Over the last few years Steve and I have enjoyed going on holiday with my Mum using her timeshare. We went to Tenerife a couple of years ago, and Gran Canaria before that. We were working our way through the Canary Islands when Mum decided that the increasing costs of the scheme weren’t worth continuing. It worked out well for us as Mum paid the accommodation, we bought cheap flights, and we had a nice mini break- while Mum got a holiday abroad, which she wouldn’t do on her own. I love travelling though, and I felt a bit sorry that Mum wouldn’t be able to go away as easily, so I decided to book one last break as a surprise for her 60th birthday.
There was a bit of planning behind her back and a few white lies to pull it off, but in the end she came to stay with us for a few days with no idea that we were doing anything. I had asked her to bring her passport to help with a Boys Brigade project, she always comes with a travel size suitcase and toiletries, and I even persuaded her to bring her swimming costume ‘in case I manage to book a last minute spa deal for your birthday’. I found us a good flight and hotel deal on holiday pirates; worked out quite late that the hotel was on the other side of the island to the airport, so booked a cheap rental car and the associate excess insurance (with EasyJet in case, like me, you’re trawling through reviews and getting very confused- EasyJet were cheap and had no problems!). We were all set to go. The only trouble was that Mum turned up with twice as many bags as normal, and a massive chocolate cake that wasn’t going to eat itself- thank you Auntie Sharon!- the kids made a start and we finished it when we got back.
My initial plan was to not tell her anything until we got to the airport, but in the end I had to give her a heads up on the morning that she would need to pack her bag because we were flying. I did however, get all the way to the airport, through security, and sitting down with lunch before I finally caved and told her we were going to Sicily. She was very excited; she’d been there before with a group of clergy, but on a pre-arranged timetable that didn’t take in much outside of churches, and there was a lot more of Sicily that she wanted to see.
We were already due to arrive quite late in the evening, but the plane was delayed so we got in even later than planned. The original plan had been to try and find some food in Catania before driving to the hotel, but after trying that and realising that Italian driving takes some getting used to, we drove the 2 hours out to Porto Empedocle, checked in, and found a little pizzeria around the corner with cheap pizzas and local beer- all we really needed.
On our first day we woke up late and found it was a little bit damp- not entirely unexpected at the end of January, so we decided to have a trip out to the salt mines at Trapani to see some birds- as they don’t mind the rain. On the way we stopped at Sciacca where we grabbed some coffee and pancakes, and had a wander around the town in the rain. Sicily is full of scenic looking buildings, nice little balconies, and interesting details, so we spent a couple of hours taking photos in sheltered doorways. After a quick drink and cannoli (but not a very nice one) we carried on to Trapani.
We were making good progress along the main road, but when we came off onto a smaller road we were held up slightly by a herd of goats that decided they were going the same way as us. Not having many goats in the UK, we were quite excited and happy enough to just follow them down, however some of the locals were clearly used to goat behaviour and were quite happy to overtake and weave between them and carry on their way. Eventually the goat-dog got his herd to his farmer, via a very small newborn, and we continued on our way.
We weren’t sure exactly where in Trapani we needed to go- we knew we were vaguely looking out for flamingos, and our NavMii, although very good when you had an address, wasn’t very good at finding tourist destinations. We drove around the nature reserve for a bit before eventually finding a good place to stop where we could walk along a path with flamingos, windmills, some jumping fish, a kingfisher, and some other birds that Mum was very excited about.
Although the rain had stopped it wasn’t very warm so eventually we gave up and drove to Trapani itself to find some coffee and decide where we were going for tea. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll probably have picked up that food is quite a large part of the reason I like to travel, and I tend to find food experiences that are specifically local to wherever I am. We didn’t really have time to do that this time, but with only a limited number of meals we wanted to make sure we chose places to eat that were going to be interesting and have good food. So we decided to drive to Marsala- which was sort of on the way back, and found a couple of options on Trip Advisor before we set off. The first one we chose didn’t seem to exist where it said it was, so we found a car park and walked into the old part of Marsala to find our second choice- Il Girasole. It was probably the best meal we had all holiday. It was a tiny restaurant, owned by a man and his wife and although locals popped in and out all evening for a chat and a drink, there were no other customers. But the food was incredible. We had a huge sharing platter of meats and cheeses, followed by sardine pasta and swordfish, then a little cassata siciliana to share to finish off. It was so good I tried to recreate it when I got home- but more on that later.
We decided that we would do another day with a lot of driving to save the local sites for our last day, so on our second day we drove out to Syracuse, and the island Ortigia that is attached to it. Mum fell in love with Ortigia straight away, which was helped by driving all the way around it to find a parking space. It also helped that it was a beautifully sunny day when we went, so we pulled into a pretty marina with the sun glinting off the sea and the boats gently bobbing, with convenient fishermen sitting mending their nets. There were even a few fishing cats around!
