A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

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‘In Sicily it doesn’t matter whether things are done well or done badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of «doing» at all.’


― Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, ‘The Leopard’

Lampedusa’s words in his 1958 novel, chronicling the decline of a noble Sicilian family during the Risorgimento, neatly sums up the state of being we were hankering after when planning this road trip in Italy. In just two weeks, we explore Lampedusa’s old noble city, Palermo, pick up the keys to a Fiat 500 and drive west to Trapani’s Scopello beach. From here, we journey through Sicily’s rural heart to the ancient columns of Agrigento, the south-east’s baroque marvels, and up the east coast via Taormina to the north-eastern tip of Sicily. We leave our little car in the port town of Milazzo and jump on a boat, bound for the sleepy Aeolian Islands.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Palermo

    A church sits on every Palermo street corner – crumbling stone splendour drizzled in honey, then baked in the sun. Evening lifts and melts these honey hues into a blurred and balmy labyrinth of restaurants and alfresco wine bars. Palermo’s old palazzos, tangles of telephone wires and ancient statues are caught in the glow of 18th-century lanterns, much like the island found itself caught and conquered by every power passing through it.

    Morning brings sweet pastry tradition – deep-fried ciambella and brioche con il gelato at Prestipino café – and an unusually hot breeze. Majestic palms shift and tickle the feet of cherubs dangling over vast doorways, while statues of voluptuous women draped over lions greet visitors and nod to Sicily’s golden age. We drive into one that’s considerably shabbier – yet no less beguiling.

    Languorous hours are lost gazing at Palazzo Lungarini’s frescoed ceiling from an enormous bed, giggling on its marble balconies with Negronis, being late for lunch. We dodge Vespas, flinch at sheets slapping balconies above us, then settle into plates of arancini al ragù at local favourite Antica Focacceria San Francesco in another of Palermo’s film-set-ready squares.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    The cooler end of the afternoon lends itself to inspecting the stamps of the city’s multiple occupiers: the Norman Palace with its Moorish mosaics, the grand Spanish courtyards, the couscous di pesce brought to Sicily’s shores by Arab and North African invaders. The relics abound: trinkets at the mercato delle pulci (flea market) – chandeliers, intricate vases and gilt mirrors – the bounty of indifferent vendors; noisy food markets reminiscent of Moroccan souks. Then there are the quiet backstreets and their treasures: a pocket-sized bookshop with a marble mezzanine and classics that, when translated, peer into the Sicilian soul (the Lampedusas and Camilleris), and restaurants such as Osteria Ballarò: old palace stables elevated with softly lit stone, swordfish rolls and fine wines.

    Outside the exotic Garibaldi gardens, with their enormous Morton Bay fig’s roots gripping the dry earth like lion’s claws, we pause at the spot where Giuseppe “Joe” Petrosino (America’s first Sicilian police lieutenant, who investigated the mafia in New York) was murdered having been malevolently lured to Piazza Marina – a sobering reminder of the Mafia’s historical grip on the city.

    The scars are manifest, but Palermo possesses the same spirit of possibility that resurrected Athens after the financial crisis. Progressive young people are mapping out the city’s future with values that suit its ancient walls.

    Palermo insider guide

    Palermo: Sicily’s gritty, romantic capital

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Scopello beach, Trapani

    We leave Palermo and its splendid palazzos for Scopello beach on the north-east coast in Trapani, long lauded for its beauty (Homer placed Ulysses here before his return to Ithaca), and just over an hour’s drive. Italians sprawl like seals on the slab of concrete, dipped in the calm water. Above them, a faded pink house blinks through white cutwork curtains caught in the sea air. On the ascent to our Fiat 500, the ground feels scorched and crunchy, too desert-like for the Mediterranean.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Agrigento

    Skirting the coast, where rushes of sandy meadow and olive groves meet the blue, we head south for two hours, slicing through Sicily’s underpopulated rural heart until the sea greets us again. It’s particularly captivating to gaze upon the water from Agrigento, from its ancient columns high on a hill, and to imagine the Greeks doing the same as a Carthaginian invasion breaks the horizon. Exploring these ruins, we gently roast in the midday sun.

    The almonds in Mandranova Agricola’s courtyard suffer the same fate, although theirs is by design, bound for milk-alternative coffees and healthy snacks across Europe. Tucked just off a main road, the house recalls a grand Spanish finca, standing tall with gilt mirrors, wrought-iron candelabras and original stone floors inside. On the terrace, supper arrives along with a Hyblaean breeze and dogs weaving between our legs. Exquisitely simple dishes – such as buttery rigatoni with broccoli and pine nuts – blend Italian ingredients with Japanese precision (courtesy of the owner’s son, who trained in Kyoto). The family jovially tuck into cena alongside us, with the exaggerated gesticulation and intonation tourists long for. Tomorrow is harvest day, when the estate’s olives are pruned, pressed and poured into famous Mandranova bottles – its deep, well-rounded taste once sipped renders supermarket bottles bland and obsolete.

