Sardinia – Living Like a Local in Alghero

When Shane was a teenager he had a t-shirt with the slogan “Be a traveller not a tourist” which neatly summed up his and my attitude to travelling. I’ve often pondered the distinction between the two.
A typical Italian sea-side holiday at a beach-front holiday apartment or hotel with days spent lounging on a lettino under an ombrellone is not for me although thousands upon thousands of Italian tourists love nothing more than to spend their time that way, returning year in year out to the same patch of sand, claiming their space early in the morning and barely moving until the last rays of sun disappear from the sky.
One significant difference between the Chinese and Italians is that the Italians love their tan. As the summer wears on not just i ragazzi but men and women of all ages, even the nonni and nonne, turn an ever deeper shade of mahogany. The Chinese on the other hand, who guard their paleness as a sign of wealth, will simply ask as Des Bishop put it “why you want to look poor?”.
I haven’t the patience for day long sun-bathing but I love Italian sea-side towns, especially if I can get under the skin of them and pretend to myself that I am living like a local – well like a local that eats out most nights at any rate. Each place has a character all of its own and some are surprisingly beautiful. Alghero is one such town. The old town is a warren of narrow cobble-stone streets lined with honey-coloured buildings, home to shops selling trinkets, coral and beachwear, and small piazzas,  all shaded  by old ramparts from the sun and the breeze off the sea. It retains a distinctive Catalan feel and is often described by residents of Barcelona and by locals as Barcellonetta ‘little Barcelona’. 

The modern part of the town stretches back into the plain beyond, bustling with local commerce.Past the pretty port and marina,  a lido is strung out along the bay connecting stretches of beach with their serried rows of umbrellas and beach bars, while on the other side of the coast road hotels and holiday apartments unravel their guests, billowing across the pedestrian crossings with towels, beach chairs and their picnics for the day.

If you walk far enough along the lido the character changes. Here pine woods line the sea-front and you have to clamber up and over dunes to little coves. Eventually, after about 6 km, you come to Fertilia, a little port village with a sleepy atmosphere and some nice restaurants on the street leading down to the harbour.

Where to stay
In August accommodation is at a premium in Alghero but through Niamh Shield’s blog Eat Like a Girl  I came across  House Trip who specialise in short-term lettings, many of them in residential areas. This was my first time to use the website and I was impressed with the quality of the service and the range of accommodation options on offer from whole houses to studio apartments. Through their site I found Apartment Dhalia in a small residential apartment block in Via Cellini, about 8 minutes walk from the beach and 10 minutes walk from the old town.
When we arrived from our three days of hill-walking on the east coast of the island (see the last blog post) I knew what to expect – a basic one bed-room apartment with a small balcony overlooking the common courtyard, not luxurious but adequate for a four night stay. What I did not expect was the amount of effort Fabio the owner would put in to making us feel at home. All the little things that you need for a short stay were provided – washing liquid for the washing machine; olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in the kitchen; kitchen roll, refusacks, washing up liquid, soap; tea towels, beach towels, hairdryer – you name it, he had thought of it. There were even a few cold beers in the fridge along with bottles of water. He pointed out the location of the large supermarket three minutes walk away, the places where we could find free parking on the street outside and the direction to the beach and town. And that was it. I was ready for small town italian life.
What to do
For the next four days we pottered happily around the town, our hire car never moving from its original parking spot. The little alimentari two doors from our apartment stocked everything we needed for an impromptu breakfast or lunch – prosciutto crudo, salami di sardo, ricotta, local breads and fresh fruit. In the mornings we wandered down to the old town or out along the lido, enjoying a cappuccino e corneto in a cafe in one of the sunny piazzas, paying a visit to the local mercato to admire the scary swordfish and the array of mediterranean vegetables or walking out of town in either direction as far as the footpaths would allow.
One day we arrived at Fertilia around lunch time and had an excellent lunch in Ristorante Acquario.

This was my first taste of fregola a local pasta like large couscous, dotted with prawns, courgettes and speck. Sautè frutti di mare of mussels and clams tasted straight from the sea.
The afternoons were for relaxing at the apartment or along the seafront where you could commandeer a sea-facing iron bench on the lido if you didn’t want to get sand in your book. I finished one afternoon with a mojito at a beach-side bar as the sun began to drop in the sky and waited for il tramonto.

