What better way to spend 10 days before starting a new job than driving around the ‘football’ at the toe of Italy’s boot.
Cast adrift from the mainland, only a few hundred miles from Tunisia, Sicily’s been occupied by the Greeks, the Romans, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Normans, the Arabs, and the Spanish. Remnants of each civilization have left their mark, mingling into a cultural hotchpotch, which is evident in the landscape, the architecture and the food.
You’ve got Greek temples, Roman amphitheatres, Norman churches and Arabic tiles. As well as the usual pasta/pizza delights, dishes include hints of Eastern flavours: pine nuts, raisins, couscous – and they put pistachios on just about everything.
Other food unique to Sicily is the Godfather-esque classic cannoli, a deep-fried pastry cone filled with ricotta whipped with cinnamon, lemon, or pistachio. Then there’s arancini: Fist-sized balls of deep-fried risotto stuffed with anything, from cheese to meat ragu, to wild fennel, pine nuts, and sardines. And once you hit the streets of Palermo you’ll find any number of surprises, but more on that later…
Sicily is famous for many things. One of which is the Mafia. And, while their hold is not as strong as it was 20 years ago, evidence of their presence can still be seen. Sleek highways inexplicably ride high above the landscape on concrete pillars; half-built tower blocks puncture the scenery, and all the while, palaces are left to crumble, their facades bursting with flowering weeds. Poverty dirties the streets, stains the stonework and instils a sense of nihilism to the Island – especially on the roads where chaos reigns supreme.
Sometimes the beauty of Sicily is spread out before you, other times you have to hunt for it. In any case, it’s an exciting, fascinating, gorgeous place, and well worth a visit.
So where to go?
Flying in and out of Catania, we drove clockwise around the island, mostly following the coastline. It’s deceptively big and, even with 10 days, you have to be picky.
Syracuse and Ortigia
Back in 734 BC, Corinthian colonists settled on the tiny island of Ortigia, just meters off the mainland and the town of Syracuse. Almost 3000 years later, Ortigia is a honeycomb of narrow alleyways, which meander around an impressive Piazza di Duomo; a sweep of polished marble crowned with an elegant Baroque cathedral (the first of many).
Start your day with breakfast Italian-style: Standing up at the bar with a coffee and a dolce. We found ourselves with a doughnut stuffed with ricotta, see if you can top that.
Don’t miss the daily food market. It’s conveniently placed in front of the ruins of a Greek temple to Apollo, dating to the 6th Century BC. So, after some ruin-gazing, you can pick up some pistachios (handy for motorway munching) before heading to Fratelli Burgio for an artisan aperitivo.
Work up an appetite for your next meal by strolling along the waterfront to the Fontana de Arethusa, a deep, cool pool filled with papyrus, where Nelson apparently drew water before thrashing Napoleon at the Battle of Aboukir.
The main foody spots are in the streets immediately around the Duomo. They may be tourist traps. But I think you’d have to be particularly unlucky to eat badly. We made a beeline for simple-looking Osteria La Gazza Ladra, which was perfect; an antipasto of perfectly-cooked seasonal vegetables followed by homemade pasta con le sarde (with sardines, pine nuts, and fennel), and rounded off with biancomangiare, a delicate almond milk pudding flavoured with orange blossom. Accompany all this with a glass of local wine which is robust and hearty, and will set you back about €1.50.
Break up your journey from Ortigia to Ragusa with a lunch-stop at Noto.
Back in 1693, a huge earthquake devastated the east of Sicily, flattening Catania and sending shockwaves as far as Vittoria. The towns were then rebuilt according to the architectural fad of the time: Baroque. And the small town of Noto is a poster-child to Sicilian Baroque. Its main thoroughfare leads you through elegant piazzas with wide staircases sweeping up to Baroque churches and palaces.
Noto is also famous for its almonds, so supplement your nut collection in one of the artisan food shops on or around the Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
We found a perfect lunch on a sunny side street at Picnic. Our waiter sat in the doorway with a guitar, strumming ‘Volare’ and pausing only to bring us plates of local meats and cheeses, served with blood orange doused in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano. Try some homemade almond milk if you get the chance.
Take the road inland via Modica, past orchards of almond and lemon trees and into steep, rocky hills. Spread across two such hilltops, is Ragusa.
Ragusa’s a town of split personalities. You have Ragusa Superior, where 18th century Baroque meets 20th-century monstrosities, and modern life bustles around you. Then you have Ragusa Ibla, a slightly dilapidated display cabinet of Baroque churches and palaces surrounded by crumbling alleyways and uneven staircases. If you stay in Ragusa Superior, be prepared to climb.
Wear comfortable shoes and spend your day poking around churches, drinking coffee (or spremuta di limone) in the lovely Piazza di Duomo, exploring the surrounding streets, and admiring the view over the valley from the Giardino Ibleo.
For lunch/dinner try:
Trattoria La Bettola (Ragusa Ibla)
A relaxed trattoria near the Piazza di Duomo with red and white checked tablecloths. We tucked into grilled artichokes (very much in season if you’re there in March), pasta a la norma (aubergine and tomato sauce) and pork with fennel. Pudding (which the waitress was very firm we were not to share) was three perfect little cannoli dusted with cinnamon.
Ristorante Tipico (Ragusa Superior)
If you’re staying in Superior, don’t miss this gem. We were there at lunchtime and Sicilian businessmen were tucking into a serious three-course meal. I recommend sitting up at the bar and ordering scaccia, a layered flatbread stuffed with aubergine and tomato, or spinach and ricotta.
Trattoria Tinchitè (Ragusa Superior)
A lovely restaurant packed with locals (book in advance if you want dinner). We ate heavenly homemade pasta with crumbled almonds.
Agrigento is ALL about the Valle dei Templi, an archaeological treasure trove boasting some of the best Greek ruins outside of Greece. Stroll among olive trees, from the Temple of Zeus (not much more than a pile of rock and remains of a Doric column) to the impressive Temple of Concordia, which is in exceptionally good nic. Keep going to the Temple of Hera (or Juno) and don’t forget to admire the views across the valley and down towards the Mediterranean.
If you do stay in town, ignore the brutish tower blocks on outskirts and head for the medieval centre. Here you’ll find scruffy streets leading to charming patios cheerfully painted in bright colours. Everyone is friendly and Bar Gambrinus sells a mean breakfast cornetto stuffed with pistachio.
Ready to hit the streets of Palermo? Read on…