    The light splays across the pool in marble shapes, a smooth contrast to its backdrop of sparse and jagged hills. Their mustard hues would paint the baroque towns we are bound for – imposing, elaborate buildings softened, like an old man’s temper, with age and fatigue.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Scicli

    The first of these towns is Scicli, two hours south-east and the lesser known of the four baroques, whose flamboyant architecture and interiors tell stories of wild parties, family dynasties and bygone prosperity. Once-grand windows are framed by crumbling stucco arches, dark green shutters and iron balconies that swirl and rust.

    Two traditional Sicilian pastries at Cannolia elicit unearthly joy and several napkins. We take our sugar rush out of the sun and into an antiques shop shaded by the glorious San Bartolomeo church. ‘I left my Milan life in finance for this,’ explains the owner, whose upstairs warren of guest rooms at Sanbatholomeo Casa e Putia is a tastefully choreographed expression of his and his wife’s new start. Lace bed toppers, mahogany dressers and eccentric Italian trinkets dress them in a manner reflective of the light and loyal design footprint these historically rich yet economically fragile towns deserve. ‘If you’re interested in antiques, my mother-in-law is the best for it.’ He scribbles her number on a scrunched receipt, then neatly wraps my Sicilian pine ceramic.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Sampieri Beach

    Nearby Sampieri Beach echoes Scicli’s mottled golden buildings – though these are bleached with sea salt and blistered by the sun. We follow locals into the sea, slipping under the warm water like otters before flopping back onto the sand with more Birra Messina and sugary granita. The sunsets along Sampieri are as flat and deep red as the glasses of Donnafugata Tancredi we’re served at our next stop.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Ragusa

    Set in the Ragusan countryside a 35-minute drive from Sampieri, contemporary hotel Relais Chiaramonte offers a brief hiatus from baroque façades and frescoed ceilings. Its balconies and terrace peer over olive groves and carob trees and across the Irminio valley’s neatly groomed wheat fields, which trail off to meet the sea. The wine accompanies a local lamb recipe (Ragusan, not Sicilian) and warm bread soaked in puddles of Relais Chiaramonte’s own olive oil.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Modica

    Doing our best to avoid erratic weaving at great speed, we journey west for half an hour to our second baroque. A strong coffee in Modica (‘the town of one hundred churches’) takes the edge off the shakes. It’s difficult not to liken angles of this town to those of Jerusalem – not perhaps the wide, orderly Corso Umberto dominated by the magnificent Church of Saint Peter and its pastel-fancy innards, but rather Modica’s hazy, hilly sprawl that surges in the distance.

    Having occupied Sicily for just over three centuries, Spain left a legacy that can be seen in both Modica’s flamboyant architecture and, famously, its chocolate, the former having imported Aztec chocolate-making prowess from its South American conquests to Sicilian soil. Modican chocolate is defined as ‘cold’ for its crumbly texture, and local chocolatiers still use the process passed indirectly to them from the Aztecs. We scrutinise the movement of knowledge and skill, the controversial issue of provenance and ownership as we queue for the mandatory bar in Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Sicily’s oldest chocolate factory.

    Its sugar-coated almonds are the popcorn for our theatrical half-hour drive north into the Hyblaean Mountains to reach Ragusa Ibla. This fairy-tale town, with its limestone labyrinth of bijoux houses, baroque palazzos and churches, engulfs us for two gelato-heavy days.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Ragusa Ibla

    Here, Locanda Don Serafino sprawls across several old houses and down below the town for its famous cave rooms. Upstairs, shutters open to a jovial scene – locals going about their day, a chef whistling, an animated nonna greeting a companion – but in our moody cave rooms, we’re left alone with bowls of exotic fruit, traditional cakes and Champagne. Even more tempting is the sea urchin spaghetti primos, the pork-belly secondis or indeed the sinful alchemy of solid and liquid Modica chocolate, cooked up by chef Vincenzo Candiano at the hotel’s vaulted restaurant (once stables for the church).

    ‘These are owned by sisters.’ Locanda Don Serafino’s executive director, Alex Massari gestures towards two pastel-pretty palazzos. He has just introduced me to olive-and-onion-flavoured ice cream at Gelati DiVini and sold me on the foodie virtues of A’ Rusticana. Yes, this is one of Sicily’s south-eastern baroque towns, but Ragusa Ibla evokes Nutcracker, toymaker, Pinocchio scenes, with its workshops such as Rosso Cinabro, where Damiano Rotella and Biagio Castilletti carve, hammer and paint traditional carts. A book of their collaboration with Dolce & Gabbana rests proudly on the worktop. This aspect of the Sicilian psyche unfurls itself throughout our trip: an innate ability to celebrate traditions rather than preserve them in glass cabinets. The island’s reverence for its past (and disdain for its less savoury aspects) translates into a sensory, up-close experience for voyeurs like us, accustomed to viewing history from a distance.

    Having scrambled up the stone steps (dipped by the centuries) behind the cathedral for killer views over the Hyblaean Mountains, we chug down the hillside in our trusty Fiat 500, following the spiral of a snail’s shell for the baroque finale: Noto.

