A Sicilian road trip with Palermo as your starting point
The vibrant city of Palermo is the perfect starting point for going on day trips and discovering more of the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea.
Here are 3 outings you absolutely shouldn’t miss:
Riserva dello Zingaro
“In the late 1970s, politicians wanted to build a road along the coast from the village of San Vito to Palermo, but the locals said no. To stop construction they headed out, hand in hand, and created a human chain along the coast. Until the politicians gave up. A couple of years later, the area became a nature reserve,” says Alfio Poma with tremendous pride.
Poma is a guide in La Riserva dello Zingaro and has worked here since 1987. He couldn’t have a more enviable workplace. It’s so beautiful that Instagram risks being swamped by images of the turquoise sea, wild nature and high mountains in the background. The views are a cross between a Dolce Gabbana advert and a Jurassic Park movie. Without the dinosaurs, that is.
The 1,700-hectare reserve is about a 90-minute drive west of Palermo. And the only way to make your way around the reserve is on foot. The small trails, edged by palms and greenery, take you to small picture-postcard, pretty beaches and sun-drenched cliffs. The magical turquoise sea looks so inviting, it’s almost impossible not to go for a swim. In the background, tall, bare mountains reach skywards.
There’s a variety of trails to choose from. The simplest hugs the coastline and is seven kilometers long. The most demanding route is 13km and rises 900m above sea level. There are two entrances to the reserve, one from the village of Scopello, that’s closest to Palermo, and another from San Vito, a village further west.
“If you want to swim, the entrance from San Vito is best. The Scopello entrance is further from the beaches. But it’s also more suitable for hikers,” Poma says, adding that the finest beaches, Cala Beretta, Cala Disa and Cala Marinella are in the middle of the nature reserve.
“It takes an hour to walk there and an hour to walk back, so not everyone has the energy to do this. But it’s worth it,” he says. We can only concur. The views of the untouched nature are hard to beat. There’s something to feast your eyes on in every direction.
“Zingaro” means gypsy in Italian, but nobody is quite sure why the area is called this.
“Perhaps it was because of the shepherds that kept sheep here for long periods and lived like gypsies,” Poma says, as we inhale the scents of Mediterranean herbs and the salty sea air.
The reserve not only offers a wonderful nature experience. If you want a break from the sun and sea, you can visit any of the three small museums in the reserve. One tells the story of tuna fishing that was historically important for the local economy. Another presents the life of farmers in earlier generations and their traditions, plus a display of old tools. The third demonstrates the ancient tradition of basket weaving using dwarf palm leaves.
“The dwarf palm tree is the symbol of the reserve and can be found everywhere,” says the woman sitting weaving a basket who points to three small palm trees just outside the door. She explains how the leaves are left to dry in the sun and then woven together using an ancient technique that looks very complicated. It takes over a week to make a picnic basket – if you have nimble fingers, that is. But a picnic basket comes in very handy when you visit La Riserva dello Zingaro. So, it can be worth the effort.
Where to stay: Four-star hotel by the sea
La Battigia is about 30 minutes from Scopello, and therefore perfect if you want to visit the nature reserve. The hotel is on one the longest beaches in Sicily. The interior design is plain, the personnel friendly. The hotel also has a pool and bicycles to borrow, while the restaurant is headed by ambitious chef Rosario Siragusa, who prepares delicious seafood dishes.
La Battigia di Alcamo Marina
Lungomare La Battigia, 91011 Alcamo Marina
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Villas, art, star chefs and sardines in Bagheria
“It’s all about sardines – once I was even asked to make a sardine-shaped cake for a children’s party,” says Tony Lo Coco, chef and owner of the restaurant I Pupi di Bagheria, that has one star in the Guide Michelin. The restaurant is in the town of Bagheria, ten minutes by train east of Palermo and is one of the most talked about in Sicily, with its elegant style and intensive flavors. Lo Coco has also recently opened a simpler bistro next door, called Unetto, where he serves panini with mouthwatering gourmet fillings.
“It’s a privilege to be a chef in Sicily, I source all my ingredients within a two-kilometer radius,” Lo Coco says with a smile.
Obviously, sardines are on the menu as they have always played an important part in Bagheria’s economy.
Lo Coco is a good example of how Bagheria has woken up after a long stupor, when nobody seemed able to make the most of everything worth discovering here. And that’s a long list. For example, the fantastic villas that were built in the area by rich families from Palermo from the mid 17th century onwards, displaying a remarkable mix of fixtures, fittings, decorations and styles that embrace everything from baroque to neoclassicism.
“There are 33 villas in an area of six square kilometers. Some are private but you can visit many of them, including Villa Cattolica, which has a museum dedicated to the political artist Renato Guttuso, who came from Bagheria,” says the young mayor, Filippo Maria Tripoli.
