Our Sicilian Travel Journal is the second instalment, or should I say adventure, with The Thinking Traveller, this time to a land of spectacular beauty shaped by a history of epic human struggle, foreign conquests, a diverse culture rich in philosophy, history, nature and traditions. Stories from Sicily is exactly that, a collection of random notes and tales about our experiences, practical information, thoughts and hindsight that we hope inspire meaningful travel and learning to this mythical land.
A Mythical Land
Let’s just just say we did not even touch the sides of Sicily. As the largest island in the Mediterranean and the largest region of Italy, what we managed in a week was only a small sample of the incredible contrasts this fiercely independent and proud island has to offer. We spent time in the country and along the coast, our route taking us from Palermo along the Western coast down to the Southern part of Agrigento. Called the eternal crossroads of the Mediterranean, Sicily has been luring passers by for centuries each weaving their stamp into the fabrication of Sicilian life. Reminders of bygone civilisations are everywhere, through food, language, ancient ruins and architecture. Sicily was a place for us that totally captivated our souls and imaginations, often transporting us into a world of Gods and great battles. If you ever wanted to visit a place that both ignites your children’s passion for learning while being surrounded by some of the worlds most stunning natural and man made wonders (several are UNESCO world heritage listed sites) Sicily is undoubtedly top of the list.
This villa is named after the faraglioni (sea stacks) that make up the astonishing vista from every part of this property. Ai Faraglioni sits on the coast of Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve which is perhaps the most beautiful spot in all of Sicily. I think pictures should speak more than me but, in short, I do not think there is a position more privileged than this in all of Scopello. From every terrace to every window, a panoramic sea-view wraps around Ai Faraglioni. The haunting sound of sea birds calling morning to light is perhaps one of the most beautiful I have ever heard and forever a memory of our time here. And yes, Ai Faraglioni itself in all its whitewash beauty is sublime. With everything you could ever want and more (it would be rude not to mention the jacuzzi amongst the rocks overlooking the sea and the private beach totally raw and rocky ) but it is to walk out onto the grounds and not just see this life changing view but to actually be a part of it, to be within it, that will forever be with us.
Oh the magic of Scopello, our first The Thinking Traveller stay in Sicily was only a short 28km drive from Palermo airport. Our destination was Ai Faraglioni, a villa on the coast between the Golfo di Castellammare and the nature reserve of Lo Zingaro. Located in what could only be described as the one of the most beautiful spots in all of Sicily, and to date one of my favourite destinations in Italy.
The area feels completely old Italia, still protected and undeveloped. It has a unique combination of special charms and offerings which for us, make all the right ingredients for a damn near perfect family holiday.
Oh, and wouldn't you know it; Ai Faraglioni sits nestled between all the good stuff. To one side, only a five minute drive you will find Guidaloca Beach. This is a stretch of crystal blue waters on a pebbly beach with a pretty darn cute old school lido to lounge around, play, eat, drink and be merry. On the other side is where in my dreams I still sit, on a rock, lizard-ing within the electric azures of the Tonnara but more on that later as this is a place so worthy of it’s own section.
Winding up the hill, again a five minute drive from our TTT home is the small village of Scopello, which on sunset is the place to wander. The village is centred around a fortified baglio (farmstead) which once upon a time provided shelter to local landowners animals and workers. We fell in love with the cobblestoned courtyard where people sat and drank rose while kids ran around playing tip and eating gelato. Scattered around the baglio, tucked down narrow lanes is where you will find local homes and quaint restaurants. There is a market feel to the baglio where people have stalls outside in the Summer season selling their wares. We met an Australian woman, an artist making fine bracelets from local stones and string. Look for her if you visit, her wares were lovely.
Tip | Our local TTT expert Barbara recommended we dine at La Terrazza, a rustic seafood restaurant with fabulous rose and even better views of the sea.
