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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Pocho.it. 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)
There is a great selection of local wines at Pocho.it 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…