The lush and prosperous island of Sicily, just a stone’s throw from the tip of Italy’s boot, lies at a physical and cultural juncture between Europe and Africa.
Across roads floating in the Mediterranean, the island has long been a centre for trade between the ancient civilisations that moved along this route. Many of whom conquered land here and remained on the island for periods of time-the Greeks, Romans, Normans and Arabs have all left their mark. But Sicily has stood in defiance and as a result, the island’s history has given Sicily a richly layered culture and a strength and fortitude to its people. It has endowed the island with well-designed cities, beautifully kept villages and exquisite architecture, a mouth watering and diverse cuisine, and a bustling feeling of trade and well-being. Also due to its low lying latitude in the Med, which sits on par with North Africa, Sicily enjoys a warm sun-drenched climate. And its sun baked and breathtaking landscape will lead you to some of the most beautiful beaches you will ever discover with water so clear you can see every tiny rock and shell on the sea floor. To protect these precious locations the island has many National Marine parks, many of which are available to explore, should you be able to tear yourself away from your deck chair and that chilled glass of Vermentino. Tough decisions we know
Even if you only had two or three days in Sicily you’d still be able to cover much of what the island has to offer, namely great food, historical architecture and incredible beaches. In the capital city of Palermo you have the choice of three buzzing authentic food markets. The Ballaro market winds its way through alleyways and tiny piazzas and is as authentic as they come, with many locals and chefs shopping here daily. Ballaro is a true cacophony of noise, theatre and spectacle – whole swordfish gleaming on display, giant cauldrons of spluttering onions and sheep’s spleen (the local delicacy) and Halal butchers carving great carcasses with gusto and skill. If beautiful produce is more your thing then instead take a wander through Mercato il Capo. Less of a sensory overload, instead it’s a great spot to have breakfast and pick up an exemplary picnic for later in the day. Tiny trucks with trailers of stacked watermelons, there are stalls selling everything from shiny black eggplants, to tomatoes in every conceivable colour and size, and perfectly curated mounds of dried fruits, nuts and spices. Walking food tours can be booked for Mercato il Capo and they are a yummy way to delve a little further into the culture and history of Sicily. Did you know that Sicily’s most famous snack, the Arancini, those glorious fried stuff risotto balls, actually originated in the 10th century while the island was under Arab rule?
Having your own transport in Sicily is a major win, the roads are great and the island is filled with so many unexpected delights. San Vito Lo Capo was one of those golden discoveries. A picturesque little coastal town etched into the surrounding mountains and olive groves. There is just enough going on here to easily spend a few days. Swimming in the clear waters of its white-sand beach, taking in the history of the town’s 14th century fortress and chapel and eating fresh seafood at night. The town is located on the edge of the Zingaro Nature Reserve. There is a walking route that passes beneath the limestone cliffs, through thick greenery dotted with wildflowers and scented with wild lavender and thyme, and down to hidden swimming coves and up over scenic clifftops. Take a picnic and your camera, sunsets from here are epic.
Sicily’s rich culinary heritage means there is no shortage of incredible food to be found. Aside from all the wonderous Italian flavours that form the basis of their food, Sicilian cuisine is an amalgamation of all the tastiest treats of its past – olives from the Greeks; spices and couscous from the Arabs; grapes for winemaking from the Normans. Many of Sicily’s best eats come in the form of its street food, or rather, from its food that can be eaten in the street. Starting the day with an espresso is a must, and is best followed by something to eat from the market or taken away from one of the ancient bakeries that open early. Panelle, little chickpea fritters are a traditional street food snack eaten everywhere in Sicily, as are the addictive Pizette, warm hand-size pizzas stuffed with ricotta, cherry tomatoes and basil. A day in Sicily is not complete without Gelato, go for gold and try it served on a golden brioche bun like the local kids do.
Being surrounded by the Mediterranean means you can enjoy impossibly fresh seafood at every meal should you so desire. Spaghetti con vongole, grilled sardines, shiny black mussels, or seared steaks of crimson tuna, try it all. With a view of the ocean and a bottle of the local Sfincione, a better meal could not be had.
There are plenty of delightful places to stay in Sicily, from boutique hideaways and grand old hotels, to charming little Air BnB stays by the sea.
Palermo oozes faded grandeur, not least of all in its old hotels. Gorgeously romantic and tucked away up a flight of marble stairs is BB22 an elegant little B&B. Lean out your window at night and you may spot your neighbours dancing the tango in the old square below. Or for some old world decadence, the grandeur of the Centrale Palace Hotel cannot be beaten. It’s rooftop terrace overlooks the Teatro Massimo and the cathedral.
In San Vito Lo Capo stay with the locals. We booked a room at sweet little family-run Bed & Breakfast. Air BnB is also a great option here if your happy to eat out for meals. Being situated so close to the sea it is more than likely that wherever you book you’ll find yourself somewhere relaxing with a shaded deck that overlooks the water. There are few spots in the world that could rival Sicily for its condensed abundance of great food, fascinating history and beautiful beaches. If you want to find the best treasure from around the Mediterranean all on one island, you now know where to go.
Photography: Aaron Sami Words: Caroline Waldergrave