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Its magical effect is inescapable if you travel around this unique island - as you certainly will when you venture from place to place in search of castles, temples and cathedrals, and even if you're just looking for secluded beaches. It's the real Sicily. Rustic towns, surrounded by endless fields, orchards or woods, seem to express a different character in every part of every province. Messina's forests, Catania's citrus groves, Caltanissetta's crumpled wheat fields, Trapani's salt pans, the wine country. An occasional farmhouse or, less frequently, a baglio or castle enhances a landscape which would otherwise seem to have been abandoned by time, and which in grassy areas has turned from green to scorched brown by early June. Traversed by the occasional herd of sheep, winding roads lead you to a land of stone houses and abandoned monasteries. It's an underpopulated world, since many Sicilian towns have far fewer residents today than they did in the middle of the nineteenth century, but a land where you can still meet the "real" Sicilians.
There are different ways of approaching this simplicity, which embraces a remarkable diversity ranging from forests to fields to rugged mountains to rolling hills planted with olive trees or wheat. The simplest is appreciating the scenery as you travel across the island en route to its main destinations - or around parts of it such as the mountain regions. Then there is the possibility of making an isolated place in the country a destination in itself - a winery, perhaps, or one of the country retreats known as guest farms, essentially working farm houses. Or a cottage or villa.
Unless you've actually seen much of Sicily, it's easy to think that we make too much of the island's diversity of landscapes, but even the weather and micro-climates vary surprisingly from one region to another. That's also true of the cuisine, often localized in every sense.
Sicily's rural towns owe much of their ambience to location. Communities on Etna's temperamental slopes exist in an unsettled reality entirely different from the comparative serenity of coastal towns like Cefalù. Sutera and Calascibetta are perched atop butte-like mountains, while Erice, Taormina, Enna and Caccamo crown majestic peaks. Trapani, with its windmills, and Catania, with its volcanic stone, seem to reflect entirely different historical legacies, but these provincial capitals are cities, even if their historical districts reflect a past not unlike that of the typical small town. It's the smaller communities that epitomize Sicily's rural past. To most Sicilian country people, city life is something which for many is to be endured out of necessity. Most of Sicily's city residents will tell you they would live in the country if they could - though perhaps outside a town rather than in it.
Land and nature themselves have changed in all these millennia. There are fewer forests than there were a thousand years ago. Indeed, much of the island's interior was already deforested by the sixteenth century. Rivers which in the nineteenth century were still full of fish are now little more than trickling run-off streams. The Arabs, who brought the lemon, the orange and sugar cane, introduced irrigation systems to ensure the success of the new agriculture, but theirs was another era. Sicily's wildlife was gradually decimated in successive centuries. Still, there are nature reserves around the island.
The casual traveler immediately recognizes Sicilian towns as distinct from those of Piedmont and Tuscany. There's more stone and stucco, less wood and brick. Fewer porticos on the public buildings and fewer public gardens. In the countryside there are more goats and sheep, and fewer cows. More hard wheat and grazing grass but very little corn (maize) and no rice.
One of the appealing things about life in the country is its cuisine, not only for its freshness but because it's so delicious. Lunch is usually the day's main meal in Italy, but think about breakfast. In an urban eatery you might expect a so-called "continental breakfast" of a cornetto (crescent roll) with an espresso. But breakfast at home in the Sicilian countryside is traditionally something far more substantial - like a frittata with a very large cappuccino. Incidentally, an Italian frittata differs from a French omelette in that its ingredients (which usually include some green vegetables) are mixed with the beaten eggs and quickly sautéed in olive oil, while in the classic French recipe the cheese and other "fillings" are folded into a crepe-like egg mixture that's already been semi-cooked in butter.
You can sample rustic Sicilian cuisine at a rural retreat (some of which have excellent restaurants), whether its lamb, boar, the fruits of the land or the local cheese and wine - or all of these - that you crave.
Not that it's impossible to find this in Catania or Palermo (as both have exceptional restaurants), but there's a certain country cuisine that seems ersatz in the city, just a bit contrived, as if an urban restaurateur were trying to imitate something foreign.
