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Oceans view of Sicily.

While North Americans flock to Rome and Tuscany, Italians vacation on an island off their coast

We’d gone to the main plaza in Siracusa for our usual evening walk and so that I could apply my investigative skills to what is said to be this Sicilian town’s best ice cream, at Gelateria Fiordilatte.

Settled in at a table with a cup of orange-almond so delicate that it almost made me whimper, we prepared to watch the usual parade of tourists travelling in bunches behind their guides, the accordion player who made an appearance every day, the local kids on bikes crossing the big plaza’s limestone-coloured blocks.

And then, coming down the steps from the city’s biggest church, the very baroque Duomo di Siracusa: a wedding. Not just any wedding, but clearly a wedding among the 10-percenters of local Sicilian society, with women in stunning full-length dresses and men who looked like they could play surgeons on American television.

In the warm September air, they stood for pictures on the steps and everyone swarmed them to get pictures, not just their own guests and the paid photographer, but people passing by and some of our fellow ice-cream eaters. The bride and groom and their attendants smiled, happy to provide the entertainment.

Just another night in Sicily, the place that Italians we met elsewhere said was their favourite place to go, a place that was richer in food, history and scenery than their homes in Rome or Tuscany.

Italians account for almost half of the tourism in Sicily and, at a guess, I’d say that other Europeans made up at least another 35 percent. It was unusual to encounter English speakers. Judging from the Google searches that pop up in relation to Sicily, it looks like crime, refugees and the Mafia may be worrying them.

Oddly, the only experience we had of any of those problems as we travelled mostly on the eastern side of Sicily, to historic towns like Noto, Catania, Scicli and Ragusa, were in the pages of the Inspector Montalbano mystery series that I read obsessively while there. Those books by Andrea Camilleri, which have significantly boosted interest in Sicily from outsiders and become a branding opportunity for the island, are filled with all those dark aspects of life here4Ragusa
5Noto
But Camilleri’s books also paint a picture of what visitors like me find spectacular about Sicily when we go—and what is much more common. The rich, unique cuisine, developed over the centuries as Greeks, Phoenicians, Spaniards, Arabs and the French overran the island: ice cream; pasta with sardines, pine nuts and fennel; cannoli; swordfish in tomatoes and capers; couscous with seafood. The haunting landscape, hillsides covered with scrub and limestone or volcanic rock. The sea, always so close, blue-green along the coast and extending out to the curve of the globe. The historic sites with remnants of Greek and Roman temples. The towns packed with rococo architecture.

And then there’s just regular life in these towns. In Siracusa, we went to the market every morning: three blocks of tables filled with spices, the popular local pistachios, the strange granular chocolate from Modica, cheeses, sausages and bloody fish carcasses. There were tourists. But also the locals, buying what they needed for dinner. In the afternoons, we would swim at local beaches wherever we were, along with people from town. And in the evenings, well, we could watch weddings every so often.6Catania7Duomo di Siracusa

TO DO LIST

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EAT/ Anche Gli Angeli, a restaurant that operates in the basement of a former grand church, just off Noto’s main street, with a selection of books, housewares and art for sale in various parts of the space. Excellent versions of Sicilian specialities, sometimes with an extra twist.

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SHOP/ Reali Sicilie. Facing the main square in Scicli, this store has exceptional and unique handcrafted jewelry, ceramics and more. Not your usual tourist shop.

STROLL/ While the main plaza in Siracusa is beautiful, there’s nothing nicer at sunset than to walk along the western side of Ortygia, the island that the old city is built on, looking out at the sea, the boats and, on land, the Fontana Aretusa, which has a Greek myth attached to it.

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STAY/ Hotel Gutkowski, Siracusa. Simple but elegant, it has great views of the sea to the east and the rooftops of the old town of Ortygia.