People underestimate the size of Sicily. It’s not an island you can cover in a week. The island needs to be explored in pockets, or else you’ll spend your whole holiday in a car driving from place to place.
We went to Sicily for a long weekend a few years ago, and stayed in a charming Agriturismo in the North East of the island. Perhaps one of the poorest areas and, while lovely, the poverty was certainly reflected. An hour’s drive south to Taormina and we were suddenly in a different world, a town of faded glamour but still with a clear beauty, and plenty to do and see.
This time we were drawn to the South-East – the Baroque corner of Sicily. Originally I was inspired by an article written in Conde Nast, and a number of friends had recommended I go. I read about honey coloured sandstone hill top towns, of cathedrals with stunning baroque facades, of curling alleyways and balconies overflowing with flowers and cacti.
Last year our family holiday was in Puglia, a roaring success, and a lot to live up to. Sicily was very different (though we enjoyed the same balance of sightseeing/food/relaxing) and wonderful in its own way.
Here are my highlights:
Also known as the ‘Grand Dame’, be aware that this lovely town is split in two – Ragusa Ibla (the historical part of the city, and clearly our focus) and Ragusa Superior (the new town, which we just visited for its ‘pescharia’ – fish shop). Also be prepared to walk up hill (or up steps) – a lot – though you can actually drive to the top and park there (we only found this out after our vigorous exercise on our first visit). Most of Ragusa Ibla is quiet, the locals only come out after around 6pm, and the few tourists here tend to flock around the Duomo square. The rest of the town is yours to explore at leisure. I highly recommend an ice cream at Gelati DiVini (the chilli chocolate was especially exceptional), and they also sell some good wine here too. Aperitivo is a must at I Banchi, down a quiet side street, with tables outside under the shade of white flowered trees. They’ll bring you a selection of Sicilian nibbles, and some great wines as well. It is in fact a panificio (possibly my favourite Italian word) – a bakery – but also has an excellent restaurant (it is owned by the famous Michelin star chef Ciccio Sultano). Which brings me on to restaurants here: remarkably Ragusa has two of the best restaurants in Sicily. The Duomo (2 Michelin star, and Ciccio Sultano’s restaurant) and the Locanda don Serafino (also two Michelin star) constantly compete with who’s got the best restaurant, I’d go for their lunch set menu (far more affordable than dinner, at EUR 45 for 4 courses). Locando don Serafino also has a small boutique hotel (4 star) very close by, which is the best place to stay in town, quirky, comfortable and right in the centre of town.
Noto is generally known as the prettiest of the Baroque towns in the area, and it is undeniably so, in a slightly ‘chocolate box’ kind of way. It’s richer and more touristy than its neighbours, but also much smaller and felt less ‘local’. The main sightseeing area is the long Corso Vittorio Emanuele with one beautiful building or church after another. We went in search for a recommended restaurant – which took us up steps and more steps (it is a common theme in the area) in the burning sun. And then we reached Crocifisso. Which was shut for lunch (don’t believe the websites). It appears that Noto is a better place to visit for dinner, when the likes of Manna (brand new, modern – my ideal kind of place) and Dammuso are open. Food is meant to be exceptional here. Having said that, Dammuso is usually open for lunch, just not when we were there. We did find a place for lunch (Marpessa), where the food and stunning presentation surprised us (the gazpacho was brilliant) and despite the heat we had a fantastic meal. After lunch we were recommended ‘the best ice cream in the world’ at Caffe Sicilia (it was delicious, but DiVini was still better). There are plenty of terraces for sundowners, but if you want something different the Anche Gli Angeli concept store also offers a cool bar under red brick arches.
Perhaps because we didn’t have super high expectations, having heard rave reviews of Noto and Ragusa, we were all somewhat surprised by how much we loved Modica. For some of us, it was the favourite. Modica is rich in character as well as the signature Baroque churches, beautiful view points and houses built up into the hill side. There was plenty of grumbling about ‘more steps’, but I loved them! The higher you get the better the view of course, and we found the charming Rappa Enoteca (turns out it’s number one on Tripadvisor in Modica) where we had delicious aperitivo, rose and beer outside. We also bought some of their Modica-made chocolate which is a must when here (apparently it’s the oldest chocolate in the world). It’s above the cathedral and very quiet here, away from the more touristy lively streets at the bottom of the hill around Duomo Di San Pietro. If you’re looking for more of a buzz, then Corso Umberto is where you want to be, with lots of bars and restaurants. For dinner, Accursio was recommended, which looked sophisticated (if expensive).
This fisherman’s village wasn’t really planned into my itinerary, but having been recommended a good local restaurant and having not been to the seaside yet (despite having it as our daily view from the house), we thought we would go for lunch. Marzamemi is absolutely tiny, and totally charming. During the heat of the day it seems very deserted (most people are probably enjoying the nearby sandy beach of Porto Palo di Capo Passero), apart from the minuscule ‘centre’ – the square with a few cute churches, a few streets which lead off it (with some tempting boutiques), and a row of restaurants along the waterfront. Taverna La Cialoma is one of them – with a large bright terrace on the square, and then a smaller (more popular) shaded terrace right on the water. Perfect. And then the food came and we nearly fell off our wooden chairs – it was like being served haute cuisine in a trattoria. Incredible tuna carpaccio, melt in the mouth aubergine rolls stuffed with mozzarella and sprinkled with chocolate (it works beautifully), fresh prawns, simple but classic pastas. Expensive, but totally worth it. Marzamemi also seems to be a great place for sundowners, either on the waterfront (like Calamaro) or on the square at places like Kurabu (which also has some charming looking rooms). The place really comes to life in the evening, sometimes with live bands or DJs playing on the square.
While the name Syracuse will probably ring more bells than Ortigia, it is the island of Ortigia (connected by a bridge) which is the heart of Syracuse; the historical centre. Ortigia is where the true beauty of the city lies, and I wish I could have spent more time here than the few hours I did. It is undeniably one of the ‘must sees’ of Sicily, grand without being pompous, vibrant without being too touristy. Enjoy a traditional Granita and brioche for breakfast on the Duomo square (Condorelli gets it so right, and the brioche comes fresh from the oven), then wander through the narrow streets and grab a coffee at Movimento Centrale. It’s definitely worth going inside the Duomo, and the nearby Chiesa di Santa Lucia has a lovely Caravaggio which you can’t miss. Make sure you reserve a table at the modern Retroscena for dinner, and for pre-drinks enjoy a glass of wine on the harbour front at the Marina Cafe. I will definitely be returning.
Catania doesn’t get a lot of great press. The second largest city of Sicily is often dismissed, in favour for Palermo, the grander capital of the island. But perhaps due to low expectations we all found ourselves rather liking the raw energy and gritty beauty of this interesting city. No less so because Mount Etna looms behind the city, which remains quite a spectacle. We stayed in a fantastic and very affordable Grand Tour Bed & Breakfast on the Via Umberto – very centrally located between the new and the old town. And we had our best dinner here, in the beautiful newly opened Slow Food restaurant Me Cumpari Turiddu, where we tried donkey for the first time. It is a very lively city, the streets fill up in the evening, and terraces spil over into the road. For aperitivo and shaded pre-dinner drinks head to the very popular Razmataz. After dinner grab a cocktail at the characterful Boheme Mixology Bar, and then head to the Nievski bar for a bottle of Flo Sicilian wine or multiple beers to end the night.
Further blogs on the individual places I visited to follow shortly, so keep your eyes peeled!