Sicily – Not what I Expected!

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Maltese tourists have been visiting Sicily since time immemorial, mostly because of its proximity to our island and the fact that the culture and people seem to be quite similar to ours.

The most popular idea was that Sicily was not only easily reachable, but also not so very expensive, especially since it was mostly known for its very cheap and worthwhile local markets. In Malta, it seems to be advertised as a haven for bargain-hunters, the promised land for those looking for a good deal, not to mention a utopia for those wanting to enjoy the sun, sea and great weather we have in Malta, but in a different setting.

Mount Etna, Catania and Trapani seem to be three of the most common destinations – offering the visitor not only shopping and night life, but also a dash of culture, should one be so inclined.

This is what I expected when my other half proposed spending a Valentine’s long weekend in Sicily, a couple of years ago. Honestly, I was not overly thrilled. Not being a fan of shopping abroad, at the time it seemed like a glorified trip to Gozo, in other words, familiar and offering nothing new.

I was an idiot.

True, all I had heard from my fellow Maltese about Sicily pointed towards this erroneous idea, maybe most people disembark at the airport in Catania and so remain in the area, or maybe they just do not tend to associate Sicily with culture, learning and history – but there is that and so much more!

When I started to research about Sicily, and more specifically its North Western part, since we were going to be using the airport at Palermo, I was astonished and overjoyed. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Knights – Sicilian history was enormously rich. All these peoples had left a sign of their passing and more. I could not wait to visit, and in fact the trip was not just one to remember, but one to repeat!

There were many sites which attracted and captured my interest, but three in particular were too magical and had too strong an impact not to be mentioned here.

Erice – The City in the Sky

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The mesmerising medieval city of Erice, situated on Mount Erice, sits on a cloud. That is the only way I can describe it. We drove for more than half an hour through incredibly steep, winding roads, always going upwards, to access it. Misty tentacles reached out to embrace us and as we finally parked and entered the Porta Trapani, we could hardly see the beautiful Chiesa Madre through the fog.

Honestly, I felt like I was in a medieval representation of the movie Silent Hill! Nothing could be heard. All sound was eerily muted as we climbed the long winding slippery stairs to the bell tower (in the dark I might add), and I grabbed the wet wall in fear. The view at the top was more than worth it however, as was the Norman Castello di Venere (Castle of Venus) and the imposing Pepoli Castle, dating from Saracen times.

Segesta Temple and Amphitheatre

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Originally Greek, later taken over by the Romans, Segesta offers not just a Hellenic Doric Temple, which is known as being the best preserved of its kind in the world, but also a ruined Roman settlement and a spectacular Roman Amphitheatre situated on Mount Barbaro and reachable on foot. The Amphitheatre offers one of the most spectacular views in Sicily, as from its twenty tiers of steps, carved from the solid rock of the mountain and elevated four hundred metres above sea level, one can enjoy magnificent, panoramic views.

Palermo’s Hidden Catacombs

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In the heart of the busy and metropolitan city of Palermo, underneath Palermo’s small Capuchin monastery, lies a macabre and extraordinary historical record of life and death. The underground crypts, which were excavated as early as the sixteenth century, hold the embalmed and mummified remains of approximately 8,000 people. Many would have left a will which contained their wish to be interred in these catacombs for spiritual reasons.

I was amazed and a bit horrified at how big this crypt is. The bodies, which are encased in glass cases which line the walls, are preserved in various states of dress and undress. These are divided into various categories, mainly men, women, children, priests, virgins, monks and professionals. The last to be embalmed was the famous two-year old Rosalia Lombardo, who was interred in 1920 and whose body is still almost perfectly and remarkably intact. This place is definitely not for the faint-hearted!

These are just a few of the amazing sites I discovered in Sicily and I am sure that there are many more beautiful and awe-inspiring places to be seen.

Have you ever been to Sicily?