My big Sicilian road trip: Where the Gods fell to Earth

1 Apr , 2011  

Erice, near Trapani, Sicily

Zeus’ beau­ti­ful daugh­ter Persephone was kid­napped and raped by Hades at Enna and Scylla devoured sail­ors in the Strait of Messina. ‘You’ll need extra insur­ance, of course,’ said the man at the car rental desk, ‘this is Sicily’. We insured ourselves to the hilt and headed for the mean streets of Palermo.


Palermo was an Arab caliphate until Roger II invaded and made it the Norman cap­ital of the Kingdom of Sicily, which also included most of Southern Italy, for almost 600 years — the jewel in the Med’s crown. After a short dal­li­ance with Naples and the Unification of Italy in 1860, it con­tin­ued a long, slow decline, but has never for­got­ten its proud past. Grand, raw, self-assured and untamed, Palermo may be Italy’s most under­rated city.

It’s not a par­tic­u­larly tour­ist-friendly place; there is no Foro Romano, the gal­ler­ies aren’t burst­ing with Caravaggios, many of the grand palaces are barely held up by their scaf­fold­ing and the dusty air smells of con­crete and cook­ing. We planned to drive across Sicily from West to East, then by ferry from Messina to Calabria and Southern Italy. A light-hearted idea by my fel­low trav­el­ler, Helena, had some­how turned into a very real, and very won­der­ful, road-trip across an island that was to win our hearts.

We arrived hungry and tired, walked through the wrecked streets around the Vucceria and pounced on the first place we found — a stall with a rusty shut­ter and a few rick­ety plastic tables on the street. We ate grilled octopus with lemon, sardines, auber­gine and cour­gettes in olive oil and fresh herbs while strug­gling to get a grip on the city lay­out with our Rough Guide to Sicily. The other tables were taken by loc­als, unhur­ried, chat­ting with the waiter and the occa­sional passer-by. It’s not for us tour­ists, it’s for them, and that’s what makes this place spe­cial; you won’t find this in Rome or Milan. A little three-wheeler car­ry­ing an unfeas­ibly large pile of fruit crates squeezed through the double-parked cars below the bal­conies fes­tooned with rows of wash­ing. We sat back and star­ted to relax.

Quattro Canti, Palermo, Sicily

The cross­roads of the Quattro Canti neatly divides Palermo into quar­ters or man­da­menti. Taking the four sea­sons as its theme, each corner sports its own honey-col­oured 17th cen­tury palazzo, com­plete with three tiers of Baroque statu­ary by Giulio Lasso. Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, the city’s two main streets, inter­sect here, so it’s a good place to get your bear­ings. Nearby, Fontana Pretoria is a fab­ulous 16th cen­tury con­fec­tion of naked bod­ies and assor­ted exotic anim­als, sculp­ted by Francesco Carmilliani and sub­sequently shipped over to Sicily; it’s also nick­named Piazza Vergogna (Square of Shame) and Piazza de la Nudi Pollo, though I didn’t par­tic­u­larly notice the chick­ens.

Chiesa di Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (La Matorana), Palermo, Sicily

Piazza Bellini, just to the south of Quattro Canti, has two won­der­ful churches. Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, called La Matorana after the founder of the con­vent here, is an Arab-Norman stun­ner built in 1143 at the behest of George of Antioch (George’s title was Amir-al-Bahr, from which we get the word Admiral) and although partly altered in the 17th cen­tury, the upper walls have some of the most beau­ti­ful Byzantine mosa­ics I have ever seen. The church is now the centre for the Byzantine-Catholic branch of Albanian Greek Orthodoxy in Sicily. Chiesa di San Cataldo, with its three red domes and Saracen bat­tle­ments, is lit­er­ally next door, and the interior is every bit as beau­ti­ful in its unadorned glory, hav­ing been restored in the 19th cen­tury back to some­thing like its ori­ginal state.

A short walk west­wards on via Vittorio Emanuele brings us to The Duomo, a massive struc­ture built in 1184 by King William II on a mosque, itself remod­elled from an earlier Christian basilica; it gained unwel­come Gothic addi­tions in the 14th cen­tury and a finally a 19th cen­tury Neoclassical dress­ing. The outer walls have a row of passant guard­ant lions, later to become the her­aldic emblem of the Norman Kings of England. Here lies bur­ied Roger II, crowned King of Sicily in 1130 after a 70 year fight star­ted by his father. Arab occu­pa­tion had brought Sicily irrig­a­tion, polit­ical admin­is­tra­tion, and skilled work­ers, mak­ing it one of the richest parts of the Arab world and Europe’s most suc­cess­ful eco­nomy. Roger encour­aged Islamic cul­ture to flour­ish under Norman rule and Sicily enjoyed a brief but glit­ter­ing period as the cul­tural melt­ing pot of the Med. One of its finest monu­ments is just a little fur­ther along via Vittorio Emanuele. Built on suc­cess­ive Phoenician and Roman struc­tures, the Palazzo Real (Palazzo dei Normanni) was an Arab build­ing con­ver­ted into a lux­ury palace and massively exten­ded to become Roger’s admin­is­trat­ive centre, and reputedly the home of his harem. Most of the ori­ginal interior has been lost, but the fab­ulous Cappella Palatina remains, and the palace is now home to the Sicilian Regional Assembly.

