Visiting Sicily has been in our plans for a while.
I wanted to share some highlights from these two weeks with you, mainly visual. I took a lot of photos along our journey that took us from Palermo to San Vito, Scopello, Erice and Marsala during the fist week; and then across the island, through Enna and the Iblei, to land in Modica, Vendicari, Noto and finally, Siracusa.
Many times, though, I left my camera behind, capturing what I saw with my pupils only – sometimes with my phone, too. As a result, I have few images from each and every single place I visited, but many more sensations stored in my memories, and perhaps more things to tell and to put down in words.
Here we go.
Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro
The main things Scopello is famous for are its tonnara (the old series of buildings destined to the fishing and manufacturing of tuna and tuna products), now turned into a private series of apartments (interestingly enough); its faraglioni (sea stacks) and its pane cunzato (pictured above). It is a lovely beach village with small, relaxed beaches and a tiny yet charming town centre. We arrived late in the morning, with lunch time quickly approaching. Following our nose, we ended up in a hidden spot just steps away from the main piazza. It turned out to be the right place – you could tell by the crowd, and by the car packed with branches and dirty tomatoes from a nearby field.
The pane cunzato we had there was by far the best lunch we had in the whole trip. Durum wheat Sicilian-style bread seasoned with dried wild oregano, anchovies, oil, salt, some pecorino and freshly sliced ripe tomatoes, then warmed up in the wood fire oven until crisp and piping hot. That was all they did, with no exceptions or substitutions – you could take off the anchovies if you didn’t like them, or add more if you loved them, or no cheese if you were lactose intolerant…But you couldn’t have ham on top, what the hell! Filling, honest (£3), with a flavour that was so very complex in its simplicity – a real winner.
We then headed to a nearby beach to digest, snoozing profusely on the beach towel for the rest of the day.
The ancient hamlet that is Erice is a preserved gem of rare dramatic beauty nestled on top of a high hill that overlooks the coast, with the Egadi in the distance, the rural valley (too bad for the antennas ruining the view!) and the nearby city of Trapani. Tourists know of its existence – you can tell from the higher amount of souvenir shops along the main road – but it was definitely worth a visit, for it is indeed charming and beautifully preserved, with its wall enclosing centuries of history, art and different domains leaving their signs. With more churches pro capite than any other place I visited, some breathtaking palazzi, and the most dramatic location for a castle I could ever think of, Erice is a picture perfect place made UNESCO heritage site. It has also some of the most outstanding pastry shops in Sicily, specialising in almond and marzipan sweets. We made sure we took advantage of a mid-morning break to sample some of them, alongside a well-chilled latte di mandorle (a sweet almond milk made from almond and sugar paste). Then we killed the sweetness with a dark espresso and we moved on to…
The reason for our visit to Marsala was, easily enough, wine-related. Via our friends at Tutto Wines, we got to know the delicious wines Nino Barraco makes not far from Marsala – unique, complex, made with local grapes and low-intervention methods. We couldn’t miss the chance to visit him, and Nino was gracious enough to run a fantastic tasting with us, just before taking us to one of his vineyards – the one called vignammare, located only a few steps from the open sea. The wine coming out of those Grillo grapes is saline, fresh, with hints of seaweed, and I could finally see why – the see and its seaweed are only meaters away. Dinner was at a lovely nearby osteria called Le Lumie, with wine from another local producer called De Bartoli, delicious seafood, and a very memorable granita di gelsi neri (mulberry). Oh, the timballo di spaghetti (with hard boiled eggs and mozzarella) you see pictured above was what we had for lunch in Marsala before the wine tasting – perfect for soaking up the booze and keep us on our feet until dinner.
I have conflicting feelings about Palermo. It was perhaps the very first contact with the ‘real and rough’ Sicily we had after an idyllic week spent between lush beaches and medieval towns – although we had had a bit of a taste of the inland, too. I just didn’t like what I saw, maybe I was not prepared for it. Palermo is, quite simply, a very complicated city that is left to its own devices. It is, in a way, absolutely beautiful – so full of art it hurts your eyes. Churches, baroque palazzi, mosaics, a fantastic theatre….You name it. At the same time, I found it highly unpleasant to visit – dirty, polluted, with cars getting everywhere in the town centre, leaving no room for pedestrians – and without a single corner of green space besides Villa Giulia. I wish I could say I loved and understood its decadent charm, its crumbling walls and creepy alleys, its abandoned-looking churches and trash-dotted streets, but no, I actually didn’t. There is so much beauty (as you can see) but so much wasted potential, it truly makes me sad.
