TOWNS AND SIGHTS TO EXPLORE
Described as “The most beautiful city of mortals” by the Greek poet Pindar in the 5th century BC, Agrigento was one of the most important cities in Greece’s Golden Age. Today, the Valley of the Temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some of the best preserved ancient Greek buildings outside Greece itself. The most outstanding is a Doric temple built in the 5th century BC and attributed to the goddess Concordia, which is similar in design to the Parthenon. The archaeological museum in modern Agrigento has several fascinating finds, and the town itself has some attractive medieval piazzas.
Set on a gentle slope amid green fields of orange, lemon and olive trees, facing the sea and Mount Catalfano, Bagheria is renowned for its 18th-century palaces and sumptuous buildings such as Villa Palagonia.
Inland from Sciacca, this historic hill-town offers panoramic views across to Agrigento and Mount Etna. The famous peace treaty of 1302 was signed here, ending the War of the Vespers. Architectural points of interest include the small Church of St. Maria della Pieta, partly built into the rock face, and the Church of St. Augustine, built in 1335. Other sites include the former Church of St. Lorenzo (now only visible in part) with its imposing Gothic portal, and the Church of St. Pellegrino with the nearby Convent of the Middle Ages.
Castellammare del Golfo
A harbour-front resort town that was the main port of Segesta and Erice in the pre- Hellenic age. The main points of interest are the remains of a medieval castle near the harbour and the sandy beaches, the best of which is at Alcamo Marina.
Cave di Cusa
If you wish to explore the ancient history of the area further, stop off at the Cave of Cusa, about 10km to the east of Selinunte. This is the quarry from which the acropolis and temples at Selinunte were carved, and has been left more or less as it was when its stone masons had to flee, almost two and half thousand years ago.
An hour’s drive east of Palermo is the small town of Cefalù, facing onto sandy beaches with an imposing cliff face behind. This is one of the most popular places to visit in Sicily, asit encapsulates the island very well. There is a beautiful Cathedral filled with precious mosaics, several notable churches, excellent restaurants serving fresh fish, breathtaking views from the cliff (or La Rocca as it is known) and medieval streets filled with shops. Nearby is the Madonie National Park, with villages and towns and excellent countryside walking routes. Erice Situated on top of Mount Erice, Erice is a charming medieval town that should be visited in order to walk to the Castello di Venere, built on the site of the Temple of Venus. Its origins are ancient, mysterious and shrouded in legend. From here you can enjoy an extraordinary view over the entire Trapani region. Don’t miss the chance to try the local sweet almond paste, which is made according to ancient recipes.
Mazara del Vallo
One of the most popular tourist destinations in western Sicily, Mazara del Vallo is home to the Dancing Satyr. This large bronze statue, which probably dates to the 3rd century BC, was discovered 500 metres underwater in the Strait of Sicily in 1998 and now resides in the Museo del Satiro in Sant’Egidio Church. The town was founded by the Phoenicians and, like many other towns on Sicily, has a history featuring Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman conquests. It was an important port in antiquity and is still a major seaside town – though you can also take to the waters here for wind-surfing, kite-surfing and scuba diving. The surrounding countryside is ideal for horse and bike-riding excursions, as well as bird watching.
Twenty minutes from the centre of Palermo, the hill town of Monreale is known for its remarkable Duomo, built by William II in the 12th century. The building itself is a classic piece of architecture, combining elements of Islamic, Byzantine and Romanesque design; inside is a thrilling array of mosaics depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. One that stands out in particular is the imposing figure of Christ Pantocrater, located in the nave. The Cloister, attached to the cathedral, is a beautiful piece of work. Other
notable monuments are the Archbishopric and the Church of Monte.
