After spending a week in Sicily I decided that two things are required to visit this extraordinary island - a desire for diverse experiences and a ferocious appetite. Sicily is an island best explored without a stiff itinerary, allowing ample time to wander and explore its sometimes hidden treasures. Here’s another thing I learned – a private guide and driver are essential assets to help learn and discover the varietal gems of this island. From ancient sites and impressive volcanoes to fine cuisine and medieval towns, my guide enlightened me with the finer details I would have normally missed. He also knew where to park in bustling towns and what to order from extensive menus where everything looked so good. Additionally, with a local driver behind the wheel to navigate the winding country roads and narrow medieval streets, I knew was in good hands.
Based on our Sicilian Cuisine, Culture & Country Life tour, my itinerary included private cooking lessons, winery visits and tastings, shopping at local markets, archeological and ancient sites, remarkable coastlines, majestic cathedrals and medieval towns and hiking the largest active volcano in Europe. I had a lot to look forward to and didn’t want to miss any of it.
But soon after arriving in Sicily, I discovered that the key to truly experiencing the island is to partake in celebrating the everyday simplicities of life. I willingly prescribed to slowing down and appreciating the finer things Sicily had to offer; the taste of freshly pressed olive oil, the serene silence found between the sculpted columns at the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista, the delectable smell of Maria Grammatico’s fruit shaped almond pastries and admiring the sunrise as it illuminated the sleepy, Baroque town of Ragusa. With an open heart and mind, I found my most memorable moments during my time in Sicily were in the fine details.
“If you’re enjoying it, then have some more!” reasoned Franco, my charming guide, as he poured my fourth glass of red wine. He was right – I had to live life full on and for the moment, just like the Sicilians do.
The main highlight of Monreale is the cathedral, one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in Sicily. The cathedral was commissioned by William II, the Norman rule of Sicily, who employed both Sicilian and Byzantine craftsmen. The result is a breathtaking fusion of eastern and western influences. The most impressive feature for me is the cloister that adjoins the south side of the cathedral. The unique blend of Arab-style arches and Romanesque carvings on the columns is a reminder of Sicily’s complex history. Only a 45 minute drive from Palermo, Monreale is worth the visit if only to see the Arab-Norman splendor of the cathedral.
Palermo’s legacy as a commercial center continues to exemplify itself in the outdoor markets. You can spend hours strolling and haggling your way through the bustling markets filled with souvenirs and handicrafts, local delicacies, Italian fashions and all kinds of local produce. Getting to the Capo market before 10am, I watched as locals perused and purchased the best options of the freshest produce I’ve ever seen. Two of the greatest things about Italy are the food and the clothes. Get yourself to a market and experience the best of both alongside loud and pushy locals.
There’s a hill outside the ancient city of Segesta and on that hill lies a Greek temple. Although smaller and plainer than most Greek temples I’ve seen, Segesta is definitely the best preserved. I was drawn to the mysterious atmosphere that surrounds the 30 or more Doric columns. Rising idyllically from the mountainside and surrounded by flowered fields, Segesta comes alive as one of Sicily’s most impressive ancient Greek temple.
Maria Grammatico’s warm smile is as inviting as her mouthwatering Sicilian cakes, almond cakes and traditional pastries. Even if you don’t have much of a sweet tooth, you’ll earn a deep appreciation for the fine art of pastry practiced at Maria’s cake shop in the medieval town of Erice. Her pastries are all hand-crafted and the impassioned attention to detail results in pastries shaped like fruits, cute animals and other decorative masterpieces. Tradition and quality reign supreme and after a taste of Maria’s fragrant almond pastries, you’ll understand why.
The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento is another example of Greek settlement in Sicily in 800 B.C. Some argue that the ancient ruins are even better than those in Greece itself. Lining the ridge of the modern town of Agrigento, the temples form a vast archeological site. This place is a dream for history buffs.
Just 8km away from Valley of the Temples lays a fruitful gem that lies mainly off the tourist map. Favara is not like any other quaint little town in Sicily. In an attempt to draw visitors, it has been transformed into a modern art exhibition. As I walked through the art market in the central square and admired the paintings on the exteriors of buildings, I felt deeply inspired and reflective.
Sicily boasts a marvelous selection of small towns which are breathtaking. Ragusa is jaw dropping gorgeous. Watching the sunrise illuminate the ornate buildings of this Baroque town, I immediately decided that it was my most favorite. The walking opportunities within both the upper “modern” town and the lower “older town are fantastic and are worth staying in Ragusa for longer than intended. Oh, and if you’re hungry, the Baroque town is home to Michelin-starred restaurants that deliver some of the finest cuisine in Sicily – make sure to save up and book ahead!
I found more than just silence at the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista. I was humbled by its impressive size and looming arched columns and I appreciated the meditative vibe that resonated from the central nave. I ceased the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts and reflect on the extravagance of the church’s interior.
Chef Fiora Angela is all about hands-on traditional Sicilian cooking - and she’s eager to get you involved. Accompany her on an excursion to the market and then have an entertaining and educational cooking class at her restaurant before sitting down to a great lunch which you’ve helped prepare! This is any true food lover’s experience.
Syracuse is rooted deep in an eclectic history that saw a meld of cultures and civilizations. It’s dense and diverse personality comes from both ancient and modern which offers ample opportunities to create colorful memories. I really slowed down in Syracuse and tuned in to the striking details of the Sicilian ways; drinking strong espresso in the market while chatting with the locals, taking in the flavorful smell of fresh fish frying in olive oil, admiring the contrast of the ruins of the Old Temple of Athena against the aesthetically modern buildings surrounding it and enjoying my third glass of wine while laughing with the new friends I made.
Mount Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe and is the source of many Greek myths. A moonscape of fertile volcanic soil is vastly different from anything else I’ve seen in Sicily. Again, I’m reminded of the country’s diversity.
Taormina is charming, beautiful and far removed from the hustle and bustle of the towns. It was an ideal destination to finish my Sicilian adventure. Head to the Teatro Greco, a Greek theater built in the 3rd century BC, for dramatic views of the sea and Duomo Cathedral. From here, I took a stroll on the beach before spoiling myself with a shopping spree in the luxurious boutiques in the historical center. I could really get used to the easy life in Sicily.
FAVOURITE HOTEL: Eremo della Giubuliana, a few kilometers south of Ragusa, is set in a historical countryside residence. It is peacefully situated, surrounded by a lush plateau and miles of coastline. The union of age-old materials and furnishings with modern luxuries is breathtaking and makes for an unforgettable stay.
FAVOURITE MOMENT: After having a delicious lunch at a local trattoria I was gifted with a hand-written book outlining all the ingredients and recipes of the meal I had just thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the best souvenir I brought back home!
(Palermo, Agrigento, Taormina)
Only in Sicily can you commune with the culture of Hellenic antiquity, the grandeur of the Middle Ages and the marvels of the Renaissance all forged by a dozen civilizations.
(Palermo, Agrigento, Syracuse, Taormina)
Perhaps it’s the exquisite food, or the dramatic coastline, or the marvelous ancient ruins that enchant the most. No. It is the warmth of the people that makes it impossible not to fall in love with Sicily.
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