Three weeks in Sicily
13.05.2015 - 31.05.2015 26 °C
In 1787 Goethe travelled all over Sicily and was so captivated by the beauty of the place that his writings encapsulated a universal longing for the Mediterranean way of living that seems to haunt our imagination. In particular, he posed the question of, ‘Do you know the land where lemons grow…Do you know it well?’ (Goethe, Italian journey). So, I felt it was my duty to read the fabulous book by Helena Attlee titled The Land Where [/i[i]]Lemons Grow in order to fully understand the history and culture of Sicily and over our three weeks here, it certainly has become a favourite place of ours as well as a place to return to.
On our first day, we stopped off at a TIM store to get an Italian sim card whereby the shop attendant was pleased to explain that Sicily is a place of contradictions. She couldn’t be more correct. Our first accommodation was set amongst a working class neighbourhood in Palermo’s La Kalsa quarter. Directly across from our tiny balcony live a Sicilian family that included: a whining child, the largest hairy bellied grandfather you can imagine with a bellowing voice that boomed throughout the street from early in the morning to late in the evening, a football loving father, a short dumpy grandmother who enjoyed talking (shouting) to her neighbours along the street and a mother who spent much of the day hanging out washing from the lines strung across the street. It was a wonderful introduction albeit a noisy one to life in a vibrant inner city suburb. Not so vibrant were the piles of rubbish and graffiti all over the place, however.
One fine day, we decided to head straight to Enoteca Picone to sample just a couple of glasses from their range of over 500 Sicilian, Italian and international wines. We were keen to only sample wine from Sicily so our waiter selected two wines of the Nero d’Avola variety. They were good but I’m afraid to say that niente compares to Central Pinot Noir; however, more pleasing to the palate was the enormous platter of Sicilian cheeses, cured meats and olives that accompanied the wine.
The wine shop
A view of Cefalu on a day out of Palermo
As soon as we picked up our tiny VW Upi, we started to drive through the land of contradictions that our sim card salesperson referred to. On my left lay the grey, concrete industrialization of the modern era and on my right lay great, green swathes of orchards bursting with sunsets of oranges and lemons. The scent was divine as we trundled along the motorway towards our first stop of Segesta.
Segesta is a gorgeous site comprising of the ruins of one of the most perfect Doric temples ever constructed. It sits on a small hilltop surrounded by a gorge and plentiful olive groves. Our accommodation was a tiny B&B just a couple of kilometres away so were able to see its beauty in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening when it was set alight by the setting sun.
Photos of Segesta
Hungry (as usual), we scoured the landscape for a place to eat dinner and our destination, where we ate a lovely meal at lunch, didn’t open until 8pm so we bumped along a twisting metal road to a restaurant several kilometres from the main road in the hope that it would be open. We were rewarded with splendid views over the countryside and a true Sicilian meal accompanied by the most revolting wine I’ve ever tasted. Oh well – you can’t get it right all the time!
Our delicious lunch
The Agriturismo meal - note the revolting 1/4 carafe of vino
The following day we headed to Erice apparently one of the many towns founded by Aeneas. Set atop a very steep mountain, Erice’s medieval streets are now slicked with time. It was lovely walking along the remains of the Punic wall, gazing out over the sweeping views of the coast from the remains of the Norman castle and tasting pasticceria from Sicily’s most famous cake shop – Maria Grammatico.
Photos of Erice and the yummy pasticceria
After descending the 750metre hill, we drove on the coastal route towards Marsala famous for you guessed it, Marsala wine. The sweet wine is just too sweet for our liking but it was nice to think about those Marsala casks been sent to Islay to be used for maturing some of the islands more expensive whiskeys.
Mazara del Vallo is one of many towns that owes its wealth to one of its many conquerors but this time it was the Arabs that gave the town its fame. It was easy to amble along many of the twisting alleyways pleasantly decorated with colourful tiles and then pop out at a superb piazza to admire a church or gaze wistfully into the window of yet another gelateria. Since we were in an historic Arab town, we decided to have an authentic Tunisian lunch. I settled on a fennel infused couscous whilst Scott devoured two heavenly savoury pastries.
Photos of amphora in Marsala and photos of Mazara del Vallo
The true find in this little town though is the fabulous bronze statue of the ‘dancing satyr’ founded on the seabed by local fishermen in 1997. One of the highlights of our year so far but unfortunately the photos just don't do it justice.
Photos of the Dancing Satyr
Once again, we headed towards our second ancient Greek site but this time it was the huge remains of Selinunte which also happens to be famous for its production of celery. It really is all about the food in Sicily. The ruins of ancient Selinunte, once a large settlement at the westernmost reaches of Magna Graecia, loom high on a promontory above the sparkling Mediterranean. Now one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe, it boasts one of the largest Greek temples in the world. Unfortunately, the mega temple was reduced to ruins during the Punic wars but we were gobsmacked at the size of the fallen columns and the scale of the ruins that took a couple of hours to explore.
Images of Selinunte's Ruins
Magna Graecia’s other supreme site is just over a 100 kilometres away from Selinunte and is more of a tourist hotspot. At one time the fourth-largest city in the known world Akragas as it was known, is home to Sicily’s most impressive Greek ruins. Huge, towering apartment blocks and raised motorways dominate the north of the city today but the ruins take centre stage in the south. The temples are impressive and we loved exploring the ruins but of real excitement to me, was the amazing museum stocked to the brim with highly decorative amphora and intricate jewellery. Flashbacks of studying classical art and architecture at university reminded me of the importance of amphora as I wandered wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the collection.