Roger’s cook was an Arab, and, given Sicily’s con­vo­luted his­tory, it’s no sur­prise that our din­ner menu was made up of the eclectic mix of Greek and Arab influ­ences that is Sicilian cuisine. Legend has it that the Romans inven­ted ice cream using the snow from Mount Etna, and the Arabs intro­duced Italy to pasta via Sicily. The sea­food is won­der­fully fresh and the local veget­ables are almost obscenely deli­cious. Try an octopus salad with mint, or Pasta con le sarde (sardines, fen­nel, pep­pers and pine nuts) and see if you can find a nice bottle of Malvasia delle Lípari.

Just off Piazza San Domenico, Santandrea res­taur­ant (Piazza Sant Andrea 4, 90133 Palermo, +39 091 334 999) is chic and serves won­der­ful food sourced fresh from Vucciria mar­ket on its door­step.
Shanghai res­taur­ant (Vicolo Mezzani 34, 90133 Palermo, +39 091 589 702) is also near Vucciria and is Sicilian, not Chinese.
Caffè Spinnato (via Principe di Belmonte 111) has won awards for serving the best cof­fee in Italy, and Italians are very picky about their cof­fee. Kursaal Kalhesa (Foro Umberto I No 21, 90133 Palermo) is a trendy bar, res­taur­ant, wine shop and inter­net café in the shell of a palazzo, once given as a present from a prince to his lover. We stayed at the lovely bb 22 (Palazzo Pantelleria, largo Cavalieri di Malta 22, 90133 Palermo, +39 091 6111610), a chic bed-and-break­fast, run by the always-charm­ing Rossana, with an ideal loc­a­tion in a tiny alley behind Basilica San Domenico, off via Roma.

The West

Retracing our trip into Palermo, we drove past the air­port and into the West. First stop, Erice, 800 metres up a small moun­tain of hair­pin bends, and the myth­ical touch­down point for Daedalus after poor Icarus fell into the sea. Balanced atop is a per­fect medi­eval town of cobbled streets and pic­ture post­card scenes, plus the usual col­lec­tion of souvenir shops and touristy res­taur­ants. The 14th cen­tury Gothic Duomo is hand­some, but the interior has been extens­ively remod­elled over the ages. What really makes Erice worth the trip are the views. Climbing up the Duomo’s accom­pa­ny­ing tower to gain a few more metres height, we were rewar­ded with a dazzling pan­or­ama of the coastal plain, from Marsala to San Vito lo Capo, as the sun flickered over the sea. Apparently you can see Tunisia on a really clear day, but that will have to wait for another visit; thick fog swept over the moun­tain as we beat a hasty retreat for lunch before the heav­ens opened. We weren’t for­tu­nate with our choice of res­taur­ant either, but I’m told that Ristorante Monte San Giuliano (vicolo San Rocco, Erice, +39 0923 869 595) is good.

Greek temple (420BC) Segesta, Sicily

Sicily isn’t big on sign­posts once you are off the main roads and the scrappy car park in the pretty val­ley at Segesta was the first indic­a­tion that we had arrived near one of the most splen­did examples of ancient Greek archi­tec­ture in the Med. This 5th cen­tury BC Doric temple is dom­in­ated by 36 huge columns, which have out­las­ted the waves of occupy­ing for­eign­ers and some of the worst earth­quakes in Europe. Except it seems that this prob­ably wasn’t a temple and its cre­at­ors prob­ably weren’t Greek. It star­ted to dawn on us that here in Sicily things are usu­ally not as obvi­ous as they at first appear, so we headed for the Golfo di Castellamare for some fresh air and the unspoilt enclave that makes up the Costa dello Zingaro. A through-road around the stun­ning North-West coast was planned to con­nect the little vil­lage of Scopello with San Vito lo Capo’s beau­ti­ful beach, but was defeated by envir­on­ment­al­ists. On the coast in front of Scopello is a dis­used tuna fact­ory set in a gor­geous bay which can be reached by a steep path to one side. For the more adven­tur­ous, the scuba diving centre opens dur­ing the sum­mer and boasts the intact wreck of a WWII battle­ship, the Capua, amongst oth­ers.

Altelier sul Mare

Atelier sul Mare

We arrived at Cefalu late at night and stopped for some­thing to eat before arriv­ing even later at one of the most unusual hotels I have ever vis­ited: Antonio Presti’s Atelier sul Mare at Castel di Tusa should not be thought of as a hotel, more a work of art that you can sleep in. Read more about it on Atelier sul Mare art hotel: Obsessive But Compulsive.


