Mention the word Sicily, and for many, the first images that come to mind, are the mafia, the Godfather movies, or horse heads sharing your pillow.

Mention vacationing in Italy and the first suggestions most people make are Tuscany, the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre. Plus maybe Rome, Florence, or Venice. 

Sicily, for some reason, seems pretty far down the list of popular Italian destinations. That's unfortunate really, but as a travel photographer, that’s also exactly what interested me.



Looking like the football being kicked by the boot of Italy, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and is pretty much in the center of the Med, below Europe, and above Africa.

It’s been burnished by a parade of conquerors including Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish, each contributing to the rich mix of culture, cuisine and architecture that is the Sicily of today.

There are fishing villages, vineyards, volcanoes, rustic hill towns, and offshore islands, There are also Greek temples, the chaotic magnificence of Palermo and of course, superb Sicilian food and wine.


My wife & I flew into Palermo airport and picked up the rental car that we’d be using for the next three weeks. We’d decided that rather than starting in Palermo, we’d spend the first five nights in the town of Castellammare del Golfo on the northwest coast and using that as a base, explore the western side of Sicily rather than packing and moving on each day.

Castellammare has a photogenic cliff-backed harbor with a castle, colorful fishing boats, beach, and a portside promenade lined with restaurants and clubs. Just a handful of tourists were there during early May.



The western side of Sicily is less developed than the east and is crisscrossed with back roads through an idyllic landscape of rolling hills, vineyards and rustic farmhouses. In May, the countryside was green, fresh and awash in colorful wildflowers. It reminded me of an illustration in a children’s book with its perfect rounded hills, the road winding its way over and around the hills into the distance. There are also countless hilltop villages, each with their ancient stone houses and narrow cobblestone streets. Even without any particular destination in mind, it was a joy just exploring and stopping whenever a good shot appeared.

Lost in all this sundrenched rustic bliss, even the town of Corleone, of Godfather and real-life mafia fame, didn’t seem such a sinister place to stop for lunch one afternoon. There’s even a new Mafia museum to visit if one is interested.

One place that I’d discovered doing online research before our trip, was the Ruderi di Poggioreale. It doesn’t seem to be mentioned in any of the guide books or maps that I’ve purchased but is one of those places that for a photographer in Sicily, is not to be missed.

In 1968, the western part of Sicily was hit by a large earthquake that destroyed a few towns in that region.

The town of Poggioreale, founded in 1642, was badly damaged in that 1968 quake and so the entire surviving population was eventually relocated to a newly constructed town nearby.

The original town has been left just as it was, though now uninhabited; a Sicilian ghost town. The crumbling streets and buildings that remain are slowly being overgrown with weeds and wildflowers with the passage of time.

My wife and I had the town completely to ourselves for a sunny morning with just the birds and the buzzing of the bees to accompany the sound of my camera shutter.... Magical.






Our next base for three nights was to be the town of Ragusa, in the southeast. The drive across the island took around five hours. Rounding the curve, the first view of the old town of Ragusa Ibla, is jaw dropping as it suddenly appears below. Shaped like a crusty loaf of Italian bread nestled between green hills, this honey colored jewel of rustic Baroque perfection completely covers the hill it was built upon. It is overlooked by the adjacent, newer town of Ragusa Superiore.

Like several other towns in the region, Ragusa was flattened by a massive earthquake in 1693. All the towns were subsequently rebuilt in the decorative Baroque style of architecture of the time which incorporates graceful curves, elaborate ornamentation, carved animals, human figures and faces. The best examples of this architectural style are preserved in the towns of Ragusa Ibla, Noto and Modica, all of which are now World Heritage listed sites.

Ragusa was the perfect base while we explored its medieval streets and piazzas and those of other nearby towns. This area of Sicily is definitely more touristed and developed than the west of the island. With many elegant shops, there is also no lack of choice for excellent food, wine, pastries and gelatos.

With limited nights to shoot, I burned off many of those newly acquired calories scouting vantage points during the day only to hike back up again at dusk to shoot the town as the lights came on. In Ragusa I worked a couple of different locations on two consecutive evenings to get the views and panoramas I was after. Thankfully, the Sicilian weather continued to be ideal.

 





On the coast, to the east of Ragusa, lies the 3000 year old port city of Siracusa and its main attraction, the island of Ortigia, our next stop.

Connected by short bridges to Siracusa, historic Ortigia’s center is mostly car-free and its narrow and atmospheric streets and marble piazzas are a delight to
explore.

Shops selling everything from hand-painted ceramics, luxury jewelry, gourmet olive oil, and exquisite Italian fashion, exist alongside crumbling ruins and immaculately restored Baroque cathedrals.

 

Our journey next took us north towards the largest active volcano in Europe, Mount Etna.

Though we were headed to the town of Taormina, also on the coast, we decided to follow a route inland, circumnavigating the base of the volcano ... well ... just because we could, never having driven all around the base of an active volcano before. Etna, though regularly active, was restrained despite the impertinence of our chosen route, trailing just a narrow contrail of steam out to sea.

 

Taormina is one of Sicily’s most touristy towns and though a steady stream of bus tours and cruise-ship shore excursions filled the streets even during May, its popularity is entirely understandable. The town’s location is spectacular, nestled into the steep mountainside, with panoramic views of Mount Etna in the distance and the turquoise Mediterranean sparkling below. The ancient Greeks must have also liked the location and left behind the ideally situated Teatro Greco, a wonderfully preserved classic amphitheatre carved into the hillside. Every seat enjoys that same stunning view. The town’s bougainvillea-decked piazzas, sophisticated pedestrian shopping streets and endless dining opportunities were also truly a delight.

