Spring In Sicily


 

The Society first visited Sicily in May 2004. A second small group wine and culture tour t00k place in May 2019

 

 

May and September probably are the best months to visit Sicily. EasyJet fly to Catania from Manchester thrice a week and the flight time is just over three hours. One could travel all the way to Sicily by train, experiencing one of Europe’s last train ferries where the train is physically shunted onto a ship for the short sea voyage across the Straits of Messina from the Italian mainland to Sicily, or you can use an overnight cruise ferry to Sicily from either Genoa or Naples.

 

 

Day 1 – Arrival (Wednesday 15)

We flew to Catania with EasyJet from Manchester and were driven to Siracusa via the E45 and SS114. (68 km ~ one hour) in two Mercedes people carriers. The excellent Royal Maniace Hotel  on Ortygia island was our base for two nights. The evening was free to relax and dine out at one of the many fine local restaurants.

Day 2 – Siracusa (Thursday 16)

It rained so heavily in the morning the streets were flooded. After an hour or so, the rain stopped and we took taxis to the Archaeological Park with our guide to visit the Greek Theatre, the Roman Amphitheatre and the Paradise Quarry. Taxis took us to the Temple of Apollo in Oryigia and we strolled through the streets of heart of the city center, to visit the Dome, the delightful pedestrian square that is home to the Cathedral built on the site of an ancient Temple of Athena. On another side of the square is the Baroque Palazzo Beneventano and the church of Santa Lucia, dedicated to the town’s patron saint.

Day 3 – Vittoria (Friday 17)

We drove to Vittoria (110 km. 2 hrs.) to taste at Ariana Occhipinti. We walked in the biodynamic vineyards, met Arianna working in the cellars and tasted four of her wines. On the way to Agrigento after the tasting, we had lunch at a little wayside cafe suggested by Vittorio who was our host at Arianna’s winery. We checked into the elegant Alba Palace Hotel in Favara, strolled through the historic little town in the evening and had an excellent dinner at the hotel restaurant which is rated the best in town.

Day 4 – Favara/Agrigento (Saturday 18)

We visited The Valley of The Temples in Agrigento in the morning, walking with a guide along the rocky crests with Doric temples (the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Heracles, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Hephaestos, the Temple of Demeter, and the Temple of Asclepius (the God of Medicine) built between 510 BC and 430 BC. We drove to the cost and had a wonderful seafood lunch at a seaside restaurant. That evening we walked in the old town of Favara admiring the old buildings and the busy cafe life.

Day 5 – Sambuca di Sicilia and Menfi (Sunday 19)

We drove to the small village of Sambuca di Sicilia to taste at Ulmo Winery of the Planeta Estate, a few metres from Lake Arancio. The 16th century farmhouse which is now the winery, has been in the Planeta family for seventeen generations. We toured the vineyards, visited the winery, tasted and had lunch. In the afternoon we drove to Menfi and checked in at La Foresteria Planeta for a two nights stay. Aperetifs were served at the poolside that evening before the formal dinner.

Day 6 -Menfi (Monday 20)

The morning at La Foresteria was spent walking in the vineyards and relaxing by the pool. An excellent tasting of Planeta wines was tutored by the sommelier before lunch. Selinunte, located on the south west coast of Sicily not far from Menfi, was visited with a guide in the afternoon. It is the largest archaeological site in Europe on a par with pretty much anything found in Greece. Selinunte has lain abandoned for nearly 2,500 years, its numerous temples, its acropolis and its agora in dignified ruins. It is beautifully located, sitting on a high plain and overlooking the sea flanked on either side by golden beaches and being almost 1km wide, is an excellent excuse for a good walk waiting for the sunset. Again, dinner that evening was at La Foresteria paired with Planeta wines.

Day 7 – Marsala & Erice (Tuesday 21)

After breakfast at La Foresteria, we drove to Marsala to visit the cellars and taste the wines of Donnafugata. A short drive took us to the Salt Pans at Stagnone, a designated marine nature reserve covering some 2,000 hectares and home not only to the ancient tradition of sea-salt production but also to a flourishing variety of wildlife, and a fascinating archipelago consisting of four mostly uninhabited islands: San Pantaleo, home to ancient Mothya and one of the Phoenicians’ original settlements in Sicily, Isola Longa,Santa Maria and Schola. Windmills, first introduced during mediaeval times, dot the horizon – a testament to how things were once done, though one or two continue to function, pumping water through the sluice gates into or out of the various basins. Piles of harvested salt, neatly covered with terracotta tiles, lie between the road and the basins waiting to be despatched. Midway between Marsala and Trapani, on the banks of the lagoon is a salt museum giving visitors an explanation as to how the salt pans developed and functioned over the years.