A mojito at sunset
Il tramonto – a mojito at sunset

There’s a grittiness about the back streets as you return home in the evening, litter blowing in the sea breeze and cluttering the gutters with flyers and wrapping papers. That’s something that the local authorities need to tackle but meanwhile it adds to the realism of the place.
Where to eat
Evenings were for dinner out in one of the many local restaurants. Like all holiday towns Alghero has its fair share of tourist traps and I had been warned off the more touristy restaurants on the Ramparts by a waiter in Dublin whose father hails from the town. But with careful research I found four places that I visited and can recommend. As often happens in Italy the menus are very similar from restaurant to restaurant – I nearly turned into a sea bream – orato – by the end of the week. The difference lies in the care the chef gives to the preparation of simple ingredients, the friendliness of the owner and waiting staff and the ambience of the place.
The four places we tried for dinner were:
La Lepanto – a stylish restaurant with an array of fresh sea-food and live lobster on display. It is pricier than some of the more casual places in town but worth it for the quality and presentation of the fish. Sashimi grade tuna was excellent and the platter of local affettati was first class.

Al Vecchio Mulino – this place was recommended to me by my Italian waiter friend. It is a lovely setting in two parallel dining rooms hewn like barrels from the rock. The staff are warm and most of the clientele were locals eating huge pizzas. We had a prawn cocktail and gnocchi al sardo as a first course and shared a whole sea bream, accompanied by perfect chips and grilled mediterranean vegetables. There are many good reason to return here, not least the great value pizzas.
Osteria Barcellonetta – you can’t reserve tables at this little place so we got there at 7 pm to avoid the queues that were forming outside by the time we left. Yet another example of simple cucina tipica, my fish of the day turned out to be sea bream again but cooked in wine and olives this time. This was also where I tasted seadas for the first time – a light, filo-like pastry filled with ricotta and drenched in honey.

Bar Ristorante Dietro il Caracere – this was a real find. Just five minutes down the road from our apartment, on a quiet street away from the old town, I noticed tables sprawling onto the footpath from a small cafe bar and the owner Gianni chatting with diners who seemed to be mostly locals. We went there for dinner on our last night and tried two pasta dishes – a perfect spaghetti carbonara and trofie – a twisted pasta – with swordfish followed by a platter of exquisitely flavoured, grilled local fish and the perfect Creme Catalana. The cost was about €60 for two including wine, making it one of the best value meals we had. Don’t expect luxury here and be tolerant of the local traffic but you can be sure of a warm welcome from Gianni. This unpretentious little spot will be top of my list for the next visit.

Four days in Alghero can seem like a lot longer as you lose yourself in the pace of italian sea-side life. And yet it is barely a 3 hour direct flight from Dublin to an airport that you can clear through in less than 30 minutes and then just a 20 minute bus ride to the town. With a “summer” season that runs from April through to October, it is a perfect destination for a short italian break, no car hire needed and lots of hotels and apartment options to choose from.
By the end of the week in Sardinia I had slipped into my “I could live in Italy” mood. As I watched the excitement of young children enjoying the Ferragosta fireworks, I was dreaming of coming back to Alghero but this time with Shane, Shan and Dermot in tow.