Duomo, Siracusa, Sicily

A dazzling, sun-soaked drive across the centre of Sicilian interior brought us to Siracusa and its island fort­ress, Ortygia, foun­ded by the Greeks in 734 BC. Joined to the main­land by nar­row bridges, its defences designed by Archimedes, Siracusa became the most power­ful state in the region, rivalling Athens itself, and one of the last to res­ist Roman dom­in­a­tion. Both Aeschylus and Plato per­formed at the huge theatre on the main­land hill­side over­look­ing the har­bour. Ortygia is a delight to explore and the bridges keep traffic to man­age­able levels; the Temple of Apollo greets your entry to the island and a short walk up the street to the right takes you via the Fontana di Diana to Piazza del Duomo, cer­tainly one of Italy’s most impress­ive piaz­zas. The Duomo itself was con­struc­ted over the 5th cen­tury BC Temple of Athens, and the huge Doric columns of the Greek temple can still be seen embed­ded into the walls of the church. Continue for­ward to Fonte Aretusa, an ancient walled fresh­wa­ter spring which is now the main sta­ging point on the Ortigian passeg­giata. Our passeg­giata was cut short by the rain, so we found refuge at our hotel’s wel­com­ing spa. The one­hotel (via Diodoro Siculo 4, 96100 Siracusa, +39 0931 411 355, is on the main­land but is fairly access­ible. They cheer­fully turned the steam back on and brought us tea and aro­ma­ther­apy as we simmered gently, while the rest of Siracusa shivered.

Trattoria La Foglia (via Capodieci 29, Siracusa, +39 093 166 233).


Teatro Greco, Taormina, Sicily

Still ener­vated from onehotel’s spa and driv­ing at night, we weren’t really pre­pared for Taormina. ‘Is that it up there?’ we both asked sim­ul­tan­eously. The sat­nav said, ‘Yes!’ and up we went. Since its begin­nings as a bolt-hole for dis­sid­ents from nearby Naxos and also Siracusa, Taormina’s for­tunes have ebbed and flowed, splend­our altern­at­ing with decline. It’s cur­rently enjoy­ing a resur­gence as both a tour­ist hot-spot dur­ing the sum­mer and a dis­crete hide­away out of sea­son. This was the cap­ital of Byzantine Sicily, peep­ing down from the bal­cony of Mount Tauro, and Taormina has been a favour­ite ever since, pro­vok­ing OTT com­ments from all and sun­dry, includ­ing Goethe who dubbed it, ‘The greatest work of art and nature.’ All we need to know is that both Dolce and Gabbana love it, and celebs like Antonio Banderas are reg­u­lars at the mag­ni­fi­cent San Domenico Palace (Piazza San Domenico 5, 98039 Taormina, +39 0942 61 31 11, a staunchly tra­di­tional hotel blessed with both per­fect ped­i­gree and loc­a­tion; it was a Dominican mon­as­tery in the 14th cen­tury and has, in addi­tion to sev­eral peace­ful cloisters, a garden to die for, over­looked by Mount Etna and lit by flick­er­ing torches at night. If you can get up early, visit the Greek amphi­theatre on the moun­tain a short walk north of the town: it’s a bit ordin­ary at the bot­tom, but climb to the very top for a sen­sa­tional view of the coast and Etna.

Gambero Rosso (Via Naumachia 11; 011 39 0942 24863) for great sea­food, La Giara (Vico La Floresta 1; 011 39 0942 23360) lively bar – after 11pm.

Like Italy, but more so…

Piazza Garraffello, Vucciria market, Palermo, Sicily, (Palazzo Mazzarino with central niche which is said to have held a bust adorned with precious stones, and the 16thC Fontana del Garraffello).

The Romans hero-wor­shipped the Greeks, and the Greeks left their fin­ger­prints all over Sicily. As did the Romans, Arabs, and Norman — you get the pic­ture. Goethe thought that Italy without Sicily was incom­plete. Cato called it, ‘The breast at which the Roman people are fed’. Rick Stein said it was, ‘Like Italy, but more so’. Of course, it also gave us the mafia, but there are signs that things are slowly chan­ging. You can now visit to find res­taur­ants and hotels that don’t pay pizzo, or pro­tec­tion money, to the Sicilian mafia. Berlusconi’s re-elec­tion has revived the multi-bil­lion euro bridge to join Messina with Reggio Calabria on the main­land; either a sign that Sicily is becom­ing very much part of main­stream Italy or a hor­ribly expens­ive folly, depend­ing on your point of view. Property prices are rising as more people dis­cover its charms and the scaf­fold­ing sprout­ing all over Palermo’s crum­bling build­ings points to a new-found prosper­ity.

The extra car insur­ance pressed upon us wasn’t needed and, as we looked back at Messina from the ferry to Reggio, we thought of all the roads untraveled. We’d have to come back. Perhaps after Calabria… but that’s another story.

Words & Photos: © Ken Sparkes All Rights Reserved
First pub­lished in Spaces magazine, July 2008.

The Rough Guide to Sicily was good on back­ground, cul­ture, sight­see­ing and off the beaten track, as you might expect. Read Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: Travels in Sicily on a Vespa by Matthew Fort to get a foodie’s insight into the Sicilian psyche.

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