Excursions from Palermo or Enroute to Agrigento
Bagheria, 15 km from Palermo and worth a detour if you enjoy the eccentric. It is in the opposite direction of the Greek archeological sites, but if you are stopping at Regaleali for the cooking school it's on the way. The aristocracy of Sicily built villas in Bagheria during the 17th and 18th century, at the time a garden of delight. The Villa Palagonia can be visited (open 9-12:30 and 4-7). It is the product of a vivid imagination, indeed. Sculptural decorations atop the wall in front of the façade consist of 62 monstrous, surreal statues. They face in toward the villa for reasons unknown, rather than outward as was the custom (to protect from evil spirits). A large oval entrance, the walls painted in fresco, leads to The Hall of Mirrors. The mirrors were set at different angles to distort the reflection of anyone entering the room, making them as grotesque as the sculptures, one would presume. Unfortunately, the glass has lost its reflective surface with the passage of time and one can only imagine the effect.
Monreale, half an hour by car or bus from Palermo, and you reach a veritable wonder, the hill-town of Monreale, with views of the bay and mountains. Here, William II, a Norman King of Sicily in 1174, with the blessing of Pope Alexander III, built a Cathedral whose mosaic work is more extensive than St. Mark's in Venice. Begin by studying the striking bronze entry doors and the stories they tell. Enter the church and you are overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of the interior and the incredible mosaics on the walls and columns. We were fortunate to arrive there just before a jubilee chorale celebration and the lights were turned on in the apse, where a 22ft high mosaic of Christ loomed over all. Then the voices of the choir and soloist chanted Kyrie Eliason. It was remarkable. Be sure to visit the lovely Cloister to the right of the Cathedral, with its twenty-six arches, some scultped, some encrusted with mosaics.
Segesta. Set in the midst of a beautiful landscape of rolling hills, you will find a magnificent Doric temple built around 430 BC. The 36 limestone columns are tinted golden-yellow and the proportions of the temple are exceptionally pleasing to the eye. Take the bus up the hill or hike the 2 kilometers and you'll find the remains of the theatre. Don't miss a stop at Segesta along your route.
Selinunte is next on your journey of discovery. A rival to Segesta, it was destroyed by Hannibal and his Carthaginians. The scales of the scattered ruins and the temple columns give you an impression of its two centuries of prosperity. The beach of the Marinella Lido, a short distance from the Acropolis affords a pleasant spot for lounging and/or lunch in one of the restaurants which provide fresh fish and views.
Regaleali, about an hour and a half inland from Palermo, was our first overnight outside of Palermo. We stopped briefly at Bagheira on the way. It is in Regaleali that you will find the home and cooking school of Anna Tasca Lanza and the Regaleali-Tasca d'Almerita estate, one of the largest and most important vineyards in Sicily. You will receive a warm welcome from this extraordinary chef and cookbook author and her family. You may stop for a one-day program with a demonstration lesson and lunch, an overnight stop for dinner, breakfast, lesson and lunch or three-night and five-night cooking courses. It is a wonderful experience. You can contact Anna Tasca Lanza directly by phone (39-91-450727), fax (39-921-542-783) or e-mail (email@example.com) for further information and reservations, or her agent in the U.S: Cuisine International at 214-373-1161. The food is exceptional. We dined on a splendid antipasto at lunch: sun-dried tomatoes, "caponata" without eggplant, artichoke heart, zucchini, mushrooms, peppers and more; panelle (fried chick peas), roast chicken in a sauce of wine and lemon, roast potatoes with rosemary and orgeno, and a blanc-mange and cake. The white wine was from the vineyard. At dinner, we sampled Novastato (a red wine made with merlot and d'isola nero) and Leone (a white), both from Regaleali. Primo piatti was spaghetti with eggplant, salted ricotta and tomato sauce- superb, as was the fish, a capone in a beautifully prepared sauce. The dessert was a pudding prepared with fresh ricotta from the farm, brought in warm just before the meal. It was divine. Most of the food used in Anna's kitchen comes directly from the estate's farm: poultry, lamb, sheep's milk (incredibly fresh ricotta), olive oil, vegetables and fruit. And, of course, there's the wine. You will have a memorable experience. We did!
