As the island of the gods, Sicily believes its own myth-making – but there’s no reason why you have to join in. `Invade Sicily –everyone else has’ might be the island’s rallying cry. Sicily’s DNA is Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish. This fusion feeds into everything – from the spicy food and wine to the intoxicating architecture.
But what first-timers really want to feel is the frisson of fear that comes from rubbing shoulders with the Mafia. Just who will end up `sleeping with the fishes’? Sorry: the chances are you’ll come back raving about the gelato, not the horse-head in your bed.
1 You won’t know you’ve met the Mafia
Although mobsters don’t go around waving sawn-off shotguns, they’re still not at home knitting. Many are quietly racketeering in tourism. It’s said that Taormina, the star resort, is supremely safe because the Mafia like to vacation there too. The Mafia dress like you do. Hipsters might well sport a coppola, the mobster-style cloth cap, now reclaimed as a symbol of redemption by the anti-Mafia lobby.
Paying protection money, the `pizzo,’ is widespread in hotels, restaurants and shops. But over 700 Palermitan businesses have signed upto an anti-extortion charter. Following an ethical map, you can now eat, shop and sleep in places that are standing up to the Mafia.
Try street food in Antica Focacceria, the first inn brave enough to denounce its extortionists. The beef spleen in a bun is not for the squeamish, but then neither is extortion. If bitten by the anti-Mafia bug, take an Addiopizzo tour of farms confiscated from the Mob. While your virtuous self drinks `uncontaminated’ wine, your unreconstructed self drinks in spine-tingling stories of captured Dons. You can even make spicy aubergine caponata near Corleone, on an organic farm once owned by the infamous Godfather Toto Riina.
2 Sicily is not Italy
If Sicily were a pizza it would be thick-crust. Each layer adds another exotic flavour, another spicy civilisation. Picking away at the toppings keeps you puzzling long after you’re physically sated. Palermo and the `Arab’ west of the island feel Moorish and unfathomable. Instead, Catania and the `Greek’ east seem more open, dynamic and westernised.
Around Palermo, be prepared for Arabian fountains and Islamic ornamentation - plus ceilings shimmering with mosaics and octagonal stars. You’ll see red-domed basilicas, Oriental gardens and eastern pleasure palaces like la Ziza. Palermo’s Palatine Chapel, the Cappella Palatina, reveals an Arabian Nights paradise. The Arabs decorated the chapel with naked maidens but the prudish Normans dressed them and added saintly haloes. Fun-loving Arabs and repressed Westerners? Welcome to Sicily.
3 The bikini was born here
And you thought it was Coco Chanel or some other French couturier in the 1940s. Instead, Sicily’s bikini-clad gymnasts prove that the saucy bikini was around in Roman times. The so-called `Bikini Girls’ are the most celebrated mosaics on display at the Roman Villa in Piazza Armerina, which dates from the fourth century AD. No earlier versions can compete with the clarity of these prancing gymnasts. One of these muscular girls sports a laurel wreath and a palm frond, proof of her victory in these games.
This recently restored Unesco World Heritage site is awash with impressionistic African-Roman mosaics. Expect crashing chariots, a bare-breasted Queen of Sheba, and female nudes dancing in pagan abandon. Sport and erotica were often entwined in the Roman world, much like today.