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10 things to know before visiting Sicily

By Lisa Gerard-Sharp, for CNN
updated 11:45 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Sicily's island status reinforces the strong sense of regional identity found in many parts of Italy. Sicily's island status reinforces the strong sense of regional identity found in many parts of Italy.
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1. Sicily isn't all that Italian
2. If you meet the Mafia, you won't know it
3. The bikini is very old news here
4. Sicily rivals Greece for ancient ruins
5. Desserts will satisfy the sweetest tooth
6. Manners remain very formal
7. You can ski on a volcano
8. Mummies are a weird attraction
9. Some of the beaches are made from lava
10. The wine's no longer all swill
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mosaics on Sicily show ancient Romans cavorting in bikinis
  • You can ski on a volcano
  • The ancient Greek ruins are as good as the ones in Greece
  • Oh, and the Mafia? Sicilians are rejecting it

World-renowned chef, best-selling author and Emmy-winning television personality Anthony Bourdain returns September 28 at 9 p.m. ET/PT for the fourth season of "Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown." Follow the show on Twitter and Facebook.

(CNN) -- Sicily has beautiful black-sand beaches, a volcano to ski on and desserts to satisfy the sweetest tooth.

Plus 8,000 mummified citizens in the catacombs of Palermo, to keep you awake at night.

Oh, and the Mafia? There are hundreds of places to eat, shop and sleep run by Sicilians who have said no to organized crime.

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1. Sicily isn't all that Italian

Much of Italy retains a strong regional identity.

Calabrians, Apulians and Tuscans often feel at least as strong an affiliation with their home regions as they do with the Italian state, formed only around 150 years ago.

However, Sicily's island status makes this ambivalence even stronger.

That sense of separateness explains a lot, from the persistence of the island's notorious criminal underworld to the strength of the Sicilian dialect -- which some linguists have argued constitutes a separate language.

Sicilians also often have a darker complexion, with stronger facial features, than many mainland Italians, reflecting the presence of Phoenician and Arab ancestry among the island's population.

The Mafia don\'t obligingly dress like Al Pacino any more but that doesn\'t mean they\'ve gone.
The Mafia don't obligingly dress like Al Pacino any more but that doesn't mean they've gone.

2. If you meet the Mafia, you won't know it

The Mafia: Popular culture may as well have made it Italy's brand.

Unhelpfully, members of Cosa Nostra -- as the Sicilian criminal syndicate is also known -- these days don't often dress the way they do in the movies so, although you may come across them on the island, you probably won't know it.

To compound matters, the coppola, the jaunty cap Mafiosi often used to wear, has been adopted as a symbol of resistance by the anti-Mafia movement -- worn at a different angle.

But just because the mobsters are relatively inconspicuous doesn't mean they're at home knitting.

The Mafia continues to exercise a baleful influence on Sicily and beyond, from its periodic killings, to the protection money -- pizzo -- many hotels, restaurants and shops are forced to pay, and the corrupt investment climate that helps to keep businesses away and keep Sicily relatively poor among the Italian regions.

Tourists will hardly ever be touched directly by mob violence, which tends to go on in the poorer parts of town that are the Mafia's strongholds.

But you can help those who have suffered by getting hold of a "pizzo-free" city map of Palermo and eating, shopping and sleeping in establishments that have signed on to an anti-extortion charter.

Various Sicilian tour groups offer "Mafia tours" of the island.

One, Addiopizzo Travel (Via Lazio 7; +39 380 1544 995), provides an "anti-mob" tour, visiting Mafia bosses' former homes confiscated by police.

An ancient Roman bikini catalogue? \
An ancient Roman bikini catalogue? "I'll have that one!"

3. The bikini is very old news here

Concrete, aqueducts, particularly violent spectator sports -- we attribute a lot of things to the Romans, yet not often a skimpy item of women's sportswear.

However, the evidence is there in Sicily, in the form of beautifully preserved mosaics, that female Roman gymnasts were prancing around in garments very similar to the modern bikini as early as the fourth century.

The so-called "Bikini Girls" -- depicting muscular women running, lifting weights and throwing a discus -- are the most celebrated mosaics on display at the Roman Villa (Piazza Duomo 20; +39 0935 687 667) in the town of Piazza Armerina.

Other mosaics within the UNESCO World Heritage site depict crashing chariots, a bare-breasted Queen of Sheba, and female nudes dancing in pagan abandon.

