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Sicily: Palermo, Scopello, Agrigento

In my mind, Sicily and summer are inextricably linked. My memories of the island are firmly rooted in the warm summer months: long drives along roads lined with thick olive groves while listening to old Beatles records, browsing for sweet flat peaches in the markets, slipping into a cool baroque church for shade and a moment of solace, diving into a plate piled high with fresh seafood pasta. It is unquestionably one of my favourite places in the world. Most visitors to the island gravitate towards the honeypots of the east: Taormina, Etna, Catania, Siracusa (which are wonderful, and which I've written about here). But the west side of the island, less blighted by the stain of tourism, also has a lot to offer - and I think that any visitor to this most special of islands would be remiss in skipping it.

First of all, a return to a city I fell for when I first visited three years ago: Palermo. Nestled in the mountainous terrain of the north coast, it is a magical mash up of Western Italian culture and the flavours and Moorish architecture of the Arab world. It's an excellent introduction to the island for most travellers who begin their journeys here when they step off the plane into hairdryer heat at Falcone-Borsellino airport, named for the two judges assassinated by the mafia in 1992. 

We rent an Airbnb for six in a former palazzo a stone's throw from Vucciria market. It is vast and beautifully refurbished, with towering church-like beamed ceilings and an airy kitchen that demands to be furnished with fresh produce from the market downstairs - huge beef tomatoes, creamy burrata, fried aubergines and squid, octopus salad and panelle. Palermo is not short of excellent, sprawling markets: I recommend a trip to each of Il Capo, Ballarò and the more touristy Vucciria to browse for Sicilian red prawns, heaving cauliflowers, silvery sea bream so fresh that their bodies are contorted in rigor mortis and small sweet green figs that probably won't make it back to your apartment.

Also close to Vucciria and our Airbnb is a favourite cafe of mine, Gran Cafè San Domenico, in the Piazza San Domenico. It's a great place to come once you've settled in on your first day: frazzled nerves are soon soothed with an outrageously luxurious breakfast of gelato crammed into brioche and coffee granitas.

You should take your time to wander in Palermo. One of my favourite places in the city, tucked away from the main thoroughfare, is the Oratorio di Santa Cita. Inside this little oratory you'll find a celestial domain crafted by Serpotta: three wildly theatrical, dynamic walls of plump putti flitting from scene to scene of the Stations of the Cross while female allegorical figures supervise benevolently. I'd advise coming here in the early morning as the air is oppressively still and hot inside the oratory - better still, bring a fan. 

My favourite way to get to know a city is to walk its streets, and the main artery of Palermo is via Vittorio Emanuele. Start at the harbour and walk all the way down to Palermo Cathedral, taking in the famous Fontana Pretoria and Quattro Canti as you go. The cathedral is a palimpsest of a building, a real mash-up of styles: built on the site of a mosque, the cathedral was originally constructed by the Normans in the 12th century and has undergone multiple changes throughout the centuries - with a Baroque interior and an ostentatious Gothic portico with pointed arches, it's like a metaphor for Sicily itself, occupied at various points by the Romans, Ostrogoths, Byzantines and Arabs.

Opposite the Cathedral is a jumble of little tourist shops, which unexpectedly sell some of the best arancini I've had, stuffed with mozzarella and spinach. Throw in a can of cold, slightly bitter, almost alcoholic-tasting chinotto and you've got yourself an excellent lunch - perfect fuel for a stroll further down the road to the Palazzo dei Normanni, where a visit to the lavishly gilded Capella Palatina is a must. See if you can identify the saints heavily outlined in mosaic in the Byzantine style.

The remote figures of the Cappella Palatina contrast with the highly charged tone of Renato Guttuso's painting of La Vucciria market, temporarily housed downstairs in the gallery of the Palazzo when we visited. Grim muscled figures arranged in a cruciform composition tersely attend to their wares, seemingly poised to attack if needed. The painting ripples with tension and the perspective tilts up crazily - an apt portrayal of the heart of a city on an island ruled by the mafia. On a more light-hearted note, the produce on offer is exactly the same as that available in the markets of the present day: plump bristling fennel, gargantuan swordfish heads and those contorted fish freshly caught from the sea.