We were meant to stay two days, visiting the main attractions, shopping at the popular Ballarò market, and getting our good share of street food. Sadly, we arrived around noon on a Sunday, and what we thought was a fervent, vibrant market was just skeletons of stalls instead, with trash everywhere, and a very dodgy atmosphere. We decided to go visit the beautiful Palazzo dei Normanni instead, and the Cathedral, then walked pretty much everywhere in the town centre. At the end of the day, our achy feet found some solace at the gardens of Villa Giulia, right before settling in a local spot called Da Salvo for dinner, enjoying a simple yet good meal of grilled fresh seafood and beer right in the street. The bill, you bet, was ‘a voce’, oral.
Laying in bed that night, I felt absolutely defeated by a city I was trying to enjoy, but was somehow unable to. This is why the following morning, unenthusiastic about the idea of spending one more day submerged by car fumes, mess and noise just for the sake of some panelle and some granita, we decided to get in the car early in order be on the other side of the island in the early hours of the afternoon.
The drive between Palermo and Modica was absolutely breathtaking. We passed through barren mountains, where the air was fresh despite the high temperatures, with absolutely no village in sight until at one point, just after Enna, the motorway finished and gave way to smaller roads twisting around the hills, crossing provincial towns in full weekly swing. We absolutely loved the whole trip, and were mesmerised by the natural beauty of the inland – not green and lush, but naked and stark, yet absolutely gorgeous. We arrived in Modica by noon, under the scorching sun, but happy to eventually be in a quieter, more manageable place.
A gem of a town, heart of the classic Sicilian Baroque style, and one of the many UNESCO heritage sites in the area, Modica is also known for its outstanding, unique artisan chocolate. The chocolate-making tradition dates back to the 16 hundreds, when the Spanish dominated the the island. Modica was a manufacturing site for the cacao brought to Europe from the Americas by the Spanish, and processed using an old Aztec recipe. Its most unique feature is the grainy texture, due to the fact that the chocolate is worked at cold temperatures, with the sugar crystals remaining intact.
Dark, with no addition of butterfat, and a fantastic crunchy texture, Modica chocolate is one of my absolute favourite – I had to buy some to take back to London. Only few authentic cioccolaterie remain, one being Caffé dell’Arte, and the other being Antica Dolceria Bonaiuto (where you can also find some pretty amazing cannoli siciliani). We visited the latter (the former was sadly closed at lunchtime), and sampled some of their tempting flavours (muscovado, cardamom, nutmeg…so many!), before settling on lemon peel, Trapani sea salt, and white pepper. We exited the shop sugar-high and no longer hungry, the sun being harsher than ever, and resumed lunching on granita of prickly pears (a fruit proliferating in the region and making the landscape quite striking in some parts). It was actually the smartest possible move, as we were planning to spend the afternoon swimming shamelessly at…
Portopalo di Capopassero
The Southern tip-toe of Sicily, and in part natural reserve, Portopalo di Capopassero is a small village with a tiny, dramatic beach of rough sand ending in the most crystalline portion of Mediterranean sea – one of the best in Sicily. Perfect for unwinding after hours of driving and sightseeing in the midday summer sun, we enjoyed every single moment. The nearby fishermen village of Marzamemi is quite impressive too – very picturesque and particularly nice for a pleasant stroll before dinner, or for an aperitivo in the picture-perfect central piazzetta. Marzamemi, particularly, is known for its tonnara, and have a long-lasting tradition in manufacturing tuna products to make preserves. The tradition continues even though most of the tuna doesn’t come from there any longer, with Campisi being one of the most known manufacturers. We had a lovely dinner at their ‘restaurant’ within the shop – a series of tables set by the shore – enjoying fresh pasta, simply seasoned with fresh cherry tomatoes from the nearby town of Pachino, pistachios and tuna bottarga; and a glass of well-chilled inzolia. Just what we wanted.
The following day was spent in Vendicari, the natural reserve not far from Noto, hiking, watching birds and swimming in the icy-cold yet beautiful water of Cala Mosche. Also, trying to build an impromptu shelter of sticks, rocks and beach towels to protect ourselves from the sand blown by the powerful wind coming from the inland. Cala Mosche was, together with Lo Zingaro, the best beach we visited during the whole trip – just the cleanest, most wild-looking and stunning piece of coast. They told us the agriturismo near the parking lot at the entrance has great food and good prices – we didn’t get to try ourselves, though.
Noto was the town we liked the most by a mile. It has a timeless charm, an outstanding historical centre, a world-known almond production, and some great places to eat. It was the place for us. We had rented a place just outside of town, amidst almond trees, silent, with no lights interfering with the clear starry nights – only Noto shining through from the top of the hill in the distance. It revealed being the best choice, especially after the noisy experience in Palermo – we really enjoyed the quiet.
