With miles of wild, sandy beaches, a rich history and even richer cuisine, Stylist’s editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski falls for south-east Sicily
As our car winds around another goosebump-inducing hairpin bend, the temperature gauge rapidly falls. 29, 28, 27… each mile wiping away another few degrees, the lush green landscape replaced by chunks of reformed molten rock and displaced boulders. Just 90 minutes before I’d been sprawled by an infinity pool, guzzling salty caponata and chunks of watermelon, while gazing at azure waters. Now I was about to scale Europe’s most active volcano. Such is life in Sicily.
Sicily has been a travel hotspot for the last few years, in most part thanks to its incredible food scene. Palermo and Taormino have become the island’s poster girls, but the south-east promises something else – 2,500 years of history, more Greek temples than Greece, and miles of sandy beaches protected by a nature reserve which bustles with flamingoes and fancy birds. And it is that which has tempted me to its southernmost shores, about as far south in Italy as you can get.
We decide to stay near the historical towns of Syracuse and Noto in Casa Luza, a villa perched on a hillside overlooking lemon and apricot groves that tumble down towards the Ionian sea. Unlike the baroque architecture in those neighbouring towns, our villa is just a few years old; modern, airy, but still filled with comfort and character and furnishings that make you want to head straight to The White Company as soon as you land in the UK. Neutral stone colours, high windows and flowing soft whites drapes make the pad homely and relaxed, and its well-equipped indoor and outdoor kitchens (there’s two of everything), Hockney-worthy pool and breathtaking views make this six-bedroom villa a truly luxe place to stay, as well as the perfect base for exploring those towns and beaches that make Sicily so unique.
First on our list is Noto, an incredibly well-preserved baroque town, rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693. The streets are lined with galleries and artisan restaurants and stylish people sipping negronis. After exploring the cathedral we spot a an alfresco seat at Ristorante La Cattedrale and tuck into plates of local mozzarella and tomato bruschetta to watch the sun set over the limestone cathedral, basking in the golden glow. From there we head to Ristorante & Pizzeria L’Antico Mercato Noto for dinner in the prettiest of courtyards, tucking into piles of salty ricotta-laden pasta alla norma.
Nearby Syracuse (the birth place of Archimedes, fact fans) is far busier, not surprising when you consider it was once one of the most important cities in the Western world. Our first stop is the archaeological park, packed with the remains of amphitheatres where gladiators once fought lions. From there, if you’re hungry to see more of Sicily’s past head to the nearby Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum, crammed with artefacts. But if you’re hungry hungry go to Ortigia, a tiny island at the heart of Syracuse where restaurants – and amazingly good pizzerias – cluster alongside potato lorries and apricot stands on traditional Sicilian squares.
When you’ve had your cultural fill, it’s nature’s turn to wow at the Vendicari Nature Reserve, a series of sandy wild beaches and salt lakes which play host to flamingos in the autumn. We followed the locals, laden with parasols, chairs and gallons of water along sandy boardwalks and discovered a series of beautiful unspoilt coves. One of my favourite things about the reserve is the agriturismo that line the road as you enter. Locals open up their homes and serve feasts on their lawns. Agruturismo Il Baglietto is just one of these restaurants where we lunch like a Dolce & Gabbana advert, sheltered by the dappled shade of trees, gorging on antipasti and caponata (cinnamon-infused aubergine stew), freshly grilled swordfish and sardines along with glasses of crisp local rose.
If sun loungers are more your thing, you can find those nearby too. Lido Abbronzatissima is a beach club at Lido di Noto, where €15 will buy you a day on a lounger with all the trimmings. The Agua Beach Resort, complete with palm-fringed beach shades and turquoise waters at San Lorenzo is also good. Not least because you can feed four hungry adults for just €20 at the beachside pizzeria.
Although this wasn’t a trip with food in mind, it’s impossible for it not to colour a holiday to Sicily, because the street food tourists are right, it’s all incredible. Sicilian not Italian, a rare combination of Greek, French, Arabian and Spanish influences. Think raisins and pine nuts alongside sardines in mouth-watering pasta con le sarde.
One of my favourite meals was when a local cook took over our kitchen with gallons of olive oil, juicy tomatoes, pounds of hard, salty ricotta and freshly caught fish and created a feast we couldn’t come near to finishing. As we languished pool side, the dishes kept on coming, paired with local wines – we had to ask her to save her sea bass for another day, after peaking too early on mounds of swordfish pasta. Breakfast at our villa was special too, with Sicilian pastries and mounds of fresh fruit served every morning by the pool. It’s another habit I’m considering bringing home.
But by far my favourite thing about Sicily is Etna… the foreboding, often smoking, mount that greets you high in the sky as you fly into Catania. A volatile volcano – in fact the most active in Europe, and still prone to the odd lava spew – that 25% of the Sicilian population curiously live beside. It is dominant, moody and definitely worth a visit. Although there are VIP trips that will take you off road in a 4x4 to see the hidden parts of the lunar landscape, we travelled to the south side of the volcano to take the cable car half way up, where you can then get a bus to the highest point (think monster wheels rather than double decker). Unfortunately it is too volatile to go to the summit, but you can visit several craters, so my advice is grab a jumper, an arancini from the cafes at the bottom of the cable car and head up to marvel at the impact of the unpredictable blow holes and spectacular views.
It is said that if you hail from the shores of Sicily, you are Sicilian first, Italian second. And I left feeling I’d had a truly Sicilian experience; volcano hikes and wild beaches, temples and ruins and – most importantly – more amazing food than I could ever imagine consuming in the space of a week. Such is life in Sicily.
Prices at Casa Luza start from £4,635 per week based on six adults sharing three rooms (can sleep up to 12 in six rooms) with The Thinking Traveller; thethinkingtraveller.com