Photos of Agrigento
We’ve seen so many Greek sites so we were very eager to examine the world’s best preserved and most extensive set of Roman mosaics. For the past few years, millions of euros have been spent restoring this impressive villa and we felt very lucky to be able to get to Sicily to view them. The lavish villa was constructed over a period more than 50 years from the late 3rd century to the early 4th century AD and its public and private rooms, peristyles, luxurious thermal baths and gardens with pools and fountains were laid out on four natural terraces. We got there just after opening and just as well because as we were leaving there were close to 15 tour buses in the carpark. Awful and unpleasant considering the walkways are no wider than a metre. At an estimate, we probably took around 50 photos of the villa but none of them really do it justice so we selected just a few of the best as you can see below.
The amazing mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale
The day was balmy and the air was fragrant with the smell of endless orange and lemon orchards so we decided to head even further inland to the Greek ruins of Morgantina. At first, we gazed across large blocks buried in hip height grass and despaired but then we caught our first glimpse of mighty Etna and just down the hill 50 metres away, lay a lovely little ruin of a Greek theatre and several remains of shops, kilns and magistrates’ houses.
A couple of pictures of Morgantina
Looking at the GPS, we decided to take a 10 minute longer route to Ragusa rather than backtrack in order to enjoy more of the splendid countryside and views of Etna. Driving along more twisting narrow roads alongside endless wheat fields, I had a sense we were going in the wrong direction but putting our faith in the GPS we carried on. Suddenly, the road crumbled away – literally. The sign towards Caltigarone was quite clear but the road looked as if it was at least 500 years old and hadn’t been repaired – ever. This couldn’t be right we thought but maybe it’ll get better? So we drove and bumped along a road that soon resembled a goat track with deep ruts, giant stones and grass growing down the middle. Only a four wheel drive vehicle should’ve attempted this but we carried on and on and on in a car that was entirely unsuitable and with a phone that had now lost all reception. After two hours and fearing we would end up bottoming the car out or ending up rolled over in a ditch, we came across a man dumping his building rubbish in the middle of the road. It took me, Scott and said dumper about 20 minutes to clear the road of rubble so that we could get past; however, we were pleased we saw another human and a vehicle after two hours in the middle of nowhere. Thinking things could not get any worse because we were on a sort of proper road again, we kept coming across closed roads. To cut a hellish story short, our ten minute diversion ended up taking three hours.
In 1693 a massive earthquake completely destroyed many of Sicily’s villages in the South of the Island. As a result, they were rebuilt completely in the Baroque style with elaborate churches and gorgeous piazzas. We spent the next day driving and walking around Ragusa, Modica and gorgeous Scicli. To be honest though after seeing one Baroque church you’ve seen them all. Of note, a funny little man in a Scicli church forced me to take numerous photos of Christ wearing a skirt. Later, I discovered that the painting was quite famous and that many people travel to Scicli just to see it. Looked a bit weird to me but there you go.
Most visitors to Sicily cling to the Eastern shore due to its beautiful beaches and the looming presence of Europe’s largest and most active volcano so we knew that the tourist hordes would be plenty. Much is made out of the archaeological zone in Syracuse because of its Greek theatre of which Aeschylus’ plays were performed and the Roman Amphitheatre. We couldn’t have been more disappointed. The Greek Theatre was covered in wood for performances, the Roman Amphitheatre was shut and the place was swarming with tour groups. A total rip off and completely underwhelming compared to previous historic sites. One redeeming feature of the day though was exploring another fabulous museum until Scott said, ‘urgh another pot’ (referring to more amphora). I ended up in a giggling fit when he then rounded a corner and saw a really cool ‘pot’ and said, ‘Hey Deb, this pot’s in good nick, eh?’. Oh dear. Greek amphora is not his specialty. More to Scott’s taste was exploring the catacombs so while he did that, I sat outside and ate a kitkat.
The following day, we explored another little village, slept the afternoon away and then headed into Ortygia for an aperitif. Ortygia is a bustling mix of piazzas, markets, a lively restaurant scene, churches and plenty of sights with a brilliant blue sea wrapped around it. We didn’t’ take very many photos due to aimless wandering around all the little lanes.
Images of Ortygia and another 'pot'
Our last two days spent in Sicily were on the strip of coast that lies just below mighty Mount Etna. Initially, we thought about walking through forests and being very active but after a busy three weeks, we elected to go for a honey tasting and then spend a day wandering along the Cyclops Coast.
Images of Etna
A morning spent wandering along the Cyclops Coast where Polyphemus hurled rocks at the fleeing Odysseus
A couple of photos of our final airbnb accommodation in Sicily
This photo sums up our food odyssey in Sicily
We’ve adored our time in Sicily and I know that we’ll be back one day. Our favourite spots were definitely on the Western side of the island and we enjoyed all of the delicious food that always tasted so fresh. We are definitely not going to miss hair-raising driving along twisting, cobbled lanes nor are we going to miss those frustrating Sicilian opening hours.
So yes Goethe, we do know where the lemons grow and it is true that wherever you travel in the countryside you are never far away from the pleasant smell of citrus orchards wafting through the open windows of the car.