Sicily opens its arms to visitors from the world over

Destination Europe

March 26, 2006|By ALAN SOLOMON | ALAN SOLOMON,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PALERMO, SICILY — "Palermo's the most-conquered city in history. First the Phoenicians, the Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, then came the Arabs, the Spaniards and the Neopolitans. Now comes ... the American Army!"

-- George C. Scott, in the film Patton

PALERMO, SICILY / / The Normans. Don't forget the Normans.

Or the Greeks, Vandals, Goths, Swabians, Aragonese, Savoyans, Austrians (in a trade for Sardinia and future considerations) and, finally, the Italians, through annexation via a referendum that was probably rigged.

So you'll be welcomed in Sicily. Everybody else has been. Some left souvenirs, and they are some of the reasons to come here.

Many of the others are edible.

Interesting place, Sicily. This is an island the size of Vermont that has endured serial conquests, plagues, poverty, earthquakes, Patton racing Montgomery while chasing Nazis, a volcano that still burps lava from time to time and song lyrics like this:

"Go, go, go, you mixed-up Siciliano. All you Calabrese do the mambo like a crazy."

Which, if you visit, you will hear piped in somewhere. You will also hear the theme from The Godfather, often, sometimes in restaurants that cater to tourists and sometimes performed by street musicians, thus eliminating the notion that -- out of sensitivity, or fear of being tucked in with fishes -- we're to avoid any reference to the, um, M-word.

On our visit, we rented a car and drove what has evolved into the standard Sicily tourist itinerary: Palermo to Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples, to the Villa Romana del Casale with its expansive floor mosaics, to Siracusa (Syracuse, on your maps at home) and, finally, to snooty Taormina.

We also took a side trip to Vizzini because 1) no one else does, 2) the opera Cavalleria Rusticana (with its great intermezzo, borrowed by Raging Bull) was set there and, more important than any of that, 3) it's the hometown of Franco, my barber.

"I love this country," Franco has said, often, while trimming my bangs to Pavarotti yodeling "Nessun Dorma." "America has been good to me. But in Sicily, people know how to live."

We had intended to seek out the town where Francis Ford Coppola blew up Al Pacino's Sicilian wife in the first Godfather, but that trip got thunderstormed out. Happily, the weather cleared in time for an excursion up Mount Etna, which we took (out of Taormina) because it was there.

First, Palermo.

Some critics suggest Palermo's primary value is as a place to land, stock up on euros, shake off the travel-fuzzies and rent an escape-vehicle, but they are wrong. There's good stuff here.

Markets and restaurants, certainly. The 676,000 souls who live in the city do it with gusto and hearty appetites, which are satisfied by such marvelous specialties as pasta topped with a glop of sauce based on fresh sardines (much better than it sounds). But Palermo and vicinity, more than anywhere else on this rock, is the testament to all the cultures that scratched their initials into the local stone.

In its churches and public buildings -- in particular, the duomo and the mosaic-filled, Norman-built Palatine Chapel (circa 1140) -- can be seen (even by us non-sophisticates) traces of those Romans, Arabs, Normans and Byzantines, along with the Greeks. In its white, way-out-of-scale post office building, we can see the familiar overstatement of Mussolinian fascism.

In nearby Monreale, no one who visits its cathedral -- not even travelers thinking "not another church" -- comes away unaffected by the interior mosaics. They are, in a word, breathtaking. It's a short ride by city bus from Palermo -- and speaking of that:

The Valley of the Temples, during our visit in October, was largely the Valley of the Temples Under Scaffolding, but that was a minor inconvenience. The half-shrouded Temple of Concord is a well-preserved beauty; the surviving columns of the once-mammoth Temple of Hercules inspire wonder -- especially in a setting that's largely insulated from the distractions of modernity.

The mosaics on the floor of the 4th-century Villa Romana, near today's Piazza Armerina, are remarkable for their state of preservation and their endlessness: They go on and on. Here, made accessible by an ingenious arrangement of steps and ramps, are nearly 40,000 square feet's worth of mosaic dancers, warriors, beasts, beauties (famously, some of the latter dressed in toga-era bikinis), lovers and serpents. If you like this sort of thing.

Before we get to Siracusa, two words about driving in Sicily: Not bad. Roads are in good shape, traffic is light (except at rush hour), distances are short and the countryside is hilly and beautiful. This is a land of olive groves and orchards and vineyards and prickly pear cacti, of pastures marked by stone fences generations old, of modest villages and of stone houses, some of them abandoned or crumbling yet beautiful in their way.

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