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Sunny Sicily in the Off Season

The southern-most point in Italy, paradise surrounded by the Mediterranean with Tunisia to the west and Greece to the east

Article by Lynette Standley

Photography by Lynette Standley + Provided

Originally published in Boise Lifestyle

Sicily! It’s a glorious place to visit in the fall and winter – light crowds, shirt-sleeve weather, and more cultural experiences than you can imagine. 

As the days shorten in Boise and winter hints at its arrival, we dream of warmer and sunnier climes. I encourage you to think outside the “tropical” box and consider this island paradise. 

Sicily, Italy’s largest island, which geographically is the flat soccer ball off the toe of the boot, is the southernmost point in the country and it is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea with Tunisia to the west and Athens to the east. 

When I visited, we had just missed the 70-degree days and were hit with a windy cold front. I was never so happy to have packed my puffy coat on a whim. In the Treasure Valley, we hover on the 43rd parallel. Combined with our elevation, we get a cold and stormy winter. Sicily lies between latitudes of 37 and 38. For perspective, Santa Cruz, California and Bowling Green, Kentucky are also on the 37th.

The North African winds bring warm air and, over centuries, many cultural influences with boatloads of hopeful rulers and immigrants arrived. We saw it in the Valley of Temples at Agrigento, the architecture in Palermo and the rich Sicilian foods throughout the island. 

Like everything in Sicily, the cuisine is a combination of cultures, seasons and what’s currently ripe in the garden. We ate swordfish baked with capers, Pasta alla Norma – and many other eggplant dishes, and the ubiquitous cannoli desserts that are as delicious as they are beautiful. The options are varied and fabulous. I recall – and have since re-created several times - a fresh winter salad of orange sections, sliced fennel, and Sicilian olives. It sounds like a crazy combination, but it was divine. 

Sicily is a true cross-section of cultures, according to my guide-friend Masha. “Throughout its history, it was ruled by Moors and Arabs who brought cultivation, sugarcane, and pistachios. Before that the Greeks and Romans built their baths and temples,” she said. The melting pot is evident in the architecture, cuisine, art and even the language. Sicily is huge, and there is much to see at all points of the island. Let’s look to the east/southeast near Catania and Syracuse. 

To stand in the fish market in Catania is a feast for the senses. Endless tables topped with bins of fish and seawater. Shrimp, octopus, squid, and clams; customers clamoring to decide their dinner plan or the restaurant’s daily special. It’s colorful, loud and smells just like it should: fishy. 

In the southern city of Syracuse, we saw firsthand the depth of history in the quaint island neighborhood of Ortigia. We strolled the magnificent white piazza, completely in awe. The Cathedral of Syracuse, in its grand Baroque glory, is a perfect example of historical layers. Visible in the walls of the cathedral, you can still see - and touch - the ancient columns of a Greek temple to Athena built 2,500 years ago. Masha explained that the columns were used as structural support for the “new” cathedral in the 7th century and remained in place when it was rebuilt in the 1600s. You can still see the columns both inside and outside the cathedral, along with enormous statues and other ornate Baroque styling. We stayed on the bustling pedestrian-only piazza and enjoyed an aperitivo. The free entertainment included kids playing soccer, grandparents pushing strollers, and families going to dinner.

Above Catania, Mount Etna still puffs smoke regularly. Its rich volcanic soils have proven exceptional for growing grapes. We strolled the Murgo vineyard on the slopes of the volcano and sat down for a seven-course-with-seven-wines lunch. Sicily is big that way. We cruised Taormina’s checkerboard piazza overlooking the sea and we also climbed stairs in the ancient Greek amphitheater that is still used today. The Greeks and Romans were incredible engineers and they clearly had an appreciation for the view of the sea.

On my list for next time is a famed landmark in Caltagirone: the 142-step monumental Staircase of Santa Maria del Monte. It was built in the early 1600s to connect the old part of town with the new development down below. Considering that it’s equivalent to the height of a ten-story building, it was named one of the most beautiful staircases in the world with the face of each step decorated with different hand-painted ceramic tiles. 

As we get together with family over the winter holidays and New Year’s festivities, it’s often too busy for many of us to plan 2023 trips, but don’t wait too long! Keep Sicily on your shortlist, particularly in late/early season, October through April. Wishing you happy holidays and happy travels!

I’ve been traveling to Italy for more than 20 years, and travel writer for City Lifestyle magazines. Read more about Italian culture and food on my channel.