There's Italy, and then there's Sicily. Everything about this island is more concentrated, purer: The wine is stronger; the wildflowers are more prolific. Olive trees and stone walls break their rectilinear grid to weave, unplanned, across the terrain. Thick cacti sprout from the side of highways, and main roads trail off into unpaved mountain passes with spectacular views. This rumpled, rough persona distinguishes Sicily from the rest of the country. After a day or two here, even your language changes. Sicily starts to feel like its own country, and you start to think of "Italy" as the mainland only. Sicily's island identity defines its culture in many ways. As the largest island in the Mediterranean, it has evolved along a dual trajectory of cultural insularity and frequent conquests by outside forces, all of which have redefined its architecture, language, cuisine and economy. Sicily's northeastern corner sits only a few miles across the water from Calabria, the tip of Italy's boot. There's no bridge linking it to the mainland, though for decades officials have tossed around the idea of building one. Without a physical structure to bridge the gap, visitors and goods arrive either by air or by sea. Trains from the mainland roll onto a specially designed ferry and chug across the channel, then slide back onto the tracks on Sicilian soil. The sea plays a large role in most Sicilians' lives-the vast majority of the population lives on the coast. Modern, bustling cities alternate with fishing coves, stylish beaches and the sunburned skeletons of ancient metropolises. Inland it's a different story. Mountains crack through the hot, dry terrain, and Mount Etna dwarfs them all with its 3,340 feet of volcanic bulk.
Multiculturalism in action
Foreign conquerors have kept Sicily busy for the better part of the past 3,000 years. Although the island is now an official part of Italy, its foreign occupiers have left behind a rich trail of food, language and architectural styles.
Sicily's capital, Palermo, typifies the island's history. It has witnessed a dizzying transfer of power from one group to another, starting with the seafaring Phoenicians who founded the city in the 8th century B.C. A few centuries later, they were followed by the Carthaginians, the Roman Empire and the Goths. Later on, the Byzantine Empire moved in. But the most important invasion, at least from a food lover's point of view, happened in the 9th century A.D., when Arab forces established the city as the capital of the new and prosperous independent emirate of Sicily. The Arab occupation was an incredibly fruitful period in the island's history. They planted Sicily's first lemon and orange trees, almonds, pistachios and figs. They built lavish universities and introduced a new language to Sicilian ears. The dialect spoken in parts of Sicily still hints at Arabic, even 800 years after the Arabs lost control of the island.
But Sicily's complex cultural mosaic doesn't end there. In the early medieval era, Normans marched in from Northern France, building massive Gothic churches such as Palermo's nearby Monreale. Their genetic footprints live on in the blue eyes and pale blond hair that pop up with scientific regularity in Sicilian families.