I don’t like going where everyone else goes. Perhaps that explains why I am drawn to Sicily. Having been lucky enough to have explored the island several times before, I decided to try a different piece of the amazing island. A friend of mine coined the term “Beach and Bible” when she visited the Mediterranean years ago, and it sounded like a great idea. But this is Sicily, the island that invented the concept of multiculturalism.
Sure there would be magnificent churches, but Sicily has been occupied by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish over the centuries, and each culture has left a little bit of itself on the island.
What other surprises were to be found? The beach I wanted to try was in south-west Sicily, near the village of Porto Palo. Sand extends for miles along the coast, and the beaches are designated Blue Flag, meaning they are super clean. Most of the time, except late July and August, they are blissfully empty.
Lido Fiori is a long beach with plant covered dunes, beach clubs and homes hidden under the trees. La Foresteria Planeta, an elegant hotel owned by the wine making Planeta family has an outpost that sits on a glorious piece of the beach. Climb over the dunes to find loungers and umbrellas arranged in the sand.
The beach club offers an intimate lunch in a pine grove. The dishes prepared by the hotel’s chef are light and delicious. The wines, olive oils, and many of the vegetables and herbs are grown on the property. Everything is elegantly rustic.
After lunch, it’s back to the beach or better yet, hanging out in a shaded hammock under the trees.
The hotel itself is on a hill overlooking acres of vineyards in Sicilian wine country, and the sea. The Planeta family has been on the island for centuries, and have vineyards all over Sicily. The Estate was conceived as a small, luxurious hotel, with an accent on food and wine. Chef Angelo Pumilia offers a modern take on Sicilian cuisine. Everything is locally sourced, of course. The gardens (above) are the source of many ingredients.
The outdoor dining room has a wisteria ceiling, and overlooks the gardens. You can do a tasting menu or order a la carte. Tired of the beach? The Estate also offers cooking classes in the state-of-the-art kitchen, and wine tours to nearby Planeta vineyards.
Planeta Estate, La Foresteria Menfi
Selinute is about a 20-minute drive from Porto Palo. The Greeks settled here as far back as 650 BC. A large city grew up on the cliffs and valleys. The extensive site has both temples, like the one above, and the remains of the city and acropolis. There are still digs going on, one of which is sponsored by NYU. The buildings were highly decorated, and many of the fragments are displayed in Palermo in context.
This ruin was part of the acropolis. The city was captured and sacked by the Carthaginians around 409 BC and its citizens sold into slavery. The city was never fully rebuilt, and what the Carthaginians didn’t destroy was badly damaged in earthquakes over the years. The archaeologists say that Mussolini badly restored this group of columns overlooking the sea.
The site itself is magnificent, with clean clear beaches stretch on both sides of the cliff. There are Riservas, or protected parks, on either side. The small villages have beach clubs and restaurants where you can dine with a view.
Da Vittorio sit at the far end of the Porto Palo beach. A restaurant dedicated to fish and all good things from the sea, you can come and have chairs and umbrellas on the beach for lunch, or come for dinner.
The seafood is the freshest that can be found. The gamberetti literally melt in your mouth. Like ricci (urchin)? Vittorio offers the best pasta with ricci on the island. Local caught grilled fish and shellfish, salads and pastas from the master’s hand.
Da Vittorio, Porto Palo
There is a wide beach in the town of Porto Palo. The water is shallow and warm. Beach clubs and restaurants are situated along the beach. Always delicious at the end of the day to just run into the water.
Another short drive takes you to Agrigento. This very large site is called the Valley of the Temples, but it actually sits on a plateau. Built by the Greeks, the main buildings were finished in 500-430 BC. The Temple of Concordia is one of the few Greek buildings to survive intact. This is most likely because it is built on solid bedrock, and is able to withstand earthquakes, and because it was converted to a church. The simple Doric columns speak volumes.
Only part of the temple was accessible as a grand stage was being built for the Dolce Gabbana Alta Moda fashion show the next week. It was sort of annoying not being able to see all of the temple in detail, but hopefully the designers made a major cash contribution to preserve and explore the site.
The other buildings in Agrigento did not fare so well. The temple of Zeus is the largest known Doric temple. It survived the ravages of the Carthaginians, but this too, as with much of Agrigento, was destroyed by earthquakes. The columns of the many temples are tossed about like matchsticks.
Down the hill from the site, there is a museum that holds incredible pieces found on the site. The figure at the left is the 5th C BC Ephebe of Agrigento. There is an extraordinary collection of kraters, including the 5th C BC red figure example by the Niobid Painter of Archilles battling the Amazons during the Trojan War.
It’s easy to be drawn back to the beaches as the water changes every day with the winds.
And even better is a perfect lunch on a beautiful beach. Hard to resist scampi and pasta washed down with some great local wine. Too bad the production of most Sicilian wines is so small, as they rarely make it to New York.
