The Best of Sicily

After going fishing for anchovies off Cefalù, we land in rough-and-tumble Palermo. Marveling at the eerie skeletons in a Capuchin crypt, airy mosaics of Monreale, enchanting ruins of Segesta, and fiery rim of Mount Etna, we enjoy the best of Sicily.


Hi I'm Rick Steves, bringing you a lifetime of travel thrills as we explore more of the Best of Europe. This time, we're in Sicily.

We'll ponder a Greek temple, savor some of Italy's best sweets, and visit a densely populated crypt. We'll be serenaded in Palermo's markets, climb a live volcano, and go fishing with Il Presidente.

Sicily, or "see-CHEE-lee-ah" as they say here, marks the center of the Mediterranean. It looks like a football being kicked by the Italian "boot." We start in Cefalù, travel through Palermo, visit Segesta, the Roman villa of Casale, scale Mount Etna, and finish in ritzy Taormina.

To better understand Sicily's fascinating sights, remember its many conquerors. Over the last 2,500 years, the island of Sicily's been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards before becoming part of Italy.

This island's complicated past makes it distinct from Italy: spicier food, a more festive lifestyle, and people who are Sicilian first, Italian second.

Cefalù, dramatically situated on the north coast, is one of Sicily's many romantic port towns.

Giuseppe Ciraolo is taking a few days away from his job at Cefalù's tourist office to join us. He's borrowed a classic 1969 scooter to take me for a spin.

One thing Sicilians have in common with Italians is their love affair with scooters. In the 1950s, scooters were symbolic of Italy's post-war boom. They meant mobility and freedom for the working class, and they still do. The classic model is a Vespa. That means "wasp," and this place swarms with them.

The owner of this Vespa, Pietro, says he got it the year man walked on the moon. He was 14 — it's the only scooter he's owned, and he wouldn't trade it for any other. Pietro claims its lines are classic -- they're "round, like a woman."

Rick: What is more beautiful, this bike or a woman?
Giuseppe: Che ne pensa, signor Pietro, e’ piu’ bella una donna o questa Vespa? Sua moglie o la Vespa? [What do you think, Mr. Pietro, what's more beautiful: a woman or this Vespa? Your wife or this Vespa?]
Pietro: Tutte e due. [Both of them.]

The oldest scooter in Cefalù: It still draws a crowd.

The Vespa is perfect for these tiny lanes. Cefalù's labyrinthine back streets are a reminder of Arab rule. 1,200 years ago, Arabs washed their clothes on these stones.

In Sicily, there's history everywhere. It's even in the food. Pistachio sherbet. The Arabs introduced both pistachios and sherbet to the island. But in 1072, Sicily's Arab rulers were booted by the Normans.

This cathedral is Norman. Built to double as a fortress, it's crenelated, like a castle. Fortified passageways allowed soldiers to run from one tower to the next.

The Norman legacy survives. The medieval town walls are studded with small Christian shrines. Last Sunday was Easter, and this one's lovingly decorated.

Here in Cefalù, like anywhere in Italy, early evenings are a parade of people. Especially in south Italy, with jobs scarce, kids spend hours just hanging out. It's cruising without cars. Old-timers hang out too. It's a multi-generational scene. From moms with kids in strollers to grandparents, everyone seems to be out doing their vasche — that means "laps."

After doing our laps, we're ready to try the local cuisine. Food is a huge part of life here. Sicilians talk of food like the English talk about the weather. Sicilian wine is enjoying newfound respect.

Rick: Oh that's good.

The island's cuisine is Mediterranean; menus are rich in seafood and courses come in waves: appetizers (that's antipasti), the first course (or primi piatti) — generally pasta, and the second course — secondi — our entree.

This gate, overlooking the harbor, was originally a gate through the medieval city wall. Cefalù's fishermen hang out here. Antonio Brocato's been fishing since he was a kid.

Rick: So this is the "anchovy" lamp.
Antonio: Sì, sì, perché la lingua internazionale, come loro sanno, e’ l’inglese. [Yes, yes, (I understand) because the international language, as you know, is English.]
Rick: Anchovy, …it attracts the fish, the light does.

The fishermen here go by nicknames. Many don't even know each other's actual names. Antonio's nickname is "Il Presidente."

Rick: So, today you are the president of the cooperative for the fishermen?

After 60 years, he still goes out every day.

Il Presidente brings a certain nobility to his work. That's one of the things I like about Europe — people find their niche and they do their job with pride and gusto. Fishing has always been a big part of Sicily's economy and culture.

Whether the catch is good or the catch is meager, the work's always hard — and for Il Presidente, it's a way of life.

A car is handy for exploring Sicily. Many of the top sights are away from cities — like its dramatic Greek temples. We're heading for one of the greatest: Segesta.

Once in the countryside, traffic is sparse. Autostradas are relatively new here. While most of Italy's superfreeways come with tolls, many of Sicily's are toll-free — one of many economic subsidies from the more prosperous north.

When driving anywhere in Europe you can shrink the language barrier by making educated guesses. Try reading the signs: "this tunnel has no lights... moderate your velocity." Here's a warning: "electronic surveillance by the police." In trouble? You're never far from an SOS telephone. Highway numbers can be confusing — navigate by city names.

