Scintillating Sicily for sun and culture
PUBLISHED: 11:39 21 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:39 21 February 2020
Bridget Galton and family enjoyed a warm October break in a beautiful villa on the Italian island which has great food and culture
Our first sight of Cefalu came on a gloriously warm October day.
We were walking along a sweep of golden beach lapped by the Tyrrhenian Sea towards a medieval town dominated by the teraccotta-hued twin towers of a Norman cathedral.
During our week in Sicily, we explored other gorgeous locations, but nothing quite matched the perfection of Cefalu; swims in the calm, shallow bay, punctuated by a picturesque walk through cobbled streets to buy ice cream or pizza. Then at 4pm gathering ingredients for supper at Gourmet Deco - Cefalu's answer to Planet Organic - and a winding drive up into the hills to the Villa Vittoria.
It was mostly the children who plunged into the unheated pool, while we never tired of the view from the terrace - of the surrounding peaks and the sea beyond. The warm evenings soon drew in, turning them from green to grey then orange to deep purple. As the lights from the coastal highway moved down in the valley, we'd drink bellinis with home-juiced peaches and wash down involtini and fresh pasta with a rich Sicilian red - or graze on cured ham, olives, burrata and local ricotta filled Cannoli.
A roof terrace and huge windows in the Vittoria's living room mean you can't miss out on those stunning views. The stylish modernist villa is filled with comfortable furnishings and niches to eat inside and out. Then there's the pool which the morning sun in autumn - when flights are reasonable and the temperature still in the early 20s - hits in time for a 9.30am coffee.
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It's part of the Massimo Villa Collection - Massimo and business partner Angelo, who does the meet and greet, are local and offer vital inside knowledge so you can get the best from an island that is rich in landscape and heritage but historically poor in investment. The beautiful bits of Sicily are very beautiful, but turn a corner and there's a dilapidated resort, a crumbling motorway, or flytipped roads so it pays to be pointed in the right direction. As part of the personal but relaxed service, Angelo invited us for a drink to the pretty hilltop village of San' Ambrogio where Massimo owns an enoteca and has several villas. His advice to take the efficient train service to Palermo rather than drive was spot on - our day trip to the capital, a crossroads of civilisations for centuries, was stress free. A short walking loop took us to the Byzantine delights of the cathedral with its crypt full of tombs of Roman sarcophagi, through palm-fringed gardens to the Norman palace and the truly stunning 11th Century Palatine Chapel where every inch is covered with Biblical mosaics.
A freshly-squeezed orange juice in Ballaro Market, whose bustle reminded me of a north African souk, brought us back via the Pretoria Fountain with its 64 statues of animals and naked figures. (it was once nickamed the square of shame) This renaissance masterpiece was created for a Florentine garden but shipped to Palermo in pieces in 1573 when its cash strapped owner sold it on.
Angelo posted us to another perfect hilltop town; Castelbuono where we immersed ourselves in the annual Funghi Fest with stalls and mushroom-laden restaurants.
They can also arrange boat trips, cooking classes, wine tasting or trips to Sicily's many attractions like the still active Mount Etna. But be warned, Sicily is the largest island in the Med and should, like one of their fabulous pizzas, be consumed in bitesize chunks.
It's tempting to climb Etna, whiz through the Valley of the Temples and catch a boat to the island of Stromboli. But if you just have a week, it's nice to take it easy with the odd pedalo ride and a good book. Our one concession was to leave Cefalu a day early and head to Syracuse on the Ionian coast in what turned out to be a torrential storm that flooded the roads and forced us to drive at 20 kmph. Was it God's way of telling us not to leave Villa Vittoria? We pressed on and found a soaked but mercifully unrainy city. The theatre where Greek tragedian Aeschylus himself staged his plays is justifyably a Unesco World Heritage site and sits near a more ruined Roman theatre and the intriguing echo-ey cave known as Dionysus' ear.
Historic centre Ortigia juts out into the sea like a jewelled finger and is home to a fascinating fort, a Baroque cathedral shored up by Greek columns, and a Church where Caravaggio's altarpiece The Burial of St Lucy was painted when the artist fled Rome after being accused of murder. Our idyllic trip ended soggily when we navigated flooded roads to check into our agriturismo on a nature reserve. It was impassible, could they book us into a nearby replacement? We readily agreed only to lie awake being bitten by mosquitos after an exorbitantly priced mediocre meal. Why had we left Cefalu! We will return to explore Sicily's delights but we're sticking with Massimo and please, never again the awful Villa Cristina!
Bridget Galton was hosted by Massimo Villas which offers a selection of luxury Italian properties. massimovillas.com