As Syracuse is so far away from Porto Empedocle, we initially wandered into a little square where we could drink coffee and eat pizza overlooking the ruined Temple of Apollo before heading to the Duomo di Siracusa via the Fontana di Diana. Like in Sciacca, the streets themselves were beautiful and in the sun you could appreciate the light coloured buildings and the sun glinting off the marble on the statue of Diana, as well as admiring the stunning cakes in shop windows!
The cathedral itself is an imposing building inside a huge square which I can imagine must be full of people in the summer. There are a few cafes with tables outside to encourage that, but in January there were just a handful of tourists and a man walking his dog. I didn’t find the inside of the cathedral quite as impressive- although the sun did make lovely colours through the stained glass windows. The text ‘Ecclesia Syracusana Prima Divi Petri Filia Et Prima Post Antiochenam Christo Dicata’ was written around the inside- if anyone speaks Latin and can tell me what that means then let me know! As in many Catholic Cathedrals, there were some bone relics safely stored away, but I’m never sure who the bones belonged to.
After another quick coffee overlooking the sea we made our way back to the car along what would be a lively promenade in the summer, with children’s rides and buggies packed away, but then just had a few more dog walkers. We walked past the old gateway into the town and then through the marina and over a couple of cobbled bridges, before making a quick trip into Syracuse itself.
There were a couple of things we would have liked to see, but because it was quite late in the day, and also off-season, they were closed. Firstly were the Catacombes di San Giovanni, we managed to see the outside of the church of San Giovanni, the entrance to the catacombs and a few cats, but that was about it. Then we walked over to a park containing a Roman Ampitheatre, and apparently the ear of Dionysius, however they were closing when we arrived so we didn’t get in to see that either. Although there was another cat.
Instead we decided to take a scenic route back and went via the mountain top town of Ragusa. We didn’t really think it through, as mountain top means tiny windy roads, and it was dark by the time we were approaching, but it really was beautiful lit up at night. We stopped again for food at a little seafood restaurant called Monsu. The restaurant itself was beautiful, it felt like it was in an old wine cellar with arched ceilings and doorways. The food again was local specialities, but more stew based than the previous. It was nice, but the highlight was definitely dessert. We ended up sharing a cannoli- but a fresh one with a mascarpone cream filling, and a beautiful chocolate brownie type cake with coffee. The journey back was still a bit hairy, and seemed to take a long time, but we eventually made it back and looked forward to a quieter day.
We realised that we hadn’t actually seen any of where we were staying so decided to go and have breakfast in Porto Empedocle on our final full day. It was a good choice as the town had a lovely, provincial feeling main street where we could sit with hot chocolate and croissants and watch people going past. We drove along the coast for a bit towards Scala Dei Turchi before heading to the place I was most excited about.
We were lucky that the day was beautiful and sunny because when we went up to the Valley of Temples just outside Agrigento, the atmosphere felt as though we could have been transported to Greece- which is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. Past cultures conveniently placed all of the islands temples in a straight line so that you can just walk from one to the other. First you come to the Temple of Castor and Pollux, only the corner of which remains but which was clearly surrounded by a lot of other buildings, which was where a lot of temple life took place, particularly in relation to women’s worship. Across the valley you can also see the Temple of Vulcan, but it’s not as easily accessible.
When you’ve walked through the remains you come to what would have been the Temple of Zeus Olympus. It’s difficult to see that now as you enter through what would have been the rear, and only the outline of the walls remain. You can see the scale of how big it would have been, but it’s difficult to work out the layout of picture what it would have looked like. There are two atlases on the floor that would have been part of the pillars, which gives you a suggestion of how tall it would have been, but it’s not the most impressive of the bunch.
After crossing a bridge, the next temple is the Temple of Hercules. I have a bit of a soft spot for this one, but I think it’s mainly because of my love of Disney. The temple has about 8 pillars remaining on one side out of the 13 there would have been originally, and a lot of huge rocks again show the scale of the building. The path takes you along one side, and there’s a drop on the other so you don’t get to see much of what the interior would have been like, but it is very pretty!
The next temple along is the most complete, which is the Temple of Concordia. It’s the most impressive as it is the most similar to what you would expect a Greek temple to look like, with the pillars and the triangle roof. There’s a wide path leading up to it which adds to it’s grandeur, and on the far side is a statue of Icarus which lends to the Greek feeling. The elevation also gives you a good view out over the Sicilian countryside.