Agrigento was our next spectacular destination after our stay at Regaleali. Founded in 580 BC by Greeks from Gela and Rhodes as Akragas. The largest Greek colony in Sicily, city became fabulously wealthy following a victory over the Carthaginians at Himera. They used captive soldiers to embark upon a major building program to commemorate their victory. The first of the temples in the Valley of Temples was that of the Olympian Zeus. The best preserved of the temples is that of Concord, romantically viewed by night from a room with terrace at the Villa Athena, built around an 18th century villa, now the best available quarters in Agrigento (via dei Templi, 33, Tel: 596-288, Fax: 402-180. If you don't mind not staying in the Valley of the Temples, consider Hotel Kaos (Tel: 598-622, Fax: 598-770) or Hotel del Pini Tel: 634-844, Fax: 632-895. Both have tennis and swimming pools and if you're touring in late Spring, Summer or Fall, either might be a good bet. You'll need a full day to tour the temples and visit the superb Archeology Museum. Pirandello, the great playwright returned to his birthplace for summers and his memorabilia may be seen at the Casa Natale di Pirandello, (if restoration is completed). He is buried under a wind-blown pine, overlooking the sea. As for dining, Le Caprice, Via Panoramico del Temple 51 is your best bet with excellent seafood. You also might consider the Trattoria del Pescatore and Trattoria dei Templi, both recommended by others.
Your next stop is utterly breathtaking. It is the Villa del Casale, 4km southwest of Piazza Armerina. Here you will find the most magnificent, well-preserved Roman mosaics in the world. And there is not an ounce of exaggeration in that statement. Built in the 3rd century AD as a summer retreat for the Imperial Roman family, it was covered over by a landslide, probably caused by an earthquake, and thus preserved across the centuries until its discovery in 1950. The villa is 1000 feet in length and the mosaics cover nearly 4000 square feet. There are 40 mosaics, done in what is known as “the African tradition.” Many of the tesserae (tiles) originate in North Africa. and it is known that North African artists worked during that period in the emotional Hellenistic style. With the white backgrounds of the scenes, it appears as if the Italian black-and-white style met North African Hellenistic in this setting. You will see scenes of a Chariot race, fishing cupids (quite whimsical), the Great Hunt, depicting the capture of wild beasts for the Roman amphitheatres, “Bikini girls”, the Chamber of the Erotic scene and many more. The visit will leave an indelible impression of beauty.
Now on to the fabled Syracuse (Greek), known now as Siracusa,. Cadogan's travel guide to Sicily describes it as the “fabulous New York of the Ancient World.” As Agrigento was the city of Empedocles, Siracusa was home to Archimedes, scientist and inventor and Aeschylus, the great playwright. Even Plato came here to teach. If you recall your history, Syracuse inflicted a devastating defeat upon Greece in the Peloponnesian war. Then, in the third century AD, Syracuse chose the wrong side in the war between Rome and Carthage and after a long siege, despite Archimede's brilliant defensive inventions, Syracuse fell to the Romans and the days of glory ended. The Vandals defeated Rome, then came successive conquests by Byzantines, the Arabs and finally, the Normans in the early 12th century, restoring some prosperity, until the huge earthquake of 1693.
If you can swing it, the best place to stay in Siracusa is the Grand Hotel (Tel: (0931) 464600, Fax: (0931) 464611on Ortygia, the island connected to the mainland by two bridges. Cafes, restaurants, shopping and strolling are best here and the hotel is a four-star jewel, completely modernized in 1995. All the rooms look out on the sea and there is a shuttle service to a private beach as well. You'll need to drive or take a cab to the archeological site. There are hotels near the site, but the night-life is more interesting on Ortygia. We were met by our guide to Siracusa and its environs, Paola Ruggieri, a delightful, articulate and well-informed student (majoring in American literature) and set off for the archeological zone. There we beheld the impressive grandeur of the ruins of the Altar of Hieron II (2nd century BC) and the Greek Theatre which is on of the largest in the world, seating 15,000 and still used during summer festivals. Have a look at the Ear of Dionysius, an artificial cavern, given its name by Caravaggio, and the Roman Amphitheatre. You will find excavation all over Siracusa. Paola pointed out that whenever digging is done (for municipal projects), they are sure to uncover artifacts of the ancient city. Continue your discovery of Caravaggio at the Museum where you will find the Burial of St. Lucia, as well as Antonello da Messina's Annunciation, two fabulous works, worth the visit.
