Sicily — Why I Went, and Why You Should Too

I've just wrapped up a long season of guiding tours in Sicily. If you don't know much about Sicily, you're not alone. Even if it's the largest province in Italy, it is a place that seasoned travelers to Italy overlook. But that would be a mistake, this island is richer and more historic than Rome itself.In my many years of working in Italy, I had also overlooked this magical island. I had heard all of the scary urban travel legends, mafia tales and, more than anything, it was just not an easy place to go. A train to get down here takes a full day. Why bother when there's so much to see on the mainland?

Why did I Go to Sicily to Begin With

Some years ago, I was planning on spending a week in Greece, but changed my mind as the crisis there had just started and things seemed a little uncertain for a girl traveling alone. A colleague persuaded me to visit his region, saying that I would love it. I was skeptical, but decided to go. It was cheap and I had a friend to show me around. That was a fateful decision because I came to Sicily instead of Greece and fell in love.What's so special about this island? The list is too long, but a start would be the diversity. This is not Italy, my friends. It's something very different. In the past 3000 years, there have been 12 different cultures that have come, conquered, then left their mark on the island. Unravelling that rich history and making sense of it is my main task, trying to convey it simply to people can be a challenge. So here's a basic idea of the historical picture...

A Complicated History in a Nutshell

About 2000 BC we find the Sicens, an ancient native people. The Sicels (a different tribe) arrive here in 1200 BC. About 100 years later, the Elymians come, who are possibly refugees from the fall of Troy.In 735 BC, about the time of the founding of the city of Rome, the Greeks arrive and settle in the east at Naxos, near Mt Etna. The Greeks will settle large parts of the east, making Sicily Magna Grecia, greater Greece, a place that becomes as important as Athens itself.Phoenicians arrive soon after and settle in the east, which sets up a rivalry. The Phoenicians also settle in North Africa and become know as the Carthaginians. They start to fight with Rome. Rome dominates the island after the Punic wars, and after 200 BC the island is their colony.Fast forward to the fall of Rome around 400 AD, the barbarians take control of Sicily in theory but not really in practice. The next masters are the Byzantines from the east who rule for roughly 300 years.The Arabs come in the 800s, and bring sugar, irrigation and agriculture, turning the island into a paradise. They are replaced by the Normans soon after the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Yes, those Normans, the ones from France! Normans build castles and cathedrals and allow the establishment of a parliament, the oldest in the world.Eventually through a complicated inheritance, the Normans are replaced by Germans, the most famous being Frederick II. The French come back in the form of the Angevins in the 1200s, but are soon tossed out and replaced by the Spanish. Whew! The Spanish left their mark on the island in the form of architecture and culture.The Spanish will dominate the island for more or less 600 years. In the 1800s, the island is up for grabs again but is eventually joined into the new state of Italy in the 1860s. Got all of that?

But Wait, There's More!

The main point is this: this island is about so much more than the Godfather and cannoli. It is one of the most diverse and fascinating places in Europe, and possibly the oldest in terms of human habitation.And why have people fought over this island for 5000 years? The location, a convenient base in the Mediterranean is part of it. The fertility of the island is also part. Everything grows bigger and better here, and the lush landscape is something beautiful to behold.But there is so much more than that to this island. And the food, oh the food. This cross-pollination of culture has made an amazingly original culinary tradition which turns any casual visitor into a foodie.From souk-like fragrant markets to golden beaches, to elaborate Baroque architecture to a magical, steaming chain of active volcanoes, Sicily has it all.The craziest part is that nobody else seems to know about it. You can have all the travel thrills of a top-notch destination with none of the crowds.Sarah Murdoch in SicilyAfter my initial trip, I trained to lead the Sicily tour for Rick Steves and have spent months every year on the island. I find new and exciting things every time I come, and tourism is starting to develop in a region that badly needs an economic boost.I am so pleased and honored that Rick Steves has entrusted this island to me as I co-author of the new Rick Steves Sicily book, along with my Sicilian friend and colleague, Alfio Di Mauro. We hope to bring the island to life for you, to invite you to dig deeper into a fascinating and beautiful place.More to come! AMUNINI!