The story originally appeared on FRIDAY MAGAZINE, GULF NEWS 23rd September 2016
http://fridaymagazine.ae/travel/secret-sicily-discover-the-island-s-hidden-gems-1.1899755

One of the best ways to enjoy the historically and culturally rich Sicily is by road, says Andrea Bailey who experienced the island in a mini bus and tasted the best of Italian food at an agritourismo – an Italian farmhouse

The car rental agent is clear. ‘This is the only car we have that can accommodate your family of six!’ he says, pointing to a vehicle that could only be described as a mini-bus. We’d just arrived into the airport at Catania on the east coast of Sicily and even as the husband is grumbling that this was not what he had booked, we realise that we are left with little choice. Picking up the keys, we get into our ‘car’ heading off to explore the island of Sicily.

Barely five minutes after we have rolled out of the airport parking lot, our three daughters begin asking ‘Are we there yet?’.

Taormina is our first stop on this island adventure and as we drive along the motorway, Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano comes into view.

The triangular shaped Sicily lies to the south west of mainland Italy and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. A lengthy list of invaders including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards and the Normans have each conquered and left their mark, evident in Sicily’s gastronomy and also its numerous protected historic ruins.

Rumbling down the highway, we catch a glimpse of the blue sparkling sea and our mini-bus makes its climb into the hills towards Taormina. Several minutes of hair bending curves and narrow lanes ensue and soon we arrive at the ancient footsteps of our little boutique hotel Ariston and Palazzo Santa Caterina. The hotel offers 146 rooms and has been around since 1970. It overlooks a lush mountainside on one side and on the other side, a peninsula that reaches into a sapphire sea in the far horizon. From our large wooden windows we see a few tourists making their way down into the Ancient Greek Theatre, a popular attraction in Taormina.

As the sun sets and the sky turns a deep shade of violet, the lights around Taormina blink and twinkle in the approaching darkness. The town could not have asked for a more stunning setting with Mount Etna as the backdrop and the beautiful beaches along its coastline.

The next morning after a quick breakfast of fresh breads with local orange marmalade, we head off to get better acquainted with the local areas. The streets, we soon realise, are either uphill or downhill which makes for a rather rigorous walk. Cafes and bistros line the cobblestoned pathways in the pretty piazza, their menus displaying all manner of pastas and pizzas, spaghetti and risottos. Not surprisingly, seafood dominates the culinary scene here.

Taormina has its own Duomo, a building that looks more fortress and less cathedral with brown stone blocks and battlements along the perimeter. Little shops selling trinkets sit alongside trendy gelato bars – an immediate attraction for the kids.

Although it is late morning and the sun is shining bright, there is a nip in the air as we set out to explore Mount Etna.

Tourists would have no problem finding the route to the summit as the streets are well marked but we switched on our GPS – just in case. Curving roads take us past quaint little villages and even alongside a morning market that is simply too good to resist. Elderly Sicilian mamas sit beside carts of fresh oranges, bottles of olive oil, and heaps of lemons and grapes. The fertile, volcanic soil and the long, growing season make agriculture the primary industry on the island, we are told.

As we approach the mountain, the snow-capped peak surrounded by sooty black volcanic ash that layers the slopes becomes clearer. Ancient Greeks believed Mount Etna to be the residence of the one-eyed monster, Cyclops. The height of this active volcanic mountain has altered with each eruption and it currently stands at 3,350 metres.

We stop at a designated parking area and begin our climb up to one of the craters. The experience as we tread around the charcoal coloured crater is surreal with the volcanic gravel scrunching under our feet. After posing for pictures and taking the regulation selfies, we prepare to return.

Taking a tip from a guide who suggests that we visit Castello di Calatabiano, we stop by on our way down at an ancient fortress in a setting that seems straight out of a Tin Tin adventure story.

A steep funicular shuttles visitors to the top of the fort and then back down to a little store at the foot of the hill. Old stone walls pockmarked with large gaping holes that were once windows overlook the Alcantara Valley below. The chambers of the fortress however, are intact. ‘This is one of the main halls of the fortress and we use it for small concerts and theatre performances even today,’ explains the guide leading us through the fort. In a corner of the hall sits a grand piano used for the performances.

Green hills, farms and olive groves line the road while sheep spotting on the hillsides quickly becomes the game of the hour.

Back in our room late in the evening, we have a relaxing dinner at the Sicilian restaurant and hit the bed.

The following day, map in tow we head north to Messina, the northeast tip of Sicily.

Green hills, farms and olive groves line the road while sheep spotting on the hillsides quickly becomes the game of the hour.

By late afternoon, we are quite hungry and stop at a restaurant just outside a village called Randazzo. The family-run establishment ‘Etna Quota Mille’ also boasts farms of lemons, olives and herbs. Ducks quack in a pond nearby and the setting couldn’t be more blissfully countryside.

Barely minutes after we sit at the table, warm plates of Pasta alla Norma arrive. A popular eastern Sicilian dish with fried eggplant, basil, ricotta cheese and tomatoes, it is served with warm toasted bread. A delicious Sfincione follows, a kind of pizza with cheese, onions and olive oil. The menu offers a plethora of sausages, Ferla and Porcini mushrooms. After such a delicious and sumptuous meal a proper Sicilian siesta is the need of the hour but explore we must and so we continue making our way northbound.

Once we leave the motorway, the road twists and turns before we arrive at the harbour city of Messina. The beachside is spectacular though the sea is rough and after few photos there we hit the road back to Taormina.

