Sicily, Italy’s largest island, is famed in the world for its beautiful scenery, delicious cuisine and fascinating history. Some of the world’s greatest civilizations settled and prospered in Sicily over the centuries, shaping the culture of the island and creating a unique environment that cannot be compared with anywhere else in Italy.
Sicily is the largest island of the Mediterranean sea and bears a long history of invasions and domination: the Carthaginians landed in Sicily in the 8th century BC, but later were defeated by the Greeks who founded their most important Greek colonies in this island (Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento); the Romans ousted the Greeks and turned Marsala into an important strategic outpost of the Roman Empire; then the Arabs invaded Sicily in the early 9th century AD, developed Marsala and Mazara del Vallo into bustling commercial ports and left a mark on the local language and culture. Despite short periods of independence, Sicily was often ruled by foreign kings: the Normans, the Spanish Aragons and Bourbons. Sicily finally became part of Italy with the unification of the country in 1861.
My grandfather was Sicilian and my dad grew up in Palermo, so Sicily is part of who I am. And I cannot separate Sicily’s beauty with its difficult history, the poverty of the post-war period, the emigration, the mafia crimes that will forever give a bad name to this land. The deterioration of the old towns, the corruption of public offices, the slow economy and the lack of future opportunities for the young generations…these are aspects of Sicily’s present that I cannot deny.
And yet, Sicilians are some of the most amazing, kind, friendly and welcoming people I have ever met. And I am proud to be Sicilian! But despite having Sicilian family roots, I don’t have any relatives living in Sicily, so I have only been there three or four times in my life. A visit was long overdue, as my husband and I finally made the trip down to Palermo last June.
Tourists usually land in Palermo and then continue their journeys further south or east, towards Sicily’s renowned cities of Taormina, Catania and Siracusa. We chose to explore the western corner of the island, with its mountainous hinterland, ancient Greek settlements, dusty villages with a Saharan feel and stunning coast line.
Our holiday started in Palermo where we spent two days visiting the city’s old neighbourhoods, food markets and stunning churches before driving out to explore the west of Sicily.
Shortly after leaving Palermo, we stopped at the hill town of Monreale to visit its famous cathedral and try the local S-shaped anise biscuits. The Normal cathedral is stunning and we spent about an hour studying the geometrically patterned marble floor and the mosaics on the walls. Sadly we failed to visit the cloisters, which are considered to be an architectural masterpiece.
After Monreale we drove across mountains to reach Segesta, an archeological site about seventy kilometers southwest of Palermo. The Doric temple from the 5th century BC is one of the best preserved in the world, perched on the edge of a ravine surrounded by unspoilt green countryside.
In the afternoon – after a couple of hours’ drive – we arrived in Selinunte, an archaeological site that bears the ruins of an acropolis and numerous temples. Selinunte was one of the most progressive Greek colonies in Sicily, but the city was destroyed in 409 BC. Much of what is standing today was reconstructed from pieces found in the area by archeologists.
The highlight of Selinunte is its location on high ground overlooking the Mediterranean sea. The site is vast, so I recommend paying extra for the use of carts that escort tourists around the site, from the entrance to the ruins (which are located in 3 different areas). Trust me, walking for an hour from one ruin to the other under the hot Sicilian sun is not going to be the best use of your time.
Selinunte is in the south of Sicily, so from there we drove along the coast line, through the large fishing port of Mazara del Vallo and finally into Marsala, Sicily’s most westerly city.
We are getting closer to Africa: Tunisia is less than 100 miles away, closer to Sicily than Rome is. Mazara del Vallo’s old Arab city centre is known as casbah. Many immigrants live here, coming from nearby Tunisia and the other countries of the Maghreb. The scenery reminded of the Moroccan town of Essaouria. North African influences can even be found in the local cuisine, and traditional dish here is couscous alla trapanese, a fish-and-seafood couscous.
As we drive inland, the landscape is dominated by vast expanses of vineyards and olive groves. Some of Sicily’s best wines and olive oils are produced in this part of the island, the most famous being Marsala wine. Many wine producers in and around Marsala organise paid tours of their cellars, including wine and food tastings.
The Stagnone lagoon, famous for thousands of years for its salt, is only 20 minutes’ drive north of Marsala. During the day you can take a local fishermen’s ferryboat to the Carthaginian island of Mozia and sail past the vast salt-pans dotted with picturesque windmills. Until not long ago, these windmills were used to grind the sea salt; now they remain for their historical value and beauty.
At saline Ettore e Infersa, the Mamma Caura restaurant terrace offers a unique and magical spot to watch the sunset. We arrived just in time to experience it: a cocktail in our hand and the nature’s best show in front of our eyes.
Norman cathedrals, Greek temple, Arab towns and salt farms all in one day. That’s how rich western Sicily is!
After spending the night at B&B Laguna dei Fenici near the saline and a rich morning breakfast, we drove north to Trapani where we boarded the ferry to the Egadi islands. It’s time to see some of Sicily’s most beautiful beaches!
After our initial doubts, we decided to add Favignana island to the itinerary. I have always wanted to see it, but was it worth going there for just a day and a half? Yes, in hindsight I am glad we made it there to get a glimpse of the islanders’ life. We left our car in the port of Trapani and hopped on the hydrofoil to Favignana, which only takes thirty minutes. You can even go just for the day.
Favignana is the biggest and most famous island of the Egadi archipelago; the others are Levanzo and Marettimo.
The best way to get around Favignana is on a bicycle; you can rent bicycles anywhere around the port and in the town. Electric bikes are also very popular, if you feel too lazy to pedal.
Strong winds meant all boat tours were cancelled during our stay, so we had to give up on a trip to Marettimo which I was really looking forward to. The northern coast beaches were also off-limits. We cycled to to the beautiful Cala Rossa, along a sandy path past tuff caves, but we couldn’t get down to the water.
We went to Lido Burrone instead, the only beach where you can hire umbrellas and sunbeds. I enjoyed lunch with Busiate al Pesto at the restaurant, but aside from that I didn’t find the beach memorable (compared to the more secluded pebble beaches you find on Favignana).
Historically Favignana is known for tuna fishing, which until not long ago was practiced with a traditional technique called mattanza. The local tuna farm has been restored and re-opened as a museum – Ex Stabilimento Florio – which is incredibly interesting and worth a visit (they offer free guided tours in Italian).
I would have happily spent a couple more days in Favignana, cycling from one cove to the next, walking through the town and eating amazing cannoli and granita from La Pasticceria FC in Via Garibaldi.
But it was time to go back to the main island and continue our journey to the north-west corner of Sicily. In my next post I will tell you about our visit to Erice, San Vito Lo Capo, the Zingaro Nature Reserve and Scopello!
Read more about my holiday here: Discovering Western Sicily Part 2.