 

Our time was running out and we still had much to see. After a couple of nights in Taormina we headed our car north to the town of Milazzo on the north east coast.

Stopping for gas along the way, I couldn't resist a shot of the eye catching gas station signage.

Milazzo is the jumping off point to catch ferries to the Aeolean islands. The seven volcanic islands, the best known being Vulcano, Lipari and Stromboli, are each quite different.

We only had time for one island though, so leaving our car behind, we caught the hydrofoil to the island of Lipari for a couple of days.

 

Most of the main town of Lipari is within walking distance from the ferry dock and we were charmed with the peaceful ambiance of the place as we pulled our wheeled bags along the paving stones of the main street to our B & B. It definitely reminded us of similar sized islands in Greece that we’d visited, but with perhaps a bit less whiteness.

Though our hydrofoil arrived at the newer port, the older original harbor at the other end of the town was definitely more attractive, with brightly painted fishing boats, a couple of  portside churches, fishermen playing cards, and mending nets, and restaurant tables with colorful tablecloths bordering the portside piazza.

At twilight, with the streetlamps just coming on, and warm light spilling from the shop windows and restaurant patios, the atmosphere was photographers’ gold. It was too bad we only had a couple of nights to enjoy here as well.

Eventually, returning on the hydrofoil to Milazzo we picked up our car and continued heading west along the north coast. Our last destination before we returned to Palermo, was the town of Cefalù, situated on a rocky cape and overlooked by an imposing cliff face called La Rocca.

 


Our great stretch of good weather had ended though and our arrival in Cefalù was stormy, wet and windswept. The gloomy weather gave the labyrinth of medieval stone streets a sense of abandonment much at odds with the town’s reputation as one of Sicily’s most popular beach towns.

Eventually the rain stopped and I grabbed my camera bag to scout possibilities for shots of the storm-driven waves crashing into the rocks below our room. As I struggled to keep my footing on the slick rock, and tried to minimize the salt spray on my camera, the sun emerged from behind the clouds.

Within a few minutes, the seaward face of the battered line of buildings lining the shore to my left, were lit to perfection with honey colored light. With the ominous black sky above and crashing waves to my right, I had better than I’d hoped for. My work here was done.

 

Later that evening, shooting the opposite side of town from the beautiful but deserted beach near sunset, the gods rewarded me again with another beam of perfect light. It lasted about a minute but that was all that I needed.

Sometimes bad weather is just bad weather, but then sometimes you get lucky with the gift of a fleeting perfect opportunity.

If you’re not ready, it’s gone.

 

Finally, on to Palermo. First colonized by the Phoenicians some time around 700 BC, Palermo is the capital city of Sicily and is so densely populated that it seems bigger than its population of around 700,000. With such a long history of serial conquest by each new dynasty coming to power in the Mediterranean, the Palermo tourism board once had an advertising slogan of “Come and Invade Us - Everyone Else Has”.

Driving in Palermo is not for the faint hearted. Traffic lanes, red lights and stop signs are more of a recommendation than an observed rule. Parking spaces are almost nonexistent and everyone parks accordingly. Arriving unscathed at our hotel, I was happy to pay the exorbitant parking rate there just to be rid of the car for the duration of our stay.

 

The old, historic center of Palermo is divided up into four quadrants, each with its own distinctive market hidden within the maze of narrow streets and a mélange of crumbling architectural magnificence. I was reminded of old Havana as I wandered the run-down alleyways with their patina of civilization, culture, and decay. Some of the centuries-old buildings damaged by bombs dropped during World War II still remain unrepaired.

Market stalls overflow with shiny fish, perfect mountains of fresh tomatoes, and purple eggplants. The vendors hoarsely shout their wares, and the smells of spices, cheeses or baked goods waft from doorways. For a photographer, it’s a target-rich environment every direction you turn.

 

Even discounting the subliminal mafia issue, invisible to a tourist, most guidebooks advise that the streets and markets of Palermo are places to be cautious, with a high incidence of petty crime. As I was concentrating on my shooting in one end of the Capo market, this was in the back of my mind as I became aware that I was being observed by a slightly sinister looking middle-aged man. I caught my wife’s eye and we moved further on down the street where I continued to shoot.

I realized that the same man was once again close by. Suddenly he caught my eye and smiled, pointing to an ancient open door opposite where I stood. It appeared to be the inauspicious entrance to a church. I could see people inside so stepped through the door into one of the most ornate church interiors that I’d ever seen. Every square inch was covered with frescos, statues and inlay. It’s a door that I would have walked right by except for my photography-fan friend, and my faith in my fellow humans was renewed.

 

Wandering another of the Capo’s narrow streets, I passed by a dusty open door and the corner of my eye glimpsed an antique-looking guitar hanging on a wall. I was now getting tired so continued on by, but then, being a guitar collector myself, decided to go back for just one more look. It turned out to be a tailor shop, and the tailor sat in a chair in the middle of the room hemming a pair of pants by hand. I nodded and smiled, as did he.

 The walls of the shop were hung with a wonderful collection of guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments. The scene was almost too good to be true, reminding me of a Norman Rockwell painting. I asked if I could take a picture. I didn’t speak Italian and the tailor didn’t speak English but it was quickly established that we both loved guitars. Using my 14-24 lens I was able to fill my frame with his magnificent room. He continued to hem the pants as I shot. That image is one of the favorites of my trip, and I’m glad that I decided go back for a second look rather than just continuing on back to the hotel. 

 

Sicily was an unexpected delight - better than we’d hoped for. The people were warm, the photographic opportunities were amazing and I have a newfound passion for anchovies.

You should definitely invade Sicily.... before everyone else does.

Continue to  Sicily Slideshow 


All images copyright Michael Sherman Photography MSPHOTO 2014