The Best of Sicily


-Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with
more of the best of Europe. And this time, we’re climbing
to the summit of Sicily — and hoping this volcano
doesn’t blow. Thanks for joining us. ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Sicily is a fertile mix — both geologically
and culturally. Eruptions from its volcano, lots of sun,
generations of hard work, so many civilizations storming
through over the centuries all combine, and what you get
is a full-bodied and tasty travel experience. Salute. Along with summiting
an active volcano, we’ll explore Palermo, -[ Speaking Italian ]
-…be serenaded in its exuberant markets,
-[ Speaking Italian ] -…welcomed into
a countess’ palace, and join the passeggiata scene. Heading inland, we’ll ponder
an ancient Greek temple, marvel at Roman mosaics,
and finish in a ritzy resort. Sicily marks the center
of the Mediterranean. It looks like a football being
kicked by the Italian “boot.” We start in Palermo, explore
the Greek temples at Agrigento, the Roman villa
at Piazza Armerina, scale Mount Etna,
and finish in Taormina. Palermo is a great
starting point to untangle
the story of Sicily. The island was a thriving
Greek colony 500 years before Christ. Then came ancient Rome for
a few centuries, then it fell. After some chaos,
Sicily flourished again in the 9th and 10th
centuries under Arab rule. Then, in the 11th century,
the Normans came. While the ushered in
Sicily’s glory days, the parade of conquerors
just kept on coming. Palermo, Sicily’s main city
and historic capital, is a busy port corralled
by mountains. A noisy and energetic
metropolis, its architecture reflects
the rule of its many overlords, as well as its rich heritage. Walking the lively streets, you’re surrounded
by a scruffy elegance. The city invites exploration. You feel the city’s boisterous
spirit in its markets. Here at the gritty
Ballarò Market, you’ll wander among
a commotion of stalls all competing for
the buyer’s attention. ♪♪ It’s an entertaining scene,
complete with singing salesmen, each with his own
unique style. [ Men shouting in Italian ] [ Shouting continues ] [ Shouting continues ] Scusa.
-[ Speaking Italian ] -Whether you understand
the lyrics or not, this slice of life market action
is some of the best in Europe. -[ Speaking Italian ] -And don’t just gawk —
adventure in, try something new. Just like his father did, Pippo sells the odd
bits of the cow — it’s all boiled
from hoof to snout. And I’m picking its nose. -Naso.
-Naso de vitello. -Naso, bravo, bravo. -Bollito, bollito magro! Oh. Delizioso! -Bollito! Bollito magro! You take a little cow,
you cut off his nose, you boil it, sprinkle a little
salt, you got a snack. [ Men shouting in Italian ] 1,000 years ago, after Sicily was conquered
by the Arabs in the 9th century, Palermo was one of Europe’s
leading cities. With a population of 100,000, it was second only
to Córdoba in Spain. In its Arab days,
it had about 300 mosques. Later, the Normans from France
pushed out the Arabs, and it became Christian again, building great churches
where grand mosques once stood. Sicily’s complicated
history of domination — which scrambled
the gene pool — can be seen
in the faces of its people: Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans,
Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish,
and Italians have all captured and ruled this island,
at some point. Sicily’s many rulers
also left their mark with grand architecture. This gate was part of
a once-foreboding Spanish wall, and the massive cathedral was
funded by Normans from France. And what Italian city
doesn’t have a fine opera house? Conquerors also left their mark
economically and socially. A history of absentee landlords dating all the way
back to the Romans left Sicily mired in
a persistent poverty. And centuries of this top-down
oppression left a culture inclined
to accept corruption and to be cynical
toward the law. Because of that,
organized crime — called the “Mafia” here — became a part
of Sicilian society. This made Palermo
a dangerous place. But the power of organized
crime in Sicily has ebbed. In the 1990s, the government
waged a vigorous campaign to finally rein in the mafia. These two leading judges who led
the charge were assassinated. This tragedy finally turned
the public against organized crime
and today, it has nowhere near the power
and influence it once had. While Palermo certainly retains
its rustic character, in the last generation,
the city has renewed itself with gentrified neighborhoods
and upscale shops and hotels. And today, Palermo feels as safe
as any Italian city. ♪♪ The Quattro Canti,
that means “four corners,” is a Palermo landmark. The intersection of two
main thoroughfares, it divides the city into
its four historic neighborhoods. The niches hold statues of the
four Spanish kings of Sicily, another reminder of this
island’s many-layered history. And from here,
early each evening, springs the ritual
of the passeggiata. Strolling from here to the
opera house is endlessly entertaining, offering vignettes of local life
and culture. ♪♪ ♪♪ As the workday ends, people gather
at their favorite hangouts. Here at Taverna Azzurra,
it’s a colorful scene, where the neighborhood gang
enjoys the same old routine, but a never boring conviviality. ♪♪ Behind Palermo’s rough facades hides some welcoming
aristocratic elegance. – Buona sera.