On the subject of food, one restaurant we visited time and time again in Palermo was neighbourhood favourite Il Ferro Cavallo. Tucked away on a side street, we thought that it was a good sign that it was always packed with locals when we walked past (make sure you swing by during the day to book a table for dinner). We had a habit of ordering everything on the menu: squid ink pasta, grilled vegetables, crunchy deep-fried chipirones, stuffed squid, casarecce with pesto and shrimp. All so good - and affordable.

On our last full day in the city we head to the far reaches of the city to see the 'real' Palermo: walking silent streets where the crumbling tenement buildings are draped with laundry and lacy table cloths. Suddenly the suburbs drop away to reveal the Castello de Zisa, a Norman edifice inspired by Islamic architecture, with delicate honeycomb details and glossy myrtle bushes redolent of the Alhambra tempered by solid Norman cross-vaults and weighty arches. Inside, it is stuffy as the ingenious Northern African air circulation systems have been removed, and after an hour or so of exploring the museum inside we gratefully escape into the fresh air, hailing a taxi to the nearby Capuchin catacombs (which I haven't photographed, for obvious reasons). I find the catacombs more chilling than expected. The air is cool, musty and dank underground, with corridors lined with endless rows of desiccated bodies seeming to stretch on for miles. Most of the Sicilians down here lived during the middle of the 19th century and are still clothed in their finest garb: pointed leather shoes, frilly smocks and breeches which are now falling to dust, like the embalmed people inside them. It's the most powerful memento mori I've ever experienced. 

Moving on swiftly...it's time to head out west!

We strike out for the north west coast, taking a stop for lunch in Tonnaro di Scopello, a medieval fishery turned museum and beach. I recommend Ristorante Bar Nettuno - they do great red prawns, pasta with flaked almonds and breadcrumbs and icy peach frullati. Be warned though, if you're on a tight schedule like we were and want to visit the beach (which reportedly has great views), factor in queuing time as it's a popular spot, with a one-in-one-out policy. 

We stay in a villa near Castelvetrano on the south-west side of the island. It's a gorgeous house located on an old farm estate: a disused olive grove and mango plantation, which we have lots of fun exploring. We have everything we could want for here - an infinity pool overlooking the nearby woods, an outdoor dining area and a pretty tiled kitchen. The property is surrounded by twisted olive trees, one of which functions as a privacy screen when in the shower. We spend many relaxed nights here singing along to Lukas's guitar and trying our hand at Sicilian cuisine, from grilled squid to swordfish steaks.

The food from the local supermarkets in Castelvetrano is so great that we barely need to leave the house for dinner, but on our first night, tired from the drive, we venture out to Carbona, an agriturismo a short drive from town known for its beef. It's a lovely evening: steaks for the carnivores, extra helpings of panelle, bruschette and firm trofie bathed in pesto for Lukas and me, cannoli, pistachio semifreddo and lemon sorbet, and a few scraps for a lucky boy.

Agrigento, on the south-west coast, is one of the best known destinations on the western side of the island - not for the industrial town that bears its name, but the rich array of Classical temples in the archaeological park next door. As we make for Agrigento one morning, we're held up by a traffic jam caused by hundreds of goats! They tumble down a hillside loyally in pursuit of their dapper-looking goatherd while we wait patiently, amused. It's quite the sight to behold.

We make a stop at the Scala dei Turchi, or Turkish Steps, which are really worth visiting if you're in the area - they're a twenty minute drive from Agrigento. Essentially a climbable cliff (and reminiscent of a more vertiginous Pamukkale) the more adventurous reader should head to the top for a sunbathing spot with a killer view. Then climb back down and splash around in the lagoon to cool off and wash the limestone dust off! 
Once we dry off, we drive through the Porto Empedocle (also known as Vigatà, the fictional home of  Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano) on our way to the Valley of the Temples, one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world. Here, you can buy a gelato and go for a stroll among the impressive ruins, ranging from felled colossi to gigantic temples that give the Parthenon a run for its money. There's also a critter near the cafe whose horns are architectural masterpieces in themselves...

I'd hoped to fit this travel diary on west Sicily into one post but naturally, I wrote too much and this would have become a mammoth post! So I'm splitting it into two parts. In part two, we're going even further off the beaten track - from lesser known medieval hill towns, to a trip across the water to a beautiful little island off the coast of Trapani. A presto!

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