Sardinia – From the Mountains to the Sea

The ability to use long haul travel to visit  family in China and Australia is a privilege but it is also tiring and takes its toll. At least once a year I get the urge to do something closer to home, to hop on a plane that will get me to my destination in a few hours, no jet-lag to contend with, no lost days of recovering from exhaustion, just a week to unwind, away from it all, to while away the days with long walks, good books, great food and local wines. And when I get into that frame of mind there is one country that lures me like no other – Italy.
Ah Italy, so much variety of culture and food and landscape in such a concentrated land mass; not so much a country as a series of distinctive regions, rather like a China in microcosm the notion of “Italy” and “Italian” being almost as hard to grasp as “China” and “Chinese”.
So as the dog days of August approached and a free week opened up in the schedule it was time to get out the maps and start googling to find where in Italy to explore this year, somewhere we could combine walking in the hills, an Italian sea side resort and living like locals, all in just seven days without a lot of driving in between – Sardinia.
Sardinia – Sardegna – an island with a character all of its own; Italian but remote from the mainland with its own history, personality, landscape and culture. My daughter Claire and I had spent a week there about 10 years ago lounging on the beach at Alghero but the rest of the island was a mystery to me. This time I was drawn towards the Golfo di Orosei in the east where it is possible to book organised walking holidays in the Spring and Autumn but not in the middle of August. It takes a certain kind of Irish daftness to want to hill walk in 35 degree heat.
And so a plan took shape – three nights near the east coast of the island where physical exertion would surely clear our heads, four back in Alghero to relax.
We left behind torrential rain in Dublin early on a Sunday morning, our glorious Irish summer beginning to show the first hints of autumnal chill. Less than three hours later we descended to the island over sea of the deepest cobalt blue to land at Aeroporto di Fertilia, also known as Alghero Airport, just 15 minutes drive away from the city of Alghero in the north west of the island. It is a tiny and efficient airport and, within 30 minutes, we had picked up our rental car and were on the road. Our destination was Hotel Su Gologone, nestled in the foothills of the Supramonte about 25 km from the sea at Cala Gonone.
When I saw the number of cars in the hotel car park on our arrival on Sunday afternoon, I worried for a moment that it wouldn’t be the peaceful hideaway I had hoped for. I needn’t have fretted. It is truly beautiful place with buildings backed into the rock face over several levels linked in a manner that resembles a small Sardinian village. The design creates an atmosphere of quiet intimacy despite the fact that there are 99 rooms in all. Ours was up at the very top and, by luck, was a mini-suite with a separate sitting area and a balcony looking out over the mountains. There are no lifts and walking from the reception area up to our room involved well over 100 steps of stairs – I know. I counted them.
There is a little bar at the main entrance and, from the cosy reception area, steps lead down to the brightly coloured main restaurant which has views out over the swimming pool to the hills beyond. A narrow street passes through a courtyard by an open fireplace where meats are barbecued at all times of the day, whole sides of pork lined up on spits, whole chickens and rabbits. Around the corner under a gazebo, tables are clustered on a wooden deck and, on a buffet table, cold dishes are protected with netted covers that remind me of my granny’s kitchen. The billowing veils of the gazebo are misted with water to keep the space cool while lunch is served during the day.
Steps and pathways, way-marked by hand-painted rocks, wind up to the bedrooms and to other hidden nooks and crannies – the Focacceria where bread is made in the traditional way and the Terrazzo dei Sogni (terrace of dreams) where you can watch the sun set over the hills. There’s a wine cellar – both a cantina and a vineria where you can taste wine – an art and craft shop, an orto (kitchen garden) and la bottega dell’olio where local olive oil can be purchased.
All the more usual hotel facilities such as a gym, Jacuzzi, mini-golf, tennis with tennis racquets and spa are available but hidden from view so as not to disturb the village like atmosphere. You could easily come here and not leave the complex for the duration of your stay and I noticed a number of families with young children who seemed to do just that. Around every corner, inside the buildings and out, there are little spaces where you can curl up with a book in a lazy arm chair or on a balcony bench to while away an hour or two with a good book or simply take in the view.
The most striking thing of all about Su Gologone is that it is a living art gallery and museum of Sardinian artefacts. Every corridor and outdoor space is used to reveal some aspect of Sardinian history or art. As a result it is a riot of vibrant Mediterranean colours and feast for the eyes against the backdrop of the brooding Supramonte and the deep blue sky.
The food is very good too featuring one of the best buffet breakfasts I’ve come across in Italy and a simple but tasty menu at night with the emphasis on local affettati, pastas and roasted meats. On most nights there is also an alternative meal in one of the other locations on site – a dinner cooked over the fireplace at the l’angolo dell’arrosto or a selection of local focacce.

It would have been tempting not to venture out for the three days we spent there but I had come with hill-walking on my mind so on Monday we headed for the coast twenty five minutes drive away past the beautiful man-made Lago Del Cedrino, via switchback roads, the hill-top town of Dorgali and a tunnel bored through the mountain to Cala Gonone. We parked up the hill at the southern end of Cala Gonone and walked a few kilometres up the road to Cala Fuili to pick up the walking trail that took us up and down steep paths, clambering over rocks at times, high into the hills above the crystalline waters of Golfo di Orosei and eventually down to Cala Luna, a crescent shaped beach of the whitest sand that is otherwise only accessible by sea.

