roadtrip-sicily

As you’ll learn from experience, it’s a challenge to get anywhere very fast in Sicily. And though their reputation might precede them, the reasons lie beyond the locals’ anarchic driving. It’s partly geography and partly history: as the largest island in the Mediterranean, it’s a feat to see even a fraction of the natural wonders or sites left behind by conquerors. It’s also a matter of degustation: there are the paninis to assemble, arancini to devour and digestive “caffès” to throw back at the bar. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a road trip, just that your itinerary should be more of a sketch than a fresco, full of national parks, seafood pilgrimages and the promise of a quieter path – ours oriented us westwards.

Palermo

Worthy of an entire trip, Palermo is perhaps not your average pit-stop, but as a starting point to any Sicilian foray, imparts two invaluable local lessons: driving and eating. The first is a christening by fire – cars don’t drive so much as swarm and car bumpers are drawn together by almost magnetic force – but if you prove capable, you will find the rest of the island largely lacking in surprises.

Then, there’s the food, a wholesome starter to Sicilian cuisine – skewered octopus after hours at the Vucciria market, arancini to everywhere and inventive Sicilian pizza at Tondo (try the pistachio, burrata and prosciutto or the more traditional anchovy, caramelised onion, ricotta and bread crumbs). For your sweet tooth, there is pistachio gelato in brioche from the eponymous Brioscià, and for late-night snacking pick up a pane con panelle (a fried chickpea fritter, croquette and eggplant squished into a white roll) from the institutional Franco u Vastiddaru.

Palermo’s allure lies in its grandiosely chequered path, a triumphant survivor of invasion, bombing and insidious crime, where most things beautiful are also a little grimy. Such spoils, such as the din of the Ballarò Market or the Moorish Norman Palace, are best stumbled upon, so leave the car parked and travel on foot.

The old town is easily oriented by the four main arteries that come to a crux at the baroque crossroads, the “Quattro Canti”. A suitably atmospheric base for your stay is Butera 28, the last residence of Sicily’s most-beloved author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Tucked into the charming La Kalsa, the old Arab quarter, it is part palazzo, part holiday apartments and thoughtfully outfitted with decorative tiles and dark wooden furniture.

The Madonie Mountains and Cefalù

One hour from Palermo along the the coastal E90, and as far eastward as this trip will take you, lie the Madonie Mountains that rise up over Cefalù, a seaside town that dates back to the fourth century BC.

Vallegrande, a former ranch turned retreat is reached by a winding, vertiginous road past olive groves, with hairpin turns that overlook the undulating landscape. Up among the eucalypts, humming cicadas replace the mechanic whirring of Palermo. The centre of the property is a salt-water infinity pool that seems to spill out into the ocean towards the Aeolian islands. Take a day off and watch the mist clear and return to mask the islands, witnessing the full spectrum of blues in between.

Down below is Cefalù, a beautiful but overly touristy town, crammed with giant placard menus. Save visits until sunset (or sunrise if you’re brave), when the dwindling light on the drive downwards paints the landscape in woozy impressionist’s tones. Park on Lungomare promenade, find an Aperol spritz and watch the sun disappear behind the shadowy peaks on the horizon.

Palma di Montechiaro and Porto Palo

From the Madonie Mountains, it’s a straight path south through the heartlands to reach Palma di Montechiaro. During summer, it’s a stretch so parched it seems to have sucked yellow from the sun, colouring the fields in mustard, sand and bone. Sparsely populated, the route snakes along raised roads through canyons, past long abandoned stone huts – or, more dramatically, plumes of fire on the hillside – before the sea opens out again in the distance.

Down a dirt track outside of Palma di Montechiaro, we reach our destination, the Azienda Agricola Mandranova, a family-run hotel set in a working farm. For the past 25 years, owners Sylvia and Giuseppe have dedicated themselves to making their award-winning, extra-virgin olive oil and harvesting almonds in between. Today, the plot’s historic buildings, the farmhouse, old railway and winery have been converted into accommodation. Though it could be used as your base to explore the west, it is much more tempting to stay and wander – amid the palms, bougainvillea and hibiscus and up through the olive grove lies a stone-laid pool that overlooks the property.

Stay for dinner which is served outside the farmhouse on a throng of tables. The owners’ son, Giuseppe Jr, creates an inventive, nightly four-course menu based on local ingredients – a contemporary take on aubergine parmigiano, mezze maniche with fennel salsiccia and fresh peas, mackerel seared in fig leaves, caper-studded potato puree and white-chocolate parfait with iced mulberries. Throughout the meal your bowl of olive oil is topped up, as is your wine glass.

Food also governs your next stop. From Mandranova begins the pilgrimage to Da Vittorio, a seafood restaurant in Porto Palo known to any disciple of chef Giorgio Locatelli. It’s a committed drive in the heat of the day, past the Valley of the Temples that ring around Agrigento and the gleaming white cliffs known as the Turkish Stairs. You’ll know you’re nearing your destination when the land changes from barren to fertile, signalling your entry to Alcamo, Sicily’s largest wine-making region. Vittorio, a northerner who settled in Sicily 40 years ago, is known to cook shirtless with a tea towel slung over his shoulder – which is exactly how we found him upon our arrival. The atmosphere is social; between courses – stuffed sardines, pasta with clams or shrimp and pistachio and giant grilled prawns that are simultaneously sweet, spiced and salty – groups continue to arrive, calling out for “Vittó” who emerges to be slapped on the back, sometimes with a live lobster still in hand.

Scopello and the Zingaro Reserve

The final destination, Scopello, is tucked up in the hilly northwest corner where the Gulf of Castellammare takes a bite out of the land. The tiny commune is known for its picturesque tuna fishery, the Tonnara di Scopello that dates back to the 13th century. Framed by prickly pears and towering rock stacks, the cluster of stone buildings is now a popular lido. No longer a place for fishing boats to slip into the sea, families populate it on deck chairs while basking in the sun.

To reset entirely, book a stay at one of the properly rustic self-catering fishermens’ cottages on site. There’s no TV, internet or air conditioning – all negligible things when you have the sea at your doorstep. Just up the road from Scopello is the entry point for the Zingaro Reserve, roughly seven kilometres of protected coast, where the beaches can only be reached (in lieu of travelling by water) by a committed hike along steep paths. You will be greeted – by now you’re probably panting and covered in a film of dust – by pebbly coves with crystal-clear waters. 

On the final night, before an appropriately bitter Campari spritz at Scopello’s Bar Nettuno, we stopped for sunset at Guidaloca beach. It was the kind of sunset that happens on a Sicilian summer’s day, a largely cloudless, languid descent after blazing down on the countryside. The sea was buoyant and darkening, while the remaining bodies on the beach, brined from the saltwater, were beginning to wriggle back into clothes. There was only one other swimmer: a man in his sixties, legs splayed out in front, arms doing angel-wing motions beside him. With the good manners of a Sicilian, he asked where we were from and we volleyed back the question. “Siciliano”, he declared with a gesticulative flourish that went something like this: a tap to the chest with both hands, a sideways glance at the panorama and a final upturning of the palms, as if cradling a prized possession.

 

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Rachel Roddy's Guide to Eating in Sicily

 

 

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