THE HEART OF SICILY
When I was a child, I used to get anxious about coming back from Italy after the holidays. I didn’t know when I was going to return and the young me was heartbroken. When I walk on this land I feel like I am home without being home. A strange contradictory feeling.
This question keeps coming back : why am I so attached to my roots ?
I was born in France. My Parents are Italians and I love sharing about it (As you can notice here).
This time, I want to talk to you about my Sicilian roots. I want to share my vision of a confidential, secret, preserved, sometimes forgotten Sicily but a region that evolves at its own pace. And I also want to tell you about the people I met and their stories.
To my Mother, to my Grandparents,
After two summers under the boiling sun of Sicily, Marcellooo! went back at the end of March, and enjoyed the spring weather and its mild temperatures which is perfect for Easter celebrations. A first ! We told you before, the island is very vast and you will need many trips to entirely visit it. Count even more times if you want to explore its countryside.
Dare to discover the center of the island and get closer to the different faces of Sicily. A less known and very endearing region. The one you wish you could keep to yourself or only share with your closest friends and family. Consider yourself in that selective circle since you are reading us 😉
Let’s get ready to discover this hidden heritage around the center’s two main cities, Caltanissetta and Enna.
THE GRANARY OF ITALY
Wether you are coming from Palermo or Catania, take the A19 highway which crosses Sicily from north to east coast. Drive about 200 km through endless cereal fields, hilly landscapes and the Mounts Erei or Madonie. The land offers different color contrasts depending on the season. They go from multiple greens in spring and autumn to oranges and yellows in the stifling summer heat.
Numerous perched cities and villages that we wish we could explore. You can see functioning or abandoned farms and several pastures.At some point you can see castle remains which are the witness of a glorious past at a time when all Sicily was conquered and fought for.
The tone is set.
Today, the region is a lot calmer even asleep sometimes but still intriguing and captivating.
What do these suspended hamlet are hiding ? Who harvests this wheat ? How does Enna, the only Sicilian province without sea access lives ? What about Caltanissetta, the Arabic origin chief town ? Its abundant fertile soil generously endowed with minerals stretches out as far as south mediterranean coasts.
To try to answer these questions, you must immerse yourself for a few days in this authentic rural region. Between each village, the distance is short but you can only drive slowly on lovely countryside roads (not always in good state). Count one hour between each step.
Every turns allows you to admire a panorama of perfect shaped cultivations. From gentle to steep slopes, abundance of olive trees, vines and almond trees, there is a lot to see...#pictures.
These landscapes almost look like a rough Tuscany.
These farmlands are the reason this territory is called « Italy’s granary » Geothe-Caltanissetta-1787.
Coincidence or not, this is where we found the Demeter statue, the greek goddess of agriculture…
AROUND CALTANISSETTA / CENTRE-SOUTH
In this region, go by planning an itinerary and regularly changing hotel or by having one or two starting points. We will start from Caltanissetta, at the very charming hotel Antichi Ricordi located in the old jewish district. Enjoy the tasteful mix of modern and classic decor, and their little spa (very pleasant after long days of exploration). Beatrice, the owner will share her passion for the area and will gladly tell you about the most beautiful places to visit.
Other option, the b&b Santa Lucia (and its warm welcome of Stefano and Fara).
Start from here an itinerary to the south central Sicily.
Caltanissetta, from the arabic Qal'at’an-nisa means the women’s castle. A few remains are still visible overlooking the Monumental Cemetery, with a panoramic view. A well recommended visit to be able to take a look at the noble local families ’s impressing graves. As for the Sicilian women, well, they are still here, as beautiful as ever ;)
At first sight, the city doesn’t seduce: a succession of different buildings, let’s be honest, and sometimes outdated architectural styles.
Dare to enter, observe and understand. The city is filled with unknown or not really highlighted monuments. Things are changing piano piano*slowly.
The Vie dei Tesori (equivalent of the European Heritage days), allows access to incredible places. The Santa Maria La Nova Cathedral, and its mural painted by Flemish artist Borreman and the San Sebastiano church are places you should definitely visit.
