When the great majority of travelers plan trips to Italy, they think Rome, Florence, Venice, Tuscany, George Clooney -- whoops, Lake Como. Sicily? Well, not as much, and this fascinating, enchanting region feels the lack of respect.
"We do a very bad job of advertising ourselves," says tour guide Salvatore Coppola. "If we got even ten percent of those who go to the mainland, we would be happy."
Coppola's business depends upon it, but for most Sicilians, they seem pretty happy as is, and remain constantly animated. The saying goes that if you hold down the hands of a Sicilian, they can't talk. That talking is mostly among themselves, mind you: don't expect English speaking locals ever ready with suggestions or directions. Yet, the pleasures of the island -- which is surrounded by picturesque mountains, hilltops and three seas -- are enormous. And it seems tourism may finally be trending upward. "Sicily is fantastic," says writer-director Andrew Bergman, (Honeymoon in Vegas) who just spent two weeks there."The food is awesome and for Godfather freaks like me, it's amazing."
That film conjures up one word -- Mafia -- which also rankles the locals, who claim those days are over. Indeed, Sicily's towns now either skew sleepy and retired (as in Corleone) or youthful and bustling, as in Palermo. The latter, the island's capital, still exhibits the results of Allied bombing during World War Two -- when 70 percent was destroyed. But there is the glistening sea, great old architecture, and must-see attractions like the Palazzo dei Normanni, Monreale Cathedrale and (for fans of The Walking Dead) the Catacombs, in which one passes by more than a thousand fully dressed deceased -- the most recent a two year old who died in the 20th century.
Agrigento is another town worth visiting, mostly for the archaeological wonder Valley of the Temples, a series of four relics from the time of the ancient Greeks. (Over the centuries, Sicily was owned by virtually everyone)This is a one-day town, but worth it, especially if you splurge on the Villa Athena, a glorious hotel overlooking the temples, which are beautifully lit as the sun goes down. The usual route from North to South -- all within three or four hours -- includes the towns of Noto, Ragusa, (where Divorce, Italian Style was filmed) and Modica. (Renowned for its chocolate) Driving, as in all of Italy, is not for the faint of wheel. As Salvatore Coppola describes it, "the key is not to let the other drivers know you are paying attention." Okay.
Besides its beauty, food may be what puts Sicily on the map. There are countless great eateries throughout, one of the best being Nero D'Avola in Taormina. Its acclaimed chef-owner, Turi Siligato, a devotee of the Slow Food movement, (one of his dishes is the "Alice Waters salad" -- blood oranges and avocado slices) firmly believes it's time Sicily got its due. "We in Southern Italy have had the reputation of being poor," he says, "but we are rich in how we enjoy our own foods. We speak with our ingredients."
For fish lovers, this is Nirvana, and the gelato is beyond belief. (The latest trend here is stuffing the ice cream into a brioche....sure to be coming our way soon) The island's most famous dessert, of course, is the cannoli, and while it is hard to get a poor one, a stop at Casa de Cannoli in the tiny town of Piana degli Albanese, is a must. The ricotta filling is freshly made and crammed inside the crunchy shell in front of your eyes. As famously uttered in The Godfather, leave the gun, take the cannoli.
Fans of that 1973 saga need to be here. My husband -- who has seen the movie 1000 times -- said this was "my Jerusalem" as we toured the otherwise forgettable town of Savoca where one sees the exact outside bar in which Michael asked Appolonia's father for her hand in marriage. Nearby is the church where they were wed. While there are Don Corleone photos and tee-shirts everywhere, the sites themselves have not changed since the filming in the early '70s.
Probably the most tourist-heavy Sicilian spot is Taormina, a high-end town just under the volcanic Mt. Etna, (a popular attraction, obviously) and home to a few five-star hotels, including the Grand Timeo. The Taormina Film Festival this week is celebrating its 60th year. Among this year's honorees is Claudia Cardinale, now 76 and while a bit wobbly on her feet, still radiant. I asked what she recalls of her most successful American film, The Pink Panther. "Oh my god, it was fantastic," she said. "David Niven said to me something I never forget: he said 'not counting spaghetti, you are the best invention of Italy!'"
Cardinale also captured male hearts the world over for her role in the iconic film, The Leopard. The 1958 book, from which the film was adapted, is simultaneously celebrating its 50th year. Its author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, only lived to see his manuscript rejected by publishers. It would eventually be the most successful novel in Italian history. The Lampedusa name lives on: the late author's adopted son, Gioacchino, (a distinguished writer himself) and his wife, Nicoletta -- a chef who offers popular cooking classes -- own and run the Butera 28, consisting of a dozen moderately priced apartments on a wonderful street in Palermo. It is one of so many appetizing delights that more and more of us are discovering.
Perhaps it's time to leave the mainland, and take the island.