4. Sicily rivals Greece for ancient Greek architecture

In classical times, Sicily was the star of Magna Graecia, Greater Greece.

The Valley of the Temples, in the southern city of Agrigento, is where the ancient world comes most vividly alive on the island.

The city, ancient Akragas, rivaled Athens in its splendor but may also have been a kind of Los Angeles of the ancient world.

Pindar, the ancient poet, declared -- sniffily or with longing, it's hard to say -- that the hedonistic inhabitants of a city "built for eternity ... feasted as if there were no tomorrow."

Now the remains of the Doric temples within the Valley, another world heritage site, are among the largest and best preserved of all ancient Greek buildings.

The Temple of Concordia, in particular, looks as though it needs only a slap of paint and a statue or two for toga-clad types to fit right back in.

If these are the virgins\' breasts, the chancellors\' buttocks sound worrying.
If these are the virgins' breasts, the chancellors' buttocks sound worrying.

5. Desserts will satisfy the sweetest tooth

Blame the early Arab settlers, who spiced up Sicilian cuisine with citrus fruits and cloying sweets.

Their legacy is cassata, a cake filled with ricotta cream and decorated with almond paste and candied fruit.

Also blame Sicilian nuns, closeted away in convents with little to do but pray and bake cakes

Novice nuns made marzipan concoctions, transmuted today into rather more sacrilegious-sounding nibbles such as "virgins' breasts" and "chancellors' buttocks."

They look vividly as described and can be embarrassing to eat.

Marzipan is also sculpted into the shape of peaches, oranges and prickly pears throughout the island.

In the town of Modica, sweet pastries combine chocolate and meat in a surprisingly tasty combination.

6. Manners remain very formal

The Sicilians don't conform to carefree southern Italian stereotypes -- life has long been too bitter-sweet.

Don't expect the locals to break into song while a stereotypical cuddly mama serves your pasta.

At first, Sicilians can seem sullen, inscrutable and fatalistic.

Sicilian family life is a cocoon. Personal loyalty is sacrosanct and little exists beyond that.

But persevere and you'll find that chill can melt into something as sweet -- sometimes as cloyingly sweet -- as cassata.

7. You can ski on a volcano

The snow capping one of the most active volcanoes in Europe, constantly smoking and spitting lava, seems unlikely enough.

Perhaps even more improbable are the two ski resorts, Rifugio Sapienza and Piano Provenzano, on Mount Etna's flanks.

You can ski down the north face of the volcano and jump over lava bumps.

8. Mummies are a weird attraction

The dead are very much still family in Sicily, and mummification rites practiced on the island until 1881 sought to keep them looking more or less alive for as long as possible.

Using arsenic baths and quicklime, Capuchin friars preserved the corpses of aristocrats, the clergy, doctors, lawyers, women and children and laid them to rest in Palermo's Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Piazza Cappuccini; +39 091 652 4156; admission $4).

Around 8,000 embalmed Sicilians, rictus grins aplenty, are now on display to the public in the underground vaults.

Among the spookiest is "Rosalia," a toddler with a face that looks scarily perfect, 90-odd years postmortem.

9. The beaches are black and white

Some of the most dramatic beaches are on the tiny Aeolian Islands, to the north of Sicily.

There you'll find midnight-black beaches -- a legacy of volcanic activity -- and sand dunes split with rust-red seams of iron.

Or, as on Lipari, the largest of the islands, beaches of silvery-grey pumice stone.

On the mainland, the cleanest white sand beaches are to be found around the city of Ragusa, to the south.

A couple of millennia after Caesar, Sicilian wine is praiseworthy again.
A couple of millennia after Caesar, Sicilian wine is praiseworthy again.

10. The wine's no longer all swill

Julius Caesar praised Sicilian wine, but to the rest of us it's long been thought of as swill.

Despite a pedigree dating back even to Phoenician and Greek times, Sicilian wines have underperformed.

However, a recent revival has seen a glut of boutique wineries producing a far superior drop.

Superb floral whites are produced around the city of Alcamo, in the north.

In the west, elegant Marsala is a fortified wine that rivals top sherries and ports.

The new-wave wine-growers on Mount Etna make award-winning Bordeaux-style reds

Wine resorts are also all the rage.

Near Alcamo, you can stay on the Marquess de Gregorio's estate and taste organic wines while you learn to cook Sicilian dishes.

Lisa Gerard-Sharp is the current recipient of the Italian Tourist Board's Best Magazine Writer on Italy award and the author of the latest "Insight Guide to Sicily."

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