Salisa has a bar and a restaurant on Lido Fiori. Over the dunes, they have loungers and umbrellas set up on the beach. It’s one of the few beach clubs to have a life guard, in this case a very pretty girl.
The beaches down here are all family-oriented. Houses line the beach, and dogs are welcome. Here is one guy just hanging out at the end of the day.
Friends had highly recommended the Villa Romana del Casale, in Piazza Armerina, about a 3-hour drive from the beach. The scenery along the coast and in the interior was spectacular. There was a slight hiccup when the superhighway going across Sicily abruptly ended near the own of Caltanisetta; closed for construction, no detour signs, and no warning. Welcome to Italy.
But being Italy, there are always restaurants. One of the best in Caltanisetta is Lumie di Sicilie. The female chef, not common in Sicily, served her take on farm to table.
Figuring out how to get to Piazza Armerina was the next challenge. Neither the Garmin or Google Maps knew that the highway was closed, although it looked like construction had been going on for some time. After many rural detours up and down hills, and past fields and villages, the devices found the Villa Romana. The dwelling belonged to a very wealthy individual, and at about 37,000 sqaure feet, it is right up there is size with the mega-mansions of L.A. Built in the 2nd to 4th C, the imposing space was covered in sumptuous marbles. The Basilica above is where the guests would have been received, and where the throne was located.
Lumie di Sicilie, via Lazio, 3 Caltanissetta
The draw of the Villa is the thousands of square feet of mosaics that cover the floors. The great hall that runs in front of the Basilica is about 214 feet long and has scenes of the hunt and capture of animals from Africa and India as well as Rome. Room after room unfolds, all covered with mosaic tales of mortals and deities.
The Room of the Ten Girls is world famous. Sometimes called the Bikini Room, it depicts female athletes competing in gymnastic games, and winning prizes. How very today.
Part of the villa is a huge Bath complex, instead of the L.A. swimming pool. The floors are covered with scenes of marine myths and many other topics. What is incredible is that this all survived.
Piazza Armerina is a beautiful hill town with an 18C Duomo. Walking around the village and having an aperitif before dinner sounded like a good idea. Google Maps had another idea however. The app guided the car into the center of the village and onto a street that narrowed at the top and was too small to navigate. Backing down a curvy hillside street lined with stone houses, and no sidewalks isn’t easy. Luckily a resident was kind enough to step in and help. It was on to dinner minus the sunset and aperitif. Al Fogher sits in a garden and serves a contemporary take on Sicilian cuisine. The huge wine cellar is a plus. The restaurant lives up to its reputation. The chef, Angel Treno, serves a diverse and delicious take on locally sourced food.
Al Fogher, Contrada Bellia, near SS117bis, Aidone exit, Piazza Armerina
Palermo is a city of many cultures and styles. There are churches and palaces dating back to the 9th to 12th C. but there are centuries of palazzos from the 15th to the 19th C. in the different neighborhoods. Some of them have been turned into apartment hotels. The Palazzo Butera, above, an 18th C. residence, was restored by the art collecting Valsecchi family, and opened as a private gallery. This neighborhood, the Kalsa, or the Old Historical Center is a must visit.
Before getting down to serious exploring, it was time to do some shopping. All the luxury brands you could want are located on the Via Della Liberta, in the new city center. Prada, Vuitton, Gucci and all the other usual suspects are here.
Start at the Garibaldi Theater and head west. Stand alone stores, and multi-brand boutiques abound.
TwinSet to Pinko and even Diesel, many Italian brands have boutiques in the area as well. Built in the 19th C., this neighborhood has many Art Nouveau or Liberty style buildings well worth searching out.
The home decor stores are inventive and full of great pieces. The weather in Palermo allows this one to use its outdoor space as an extension of the store. And makes for a great space to hang out.
La Rinascente, an Italian department store, has a shiny glass store on the Via Roma, midway between the Old Historic Center and the new city center. Obica, the food group, has a bar and restaurant on the top of the building. With beautiful views, it’s a great place to break up your shopping day.
The clothing selection at Rinascente is not my taste, but their home department certainly is. Floating flamingo ash trays, scull, banana and insect porcelain table lamps, and other fun things made me wish I had another suitcase.
They carry a big selection of ceramics and glasses. These are from Ceramiche de Simone, a Sicilian brand that was started in the ’60s by a local noble family, and plays with artistic codes. Make that 2 suitcases.
There are shops in the Old Historic center. Many feature locally made accessories and clothing.
A mix of modern and traditional carpets, cushions and ceramics are in the Shahidi boutique on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Everything is designed and made in Iran. The newer designs are striking, but I wonder if US Customs would let them into the States?