Speaking of food, Barbara also introduced us to what is the surprise of the town and that is quote “…a superb gastronomic hub, comprising a bar serving excellent rotisserie, cakes, ice-creams and light lunches, a mini-market with an exceptional deli and butcher's counter and a great selection of Sicilian wines, and a farm shop selling organic fruit and vegetables grown in the fields behind.”
A mere 1km drive from the villa and perfectly located en route to the Tonnera.
In short, this is the spot to get EVERYTHING, including chemists needs, groceries and necessary swimming apparatus. If anything, just go and stare at all the DELICIOUS locally made goods. Perfect for picnic needs to a days adventure.
Tonnara di Scopello
You know those moments when you feel you are about to see and experience something so incredible and special that you kind of get anxious? Instead of happy you get nervous, like you are so close that this can’t be real and it possibly might disappear before your very eyes? We had collected our tickets from the lovely woman in the very small booth allowing us to enter a pathway down a grassy hill, a walkway shadowed and fringed by the brightest bougainvillea I have ever seen. In between the bright I could see the most extraordinary pops of turquoise teasing me to hurry up before the unseen utopia disappeared.
The thing was, I hadn’t heard of the Tonnara before this very moment. Not officially. What I didn’t know was that our The Thinking Traveller villa was in swimming distance to a place I had dreamt about. A picture collected some time ago of two buildings on the edge of the sea that had captivated me. All I knew was that this picture was a place somewhere in Italy but I didn’t know where. That picture was part of the reason why we were here but then there it was, as in actually here. So in all my sentimental silliness I might have had an internal moment or maybe it was just the pure beauty of the place that took my breath away. In a small bay of incredible natural beauty sits Tonnara di Scopello, a tuna fishery dating back to the 13th Century, the Tonnara is a collection of historical buildings that pay homage to Sicily’s fishing tradition and history. At first I am not sure where to look. Is this a movie (the location for many a film ) or is this real?
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Antique anchors as big as Sugar, line the landing - framing arched holdings for old fisherman boats that were used back in the day. There is so much seafaring going on here that I might have possibly had a melt down. Small buildings and structures pepper the cove in creams and pinks and sun worshippers have the choice to lounge on what must be the most tasteful sun beds in all of Italy. Rows of natural canvas lidos edge what is almost a religious (you can find a small church also amongst the baglio of the Tonnara) swimming experience. We were there the beginning of June and the water was fresh but the sun was hot and smaller crowds more then made up for it. The water is crystalline and electric in colour, a green so deep and bright it's transfixing. Now home to a small museum and a bed and breakfast.
TIP | Get there early to grab the best sun lounge spot. No bookings here. Bring snacks as the ice cream machine might not do the trick for a full or half day session. If you are not into Siesta then the afternoons are a lot quieter as folks go home.
SICILIAN MOTTO | “Dolce far niente” means “the sweetness of doing nothing,”
This trip we would balance planned days with the same amount unplanned. Days where we didn’t have to see anything or be anywhere and we could take our time letting the day unfold at its own pace. We would also allocate a number of days where we wouldn’t leave our TTT villa and just venture out around the local villages and nearby countryside and coast. I think these are my favourite days.
Riserva naturale dello Zingaro
It's a tragedy that we did not get to explore more of this nature reserve. We were fortunate that our villa sat within its fringes so we could grasp the incredible beauty of this coastline whose home is Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve. This 7km stretch of coastline and the surrounding area make up the park which houses jaw dropping cliffs, sea stacks, grottos and deserted beaches. It is a half hour walk to discover these small coves but the isolation and natural beauty is a surpassing incentive. Perfect for hiking, nature lovers, bird watching, sun lizards, pirates and CATGK adventurers. You can camp in shelters at certain times of the year with permission from the park.
The Reserve has two entrances: one on the south at about one km from Scopello Village, the other on the north at about 12Km from the town of San Vito lo Capo.
