Let’s be clear: you have no hope of visiting the whole of Sicily in one go, you would have to move there for a few years to accomplish that. This is due not only to the fact that Sicily is one of Italy’s largest regions – measuring almost 10.000 square miles – but also to the fact that it is incredibly diverse both naturally and culturally. Everything Italy has to offer can be found in some corner or other of this incredible island: from sandy beaches and rocky shores to imposing mountains and soft rolling hills and, of course, Europe’s most active volcano. There’s history and culture aplenty, archeological sites that rival with the best known treasures of ancient Rome, and there are lively cultural hubs where new and exciting art projects are born. If you are planning your next incentive trip and you want to head to Sicily, we suggest you focus on one subregion and explore it as much as you can. As usual, we will offer you a few suggestions that you might not come across on your average travel agency brochure.
No, not the volcano, not even a volcano, but Vulcano, a small island in the Aeolian archipelago, off the northern coast of Sicily. The whole archipelago is of volcanic origin and this particular island has its own small volcanoes, often in the form of underwater fumaroles. Here you will be able to enjoy the thermal baths, in an actual volcanic crater. The clay mud in this natural spa may have a rather pungent smell, but it is incredibly good for the skin. After having a soak and rolling in the mud in the small craters, you might want to climb the largest one and wait for the sunset on its summit: it is one of the most breath-taking sights Sicily has to offer.
If you are visiting the southern corner of Sicily, that majestic triangle of land that stares at the very heart of the mediterranean, you should not miss the Donnafugata Castle. Despite its name, this manor is not, strictly speaking, a castle, so much as a XIX century residence. It is a magnificent building, roughly 10 miles from Ragusa. The original construction dates back to the XIV century and it has been passed onto several families since, restored and modified, acquiring the distinct blend of mediterranean and moorish style that is a distinctive feature of many ancient palaces in southern Italy. The castle boasts a superb, enormous garden, about 10 acres in size, which contains a stone labyrinth, designed to entertain the guests of Baron Arezzo, who owned the manor in the XVII century.
3. Alcantara Gorges
On the eastern coast of Sicily, the Alcantara river reaches the end of its 30 mile journey and dives into the Ionian Sea. In the vicinity of Francavilla di Sicilia, a small town 30 miles from Messina, the Alcantara Valley takes on a unique conformation that makes it one of the most remarkable natural landmarks in the region. An impressive canyon of gorges and ravines, approximately 82 feet-tall and ranging in width from 6 to 13 feet. Contrary to popular believe, the valley is unlikely to have been formed through erosion of lavic stone by the course of the river. The origin of this peculiar formation is probably to be traced back to a series of earthquakes that split two basalt lakes, which in their turn had been sedimented by magma leaks. The crevasses thus formed were flooded by the river, creating this unique, sharp-edged canyon.
4. Piazza Armerina
After exploring the coastline and the islands, it is only fair to take a look at the inland, which is just as captivating. Piazza Armerina is a small village, developed over a medieval settlement. The old town presents a unique blend of Norman and Baroque architecture which, one might argue, is Sicily in a nutshell. The best known landmark in Piazza Armerina is the patrician manor known as Villa Romana del Casale, containing the richest, most complex and largest roman mosaics currently in existence. This inestimable treasure, which constitutes one of 49 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy, is enclosed in a 4th century villa and it has survived nearly two millennia of conquerors and natural disasters. The villa was, at different points in time, conquered, taken over or vandalised (as it happens, by the original Vandals, who dominated this area through part of the 5th century, as did the Visigoths).
5. Fornace Penna
After taking in the natural beauty and the historical treasures of this unique region, it is only fair to pay tribute to a remarkable example of industrial archeology, located in Sampieri, a fraction of the town of Scicli, in the Ragusa province. Once a brick factory, the building was destroyed by a fire in 1924 and never restored. The fire is said to have been either a mobsters’ revenge or connected to political unrest, at a time where the socialist party was attempting to oppose the raise of fascism. Whatever the reason for the criminal act itself, we are now left with the eery skeleton of the original building, its chimney jutting up from a hollow shell. This site has been used as a set for several movies and tv shows, including the ubiquitously popular Montalbano.
6. Bonus Tip: the first arancino on your way to Sicily
As you board the ferry from Villa San Giovanni to Messina, don’t miss the opportunity to head to the bar and enjoy your first arancino before you even set foot on the island itself. To be clear, this is by no means the best arancino you will ever taste and most Sicilians will warn you against it, pointing you to several establishments that will provide superior quality fried rice-balls but, in this particular instance only, you should disregard the locals’ competent advice. The experience of eating your arancino on the deck of the ferry, looking at the shore growing on the horizon and inhaling the sea-breeze, is one you will treasure for as long as you live.