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Cinematic depictions of the famed Italian island barely scratch the surface of its cultural riches and staggering scenery.
THE SNOW ON Mount Etna glistens in the morning sun as the Alitalia jet (now painted in cobalt blue under its new ITA Airways moniker) makes its final approach into Catania. Threads of white smoke waft from the mountain’s deep pockets, still smoldering after recent eruptions. Terra-cotta rooftops poke out of decades-old lava spills that Catania’s patron saint Agatha couldn’t save. Every year in early February, locals hoist her gilded statue out of the Cathedral of Catania up the slope in a quintessential Catholic ritual meant to keep everyone in Etna’s reach safe. And considering that Etna — the world’s most active volcano — has only killed 77 people since Agatha was martyred in 251 A.D., it seems to work.
Rituals steeped in superstitions and tradition are what make this island off the toe of Italy’s boot so special — even if the second season of HBO’s “White Lotus” has recently brought sometimes unwanted attention to its decadent landscapes and lifestyle, just like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy in the 1970s. Neither series defines Sicily, but both encapsulate it perfectly.
I have been to Sicily more than 15 times in the last 20 years, almost always to report on a disaster. Once when Etna threatened to devour the towns on her flanks, I had to take the short ferry from Reggio Calabria across the Strait of Messina after thick ash closed the Catania airport. Another time I flew into Catania to interview a forensic scientist working inside a tent to identify the remains of hundreds of migrants who perished at sea in a shipwreck. Years before, I came to the island when a mob boss in hiding was captured. And twice I came to follow ancient artifacts that had been returned from American museums to Sicily, where they had been looted.
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This time I have not packed any disaster gear — or even a raincoat. For once, I have no sense of trepidation, no nervous anticipation of a horrible unknown. In fact, even though Sicily is a very familiar place, I feel like I’m seeing it for the first time.
It’s late morning when I drive my rental car into the busy heart of Catania to taste some street food served up on the sidelines of the famous open-air fish market around the corner from the Piazza del Duomo. Street food here has become upmarket fare thanks to Italy’s foodie magazine Gambero Rosso’s recent blessing.
The cafes and kiosks on the terrace overlooking the market, which has been here since the 1800s, offer pure theater. Waiters yell down to the fishmongers below when they need more fresh calamari to deep fry or anchovies to stuff into Sicily’s signature arancini, or deep-fried rice balls, which is what I dig into first. The atmosphere is electric, and the predominant sound is laughter, which is not something I often heard on previous trips.
Within an hour, I’ve left the chaos behind and am weaving up the coastal road to Taormina, the so-called pearl of the island. Purple wisteria drips like candle wax down the stone walls leading to the city. It’s a windows-wide-open kind of drive, the smell of orange and lemon blossoms filling the car. “White Lotus” was shot to look like it all took place in this hilltop paradise, though it was filmed in both Cefalù and Palermo, two more stops on my journey.
At the 150-year-old Grand Hotel Timeo, the city’s very first hotel, this notoriety is a mixed blessing. Reservations have tripled over the last year, but almost no one agrees that the series aptly represents the city or Sicily’s culture fully. Instead of focusing on the Mafia and corruption, they would have preferred the spotlight be on the area’s ties to the Grand Tour, when writers from Ernest Hemingway to Truman Capote, Oscar Wilde to D.H. Lawrence camped at the hotel’s stunning bar with views of both the sea and Mount Etna, in search of inspiration.
In reality, there are two Taorminas: the elegant one dripping with flowers and thick with orange groves that tower over the sea, and the one with the beach vibe down at the water’s edge, where the main view is the Isola Bella. It’s here you really understand how close Sicily is to the mainland and why the deep water between these two land masses inspired Homer’s “Odyssey,” in which he made the whirlpools home to the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis.
You won’t get sunsets over the water on this side of Sicily, but I do see the most amazing red moon rising over the sea while dining at Chef Pietro D’Agostino’s Michelin-starred La Capinera, down at water level, where patrons are seated on the terrace. D’Agostino has reached fame abroad, cooking for Queen Elizabeth and various sultans and other world leaders, but he’s most at home here, as he explains to me, where he lets the flavors of the island guide him. Sicilian cuisine is as complicated as its history, built on layers of foreign influence still on the palate and plate today.
What you do get on this side of the island are its glorious sunrises. After breakfast on the Timeo terrace, I drive just over two hours to Palermo, but not across the middle of the island as my navigator suggests. The coastal road that weaves through a series of interchanging long tunnels and stunning sea views is a better choice.