LOCATION | South entrance - after a few kilometres from the Tonnara there is the large square of the Reserve. There you leave the car in the parking area and walk from Cala di Mazzo of Sciacca through the Reserve paths. And for the North entrance - get the Strada Statale 187 up to the junction for San Vito lo Capo. From the town go on to Villaggio Calampiso- Reserve the Zingaro.
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As most of you know getting the kids excited about visiting historical landmarks can sometimes be a challenge but when you dangle a cable car ride as part of the deal, exploration of a real life Medieval castle and a visit to Italy’s most famous pastry shop let me tell you, you are winning.
Erice is a 50 minute drive from Scopello and sits overlooking Western Sicily, in particular the city of Trapani. Looking up into the clouds we would often see the castles reaching beyond the clouds high up in this mountain village and we would know just how far we were from anywhere.
We loved this adventure as it felt completely old world. That perhaps we had lived in the time of Hercules who apparently had also hung out in the hood. The cobblestone streets are a complete maze, packed with small hotels, bars, cafe’s and the homes of locals. The village is bustling with music, noise, chatter and a wonderful place to sit, eat, drink and people watch. From here you look out to Western Sicily over Trapani to the Aegadian Islands and it becomes clear why this dramatically beautiful land has been the home to uninterrupted invasions since the beginning of time.
Tip | Park and ride the cable car but if this is not your thing you can also drive to the top. We chose to get lost with no plan but tickets and maps can be purchased on entry to the village to visit historical sights. Make sure you stop at Pasticceria Maria Grammatico for a sweet treat.
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We only passed through this town on our way to the Egadi Islands as this is the main port of departure where you can choose to catch privately chartered vessels, timetabled ferries and hydro foils. Trapani sits very close to Erice and has a bustling port and food scene and is a recommended spot for an aperitif and meal on sunset after a day out sailing and island hopping. Our small experience with Trapani was brief but enough for us to want to return and explore more. It was here that I got a small glimpse into the antique world of Sicily that I had been keeping an eagle out for. Lost (how surprising) in the small streets of the old town (my favourite) we stopped dead in the middle of the road after sighting a store entrance covered in antique copper pots and pans, fishing baskets and aged ceramics. Despite the chaos we caused, locals helped us edge an impossible park so I could lament over impossible carry on but it led us to go further into the town and me wanting more time to explore this antiquity resource.
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Enter Capitano Mimmo and his lovely wife Francesca onboard the Mare Azzurro. A solid recommendation from Michela our The Thinking Traveller adventure expert who I really have to thank for making us realise that Sicily experienced from the water is about seeing it in a completely different light.
We were met at the bustling port of Trapani where Francesca and her husband warmly welcomed us onboard their boat where we would set sail for the day to explore the Egadi Islands. We invested in a private charter as this was a very special treat for us and we wanted the freedom to stop and swim and spend time where we chose as the day unfolded (also helps being able to head home if the kids reach max capacity) . Francesca speaks a little English and Mimmo none which works out perfect. They were so lovely, warm and so wonderful with the kids. Both locals were passionate about their home and share it in the most wonderful and intimate of ways. They can help you either curate an itinerary from their vast knowledge of the islands and surrounding coast or they are more than accommodating to focus on where ever you want to go and do.
I would recommend at least visiting two of the Islands and if possible all three. Onboard the price includes a complimentary lunch but if I did it all again I would time it for lunch in one of the restaurants on the islands after swimming around the grotto’s and caves.
Capitano Mimmo @mare_azzurro_mare
This is the biggest of the three islands and is about 10 miles from Trapani. An easy boat ride we loved Favignana for for it’s main town with piazzas and small winding lanes. It is the most developed but still with incredible charm and beauty.
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Levanzo with its small ramshacled port and rocky coastline feels like it has somehow escaped modern times which is why we loved it so much. There is magic in its simpleness and I believe it would be a rare treat to holiday here and really stand still. With barely any accomodation, one village (Cala Dogana ) one road, two shops, two hotels and two restaurants. Like the other islands there are caves and grottos to be explored including the famed Grotta del Genovese.
