From Palermo’s Moorish architecture to Mount Etna’s foothills, the island of Sicily is a hidden gem, says Chris Carter.
Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is this year’s Italian City of Culture. Art installations are scattered all over town in spaces ranging from hidden gardens to abandoned palazzi, says Nancy Durrant in the Times. And thanks to “a riot of medieval and Moorish influences”, you will gawp as much at the buildings as the equally eclectic artworks inside them. After all, it’s not every day “you get to take the temperature of contemporary art in a city so steeped in its own history”.
The Grand Hotel Villa Igiea (from €180 a night, villa-igiea.com), nestled “smugly by its own little harbour” five miles along the coast from Palermo’s popular Mondello beach, is the perfect refuge from the bustling city. Built in the early 1900s by the Florio family, it was intended as a sanatorium for wealthy TB sufferers – until a doctor pointed out that the seaside was the last place you should put such a thing.
Today, those with sturdy lungs can enjoy superb Sicilian classics for dinner. The food in Palermo is unique in Italy thanks to the influence of foreign cultures, notably the Moors, who ruled Sicily from the mid-ninth to the 11th centuries. “There’s a distinctive sweet-and-saltiness to its cuisine, exemplified by that mouth-watering Sicilian aubergine speciality, caponata.”
“The greatest pastry shop on the face of the earth”, however, is in Noto, says Steve King in Condé Nast Traveller. Nothing on the menu is fancy or expensive: cannoli cost €3, gelato cono €2.50. Still, people come from all over the world to Caffè Sicilia “to rhapsodise and obsess… and perhaps to catch a glimpse of the magician… in the kitchen [who] conjures them into being”. His name is Corrado Assenza, “a spry, intense 50-something with a rakish white beard and the eyes of a revolutionary”.
Caffè Sicilia has occupied the same spot opposite the cathedral in the middle of town for 126 years. Noto itself, however, used to be somewhere else. The original, ancient city, like many others in this part of Sicily, was reduced to rubble by a earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt a short distance away. No expense was spared. The streets were soon filled with an astonishing concentration of churches, private palaces and public buildings in a luscious style now referred to, rather loosely, as Sicilian Baroque.
An overlooked gem
Mount Etna, at the eastern end of Sicily, is touted as a must-see attraction, says Isabel Choat in the Guardian. Most visitors to Europe’s largest volcano stay in resorts such as glitzy Taormina or the port city of Catania. That leaves Etna’s stark foothills largely empty, including the town of Castiglione di Sicilia (pictured).
The red-roofed houses and medieval churches of this hilltop settlement appear to “tumble down the slopes… There we discovered deli-cum-wine-shop Vitis Vineria Bottega.”
The people, the climate, the wine and the food in this part of Italy all have a distinct character influenced by the volcano, which provides a spectacular holiday backdrop.
Montecristo opens up… a little
Until a decade ago, the Italian island of Montecristo was off-limits to visitors, says Cailey Rizzo in Travel and Leisure. Now the government issues up to 1,000 permits a year for visits between 1-15 April and 31 August-31 October. However, 600 of those permits are reserved for students. The island gained fame through French author Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, in which prisoner Edmond Dantès heads to the island in search of treasure. The real treasures here, however, are the endangered species that live in the Montecristo Nature Reserve. Visitors can apply for permits at islepark.it, and it helps to be part of a group. Even so, “you might wait years”.