Sicilian Adventures : PART II

Our first stop upon leaving Trapani was at a thermal spa, basically a pond in the middle of nature. I was a little skeptical, but when I felt how warm the water was (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), I sank right in to the sulfur bath. Heaven in the middle of winter!

After a quick lunch (and cannoli) stop in the small seaside village of Trabia, we arrived to the scenic city of Cefalù. With the sun ready to set as we walked along the beach, greeted by a glowing row of homes, it was hard not to become enchanted with our new destination. We soon located our B&B within the narrow streets and began to explore.

The following morning we set our sights on the ancient village set high up above the city with views looking down on the Duomo, a majestic two-towered Norman cathedral.

After hundreds of steps, guided by sunshine peeking through a cloudy sky, we made it to the top. What a view!

We could have stayed longer, as there is always more to discover, but it was time to head south to Ragusa, with a stop for Roman history along the way. The Villa Romana del Casale, a vast villa built in the first quarter of the 4th century, contains the largest and most impressive collection of Roman mosaics in the world.

As we walked through the many rooms, learning about the symbolism of each mosaic, I couldn’t believe how intricate and detailed these scenes were, and how well preserved! We even caught sight of what could very well be considered the first bikinis.

A few hours later we arrived in Ragusa Ibla, the old part of Ragusa destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt in Baroque style. We soon settled into our home for the night, a charming centuries old B&B. The following day we had a date with one of Italy’s top chefs, 2 Michelin starred Ciccio Sultano, at his famed Restaurant Duomo. This was one meal we couldn’t be late for, even on Italian time.

After a meal to remember, we continued to explore this elegant city. I couldn’t get over how picture perfect the views were, both from high above Duomo San Giorgio, and down below. It was a short but sweet encounter.

Upon our exit, we were graced with the most stunning vista of Ragusa Ibla, certain that we’d return again, even if only to dine with Ciccio. Our next stop was where we’d settle in for New Year’s Eve, and a place we knew from our last trip to Sicily, Siracusa.

There was something about the island of Ortigia that left an impression on us. Perhaps it was the food, or the warmth of the people, or in my case the cassata… Whatever it was, we were happy to be back, and to begin a new year in this, one of our favorite Sicilian settings. This time we discovered impressive new wine and food bar Cortile Verga set in a gorgeous courtyard, and SunSet cafe, for exactly that.

Following a night of great feasting and mild revelry, we got in the car for a final drive to Punta Secca, home of Montalbano. It was here that my Italian began the year with a swim in the sea following an incredible meal of freshly caught fish and homemade pasta. After one last sunset we were ready to return to Paris.

Sicilian Adventures : PART I

This year we headed south for the holidays, destination Sicily. I fell in love with this vibrant island on our first jaunt two years ago, and decided where better to spend a few days over Christmas with the Italian family, and ring in the new year. For part one of the trip, we made our home the city of Trapani at Sicily’s western tip. It wasn’t the old city’s charm that enticed us (I’ve seen better), but its proximity to so many sights and ancient ruins, not to mention the Egadi Islands. What we quickly discovered is that Trapani is a food haven, with Trapanese specialities including Fish Couscous, influenced by neighboring Tunisia, and Pesto alla Trapanese made with tomatoes and almonds. The many fresh fish dishes were exceptional and every day became a dining adventure, with local wines of course (my favorite being a red blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola grapes). Here’s a list of our top restaurants, all in the old town.

Antichi Sapori for the best traditional dishes (the seafood antipasti alone is worth the visit)

Serisso 47 for fine dining in an elegant setting (rumor has it the chef might be awarded a Michelin star soon)

Sood for live music and small plates of Sicilian specialties with a bio twist (great local vibe)

After settling into our apartments and enjoying the rooftop views, we took to the road. Our first stop was Scopello, a tiny village near Castellammare del Golfo, and what was once a tuna fishing port. The coastline was breathtaking! We also discovered that this is where scenes from our favorite Sicilian detective series Inspector Montalbano were filmed.

From here we drove to Segesta, one of the most notable Siceliot (Sicilian-Greek) ancient cities. We walked the path leading up to the Greek temple, a sight to behold, lit by the late afternoon sun.

Continuing up to the hilltop site where the ancient city was inhabited into the Middle Ages, we discovered the remains of a Norman castle, a small church and a mosque, and a classical amphitheater with admirable views.