The Cathedral and Cloister of Monreale is located on a hillside overlooking Palermo. Begun in the 12th C., it is a grand mix of architectural styles, Byzantine, Norman, Arabic and others. The interior is similar to the Cappella Palantina, but much larger. Covered in gold mosaics, and impressively inlaid floors it dazzles. The adjoining cloister is a masterpiece of Arab-Norman style. Almost every column and capital has a different design and carving, with many of the columns covering in gold mosaics.
There was a flower festival in Monreale, and the city blocked off several streets and piazzas, where artists laid out designs, and locals filled them in with handfuls of colorful flower petals. This is real street art!
The Cappella Palatina in the Norman Palace is a jewel. Again the design is a mix of different cultures, that work together. Built as a private chapel it is still used for mass and weddings. Like almost every other building, it has been restored. I love the inscription under the window announcing the 16th C. restoration to the 12th C. chapel. The Norman Palace is now the seat of the Regional Assembly. The main Cathedral is close by, but rather a disappointment. Built in the 12th C. it was gutted and contains many styles that do not blend. The other problem is that when cruise ships are in port it is filled with hoards of clueless tourists. There are so many other wonderful things to see. Sightseeing is best done on foot.
Wandering about the different areas of the Old Historic District is a delight. You never know what you will come across, and what century it is from. Most likely a mix. Chimica 40 is a cool place for a lunch or drinks. Bar, performance spot, record store and light meals located in the heart of the Historical District.
Chimica 40, Piazza Cattolica, 1
This ultra modern restaurant near the Palazzo Butera does a creative riff on Sicilian classics. The inventive dishes are not strained, and the waiters are young and friendly.
L’ Ottava Nota, via Butera, 55
Oratorios are sprinkled around Palermo. They are semi-private chapels, sometimes attached to churches. S. Cita is a a baroque stucco wonder. The centerpiece celebrates the Battle of Lepanto, when the ships of Spain and Venice joined forces to defeat the Turks in the 16th C. The other boxes illustrate scenes from the New Testament. The chapel amazes.
This chapel has a Van Dyke altarpiece, but it is the stucco work that stands out. The female figures are actually ladies from Palermo society representing various virtues. Here is Veritas — Truth — surrounded by Putti misbehaving and blowing bubbles.
Another beautiful oratorio, and this one with a mystery. The Caravaggio hanging over the alter is a digital replica of the one famously stolen in the late ’60s. There has been endless speculation as to whether the Mafia stole the painting and then destroyed it, or whether it was stolen to order by a mysterious collector. In any case, the chapel is another marvel.
S. Giorgio is a Renaissance church that sits near the harbor. Its next door neighbor is the site of the excavations of the Arab seafront, and the old forts.
The Museo Arrcheologico Regionale Salinas houses pieces from all over Sicily. The painted fragments from the Selinute temples are here. They retain their original colors.
Really. It is. We have a perception of the Romans using communal baths, but someone did use this carved stone bathtub to soak in. Too big for a suitcase, but would love to have this back in New York.
La Cala is an old Phoenician harbor that has morphed into the mooring place for some of the many boats of Palermo.
A’Cala is a minimalist seafood restaurant in La Kalsa on the harbor’s edge. It rocks til late at night.
A’Cala, Via Cala
Palermo is famous for its lively market scene. The Vucciria is near the harbor, and is smaller than it used to be. It’s still worth poking around the stalls selling used bits and pieces.
The Ballaro is a colorful market filled with street food stands. Fried foods, panini and exotic juices are for eating on the spot.
Spices, oils, fruits and vegetables, along with suitcases and piles of shoes are all on display.
This piazza is close to the Quattro Canti, in the heart of the historical district. The piazza was developed in the 17th and 18th C. These two 12th C. churches survived, although in altered states.
La Martorana was founded in Norman times as a Greek Orthodox church, and still observes those rites. Glorious Byzantine mosaics decorate most of the building, but an over the top Baroque renovation makes for an interesting artistic juxtaposition.
The church across the courtyard stands in stark contrast. It too was built in the 12th C., but because its founder was murdered, the interior was never finished. The stark purity of the building with the arches and domes is a stark contrast to many of the other churches in Palermo. The building survived as well but was converted into a post office in the 18th C. until the end of the 19th C.
ARTISANAL BARS TAKE OVER THE SMALL STREETS.
Stop by the Botteghe Colletti for one of their special campari cocktails and step back into the 19th C. You are part of the street scene here.
Botteghe Colletti, via Alessandro Paternosto
Close by is another Palermo tradition. The Antica Focacceria S. Francisco has been here since 1834. The restaurant and snack bar serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and a big assortment of schiticchi, fried street food, focaccia, and pastries. Lunch and dinner are served in the piazza facing the S. Francisco church. A fitting place for a last supper in Palermo.
Antica Focacceria S. Francisco, via Alessandro Paternosto, 58
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn