October 23, Friday – Palermo – Paceco, Trapani
We stayed at Grand Hotel Des Palmes which is the Grand dame of Palermo.
Breakfast at this hotel was one I will long remember. The Grand Hotel des Palmes was a stately old hotel that showed its age, but the large room that held the breakfast buffet was exceptional — if for no other reason than they had a make-your-own cannoli station.
We met our local guide, Bianca in the hotel lobby.
We began with a private walking tour through the old squares and street markets of the city center that date back to the Arab period. We experienced local specialty foods – from street vendors and in old establishments frequented by locals. We meandered through the Mercato del Capo’s spider web-like alleys located behind the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house and the casbah-style Ballarò food Market (our favorite). Of course we had the opportunity to sample some of the aforementioned specialties as well as street vendor favorites, such as panelle (fried chickpea rectangles) and crocché (perfectly-fried ovals of mashed potato and egg). We made our way to the main Cathedral, representing the best of Arab-Norman architecture and then to the Renaissance period fountain of Piazza Pretoria. We then continued to I Quattro Canti, the church of San Cataldo and the Baroque church of Santa Caterina.
The hospitality of “chez-Anna” was most memorable. She invited us into her home, along a beautiful square with a picture perfect view. Her relatives and friends were there, and she fed us and treated us as family, with the most wonderful family-style lunch.
In the afternoon we visited the Inquisition Museum. Then, we departed towards Trapani for our accommodation in agroturismo Baglio Fontanasalsa.
I visited here previously in February on and exploratory trip with Barbara, my partner in Sicily. In February, it was under construction/renovation, but the manager Collette and the lovely surroundings made an impression on me. They have olive trees, especially one 800 year old olive tree still bearing fruit. They have a a grapevine that is at least 120 years old and still producing sweet grapes. These hang from a trellis over the dining table and continue draping over a romantic courtyard. Collette, with her hospitality and unique personality, is an attraction herself. There are 3 dogs running around. One is a “talking dog,” who actually communicates with Collette.
Arriving agin now, there was a bit of commotion, but we quickly settled into the rooms. Then we came downstairs to explore the property and have some wine before dinner.
Fontanasalsa’s olive oils are exported to prestigious stores in Paris. The complex is surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, lemon, orange and pomegranate orchard gardens.. We arrived in late afternoon and sat in the courtyard, enjoying the sunset with wine. It looked like scene from a movie set.
Soon it was dinnertime, with local simple food served family-style accompanied with Fontanasalsa’s local wine. We lingered a bit after dinner and then went to sleep.
October 24, Saturday. Erice – Salt Route – Mozia
After ample breakfast at Fontanasalsa (I liked their jams), we left to explore local area.
Our first stop was Erice, a wonderfully preserved Medieval town, offering the most breathtaking views with a palpable sense of history. Strolling through the narrow streets, we admired its 60 churches and the ruins of the Pepoli Castle. We took a “gourmet break” to taste the marzipan, cinnamon and sugar pastries at Maria Grammatico‘s bake shop. Maria was born to a poor family, so her mother sent her to live in the convent with the nuns. From the nuns, she learned how to make pastry, and it turned out she was really talented at it. We enjoyed her fresh baked pastries right from the oven.
Next, we headed to the sea to follow the historic salt route. Blue skies highlighted the scenery that incorporates shelter for migration birds via windmills and the so-called “salt houses,” which are actually mountains of salt-covered with protective tiles. The salt pans and windmills still function as they have for centuries. Located just feet away, we had lunch in a wonderful trattoria. Then we jumped on a boat, while singing the theme from “Gilligan’s Island”, and took a 15-minute excursion to the Phoenician isle of Mozia (Motya) to see the collection of Joseph Whitaker, the famed archaeologist and ornithologist, whose family made a fortune producing Marsala wine. The island was founded by the Phonecians in approximately 8BC. It has a small museum with the beautiful marble statue “The youth of Motya”.
Back on land after a return boat trip, we headed to taste Marsala wines in the oldest regional winery, Florio. In this expansive place, replete with history and artifacts, we partook in a choreographed tasting led by our very knowledgeable hostesses.
We returned to Fontanalasa for dinner.
October 25, Sunday – Valle dei Templi, Agrigento
In the morning, we toured Fontanasalasa. We had a lovely snack alfresco in the olive garden with an invited musician, who played local folk music. We even had the chance to harvest our own olives and watch as they were processed into cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. Afterwards, Colette gifted us with abottle of our own product! We finished with lunch and more wine and olive oil.
After lunch, we bid farewell to Colette, her staff and dogs and departed for our next destination.
We traveled southeast around the Island of Sicily towards Agrigento. I was surprised the most by the lack of traffic;, there were hardly any other vehicles along the way. We passed majestic rolling hills dotted with farms producing either wine or olives. The ambience was peacefully serene, as though we were back in time. After 2 hours and 15 minutes, we arrived and met our local guide on cue,as we got off the minibus to visit the Valley of the Temples.
