In the middle of the Mediterranean, there is a lush utopia of chaos and charm that I like to call my secret escape. Realistically, it is too large to be a secret, and much too larger than life for you not to know about it with its active volcano, hard-earned reputation for independence and almost over-abundance of gastronomic goodies. It is Sicily.
Sicily has been on the tip of my tongue ~ o, how I love thee, caper berry ~ from the very moment I visited antiquity's Island of Abundance several years ago and became head-over-heels with its triple threat of culture, beauty and lifestyle. The Trinacria, millennia-old name for Sicily, has everything: varied terrain of beaches, rocks, hills, mountains, volcanoes, mini-islands, autostrade and dirt roads, overflowing platter of sfincione, arancine, blood oranges, capers, caponata, ricci, polipo, brioche con gelato, granita, pesce and panelle, and full days and evenings of talking, hiking, horse back riding, vintage car racing, art, archaeology, Romans and Greeks. It is the ultimate detox, digitally and otherwise, thanks to a slightly lacking connectivity, penchant for sticking to closing hours, diversity (food, land, sport) and slow, thoughtful pace. And Sicily is a crazy and colorful panacea for those in need of a little metaphysical healing.
This past August, my entourage (dog, children, husband) and I devoted ourselves to being siculi (Sicilian), a term almost as old as the Trinacria, Sicily's thousands-years-old symbol of three legs banded together and kicking away from everyone and everything. Our appropriated version of siculo status translated to taking the time to learn everything we wanted to about our new backyard, Cefalù, a small town on the northern coast, as well as about ourselves. In order to do so, we created a basic routine revolving around our local bar (note: routine and bar are the very first things one must claim when in Sicily) -- morning coffee and pastries, afternoon iced teas and granite, evening aperitivo and pastries. The rest was a Cefalù-fill-in-the-blank, or better yet, a Sicilian che sera sera. For my husband, that meant archaeology and outdoors. Cefalù is built on a rock so he climbed and walked and hiked and ran, always leading to a Roman fort. For the kids, it was all about fun and slang -- they bounced on inflatable castles in the water, snorkeled and shouted minchia with every cut and bruise. Meanwhile I was on a gastronomical exploration, finding the difference between local cassatine and cartocci (ricotta-filled pastries) and tasting freshly picked ricci (sea urchin) on the beach.
Eventually, we left the protective cocoon of sun, beach and ricotta to roam the northern areas. With absolutely no organization, we day tripped from Trapani to Catania, stopping in places like Segesta, Mondello, Himera, Tusa, Savoca, Giardini di Naxos, Furci and Nicolosi. We visited contemporary art galleries and ate at street barbecues in Palermo. We argued about unemployment in Trapani while dancing in late night beach discotheques. We stumbled across a rock concert in medieval Castelbuono and then discovered Aliester Crowley's Thelema Abbey, his 1920s den of black magic. We searched for Caravaggio paintings in Messina, hiked around Greek settlements near Palermo, met our best friend's distant cousins in Santo Stefano di Camastro and climbed Mount Etna with a tiny, old dog. And at the end of each day, we went back to Cefalù to eat our arancinas and brioche con gelato at our local bar, because that is just what you do.
Sicily is fathomless and unfathomable, whether visiting for a day, week, month or lifetime. It is an oasis of beauty, food and art, and at times, rundown like a junkyard. It is old and outdated and young and inspiring. It is Italian and it is decidedly not. Sicily is a contradiction on every corner.
When and Where to go: Sicily is beautiful all year, and food lovers will find it exceptional no matter what months, though Spring through Fall are the most flourishing. If interested in archaeological sites, go in spring when sun is less strong. For beach lovers, late spring and summer. Volcano spotters -- Etna, Stromboli and Volcano are great all year round, but keep an eye on Etna in the Fall/Winter, for both eruptions and skiing.
How to get there: Sicily has three main airports. Palermo (north) and Catania (south-east) airports are served by big-name carriers and low-cost airlines, while Trapani (west) specializing in low-cost European flights. Airport transfers are detailed on websites.
How to get around:: It is easy travel the entire island by car, bus or train.
Trenitalia, Italy's rail service, links up most coastal towns and larger internal cities. Several bus and coach companies that crisscross the island, like Interbus and AST. Look for bus services detailed on airport websites. By far the easiest is car rental, most major companies are found in cities like Palermo, Trapani, Siracusa and Catania, and include Budget, Hertz, Europcar and Sixt.