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Essence of Sicily

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The Normans. Don't forget the Normans.

Or the Greeks, Vandals, Goths, Swabians, Aragonese, Savoyans, Austrians (in a trade for Sardinia and future considerations) and, finally, the Italians, through annexation via a referendum that was probably rigged.

So you'll be welcomed in Sicily. Everybody else has been. Some left souvenirs, and they're some of the reasons to come here.

Many of the others are edible.

Interesting place, Sicily. This is an island the size of Vermont that has endured serial conquests, plagues, poverty, earthquakes, Patton racing Montgomery while chasing Nazis, a volcano that still burps lava from time to time and song lyrics like this:

"Go, go, go, you mixed-up Siciliano. All you Calabraise do the mambo like a crazy. "

Which, if you visit, you will hear piped in somewhere. You will also hear the theme from "The Godfather," often, sometimes in restaurants and sometimes performed by street musicians, thus eliminating the notion that -- out of sensitivity, or fear of being tucked in with fishes -- we're to avoid any reference to the, um, M-word.

Then there was the night in a Taormina restaurant when the music system served up "That's Amore. " Glee filled the room as the bartender, wine glass in each hand, sang along with Dean. Waiters danced with each other. Smiles flowed like primativo, and there followed a whole roasted spigola so fresh and good it made us drool just-a like-a pasta fazool …

That's Sicily.

On our visit, we rented a car and drove what has evolved into the standard Sicily tourist itinerary: Palermo to Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples, to the Villa Romana del Casale with its expansive floor mosaics, to Siracusa (Syracuse, on your maps at home) and, finally, to snooty Taormina.

We also took a side trip to Vizzini because one, no one else does, and two the opera "Cavalleria Rusticana" (with its great intermezzo, borrowed by "Raging Bull") was set there and, more important than any of that, three, it's the hometown of Franco, my barber.

"I love this country," Franco has said, often, while trimming my bangs to Pavarotti yodeling "Nessun Dorma. " "America has been good to me. But in Sicily, people know how to live. "

Quick Vizzini story:

There was this closed restaurant. Well, we thought it was closed until a man in white emerged from the bar next door and said it wasn't.

"Are you sure? "

"Sure, I'm sure," said the man. "I'm the cook. "

Whereupon Marco, born in Naples, apprenticed in London, honed in the kitchens of New York's Mulberry Street and married to a Vizzini girl, proceeded to turn on the lights, seat us graciously beneath a chandelier and throw together an absolute miracle of a mid-afternoon meal.

"This is really good," one of us told him, between bites of pasta.

"Here," he said, "it must be good. "

They take their food seriously in Sicily.

We'd intended to seek out the town where Francis Ford Coppola blew up Al Pacino's Sicilian wife in the first "Godfather," but that trip got thunderstormed out. Happily, the weather cleared in time for an excursion up Mt. Etna, which we took (out of Taormina) because it was there.

First, Palermo.

Some critics suggest Palermo's primary value is as a place to land, stock up on euros, shake off the travel-fuzzies and rent an escape-vehicle, but they're wrong. There's good stuff here.

Markets and restaurants, certainly. The 676,000 souls who live in the city do it with gusto and hearty appetites, which are satisfied by such marvelous specialties as pasta topped with a glop of sauce based on fresh sardines (much better than it sounds). But Palermo and vicinity, more than anywhere else on this rock, is the testament to all the cultures that scratched their initials into the local stone.

In its churches and public buildings -- in particular, the duomo (constructed in stages by various occupiers) and the mosaic-filled, Norman-built Palatine Chapel (c. 1140) -- can be seen (even by us non-sophisticates) traces of those Romans, Arabs, Normans and Byzantines, along with the Greeks. In its white, way-out-of-scale post office building, we can see the familiar overstatement of Mussolinian fascism.

In nearby Monreale, no one who visits its cathedral -- not even travelers thinking "not another church" -- comes away unagogged by the interior mosaics. They are, in a word, breathtaking. It's a short ride by city bus from Palermo.

Speaking of that: There was a gentleman on our coach who, after pals crunched us together while boarding, stuck his left hand into my right-front pocket to grab my wallet. Instead, he grabbed my right hand, which, at the time, was wrapped around my wallet.

"Get your hand out of there," I told the fellow, with menacing gusto.

He did. Then he scrammed with his accompli before the bus had a chance to pull away.

"They work in threes," said a witness. "I know. I've been living here 15 years and I take this bus every day, so I know the thieves. "

She gave me her name. Then she took it back.

"They would find me," she said. "There's a lot of (M-word) here …"

But that was the only blip we had in Palermo or anywhere in Sicily.

Quick counter-story: I sent a pair of pants to a Palermo laundry with $240 U.S. stashed in a zipper pocket. (I forgot. ) The pants came back clean -- with the $240 in an attached envelope.

So 99 percent of Sicilians are honorable. Just watch your wallet.

The Valley of the Temples, during our visit last October, was largely the Valley of the Temples Under Scaffolding, but that was a minor inconvenience. The half-shrouded Temple of Concord, well-preserved (but evidently needing a little tuck after 2,500 years), is a beauty; the surviving columns of the once-mammoth Temple of Hercules inspire wonder -- especially in a setting that's largely insulated from the distractions of modernity.

The mosaics on the floor of the 4th Century Villa Romana, near today's Piazza Armerina, are remarkable for their state of preservation (mostly very good) and their sheer endlessness: They go on and on. Here, made accessible by an ingenious arrangement of steps and ramps, is nearly 40,000 square feet's worth of mosaic dancers, warriors, beasts, beauties (famously, some of the latter dressed in toga-era bikinis), lovers and serpents. If you like this sort of thing.

Before we get to Siracusa, two words about driving in Sicily: Not bad.

Roads are in good shape, traffic (except on the main autostradas at rush hour) is light, distances are short (Palermo-Siracusa: 160 miles, 21/2 hours) and the countryside -- especially in the interior, away from the industrial areas -- is hilly and beautiful.

This is a land of olive groves and orchards and vineyards and prickly-pear cacti, of pastures marked by stone fences generations old, of modest villages and of stone houses, some of them abandoned or crumbling yet beautiful in their way. A few of those buildings (and not a few in Palermo and in other cities) were crumbled in action during World War II and left that way; bunkers for anti-aircraft guns remain near then-strategic railways as another reminder of what took place here not so very long ago.

In towns and cities … let's just say driving is an endeavor requiring patience, a sense of humor and the ability to anticipate the totally unexpected, which, of course, is impossible. For example, if it weren't for Giuseppi, a young man on a motorscooter, we'd still be in our VW Golf, probably quite hungry, in an ultra-narrow dead-end alley in Taormina -- but that's a story for another time.

Back to this one.

Siracusa would be a neat stop even if it didn't happen to have an especially fine Greek theater (where plays still happen), a pocket-Colosseum and its own Temple of Apollo. The arena, smaller but in some ways more evocative than Rome's mother of all gladiator venues, and the theater are (ironically) on the newer side of town, which otherwise doesn't have much for us.

But two bridges connect contemporary Siracusa with Ortygia Island, and this is the part of the city with the winding streets, Baroque churches (including a duomo that incorporates columns from an ancient Greek temple), tinkling fountains and inviting squares, cute restaurants (some facing the sea), hanging laundry and at least one storefront puppet theater. It's a district that invites poking around at leisure, just to see what may be around the next corner -- which one morning was a market olive-vendor singing "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" (the Disney "Cinderella" song), singing that grew heartier when he was joined, full voice, by, well, me.

The Mount Etna trip was a trip. Itineraries vary, but ours included stops at Alcantara Gorge, whose primary value was clean bathrooms; and at Randazzo, an agreeable town in the shadow of the volcano (which, so far, has spared it) constructed largely of lava rock.

Everyone on the motor coach then winds from Randazzo to a kind of base camp more than halfway up the 11,000-foot cone, where visitors can stroll among chunks of lava (some from a 2002 eruption), buy a T-shirt and have a cappuccino. Those who pay another 30 euros (above the 33 euros for the first stage) get to ride up a road of crushed lava to the snow line not far from the summit, then walk among craters and fissures leaking clouds of steam.

Otherworldly. Plus great views. Then they get to hike back down the mountain.

With the right shoes, the trail is a little steep and a tad slick but relatively easy. On the other hand, with the wrong shoes -- or a fear of falling into a bottomless black hole and being lost forever -- it is terrifying.

There was a Brazilian tourist who, after holding up everybody by being late for the bus at Randazzo (she was shopping), almost fell into a steaming crater because she insisted on wearing stylish heels on the hike down the volcano -- complaining all the way -- even though sensible rental hike-wear was available.

Not only would the fall have pleased everybody except the Brazilian tourist, but it would've made this a much better story.