We arrived after the long day spent in Vendicari – salty, scruffy and famished – and immediately felt underdressed. Yes, Noto is elegant, wealthy(er), a tad posh, a place to see and be seen. People dress up and stroll leisurely down the main pedestrian (for once!) road, while eating a granita or an ice cream. A place where to put on a fancy top, sit down at the outdoor tables of a cafe, and breathe in ‘the lifestyle’ with full lungs. No better place to be to feel fancy on a holiday.
The main reason we stopped in Noto, however, besides the beauty of the place itself, and its invaluable treasure of palazzi and baroque churches all concentrated in a few square meters, was to eat at what we heard was the best pasticceria in Sicily – Caffé Sicilia. Trusted food sources had been there many times and had a fantastic experience, plus the fame of the pastry chef, Corrado Assenza, had spread outside of the borders of the island. On the first day, as soon as we arrived, we aimed for Caffé Sicilia with confidence, dreaming of a proper brioche (col tuppo, with the button on top) stuffed with some delicious and well-made ice cream – the most satisfying and refreshing afternoon snack we could hope for. On the second day, we only got a granita ‘da passeggio’ (while strolling), gelsi neri for me, and peach and basil for him. This, at the end of a beautiful meal in a charming restaurant called Sapori della Val di Noto (Jesse will dream of those ravioli di ricotta with Noto almond sauce for the rest of his life).
Finally, on the last day, we went for the real deal – sat at a table outside, one of the few blessed by the share of a large white umbrella, and ordered breakfast. A large almond granita – the best I had – with brioche and caffé for me; a granita tasting of three flavours (lemon, almond and cappuccino) for Jesse. Granita is such a fine art – so easy to get it wrong in texture or flavour. The one I had in Noto was just impeccable: creamy but not watery, of the right sweetness, and with the intense, fresh flavour of almonds. What a breakfast.
Siracusa is hit by a higher number of tourists compared to the rest of Sicily, all attracted by the archaeological treasures this place has. As a consequence, it also a higher number of touristy restaurants and shops. Only few restaurants seem to shine, and it was hard to judge which ones. Throughout the whole trip, we had been using the precious and often spot-on Osterie d’Italia guide by Slow Food, and had some very nice meals at reasonable prices. But once in Siracusa, of the two signalled in the guide, one was closed for holidays, and the other didn’t look all too inspiring. Following our nose, we ended up having aperitivo and some food at Enoteca Solaria: their wine list looked interesting and diverse, and so did the selection of small plates. We had the most memorable Sicilian olive oil there.
The best food in Siracusa, they say, has to be found at the old Ortigia market, bustling from the early morning hours until the early afternoon, every day. If you are lucky enough to have a kitchen where you are staying, look no further – the freshest fish, produce and tasty cooking ingredients are to be found here. We were overwhelmed with choice, finally settling on some food to have as a meal, and some to take back as a souvenir – almond paste, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, wild oregano, almonds and cheese. A fantastic shop to pay visit to is Fratelli Burgio, at the very end of the market – a deli with the capital D, full of small-scale artisan products and real gems which are almost impossible to find anywhere else.
Full of shopping bags, with way more food than we could possibly consume in two days, we joined the queue of locals and tourists at the cheese shop right next to Fratelli Burgio. The owner, a histrionic gentleman, was giving a show in making fat, rich sandwiches on a whim, describing every addition or every product with a theatrical voice, giving out generous samples to the crown passing by while slicing ingredients. ‘I read people’ he said, making my panino ‘and I try to guess what they would like in their sandwich’. Apparently, I liked to have spicy mushrooms, minced herbs, rocket, black olives, fresh fiordilatte mozzarella, sliced tomato, parma ham and pecorino with pistachios in mine. Thankfully, Jesse and I shared, but there were some brave people ordering one each. Four euros. We were mesmerised. What a great lunch to have in the open air – it put us in the right mood to visit the ancient Greek theatre and the Archeological museum.
The golden hour was definitely the best time to be out and about in Ortigia. Its piazzas and buildings, hit by the sunset, shined with a warm golden-pink glow, revealing all their timeless charm. Piazza Duomo was an especially spectacular vision – people strolling around, filling the tables of the cafes at the edges of the square, and enjoying the magnificent early September weather.
There was sill lots we wanted to see, eat, do. But two weeks were a good amount of time to forget what we had left behind for a while, and immerse us completely in the crazy, messy, cheerful and lively spirit of the island. It was enough to be reminded of how good life could be when the sun shines outside, but also, how good it is when things work the way they should. Sicily is a difficult land, stunning beautiful yet challenging to take in past the surface of natural charm, excellent food and glorious climate. We absolutely loved to see it, to visit and take it all in, and we surely will go back for more.