A word of warning – this walk is described in the guide at the hotel as “percorso facile” – an easy walk. If you have wonky knees like me it is not all that easy! You need to set out in walking boots and, on a hot day, bring at least two litres of water. I was glad I had brought my trekking sticks but still managed to acquire a few scratches and bruises en route. It took us a good bit longer than the two hours suggested but the effort is worth it for the views, the exhilaration and the bliss of arriving to a cold drink at the little bar down on the beach at Cala Luna. We took a ferry back to Cala Gonone in the late afternoon sunshine to get a different perspective on the coast line and retraced our steps along the beach to pick up our car.
On our third day we decided to stay closer to the hotel and take a break from driving. Just 400m down the road from the hotel there is a lovely, peaceful spot, “La Sorgente” – the source of the river Su Gologone which has been dammed to form the lake at Cedrino. It is a mystical place of deep, crystal clear waters the depth of which is not yet known although it has been explored to 138 metres. From there, trekking trails lead off into the hills around and a guide to these is available from the little bar and souvenir shop at the source. We took a fairly easy but steep stretch up hill to get views over the river and the lake before returning to laze by the pool.

On that, our third and last night, we had dinner in Agriturismo Guttidhai a few kilometers down the road – a simple, rustic set menu of tasty local “cucina tipica” which offers a good value alternative to dining at the hotel every evening.
One word of advice on getting to that part of the island from the airport at Alghero – I allowed Google Maps to choose a route and it got us there in two hours and twenty minutes by climbing high into the mountains and descending, via hairpin bends, through the little towns of Bottida and Esporlatu and on via Nuoro and Oliena to our destination. This gave us a great sense of the rugged and sparsely populated highlands of northern Sardina but it was not the most relaxing start to the holiday. On the return journey to Alghero we took the SS129 across to Macomer and then headed north on the SS131. This route, which hugs the valleys and follows one of the European “E” routes used by road hauliers was less scenic but made for an easier drive while taking about the same length of time.
Although I am sure there are great Agriturismo options in the area of Golfo di Orosei, Hotel Su Gologone is a real find. The staff are welcoming, friendly and very helpful. The only minor downside is that wi-fi is limited to the reception area and requires a (free) code from reception that lasts for a maximum of two hours on a single device. The fact that wifi only works near reception adds to the feeling of getting away from it all but the need to get a code each time is a minor irritant which could probably be avoided with the installation of a few good routers. The mobile phone signal in this mountainous area is also weak.
The area around the hotel is a hill-walker’s dream. The hotel management have organised nine different excursions in the area, some by jeep, some on foot, which can be arranged once at least four guests are interested. But experienced trekkers will have no problem making their own plans from options of varying levels of difficulty and duration. The locals boast that “summer” lasts for seven months in Sardinia, from April to October. It would be lovely to go there for a long weekend in late Spring or early Autumn and use it as a base for several long walks in the area.
Post Script and a heartfelt thank you
On the day of our tough walk from Cala Gonone to Cala Luna we had one of those panicky moments that can sometimes happen if you head out into the hills not properly prepared for the terrain and weather. After two hours of walking, we had descended a steep track in the forest only to find we were climbing again, away from the coast with the sea diminishing in the distance. For a few minutes we thought we had missed markers on the path and gone astray. We were too far into the walk to go all the way back to the start and we were nearly out of water. Calling mountain rescue began to seem like a good if embarrassing option. We began to re-trace our steps to see if we could get our bearings.
As luck would have it, within a few minutes, we encountered a cheerful young French couple, fit as fiddles who were bouncing along the path in sneakers and confident that it was correct because they had spotted a marker that we had missed. We communicated through my very rusty French and their almost non-existent Italian. As we let them go on ahead of us, Derry called after them to ask if they had any spare water. The girl insisted on giving us a nearly full ¼ litre bottle of water and, with a friendly gallic shrug indicating that she could share her partner’s half empty bottle, bounded on her way. Thus spared from dehydration and more confident of our direction we resumed our walk to discover that the next hill we crested would bring us within sight of Cala Luna and a final scramble down to the sea.
We never did find the couple, on the beach or ferry at Cala Luna, to thank them properly. So if they or a friend should ever stumble on this blog post I want them to know that their random act of kindness made the day of two weary walkers and we won’t forget them. Merci beaucoups.