Naturally, actual rural estates are located outside the towns, and overnight lodging in the orchards, vineyards or fields was necessary during the harvest. Traditionally, however, most Sicilians lived in the towns proper, which in medieval times were often built around castles, towers or the occasional "bailey" (baglio), an isolated and walled courtyard protected by a tower - a kind of "poor man's castle." This was true even before the Norman era; the castle of Mistretta, for example, was a Saracen structure. One might occasionally encounter a historical villa or farmhouse outside the protection of a town, especially if a family's farm were located between two localities, but in most cases such a family would have its "official" residence in one of those localities rather than on their estate.
The layout of most Sicilian towns owes much to ancient Greek civic design. Typically, the Greeks favored a public central square, or agora, with streets branching off in various directions, sometimes in a linear grid work. In that respect, ancient cities like Solunto and Morgantina aren't too different from contemporary Sicilian towns. Other typical Greek urban structures were temples and amphitheatres, though the former might be erected outside the town. The cemetery was outside town, too. The houses themselves were usually attached to each other in rows.
Economies and geography might influence a town's architecture somewhat, but whether they're coastal fishing settlements, hilltop hamlets or flat sprawling villages, Sicilian towns are all similar in certain respects. They usually have a main square where the Mother Church (Chiesa Madre) or town hall (municipio) is located. In this main square may be found the palazzo of the locality's principal noble family, or perhaps the abandoned monastery of a religious order. There are exceptions, naturally. In desmenial communities (where the feudal lord was the King) like Piazza Armerina, Vizzini and Calascibetta, there were several noble families, each with its own palatial residence in a different part of the town, but there was still a main piazza where the church or town hall was located. In newer towns, the community may have developed along a road instead of around a castle or monastery. An unincorporated hamlet associated with a larger (chartered) locality is a frazione. A group of houses or other buildings at a crossroads is a contrada.
Why, one wonders, are these depopulated towns so important? It's a question of history, really. Until the eighteenth century, the vast majority of Sicilians lived in towns. The only real cities were Palermo, Catania, Messina, and perhaps Siracusa. Most of the people who live in the larger cities today are descendants of people who lived in rural towns just a century or two ago. (That's actually true of large cities everywhere.) To ignore the history of the small towns is to ignore the history of Sicily itself.
The towns represent Sicily's ancient and medieval legacy, but also its modern history. The Normans' battles at Messina and Palermo were decisive, but it was the one fought near Francavilla in 1719 between Spanish and Austrian forces in the Alcantara Valley, near Taormina, that was part of the largest campaign fought here since antiquity. If Francavilla were a more famous town, or perhaps located in a more traveled part of Europe, this battle might be more than a footnote to history. Instead, it is a moment in time all but forgotten by Sicilians and remembered only by the island itself - a victim, as it were, of Sicily's overgrown grasses and eternal stone.
Nations are made up of smaller communities, and the collective history of those communities can shape the destiny of a nation. During the War of the Vespers in 1282, it was the nobles of the feudal towns who decided Sicily's fate; even though the revolution started in Palermo, complete victory would never have been possible without the support of the island's smaller communities.
The larger cities are the beating heart of Sicily, but the towns are its soul. It's impossible to truly understand Sicily's people and history without discovering something about these smaller communities. But isn't that true the world over?
It would be an over-simplification to say that the 'real' Sicilians are the country people, as though the city people were somehow less genuine or even less 'Sicilian.' The simple reality is that much more of what is appealing about the traditional Sicily of history is better preserved far from the island's noisy, chaotic cities.
Certain things characterize country life just about anywhere: A stronger sense of community, a slower pace, and an essentially agricultural economy. The air seems fresher and the food seems more wholesome. But to say that Sicilian country life is frozen in time would be inaccurate. Even in many smaller towns the landscape has been scarred by ugly buildings, and villages near larger cities have been encroached upon, becoming suburbs in all but name.
Despite the winds of time, or perhaps because of them, Sicilian county life reminds us of what Sicilian society once was. That's something not to be overlooked if you seek to uncover the secrets of this ancient place.
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