Thursday, 21 August, 2014

 
Published January 11, 2014
Travel
Sicily's many splendours
Off the well-worn tourist trek, Sicily offers uncharted delights from sumptuous cuisines to Baroque heritage towns. By Daven Wu
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WHAT A VIEW
If you're arriving in Palermo, check into the Quintocanto right in the centre of town and ask for a corner balcony room facing the church. (Above) View from hotel Quintocanto in Palermo. - PHOTO BY: DAVEN WU

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THINK of Italy, and most people will immediately call up a mental slideshow of Rome, Florence and Milan with their crowded cityscapes, jostling mobs of camera-toting tourists all peering up at the statue of David, or hustling from one set of grand 2000-year-old ruins to the next, or, worse, scrambling for pole position in the Bottega Veneta atelier. And yet, curiously, just an hour or so south, the island of Sicily floats calmly in glorious sunshine and the balmy breeze of the Mediterranean, still every bit as Italian as the mainland and with just as much history.

Perhaps the lingering whiff of its Cosa Nostra past has had something to do with why Sicily remains a little off the beaten tourist path, but even that is quickly subsumed by a general mood of bonhomie.

And why not? The island's appeal is many splendoured and relatively timeless. Even during the low season - such as around Christmas - the days remain considerably warmer than the north and tourism is noticeably less feverish.

Since time immemorial, Sicily has been a safe harbour and at the crossroads for merchant ships, roving marauders, fortune hunters and waves of immigrants led by successive Greek, Roman and Middle-Eastern overlords. This explains the almost pan-Moorish quality of the local Sicilians, their distinct patois and their unique take on architecture, design and fashion (say "Ciao!" to local boy made good, Dominico Dolce, one half of Dolce & Gabbana).

What's more, the natural landscape is stunning. At every turn, the restless eye settles on a random palette of secluded beaches, wild volcanic mountains, ancient towns, the world's best granitas, imaginative cuisine and affordable hotels . . . all linked by a superb infrastructure of modern roads and conveniently located airports. Seriously, what's not to love about the place?

Given how easy it is to move around, consider renting a car and wending your way leisurely from one end of the coast to the other. However, if driving is not an attractive proposition, then there are any number of coaches that service the different towns as well as an efficient train network.

If you're arriving in Palermo, check into the Quintocanto (www.quintocantohotel.com) right in the centre of town and ask for a corner balcony room facing the church. From here, it's a quick walk to the local sights including the outre interiors of the 12th-century, gold mosaicked Palatine Chapel (www.federicosecondo.org), and the daily markets at Ballaro and Capo where the ancient alleys are taken over by stalls stacked high with cheeses, herbs and the freshest seasonal fish and fruit.

Or else, hop into the car and half an hour later, you will be in the mountain top village of Monreale where the cathedral, built by the same generation of artisans who designed the Palatine, unleashed the full grandeur of their imagination to cover the entire interior with incredibly detailed gold mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible.

Shopaholics should hunt down Vallone (www.giovannivallone.it), a hole-in-the-wall atelier near the Piazza Borsa that makes amazing (and cheap) leather accessories that, if you squint, could pass for a Celine tote or a Commes des Garcons pouch. What a retail thrill to learn that some of the leather swatches are the very same ones used by Prada.

After retail comes the extra fun bit - eating, which is practically a national pastime when one is in Italy, and more so in Sicily where the eternal sunshine is such a boon for vegetables and fruit. Adjourn to the Antica Focacceria S Francesco (www.afsf.it), a slow-food temple devoted to delicious homemade rice balls, and pasta tossed with anchovies, raisins and toasted breadcrumbs. The almond granita - smooth as silk - is, hands down, the best in Sicily, which is saying something.

From Palermo, turn towards the south-east coast for an unrivalled collection of sun-kissed beaches and pretty little towns where life seems to go on pretty much the way it has for hundreds of years.

Depending on the time of year, Taormina can be a hyperactive tourist trap, so if you're after a bit of peace and quiet, a little away from the madding crowd, drive on south along the coast for Avola Antica (www.avolaantica.it).

Perched high on a limestone mountain overlooking the coast, this bijou agriturismo - a uniquely Italian bread and breakfast set on a farm - is a secluded gem where the very spartan rooms (starting from about 35 euros (S$60.4) per person including breakfast and dinner) are more than made up for by the scenery of coastal plains, ancient towns and the Mediterranean Sea; a garden of rosemary, lavender and figs; an outdoor pool shaded by olive trees; and a to-die-for dinner whipped up by the swarthy and dashing resident chef, Molino Santo.

If you're after a holiday that involves more than indolent pool-side reading, siestas and fabulous meals, then you must check into the nearby Baroque town of Noto. At the Seven Rooms (www.7roomsvilladorata.it), hotelier Cristina Summa has turned an ageing wing of the ancient Palazzo Nicolaci into a luxurious, gracious pavilion of high-ceilinged rooms, soothing colours and a breakfast terrace with panoramic views of Noto.

Destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 (along with almost all the city's noble families), Noto was completely rebuilt which explains the uniformity and pristine quality of its burnished architecture, the perfectly preserved churches and generously proportioned urban grid. In the evenings, locals and visitors alike flock to the high street for the passeggiata (leisurely stroll) before adjourning for dinner.

In Noto, the idea of a bad meal is perverse, so gourmets are spoilt for choice. Our top hits include Ristorante Dammuso (via Rocco Pirri 10/12, tel: 0931 835786), Trattoria del Crocifisso (via Principe Umberto 46) and Marpessa (Vico Carrozzieri 10, tel: 0931 835225)

From Noto, it's an easy day trip to any number of beaches. If culture calls, descend onto Siracusa for its Greek and Roman ruins and, in particular, the 3,500-year-old island of Ortigia. Here the catacombs - accessed from the Duomo Square and used during World War II as bomb shelters - are a must, as is the nearby cathedral with its trippy amalgam of Baroque shell encasing the original interiors of a 3,000-year-old Greek temple.

By this time, it will occur to you that after a week that seemed incredibly packed with activities, you've barely scratched this corner of Sicily, never mind the rest of the West Coast. Ragusa, another gorgeous Baroque town at the foot of the Iblei Mountains, remains uncharted, as are Modica and the Unesco Heritage listed Scicli, with its wonderful crop of palaces and churches.

Which is why, just before you head for the airport - your luggage filled with cheeses, spices and leather bags from Vallone secured in the rental car - you find yourself still at your favourite neighbourhood gelateria desperately scarfing down the last cup of granita while composing half-joking e-mails to your boss and family, explaining why you can't come home just yet.

Sicily can do that to you. And that is probably the island's greatest surprise.