Head to the Med for a fascinating mix of Arabic and European cultures and see the location of the hit TV series, says Pat Richardson
Situated at a crossroads in the Mediterranean, Sicily was for centuries seduced, conquered, possessed, enriched, exploited and abandoned by successive invaders – Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Barbarians, Arabs, French, Spanish.
Each left its mark on the island’s customs, cuisine, culture and architecture. Most erased all visible trace of earlier occupiers.
Nature, too, has frequently been a destructive force here, with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions leaving towns and villages in ruins.
Their many rebuilding styles reveal plenty about Sicily’s past; so structures in the local white limestone, which fades to a honey-toned gold, provided many of our tour’s highlight sights.
Our first three nights were spent in Noto, one of the eight Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto in South-Eastern Sicily, rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1693, which together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On a guided walk the following morning, we viewed Noto’s beautiful array of elaborately carved Baroque architecture, dominated by the twin-towered Duomo.
Are you a fan of Inspector Montalbano?
An afternoon trip took us to Pozzallo, famed for its golden sandy beaches and 15th-century fortress Cabrera Tower, from which pirate ships could be sighted; then on to another of the eight towns: off-the-beaten-track Scicli.
Here, fans of Inspector Montalbano will recognise the town hall as the police station in the hit TV series set in Sicily; and, a few steps away, Palazzo Iacono, which doubles as the regional police HQ in the fictional town of Montelusa.
There were more Inspector Montalbano locations to spot on an optional excursion to Ragusa and Modica the following day, including Ragusa’s imposing Cathedral of San Giorgio, which overlooks Piazza Duomo, the powder-blue Conversation Circle building in the piazza, and Trattoria La Rusticana, in Corso XXV Aprile, which appears as Trattoria San Calogero, where the TV ’tec is a lunchtime regular.
Modica’s alleys and street views may look familiar too, as they frequently form a backdrop to the Inspector Montalbano stories.
Our next destination was the island’s capital, Palermo, a long drive from Noto, through seaside towns and rural vistas. The city has a magnificent setting in a natural amphitheatre known as the Conca d’Oro, or Golden Shell, edging the sea and backed by mountains.
Although a marked contrast in terms of size and pace, it has Sicily’s characteristic mix of architecture on a grand scale.
There’s a contrast, too, between two of its two must-see sights: vast Teatro Massimo and tiny Cappella Palatina. The theatre opened its doors to the public in May 1897, as the third largest in Europe.
The chapel was built between 1130 and 1140 for Sicily’s Norman King, Roger II. Its interior is covered with breathtaking 12th-century Byzantine mosaics.
Rock the Kasbah
Next, we headed for Mazara del Vallo, on the west coast. The 1930 discovery of the remains of an ancient harbour revealed that this was where Arab invaders of Sicily made landfall in the 9th century.
For the next 400 years, the city’s importance grew. Today, the ‘Kasbah’ – an impenetrable maze of streets and alleys – is one of the few remaining remnants of this fishing port’s Arab past.
Another important find was dredged from the sea in 1,600 feet of water of Sicily’s coast by fisherman in 1998: a Greek bronze statue from the 3rd or 4th century BC, which is now known as the Dancing Satyr.
Although missing both arms, one leg and its tail, the discovery caused ripples of excitement in the global art world. It is now on display in Mazara del Vallo.
To reach our final destination, Acireale, we drove along the scenic north coast to Messina in the island’s north-east corner. There, turning south for the final stretch, we were rewarded with outstanding views across the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from mainland Italy.
Our final excursion was optional and took in Sicily’s two highlight sights.
The first, Taormina’s 3rd-century Graeco-Roman theatre, provided a grandstand view of the second: Europe’s tallest active volcano – Mount Etna. Both were mesmerising.
Great for food lovers
Treat yourself to authentic Sicilian cuisine with lunch at Osteria dei Sapori Perduti in Modica. Then buy some of their famously delicious chocolate, made locally to an ancient Aztec recipe.
Great for spirited adventurers
On this tour’s final excursion to the island’s highlight sight, Mount Etna, don’t settle for the shops, and small craters at Rifugio Sapienza – take a cable-car ride to the top!
Great for culture vultures
With two free afternoons in Palermo, you have time to visit the Museo Archeologico Regionale. Housed in a former monastery, it is Sicily’s foremost museum, with an extensive collection of artefacts.
Woman’s Weekly travel offer
Eight days’ half board in a four-star hotel in Sicily from £869pp. Departs Jun to Oct 2016. Includes return flights, taxes and transfers, plus Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, Palermo, Taormina, Mount Etna, Monreale and Siracusa. Escorted by an experienced tour manager.
Call to book or for a free brochure on 01283 742 396 or visit womansweekly.com/Sicily
Saga’s 12-night Seriously Sicily escorted tour, departs April to June and September to December in 2016, from £1,149pp (1 Dec) to £1,399pp (1 and 8 Sept), including VIP door-to-door travel service, flights and transfers. For more information, call 0800 300 500, or visit saga.co.uk/sicily.