– Buona sera. -We’re joining a tour
of the palace of a Sicilian noble family. Count Federico and his
Austrian wife, like many nobles, need to open their world
to the common masses in order pay their bills. The charming Countess Alwine
shows us around with an engaging joy. -So, this is where you came in and now we do the whole tour
around the courtyard. You can see we here have a long
line of rooms going through, but they’re actually not
straight, they’re a bit curved, because we’re here on top
of the Punic Roman city wall. You must imagine more than 2,000
years of history under our feet. Look, these are some of
my husband’s ancestors. From the — the 16th century on, everybody lived here
in the house and, uh, everybody
was born in the house. Yeah, if you want to stay
for dinner tonight, we have, we can do spaghetti aglio e olio. Look, we’ve got lots of aglio,
garlic. And actually, this is
where I love to, actually, to lie on the sofa,
read my book, and look how beautiful to dream
under fresco like this. -The Count has stolen me away
into his private studio — a kind of aristocratic
man cave — to share his passion
for Italian racing cars. -[ Speaking Italian ] -His enthusiasm overcame
any language barrier. -They are going to sing
for us now. -And our group’s in luck, as Alwine’s circle
of musical friends has assembled to share
their love of traditional
Sicilian choral music. [ Singing in Italian ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ In a small town
above Palermo stands one of Sicily’s
great art treasures — the Cathedral of Monreale. In the 11th century,
when the Muslim Arabs were tossed out
by the Christian Normans, the Normans made Sicilian
civilization grander yet — building monumental
Norman churches. This massive church,
so richly ornamented, shows the glory
of that age. Ancient columns and capitals —
gifted by the pope to bolster his southern
border of Christendom — were shipped here
all the way from Rome. The church was built to show off
the power of the Norman king William II —
shown here boldly standing, while being crowned
by Christ. The interior is famous for its
exquisite 12th-century mosaics. Each panel tells a story
from the Bible. There’s Adam and Eve
being tempted by the serpent, angels climbing Jacob’s ladder, and Noah building his ark,
and filling it with animals. ♪♪ It was designed to function
as a Bible storybook. From centuries,
early Christians debated whether or not images
were appropriate in church. To solve this controversy — called the “Iconoclastic
Controversy” — a pope called a convention, the Council of Nicaea
in the 8th century. The result? Images are okay, if they teach
the Christian message. Here at the Cathedral
of Monreale, the art is laid out precisely
as the council prescribed. Sicily is small —
about the size of Vermont — and the autostrada
makes it smaller yet. In just three hours, we’re clear
across the island and heading toward
the highest point in Sicily. At about 11,000 feet,
Mount Etna, Europe’s biggest volcano, towers majestically
above the villages and farmland of the east coast. Ascending dramatic switchbacks,
we pass a buried house, an eerie reminder of recent
lava flows. While there’s a serious
eruption every few years, we should be okay today. There are different ways
to experience the mountain, and we’re taking
the easy route. A gondola sweeps us over
an otherworldly land of lava. At the top of the lift,
we board an all-terrain shuttle. Climbing higher yet up
the rugged track, visitors marvel as views
get ever more dramatic. Finally,
at the end of the road, we hike to the lip
of a vast crater. Hiking the circular rim leaves
us with unforgettable memories. Today, the mountain’s quiet, but small plumes of smoke
and steam remind us that this peaceful perch
can change in a hurry. ♪♪ Geologically speaking, Sicily is
part-Europe and part-Africa. It’s where two tectonic plates, the Eurasian plate
and the African plate, are slowly colliding. That’s why there’s lots of
tremors and volcanic activity. Today, the slopes of Etna are
renowned for their fertile soil and some of the finest
vineyards in Sicily. We’re visiting
the Benanti family estate, getting to know the father
and his twin sons for a taste of this dimension
of the island. -We’re in the slope
of Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano,
and actually great wine region. What we have here
is volcanic soil. The soil comes from lava. Eruptions from thousands
of years ago have now become sand
mixed with rocks — and they provide minerality
to our wines. The soil gives the minerality, the altitude keeps
the vines fresh — therefore, wines from Etna
are highly distinctive and they’re known for
their elegance and finesse. Etna, just like the rest
of Sicily, has been producing grapes
for thousands of years, but only in the last
three decades has the quality of Etna wine achieved such great notoriety
and prestige. Wine has been made here
for 200 years. The grapes will be gathered
up there on the top level and be crushed
by the workers’ feet. They will then be crushed a
second time in the central vat, using this very heavy
chestnut tree trunk as a press. -Uh-huh.
