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Sweet Sicilia

Sicily, Italy

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Sicily is one of those places that really have roots – in fact, very large portions of the world’s population have their roots there. If you’re an American of Italian descent, there’s a forty percent chance that your ancestors came from Sicily. The reason for all that migration, of course, was poverty: despite being rich and fertile, it’s always been one of the poorest parts of Italy.

But it’s very far from being a slum. If you’re cruising around the central Mediterranean, your itinerary will almost certainly feature a Sicilian stop off, probably in the ancient city of Palermo.

In some ways it’s not really an exaggeration to say that the island hasn’t changed that much in two thousand years. After the Romans got hold of it they pretty well left it alone – back in those days most of population of the island spoke Greek, and the legions made little effort at Romanization – they just left the locals to get on with it. That was probably a good idea. Back then, as now, the island was one of the main producers of grain, olives, grapes and almonds in the Mediterranean.

A lot of the fertility of the soil is the result of a very high level of local volcanic activity. If you’ve made landfall at Palermo, there’s a good chance that your cruise company will have organized a coach trip for you to go and see the mighty Mount Etna, which lies an hour or so drive to the east, and dominates the upper north-east corner of the island. At over three thousand meters (the height changes regularly because of eruptions), Etna is the highest volcano in Europe, and the most active.

And boy is it active. Mount Etna is officially classified as being in a state of virtually constant eruption. Don’t let this worry you, however. Etna is not characteristically like its neighbor Vesuvius on the mainland Bay of Naples. Vesuvius doesn’t erupt very often, but when it does it does it in style, spreading destruction – and sometimes death – over a wide area. Because Etna blows off smoke every day there is very rarely sufficient build-up of gas and lava in the mountain’s interior to make a really big bang. But it’s an unusual day when there’s no smoke coming from the caldera at the summit, and on most days you can here the reports of small explosive eruptions. If you can, it’s worth watching the mountain at night: when it has a slightly more energetic blast than usual you can often see ‘fire fountains’ of red hot molten rock jetting from the summit.

Back in Palermo there’s a lot to see and do. It’s a lively town that’s been around non-stop for getting on for two and a half thousand years. It’s taken some damage in its time, most recently during WWII, but life carries on. It’s a fun city in which to eat: don’t expect lots of fancy cuisine here, though. The food is basic, but excellent, and all made from the freshest ingredients, as you would expect from a region that is effectively the breadbasket of Italy. There’s less of an emphasis on pasta than you’ll find in the northern Italian states, though it is still eaten in huge quantities. Seafood is important – if you can stomach the thought of eating octopus, try the excellent local calamari – as are breads made from locally grown grain. There’s even a strong African influence, which is hardly surprising giving the proximity of Tunisia across the water – you can find some excellent couscous and similar dishes in Palermo.

If you feel like a little art and culture before boarding you ship, you should try to get a seat at the Teatro Massimo. That in itself should hardly be a problem – it’s one of Europe’s biggest theatres. The Teatro Massimo was built in the late nineteenth century, and heavily restored a few years ago. As ever, the Sicilians were eager to show their cousins in northern cities like Milan, Venice and Turin that they weren’t backward yokels, but people of culture – so the Teatro was built with the aim of directly competing with great northern opera houses such as La Scala. Opera is still staged here every year, along with conventional drama. If you can fit a performance into your schedule, do you very best to attend. Even if you don’t really understand what’s going on – which shouldn’t worry you, as opera is about music, and the stories are usually ridiculous – you’ll have a great time soaking up the atmosphere.

A cruise stop-off of a night or two isn’t really enough to do justice to this fantastic island and its centuries of accumulated history and culture. But it might just be enough to make you want to come back for more!

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