We then drove to Erice which was an important religious site associated with the goddess Venus. We wandered through its ancient streets and visited some of the pastry shops – famous for marzipan candies and other delicacies like almond and pistachio pastries. Towering over the west of Sicily at 751m above sea level and often covered in its own personal cloud, Erice is a wonderfully preserved Mediaeval town offering the most breathtaking views and a palpable sense of history. Originally an Elymian city, (the Elymians were around before the Greeks ever set foot in Sicily) Erice, or Eryx as it was first called, was a town of no little importance and renown and is said to have attracted the likes Hercules and Aeneas. Like so many Sicilian towns, it passed from one invader to another as all the usual suspects came and went, leaving their architectural calling cards and their cultural footprints. The name changed from Eryx, to Erice to Gebel Hamed and Monte San Giuliano but its essential character remained, obstinately repelling any attempt to change its real identity. Amongst the most visited sites are the two castles –  Pepoli and Venus. The former was built by the Arabs while the latter was a Norman construction with imposing towers that derived its name from the fact that it was built on the site of the ancient Temple of Venus, allegedly founded by Aeneas.

Later we drove to Palermo, the Capital of Sicily and checked in to Hotel Giardino Anglese.

Day 8 – Palermo (Wednesday 22)

We went on a morning guided Walking Street Food Tour of Palermo. The  extraordinary cuisine of the city explores 2,000 years of history: from the landing of Phoenicians to that of Americans! The itinerary included several stops at bakeries, street vendors and old inns. It also included stops at the main historical squares. We then continued onto the Four Corners which is effectively the centre point of the four areas of the old town. We observed the sculptures commissioned by the Spanish Viceroy in 1611. The sculptures on each of the four corners depict a variety of themes, including the four seasons, four Spanish kings and the four patron saints of the old town areas. Going south-east down Via Maqueda we came to Piazza Pretoria which is home not only to a splendid fountain but several other impressive buildings including the City Hall. The fountain, known as the “Fountain of Shame” has an interesting history. It was originally built in 1555 by the Florentine sculpture Francesco Camiliani for a Tuscan villa owned by the Viceroy Pedro de Toledo. His son, on inheriting the villa in 1574, thought it a little too risqué for his tastes and sold it to the City of Palermo. The city fathers erected it where it now stands. As the large central fountain is the focal point for sixteen nude statues of nymphs, humans, mermaids and satyrs which shocked nuns who lived across the square, it was named the “Fountain of Shame.”

That  afternoon we drove to Monreale to see where Arab-Norman art and architecture reached its pinnacle in the Duomo. Launched in 1174 by William II, it represents scenes from the Old and New Testaments all in golden mosaics. The story of how this splendid cathedral came into being starts when the Arabs took control of Palermo in 831. They transformed the cathedral into a mosque and banished the Bishop of Palermo from town. Not wishing to venture too far from his beloved cathedral, the Bishop settled in a small village in the hills overlooking Palermo, the site of modern-day Monreale. There, he built a modest church to keep the flame of local Christian worship alive. Some 240 year later, in 1072, the Normans drove the Arabs from Sicily, establishing Palermo as their capital and re- consecrating the Cathedral. In 1174, in an act of piety, thanksgiving and commemoration of the exiled Bishop, King William II ordered the construction of a new church in Monreale, dedicated to the Virgin Mary (one of the mosaics depicts King William II presenting the church to the Madonna). On its completion in 1182, Pope Lucius III elevated the splendid church to the status of metropolitan Cathedral. Enlightened, tolerant and appreciative of many aspects of North African and middle-eastern culture and art, William II employed the very best Arabic and Byzantine (as well as Norman) craftsmen to work on the cathedral. The result is a fabulous and fascinating fusion of architectural styles, artistic traditions and religious symbolism.

Day 9 – Tasca d’Almerita (Thursday 23)

It is 111 km to Sclafani Bagni. The drive along narrow, winding roads through beautiful countryside took two hours. The welcome at the Regaleali estate was warm. We checked in to our elegant rooms and drank pink fizz from Pinot Noir in the sunny courtyard with the ancient magnolia tree in the centre. Lunch with Tasca d’Almerita wines followed. We toured the extensive vineyards on foot and by jeep, visited the winery and cellars before a tasting of the estates wines and dinner with top-end Regaleali wines.

Day 10 – Piazza Armerina & Taormina (Friday 24

We left Tasca after breakfast and drove to Piazza Armerina situated deep in the Sicilian hinterland to visit Villa Romana del Casale. Built in the middle of the 4th Century AD as a hunting lodge by a Roman noble (it is not known for sure who the owner was) the Villa is home to some of the best preserved and extensive examples of Roman mosaics. The villa is one of the most luxurious of its kind. It is especially noteworthy for the richness and quality of the mosaics which decorate almost every room. These extraordinarily vivid mosaics, probably produced by North African artisans, deal with numerous subjects, ranging from Homeric escapades and mythological scenes to portrayals of daily life, including the famous tableau of girls exercising in their “bikinis”.

