As you pass through the various regions of Italy, each one has its own unique culture, cuisine, and customs. Sicily, with its mountainous regions that drift into hillsides and then melt into golden beaches, is a unique and beautiful island in the Mediterranean. Anne-Marie and Glenn took pleasure in discovering the ancient temples, spectacular churches, and delicious cannolis as they swept through the Mediterranean’s largest island.
“Glenn and I traveled to the island of Sicily last May via Paris and Rome, a journey that took 18 hours. After such a long trip it was a delight to be greeted at the Palermo airport by our traveling consort Edward and escorted to our villa outside of the city. Sicily is much larger than we were expecting and the landscapes and lifestyles are quite different from one side of the island to the other. There are two main cities on the island. To say that our travels took us from Palermo to Catania is like saying an Italian feast takes you from wine to coffee – the wine is bold and the coffee strong, but we always enjoy the antipasti, the paninis, the grilled tuna and the cannolis (oh the cannolis!) in-between.
Sicily is the largest and one of the most diverse islands in the Mediterranean. Rolling hills, rugged wilderness and dense forests cover the interior while the coast is coated with golden beaches. Snow-capped Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, towers over it all. Three seas wash the shores of this triangle in the Med and the people hail historically from all corners of Europe, and from Asia and Africa. This diversity of geography, history and culture is reflected not only in the Sicilian lifestyle but also in the island’s architecture and cuisine.
Palermo and the Beaches of Mondello
We spent the first night in the elegant, 18th century Palazzo Villa Tasca, a mansion near the historic center of Palermo. The villa’s long, stately driveway leads you from the mayhem of the city to a private, quiet oasis. We were greeted by a full compliment of suitably attired staff, including a butler in white gloves who offered us chilled Prosecco from a silver tray. The villa is adorned with a seemingly endless number of large, open rooms and the ceilings in several of the suites are covered with intriguing 18th century Frescos. The home is surrounded by almost three acres of parkland and a romantic pathway connects the house to a charming pond with swans and a nearby gazebo. Like several properties owned by Sicilian nobility, the property has been in the same family since the 14th century. We were joined by the principessa the first morning for breakfast on a sun-filled terrace.
We were lucky to have a Sicilian host during our time on the island, and we found the Sicilians to be very strong, proud people. Like the olive oil and wines produced around the island, the Sicilian character is delightfully distinctive. Driving in Palermo can be very intimidating for those not accustomed to chaos and Edward (thankfully) became our driver as we explored the island for several days. Stop signs and stoplights are considered optional and we had to hold our breath to pass through the narrow streets. In the smaller towns we drove down streets so narrow that people had to step into doorways to allow us to pass.
Our first day, we drove west from Palermo to Mondello, a beach resort with tree-lined residential streets not far from Palermo’s city center. Originally a picturesque fishing village, Mondello is now a favorite escape for Sicilians who come for the beaches and stay for the seaside restaurants. While in Mondell0, we had a chance to visit Villa La Palme, a comfortable family villa one mile from the beach in a residential neighborhood with beautiful gardens and a pool.
Cefalu, the Country and the Coast of the Ionian Sea
After exploring Palermo and Mondello, we drove east to scout out the medieval town of Cefalu. Built on steep, rocky cliffs around a 12th century cathedral, the intriguing town is packed with narrow streets that empty out onto the main square. The colorful, old fishermen’s quarters – where the film Cinema Paradiso was shot – is filled with brightly painted houses on the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Cefalu is home to Norman monuments, Baroque facades, medieval fountains, Byzantine and Greek ruins and a prehistoric temple that dates back to the 9th Century BC, a good sample of the many types of architecture found across the island.
With only a couple of days to explore Sicily, we moved east across the island to the coast of the Ionian Sea, dividing our remaining time between the city of Catania and the coastal towns of Taormina and Messina. The area between Palermo and Catania is mostly farmland with rolling hills and pastures of sheep and goats. The springtime wildflowers were in bloom, and we saw hills blazing with poppies and geraniums. Wheat fields seemed to stretch across the plains, while orange, lemon and almond orchards covered the hills. Ancient vineyards and olive groves coated the more arid hills and the ochre tones of the country reminded me of the strong, earthy Sicilians. The communities found in the interior were traditionally based on farming, and, in the past, the landscape was often characterized by large estates owned by the nobility. This pastoral existence is still present in many parts of the interior.
Just before we arrived in Catania, we rounded a bend and saw snowcapped Mount Etna rising 3,342 meters above the sea. Lodged between the sea and the slopes of Mount Etna, the city of Catania was completely leveled by an earthquake in 1693 and has been rebuilt over the years with wide, straight streets and Baroque- style architecture.
The highlight of our trip was our visit to the pedestrian village of Taormina. When we were there, the lemon and orange trees were in bloom and the communal gardens on the cliff were alive with flowers. The air was filled with the scent of rosemary and lavender. The town has a cable car that takes you from the pastry shops and cafes down the cliff through brilliant bougainvillea to the beach below. Located on a craggy bluff above the sea with the mountain behind and sea below, this resort town has been a popular summer residence of European aristocracy for centuries. Greek temples, Norman castles and an ancient theatre all provide a magnificent backdrop for breathtaking views of the sea. We visited the nearby Villa Olmo, a beautiful, eight-bedroom house owned by Italian nobility. The huge front doors open to a long foyer with high ceilings and an appealing decor. At the end of the hallway you have a view of the garden and sea beyond. The spectacular house has a hidden pool and is encased in the scents of rosemary, lavender and lemon.
At the end of our trip, we made a short visit to Messina, a seaside town perched on the northeast corner of the island. Our last evening, we spent in Sicily was a magical one. We were invited to dinner at our host’s parent’s home in Messina, joined by almost 20 family members from three-generations. After a enjoying a cool drink, we were offered antipasti of local cheeses, fresh bread, olives and olive oils along with tiny zucchini mousse served on a platter. This was followed by homemade pasta, slices of browned beef rolled very thin and stuffed with garlic breadcrumbs, a fennel salad and smoked, baked ricotta cheese. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another nibble, we were presented with a beautiful box of vanilla and chocolate cannolis – the best cannolis I have ever had. The meal was exquisite and the company and conversation splendid. The home looks out over the sea and we could see the lights of the Italian mainland twinkling on the opposite shore. How wonderful to be welcomed into our new friend’s home and made to feel so special. It was an evening that I will never forget and I’m sure that they will not either.”
Find out more about Anne-Marie and Glenn’s trip through sparkling Sicily.