The capital of Sicily, Palermo is a lively, fascinating city with a history that stretches back 3,000 years. A day trip here will give guests an insight into its considerable artisticand architectural heritage, but you could easily spend a week here, exploring its churches, palaces, restaurants and nightlife. The sights are too numerous to list in full, but highlights include the exquisite Palatine Chapel in the Royal Palace, the Teatro Massimo opera house (which appeared in The Godfather III), the Byzantine mosaics of the Church of St. Maria dell’Ammiraglio, the bustling Il Capo street market and the Piazza Marina district, the city’s old Arabic quarter which contains several palaces, restaurants and squares. The old town is best explored on foot, but you can also hire a horse and carriage or take an open-top bus tour. For shopping, the best area is between Teatro Massimo and Piazza Politeama, while for restaurants, try the area around Piazza Olivella.
Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro
Near Castellammare del Golfo and San Vito lo Capo, across a myriad of small, rugged bays, is the Zingaro nature reserve, created in 1981. Small cliff paths guide visitors from the coast to the summit of the mountain, and allow you to discover the flora and fauna of one of the most well-preserved areas of the Mediterranean. The reserve is used as a nesting ground for dozens of species of birds, including the Peregrine falcon and rare Bonelli eagle, and can also be explored by swimming and scuba diving safaris. The symbol of the reserve is the dwarf palm, a tree that grows on every slope.
San Vito lo Capo
A seaside town between the two nature reserves of Zingaro and Monte Cofano, renowned for its kilometre-long stretch of white sand. Its Arabic ancestry can be seen in the white houses and small streets lined with bougainvillea. Every September, the town hosts the annual Cous Cous Festival, in which chefs from different countries compete by cooking the dish according to their own culinary tradition.
Scala dei Turchi
The sugar-white Scala dei Turchi is a remarkable natural feature made of limestone and gypsum, overlooking the sea along the coast of Realmonte near Porto Empedocle. It means ‘Turkish Staircase’, as according to legend it was built by Turkish invaders.
The nearest town to Verdura, Sciacca is a seaside famous for its lovely views over the Mediterranean and for a medieval towncentre that contains several notable churches, castles and piazzas. It was known in Greek and Roman times for its thermal springs, but developed more substantially in the ninth and tenth centuries, when it exported the island’s grain to Africa. If you have never experienced one of Italy’s legendary festivals, come for Sciacca’s Carnevale in the week before Lent, when cartoon-like giants roam the streets, carried on floats, and flamboyant dancers entertain the crowds.
A tiny but beautiful fishing village built around an 18th-century manor house that faces the central square. Many come to swim here in the summer, in the cove in front of the tonnara, the traditional tuna fishery (now closed). Just out to sea are the striking Faraglioni di Scopello, sea-worn towers of rock covered in vegetation.
Every summer, thousands of spectators flock to Segesta for theatrical and musical performances held in the Greek amphitheatre, which sits in a grand position on Mount Barbaro 400 metres above sea level. Below are the 36 columns of the Temple of Segesta, built in the Doric style not by the Greeks but by the Elymians, an indigenous people of Sicily. It was allied with Athens, then with Carthage, and after the Punic Wars became a Roman free city. Surrounded by rolling countryside, this is an enchanting ancient site.
Flanked by golden beaches, this is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, with the most extraordinary collection of ruins. Founded by Greek colonists in the 6th century BC, Selinunte enjoyed two centuries of prosperity before being sacked by Carthage. It was never rebuilt. Visitors today will find columns and stones strewn around the peaceful countryside, just as Victorian travellers found it. Swinburne, the English poet, described it as ‘one of the most gigantic and sublime ruins imaginable’. Only the Temple of Hera still stands. It makes a great place for a walk, or you can explore by electric buggy.
Just 80km from the coast of Africa on Sicily’s westernmost tip, Trapani has a fascinating mix of cultures. The landscape here is similar to that of Morocco, with flat salt pans stretching for miles along the shore. It is also a good place to sample the local cuisine and the town’s signature dish of fish couscous is a must as well as the marsala wine and Nero d’Avola red wine. There are several annual events here, such as Musical July, with a programme including alfresco opera performances.