Sicilian sunset

The following day we pack and move from the east to the west coast of Sicily. Our first stop is Trapani and for that we have to pass through the city of Palermo and its busy streets.

Like Taormina, Palermo is a port of call on Mediterranean cruise itineraries. The highways twist and curve around the countryside with the beautiful coastline coming into view every now and again.

We have booked ourselves into an ‘agritourismo’ or local Italian farmhouse where we will be spending a few nights. It goes by the name Don Carlo and is located in the sleepy nook of Fulgatore on the outskirts of Trapani.

The small family run establishment houses 6 rooms with a total of 14 beds for guests.

Olive groves welcome us as we turn onto a dusty path off the main road and pull up in front of a lovely rural, Sicilian farmhouse. Leonardo, the owner, waves out and walks towards us welcoming us to his abode. ‘You have good weather for the next few days so make the most of it,’ he says as he shows us to our rooms.

A typical agritourismo offers dinners as they are sometimes located in remote areas away from towns and any eateries. A sumptuous dinner of typical Trapani cuisine is prepared by the lovely Signora Rosa and we retire for the night, satiated and happy.

Waking up to the sounds of clucking hens, crowing roosters and barking farm dogs is a truly novel experience and is a subtle reminder that you are not holidaying in a five-star hotel but a quaint farmhouse away from the lights and sounds of a big city.

I peer out of my window to see the girls have discovered an old swing at one end of the garden and a swimming pool in the other and are making the most of both.

The concept of a farmhouse stay is quite popular and gives guests an immersive experience, living with the locals and eating home-cooked meals.

 

 

Breakfast is served in a rustic dining room that boasts a fireplace and a heavy wooden table with simple comfortable chairs for the patrons. Warm breads, fresh orange juice and farm eggs make up the homely morning meal. Don Carlo Agritourismo like many others, has been converted from a farmhouse into a rural ‘hotel’ while maintaining its rustic quality.

Leonardo suggests a short day trip to the town of Trapani, set at the foot of Monte Erice. ‘It boasts a lively port with a beautiful old town and is considered one of the most romantic places in Sicily with its long stretches of sandy beaches and many castellos,’ he informs us.

 

Taking his advice, we depart in the direction of Trapani. It’s a pleasure to walk around the enigmatic old town with its lovely stone buildings and little cafes. To the south of Trapani lies Piazza Garibaldi and the harbour with clear views of the Egadi Islands and the saltpans. The little windmills of Sicily are as iconic as the salt fields of Trapani on the west coast. Salt production began in the 15th century and soon became Trapani’s primary industry for several centuries.

To the southern side of the harbour is the island of La Colombaia, a tourist attraction with a fortress that dates back to the 15th century. In later years it was used as a prison.

It is late evening as we huddle back into our ‘minibus’ to return to our agritourismo.

The next morning we set out to visit Erice, another medieval town with tiny shops, cobblestoned pathways and stunning views. It is not the easiest place to reach but well worth the trouble. Dotting the landscape of this hillside township are castles such as Pepoli and Venus as well as churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Local residents walk their dogs as small cars squeeze past and into narrow single lane streets.

Open squares or piazzas are flanked either by a church or a castle. As we stop to look at gelato in a shop, we are beckoned inside to sample i. ‘It’s the best in Sicily,’ the shopkeeper promises us. It is delicious and I’m inclined to agree with him. Little boutiques sell handmade chocolate specially made with orange, lemon and grapes packaged in little brown paper bags.

After a bit of shopping, we set off to a secluded spot in the hills where the unexcavated ruins of the Greek town of Segesta lie. Special feeder buses drive visitors up the hill past the theatre and temple. More Greek ruins pepper the hillsides and you can easily spend an hour exploring the area.

On our last night at the agritourismo, we are treated by our hosts to a special Cannoli, a sweet delicacy of stuffed ricotta cheese and almonds.

After bidding goodbye to Leonardo and Rosa, it’s back into the mini-bus for our trip to the airport for our return home. ‘Time to give this mini-bus back, just when I got used to driving the thing,’ mumbles the husband as he hands over the keys.

GETTING THERE:

To Catania Airport

From Abu Dhabi: Etihad flights with one stop in Rome starting from

AED 2,300 per person. Turkish Airlines with one stop in Istanbul starting fares from AED 2,500 per person.

From Dubai: Turkish Airlines with one stop in Istanbul starting fares from AED 2,500 per person.

■ Suggested tours: TAORMINA: Alcantara Gorge: Approx. 1.5 hours from Taormina by road.

Located north of Mount Etna and created from lava flow, the gorge is now part of the Gole Alcantara Botanical and Geological Park. Visitors can access the site by lift or walk the trails.

Address: Via Nazionale 5, Motta Camastra

Official site: http://www.golealcantara.com/en/

■ From TRAPANI:

Selinunte, Eastern Temples: Approx. 1 hour from Trapani by road. History lovers will enjoy this site as it is one of the most important ancient sites in Sicily. Shrines dedicated to Hera and Apollo now exist as columns and fragmented structures.

■ For more information on Sicily, check beyondavisit.com. Instagram, Twitter – @beyondavisit

Andrea Bailey

Andrea Bailey

Andrea Bailey is a Dubai based travel writer. She is also a travel consultant with Travel Counsellors and specializes in cruises, family holidays and honey moons. When she’s not out and about discovering destinations and different cuisines of the world, you would probably find her busy with her 3 daughters and her other passions involving art and music.

As a mosaic artist, she has travelled to Italy and studied ancient Roman techniques of the art form and as a jazz flautist she has had the opportunity of performing across various Dubai venues.