Spending the winter in Sicily sounds pretty romantic. When there are banks of snow in Moscow and at least 4 months of sub-zero temperatures, one can enjoy the sun, warm weather and the brightest colours on the Sicily Island.
The blessed Island
My trip to Sicily was almost spoiled by the beginning of the Etna volcano activity and the unexpected cancellation of the flights from Naples to Catania. However, thanks to this, I bought a train ticket and enjoyed a trip through the beautiful south of Italy and, most importantly, crossed the bay and entered the Sicily Island, as they say, from the “front door”.
Several ferries leave for different parts of the Sicily Island. I was lucky to arrive in Messina, the northernmost city of Sicily. From the ferry transporting both trains and cars, the travellers have a magnificent view of the city and the statue of the Virgin Mary rising as if from the water; the words of the Virgin Mary “I bless you and your city” are written under the sixty-metre pedestal.
It must be said that this blessing did not save Messina from severe destruction during the 1908 earthquake, but, probably, helped the people quickly restore their city and its former beauty. By the way, there is a monument to the Russian sailors on the Messina embankment who were the first to come to help the people suffered from that earthquake.
Strict lines of black baroque
The fact that you live next to a living and breathing volcano is felt most strongly in Catania located near the foot of Mount Etna (Etna or Mongibello). The huge snow cap of the volcano can be seen from almost any place in the city. It is probably difficult for a person accustomed to flat landscapes to imagine how to live next to the volcano that threatens to throw out lava flows at any moment, as was repeatedly the case with Etna. However, I grew up in Kamchatka, so such a neighbourhood has even aroused nostalgic feelings. In addition, when Etna is not active, you can take a walk both around the volcano and climb to the crater itself.
Catania is the second largest, but not the most important city in Sicily that has preserved many attractions and its unusual architecture - the so-called “black baroque”. After one of the major earthquakes, the buildings were rebuilt using hardened pieces of black lava stones: the city and the volcano, seemed to be twinned. The black colour has an almost sacred meaning for Catania. An Elephant Fountain (Fontana dell’Elefante), the symbol of the city, installed on the Cathedral Square (Piazza Duomo) is also made of black lava stone.
Here, in the Cathedral of the city, the relics of St. Agatha (St. Agata) are kept in Basilica Catedrale Sant’Agata; the prayers addressed to the heavenly protector to save from fires, floods and other natural disasters, as they say, repeatedly saved Catania from the raging Etna.
Another attraction worth visiting is the ancient Roman Amphitheater of Catania built in the 2nd century B.C. and hidden in one of the courtyards. The medieval Ursino Castle (Castello Ursino) also makes a deep impression: a rather gloomy castle - due to its massive appearance and dark stone - it used to be seen on the coast of the bay, and now, when the sea has gone, it looks beautiful on one of the squares of Catania.
The Sunshine City
The capital of the island, Palermo, has a completely different mood. Many buildings of the city are built in an unusual Arab-Norman architectural style, the typical examples of which are the Church of San Cataldo (Chiesa di San Cataldo) with its red spherical domes, and the Cathedral of Palermo (Cattedrale di Palermo), in the outlines of which one can also feel the influence of the Gothic, and it is an example of Roman and Spanish architecture. In contrast to Catania, the walls of the buildings in Palermo are of yellowish-sand and ochre colours. There is a lot of sun in the city, so it seems as if it is “dressed in golden clothes”.
You can’t help but have a walk along the park area stretching along the bay and the wide and long promenade in Palermo, watching the ships coming here and admiring the amazing sunset. Here, on the embankment, you can taste a very specific local delicacy - a spleen sandwich. In Palermo, you can taste freshly squeezed pomegranate juice almost everywhere - the one that is sold at the Cathedral seemed to be the most delicious.
Among the iconic places of Palermo is the Pretoria Square (Piazza Pretoria). Being on this square, you forget that you are in Sicily and you feel yourself really like in Rome or Florence because of the “Fountain of Shame” (Fontana della Vergogna) located on the square.
This is the name given by the pious inhabitants of Palermo to the Florentine sculptors’ magnificent creation, the multi-level pools with naked characters of myths and allegories, as well as animals and fabulous monsters. In the 16th century, the fountain installed in Tuscany was acquired by Palermo, completely dismantled, delivered to Palermo and assembled again. The whole operation took several years. Today, the fountain is a real attraction of the city, the only thing is that the Pretoria Square, to my mind, seems to be too small for such a masterpiece.
Other places worth visiting include the Palatine Chapel (Cappella Palatina), the Monreale Cathedral (Duomo di Monreale or Santa Maria Nuova) in the suburb of Palermo, as well as the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo (Catacombe dei Cappuccini) and the Massimo Theatre (Teatro Massimo) where the final episodes of The Godfather were filmed. Really, you are on the island the history of which is connected with the Sicilian mafia - the infamous Cosa Nostra.
All the colours of Sicily in winter
Winter in Sicily is very nice because the warm weather allows the travellers to visit the ancient cities, including such wonderful places like Syracuse included in the UNESCO World Heritage List and enjoy the beauty of nature as well.
It is convenient to travel to Syracuse from Catania. The famous Cyclopean Isles (Isole Ciclopi) is also near Catania. The rocks rising from the sea are huge stones that, according to legend, were thrown by the Cyclops Polyphemus at the ship of Odysseus.
From Palermo, you should definitely go to Monte Pellegrino where you can visit an amazing Church Santuario di Santa Rosalia, a cave shrine attached to a rock with a grotto inside where Saint Rosalia (Santa Rosalia) lived. And on the way back, you should go down the mountain on foot, enjoying the beautiful views of the sea and rocks, the city and its surroundings, and smelling the aromas of plants - you could hardly expect them to blossom in winter.
Those who want to combine business with pleasure - history and architecture with the beauty of nature and the walks in the fresh air, can be surprised in Sicily about another stunning attraction - the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi), this is the largest complex of that kind in Italy with its palaces and buildings rather well preserved. However, I catch myself speaking with admiration about everything I saw in Sicily.
Photo courtesy of the author