My parents and I live far away from each other. I got to travel with them this December, and I wanted an exciting trip that would not be too taxing on my parents. One where we could each pursue our passions while at the same time becoming closer. Sicily was my first choice.
Mass tourism has taken away the soul of many places and homogenised them. But Sicily is untouched and authentic. It is beautiful. It is the fertile land that drew the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Arabs, all looking for grain: the source of life. The volcanic ashes of Etna have made this a land of exceptional fertility, a wellspring of unique flavours: Siccagno Tomato, Giarratana Onion, Salina Cappers, Noto Almond… I could go on.
We rented a car at the airport to have the freedom to roam. The cities are full of sights, narrow Baroque streets, palaces and cathedrals of unimaginable beauty. But we were told the essence of Sicily is in the countryside, along the coastline, in the fields and the small villages. So, I proposed a strict method of navigation: to follow lemon scents and the glare of the sun.
My parents and I drive west from Palermo to Tonnara di Scopello, a disused yet picturesque tuna fishery that has been here since the 13th century. It is a popular place for sunbathers and swimmers, but today it’s just me and my parents. And twelve cats. I can picture the fishermen chanting and going out in the twilit hours, between the stacks that burst out from the sea. Time has stopped here.
We follow the trail of the sun, and drive westward to Mount Erice. This is a village that stands out because of its history, yet, incidentally, Molecular Gastronomy was born here too. I escape the medieval geometry and narrowness of the streets and witness the drama of the view. Looking west, I am blinded by the reflection of the sun glaring on the salt evaporation ponds of Trapani.
In the 60’s, Ferdinando Scianna photographed the religious rituals and practices of Sicily. His book ignited my passion for culture when I was a teenager. He said that the essence of this religiosity was not the metaphysical, but the material. Sicilian religion is carnal.
Is the carnality still alive? The people I met struck me as people with a deep faith. I had just spent ten days in Northern Italy, where nobody wished me a Merry Christmas, here everybody does. In Sicily, traditions become resilient through difficulties. The local behaviours that are the laughingstock of some in the wealthy North, are heartwarming to the visitors. The local character is tangible, strong, proud.
Having run out of West, I turn south, towards the heartland. I am looking for authenticity. Peppe, my local friend and fixer, tells me that the province of Agrigento is the right place to find it. Many tourists pass by and they don’t visit anything but the Valley of Temples. I don’t blame them. It is a sight of beauty, where Goethe found Doric perfection.
Those with an aesthetic sensibility flock every year to the other side of the world for Sakura, the Cherry Blossom. Yet here, every February the almond trees dress the land with pale petals that speak directly to the soul. Only a few know.
I am a couple of months early for the blossom, and my impulse is to get back into the car and continue exploring the island.
“The tourist stays one night,” says Peppe, my friend and local fixer. “Stay longer! Let me show you the ancient heart of Sicily.”
Peppe believes the heart of Sicily is inland, towards the Monti Sicani. There, an exploration of nature and history, soon turns into a social and gastronomical affair. Where a traveller might meet shepherds and hear their stories, break bread with the farmers and share their bounty.
In the village of Sant’Angelo Muxaro, the narrow lanes shelter a myriad places to stop for cheese, bread with olives, oil and red wine. It is not uncommon for visitors to be invited to an impromptu Famiata, a bread tasting. Sicilians have a big heart, and yours grows in the sharing.
We cross the Island northward to Palermo. No matter how many times you have been here, a visit to the Duomo of Monreale, and the bakery next door that uses only olive branches for the fire, is a must. Inside the church, there is an image of Jesus where he holds an open book in his left hand that reads, in both Latin and Greek: “I am the light of the world.” He is triumphant, he has not yet become the suffering Christ of St. Francis and Giotto. A Christ brought down to earth and made human, a sign of the beginning of modernity. The sensibility of the Ancients is still here for all to see, to understand where we come from.
Back in the busy streets, I meet with Francesco Virga. He owns four restaurants that range from the sophisticated, to the traditional, to a mixology bar. Sicily is coming out of its difficult past, guided by a new generation of entrepreneurs. Francesco is one of the modern Sicilian heroes. He opens a bottle of Italian bubbly and points out it’s only 19 Euro.
“Where can you find quality at this price?” he asks.
Only in Sicily, it would seem. While other destinations have turned bland, and artisanship turned away by cheap souvenirs, Sicily has remained authentic. From its traditions, the island is blossoming. Now is the time to come.
We order our pasta. The chef Fabio Cardillo invites me to the kitchen and I gladly accept. He insists that we try a selection of typical starters. Our table fills with octopus, anchovies, fried caciocavallo, sfincione… We are happy and full, and the pasta is just arriving. Room for dessert? Always, when it comes to cassata.
At night, at the Mixologist bar, I meet Gianluca di Giorgio, who gave up his nuclear engineering career to experiment in the art of drinking. He is an innovator in a land of traditions. He tells me how he cooks the alcohols sous vide to round the taste. Then, by infusing herbs and capers, he attempts to capture in his drinks the aromas that the Sicilian wind carries.
It is past midnight and Gianluca suggests that I stop by La Vucciria, Palermo’s ancient open-air market. The streets are crowded and the scent of boiled octopus and fresh oyster fills the street. The place is crowded and people are dancing.
“What is going on?” I ask Gianluca. “Is there some sort of celebration?”
“This is an absurd place,” he replies jokingly. “The atmosphere is of times past.”
We make our way into Taverna Azzurra. My last drink in Sicily. I ask Gianluca what I should order, to mark the occasion.
“Order a glass of Blood,” he says. “It’s the very last bit of Marsala left in barrel. They spice it with herbs.”
It has the piquancy of legends and devotions. In short, Sicily in a glass: raw, flavoursome, delicious.
How to get there:
There are no direct flights from Hong Kong. It’s a good idea to spend a day or two sightseeing in Rome before heading south. Once in Sicily, the best way to get around is to rent a car. To drive in Italy, you will need an International Driving Permit (IDP), which you can get in Hong Kong.
What to do in Sicily:
There is no other way to put it: you need to explore. Palermo has a very long history and there are treasures at every corner. Embrace the passionate nature of Sicilians and don’t miss the markets for a great foodie experience, chief among them La Vucciria. The temples in Agrigento can get a bit touristy, but if you head north to Sant’Angelo Muxaro you will find authenticity and a certain ruggedness that is brimming with charm. If you are looking for a wine and food experience, then you must stay around Etna. Starting in Taormina, you can complete the tour of the Etna towards Syracuse, for a complete experience of the East coast. Don’t forget that the Aeolian Islands are wonderful for seclusion and for lovers of nature..
When to go:
Spring and Autumn are charming in Sicily. The island becomes somewhat crowded during Summer, not to mention the heat. Winter can be rainy, but then again, you get Sicily all to yourself. During late Winter and Spring, the almond trees are in bloom, which is a spectacle akin to the Cherry Blossom in Japan.
The insider's take:
For a truly authentic experience of Sicily, there is nothing like having local contacts and friends. We at Blueflower have organised three ways to experience Sicily that all take advantage of our extensive network in the island. Click here for the Aeolians and the East Coast - Here for a journey in search of the most amazing flavours in the hinterlands - Here for a Grand Tour of Sicily, which is similar to my family holiday above.