The museum is worth a visit. It also has rooms dedicated to the photographer Ferdinando Scianna and a gallery with some magnificent movie posters. Some are by Giuseppe Tornatore, a director who won an Oscar for Cinema Paradiso, and, who, like Ferdinando Scianna and Renato Guttuso, was born in Bagheria.
Another villa you must visit is Villa Palagonia. It was home to an eccentric character who decorated his residence with scary monsters and bizarre figures. It also has fantastic ceilings and murals and many people claim it’s one of the most beautiful villas in Europe. That may well be the case, but you wouldn’t want to be locked in here overnight, that much is certain.
The mayor explains that the mafia has been a strong presence in the town, but that the people today want more.
“My generation do not accept the mafia, a great deal has happened in a very short space of time, in a positive sense. I believe we can get rid of the mafia by creating beauty and opportunities,” he says.
One of the people who went against the mafia and refused to pay pizzo,or protection money, is Michelangelo Baristero. After the second world war, his family started a canning factory, Baristero, where they canned sardines.
“We are honest people. We’re like the sardines in the sea – small but there are many of us, so we can stand up to the dangerous big fish,” Baristero says, as he shows us round the sardine museum that he’s opened with his brother.
A stop along the way
Sant´Elia is a tiny bathing resort just outside Bagheria. It feels like you’re in a 1950s Italian movie set here, with families eating on the beach and children playing and jumping from the cliffs into the crystal-clear water. Stopping here is a must.
Via dei Cantieri, 90017 Santa Flavia PA,
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Piana degli Albanesi
Piana degli Albanesi is a small village just north of Palermo, 650m above sea level and reached via winding roads that snake up the mountains. Driving a car in Sicily can be a challenge, but you’re more than compensated by fantastic views with broom-clad hills, high mountains and dramatic valleys.
Piana degli Albanesi has a fascinating history. The town was founded in 1488 by a group of Albanian refugees who had fled during the Ottoman Empire. Their culture and language continue to live on, and the people here speak a kind of old Albanian today. All the road signs are in both Italian and Albanian.
“For culture lovers, there are some beautiful churches to explore, including Cattedrale San Demetrio, which has remarkable painted ceilings. You can still take Byzantine Rite mass here. People who have never seen it find it very interesting,” says a woman we meet in Vittorio Emanuele square in the town.
Two elderly men in hats and with twisted spines are sitting on a bench, seemingly engaged in an animated conversation about something very important. Meanwhile, two boys are soaking each other with water from a fountain, until a female voice shouts to them from a window to stop.
The fountain is called Tre Cannoli. It’s cannoli that persuades many people to come here from far and wide. Many people claim the best cannoli in Sicily is made here. These fried tubes of pastry filled with sweet ricotta are pretty much sacred on the island, so the bar is set high from the start.
Patisserie and bar Extra Bar Petta in the center of Piana degli Albanesi is renowned for its cannoli. Owner Nicola Petta, a third-generation baker, tells us the secret behind perfect pastry and filling.
“Everything must be done by hand. A cannolo should feel light ,so we only use 300g of sugar to a kilo of ricotta. The cheese must be made from sheep’s milk, not from cow or goat. For our dough, we use flour, lard and rosé wine with 12% alcohol. This gives the dough the right airiness – the wine must not be stronger than that, otherwise it won’t be good,” he says, as he fills pastry with delicious white ricotta.
Petta says that he personally eats cannoli every day and never tires of them. Naturally, they’re absolutely delicious.
“If you call ahead, you can have a tour of the bakery to see how we work,” Petta says, whose son is now in charge of production.
“He’s the fourth generation Petta to make cannoli,” says his proud father.
There’s also a museum in Piana degli Albanesi with traditional costumes that’s worth a visit. Here, for example, you can see a beautiful, traditional wedding dress whose belt is an impressive work of art, made of gold thread and so shiny that brides are said to be dressed by the sun. The locals also like to have a picnic or walk around the small lake, Lago della Piana degli Albanesi.
If you fancy a rest and good wine after all the sweet things, head to Baglio di Pianetto, a beautiful vineyard just a stone’s throw from Piana degli Albanesi. In addition to making award winning wines here, they also have a beautiful hotel and restaurant.
“We arrange wine tastings, but you can also book a horse ride and massage. Many people who come here like to cycle or wander along the beautiful paths that wind through the vines,” says Laura, who has worked here for thirteen years.
All thirteen hotel rooms have magnificent views. Kilometer-long rows of vines cling to the hillside before disappearing into the valleys. Who wouldn’t enjoy a glass of wine by the side of the pool at sunset, while dreaming of a perfect cannolo?
Published: August 2, 2019