Sicily is chalk to Florence’s cheese. If you’ve headed there from the north, sometimes you wonder if you’re still in Italy at all. The differences are hard to pin down – the cliché of a poor, pastoral cousin certainly sells this complex island short. Having been occupied by just about everyone from the Byzantines to the Normans, French, Spanish and Greeks, Sicily is a beguiling mish-mash of different influences. As the largest island in the Mediterranean, gateway between Europe and Africa, west and east, its strategic potential has been the source of both its triumphs and its tragedies. Yet today the turmoil is a distant echo and its traces leave a diverse medley of architecture, cuisine, culture and folklore for the visitor to revel in.
Like many islands, Sicily often seems all mountains and coastline, creating striking scenes and silhouettes. Cities and towns squeeze into the space between crags and sea. Mount Etna looms over the eastern side like a giant goddess, shrouded in mist and mystery, a permanent wisp of smoke from her lips is a reminder of her latent power. Most travellers stick to the edges, but a trip through the interior reveals a refreshing, timeless tranquillity. Modern flyways on stilts float through a landscape full of contrasts – wide plains baked by the sun, patchwork farmland, craggy heights swept by the sirocco wind, and everything in-between. Soft hills roll in every shade of green, skimmed by swooping birds of prey, and multi-coloured wildflowers dust every available verge or hillock. Lemon and orange groves span the entire island – there seem to be too many fruit to ever be eaten, and rickety carts spring up on roadsides everywhere stacked high selling them.