I am especially tempted to stop at Milazzo, from where ferries to the Aeolian Islands depart. I was last here more than 20 years ago, dispatched to the volcanic island of Stromboli when it was in full eruption in the late 1990s. I still remember the breathtaking sea journey that takes you through the seven volcanic islands: Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Filicudi, Alicudi, and Panarea before reaching Stromboli, which is in a constant state of eruption, often spewing hot ash into the cold sea. The islands are favorites of Milanese fashion designers and politicians who keep homes in the secluded paradise.
Instead, I stop at Cefalù, where I find a rare luxury hotel with private beaches. Le Calette features Chef Dario Pandolfo, who has worked at a half-dozen 2- and 3-Michelin-star restaurants across Europe before taking on this one in 2022. He runs an impressive kitchen that is quickly becoming the talk of the island thanks to his use of locally sourced produce and seasonal seafood coupled with an artistic presentation that seems to incorporate the Mediterranean views in the background.
From Cefalù, the drive into Palermo is as smooth as driving into any southern Italian city can be — patience and calm being the most important virtues. Palermo hugs a bay from which this over 2,700-year-old port was conquered some 15 times. It is easily the most multicultural city in Italy, both in architecture and cuisine, and has the second-largest historical center in Europe after Genoa in the north of the country.
I stay at Rocco Forte’s Villa Igiea, a sprawling complex with views of the old town across the bay. The property was intended to be a sanatorium until English doctors nixed the idea mid-build, fearing that the humidity of Sicily’s summers might not actually be conducive to healing. Ignazio Florio Jr., one of Italy’s most prolific entrepreneurs, seized the opportunity and turned the sprawling villa into the city’s first grand hotel, and it remains one of the most luxurious on the island.
Palermo has almost too much to see, from its massive cathedral and Norman Palace to its Teatro Massimo. But my favorite place is the Church of San Cataldo in the center, one of the city’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Built in 1154 while Palermo was under Norman rule, it offers full cultural immersion. Look up to see the Arabic writing that still adorns the domes of this now-Catholic church. It’s a lesson in integration and how the beauty of the past can so easily enhance the present if left in situ.
In contrast to the history is the gentrification that started during the pandemic, when people like Chef Mauricio Zillo came home (in Zillo’s case from Brazil) to ride out the lockdowns. Zillo stayed and decided to open a restaurant in Palermo’s Vucciria market area, which I had visited years before while investigating sex trafficking and the Mafia. It’s shocking to see how the neighborhood has transformed and how the chef’s 3-year-old Gagini restaurant is now the cornerstone of this revived area. Zillo was awarded a Michelin star one year after he opened Gagini, which is named after the sculptor Antonello Gagini whose sixteenth-century studio now houses the restaurant, and which offers some of the most innovative Sicilian cuisine on the island.
From Palermo, it’s a 90-minute drive to Selinunte and its extremely accessible Greek ruins, which I last visited in 2006 to follow a cache of looted artifacts returned to Italy from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles after a court battle that put its antiquities curator Marion True on trial in Rome. Before that, Italian artifacts filled American and other foreign museums, even though few pieces had proper documentation. The return of amazing objects — such as the sixth-century B.C. funeral epigraph of “Latinos” and a fifth-century B.C. religious text — back to Selinunte was one of the first restitutions of art in American museums that had questionable provenance. Since then, thousands of pieces have come back to Italy, and many have been subsequently loaned to American museums.
It is overwhelming to walk around ruins from where treasures often showcased in sterile, white museum cases actually came from. However, looking out over the sea through the pillars of ancient Greek temples, where statues once stood and where kraters were used to mix wine and water, puts everything into context. I prefer Selinunte to Agrigento, a half-hour down the road because it’s easier to visit one spot, with the option of a shuttle over hiking, rather than to hop between Agrigento’s labyrinth of sites.
Set along the coast between Selinunte and Agrigento, Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort is an obvious place to unwind for the night, in the Thalassotherapy spa pools, on its world-class golf course, and at the private beach at the edge of the property, which is perhaps one of the best places to see a sunset, far from urban lights and busy ports. I am finally able to enjoy a crimson tramonto over a sea as red as Sicilian blood oranges.
Barbie Latza Nadeau is an American journalist and author based in Rome since 1996. Her books include “The Godmother” about women in the mafia and “Angel Face” about the trials of Amanda Knox. Her work regularly appears in The Daily Beast, CNN, and Scientific American.
Martina Maffini is an Italian photographer. In 2014 she co-founded the DePasquale+Maffini Studio in Paris which focuses on interior photography. On her own, she studies landscapes and the interaction between humans and nature. She works for magazines like M Le Monde, Openhouse Magazine, and The Good Life.
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