Everyday in Sicily is Christmas day. Work is abhorrent. Certainly over Christmas and New Year, as UNESCO World Heritage sites that tessellate this remarkable island vibrant with orange and olive groves languish and the spectacularly good Sicilian wine matures. Yet Sicilians, evoking their famous cannoli, although often limp like the ricotta filling, can be as crisp as the dessert’s enveloping pastry.
So on Christmas Eve I descend upon Taormina, that hill-perched fairytale town. A Mercedes conveys me to the legendary San Domenico Palace. It’s nearing midnight. Yet Caterina at Front Office, “flouting” the notorious Sicilian indolence, has tarried to greet and escort me through the converted Dominican monastery’s endless corridors to my ample rooms, conducting even at this dismal hour a thorough room orientation, a neglected courtesy nowadays, before revealing the panettone the GM has gifted me together with various Christmas confections and fruit galore.
If for Taormina’s Duomo I’d forsaken the exalted Midnight Mass at Malta’s fabled St John’s Co-Cathedral, I’m dismayed. The Duomo is slight, stark; the service is prosaic: no Latin chants, flaming candles, swiveling incense. Instead, Taormina’s grand dames parade in hefty furs (it’s warm) whilst lasses slink in in exiguous skirts (it’s not that warm). And if I fancied that the bonfires outside were mafia mayhem, Christmas Eve bonfires are but tradition. There’s no mafia. Disappointing.
Dawn, when the mists curl over unveiling the snow-cloaked Mount Etna that seems stationed monumentally outside my terrace, its diamond peak shimmering, all misgivings dissolve. Below me emerald green hills precipitate down to sapphire blue waters. Ah! I’m transfixed, but also late for breakfast.
Breakfast is a veritable cornucopia including enormous Sicilian almonds the size of islands, although the real feast is for the eyes, which are offered stunning views of verdure and the Ionian Sea. Despite my tardy breakfast manifestation staff doesn’t fling the coffee in my face. Instead, they serve me the only good coffee I’ll have in Sicily. Curiously, coffee in Sicily oppugns the famed excellence of Italian coffee or perhaps I’ve just been spoilt in Chennai by local coffee and all things culinary. When coffee yoghurt is exhausted, steward Armand says charmingly, “We try make coffee yoghurt (pouring espresso onto plain yoghurt). If good, you eat. If no good, you leave it.” Admittedly, the service is more delicious than the impromptu coffee yoghurt.
After an elongated breakfast, it’s off to the Greek Theatre, open on Christmas Day, shockingly. We’ve all seen Greek and Roman theatres aplenty, but this one’s location staggers. The drama is in the backdrop as Mount Etna looms theatrically like a dusky breast tipped with a milky-white nipple, an apposite vision on Christmas Day. And travel isn’t just about picturesque perspectives but also philosophical perspectives.
Lofty speculations, however, crumble and I tumble from the sublime to the ridiculous on querying when the museum opens. In four hours. Why four hours? hrs? Because caretakers are lunching. I flash my press card, claim to be an extraordinarily busy journo and demand immediate access. I’m recommended a toilet visit. Stomping back I asseverate there’s no toilet-roll or soap. The caretaker regards me aghast. So what?! To truncate my tirade, they open the “museum,” a one-room shack with a derisory collection. In minutes the caretaker begins tapping his toes in impatience. He must go. Probably teatime.
Museums seem shut indefinitely. Churches, some, are open. Wandering this prettiest of towns with its cascading steps through slender ways, luxury boutiques and gardens with orange-laden trees consumes my afternoon. Taormina’s public gardens’ exhibited accoutrements of war sombrely recall evil inherent in the “Garden of Eden,” as it were. There’s more allegory as flighty stairs zig-zag uphill to a dizzyingly high church and to Salvation (if you attain either, for on derelict stairs Death may get you before you get to Salvation).
But I’ll forego Salvation for 2-Michelin-starred Chef Massimo Mantarro’s Christmas Dinner at San Domenico’s Le Soste restaurant, where manager Giuseppe who’s been around 20 years unfurls inimitable Sicilian gallantry. I decide to fall in love with Giuseppe and his sommelier and his choice Sicilian wines, amongst the finest collection on the island, particularly those from Etna whose volcanic terrains render Sicilian wines unique. Inebriating, my inaugural experience of Sicilian wines that I didn’t know existed. Impelled by the enchantment that’s San Domenico or those wines, I’d presume to improve upon Shakespeare and prescribe, “Get thee to a monastery!”
