Sicily, an autonomous region of Italy, was once the Kingdom of Sicily, ruled from Palermo. Home to more than 5 million, it is the largest island in the Mediterranean.
It is probably Italy's dark horse, with its mafia history glorified by Hollywood, but everyone who visits leaves feeling pleasantly surprised. The locals are keen to shake off a bad reputation and are, in fact, most friendly and helpful to tourists. The economy is based on agriculture, fishing, mining and tourism.
Sicily has been blessed with some of Italy's most spectacular farmland and geographical features. Endless vineyards rivalling those in Tuscany or Piedmont, olive groves surrounded by emerald grass, forests of citrus and other fruits, rugged mountains and a deep blue sea. Its world-class art ranges from Greek to Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Norman, French and Spanish.
Because of its location, Sicily was invaded over the centuries by many armies, and was once the site of Roman, Greek, Arab, Norman, Swabian, Byzantine, Carthaginian, Spanish and Phoenician colonies, so there is lots of interest there for history buffs.
There are many remaining influences of early powers, and they are most noticeable in local cuisine, which is quite superb. Days for Sicilians usually begin with coffee-flavoured granita with cream on top for brioche dipping, and it goes from there.
Palermo's quarters are Il Capo, Vucciria, La Kalsa and Albergheria. Il Capo is the most prosperous and prestigious and is home of Teatro Massimo, one of Europe's largest opera theatres. Designed by Giovan Battista Filippo Basile in 1868, works began in 1891. It was dedicated to King Victor Emanuel II with a performance of Verdi's Falstaff, the first of many magnificent performances.
After 20 years of neglect, it was renovated and reopened in 1997, bringing new life to Palermo. To attend a performance there is a memorable experience.
On the other side of the coin, also memorable is a visit to an open-air market. They are a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells, stocked with fruits, vegetables, cheeses, fish and meats displayed under coloured tarpaulins.
Market places have a resemblance to Arab souqs, particularly Bal'harm in Palermo where the markets occupy narrow medieval-era streets and local dialect has the mark of the Arabic tongue. While there are more churches than mosques and clothing is western, the character has remained for more than nine centuries.
Pettineo, 80km east of Palermo, is a hilltop farming area. The Catalfamo family have been working their 12-hectare farm since the 17th century, growing citrus and olives.
Casa Migliaca, the farm's stone-walled house, has been adapted to become a farm-hotel. The ground floor is the original nucleus of the house and has the Oil Mill lounge and four sleeping rooms. Beautiful porches encircle the house and the south side is used for summer dining. The west and north sides are perfect on hot afternoons.
Sicilian cuisine is prepared by Signora Teresa and is shared by the owners and guests at a round table where Italian, English and French are spoken, and everyone seems to understand everyone else. It seems the signora's fabulous food breaks down all barriers! Perfecto!
Next stop Taormina, Sicily's ritziest and most touristy coastal town. Built on top of Monte Taura overlooking the sea, there is a cable car connecting it to the beach. It has history and beauty all in one. It has been a popular destination since the 19th century with popular beaches on the warm and salty Ionian Sea.
Taormina's Teatro Greco was built there in 300BC and transformed by the Romans into an amphitheatre used for gladiator fights.
Pleasant days can be spent exploring remnants of Greek and Roman habitation, its medieval quarter and castle ruins, as well as modern shops and restaurants. Stop at Café Wunderbar in the town square for a coffee and beautiful views.
You can see it all with Trafalgar Tours' Best of Sicily tour. They are experts on European destinations and in Sicily you will see Palermo, Taormina, Syracuse, Piazza Armerina, Enna and other interesting places, learn about their history, enjoy some wonderful meals, take in exceptional views and receive some warm Sicilian hospitality.