Images and Flavours of Tuscany (Part 2)

I smiled ruefully when I tore the end of week page from my calendar last night. It read “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”. Hands up those of you who can answer that question without a moment’s hesitation? I know I can – we all have our dreams – but yesterday I would have settled for more modest achievements – a perfect lemon tart, a creamy panna cotta with a topping of summer fruits and shards of honeycomb, a rare bistecca alla fiorentina served straight from the Big Green Egg.
Yes yesterday was one of those days where my careful plans to try out some of my favourite Italian recipes came unstuck, reminding me what a long way I have to go to become a cook who can produce good results, consistently every time. I mean I even managed to burn a batch of my foolproof chilli jam!
You see I’m still suffering withdrawal symptoms from Italy and I thought I would work it out of my system by trying out some Italian recipes in Duncannon but my pretty dismal efforts just made me want to hop on a plane back to Italy to savour the real thing.
Ah Italy! Is it really only two Sundays ago that we were at Fredi and Oli’s first birthday party  at  Borgo di Colleoli, a renovated medieval manor and holiday complex in the hills above Pontadera.

Affettatti at Borgo di Colleoli

Solange has been my friend for over 4 years now since she first began to teach me Italian and I’ve been with her through the lead up to the birth of the twins and early motherhood. My Italian vocabulary is not extensive yet but, thanks to her, I can hold down a conversation about pregnancy, babies, cultural differences in child-rearing across continents and what it is like to be a long-distance Nai Nai! Continue reading Images and Flavours of Tuscany (Part 2)

Images and Flavours of Tuscany (Part 1)

Hello lovely readers. It has been awhile… That’s because I have been diverted from Chinese cooking and my Big Green Egg while we spent some time in Tuscany. We went there to join our friends Solange and Agustin in the celebration of their twins first birthday near Pisa and took advantage of the opportunity to unwind in the coastal area of the province south of Livorno.
I love this part of Italy which is a bit off the beaten track and generally not as well known by Irish holidaymakers as the tourism honeypots of Sienna, Florence and the Chianti region.
It always takes me time to get back down to earth when I return from Italy so before I post my latest Chinese recipes here are some picture post card impressions from the trip. I hope they will be useful to you if you get a chance to visit that part of the world.
Our base – Fonte Alla Lepre

Fonte Alla Lepre

Continue reading Images and Flavours of Tuscany (Part 1)

Shananigans is back

I’ve been on holidays… a brief diversion for a week in Sicily, a land of magic and colour, of sunshine and history, of baroque cities, rugged coastline, rolling fertile landscapes and beautiful beaches all in a compact package.
It was a week to savour a combination of excellent food and wine, stunning cityscapes, the wilder northwest and the gentler south east of the island and to soak up the late summer colours, aromas, light and heat of this special island.
it was an opportunity to register the contrasts and, at times, the unexpected resonances with my trip to China in June. Scale was the obvious difference – the sheer size of China and its population was an ever-constant drumbeat to that visit along with the absence of colour and direct sunlight in the the misty, smog bound city of Beijing and the sense in Xinjiang Province of being part of a massive landmass with the sea a very, very long way away.
And yet, wander the food markets of Palermo or Siracusa and suddenly I felt  transported to the market in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province so similar was the array of vegetables, fruits and sea-food. Even the expressions on the faces of the stall holders were similar and their evident passion for their food and their trade as they went about the age old traditions of cooking food on street braziers and sharpening knives.

