuse became the epicentre – make sure to explore the al fresco Archaeological Park and papyrus-lined Fountain of Arethusa at Ortygia. The Byzantine branch of the Roman Empire swung by in the 6th century, turning Syracuse into their shining HQ. Their influence is island-wide, with churches like Cefalu Cathedral glittering with Byzantine mosaics.

Later, arriving Arabs and Normans shaped cities like Palermo, when North African craftspeople worked with the Norman King William II to create the domes and Byzantine-style mosaics in Monreale Cathedral.

Inland, temperamental geology was just as influential as the ruler of the day. In 1693, an earthquake killed over 100,000 people and tumbled towns in the Noto Valley. Noto and Ragusa were almost completely rebuilt with a 17th century flourish; these days, the whole plateau is an ode to Sicilian baroque. Expect plenty in the way of warm honeyed stone and gloriously OTT doorways carved with roses, scrolls and cherubs.

Get outside

It’s not every day that you get to hike up the most active volcano in Europe – especially in the wake of a fact-loaded volcanologist. A guided walking holiday will take you to the desolate landscape of lava flows, craters and cinder cones that tops Mount Etna. You might even score a night in Rifugio Sapienza (1,900m), giving you the chance to catch a Technicolor sunset over the northeast coast and Aeolian Islands. Zingaro Nature Reserve is another must-do walk. March from Scopello village in the east to San Vito Lo Capo in west; it’s all sunny seas, untouched beaches and hideaway coves.

And where there’s good walking country, there’s good cycling country. Sign up to a cycling tour to roll over the hills and valleys between the baroque cities of Ragusa and Modica. In the Alcantara valley, meanwhile, you could take the old railway tunnels between villages and fruit orchards, before cooling off in the pools of the Alcantara River. Or you might be treated to the Cava Grande Natonal Reserve, where you can peer into the Cassibile canyon.
As is standard in Italy, families are welcomed with open arms (your kids will just have to get used to the cheek-pinching). Book a tailor made tour, and your guide will adapt the activities to the abilities of both little and long legs. Sea kayaking and sailing in Isola Bella Marine Park is a real highlight; great guides will hunt out the turquoise tidal grottos and reveal the best place to snorkel with luminous rainbow wrasse and salpe.

Whatever you choose to do, small group tours are often your best option. Sicilian cycling and walking routes aren’t exactly known for their watertight waymarking. Plus, your guide will know the best swimming spots and family-run vineyards to catch your breath in. Then there’s your luggage – on a guided tour, it’ll be waiting for you at your next hotel after a hard day’s pedalling. All you have to do is remember to pack your swimsuit in your pannier.

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Sicily history tour, Italy

Sicily history tour, Italy

One of the most fascinating islands in Europe

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Food, glorious food

You don’t always need a history book to learn about Sicily’s past – a food menu will do just fine. Street food is the precedent of the big cities. Arancini is the most famous snack, but how much do you know about panelle chickpea fritters or pizza-like sfincione? Sign up to cookery course to find out how Arabs revolutionised Sicilian cuisine by bringing over spices like saffron and planting citrus orchards. And pizza making demos will win over the kids.
Fancy finding out how the building blocks of Sicilian food are made? Go on a guided food holiday that balances city trips with country drives. Outside Ragusa, family-run set-ups show you how they make cheese and press olives. And the chocolatiers of Modica will fill you in on how they’ve been crafting their wares to an Aztec recipe brought over by Spaniards in the 1500s. Elsewhere, the pasticceria (traditional bakeries) of mountaintop villages like Erice and Motta Camastra cook up almond cake and gelato-filled brioche to generations-old recipes.

Of course, you’ll need to wash all that down with a glass of good Sicilian wine. Fortified Marsala is the classic. But island-made Malvasia comes a close second, along with the Etna DOC grown on the high-altitude slopes of the island’s resident volcano.

Aeolian Islands

Many holidays to Sicily also nip over to the neighbouring Aeolian Islands, just an hour’s hydrofoil ride (or charter yacht ride, if you’re feeling swish) away from the east coast.

Long black beaches, thermal springs and sulphuric mud baths bubble on Vulcano. A walking holiday will take you up to the rim of the volcano to get a bird’s-eye view of the very much active fumaroles. Lipari rolls out a panoramic trail along the wild western coast and Roman spas in San Caolgero. Just over the water, Stromboli island is basically one big volcano that burps smoke about every 15 minutes. Guided tours will team you up with a volcanologist who’ll tell you all about the Sciara del Fuoco channel, where fiery lava shuffles down to the sea.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Scott Wylie] [Intro: Krisjanis Mezulis] [Sicily’s lived-in history: Andrea Schaffer] [Get outside: Simona Di Salvo] [Food, glorious food: stu_spivack] [Aeolian Islands: jwp1234]
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