Sicily's sleepy interior feels vast and quiet. Just a few miles off the autostrada takes you back in time.

The Temple of Segesta is a reminder that centuries before Sicily was Norman or Arab, it was Greek. In fact, 400 years before Christ, the island was dotted with evocative Doric temples. Segesta — with its harmonious lines and ideal beauty accentuated by a pristine natural setting — is one of the best preserved anywhere.

In ancient Greece, first sons generally got the land. When tough times hit, Greek society basically told second sons, "Go west." And "west" was Sicily. This was their land of opportunity; they came here and created a new greater Greece.

But of course, the Greeks were muscled out by the Romans. We're heading for the villa of a Roman emperor. But first let's bed down in a countryside B&B.

In Italy, working farms with rooms to rent are called "agriturismos." Across Europe small farms are having trouble surviving — as they are in the USA. To supplement their income, many farmers rent rooms to travelers seeking a rural refuge from fast-paced urban scenes.

Our home tonight: Il Vecchio Frantoio — "the Old Olive Press."

Gloria: So, this is my house and there are my dogs, Spartico and Leopoldo. This was an old monastery, and now we live here. I live here with my family.

Gloria Cipolla and her family encourage guests to make themselves at home.

Gloria: I would like to show you this old room. This is the old press, olive press, from last century. Now I want to show you the bedrooms, OK?

Gloria: This is your room. And here is your toilet and your shower, and this is the best view of Sicily.
Rick: All right, thank you!
Gloria: Bye! Ciao!
Rick: Ciao!

Farmhouse B&Bs offer more comfort for half the price of a city hotel.

Our farmhouse was comfy, but nothing like the imperial Roman villa of Casale. This was thought to be the hunting lodge of Emperor Maximillian.

In about 300 A.D., he built an obscenely lavish country escape right here in the middle of Sicily. At a time when the average person earned about a loaf of bread a day, emperors were considered gods, and could get away with unbridled hedonism.

The splendor survives in some of the finest Roman mosaics anywhere. Each room had a theme. This is the fishing room. Far from the sea, only emperors could afford seafood. Fish were kept alive in barrels until ready to cook. Serving fish for dinner was showing off. This scene is as much a menu as a piece of art.

The palace is wall-to-wall mosaics — imagine it with big shots in togas wandering past fountains down colonnaded halls. The chips are made of 38 different kinds of multicolored marble and glass, giving us a colorful peek at the emperor's lifestyle. Amore. This amorous scene decorated the bedroom.

The hunting room was just down the hall. Hunting was a favorite pastime of Rome's nobility. Romans made sacrifices to Diana, goddess of the hunt. Their reward? A good fat boar, a net full of deer, and — at the end of the day — a hearty barbecue.

The Corridor of the Great Hunt shows Rome's fascination with wild animals. Exotic beasts, caught and transported from distant places, were destined to battle each other and slaves to the delight of urbanites packing big-city arenas.

And any top-end villa came with baths and a gymnasium. These girls are demonstrating Olympic events: jumping, discus throwing, racing, and some kind of ball game. For the winner: a victory palm and a crown of roses. And I thought bikinis were an invention of the 1950s.

If you wanted to blame hedonism for the fall of Rome, the emperor's villa could be Exhibit A. After the collapse of Rome and the chaos that followed, Sicily flourished for a couple centuries under Arab rule.

Palermo, Sicily's main city and historic capital, comes with a whiff of Arabia. It's a noisy and busy metropolis reflecting a complex past.

With the ninth-century Arab conquest, Palermo soon had 200,000 people, 300 mosques, and several busy markets. Today I like the Bollaro Market...

...where the beat of bootleg CDs competes with singing salesmen.

Whether you understand the lyrics or not, this slice-of-life Sicilian market action is some the best in Europe. And don't just gawk — buy something!

Rick: Bon giornu.
Vendor: Ciao.
Rick: Um, assaggiato? Uno? Uno. That's good, yeah. Let's get — look it, there're different — let's get a mix. Misto, due tipi?

Rick: Let's go down here, I think their fish man is out.

Pizza. Sicily rivals Naples as the place for pizza in Italy. Locals like it cooked in a traditional wood-burning oven. And an antipasto buffet — like this — is popular throughout Italy. It's a quick and inexpensive chance to try a variety of seasonal foods...with no language barrier.

As we saw in Cefalù — and as we see on this traditional horse cart — the Arabs were tossed out by the Normans. And they made Palermo grander yet — famous for its lavish Norman churches.

The cathedral of Monreale is one of Sicily's art treasures. While dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this massive church was built to show off the power of the Norman king William II. Famous for its exquisite 12th- and 13th-century mosaics, each panel tells a story.

Here's King William being crowned by Christ. Apart from that little bit of political propaganda, the church is virtually wallpapered with Bible scenes. There's Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent, angels climbing Jacob's ladder, and Noah building his arc and filling it with animals.

