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The Secrets of Sicily

Sicily has always been a land tinged with intrigue. Tourists--especially the Europeans--have discovered the lush riviera-like eastern coast. But much of the rest of the island remains a secret. It's a secret worth exploring.

The first tip in unveiling the Sicilian mystery is to do it during the off-season if possible. Summers are hot, hot, hot. Even Sicilians say so. And while February through May can bring the occasional shower, the sprinkles are more than compensated by the blossoming fruit trees, fields of wildflowers and orchards ladened with some of the best blood oranges you'll ever eat.

Spring comes early in Sicily. For over 50 years, its arrival has been heralded in Agrigento, a small town on the southern coast of Sicily, with February's Flowering Almond Festival. During the week-long affair, international folk dancers convene to perform against a backdrop of sandstone Greek temples softened by the ice-pink petals of Almond trees in bloom.

​Greek temples? Sicilian secret number two.  Agrigento's Valley of the Temples contains one of the densest—and most impressive—concentrations of archeological ruins found anywhere. You wind up a two-lane road from town and pass under an archway called the Golden Door to the Sea. Suddenly three Doric temples dating back to the 5th century B.C. crown a vista of valley and sea. Other ruins rise in the distance. It's like an oasis of antiquity--so impressive that it's unexpected even though you know what lies ahead.

Built of sandstone, the temples were originally covered with white powder stucco to give the illusion of marble which the island lacked. But erosion has returned them to their natural hues; they look as if they've simply erupted in solemn glory from the landscape itself. (Scrutiny will actually reveal fossils in the temple steps and in blocks of fallen columns.)

Take a few steps and suddenly you've jumped ahead a  century with the excavation of Agrigento in its Roman incarnation. Entire dwellings, including mosaic floors with their geometric designs, have been uncovered. A guide will help bring all these wonders to life.

The juxtaposition of times and cultures doesn't stop there, however. In town, the church of Santa Maria dei Greci was actually built atop a temple. Take the stairs down to the cellar and you'll see the steps of the original structure as well as the bases of the fluted columns.

If the eastern coastal resorts speak to modern day luxury and the southern coast takes one back to antiquity, the western coast provides yet another twist to this island, geographically so close to both Italy and Africa. And so does the route there. Detour through Sciacca, one of the oldest spas in the world that, these days, also has a horde of ceramics shops. Take the time to negotiate the narrow, twisty roads that lead past groves of olive trees up to Caltabellotta, a village nestled at the base of craggy peaks some 3,000 feet high.

Stop in Marsala on the drive west, if for no other reason than to pick up a bottle of the sweet wine at the local enoteca. (A British entrepreneur actually created Marsala when he added alcohol to the local wine as a preservative before exporting it to England.) Then detour slightly to Segesta, an unfinished Doric temple that sits surrounded by nothing but hills covered with wildflowers, where the only sounds you hear are sheep bells.

Now it's on to Eriche, a mountain town that on a clear day looks out on the North African coast and that's as sweet as a wistful sigh.

Cobblestone streets wind past serene courtyards, Norman medieval towers, and a cathedral that dates back to the 14th century. Surprisingly, this little gem is also home to the Ettore Majorana Center for Scientific Culture, a kind of think tank for research scientists who wish to promote peace in the world. Here is where the Northern African influences come into play, so plan to eat couscous instead of pasta when you break for lunch.

 

For all its charms, Sicily is not without its problems. Poverty has not only induced crime to flourish in certain parts of the island, it's also spawned what must be labeled, for lack of a better word, as nouveau architectural tack. Symptoms of simple neglect are also in evidence. At times the tourist, wishing to fall under a spell of unadulterated enchantment, finds himself wishing for a pair of blinders to blot out visions of ugly new high rises or old car graveyards along the highway. But ask a Sicilian about his country and all you'll get is unadulterated pride. "It's the best," responded our bartender when questioned about the quality of Sicilian Amaretto (this during the Flowering Almond Festival in Agrigento). "Everything in Sicily is the best."