The temples were erected in the Fifth century BC, following the ancient principle (Greek as well as Roman), “face East”. In this way, the rising sun would first illuminate the statue of the Divinity, as a principle of life. The archaeological area known as the Valley of the Temples is one of the most important archeological sites in the world. It has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1998. Along an outstretched rocky scarp, chosen as the southern limit of the town, are still sited the great temples of ancient Akragas. These include the Temple of Hera (Juno) Lacinia, Concordia, Heracles (Hercules), Olympian Zeus (Jupiter), Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri) and Hephaistos (Vulcan). Further down, on the bank of the Akragas River, near a medical spring, stood the Temple dedicated to Asklepius (Eusculapius), the god of medicine. At the mouth of the river there was the harbor and emporium (trading-post) of the ancient city. These Temples were built along one line and a single pathway led us past each one. These are older than the Acropolis of Athens but still, some of the temples were very much intact. The British did not borrow the frieze from these Temples as they did with the Parthenon, which was also damaged in 1687 by the Venetians during the Morean War.
Dinner was in local restaurant with a beautiful view overlooking the temples.
October 26, Sunday. Piazza Armerina, Caltagirone, Siracusa
We stayed in an old Arab style Kasbah, Baglio de La Luna, with breathtaking night views of the Valley.
We then took an inland route, passing by two very notable sights that were the focus of our touring today. Upon arrival in the mountain town of Piazza Armerina, we visited the renowned Villa Romana del Casale, one of the grand attractions of Sicily, boasting the largest and best preserved collection of Roman Mosaics in the world. This place was thought to be the summer palace of the regional Roman commander. It was lost then found and the artistry is impressive.
We left and continued 45 minutes to Caltagirone, famous for its pottery production. Here the main sights include an Aragonese Castle, built at the end of the Fourteenth century and an imposing, Eighteenth Century Duomo. The architectural highlight is undoubtedly the 142 steps of the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte that connect the lower town with the older upper town. Each step is decorated with ceramic tiles. We visited a pottery factory and learned the secrets of this ancient art.
Finally we drove off to the east to Siracusa with accommodations in the historic center, Ortigia.
October 27, Monday, Siracusa, Noto
Our driver and guide picked us up from the hotel, and we departed for a 30-minute drive to Noto. I was amazed by the beauty of the Sicilian Baroque as we explored Noto. Noto is one of the seven villages, rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693. The flowing ornate buildings and balconies were intricate and beautiful works of art. The small café in town ranks one of the best coffee shops in the world, according to the Wall Street Journal. It was time to sit down and enjoy the local espresso and specialty of the region, granitas. The location in the town square across from
the Cathedral was perfect.
We shopped in the local artisan stores. We plunged ourselves in the Iblean local life, and we delved our hands into a very special cooking experience. With Chef Andrea we learned how to cook an authentic Sicilian meal in a unique location, an ancient watermill.
Driven by the expertise of the chef, we immersed ourselves “mani o” with the ingredients to create our own meal — from fresh homemade pasta to desert. A selection of Sicilian wines completed the menu. We enjoyed the results of our group effort with the chef in the relaxing tranquility of the terrace, with the spectacular view of the falls and the smooth sound of the river in the background.
Here is a link to video of our cooking experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6RszzUivy8
That afternoon we met our local guide in Ortigia and had an in-depth walking tour of Ortigia. We admired the Cathedral, built on the ruins of the Temple of Athena; the Palazzo Beneventano, and the Temple of Apollo. It was one legend after another. Our visit also included the Archaeological Park in Syracusa, the Greek Theatre and the Dionysus Ear.
October 28, Tuesday : ETNA North experience with the wine tasting
We were transferred from our comfortable Mercedes minibus into two four by fours — a Land Rover and a Toyota. We proceeded with our geologist driver/guide through the northern side of the volcano, between forest trails and fun off-road paths of ancient lava flows to the inside the “Etna Park”. We discovered Etna and its history. We started with a delightful walk on the edge of the ancient extinct craters to better understand the structure of the volcano. Then, we continued with the exciting discovery of a lava flow cave. Finally, we made the ascent by jeep, off the road and on to the top of an ancient lava flow to the great Mount Belvedere. From here we could admire the whole “Valle del Bove,” where lava flows from the last eruptions are collected. Then, we proceeded onward, where we reached the territory of Linguaglossa, home to the vineyards of Etna DOC. We visited a Sicilian cave, revealing all stages of the supply chain, from harvesting to bottling to the finishing touch – a tasting of 3 wine labels and a wonderful lunch. It seems the high sulfer content of the soil on the sides of this active volcano gives the grapes a unique taste that makes these wines special. Note: Since we left, the volcano has experienced another active stage. We only hope no person nor property was damaged. Seeing the actual areas consumed by the lava flows in the past, gave us a special insight into the devastation that can and does occur.
We arrived Taormina, our last evening in Sicily.
October 29, Wednesday, Taormina
Taormina? The best I can say “wow”. It is a seaside city build up the side of a mountain. There is just one winding road that goes up and another (on the north side of the town) that goes down. It is a pedestrian-only city with some room, but not much for delivery and infrastructure vehicles. The vistas are remarkable. The streets are clean and packed with restaurants and shops. There is an ancient theater on the uppermost bluff and several historical churches. We had a little time at night to enjoy the city, including a wonderful meal in an outside trattoria. The next morning we had about four hours to further explore before our ride came to take us to the airport.
I would like to thank Barbara for being with us for a whole week and arranging such a wonderful tour. Also, thanks to Simona and her geologist guides who provided an enriching educational day and the robust wine in Aetna.
For more photos, see our slideshow
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