That monasteries can be lavish is established by Catania’s Benedictine Monastery, an accomplished ode to Sicilian Baroque architecture where extravagant fixtures evince that monks were often nobles who transferred palace luxuries to the monastery. A modern university integrates fascinatingly into an amalgamation of disparate periods, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes having ravaged the 1558 original.
Stretched outside the monastery is the sleekest Mercedes in Sicily. It’s been sent for me from Rocco Forte Verdura, Sicily’s most glamorous address, more immense than Monte-Carlo, idyllically isolated over 270 hectares whose lush groomed lawns meld into golf courses frilled by blue-blue seas.
Verdura’s Mediterranean fine dining restaurant Zagara is my favourite Sicilian eatery. Here I discover Sicilian prosecco Terrazze del Etna Brut with champagne-like fine bubbles that award-winning sommelier Nando Papa has excavated from a boutique winery near Etna that produces but 10,000 bottles a year,of which Nando buys a third. Nando avers there’s no talent in selling famous wines; a good sommelier sells you obscure but outstanding wines like the Helios Rosso di Giovanna he seduces me with.
Zagara’s cuisine is quietly sophisticated in its delicately balanced flavours and crafty textures. After the phenomenal Sicilian specialty Pasta alla Norma, I ask to marry the chef. He’s young and single. But I’m soon beguiled by potent coffee gellati whose pursuit takes me the following night to Liola, which offers terrific trattoria cuisine (possible at a chichi resort). Expect lively salads, flavoursome soups, perfect pastas, plump, plushly laden pizzas and tender amaretti. Confection at Verdura excels.
Rocco Forte Verdura
During an energetic Pevonia facial at Verdura’s spa (also showcasing Forte Organics comprising indigenous Sicilian products) Venetian spa manageress Anna bewails the listless Sicilians, “It’s always piano, piano. But one must rush!” Anna, eccentric and entertaining, is vegetarian, single and recommends awaking to yoga rather than to a stupid man!
Verdura’s sommelier Nando, less stupid than other men, chivalrously drives me to 2-Michelin-starred chef Pino Cuttaia’s restaurant La Madia. It’s two hours away and resembles a trattoria and the sommelier stands hands on hips confabulating at my table as I serve myself water. But Pino’s cuisine that reinvents Sicilian street food into cultivated constructs redeems. Think creations like octopus laid out on edible “sea rock.” Discover the finest olive oil you’ve had served with warm, fresh-baked bread.
Based at Verdura, I explore Agrigento’s UNESCO World Heritage Valley of the Temples (perplexing name, when the temples preside on hills), with a museum (erratically-scheduled) boasting a considerable assemblage of Greek vases depicting valorous tales and some very naughty tales. Villa Athena, an erstwhile noble villa, happens on the site so they have the ancient temples in their backyard with private access to book a Caritas facial and, post-temples, sup on elegant cuisine paired with select Sicilian wines at their restaurant, even handsomer by night. That’s if you leave the site alive. I foolishly venture sans jacket in balmy temperatures that plummet precipitously at 6 p.m. The site shuts at 7 p.m., but I find myself solo in darkness, stumbling over vestigial Greek temples until I reach the main entrance seeking directions back to Villa Athena, but the supervisor is on the phone, for 20 minutes, as I freeze, and then he has me traverse the car-whizzed highway.
I live to love Planeta’s lodge La Foresteria, set on vineyards streaming down hills. I’m accompanied to my room where the drawn curtains are opened for dramatic effect to unveil the great spectacle of flowing vines. Views are as delectable over lunches on the terrace (impaired but by the fat food-clamouring cat) and you might be lunching by the owners, nobles whose vineyards are so assiduously marketed they’re Sicily’s most renowned. Breakfasts over aureoled vineyards are Sicily’s most wholesome and heavenly, with gorgeous homemade cakes, breads and arduously-sourced organic local produce. Supper at Planeta is an event. There’s a private dining room with a wine library for wine-tasting but suppers (including family “heritage” dishes) are communal and occur on a massive table where you break (regional) bread beside other guests. My neighbours giggle over some Indian wedding in Florence where the couple hired out a Florentine piazza and insisted on bringing along their pet elephant for the proceedings. Amidst mirth and much Planeta Chardonnay Cristina, the delightful GM, wonders if I could send her ostentatious Indians; she won’t send away their pet elephant or tiger.
