On this trip I walk in the footsteps of the Greek Gods, spend some time with a charismatic olive producer and hang out in a luxury coastal villa on the south coast. And let’s not forget the charm of Palermo, that city of life and brilliant street food that took my breath away.
Despite being only 3km wide the Strait of Messina that separates Sicily from the mainland you’d be forgiven for thinking they were a million km away. Yes, there are traces of Italy here for sure but Sicily is so much calmer, more laid back but there is still that golden thread of culture that runs through both.
It’s simple to get to Sicily, my flight from Stansted took less than three hours and with a cheap hire car travelling around the largest island in the Mediterranean was easy. It only takes a few hours to drive from north to south. They are very different and worth exploring.
My stay started in Cefalu just over an hour’s drive east of Palermo airport. It was a sleepy town at night that didn’t get much busier in the day. It’s impossibly quaint back streets won me over immediately. The town has a large square that faces the basilica, with its imposing twin Norman arches it can be seen for miles. The interior is impressive with a mosaic in the apse that’s over a thousand years old. As I was to find with Sicily, it is full of history from the Normans, Greeks, Romans and many more who have all left their mark.
My home for a few days was villa Terrazza, a large three bed roomed property with outside space and plenty of family room inside with that all important feature of two bathrooms. I found everywhere to be within easy walking distance, if you decide to stay outside of the town then a car would be advisable but seeing as they are so cheap that seems sensible anyway.
I was curious to see what a true Sicilian way of starting the day tasted like. My guide was Angelo a native of Cufalu and he surprised me by ordering a granita and brioche roll! There were many flavours to choose from, my strawberry was made with real fruit. Something else I was to discover is that Sicily has a fantastic resource of fruit and vegetables. The strawberries are exceptional especially the small wild ones found at all the street markets I visited. With the breakfast of a Sicilian inside me I wandered around the town with new vigour.
The cobbled streets are charming and peppered with Fiat 500’s and Vespas toting baskets with the latest catch brought fresh from the small fishing boats to the town’s many restaurants. The harbour location amongst others was used in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Oscar winning love letter to film, Cinema Paradiso. Told in flashbacks it’s a story of a projectionist who befriends a boy and becomes his mentor, a story of love and loss unfolds. A beautifully shot piece that comes from the heart; that the director is a native Sicilian is no surprise.
Lunch was in one of those back streets located in an inner courtyard of Corso Ruggero near the cathedral. A few tables outside in the sun and I had a taste of modern Sicilian cooking at Cortilepepe. The waitress, Maria–Teresa a charming local brought us a series of truly excellent dishes. My favourite was a warm baked egg custard with basil and Parmesan – fresh and delicious. All washed down with some superb Sicilian wine and a glass of Passito, a sweet raisin wine of the region.
A few km outside Cefalu is the hill town of Castlebuono. The ‘good castle’ built in 13th century guards the small town with a population of 9000. The ‘castle’ is now a rambling art museum and well worth a visit if only for the view of the hills around and the ornate Baroque private chapel. In the main square you’ll find excellent ice-cream, panettone and that bastion of Italy, a group of old men sitting around in the sun with nothing better to do that chat the afternoon away.
The area offers trekking and cheese-making as activities available tailored to your family’s needs. Mario Cicero runs Nature Explorers Sicily and can arrange anything from foraging to cooking at a local restaurant, rafting, walking with a donkey or just exploring the plants in the hills, here’s the good bit, kids go free!
Sometimes the simple food in Italy can hit the spot. A rustic dinner of olives, ricotta, meatballs and Arabic bread ‘panella’ (left over from the Moors) and a generous glass of homemade wine finishes the day well. Osteria Bacchus in Saint Ambrogio just outside Cefalu is just such a place with simple dishes eaten mostly by locals.
In the south the art community of Farva known as The Cultural Farm have been busy restoring old buildings for the collective to work from. In a run down part of town they have transformed a series of ruins to house bars, restaurants and studio spaces. The effect is impressive and is turning the town around with a hotel or two popping up next door on the strength of their success.
The Valley of the Temples just outside the southern costal town of Agrigento exhibits a legacy of Greek and Roman occupation. The greatest of these wonderful ruins is the Temple of Concordia with intact pillars and facade. Recognised by UNESCO in 1997 as one of the greatest surviving buildings of Greater Greece is a must see. The site has other temples and artifacts from the antiquity, notably the Temples of Juno and Heracles, which are also in relatively good condition. The site is large at 1300 hectares so allow for a few hours to wander through the ruins. It is also not in a valley but on a hill and so is exposed to the sun. On my visit I drank 3 litres of water just walking around. The ground is uneven in places so good shoes are essential.
Further east along the coast was Licata, my next port of call. Used for location in The Leopard, Luchino Visconti’s vision of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s account of the 1860 revolution on Sicily then known as the Two Kingdoms of Sicily. You can see why he chose it, old palatial houses, cobbled streets and history oozing from every stuccoed wall. The villa I stayed in was on the hills outside town where the view was magnificent and the zephyr refreshing.
Giulia di Vincenzo has renovated villa Montesole to such a high standard I would say it is one of the most beautiful settings I’ve ever had the privilege to stay in. From the luxuriously appointed three bedrooms to the infinity pool in the delightful and extensive gardens it relaxes you from the start. The electric gates and long drive set the tone. Shaded areas with seating are around every corner. Giulia lives on site in another part of the building so is on hand to guide you if you wish but she told me that most guests start off with a vast programme of activities but end up just relaxing in the garden for days. I can see why, it is my idea of luxury – it’s that simple.
Tucked away near the port is an unassuming door marked La Madia. Whatever you do if you see this door you must go in and eat there. It’s a modern progressive restaurant with most of the food sourced locally. Run by Pino Cuttaia is clearly packs a punch as he has two Michelin stars. Giulia and I went for lunch and by chance the architect of recent renovations, Gietano Manganello was there as well discussing with Pino some finishing touches to the look of the building.
Over an excellent lunch Giulia told me of her olive oil business that she has passionately built up over the years. Producing everything from extra virgin olive oil to soap and all locally made by local people. Indeed Italy must be one of the world’s best adverts for low food miles. The standout dish for me was homemade buffalo mozzarella with tomato. Sounds ordinary doesn’t it? Well this was a dish that blew my taste buds away. Inside the large ball of mozzarella was foam of mozzarella all floating in a consommé of tomato. I can still taste it now. If your stay is at a Massimo Villa then it can be arranged for Pino to come and cook there for you if you want to step up the luxury to a new level on your holiday.
My trip was coming to an end but I had just enough time for a visit to Palermo. The capital of the island, this pumping, thriving, beating town is like a mini Rome. Around every corner is an architectural masterpiece. Soak in the centuries old flag stones that are everywhere. Try out the street food in the market (on every day near the port in the morning) or if you’re not feeling brave go to Spinato an up market cafe where the great and the good like to hang out – they sell good street food there …at a price!
Sicily is a fantastic location for a family holiday with something for everyone. The sleepy villages and towns are just waiting to be discovered and the food is spectacular. The scenery and historic significance make this a must do pilgrimage for anybody remotely interested in history. Massimo villas have over 60 properties scattered across the island ranging from that family get together sleeps 16 right down to a cosy place for two. They are well located and are of a high standard offering the discerning holidaymaker just that little bit extra. I can’t wait to return in October for the olive harvest, as Giulia promised me a job!