We strolled to the charming Piazza del Duomo on Ortygia one afternoon, planning to visit the famous Cathedral. Unfortunately, it was closed- not for repairs- but because a feature film by the director of Cinema Paradiso was being shot. It was a unqiue experience, observing the square and adjoining streets turned into a set for a 1930's film. The cast was dressed in period clothes, there were antique cars, the newstand carried 30's journals and billboards, laundry was hung across the streets and there was a prominent poster of Mussolini offering the fascist salute.
There are many dining options in Siracusa, reasonably priced and delicious. We enjoyed Trattoria Archimedes, via Gemellaro, 8 (one fish restaurant and across the street, a pizzeria- take your pick- both excellent); Ristorante Pizzeria Zsa' , via Roma, 73-75, where we had a meal consisting of several appetizers- olives, mozzarella in carrozza, caciucavaddu- all delicious, followed by two terrific pasta dishes- one with meat sauce, sausage and ricotta (one of the best pasta dishes we've ever eaten) and the other (Siricusana) with anchovies, raisins, parsley, garlic and breadcrumbs- washed down with a white wine called Maria Costanza, excellent, as were many of the Sicilian whites. Our last night, we ate at Ristorante Arlecchino, via del Tolomei, 5. There, we had yet another first-rate meal. This consisted of Spaghetti ai Ricci (sea urchins), a simple preparation in which the delicate, briny urchin juice and meat are emptied into the pasta, with nothing added in the way of sauce. Wow! The other primo piatti was a bucatini with seppie nero (black squid and a sauce of its ink). Another winner. Main courses consisted of a mixed grill (white snapper, gamberoni, triglia- rougets- and
calamari. Outstanding. Good, but not great was a spada (swordfish), sauteed, with rucola and red pepper. We drank a delicious white wine from Corleone (remember the Don?)— it was labelled, Principe de Corleone. We finished with fruit salad and cheese, a most satisfying meal.
One night after dinner, we came across Gelateria Bianca di Oliva Domenica, right down the street from the Grand Hotel- and not to be missed. Sicilian gelato is wonderful, in general, but this was the best of the best. Look for it on Via L. Porto Marina, 3.
Paola and our driver, Nuncio took us out of Siracusa one morning for a visit to Palozollo Acreides and Noto. The former offers a small Greek Theatre and incredible cliffs and quarries. In town, we visited the Cathedral and then, Paola had a surprise in store: Corsino, Antica Pasticceria (pastry shop), Via Nazionale,2, where we would celebrate with a birthday breakfast for one of our editors. We are not partial, by and large to Italian pastries, but these were ravishing. There, on the floor of the spotless shop and café, were tubs of fresh ricotta, to be used in their baking. We sampled a half-dozen pastries and cannolis, each better than the one before, mouth-watering, with delicious cappucinos. It is worth the detour, if you love pastries. We went on to Noto, which is deservedly famed for its Baroque beauty. The city is described in the great Italian writer, Italo Calvino's “Invisible Cities.” It is built of sandstone which reflects the sun with golden hues and was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693 as an “ideal city”, rational and symmetrical. Many of the buildings are under restoration, but you will appreciate Noto as you wander the squares and streets.
The next day, we bid Paola a fond goodbye and set off for Taormina, watching along the route as Mt. Etna, in the distance, belched huge plumes of black smoke. The volcano had gone active the day before we left New York for Sicily.
Taormina is an extraordinary resort town and has been served as such since the late nineteenth century, host to royalty, celebrity and just plain folk out for a holiday. It is also a major honeymoon destination. If you saw Woody Allen's “Mighty Aphrodite,” you saw the fabulous Greek Theatre of Taormina, which he used as a setting. In Taormina, you will find the San Domenico Palace Hotel (Tel) 39-0942-23-701, (Fax) 39- 0942-62-55-06, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. We were scheduled to stay at the Villa Diodoro, a lovely small hotel, until a friend of ours said of the San Domenico, “it's the greatest hotel in the world..” Though there are many wonderful hotels in the world, the San Domenico surely ranks at or near the top. This will be truer still, in the next few years. Franco Cozzo, after forty years in Paris, at the Plaza Athenee, George V and Hotel Vendome, arrived last March to take over as Director General of the San Domenico Palace and you can be sure that whatever needs improving, will indeed be improved. This fifteenth century convent provides the utmost in luxurious setting and service: views of the sea, incredible gardens, the cloister and in the distance, the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Etna. During our stay, Etna was active, and at night, from the garden, we could seek a display of fireworks, provided by the volcano. Antiques, paintings and sculpture are everywhere, lining the corridors, and the hotel with its gardens is, in itself, a work of art and high craft.
