This photo is Sicily, at its core. At every turn, the people draw you into their world and their reality. As a tourist, you feel their triumphs and struggles. It is truly a beautiful island, rich with history, tradition, art, architecture, food, wine and a unique culture. This is, perhaps, due to the many civilizations that inhabited the island over history. The scenery is amazing: the bustling city of Palermo with its contemporary designer stores vs. the rolling vineyards and old countryside vs. the Baroque hilltop towns – the old vs. the new in contrast everywhere. It’s a feast for the senses. It IS like Italy and yet, it IS NOT like Italy. It’s complicated, as they say. We experienced Sicily, it’s beauty and complexities, during our tour in October.
Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is a bustling city that reflects the rich history of the island and its many civilizations. Staying near the Massimo Opera House, we were centrally located to visit must-see sites with local historian, Jacqueline Alio. Jackie has authored several books on Sicily and its peoples. She was a wealth of knowledge about Sicily’s complex history and culture. With visits to Quattro Canti, The Massimo Opera House, the Norman Palace, the Palatine Chapel and the Fountain of Shame, we saw and learned much of Palermo in one morning of walking with Jackie. It was just the first of many days indulging in Sicilian sites and cuisine!
Cefalù is a lovely beachside town outside Palermo with a lively square, wonderful food, a sandy beach, great shopping and people-watching. Some of our guests enjoyed visiting with the locals, some shopped and others made a beeline for the beach after enjoying a lunch of fresh fish, grilled vegetables and pasta.
We headed to Ballaró Market for a culinary walking tour with our leaders, Claude & Cristina Baud. Ballaró is the oldest market in Palermo dating back 1000+ years. With food purveyors calling out their goods for sale, it’s a lively scene full of local culture. The vegetables, fruit, meats, nuts, olives and cheeses were divine. Have you ever tried three kinds of pistachios? We tasted Sicilian street foods along the way and picked up items for our upcoming picnics.
The Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in central Sicily is a 150-year old farmhouse and cooking school started by the late Anna Tasca Lanza. Anna brought classic Sicilian cooking to the world drawing upon Sicily’s native ingredients. Today, the school is run by her daughter, Fabrizia. Surrounded by vineyards and gardens, It is a true farm-to-table experience. Each dish is created from the meats, vegetables, fruit, herbs and grains available from their land. We prepared four Sicilian dishes with Fabrizia learning traditional techniques with her ingredients. A walk in the culinary garden was a delight!
The Tasca D’Amerita/Regaleali Estate Winery and the cooking school are both owned by the Tasca family. Tasca/Regaleali produces 4 million bottles of wine per year. The white and red wines made from local grapes (Catarrato, Inzolia, Grillo, Perricone, Nero d’Avola) are divine. We enjoyed a winery tour and tasting led by Regaleali’s sommelier who provided an overview of the Sicilian viticulture of the area. In the remote interior of Sicily, this estate and its scenery are truly magnificent! Regaleali is comprised mainly of vineyards but ancient wheat is also harvested and used for the production of bread and pasta, local sheep graze freely and a very intense extra virgin olive oil is produced from their olive trees.
Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Called Akragas, it became one of the richest and most famous of the Greek colonies dating back to 4th century BC. We wandered among the Doric temples with our historical guide, Giovanna Lombardo (she grew up playing in the area as a child). She taught us about how the Greeks built and lived in Agrigento. The Temple of Concordia is the most well-preserved and intact of the seven temples. We also visited the archaeological museum which contains many remnants of everyday life found at the site.
The southeastern region of Sicily, called Val di Noto, has its own history and culture. In 1693, a major earthquake devastated the area. Extensive rebuilding of towns and cities took place and the architecture of the reconstructed buildings became known as the ‘Sicilian Baroque Style’. We visited the UNESCO-protected hilltop towns of Ragusa, Modica and Syracusa with our historical guide, Carlo Montesante, taking in the ornate architecture of this region. A stop at Cafe Siciliia, the pastry shop of Chef Corrado Assenza featured in ‘Netflix’s Chef’s Table Pastry’, treated us with the best almond granita ever made earth (one person’s opinion)!! More than yum!
Vendicari Nature Reserve is in the southeastern corner of Sicily. Our off-the-beathen-path excursion for the day was to take a walk with a naturalist to learn about the area and the protected African migratory birds. We observed flamingos, cormorants and pelicans in their natural habitat. The water is crystal clear and the lack of people was a delight! Close to this area, is the old fishing port of Marzamemi. Picturesque and filled with quaint shops, restaurants and fishing boats, it is a place not to be missed if you are ever in Sicily! The afternoon called for a shopping spree in which we willingly participated but caught a great end of season sale. This all made for a perfect afternoon!
Set on the eastern coast of Sicily, Mt. Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanos. Referred to as ‘she’ – she sends off steam constantly. The steam can be white, black (ash) or pink (with minerals). The locals worry when she is not steaming. It means something ‘big’ could happen. As was explained to us, residents are actually more concerned about the earthquakes in the area than the volcano due their location on tectonic plates. We took a fall hike through a chestnut forest at the base of Mt. Etna passing lava flows. This area is also a wine-growing region. Our guide led us to her family’s estate, Gambino Winery, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch of local specialties paired with wine. Who can ever forget that pumpkin risotto??
Spending a day on a catamaran off the coast of Taromina was a delight! It was finally a chance to sit, relax and do nothing. Our charter took us to a swimming spot where some of us immediately jumped in while one tried a fishing pole. The water was not really cold but refreshing. Follow that with lunch prepared on board by the captain and his crew: marinated swordfish, pasta with mussels, grilled vegetables, eggplant parmesan, salad and wine – makes for happy guests. The captain raised the sails and we were able to sail past Isola Bella, a rocky island off of the coast of Taormina. All this was accomplished before huge rain clouds appeared. We made it through the entire trip without rain – except for the last day. We were very fortunate as Mother Nature descended on us in a great way the next day!
This was our lovely hotel in Taormina. The main historical part of the city is on an upper level accessed by a cable car or taxi from our hotel. We enjoyed the peace and quiet of being on the water. Taormina is a resort town and quite busy with tourists. In front of the hotel is a beautiful small island creating a protected beachfront complete with small fishing boats going in and out during the day. The water is crystal clear and the sound of the tide was magical at night. What better than to sit back, have a drink (or two) and enjoy this beautiful view at the end of a 12-day tour??