The food markets of Sicily – the difference is the € sign

It was striking that Arab influences caught up with me on both sides of the world – permeating the  cuisine of Palermo and northwestern sicily with its couscous and its aubergines and Xinjiang province, via Turkey with its lamb and naan bread. That’s a theme worth deeper exploration.
The similarity between noodle and pasta dishes, even at times in the spiciness of the dishes, was also evident – the Sicilians like their chilli heat. I found myself wondering what role Marco Polo might have played in all this.
Sharp knives and spicy pasta in two cultures

Much as I enjoyed the food in Sicily, I found myself missing the spicier notes and the relative quantity of vegetables in the Chinese diet. I’m always fascinated that the rich array of vegetables available in Italy doesn’t feature more prominently in the daily diet, often being confined to occasional platters of antipasti and as a base for sauces. The balance of vegetables, meat and fish in the Chinese diet already feels inherently healthier and easier for me to digest.
So I came back looking forward to the next stage of the Shananigans journey as I attempt to work my way through the different regional cuisines of China. I’m hoping to post more recipes soon and updates of my attempts to reproduce them using the best of Irish ingredients along with further tales from our experiences in China.
I’m loving the way this blog and the associated tweets are helping me discover how many of you here share a passion for Chinese and Asian food and the store of knowledge and ideas that is out there in Ireland and further afield. I get a great kick when you get in touch with a suggestion, a recipe or an insight and I am always delighted to pass them on. Yesterday alone I picked up ideas from Jacqueline Stedman (@Jaq_Stedman), Irish Food Guide (@IrishFoodGuide) and Ronan Farrell (@ronan_farrell) which I will pick up on in coming blogposts. I enjoy being part of this global conversation and learning from you all.
Meanwhile my sone Shane has found the diary he kept in his early days in China over 5 years ago which provides a fascinating insight to his initial and at times naive perceptions of the place, a moment in time in a country that is constantly changing. If I can convince him to give me guest posts it should provide an interesting counterpoint to his and our more recent experiences as he becomes increasingly embedded in the culture and lifestyle there.
So give me a day or two to get back into action and on top of my emails and workload and the Shananigans will continue…

Sicily – already dreaming of coming back

It’s official. A week isn’t long enough to appreciate Sicily but it’s enough time to fall in love with it and dream of returning.
We’ve spent the last 3 days wandering the necklace of baroque cities in this south east corner of the island:
Ortigia in Siracusa, drifting through its narrow tangle of alleyways and streets to its elegant Piazza del Duomo and out again to catch the breeze off the sea;
Noto with a hint of the sea always on the breeze, the taste of gelati and granite in Corrado Costanzo and Caffe Sicilia, its gorgeous Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the discovery of great restaurants in Noto Alta and Lido di Noto;
Modica with its long trek up winding steps to Modica Alta with gorgeous churches and belvedere over the old city;
not to mention the best chocolate in Sicily, if not in Italy, at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto;
And then there was Ragusa Ibla and one of the most sublimely beautiful piazzas I have ever seen sloping up to the steps of the Cattedrale Di San Giorgio;
Where better in the world to savour a wine- flavoured icecream at Gelati Di Vini.
After all that there was still time to wend our way along winding, hairpin roads across the glorious terraced landscape, until the sea came into view again and to have one last swim at Lido di Noto
and to get back to our base at La Corte Del Sole to watch the evening draw to a close.
There’s just one last meal to be had here before the trek back to Ireland tomorrow. The toss up for the best meal so far is between Trattoria del Crocifisso in Noto Alta and last night’s discovery Baglieri in Lido di Noto. Both are worth a separate blog post in their own right but I can now confirm that there’s excellent food and wine to be had in these parts once you seek it out.
Now wouldn’t it be lovely to have another week to enjoy it all…

Our best meal in Sicily in 2012

Apart from the excellent food in near San Vito Lo Capo, the meals on this whistle stop tour of Sicily have been a bit disappointing.
Last night’s dinner at Trattoria del Crocifisso was an exception and deserves a brief blog post all of its own.
We stumbled into this lovely trattoria, high up in Noto Alta, about 10 minutes walk from Corso Vittorio Emanuelle, to escape the thunder and lightening and rain lashing down from the north.
On a Sunday evening it was full of locals, in couples and family groups, settling in for a long evening of chatter and food.
We had a simple meal and what singled it out from others was the rich flavours and perfect balance of the dishes.
We shared ravioli to start. It was oozing ricotta and served with a pork and tomato sauce containing tender chunks of pork.
My main course was tagliata di manzo – sliced fillet beef served rare with caponata and was perfectly tender and delicious.
My other half’s secondo was a stuffed fillet of pork in a Marsala reduction.
My desert, described on the English menu as a “cup cake” was the most divine chocolate essence I have ever tasted
And the other dessert, involving pistachio, was every bit as good.
We washed it all down with a bottle of Arianna Occhipinti’s SP68 Nero d’Avola from 2011, a lighter take on this Sicilian classic. The whole meal, including tip, came to €70.
For once I was too busy eating and ogling the delicious dishes on the way to other tables to take careful note of the full descriptions of the food but all is not lost. We’ve booked to return there tomorrow night for a last supper before returning home and this time I will bring a notebook 🙂
Noto itself is a lovely town and its cathedral (pictured above) looked splendid in the sunshine yesterday morning. It is well worth a visit for it’s gelati and granite alone. The granite di mandarino from Corrado Costanzo is like tasting Sicily in a dish.
I’m only getting the hang of uploading a blogpost from iPhone so forgive any errors. I will tidy it up when I get home!