This place functions as a Bible storybook — it's designed to. For centuries early Christians debated whether or not images were appropriate in church. To solve this controversy — called the "Iconoclastic Controversy" — a pope called the Council of Nicea in the eighth century. The result? Images are OK if they teach the Christian message. Here at the Cathedral of Monreale the art is laid out precisely as the council prescribed.

"Quattro Canti" — that means "four corners" — is the gritty intersection of Palermo's two main thoroughfares. The niches hold statues of the four Spanish kings of Sicily — another reminder of this island's many-layered history.

Sicily's many rulers left their mark with grand architecture. They also left their mark economically. An aristocracy of absentee landlords dating all the way back to the Romans left Sicily with persistent poverty, and a part of its culture inclined to accept corruption and be cynical toward the law and those who enforce it.

Organized crime — called "the Mafia" here — is imbedded in Sicily's cultural soil. Locals refer to it as a phenomenon — like the weather, a force of nature that you just have to live with. I've always felt as safe in Sicily as I do traveling anywhere in southern Europe. In fact, today, law and order seems to be the trend.

Rick: Scuzi. Un cannolo, per favore.

Italy is cracking down on a popular national pastime: tax evasion.

Shopkeepers must give out receipts, and customers must hang on to them until well clear of the shop...or face a stiff fine.

Tax evasion, crime, great pastries...where does it all ultimately lead? Follow me.

The Capuchin Crypt is one of Palermo's most famous and memorable sights. For four centuries, Capuchin monks here have hung their dead brothers up to dry. Their message?

One of the brothers explained, "These 'bodies without souls' are a reminder that we're all mortals. Our time on earth is short. And what really matters is what comes next."

This maze of corridors contains 8,000 skeletons and mummies, dressed in the clothing of their choice. Each area features a different group: monks, women, professionals, and children.

Many of these final resting spots were carefully chosen. Some people actually spent time in the niche they had reserved for their corpse...just getting comfortable with the neighborhood.

Giuseppe: Arrivederci.
Crypt keeper: Arrivederci.
Rick: Grazie.
Crypt keeper: Arrivederci! Il Signore vi benedica. [Goodbye! God bless you.]

I don't know about a Capuchin crypt for me, but I could go for a cappuccino.

Rick: Scuzi un cappuccino, per favore.

That means "the little Capuchin monk." It's what it looks like: with a light top...and a brown robe. Cappuccino.

Giuseppe: Uno espresso per favore?

While fancy coffee has become trendy with Americans, to the Italians, we still don't quite get it. For instance, no Italian drinks cappuccino after breakfast.

Giuseppe: Cappuccino after breakfast? Mi cadono le braccia!
Rick: Is that right? What'd you say? "I throw my arms down?" Would you like a cappuccino?
Barista: No!

We're staying in the Centrale Palace Hotel. It's a four-star splurge. These days most hotels are online. I made my reservation by email. This former 17th-century palace is as central as can be. Whether guiding one of my tour groups or our film crew, I've learned that in a challenging city like Palermo, it's smart to pay extra for a safe and comfortable refuge.

Rick: Oh, it's that way!

Sicily is small — the size of Vermont — and the autostrada makes it smaller yet. In just two hours we're clear across the island and ascending the volcanic Mount Etna — passing eerie reminders of its recent activity. At over 11,000 feet, Etna is Europe's biggest volcano. While there's a serious eruption about every three years, we should be OK today.

We're taking the south approach — a gondola sweeps you into a land of lava, and to awaiting all-terrain vehicles.

Visitors are free to wander and think about recent eruptions. The snow is dusted with newly fallen debris. The occasional booms of the simmering mountain provide a rare travel thrill.

A more comfortable hot spot is nearby Taormina. Sicily's most spectacular resort hangs high above the sea, with handy cable car access to the beach. Its dramatic setting has an understandable allure. Europe has many resort towns like this — romantic Old World places crammed into breathtaking perches…definitely not designed for modern tourist crowds and their cars.

Rick: Oh gosh! Aaaa!

After driving through towns like this, you'll feel like you need a vacation. Hotels are signposted, but threading the town is only possible via a one-way circuit.

Rick: Hotel Continental? Down that way? Can I turn around up here?
Vespa-driving policeman: Di qua no, non si puo’ camminare. [Not this way, you can't go through here.]
Rick: OK.

Miss your hotel, and you're in for another hair-raising loop.

Taormina was a favorite aristocratic escape in the 19th century. Today its main drag is made to order for good living. Enjoy the views, great people watching, and a cannolo.

Many travel all the way to Sicily for one of these. I can understand why. Connoisseurs of cannoli insist on having one freshly filled — not with cream but with ricotta cheese.

Taormina's setting impressed the ancient Greeks — probably more for its strategic location than the view. Still, this must be the most dramatically situated theater from the ancient world. 2,500 years ago, Greeks packed the house for live theater. So long ago — perched high on a mountain on an island in the Mediterranean — civilization flourished. Today, travelers ponder the twisting and turning plot of the story of Europe. And with a setting like this — no play is a tragedy.

The cultural soil of Sicily — enriched by wave after wave of conquerors — makes this island one of Europe most fascinating corners. Thanks for traveling with us, and join us again next time. I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'. Ciao!