Landing in Palermo is dramatic: steep cliff faces all around you, flecked with green prickly pears and, on the brink of autumn, dense shrub in scattered shades of yellow.
I wish I’d had at least a month to explore Sicily, which you’d need to get even a sense of the varied landscape and charm of each part of the island — the snow-white salt flats of Trapani, the faded majesty and mythical churches of Noto and Ragusa, the mountain wilds of Niscosia, the ancient ruins of Agrigento.
In just six days we barely scratched the surface — and yet managed to see city, sea and mountains in a way that didn’t feel rushed.
Our first stop was Palermo. On day one we spent a few hours happily stumbling across beautiful building after beautiful building. Make sure to look up too or you might miss a million intricate details — from Baroque balconies to the Arabian-Norman church of San Cataldo, with its two burnt red domes, immediately noticeable against the turquoise blue sky. We stopped for delicious sandwiches just a few steps away at S’Orto — a lively café with stools spilling out onto the street; after an ice-cream at Cappadonia (amazing flavours from Bacio di Dama to white peach sorbet — sometimes served in a full brioche bun instead of a cone) we were so engrossed in eating that we walked straight into the base of the cathedral.
If you want a break from the four corners — the central four streets that are magical to see but plagued with (other) tourists — then make your way to the district of Kalsa, stopping to pick up a €3 aperol spritz for the journey. By day, its cobbled streets and tiny alleyways are drenched in bougainvillea and dotted with busy bars and tile-printed awnings. We stopped first for breakfast and cinnamon espressos at Cioccolateria Lorenzo — a tiny but wildly-popular neighbourhood haunt with a tiny terrace with rustic wooden tables and strings of fairy lights. The waitress insisted that pains au chocolat containing three types of chocolate would still taste “light” — somehow she was right.
For a shot of culture, Palazzo Butera (palazzobutera.it) yokes together modern art pieces in the most intricate setting — and if you’re looking for a spot for a picnic lunch or a short pause while you’re exploring, the double- height open-air courtyard is packed full of tropical plants and hanging flowers. Afterwards, be sure to stop by the nearby concept store InsimuLab (alabpalermo.it) just off Piazza Aragona, a tiny equivalent of Milan’s 10 Corso Como or Paris’s Merci, stocked with handmade ceramics and jewellery made by Vitalba in front of your eyes. I picked up a green raindrop stone necklace but I was tempted by just about everything.
When it comes to bars, I wholeheartedly recommend Ferramenta, a former hardware shop that still has old tools in glass cases next to the bar – and sits in an old piazza. In the evening an arty crowd linger at standing tables outside and you’ll want to people-watch the night away.
We spent our first night at the Villa Igiea, an Art Nouveau palazzo with sprawling tropical gardens just a few kilometres from the central chaos of Palermo that feels a world away. It is definitely worth opting for a sea-view room, so in the morning you can pull back your curtains and look with a coffee in hand over the gardens and the sea as the sun comes up.
We had drinks in the bar before dinner — lovely armchairs tucked around old stone pillars, and tried a coffee negroni delivered in a Bialetti and poured with drama over a huge sculpted ice cube — accompanied by a flurry of cicchetti that made us almost too full for dinner. The Florio restaurant, out on their terrace, was still warm in autumn. We were keen to try as much fish and local wines as possible — from raw Umbrine to Turbot and sole — and these were accompanied by wines made at the foot of Mount Etna.
Then it was time to leave Palermo and explore more of rural Sicily. It’s almost impossible to believe that under an hour’s drive from Palermo city centre is the medieval tuna fishing village of Scopello. The Tonnara, a former fishing estate now a museum and hotel, is a faded but majestic pink building right down by the sea. It is partially open to the public and you can swim in the clearest water with shoals of fish beneath you. We didn’t stay there, but I wish we had — the hotel has balconies right on the sea, and a private terrace to swim from, and seems to have escaped any element of mass-produced luxury so it’s still genuinely bohemian and rustic.
If you’re not staying, the stretch of stone outside the Tonnara is open to the public. A small fee rents you a chair that you can set up for the day and wile away the hours reading and swimming in the sea. When everyone leaves for it to close at Sunset, there’s nothing quite like waiting it out, and slowly, reluctantly making your way up the steep path home only after you’ve experienced having the place completely to yourself.
About an hour’s dramatic drive from Scopello is the 12th-century medieval hilltop town of Erice. You wind around hairpin bend after hairpin bend that every few minutes gives way to ever better views of the sweep of mountain sea and tiny villages below. (Just beware Italian drivers racing round corners and spraying gravel.) When you park at the top, you’re above drifts of clouds rolling by below. You can get lost along stone pathways and intricate churches – until you’re in need of a caffe al pistachio, an indulgent spoon of silky green nut crème with a shot of espresso poured over. Afterwards, join the queue and try a Genovesi pastry from the famous Maria Grammatico (manicaretti.com) shop, run by the titular former nun.
One word of warning: if you’re not after a diet of carbs or sweet things, avoid Sicily altogether — every speciality food you stumble across centres around bread, rice or pasta; thick wedges of focaccia sfizione, smothered in a mix of anchovies, tomatoes, onions and herbs; or my personal favourite, spaghetti with sardines, fennel and raisins — the perfect mix of sweet and salt. Topped with pangrattato, crisped breadcrumbs, it’s an example of ‘cucina povera’ or peasant food — a great way to use things up in your cupboard when you return home.
This week was just a tiny speck of what the island has to offer, but if you’re after a trip that somehow manages to include almost-mythical landscapes with ancient stone cities and elaborate architecture, sharp yet sweet cocktails under the glow of orange dusk in a busy piazza, and the kind of relaxation you only get from swimming in the sea – Sicily is the place to go.
Starting rates for this period at Villa Igiea are from € 560,00 for the entry level room, VAT and Breakfast included; roccofortehotels.com