Explore Sicily with a Cicerone guidebook
Walking in Sicily
Short and long-distance walks by Gillian Price
This handy guidebook contains detailed route descriptions for 46 graded routes in Sicily, including the Madonie and Nebrodi mountains and Mount Etna. The routes range from easy strolls suitable for all the family to walks akin to Alpine treks. The terrain varies considerably from river valleys to ancient ruins to volcanoes and mountain peaks. More...
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Italy without Sicily forms no image at all in the soul;
only here is the key to everything.
J.W. von Goethe, Italian Journey (1786–1788)
The early history of Sicily (Sicilia in Italian) is enveloped in misty legends, with credit for first settling the island going to a motley band of giants. Invincible offspring attributed to Zeus, they enjoyed but a short-lived sojourn as they were punished for challenging the ruling gods. The handful of survivors were bound in chains and banished to underworld forges beneath the island’s volcanoes to fashion arms for the gods, such as thunderbolts for Zeus. To this day they struggle and moan, attempting to break free and shake off the weight of the immense mountains. Ancient sources, in fact, refer to the discovery of huge skeletons in caves, though they were assumed to be marine animal remains washed up by the Flood! The mythical one-eyed Cyclops followed, bloodthirsty cannibals who played havoc with passing sailors, including Ulysses on his epic voyage.
Archaeological evidence places prehistoric inhabitants around 13,000 years bc. Sicily’s strategic crossroads location in the Mediterranean ensured the arrival of settlers, plunderers, conquerors and visitors from all directions, resulting in a fascinating melting pot of cultures. Major colonisers in the 13th–11th century bc were the immigrant Elymian, Sicel and Sican populations, who lent their name to the island. Subsequently there were Phoenician settlements, prior to a landmark Greek take-over (8th–6th centuries bc) and widespread Hellenisation of language and civilisation, not to mention a name change to Trinacria, for the island’s three-pointed shape. Impressive extant temple and city ruins illustrate this period. In the 3rd century bc Sicily became the first province of Rome – the island’s fertile land later earning it the denomination ‘granary’ of the empire.
A brief period of Byzantine rule was followed by the productive Arab epoch, which witnessed the introduction of irrigation techniques, fish preservation and silk farming, as well as some memorable architecture and a wealth of place names: kalat for castle is fairly common and has survived in Caltanisetta, marsa for port explains Marsala (port of Allah), gebel or ‘mount’ can be seen in Mongibello, another name for Etna. The subsequent Norman period (11th–12th century) added to this precious legacy with religious tolerance, rich art works, feudalism and a Latinising influence. Noteworthy rulers were Roger II, who employed the celebrated Arab geographer al-Idrisi, and William ‘the Good’.
Sicily was later joined with Naples to form the ‘Kingdom of the Two Sicilies’, stretching from the mid-15th to the mid-19th century. It was not until 1860, with the advent of the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, that the island was freed from Bourbon rule and the Sicilians joined the fledgling united Italy.
More recently, island life was convulsed during World War Two, ending with the Allied landings in 1943 for the move north and the liberation of occupied Italy. In 1946 Sicily was declared an autonomous region, with a special statute and governing body that enjoys a high degree of political independence.
One unique phenomena needs a brief comment in the context of history: the Mafia. It is believed to have originated in the Middle Ages to overthrow foreign invaders, its members taken from the private armies (mafie) of landlords. The nefarious organisation known to insiders as Cosa Nostra (our affair) continues to prosper parallel to state authority, rife with age-old payoffs and rivalries. It was dealt a near mortal blow under fascism; however the war years meant recovery, possibly aided by the US use of Mafia cohorts in the Allied invasion. Of late, mafiosi turned state witnesses have provided precious evidence about the organisation, though at the terrible price of numerous lives, leading magistrates and lawkeepers in first place. All but invisible to outsiders who are unaffected by events, it is prospering and shows no sign at all of dying out. This is confirmed by recurrent reports in the Sicilian and national daily press and TV of Mafia-related crime and inquiries. Such news should remove any doubts harboured by visitors that it is only the stuff of films nowadays. Background reading is warmly recommended and several suggestions are listed in the Further Reading section.
Some facts and figures help give a fuller picture of Sicily. The largest of the Mediterranean islands, its territory embraces 37 minor islands, some volcanic. A total of 25,708 sq km are occupied by a population of over 5 million, which averages out at 194 inhabitants per square kilometre, or half a hectare per head. The island is 270km in length and 180km in breadth, though described by Arab traveller Ibn Hawqal in the 11th century as ‘seven days long [by walking], four days broad’. It lies a mere 143km north of Tunisia in north Africa, while on the other hand it is divided from the main Italian land mass by the Strait of Messina, 3km across at its narrowest and 20km at its broadest.
An ambitious State project is in the pipeline to bridge the passage. However opposition is widespread as many say the funds could be better used upgrading the island’s rail and road networks, in desperate need of maintenance. Others emphasise the unsuitability of the site, citing the disastrous 1908 earthquake and tidal wave that struck Messina leaving over 60,000 dead and 91% of the city flattened. Moreover this natural channel is run through by treacherous swirling currents and whirlpools, the dread of ancient mariners who feared being shipwrecked and devoured by the ghastly lurking she-monsters Scylla and Charybdis, who put paid to many of Ulysses’ men.
Modern-day victims of shipping disasters of an entirely different kind are the thousands of hopefuls, asylum seekers, who put themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous criminals for the ‘short’ boat trip from the north African coast across to the islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria, as well as Sicily’s southern coast. When the sea is calm, thousands at a time disembark, whereas on rough days the navy fishes their corpses from the waves, unless they wash up on the beach first.
Generally speaking Sicily’s landscapes are predominantly mountainous. First and foremost is a completely separate elevation, Mount Etna, unrivalled in dominance. Europe’s highest active volcano at 3300m above sea level, this unique attraction has an unmistakable dark cone shape and is recognisable from afar by its trademark plume of smoke, a belching chimney when an eruption is in progress. The main ranges, on the other hand, the Peloritani, Nebrodi and Madonie, which rise to maximum heights just short of the 2000m mark, are generally considered a natural continuation of the Apennine chain that reaches down to the coast in neighbouring Calabria on the toe of Italy. Rugged reliefs cloaked with dense woods, these mountains tend to be sparsely populated and are cut through by picturesque valleys and highlands which double as golden fields of wheat in spring then dust bowls in summer.
In striking contrast the coastal belts feature the dark, glossy greens of citrus orchards and vineyards, alternating with chaotic settlements often characterised by an air of abandon. Ancient ruins punctuate rolling hills bright with spring flowers and aromatic herbs. Finally the offshore islands are worlds unto themselves, surrounded by inviting crystal-clear waters, windswept and often cut off from the mainland in winter.