I wrote this little bit a while ago for a newsletter I curated during my time in Italy. I was thinking back on some memories of a past life. This reminds me of my favorite part of Italy and one of the reasons it will also keep a piece of my soul.
People always ask me what my favorite place to visit in Italy is and after I say the obvious pastry shop and gelateria down the street and around the corner, I always say Sicily. This triangle-shaped island, roughly the same size as the state of Vermont, is one of those rare places in the world that has progressed into the modern era but is still intimately attached to its ancient heritage. Millennia-old myths and stories of heroes, monsters, gods, Titans, and kings weave their way into the cultural fabric of this place. They are even still used to explain natural phenomena, though in a tongue-in-cheek way. Sicily has been conquered and reconquered countless times by outside powers but has retained a bit of each culture that has called it home. For me, Sicily is a sensory overload but in the best way possible.
When I visit a new place I love to observe the architecture. It can tell you so much about a place: it’s history, it’s values, it’s culture. Simply walking down the street in Palermo is like unraveling a scroll of history right before you! Modern-day Sicilians may live in a post-war apartment building constructed partially on an ancient Greek theatre, adjacent to a baroque style palace and across the street from a medieval Arabesque, former-mosque but re-purposed as a Catholic church. And not to mention the back alleyway that was once a Roman road, still dotted with ancient paving stones. Sicilians will take these things in all at once, without even blinking and continue on to the corner to buy fresh artichokes from their neighbor, who is also a cousin. That’s how things are here, so many things squished together and mixed up like a kaleidoscope but with each element falling perfectly into place, as if the whole thing was planned thousands of years ago.
Sicily is a land with so much to offer. You could spend an entire semester on this island and still not see and experience everything it has to give. Our 5-day trip to Sicily begins with a 12-hour night train from Florence to the toe-tip region of Italy called Calabria. There we wipe the sleep from our eyes and take in not only a whole new topography from Tuscany, but also what seems like a totally different culture from northern Italy.
Our first stop are the Riace Bronzes, two priceless and breathtaking ancient Greek works in bronze. These sculptures were found off the coast of Calabria in the sea floor by an amateur diver and are now displayed in the regional museum of Reggio Calabria. After our visit with the Bronzes, we board a ferry-boat to cross the Straits of Messina to Sicily. Once on Sicily, we go by bus to the town of Taormina to visit the incredibly well preserved Greco-Roman theatre there, beautifully perched on the cliff-side with a spectacular view of Mt. Etna. After Taormina, we head through the center of the island towards Agrigento but we stop at the Villa Casale in between where we not only enjoy some of the best preserved Roman mosaics in the world but get to see them in their original context, the monumental villa that contains them. The Valley of the Temples at Agrigento is often a highlight for students. The ancient Greek temples were built in a line along a natural cliff-line that also doubled as natural protection. We visit the temples and walk through internationally renowned nature park that they are inside of. After visiting the temples we spend a relaxing afternoon at the Scala dei Turchi, a natural rock formation that dramatically juts out of the cliff side. The next day we bus to Monreale and Palermo where we visit several sites together before boarding an overnight ferry bound for Naples.
Our Sicily trip is a whirlwind with so much to take in and see but we don’t even scratch the surface of what the whole island has to offer. I always encourage students to put it on their list of places to revisit someday. Sicily is a place of incredible abundance filled with unparalleled wonder and beauty, one just has to make the decision to go, which will not disappoint.