    Pictured: Rosso Cinabro, Ragusa Ibla

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Noto

    More than an hour east from Ragusa Ibla and just outside the city of Noto lies Dimora delle Balze. Any semblance of critical appraisal is lost once inside its castle door (from Marrakech) and the hotel’s sun-dappled stone courtyard. An organic edict runs throughout, from its earthy linens and lilac curtains to the peachy room colours and compact kitchen-garden menu. Bandits routinely ransacked this fortified castle in the 18th century – now guests recline alongside its pool wrapped in prairie-style scrubland and Val di Noto, concerned with only a hot breeze and cocktail menu.

    Noto, Sicily guide

    Noto, Sicily’s Capital of Baroque

    Pictured: Dimora Delle Balze, Noto

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Our Noto visit fails to comply with Sicilian siesta law (1pm to 5pm is dead, save a few restaurants soldiering on till 2pm). Past the paninis, postcards and blinding tourist regalia, in this strange window when only tourists walk Noto’s streets, is its Roman Catholic cathedral: a splendid, hefty bastion of baroque glory.

    Striking architecture is sweetened with a pistachio gelato from Gelati Bianca. Couples squeeze on Vespas, frangipani dresses scruffy walls and a maximalist wedding spills lace and laughter down the cathedral steps.

    A little further along the butter-coated Corso Vittorio Emanuele lies Caffè Sicilia, the grande dame of Noto’s coffee scene dating back to 1892, with poetry supposedly spun from its granita and brioche. Also closed.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Taormina

    We drive north scraping the east coast. Catania is to our right, the mighty Etna bearing down on us for the two-hour drive to Taormina. John Julius Norwich’s deft account of Sicily’s history bellows to be heard above the wind, hammering our ears and rattling our sunglasses as we cruise into Taormina, Sicily’s high-rolling, dolce vita town commanding Amalfi-style views and scenes of Slim Aarons reverie. Convertible Fiat 500 territory.

    The onyx statement earrings are as dazzling as they are expensive, one of family-run Novello Oggetti d’Arte’s delicate treasures (an ornate find off Corso Umberto’s tourist run). As is the historic Belmond Hotel Grand Timeo and its jaw-dropping views.

    Otto Geleng (a Michelin-starred ode to the German painter whose fondness for Taormina was documented in gold and blue strokes) plays to this bygone glamour. Flickering oil lamps trace the swirls of lace along the table and velvety sauces run over squid, tuna, chocolate. Breakfast is composed of tall glasses of orange juice, pastries slathered in butter and strawberry jam, and granita brioche served with a polished silver spoon. Then there’s the jazz, the parquet floors to dance on, the menacing backdrop of Mount Etna, whose coils of smoke recall those of 19th-century grand tourees puffing on cigars.

    In a hot stupor, we slump down the many steps to Timeo’s little sister, Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea, too distracted by the twinkling views of Naxos Bay (and our body heat) to dodge the fallen prickly pears scattered across the way like confetti. A pretty cabana awaits, a shady refuge of ice buckets and Evian face mist behind the beau monde crowds lining the beach. The sea is as photogenic and inviting as the faces serving Bellinis, plates of exotic fruit and baking soda for jellyfish run-ins.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Salina, Aeolian Islands

    We leave Taormina’s Greco-Roman amphitheatre and its bougainvillaea-framed views of the coast for Milazzo, a gloriously tatty port lined with palm trees, lost Rimowa cases and cobalt-blue and white ferries.

    From the hydrafoil’s windows, I discern Vulcano’s grey mass rising from the sea like an elephant’s wrinkly bottom. Patches of green, then white specks of houses begin to fill the crevices of its dark and dramatic topography, its harbour dominated by a handsome palazzo, and then Salina, the greenest Aeolian.

    This go-slow, bountiful island is dotted with white houses and Maldivian vineyards, and appears to have drifted from its volcanic friends to find its own patch of tropical-grade water. Piaggio Apes filled with capers, olives or grapes, which bounce precariously, chug up and down narrow roads.

  • A road trip tour of the best places in Sicily

    Afternoons here are deliciously drowsy – we spend them dozing in the shade, gently parting calm, tar-like water come evening or gliding past Salina’s craggy rock formations in a little motor boat. Salina’s cliffs read like slices of cake – red velvet, grainy walnut and coffee, boulders and patches of green cascading and crumbling amid cacti, moss and herbs to meet the water. ‘Look up!’ Falcons ride the hot air before migrating to Madagascar.

    We migrate home every night from a different patch of this exuberant island to Hotel Signum, a family-owned sprawl of pastel-coloured houses, whose genteel, maritime sensibility manifests in antique furniture, long white curtains and curly wrought-iron beds. Every morning, our porous room inhales the cool, salty air off the Tyrrhenian Sea. Every evening, Etta James and crisp Etna wine lull us into a strange delirium on the terrace, flanked by a wild tangle of lemon trees, palms, honeysuckle, jasmine and bougainvillaea, its white Victoriana cast-iron chairs positioned for Stromboli’s smoke show and occasional fiery belch. We plot to extend Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s sinful existence, throwing caution to the wind, drunk on wild fantasy and Amarillo Brillo.

    Pictured: Hotel Signum, Salina

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