Cristina organises wine-tastings at their vineyard a vine-draped drive away. She also designs excursions to Sicily’s only existing medieval town, Erice, high on a mountain. Here, time has stopped. Hobble up old cobbled stones to the Duomo with its fantastic collection of artefacts, notably chasubles intricately embroidered as acts of devotion by nuns of yore. The choir is practicing. Hymns are in Latin. Enthralling. Erice’s museum is compact but worthy, churches innumerable, but fortunately not all always open.
The Castello di Venus affords sensational views and sensational tales; it was the site of “sacred prostitution” during the Phoenician Cult of Astarte (subsequently Aphrodite/Venus in Greek/Roman times), although today’s remains are of a Norman castle. The town teems with cute little artisan boutiques and pastry shops (the pastry here is famous) but streets, without directions, are often deserted; directions elude as nobody speaks English and I take 40 minutes to reach the Spanish Quarter 10 minutes away.
In Palermo it’s established that one man always beats me to the most luxurious hotels, and that’s the Dalai Lama. He was at Villa Igiea where everyone who’s anyone sojourns. The receptionist appears sporadically so you queue to check in; luggage retrieval at check-out takes two hours, and rooms, though wonderfully quaint, have knob-less cupboards; and there’s no concierge nor adapters (so my laptop dies). Notwithstanding, the beautiful people embellish breakfasts in majestic chandeliered rooms with harbour-facing terraces where you complain your coffee is cold but nobody cares. Sicily is an island and Villa Igiea is an island within an island, wrapped in its own myth and exclusivity.
Pallermo’s hidden jewel Villa Brunaccini, an old palace in the historic heart converted by a father-daughter pair of art-aficionado lawyers, offers a warmer welcome and Palermo’s best restaurant where Francesco Scarpulla, who trained at Noma in Copenhagen and Michel Roux in the UK, effects exclusive organic Sicilian produce into innovative slow-food creations his young brother Alessandro, an anthropologist investigating the influence of wine on culture and vice-versa, astutely pairs with the rarest and most intriguing wines in Sicily.
Francesco dispenses varietal breads of different indigenous “ancient” grains and creations like Fennel Caponata with Noto Almonds, Maltagliati (homemade from perciasacchi flour) with Badda Beans, Ustica Lentil Salad, “Ciacuni” (red potato and Tumminia wheat gnocchi), Beetroot Risotto with Robbiola Cheese, Sweet Ricotta Soup with Modica Chocolate and Sicilian Black Bee Honey whilst Alessandro pulls out the stops or the stoppers with Falanghina Ardevola I Cacciagalli 2013, Vignamare grillo Barraco 2013, Rosso Relativo Nerello Mascalese 2011 and the exceptional Perricone Guccione 2012, whose pungent bouquet evolves unimaginably.
On New Year’s Eve I’m homeless; Villa Igiea is pre-booked and unhelpful. But Villa Brunaccini’s young manageress Adriana intervenes. She frantically calls all Sicily. All Sicily’s sold out. She offers to displace another hotel guest, a friend, for me. However, Alex from Locanda del Serafino, the best-connected man in Sicily, finds me not a room but a duplex suite, but at Donna Carmela in Jarre–three hours away. No chauffeur works on New Year’s Eve. This relentless Sicilian laissez-aller! I’m outraged. So all Sicily convenes to dispel the notion that all Sicilians are lackadaisical and Peppe from Essence of Sicily (www.essenceofsicily.com), Sicily’s top tour operator, ensures I’m conveyed, in a Mercedes, as I have been around Sicily and as a girl must be.
Peppe requires immediate departure, contending that the chauffeur has New Year’s Eve supper at 7:30 p.m. (Sicilians haven’t finished lunch at that time). I protest that I haven’t seen Palermo, a treasure of gardens, churches, fountains, long palm-fringed avenues, the mighty Duomo opulent in baroque architecture. Peppe concedes two hours. This suffices as museums and palaces are shut on New Year’s Eve. Typical!