Sicily 3 ways in 1 week

I had been to Sicily once before – an enjoyable week in Taormina following the well-trodden tourist trail including a day-trip to Mount Etna. It was a good holiday but quite manicured and I didn’t leave with a feeling that I had experienced the real Sicilia.

This time, with only a week free before the busy Autumn period begins, I picked up low-fare mid-week to mid-week flights from Dublin to Catania on an Aer Lingus sale, rented a car from Hertz and began to consider the options. I was determined to get to Palermo but after that I had an open mind. The sensible thing would have been to pick one location as a base for 5 or 6 days but I couldn’t resist the contrasting lure of the north west and south east of the island. So while we’ve packed too much into 7 nights to do the island justice, it has given us a genuine taste of the variety that Sicily has to offer. And by shopping around on line I got great room rates at this tail end of the August tourism season here.
We arrived in Catania airport early last Wednesday afternoon and it was a pleasant two and a half hour drive from there to the heart of the old city in Palermo where we had booked a room for the night at BB22. This turned out to be a great choice. We were given a big attractive room in this comfortable old palazzo, stylishly decorated and with a balcony, complete with multi-coloured chandelier and a view over the port and we were just “due passi” from the heart of the old city.

BB 22
BB 22 – a room with a view

Chandelier on the terrace at BB22

By 4 pm we were having a gelatao in Piazza Giusseppe Verdi right opposite the steps leading up to the opera house -Teatro Massimo – famous among other things for being the location of a scene in Godfather IIII.
Sicilian gelato

That Godfather III moment

I had expected Palermo to be a dirty, noisy port city, dilapidated and run down with an undercurrent of corruption and a certain edgy charm and in many ways it is all those things. But I also found a city surprisingly easy to fall in love with, where the streetscape of contrasting architectural styles gives you the sensation of wandering in an open-air museum as the locals go noisily about their business oblivious of the few tourists around. I had a sense of the city in the process of being cleaned up and re-invigorated and that seems to be down to the work of the city Mayor proving that one person with vision can make change happen. This is a city that oozes atmosphere and is far easier to get around on foot and in a car than larger port cities like Naples and Genoa.
By lunch time Thursday we had found time to wander the streets of the old quarters – the Vucciria and La Kalsa, get lost in the sights, sounds and smells of the Mercato del Capo and savour the beauty of Piazzas Pretoria and Bellini and Quatro Canti, known locally as il Teatro del Sole because of the way each of the four perfectly proportioned facades of this crossroads at the heart of the city catches the light at different times of the day.
Mercato del Capo, Palermo

No shortage of chilli heat in Mercato del Capo

The only slight disappointment was the meal at San Andrea which came highly recommended in several guidebooks but may be trading on long established reputation. The food was pleasant with good pasta but was not particularly exciting and I sense you could do a lot better in this foodies paradise.
Piazza Pretoria, Palermo

After collecting out bags from BB22 and rescuing our car from the nearby piazza where it had been “minded” overnight by the locals for a tip of €4 (the “lockhards” familiar to Dubliners are alive and well in Palermo) there was time to detour inland to Monreale to see the stunning Norman cathedral which dates from the 12th century and is perched high above the coast giving a perspective on the scale of Palermo and its sprawling suburbs.
Interior of Cattedrale Monreale

