FX Excursions

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Extend Your Italian Experience With Added Time In Sicily

Dec 3, 2015

Sicily is Italy on steroids. Compared to the rest of the country, everything on this beautiful Mediterranean island is magnified. The color of the sea is brighter, food is spicier, sunsets are more ethereal, ruins are older and the landscape is more stunning than in Tuscany. And, of course, rush-hour traffic in Palermo can be worse than in Naples.

Recognizing the Italian word for beach, spiaggia, leads you to some of Sicily’s best seascapes. The island boasts hundreds of beaches and private coves, including Spiaggia Sampieri, a two-mile-long beach near the fishing village of Scicli with crowded beach bars for eating, drinking and people-watching, as well as empty stretches of white sand. Spiaggia Marinello, near the coastal village of Oliveri, is known for its fine sand and warm water, with a breathtaking view across the sea to the Aeolian Islands. Swimming weather in Sicily stretches from May to September, and winter months prove relatively mild along the coast.

First-time visitors to Sicily, however, too restless and inquisitive for total beach sedation, will find plenty to see and do, from the ancient Doric temples of Agrigento to the Palazzo Riso, Palermo’s Contemporary Art Museum, displaying the works of the most important contemporary Sicilian artists. There are fascinating hill towns near Ragusa and Modica; quiet agricultural districts in the middle of the island where farmers grow the best lemons, almonds, figs, eggplants and olives in all of Europe; and spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea and Mount Etna from touristy Taormina. With terrain that is 86 percent hills and mountains, a straight road is impossible to find, thus any driving journey on the island ends up taking two or three times longer than planned.

Monreale Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site

Monreale Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site © Patricia
Thomson La Dolce Vita Wine Tours

Older than the rest of Italy, Sicily harbors a strong feeling of independence. Once dominated by the Greeks, Romans and Muslims from North Africa, the island was conquered by the Normans in 1091, and much later by Spain and Bourbons from France. But Sicily maintained its own customs, dialects and style throughout its history. The island even resented being governed by mainland Italy; it finally became an autonomous region in 1946 under the new Italian constitution, with its own parliament and elected president.

Visitors can explore the archaeological treasures left behind during Sicily’s tumultuous past in more than 65 parks, 70 museums and numerous structures throughout the island: castles, villas, churches, convents and ancient monasteries, including several UNESCO World Heritage sites. Many of Sicily’s oldest cities and preserved excavations lie along the island’s 620 miles of coastline, where two-lane roads — and sometimes the faster autostrada — encircle the island. Sicily’s autostrada is mostly toll-free, with tolls collected near the more urban portions of the highway. Parts of the island’s autostrada system look quite modern, with design-savvy tunnels and imaginative landscaping, while other sections can become heavily congested with maintenance closures and rush-hour traffic.

La Vucciria food market in Palermo

La Vucciria food market in Palermo © Patricia Thomson/La Dolce Vita Wine Tours

For agritourists heading into central Sicily, the A19 autostrada connecting Catania and Palermo offers a good start when driving into the interior, with smaller roads used to reach the farms, vineyards and citrus groves of the island’s agricultural districts. Food tourism has become a big business in Sicily, mostly because of the artisanal and traditional way of agricultural production throughout the island. The Mediterranean diet, with its fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, grains and wine, is part of the Sicilian lifestyle. In recent years it helped draw more upscale tourists to the island’s food markets, wineries and seaside restaurants, an important source of income for Sicily’s still-struggling economy.

Choose among many agriturismo itineraries, from one-day vineyard visits to week-long tours that include organic farms, wineries, centuries-old olive and citrus groves and small family-run businesses involved in producing traditional Sicilian food like bread, honey, olive oil, marmalade and cheese. Visitors can arrange stays at historic country family estates converted into hotel accommodations offering modern amenities, delicious home-cooked meals and an opportunity to participate in grape harvesting or olive pressing.

One of Sicily’s most exciting wine regions occupies the slopes of the 11,000-foot, volcanic Mount Etna, located in Etna National Park, established in 1987 and only an hour’s drive from the bustling city of Catania. Other towns in the eastern wine region include Vittoria, Noto (one of the UNESCO sites south of Siracusa) and Faro in extreme northeast Sicily near Messina. The vineyards around Mount Etna — with its continually smoking and often snow-capped peak, cooler temperatures, extra rainfall and intense sunlight — produce excellent reds. “On Etna, soil composition depends on the specific lava formations from individual eruptions,” said Andrea Franchetti, one of Etna’s new wine pioneers and owner of Passopisciaro Winery, in a recent interview with Wine Enthusiast magazine. “Because Etna has multiple active craters, every lava flow has a different makeup.”

Vineyard on gentle slope in Etna region

Vineyard on gentle slope in Etna region © Vvoevale | Dreamstime.com

Another excellent wine region lies in the sun-baked hills about 30 miles southeast of Palermo. Here the Tenuta Regaleali estate “offers a step back in time when farms completely sustained themselves and the local villages on what grows on the property,” said Geralyn Brostrom, Certified Wine Educator and co-founder and education director, Italian Wine Central. “This estate is a true farm-to-table operation, elegant and rustic. It is owned by an Italian royal, Count Lucio Tasca, and offers accommodations, wine tasting and tours; and its cooking school, started by Anna Tasca Lanza over 25 years ago and now run by her daughter, Fabrizia, is well-known throughout Sicily.” The Regaleali estate also includes Villa Tasca, a luxurious, 18th-century Palermo villa available for rent.

Brostrom, a Napa-based wine professional who holds Italian and American citizenship, said another family business, Planeta Estates, has helped bring upscale wine tourism to Sicily over the past 20 years. “Although they have worked the land since the 1500s, their six commercial winery operations were begun in 1995,” said Brostrom. “They have a 14-room boutique hotel, La Foresteria, in Menfi near Sciacca, and an eight-room guest house, called Dorilli, on their estate in Vittoria, near Ragusa. They also have two nice country houses surrounded by vineyards in the Buonivini estate in Noto, where tours, wine tastings and lunches are available all days except on Sundays and public holidays.”

On the western side of the island, in the area of Agrigento, find Foresteria Baglio della Luna, a 13th-century farmhouse beautifully transformed into a 23-room hotel overlooking the Valley of the Temples and close to beaches and the city of Agrigento. Another interesting hotel sits near the ancient town of Sciacca, founded in the fifth century B.C. by the Greeks. Situated among orange and lemon groves, Villa Palocla lies just 1.5 miles from San Marco Beach and five minutes from the café-filled square in Sciacca’s historic quarter.

Sicily Info to Go

Sicily lies close enough to Rome (one hour by air), Zürich (two hours), Paris (two hours, 20 minutes) and London (two hours, 50 minutes) for business travelers to plan a weekend or one-week visit. Most major European airlines fly directly to the two biggest airports, Palermo (PMO) and Catania (CTA), and low-cost carriers Ryanair, easyJet and others also serve the island. Taxis from Palermo Airport (about $50–80; 30–50 minutes) or Catania Airport (about $30–40; 20–40 minutes) into the respective downtowns are expensive; local buses cost considerably less but are slow and crowded. The train to/from Palermo Airport (about $7; 40 minutes) provides a good option. Both airports include car rental facilities, your best bet for self-touring; add a Sicily map to your personal GPS device and bring it with you.

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