Good news for those planning a trip to Palermo who would like to see a bit more of Sicily, without straying too far: within a few hours of the capital there are fantastic spots to discover Art and History. Having visited them myself, let’s look together at five that are easily reachable from the city.
Sicily had important Greek settlements and Pindaro defined Agrigento as the “città la più bella fra quante albergo son d’uomini”, loosely translated as “the most beautiful city known to man”. The City of Temples, so called for its beautiful Doric temples, is 134 km away. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the biggest archaeological site in the world (1,300 hectares). Whenever I go there I am struck by its history and by a sense of respect. Remarkable and perfectly preserved is the 5th-century Temple of Concordia, but there are also the remains of the Temple of Era, the Temple of Eracle, the Temple of Dioscuri, the Temple of Demeter and many other monuments and necropolises from different periods. The backdrop is that of the Kolymbetra Garden, an extraordinary park that is now well cared for.
Just twenty minutes further away is Realmonte with its Turkish Staircase (Saracen pirates made frequent raids on the Sicilian coastlines, kidnapping young girls and looting goods), a white marl cliff that forms a sort of large natural staircase, upon which you can sunbathe with a view that is unique in the world. Sometimes people take little pieces of the marl to make a paste and rub it on their skin: it’s not true that is makes you tan, and when I see people doing it I always let them know that.
I’m surely biased, since this is my favorite place in the world, but I think that here there is a unique mix of history, art and landscape. It’s a town of medieval buildings with a flourishing past, 109 km from Palermo, located on the mountain of the same name, close to Trapani. Often shrouded in low cloud, it has a mysterious and fascinating feel to it. The Castle of Venus in Erice, which has a view of the entire coast of Trapani, and the numerous churches and monasteries that were full of monks in the early middle ages, are not to be missed. Since the 1960s scientists from around the world have met here for conferences, at the Ettore Majorana center founded by the physicist Antonino Zichichi. I recommend trying ericini, almond sweets once made by nuns, which resemble the traditional laces, and are sometimes filled with citron marmalade that is ripened in special jars.
125 km away, towards Agrigento. Until a few years ago, almost no one would have come to Favara for tourism. Then the Farm Cultural Park was created. Andrea Bartoli, a notary, and his wife Florinda Saieva, began by buying and restoring crumbling houses in the historic center of this small town in the Agrigento area. The tiny alleys between the houses have started to come back to life thanks to the contemporary art that decorates the walls and interiors. I have spoken to Andrea several times, who affirms: “You can be sad in New York and happy in Favara”. I smile and remember that according to some, Farm is among the top ten places in the world to visit if you love art, alongside Florence, Paris, Bilbao, New York and Barcelona. It’s worth it, believe me. In the town there’s also a thirteenth-century castle of the Chiaramonte family (the same family as the Steri castle of Palermo) and the gloomy Palazzo Cafisi, currently being restored and full of scythes that were made here, and that I found unnerving.
To get to Gangi, named Borgo dei Borghi the “best village”, in 2014, you need to head 119 km inland into the province of Palermo. Meandering through the tiny alleys, visit the churches (Madre, del Santissimo Salvatore, della Badia), the palaces (Sgadari, Bongiorno), the towers (Ventimiglia, cylindrical), the castle and the characteristic Fontana del Leone (Lion Fountain). You can ask for Fabrizio, an artisan who has a little shop on the main street, who plays and makes drums using goat’s skin and sells them to well-known musicians. Saridduzzo on the other hand is a small fellow who weaves wicker and makes chairs, baskets and much more. In August, the Sagra della Spiga takes place, a festival that celebrates the costumes, traditions and farming customs of the past with links to pagan mythology and the cult of Ceres (Demeter). You can taste bread and other food made from traditional grains and take part in processions in typical costumes.
SAN VITO LO CAPO
The last suggestion is also in the Trapani province, but this time it’s a white, immaculate beach 112 km away. The average temperature throughout the year is 18 degrees, so the brave go for a dip even at Christmas. In 2015, Legambiente e Touring Club Italiano gave it the 5 sails of the most beautiful sea in its Blue Guide, and it’s not by chance. The town is made up of low white houses and the scent of jasmine often fills the air. In the area there is a characteristic lighthouse and it is also possible to go camping. A few kilometers away is the Zingaro Nature Reserve, another untouched natural destination. In September, the Cous cous fest takes place, a food festival where you can try this Mediterranean dish made from steamed semolina. Still in this area, you can make a quick stop in Scopello, a village where you can try the delicious “pane cunzato”, bread with tomato, anchovies and cheese. Buonissimo!
Not just Palermo, therefore, but many ideas for extending your holiday or for when you return to Sicily.