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About an hour from Trapani this is the most isolated of the three islands and perhaps the quietest for this very fact. Locals like visitors not tourists which is a drawcard in itself. Stunning waters surround the island with dersetetd pebbled beaches which can be access by the hand of a local fisherman.
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Tip | Prices vary according to season and time. Instagram is an easy method of contact. They also do charters around Scopello and Lo Zingaro. Different boats and yachts can be rented.
Exclusive to The Thinking Traveller client is a service called Think Experiences. Have you heard of such a thing? I had not which is why I think this needs a special shout out. In all my travels and bookings I have never been offered something like this. To work with a team of local experts on the ground to curate experiences that suit your needs really took the pressure and stress away from us to know and find these enriching experiences that can only be had here in Sicily. From tours and guides (the best in the biz), food and wine (in villa chefs to cooking lessons), yachts and speedboats (game changer), arriving and getting around (vintage car or helicopter?), heck they can even help with your destination wedding or special event. Every detail considered, even on where to park! In Sicily the team helped us lock in a dynamic kids focused tour with an archaeologist in Selinunte, we sailed the high seas of the Egadi Islands with Capitano Mimmo and experienced an authentic Sicilian meal cooked at home in our villa where we could watch, taste, help and ask questions about the rich history of food in the region.
SICILIAN PHRASES YOU NEED TO KNOW
Â saluti! | Cheers!
Ti Vogghiu Beni | I Love You
Comu semu? | How's it going?
Iu unn parru sicilianu | I do not speak Sicilian
Futtitinni | Don't worry about it!
Spacchiuso | Cool!
Mangiasti? | Have you eaten? (the first thing they will ask you when you walk through the door)
What I love about The Thinking Traveller, and what I spoke about in our Puglia guide, is that most of their properties are in remote places, off the beaten track in some cases, as was our next stay in the villa Angheli. This felt like we had imagined old Italy to be. The real Sicily, which is actually always Sicily as Sicilians can only be just that, real. Here we drove along roads with barely a soul in sight. Miles of olive trees and vineyards to keep us company as we made our way into wine and oil country. Of course we got lost and of course we thought that was awesome. So stoked on just being here that even seeing a donkey on the side of the road made us giddy with excitement, enough for me to even be very, very patient with Sammy who would want to stop every so often to pick wild poppy flowers. Bless. Down a dirt lane, across a field and down another dusty road, pass rambling farm buildings and small stone out houses already we belonged. Somewhere, somehow in the middle of this sits Angheli. A sophisticated abode set amongst the vines looking out to the Belice Nature Reserve and the sparkling sea beyond. We were greeted by the owners on arrival which was really lovely as it gave us a greater appreciation of their home and hospitality. This is a place to really retreat and a great place for base camp as you explore the Southern side of Sicily. We really loved all the secluded spots around the property that connected the main house to the guest house. Private gardens for sun lounging, picnics under the bougainvillaea and citrus trees and the perfect amount of olive tree shade to take that very important Siesta.
Alice in Sicily Land. That is really all I need to say. Lucky for you that The Thinking Traveller gave us Alice and we are giving her to you. This wonderful, happy and passionate individual ignited and inspired the minds of not only the kids but Sam and I in the most glorious of ways. Who is Alice? Why is she in Sicilyland? Alice is an archaeologist who lives, breathes and shares with gusto her country’s colourful history. We arrived at the Archaeological Park of Selinunte knowing nothing of Greek civilisation in Sicily and left with our minds full of stories about Hera, Zeus, Europa, Mino, Poseidon and Hercules as well as a new found appreciation and appetite for exploring historical ruins. Alice had packed the kids her version of a “real archaeologist” kit for the kids to trace and draw their discoveries and theories around the park, genius! As we wandered back into the colourful stories some 2500 years ago it was a great day as a parent to see their faces come alight with excitement and curiosity for such history. I cannot recommend getting in touch with Alice regardless of your age group or archaeological park but make sure you put this one on your list, the temple ruins stand against the sky and the sea making the park one of the largest in Europe at 250acres and one of the most spectacular.