The next day we decided to explore another highly esteemed archaeological site, Selinunte. Walking through this abandoned town founded by Greeks in the  7th Century BC, with its main street, homes and temples,  you can imagine the life that once took place here.

The day after Christmas we headed for the largest of the Egadi Islands, Favignana, less than an hour by boat. It being winter and the holidays, the island was quiet and most of the restaurants and shops were closed. We did however find a bakery with some of the most delicious cassata and cannoli to date. (Read more about Sicily’s sweets here.) The most stunning landscape on the island was the little gulf called Cala Rossa.

My Italian and I climbed down the rocks to the turquoise water, completely in awe of this cliffside paradise.

On the last day before the two of us continued our adventures solo, we drove up to the medieval hilltop town of Erice. It was the people of this town that also built the town and  temple of Segesta. I first noticed the Venus Castle, and soon learned that the temple of Venus outlasted the many civilizations who took residence in Erice.

The town itself is eerily charming with its tones of grays and cobbled paths leading to restaurants, artisanal shops and pasticcerias offering sweets made of almond paste. Here too we found a sweet gem!

Our final stop before saying farewell to Trapani was a Marsala cellar tour and wine tasting at the famous Cantine Florio. The perfect ending to part one of our adventures in Sicily. Next stop, Cefalù…

sweets of Sicily

Aside from the rich history and varied architecture, it was Sicily’s sweets that remain most in my memory. Being a sweet tooth, we made it a point to find and taste the best of the region. In Noto, we discovered what’s considered one of the best gelateria’s in Sicily, Caffé Sicilia. Here we stopped for lunch, and decided to make it a sweet one, starting with ice-cream, which was indeed delicious!

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From there we moved on to the second course, and what became my favorite dessert in Sicily, the cassata, a cake covered with almond paste and candied fruit, and filled with ricotta cheese. Incredible! We accompanied this decadent cake with coffee and a glass of almond milk, Sicily being the land of almonds. For the third course (yes, there’s more), we tried the almond granita, an icy concoction of almond milk. WOW!

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After the sugar high faded and we returned to a healthy meal of pasta and fish, we ventured to Modica’s famous confectionery, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, the oldest (and considered the best) chocolate factory in Sicily. Their chocolate, a legacy of their Spanish history, contains only cocoa beans and sugar. I tried many of their varied flavors, including the most famous, vanilla and cinnamon. But what really blew us away were the cannoli’s. They filled them on the spot, hazelnut and pistachio, the latter being the best Sicilian cannoli I’ve ever tasted!

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A well-known tradition in Sicily is an almond paste known as pasta reale, made with ground almonds, sugar, corn syrup, and lemon juice. These fruit shaped sweets almost look too beautiful to eat. This too is one of my favorite sweets, having grown up eating marzipan.

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Considering how much I love these sweets of Sicily, I can’t wait to return. Until then, detox.

scenes from Sicily

Last weekend my Italian and I ventured to Italy’s most southern region, Sicily. This was my first trip and his second. I had no idea what to expect in this island rich in culture and cuisine. After taking a swim in the still warm waters of the Mediterranean, we headed to our first destination, the island of Ortygia in Syracuse. This charming city reveals baroque facades with Greek,  Roman and Arab influences in it’s centuries old architecture. With Sicilian hospitality, we immediately felt at home.

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One morning we spent at the archeological park where a massive Greek theater from 5th-century BC awaits it’s visitors. During the summer season it’s brought to life with classical concerts.

IMG_9897Being adventure seekers, we decided to drive to Noto. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, it was rebuilt to become the grandest baroque town in Sicily. Noto was recently added to Unesco’s list of world heritage sites, certainly worth a visit! And did I  mention that Noto is known for it’s gelato? More on that later…

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IMG_9790The next stop on our Sicilian adventures was Modica. This multi-layered medieval town is uniquely atmospheric with it’s high and low levels, allowing for an incredible view. Here too, you find the most delicious chocolate and confections. How could I resist?

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Our last stop was Taormina, the chic, sophisticated town that seduced many an artist and writer in it’s day. Here was the capitol of  Byzantine Sicily in the 9th century, and today it remains an international hotspot boasting views of a still active Mount Etna.

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Four days spent beneath the Sicilian sun, learning about ancient history, discovering hidden beaches… dining on fresh pasta, fish and local sweets (the latter of which I’m devoting the next blog post to). A perfect holiday.