Living as a repatriated expat for the last seven months in the Holy City of food, Charleston, I’ve found myself thinking of some of the best food I’ve eaten, other than here. Last year at this time I was living with my family in Amsterdam and took a trip to Agrigento, Sicily over my daughter’s week long school break. This is where I learned to make cannolis. I can still remember how good they tasted.
While visions of Sicily may conjure up a scene from The Godfather where young Michaelhikes through the arid and barren hillsides of Corleone biding time to avenge a vendetta, or marry a beautiful Italian girl on a whim, the reality is this large Italian island hanging off the “boot” is so much more. At first impression while driving on the highways, (some that just end abruptly for a better way around), you may think it’s somewhat stuck in a fascinating time warp. And perhaps it is, lucky for us.
The farther south you travel in Europe, the slower the passing of time, it seems. In Sicilyyou feel this everywhere. You’ll see immediate signs of modernity – the giant wind turbines scattered and turning next to olive grower’s huts that seem hundreds of years old. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were driving through the hillsides of Ireland, with the bright beautiful lush green landscape unspoiled for miles.
While southern Sicily is beautiful, it could really benefit from an “Adopt A Highway” program to shed a negative light on the downside of tossing large amounts of garbage on the sides of roadways. Road garbage aside, we were happy to be far enough south in Europe this time last year escaping a Siberian wind and snow ban called the “Beast from the East.”
Since we were expats living in Amsterdam, we took advantage of low airfares and our daughter’s weeklong Crocus Break and spent a week in Agrigento, Sicily. Arriving in Catania late in the dark, we wound our way in our rental car from one side of the island to the other, on highway roads with countless tunnels cut though hills and random construction alerts. One even had a stoplight leading to a few roundabouts, then an industrial park and back on the highway. At times our navigation system seemed lost as we followed the highway signs instead of the GPS’ instructions, obviously made before the new unfinished highway.
Undeterred after two hours winding and weaving along, we arrived in Agrigento and were greeted by bright lights high up in the distance shining majestically on enormous ancient temples and ruins that looked like they belonged somewhere in ancient Greece. Dating back to the 5th Century BC and built much like the Acropolis, but brown in color, sits the Valley of the Temples, an archeological Unesco World Heritage site.
After a very comfortable night sleep at the Hotel Villa Athena, we were eager to see the island in the day. Our first excursion took us to a natural wonder, the Scala dei Turchi, which translates to “stairs of the Turks”. Legend says Sicily was invaded by the Turks who used these stairs to sneak in and try to take over. Very easy to find in Realmonte in quiet February, we followed signs leading us down a harrowing incline filled with giant rocks and holes to park. We enjoyed a quiet unassuming walk through little sand dunes toward the beach, and were happily surprised to find just a lone fisherman in waders standing in the warm Mediterranean Sea on one of Europe’s best beaches, according to Travelzoo. The striking contrast of white marl steps jarring out into the blue green water is a photographer’s delight. It was so peaceful I wish we had brought a picnic.
We then set off to explore around the edge of southern Sicily and found a lovely lunch spot and the only place open at a highly rated restaurant, our first real Sicilian meal. If you are a seafood lover, you should go to Sicily. Every kind of seafood is on the menu, no matter what restaurant you go to. From mussels, clams, squid and lobster, to all kinds of fish. Sitting next to the beach on an outdoor veranda in the hot sun and smelling salt air, we ordered a sampling of pasta and seafood dishes with a nice white Italian wine. Our waiter, restaurant owner and chef, spoke hardly any English but we had no trouble ordering or enjoying very attentive service with a smile. The rest of the day was spent driving through the countryside and marveling at the sheer unspoiled beauty and bright green landscapes dotted with olive groves, vineyards and a random farmhouse here and there.
Since the Valley of the Temples is on the same property of our hotel, we awoke early the next day and purchased discount tickets and entered through the hotel’s garden to stroll through the ancient ruins. It’s small enough to be done in an hour or so and offers amazing picture ops. It’s hard not to feel that you are standing somewhere otherworldly
While touring through southern Sicily stop in little ancient towns like seaside Sciacca boasting colorful ceramics shops. Hand painted ceramics are popular in southern Italy. Like Portugal, you’ll see ceramics everywhere. You may even see them even on stairways. Wander around off the beaten path to discover them.
Last on our itinerary was an authentic cooking class at the home restaurant Sapori di Grigenti complete with an English translator to interpret our teacher’s Italian instruction. Here in Sicily, simplicity and traditional (think old) ways of growing ingredients makes this cuisine authentically Italian, and in Sicily, authentically Sicilian. We started with the end. In Sicily, dessert usually includes cannolis. Did you know that cannoli shells have vinegar in them? They do! Once we made the dough for the cannolis, we put it in the fridge for the next two hours and started on the rest of the menu.
Our lunch menu included stuffed artichokes with peppered pecorino cheese, scallions and chopped artichoke stalks, then stuffed squid with chopped squid tentacles, tomatoes, breadcrumbs, basil and garlic, and for the main course homemade cavatelli pasta and sauce. Vegans would love this pasta recipe: flour, water, salt. It’s so incredibly easy. I wonder why everyone doesn’t just make homemade cavatelli.
It’s fair to say that a trip to any part of Italy should include lots and lots of eating. I like to say tasting. It sounds less fattening. And after a week in Italy nothing tasted better than those cannolis made with vinegar. Who would have thought?