Tip | If you are not a fan of large tourist crowds but are a history fan, choose Selinunte over Agrigento - Valley Temples. After a half day tour which is plenty head to Li Penta, a close by beach for seafood on the water and an afternoon of sun lounging.
THE LAND OF DESSERTS
Cannoli | Crispy pastry tube filled with creamy ricotta
Ricci Di Mandorla | Delicious Sicilian version of almond biscuits
Granita | Gelato's icy and refreshing cousin
Bacione di Toarmina | Pistachio covered almond 'kiss'
Cartocci | Basically a deep fried version of a cannoli (!)
Sfogliatelle | A shell-shaped filled Italian pastry, sometimes called a lobster tail
This is the magic spot on the Southern coast of Sicily. Along the South coast you will find sandy beaches, not grottos but the water is still bright as the proverbial blue. La Pineta is for those wanting something local and authentic, a restaurant, bar and lido. The lobster pasta was the best I have ever tasted and they make a damn well decent Aperol. Set in a fisherman shack on the edge of the sea this was my favourite place on the Southern coast of Sicily.
P.S - Make a booking for lunch and stay for dinner.
This little experience probably sums up how The Thinking Traveller operate. On the day we landed at Palermo airport it was early. We would be getting to our villa Angheli near Menfi around midday. Just like magic Michela (you know that adventure expert I mentioned earlier whose title is not really adventure expert, but I like it) filled the gap between check in and us having no plan by organising a visit to La Foresteria Estate. We had literally been travelling for two days and feeling pretty gross and fatigued. We didn’t really feel like we would have the energy but driving through the countryside through the fields of vines we felt reenergised by the wide open spaces, to be in the middle of what felt like nowhere in rural Sicily. Wild poppies were everywhere in vibrant red, donkeys grazed in the fields between the Olive groves and only every now and then would we see a car. In the middle of this resides the wine resort La Foresteria, a blush pink estate covered in overgrown cactus and lush herbs. As our first meal in Italy it was a spectacular introduction to the food culture of the area. With their sparkling signature rosé in hand we de-wired in the garden amongst the towering lavender and other aromatic herbs while our lunch was being curated in the open view kitchen using the estates sustainably grown and locally sourced produce.
La Foresteria | Planeta Estate
Sicilian coast and the calm of the country.
This was our first non The Thinking Traveller adventure in Sicily and can I tell you, didn’t we nearly get divorced. I do believe my maps reading talents are quite impressive but if you ask Sam after this trip he will tell you otherwise. Personally, I think he has control issues about listening to instructions but that’s just me. Either way we got VERY lost in the tiny, winding streets of the old town of Sciacca and it was HAIRY but also hilarious. It is unbelievable how helpful the locals are. Many times including this one a gentleman felt so sorry for us (or maybe he was trying to siesta) watching us burn rubber trying to reverse and do u-turns over and over that he went and got us a map of the city and then walked us out of the streets to where we we thought we were. GRAZIE. My long winded point it is worth getting lost in the streets of the old town as they are beautiful and alive with the everyday going ons of the locals. Just get a really, really small car. A few things you should know about this charming town is the influence of the Arabs who made the small trek across the sea from North Africa to take advantage of the abundant sea life. Now holding one of the biggest fishing fleets in all of Italy it’s worth a visit early in the mornings to the port to see the days catch come in and haggled over for the restaurants to serve up that day. Another thing which we discovered only recently was the town is literally a hotspot for thermal baths.