Whether you begin your visit to Sicily in Taormina and reverse our route, or end it, as we did, you will find a lively, bustling town, filled with cafes and boutiques, set
amidst lovely medieval buildings, lemon and orange groves and bouganvillea flowered squares. It is a place to relax and enjoy. Its main tourist attraction, apart from the resort town itself and the views of sea and Mt. Etna, is the spectacularly set Greek Theatre.
Built in the third century BC by the Greeks, it was renovated by Romans in the 2nd century AD and used for gladiatorial bouts rather than as a theatre. The view of sea, coastline, hills and volcano is breathtaking. Be sure that your camera is loaded.
We strolled the town each day, sampled the gelato and the views and sat on our terrace, reflecting on the incredible experiences preceding Taormina. We did take two
side trips from Taormina, using the services of Gioacchino di Mauro (Gino) and his Mercedes. (Tel): 0942-24110 or 24188, (Fax) 0942-21178. Gino is a delightful, informed and articulate man who has driven for half of Hollywood over the years (from Gary Cooper to Woody Allen). He is also an excellent driver. The first trip was to Messina. There, we toured the busy town and visited the Museo Regionale to view more splendid Caravaggio's as well as masterpieces by Antonello da Messina. Well worth it for art-lovers. We next headed to the busy ferry slip for a trip to the mainland and Reggio di Calabria. Gino drove his car onto the ferry and in twenty minutes we were on the mainland of Italy. Another ten minutes and we were at the Museo Nazionale di Reggio Calabria, home of the “Warriors of Riace,” These magnificent bronze sculptures were discovered by a fisherman in the past decade when he spotted a hand sticking up out of the sea. The three amazing eight foot bronzes had been buried there for a millenium- and they are among the greatest of Hellenistic sculpture. A complex restoration process depicted in the museum brought them back to “life.” It was difficult to leave the museum without another look for the journey back to Taormina. The day before we left Taormina for Rome, we were driven by Gino to Mt. Etna, first thing in the morning. We gasped at the sight of the active volcano close-up. A gondola took us to 9000 feet and a small four-wheel drive bus gained another 1000 feet, along narrow trails with precipitous drops. There, with a cold breeze blowing, we hiked for forty minutes across the lava fields, pausing to warm out hands above cracks in the stone which permitted egress for steam within the volcano. We reached a rise and there, ahead of us by three or four hundred yards, we viewed a crater from which spewed fiery molten lava. It was a sight to behold. We made our way back to the bus, then the gondola, in awe of the power of nature which we had witness. That night, we compared notes over a drink at the San Domenico's music bar with two women attorneys from California. They had hiked on Etna the day before and felt, as we did, that it was a fitting culmination to a journey of
Dining notes on Taormina: We wish that we could recommend the dining room at the San Domenico Palace Hotel, but despite the magnificent views from the terrace, we found the service desultory and not up to the hotel's standards, and the food equally disappointing. Blanched shrimp were mealy, swordfish carpaccio mundane and the tartuffo bianco was shaved over pasta in the kitchen rather than at the table. The white truffles, though, were first quality. We drank a white wine from Regaleali with much pleasure. We're counting on Signor Cozzo for improvements.
Ristorante Da Lorenzo, Via Roma, 12. Recommended by Gino, we tried a seviche of octopus (polpo), fusilli with pistachios, pasta con ricce (those sea urchins) which while good, suffered from comparison to Arlecchino's in Siracusa, by the use of butter rather than simply the urchins and their juice, bluefish with tomatoes and onions which was excellent.
U Bossu, Via Bagnoli Croce, 50. A popular spot which friends recommend highly, particularly for the swordfish involtini.
A Zammara, 15 Via Fratelli Bandiera. In a charming garden setting, try this restaurant for a wonderful meal and warm, friendly service. We sampled marlin, shrimp, anchovy, a filet of young richie (queen of the sea), meatballs with lemon leaves and a white wine, a Donna Fugate, which was excellent.
Vecchia Taormina, Vico Ebret, 3 is a nice, outdoor stop for lunch salad or a pizza.
And, for those of you who must stay in touch with the Web, or check your e-mail, there's the Internet Café, Di fronte il municipio, Corso Umberto, 214.
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