-Aided by this very heavy stone and the bar,
which will be turned heavily to press the grapes. The juice will then flow
in here, ferment, and after one year,
you would have wine. But this time, you don’t have
to wait that long. -All right. Thank you. We join our guide Alfio
and Salvino’s twin brother Antonio to taste
some of the family’s wine. So, we all know Italian wine. What about Sicilian wine? It — It feels like it’s the —
the new kid on the block. -Well, uh, a lot of wine
has always been made on Sicily, but again, Sicily was sort of the laid-back
and, uh, somewhat poor region. Uh, but in the last couple
of decades, new generations are more affluent, uh,
and more sophisticated and that is showing
in the wines. -So, as a Sicilian vintner,
uh, would you say, “look out, Tuscany”?
-Yes. You know, uh, the whole world
should keep an eye on what is happening in Sicily. Uh, the beauty of wine
is diversity and mirroring a culture
in a glass. So, we are not trying to be like
somebody else or like some other regions,
we are — we want to show the full
potential of this region and I think
it’s starting to show. -And, Antonio, to that,
I would say…buon lavoro. – Buon lavoro. Grazie, grazie. – Buon lavoro. ♪♪ -A two-hour drive takes us
to the city of Agrigento and the most impressive
ancient site in Sicily: Its ridge is lined
with Greek temples. Little survives
of ancient Agrigento beyond a few grand temples. In the 5th century B.C., Agrigento was
the third-largest city in the Greek world —
after Athens and Syracuse, another Sicilian city. Its protective wall, carved
right out of the hillside, was seven miles long,
fortifying what was a huge city. To think that 2,500 years ago,
two of the top cities in the Greek world
were here in Sicily is another reminder
of the importance of this island in ancient times. Back then, when tough times hit, Greek society basically
told its landless sons, “Go west,”
and “west” was Sicily. This was their land
of opportunity. They came here and created
a new, greater Greece — it was Magna Graecia. Imagine the grand impression
this ridge lined with temples must’ve made on sailors from
all corners of the Mediterranean as they approached by sea. It was a religious ensemble: about a dozen temples
for a dozen gods, each serving a different role. Here at Agrigento,
you were fully covered. The Temple of Concordia
is the best preserved. Like all Greek temples, it followed
the same basic layout: the temple always faced east. The design is called
“peripteral,” which means “ringed by columns.” It sits on a raised base
with steps. An inner room, the cella, is reserved
for priests and gods. Regular worshippers
gathered outside. As there’s no marble in Sicily,
temples were built of limestone. Columns each consist of four
drums, aligned by interior pegs, capped by a capital. Once the drums were stacked,
the grooves were carves, that’s called “fluting.” And then, a layer of plaster
was added to make it look like marble. Finally, the temple’s
decorative features were painted
with bold colors. The massive Temple of Zeus
once stood here. The size of a football field, it was the largest Doric temple
in the ancient world. As it was used as a quarry
for its pre-cut stones, very little survives today. These stones supported
a massive sacrificial altar, always at the east end
of the temple. It was said they could sacrifice
100 oxen at once, as thousands gathered, and with
the meaty feast that followed, there was always a good turnout. Wandering through the evocative
remains of this huge temple, you can only marvel
at how wealthy and developed this mysterious Greek world
must’ve been 2,500 years ago. But, of course, the ancient
Greeks were muscled out by the ancient Romans. Up next, we’re heading
for a Roman villa. While 800 years younger,
it’s still ancient. The Villa Romana del Casale, near the town
of Piazza Armerina, was tucked away
in a remote Sicilian valley, about midway between
the city of Rome and Africa. This was the mansion
of a wealthy Roman senator who traded