Taormina.

Movie stars and other celebrities have been coming here for decades. Reasons: hotels that know how to spoil the rich and famous (and some we can afford), dynamite views of Etna and the sea, beaches a short ride away, excellent shopping, excellent restaurants, excellent places to enjoy a libation and some conversation and eyeball the scene -- and it's gorgeous.

Plus, for those who must rationalize sybaritic good times by noting proximity to culture: a Greek theater.

Some dismiss Taormina, calling it a tourist trap, etc., and that's OK.

We had three nights and would've liked five.

That's the hazard, for many of us, in visiting Sicily: Once all the essential sights have been checked off, you really want to take a few more days, at least, to go back to a favorite restaurant, to enjoy a coffee and conversation … to live.

And why not? Everybody's welcome.

TRAVEL TIPS: SICILY

Getting around: For maximum flexibility, it's hard to beat renting a car and exploring at your own pace. Roads are good, the countryside mostly lovely, distances pleasant (you'll rarely be on the road for more than a couple of hours at a time), and while maneuvering through historic towns can be something of a challenge, patience will get it done.

Expect to pay around $400-$500/week for a manual-shift compact (most U.S. companies are represented), but shop around.

Trains connect many Sicilian cities, and a Trenitalia Pass (three travel days within a two-month period anywhere in Italy, $219 First-Class, $175 Second-Class; additional days available; www.raileurope.com) can be a good option for those who prefer.

Staying there: Hotels exist at most price levels in Palermo. Our choice, the new, contemporary-style Mercure Palermo Centro ($127/double; subject to change; www.mercure.com), was clean, pleasant and within walking distance (for good walkers) of most sites. For the temples at Agrigento, we chose the Dioscuri Bay Palace ($174; www.framon-hotels.com), an attractive property with a surly staff in the nearby beach resort of San Leone.

The only real flaw at the Albergo Domus Mariae ($168; www.sistemia.it/domusmariae), a converted convent-school (the boss is a nun) in Siracusa, was lack of an elevator, but Cinzia, who worked the front desk on the day shift, elevated the place with her joyful enthusiasm and guidance.

In hotel-rich (especially for the rich) Taormina, the Hotel Villa Belvedere ($225; www.villabelvedere.it) is terrific if your room has a sea view (and 40 of the 49 rooms do); ours didn't and it felt like an overpriced dungeon; beware.

Dining there: Seafood, seafood, seafood -- fresh, mostly -- with or without or after a pasta course. Some favorites: pasta con le sarde (bucatini -- a thick, tubular spaghetti -- topped with a sauce made of fresh sardines and other good things), Trattoria Primavera, Palermo (near the cathedral); also in Palermo, everything (just trust the waiter) at Trattoria A Cuccagna; saute di cozze e vongole (mussels and clams in a garlic-spiked sauce), Il Canale, San Leone; penne alla Norma (pasta in a tomato sauce with chopped eggplant and ricotta cheese) and pesce spada al pepe verde (swordfish in a green peppercorn sauce), Minossa di Visetti, Siracusa; everything at Osteria da Mariano, Siracusa; an astounding selection of antipasti and whatever pasta the waiter suggests at The King, a restaurant in Vizzini; cozze alla marinara (mussels in a light broth with chopped tomatoes), A Zammara, Taormina; and several whole fishes (dorado, snapper, sea bass, weird-looking things) at several restaurants, picked (by you) fresh off the ice and prepared in a number of ways.

A money advisory: Do not rely on traveler's checks in Sicily. Most hotels won't accept or exchange them (even if, as ours were, they're in euros), nor will most restaurants and shops; not every bank will exchange them for currency, and those that do may charge a whopping commission (a Bank of Sicily branch in Siracusa hit us with a 9 percent fee). Rely on ATMs (they are plentiful) and credit cards, preferably MasterCard and Visa (American Express is less frequently accepted). Bring U.S. dollars as a backup, but you'll have to exchange those for euros at banks or cambios; they aren't readily accepted by merchants.

Information: For general material on Italy, contact the Italian Government Tourist Office, 500 N. Michigan Ave., 312-644-0990; www.italiantourism.com. Two very good commercial Web sites on Sicily: www.bestofsicily.com and www.sicilia.indettaglio.it/eng. For custom tours in English, check out Sicily Tour's Web site: www.sicilytour.com/homepage.html

Alan Solomon is a writer for The Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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