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Agrigento - Valley of the Temples
I am hoping you pull this one of more professionally than us. Valley of the Temples is IMPRESSIVE. Like IMPRESSIVE. As you drive over the hill past the city of Agrigento you start to see these majestic ruins scattered amongst the landscape and it is stunning. Built between about 510 BC and 430 BC this is where all the big guns had temples, we are talking Hercules, Zeus, Hera, Castor and Pollux, Concordia
….you get the picture. A UNESCO world heritage listed site it is one of the most important testaments to Greek culture and art and One of Sicily’s most famous historical attractions just do NOT GO ON A HOT DAY IN THE BUSIEST TIMES. The amount of traffic was overwhelming and we could not get a park, sadly having to turn around and experience all we could from the back car window.
Tip | I would suggest going on first light or the very end of day and perhaps skip the first Sunday of every month which is free admission making it incredible popular. Also ore booked tickets and a tour if needed.
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Top 6 Swimming Locations in Sicily
Riserva Naturale Dello
San Vito Lo Capo
The Turkish Steps (Agrigento)
Download Google Translate app so you can talk Italian to the locals, you will find many of the locals do not speak English so it will come in very handy.
Plan your day adventures around Siesta. The idea of late lunch doesn’t exist and more than once we found ourselves eating chips from a petrol station to keep the hunger monster at bay. Times vary depending on the type of business and in the summer hours they can be longer but usually it is from 12:00–1:30 pm to 2:30–4:00 pm. As we got more use to the Sicilian way we would pack picnics or hefty snack bags as some days we didn’t want to head back to the villa. Remember stores and business can close too but most tourist locations will stay open.
If booking with The Thinking Traveller, make good use of your private log in which is a dedicated area on the TTT website. Here Michela, our Think Exquisite Expert would save everything we needed to know and access for our organised adventures which she so kindly helped us choose. Payments, pick up locations, vouchers, everything is in this one location saving additional organisational stress.
Factor chartered boat or group boat hire into your travel budget and book ahead of time. We hadn’t really accounted for this not understanding that to visit this part of the world you really must experience it from the water. To have come this far and missed the incredible Egadi Islands would have been a travel tragedy.
When booking a rental car at Palermo airport double check it is within the airport. If you are travelling a great distance like we were from Australia the last thing you then want to do is line up, wait for a shuttle , move luggage in and out of additional vehicles and drive in the opposite direction of where you want to head.
GALLERIA | Tunnels on the freeway
CENTRO STORICO | Old Town / Historical Centre
APERITIVO | More than just a drink, the aperitivo is a moment spent in good company and a part of everyday life in Sicily. Often this was a way to welcome us and a polite acceptance is a good way to befriend locals. For locals this is usually after work between 7pm and 9pm and includes light snacks with a wine or campari.
BAGLIO | A large fortified farmstead or building
TONNARA | Sicilian fishing spot where nets are used to catch bluefin tuna
GROTTO | A picturesque cave
BAGLIO | The beautiful Italian courtyards in a country estate
FARAGLIONI | Oceanic rock sea stacks
TRAGHETTO | A jetty for the Gondolas (ferry)
NOLEGGIO | Rentals (cars, ferry, yacht etc)
ALMENTARI | Small grocery store
DISCOVER THE THINKING TRAVELLER IN SICILY
Now this is a little inside secret that would be rude not to share and that is no one does Sicily like the The Thinking Traveller. Is that a real declaration? Would I lie? Firstly yes and second no but please go to the their website and see for yourself. You see, Sicily was where founders Rossella and Huw Beaugié first launched their beloved The Thinking Traveller. Back in the day (2002) nobody was offering upscale villas in Sicily so they set out with a handful of the most beautiful properties at the time and the rest is history. They pretty much invented the luxury rental market here and Sicily is now one of Europes most sought after villa destinations. Not only that, Sicily is Rossella’s homeland and it this connection, understanding and passion for the land and its people that really makes the difference to the type of experience you will have here with them. It gives them an unrivalled local knowledge and locally based team of passionate Thinkers to illuminate all that makes this island so intriguing and uniquely Sicilian.
DISCOVER THE THINKING TRAVELLER IN SICILY HERE.
Read our first TTT travel journal, Postcards from Puglia HERE
Photography by Sam Elsom on location in Sicily