in exotic animals. That was a big business back
when Rome so creatively entertained
its masses with arenas filled with wild beasts
and gladiators. In about the year A.D. 300, the senator built this lavish
country escape, right here
in the middle of Sicily. Its splendor survives in some of the finest
Roman mosaics anywhere. Each room had a theme,
like this dining room with its scenes of Romans
hunting game. This room features cupids
fishing. Far from the sea, only the very
wealthy could afford seafood. Serving fish for dinner
was showing off. This scene is as much
an extravagant menu as a piece of art. While today, tourists
with cameras stroll on elevated walkways, imagine this place
with big shots in togas wandering past fountains
down colonnaded halls. These mosaics, made of dozens
of different kinds of multicolored marble
and glass chips, give us a colorful peek at
the lifestyle of Rome’s elite. The expressive and realistic
faces are a vivid reminder that it took a lot of people,
real people, to run the empire. The Corridor of the Great Hunt
is 200 feet long. It shows off the merchant’s
animal importing business and it illustrates Rome’s
fascination with wild animals. Exotic beasts were caught
and transported alive by ship from distant lands. They were destined to
battle each other and slaves to the delight of urbanites
packing big-city Roman arenas. The details are instructive,
entertaining, and flat-out beautiful. Any top-end villa
came with baths and a gym. These women athletes are
demonstrating Olympic events, discus throwing, racing,
and some kind of ball game. For the winner, a victory palm
and a crown of roses. And I thought bikinis were
an invention of the 1950s. This countryside palace
was built to impress, and today, 1,700 years later, with little more than its
lavishly decorated floors surviving,
it still does. Taormina, Sicily’s most
spectacular resort, hangs high above
the Mediterranean. Its handy cable car
provides access to the beach. Its dramatic setting
has an understandable allure. One of Europe’s romantic,
Old World resorts, it takes full advantage
of its breathtaking perch. Taormina was a favorite
aristocratic escape back in the 19th century. Today, it’s clearly
the domain of the masses, as visitors from far
and wide pack its traffic-free
historic center. It’s a busy evening
for the passeggiata and everyone’s out enjoying
the relaxed parade of Italian life. The main drag connects a series
of inviting piazzas… and the balcony rewards
all with staggering views. But I’m hungry for dessert. Many people travel all the way
to Sicily for the cannoli and I can understand why. It’s a true local specialty. Bakers proudly maintain
the quality that comes with tradition
and bakers earn their reputation on the quality of their cannoli — on the crispness of the crust, and on their mastery
of ricotta cheese — soft, sweet,
and fresh from sheep’s milk. The best are filled
by hand on location — never with cream or custard;
it must be ricotta. Taormina’s setting impressed
the ancient Greeks — probably more for its strategic
location than the view. Still, this must be the most
dramatically situated theater from the ancient world. 2,500 years ago, Greeks packed
the house for live theater. Today, exploring these ruins
perched high on a mountain, on an island
in the Mediterranean, I marvel at the many
layers of civilization we can enjoy here on Sicily. The cultural diversity and
historical richness of Sicily makes this island
one of Europe’s most fascinating corners. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time,
keep on traveling. Ciao. -Taking our lives
into our own hands. Going to the top
of a live volcano. With wild beasts and gladiators. I’m here, back with more of
the best of Europe and why — [ Laughs ] Hi, I’m Rick Steves,
back with more of the best of Europe.
Thanks. Nobody’s getting me
on the face at all. These guys are losers. [ Laughter ]
-They’re not done. ♪♪

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