Relaxed Sicily Kicks Back as the Real Italy
For decades Sicily has been seen as inferior to Italy’s more glamorous regions such as Tuscany and Piedmont. However, as Sue Preston from the Senior Traveller reports, Sicily is now emerging from comparative obscurity to astound visitors with its history, culture, scenery, food and friendliness of its people.
To see Sicily’s capital Palermo as it really is you must be prepared to get properly lost. Leave that notable quartet of streets, Quattro Canti, behind you and plunge into its narrow back streets which act as a funnel for a never-ending stream of people, cars and motor-bikes. Here in the tiny narrow alleyways the clatter of pans and smell of cooking from open windows permeates with the waft of freshly washed and hung laundry suspended from timber poles.
A woman in an upper floor apartment lowers a bucket from her window down to street level to collect something from a friend on the street below. She hauls it up, smiling because she can see we find the sight amusing. Around the corner three taxi drivers use the bonnet of one car as a table for a game of cards as they wait for a customer.
Palermo has a dishevelled air in these back streets - there is no denying that – but when big wooden gates are left ajar, you snatch a glimpse of a deep courtyard shaded by giant palm trees and a home so old and so beautiful it takes your breath away.
It is a feeling repeated in the rural villages of Sicily. No chic cafes and boutiques here. It’s old men sipping coffee in the squares while their women are at home preparing Sunday lunch and the sight of napping street dogs stretched out in the shade.
As we drive across the island it is impossible to ignore the number of unfinished buildings falling into disrepair. You find yourself wondering what happened to the people who once lived here. Did they walk off the land and did some of them cross the seas to settle here amongst us in Australia?
A succession of conquerors over the centuries has left this land, the largest of Italy’s islands, with unique architecture and archaeological sites such as Norman churches, baroque palaces and Greek temples. During our fully escorted 18-day Italy, the Deep South and Sicily Tour with Albatross Tours we will see the best of what the island has to offer, from Mt Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe to the brilliant blue seas to the south.
We arrive in Sicily after staying in the beautiful Puglia region in the South of Italy and start our stay in Sicily at the touristy but nonetheless beautiful town of Taormina before heading into the areas of Agrigento, Marsala and finally Palermo.
For most of us it was our first visit to Sicily and two lines from the ditty play in our heads.
Austria Hungary had a bit of Turkey, dipped in Greece.
Greece was slippery, slipped into Italy
Long legged Italy kicked poor Sicily
Straight into the Mediterranean Sea.
However it is The Godfather movies that make most people think of Sicily. Our tour spurns the tourist traps that have sprung up around the films but it’s impossible to escape reminders of the film. Always - on church-steps, in market squares, outside the cafe where you are having a coffee - is a man or a boy playing the mournful theme song, over and over and over again.
There is other, more chilling, evidence of previous Mafia interactions in Sicily. Palermo’s airport was given the name Falcone–Borsellino Airport in memory of the two leading anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino who were murdered by the Mafia in 1992.
At a church in Palermo I stop to read the beatification of Don Giuseppe Puglisi, a Roman Catholic priest shot by the Mafia in 1993 after he urged his congregation to disobey mafia bosses.
However one does not need to have the slightest concern about the Mafia when travelling in Sicily today for it is perfectly safe. At the start of the tour our incomparable guide Gilberto Bionda assures us that the South of Italy is “the real Italy”. “People are more relaxed, more friendly, not like the North where everyone is rushing, rushing,” he said. And he was right.
A visit to Mt Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. At 3350 metres it dominates the landscape of the north eastern part of the island. While the first eruptions at Etna occurred 500,000 years ago, it still erupts today but fortunately in far less spectacular and damaging ways.
As we drive up through the towns and villages surrounding the mountain, it’s hard to understand why people continue to live and farm so close to the volcano. In the past, the Italian authorities have had to use explosives, concrete dams and ditches to divert lava flows away from these settlements.
It is bitterly cold as we approach the top of the mountain where a chair-lift and a four-wheel drive bus will take us close to the rim of a crater 2920 metres above sea level. It’s at times both exhilarating and scary as we lock arms with each other in a bid to stay upright and walk further through the grey-black ash up the hill in the strong wind.
Sicily abounds with cafes offering everything from simple pasta dishes, seafood and coffee and canoli and this is a tour for people who appreciate food and wine in the company of locals.
We arrive at Mandronova, a 60-acre working olive farm and rustic farmhouse just a day after they’ve finished picking the green olives from 10,000 trees, many of them more than 100 years old.
After observing the process of making olive oil, our host Silvia di Vincenzo serves us authentic Sicilian food using recipes that have been in her family for generations. The style of cooking is simple, focusing on the intense flavour of the highest quality ingredients, including of course their olive oil. We sample pasta with pork ragu, arancini, couscous with almonds and basil, Sicilian meatloaf and wonderful cheeses and salads.
The next day we enjoy a magnificent beach-side seafood feast at Vittorio’s restaurant at Porto Palo with the sun streaming through windows overlooking the sea. Vittorio who featured in the acclaimed BBC2 series Sicily Unpacked is coaxed by Gilberto out of the kitchen to greet us.
Swimming in the Mediterranean
The clear blue waters of the Mediterranean beckon on our exclusive boat ride from Castellammare del Gollo to San Vito lo Capo. We cruise past coves offering secluded beaches admiring both the flying fish and the stamina of the hikers who are doing it the hard way by taking the seven kilometre path to reach the beaches on foot. The boat drops anchor and we plunge into the temperate waters close to a stunning beach.
From the once opulent Villa Romana del Casale near Agrigento to the UNESCO heritage-listed Valley of the Temples and the Temple ruins at Segesta near Marsala, Sicily is a remarkable blend of world influences.
The archaeological area known as the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.
The Villa Romana del Casale is astounding for the quality of its 12-century mosaics preserved by a mud-slide. Its rooms depict mythology, hunting scenes, flora and fauna as well as domestic scenes including one of a group of young women engaged in different sporting activities. Remarkably they are wearing costumes remarkably similar to modern-day bikinis. Other striking mosaics depict the capture of wild animals in Africa and their transport by sea to the great circuses of Rome.
If you go
Albatross Tours fully-escorted 17-day Italy, the Deep South and Sicily tour from Rome to Palermo runs from May to October.
Two and three night stays in each place make for a leisurely trip and the average distance travelled each day on outings is only 147 kilometres. In reality, it is the most unscheduled you can be on an escorted coach tour. While you will see and do a lot, there is plenty of time to explore on your own. Or you can simply choose to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. There are no early starts.
Accommodation in Sicily: In Taormina, our hotel, the Hotel Excelsior Palace where we stay for four nights, is just at the end of the stylish main street, Corso Umberto. The Moorish-style hotel is built on a headland with sweeping views. Our Agrigento hotel, The Colleverde Park hotel, where we stay for two nights, is set in beautiful gardens with views directly across the Valley of the Temples. Baglio Oneto, outside of Marsala dates back to the 18th century. Its rooms offer either a balcony or terrace overlooking the sea, grape vines or olive groves. Finally in Palermo, the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea is a magnificent five star hotel by the sea with a wide terrace and lovely gardens and pool.
Sue Preston from The Senior Traveller was a guest of Albatross Tours.