Donna Carmela, wine-cellar-turned-sexy-hotel with thrilling gardens and makes-the-heart-race pool, sexily initiates year-end celebrations with extraordinary Sicilian prosecco and canapés. Interestingly, unlike the French who’d engulf a girl alone, the Sicilians don’t, their notorious machismo notwithstanding. The effervescent sommelier alone engages me night-long in French spoken with the funny Sicilian accent. Donna Carmela, owned by famous wine makers, is a culinary landmark. New Year’s Eve supper in the suave restaurant seven-courses into midnight, when proper French champagne flows, an unusual extravagance in Sicily.
I haven’t quite finished breakfast when Danielo, who chauffeurs for Ermo Della Jubiliana reports ahead of schedule. The Sicilians have become super efficient in the new year! Danielo whizzes me past orange-groved vistas where oranges peep like a million suns through dense clouds of foliage to Ermo Della Jubiliana, a medieval marvel that the Knights of Malta inhabited. In historic splendour I have all-natural facials, master-masseur Salvo’s rigorous massages, seven-course suppers, beautiful heritage suites framing pristine country gardens. The owners, French nobles, have added a titivating private airstrip whose watchtower is a pooled suite from where you can see Malta.
Angelo the young GM has forsaken his holiday and his new bride to host me at New Year Brunch. Traditional regional breads and cheeses break the sturdiest resolve and the sturdiest zipper, fortunately not amidst the signet-ringed guests who frequent this aristocratic abode.
Angelo becomes my personal guide to UNESCO World Heritage baroque towns Scicli and Modica, the latter famous for being Nobel Laureate Quasimodo’s birthplace (Sicily boasts another Nobel Laureate, Pirandello) and for Aztec-style milk-less chocolate infused with all-Sicilian products like almonds, oranges, lemon and Marsala wine. Modica’s oldest chocolatier Bonajuto is by far the classiest. (Rizza’s another option).
Danielo, the savviest chauffeur in Sicily, drives me like a demon to Syracuse, unique for juxtaposing a white Greek and black Roman theatre. Syracuse Museum astounds: exhibits include a centaur with an inordinate penis that so perturbs a little boy and Greek vases depicting a woman rummaging a basket of phalluses (this is no extenuating ithyphallic Bacchanalia). Splendid Venuses and other masterpieces pervade, but dash I must to the exquisite island Ortigia, where inexpressible charm meets baroque grandeur. There’s a temple of Apollo, many museums and an entrancing Duomo by the church, which harbours a Caravaggio, Sicily having been briefly the painter’s quarters.
Danielo is right; you can breeze through Ortigia as I obscenely did or meander its streets over days in bewitchment. But I have to see UNESCO World Heritage baroque town Noto before heading to another UNESCO town, Ragusa Ibla, for lunch at 2-Michelin-starred Ristorante Duomo. In a converted baroque palace Chef Ciccio Sultano does salad and citric soup, stuffed olives with mock pit and a surprise ice cream sandwich. More piquant is his humour, I’ve informed the stewardess I shan’t be subjected to ricotta, the Sicilian specialiy, in every course, as I’ve often been elsewhere. Chef emerges to announce he has customised me seven courses, Ricotta à la minute, winking cheekily. I’m less impressed by the sommelier’s cheek in imposing on me a disagreeable sweet rosé, refusing an alternative.
I’m soon hijacked by Alex from Ragusa’s second 2-Michelin-starred restaurant Locanda del Serafino, above which is a suite in a natural cave (unprecedented in Sicily) that comes with acave-top pooled garden overlooking Ragusa’s heritage-filled skyline. A massage bed unravels and with it masseur Salvo. Then, a seven-course supper in their sensational 2-Michelin-starred restaurant also in a natural cave. Vincenzo Candiano, self-proclaimedly self-taught and the youngest of Sicily’s 2-Michelin-starred chefs, zestfully crafts dishes enlivened by complex wines. Book the suite and they will do a sumptuous romantic breakfast for two in this cave restaurant.
Sicily is thought provoking. Why should Sicilians work fanatically like the rest of the stupid world? In India, shops and restaurants once devoutly shut for Diwali now open. Sicilians still live genteelly, valuing family and festivity over finances. It’s so bourgeois to work.
Essence of Sicily
Specialises in Wine Tours
Contact Peppe Mendola(firstname.lastname@example.org/Tel. 0039 0922 60 58 10/Mob. 0039 3297311627)