We lost an hour or so getting to San Vito Lo Capo, thanks to the SS186 being closed at one point with no diversion signs and the sat nav unable to find an alternative. I bet the locals know about the road closure but we didn’t so instead of our cross-country route we had to return to the outskirts of Palermo and take the coast road out past Castellmare del Golfo to near the tip of the peninsula to our second stop The distance is a bit deceptive here. While it looked close enough to Palermo on the map the twisty roads meant it took nearly two hours to get there from Palermo even without our unscheduled detour.
This small guest house with a restaurant attached had been recommended by friends. In a lovely location, it faces due west and overlooks a bay surrounded by rugged cliffs it certainly produced the most spectacular sunset of the trip and the most memorable meals so far.
The “menu fisso” changes daily and is all based on seafood. The second night’s meal went something like this:

  • An aperitif of Capirhina – a brazilian cocktail made with cachaça
  • Smoked swordfish and tuna pâté served with onion relish
  • A souffle of branzino (sea bass)
  • Spaghettini con l’arragosta (pasta with lobster sauce)
  • Pasta con tenerumi e cozze (a few pieces of a large pasta like short lengths of cannelloni served with a local vegetable which is the vine tendril of the cuccuza plant – a type of courgette I think – and mussels)
  • Pesce spada con caponata (swordfish with a vegetable salad of tomato, capers, aubergines, celery, olives and onions)
  • Desert

Swordfish and tuna pate at

There is a great selection of local wines at and, over the course of the two nights, I had two whites that were new to me – a Grillo and a Moscato called SP68, the latter made by a young Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti – which opened my mind to the delights of Sicilian white wine.
Sunset at Pocho,it

Our room was very small and though it had a sea view it didn’t have the benefit of balcony but the restaurant, presided over by the formidable owner/ chef Marilù Terrassi who runs a tight ship, draws diners from as far away as Trapan and is worth a visit in its own right.
There is a lovely terrace and pool (bring your own beach towels and swimming caps) and just a few kilometres up the road at the tip of the peninsula lies the pretty seaside town of San Vito Lo Capo with its semi-circular beach and pristine clear blue sea where you can indulge your beach bum fantasies for awhile. Apart from that the striking landscape in these parts is arid and wild with very little fertile soil. It has something of the feel of Donegal without the green.
All set for a day at the beach

The beach at San Capo Lo Vito

I know many friends who would happily spend a full week pottering between the beach and pool but I came in search of culture and a sense of ordinary life here in Sicily and to follow a little bit of the trail of Montalbano – the tv series that had cultivated a longing in me to see Sicily in the chilly winter months in Dublin. So it wasn’t too hard to leave San Vito Lo Capo yesterday morning. A storm had blown up overnight, turning the deep blue sea to a steely grey, whipping up white tops on the waves and making the busy road through Palermo treacherous with flash floods.
Driving through Palermo

Although as the crow flies our trajectory was from north west to south east, the fastest route was to take the autostrada along two sides of the triangle that is Sicily, back past Palermo and Catania and south west from there, past Syracuse to Noto. Miraculously we escaped the storm clouds just before arriving at our destination – the drop dead gorgeous masseria – La Corte del Sole, set in the stunning, green landscape sweeping down to the sea a few kilometres from the town of Noto which is the setting for some of the Montalbano series.
We were met with a warm, engaging welcome from Maria Angela who shudders as she recalls being served “dried blood” for breakfast in Dublin some years ago – black pudding no doubt. Her outgoing and chatty attitude was something of a contrast to the more reserved approach of Palermitans to outsiders for which they are renowned. Our room is a basic one without a terrace buts it’s spacious and simply furnished and will do nicely for 4 nights.
The views from the swimming pool away to the west and from the terrace of the restaurant down to the sea are across a fertile landscape dotted with woodlands, vineyards and olive groves. A little bar at the pool side serve snacks – salads and panini all day. Though storms are forecast, we seem to be blessed with out own little micro-climate with a stiff breeze from the sea keeping the storm from the north at bay for now.
The pool at la Corte del Sole

From the moment you arrive in this place a sense of peace overwhelms you and it’s a perfect base for exploring the lovely towns in this area – Syracuse, Noto, Modica, Ragsua – if I can drag myself away from here that is. To be continued…
The view from La Corte del Sole