We then continued onto Taormina. We checked in to NH Connections Hotel and walked to the Greek- Roman Theatre with our guide. The attractive principal thoroughfare, Corso Umberto, is pedestrian and ideal for strolling and window-shopping. Picturesque lanes above and below the Corso were interesting to explore.

Day 11 – Etna (Saturday 25)

We drove up the north face of Etna in 4X4 SUVs through a winding dirt road surrounded by chestnut and oak forests and stopped at the 2002 lava flow. The 2002 eruption lasted from October 27th to January 29th 2003 and it is considered one of the most explosive eruptions of the past one hundred years. We drove to the Ragabo pine forest where hidden among pines and brooms is the cave of Corruccio (1350 meters above sea level), a cave formed by flowing lava. Driving up along the Mareneve road we reached Piano Provenzana (1800 meters above sea level), a ski resort, theater of the great eruption of 2002 and walked to the ruins of the hotel Le Betulle destroyed by a molten lava flow.

Later we drove through the Etna D.O.C vineyards to Barone di Villagrande Estate for an excellent tasting of Etna wines with lunch.

That final evening in Sicily we had dinner at Gambero Rosso and walked up and down the crowded and festive Corso Umberto eating gelato and sipping beer late into the night.

 

Day 12 – Back to Harrogate (Sunday 26)

We drove to Catania airport (66 kms 1 hr)  with its disgusting long queues at passport control and caught the 12.30 EasyJet flight to Manchester.

 

(The group consisted of John Armstrong & Gail Bent , Tony Lee & Renna Benson, Robert & Pauline Buckley, Bernard & Ramani Dias  and Ivan & Ross Hanney. The ground agent was Palermo based “Tour of Sicily.”)

Comments:

  • “It was a great trip and very much enjoyed. It was your personal input and your knowledge of the people involved that made it such a special experience. The mixture of classical history and wine tasting was inspired.
    Thank you very much.”
    John Armstrong
  • “What a marvellous trip you organized for us! With such a diverse and fascinating itinerary, it’s difficult to choose highlights but for me the luxurious stays at the Planta and Tasca estates were memorable; we received such a warm welcome, thanks to your connections, and were treated to exceptional wine tastings and meals. Sicilian food and wines available, even in the small local restaurants in Syracuse and Taormina were a revelation to me. I do hope we have an HMWS Sicilian wines tasting sometime in the future!
    While the visit to the Villa Armerina, with its wonderful mosaic interiors was outstanding for me, the guides at every ancient site we visited were excellent and the spectacular ride and walk up Etna in the 4x4s was certainly a fitting climax to our trip.
    With great thanks,”
    Gail (Bent)
  • “I would like to thank you for organising yet another outstanding tour. Both Pauline and I had high expectations for this trip and they met or exceeded in all aspects.
    When I reflect on how many things we have seen and wines that we have tasted it is scarcely credible that we were able to squeeze it all into 11 days and still have some down time. We managed to do a circuit of most of the largest island in the Mediterranean. The combination of historical sites with great vineyard visits certainly delighted this wine loving historian – and I am sure this was true for every member of the group. The mix of Ancient Greek temples, and amphitheatres, Roman palaces and mosaics, Byzantine/Islamic/Norman cathedrals was almost as intoxicating as the 60 – 70 wines that were tasted (I lost count)!
    As a novice to Sicily I should add that the beauty of the mountains, coastline and the wonderful and vivid wild flowers were also a joy to the eye. Having tasted the wines of Etna  at a HMWS tasting last year, it was a memorable and dramatic experience to witness the beautiful and darkly menacing landscape from which those wines are born. Those massive lava flows and the associated devastated hotels and village will live long in the memory.
    It would not be a HMWS trip without reference to vineyards. The accommodation throughout was of a very high standard. The two nights at the vineyards of  La Planeta and in particular the day at beautiful La Tasca d’Almerita were certainly the highlight for Pauline and me.
    While inevitably not every wine that was tasted was a winner, the overall standard was very impressive. There were some outstanding wines made from international grapes, particularly Chardonnay, but the most enriching dimension for me was to learn the very individual, and often attractive, qualities of the myriad of Sicilian grape varieties which had been previously unknown to me.
    The pleasure of these tours is always compounded by the enjoyment borne out of the friendship within the group and we would like to thank all group members for their companionship and conviviality – none more so than that of yourself and Ramini.
    I don’t think that I have ever found education to be this enjoyable. Thanks again Bernard – having organised a lot of overseas educational trips for teenagers I appreciate the time, effort and sheer stress that comes with it – but we think that it was worth it!”
    Rob  and Pauline Buckley
  • “Thank you for arranging the Sicily 2019 wine tour. Ros and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The excellent quality of the food and wine and the fascinating archaeology and history was easily matched by the conviviality of the participating couples. A wonderful blend! Salute.” – Ivan (Hanney)”

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.