There’s a bit of a gap then before the next temple, which is because the defensive walls became tombs for early Christians. The thick walls had crevices hollowed out where people could be buried, in addition to further catacombs below. There were some tensions between Christians and other cultures when it came to appropriating the temples, but Christians would have been in Sicily very early on- Paul at one point landed at Syracuse so there may have been Christians buried there who had met him.
The final temple you come to is the Temple of Juno. The pillars are all remaining, although not much is left of some of them, but the roof has completely disappeared. You can imagine how impressive it would have looked though, at the end of the valley, with views out for miles over Sicily, towards the sea and back over the other temples. We got there as the sun was at the right place in the sky for it to be flaring and giving some nice light behind the temple. From there you could also look back at the cemetery in Agrigento. Italian cemeteries are very different from the UK, with huge buildings built up over graves so you could mistake them for a miniature city.
We walked along a lower path on the way back which took us past some lovely goats, as well as the lower tombs below the wall, which just looked like a series of tiny chambers until you work out what it is.
As it was such a beautiful day, we decided to try and stay within sight of the temples when the sun set so we could try and get some photos of them lit up at night. We ended up at a lovely restaurant, Il Re de Girgenti, on the Via Panoramica, with a balcony overlooking the temples of Concordia and Juno. There was lots of fish again including a fried selection and savoury cannoli, but the most memorable part was ordering a tiramisu and the waiter came and made it in front of us on the table by putting sponges at the bottom of a bowl, soaking it in sweetened coffee, pouring on mascarpone and finishing with sprinkling it with cocoa powder. It was probably the best tiramisu I’ve ever had.
On our final day we decided that we would have a change in weather and go and visit Mount Etna on the way to the airport. We set off nice and early and trundled off in our little smart car. The poor car had no idea what was in store. It was quite happy on the motorway, but then the satnav decided to take us off piste and took us along the service roads between the orange fields. The roads aren’t really designed for little tourist cars so we pumped our way along until we finally came out onto a normal road, and began to go from village to village, getting higher up the mountain. The car coped fairly well to start with, but as the roads got steeper it was increasingly struggling, and was trying its best to crawl along in second gear, with occasional boosts in first. But we did make it in the end, and parked in a very snowy car park surrounded by teenagers in snow suits preparing to go hiking. We, surprisingly enough, didn’t go hiking. Instead we took some more photos, trawled around the smorgasbord of tourist shops to bring back last minute cat sitting gifts, and then went and had the worlds biggest pizza in the restaurant at the top of the mountain.
On our way down we then stopped in every single lay by to get a different view of the landscape down the volcano, and eventually to get some photos of the top of Etna itself. I was very thankful it didn’t erupt when we were up there or we would never have made it down the bendy roads in time! We still had time to stop for a final hot chocolate before our flight, so we got to the airport in plenty of time, only to find that our flight was delayed anyway. We eventually landed in a very snowy Bristol at midnight before driving back to Swansea and going straight to sleep!
Before Mum left the next day I found some Italian hot chocolate from Carluccios that I’ve had for years and made her a final one to ease back into real life. When we were at the restaurant in Marsala the menu had included a recipe for Cassata Siciliana- in Italian of course. So I took a photo, brought it back and translated it with Google translate, then attempted to make it for a meeting! I’ll post the recipe I used below, and although the ingredients were right, I don’t think I quite got the hang of assembly. The ones we had were mini so I couldn’t compare it, but I don’t think the layers of cake were supposed to be as thick as I had them. I also got impatient by the time I came to icing it, so it wasn’t as thick as it was supposed to be. It still tasted pretty good though, so it’s a good starting point.
So, there is 3 and a half days in Sicily for you, I hope you enjoyed! Keep reading if you want a cake recipe, if not check in soon and I’ll be writing some actual church type stuff on the Lego Movie.
Cassata Siciliana Recipe
-400g sponge cake
-green food colouring
-500g sheeps ricotta
-60g chocolate chips
-50g candied fruit
-1 vanilla pod
-150g icing sugar
-large pieces of candied fruit (to decorate)
– Sift the ricotta through a colander with large holes. Mix 250g sugar, the chocolate chips, the candied fruit and the vanilla seeds.
-Cut the sponge cake in two discs around 8mm thick. Colour the marzipan and roll it out in a sheet.
-Line the edges of a baking tin with trapezoids (look it up!) of marzipan, alternating with sponge cake of around a 5cm width around the diameter of your tin. Place a disc of sponge on the bottom of your tin. Make a syrup by dissolving 50g of sugar in 100ml of water and the rum. Use this to soak the sponge.
-Fill the sponge with the ricotta and cover with another disc of sponge. Weigh the top down with a plate and leave to rest in the fridge for 12 hours. Frost with the icing sugar dissolved in 50ml of water, or enough to produce a thick consistency. Decorate the top with candied fruit.