Take the Corso Umberto I (pedestrian section) and discover the Regina Margherita Theatre, the baroque Palazzo Moncada, the brand new Culturel Center of Modern Arts, the Sant'Agata al Collegio Church, which is right next to Scarabelli library...
Allow yourself to enjoy a delicious break by trying the savory and sweet specialties at Amico, boulangerie/traiteur/pizzeria, a bakery/caterer/pizzeria present in the Santa Lucia district since 1955. Theses wonderful smells evoke to me so many memories...Sesame seeds bread, the world renowned cannolo (that would have been created in Caltanissetta by the emirs during the Arabic domination), the pistachio cream pizza, the "rollò" (ricotta stuffed roll) or the "ciambale" (delicious biscuit to dip in coffee or liquor). Don’t forget to try the "Torrone" (similar to french nougat) #delizioso.
In the morning, go to Strat'A Foglia, one of the oldest and liveliest marketplace of Sicily and enjoy the region’s very own aromatic herbs including wild fennel and origan. Although slowing down these past few years, the market is now doing much better thanks to young entrepreneurs.
Same place at night, the Consultore Benintende street becomes the place to be for young people who give a new atmosphere to the city center: street food, wine bar, literary café...
Must-sees : Easter holidays are here, among the most fascinating of Italy (also in Enna and Trapani). One week of celebration of religious and traditional folklore illuminate the whole province where you’ll contemplate the processions, street theater, and fireworks. Every city has its particularities (in Delia, Mussomeli, Pietraperzia…).
The other big celebration is on the September, 29th for the patron saint, San Michele.
A few minutes away out of the city by car:
*Hiking in the Natural Reserve of Monte Capodarso and Valle dell’Imera (Rocca di Cerere), member of the european network Geopark
*The Arab-Romanesque church of Abbazia di Santo Spirito (10th century)
*The remains of the archeological park of Gibil Gabib
*The Regional Archaeological Area of Sabucina (from Bronze Age to the Normans)
*The 286meter high Rai radio antenna which was until 1965, the tallest of Europe.
A project of renovation including a park with a 360 ° view is being considered.
*The Zolfara Mineralogy and paleontology Museum
*The Archaeological Museum
Beginning of the journey...
Fourty minutes south away from Caltanissetta, overlooking the gentle hills, we get into the lovely Art of Mazzarino famous for its 12th century medieval castle and its barrocco style churches and palaces. Elderly men are sitting together, chatting and commenting on the lively square and its tourists. Caltanissetta ’s countryside remains intact. Choose the small roads that lead to Sommatino and Riesi.
Enjoy an agricultural and human experience at the Forno Santa Rita. with Maurizio, his son Salvatore and their teams, a fabulous experience.
We realize here the center of Sicily’s huge natural heritage. We notice a recent phenomenon in the region, the locals are going back to their roots and are rediscovering how to work their lands.
We head of to an olive oil tasting by Arkè, with the Diliberto family who was recently awarded at the 2018 Biofach. If you are around in october, you might even be able to take part in the production process.
We also take advantage of being here to try the wine from the Masseria del Feudo, or the Tenuta Lombardo.
You’ll then come close to old sulphur mines (the most important of the world until the 70’s). Some of these mines were turned into museums such as Trabia Tallarita in Sommatino, which is on your way. This is the testimony of an active and sometimes socially painful industrial past. Other sites are abandoned and look like Sergio Leone film sets, just add Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks and you will see ! (Movies known as "Spaghetti Westerns").
Drive a little more to the south and after crossing a vast wine estates, take time to enjoy a swim around Licata (lido Cala del Re) or Falconara (next to the Castle).
An other day can be dedicated to the famous Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.
This greek site is one of the most protected of the Mediterranean. By day or by night, the view is breathtaking, that’s why several festival are organized in this unique decor.
Located 45 minutes away from Caltanissetta (soon, 25 minutes thanks to the new highway), also known as the Writers' Road. Camilleri, Sciascia or Pirandello were born or lived here.
Ten minutes drive away from the Temples is Favara, where another story is being written. Almost abandoned, the historic center has been brought back to life by Andrea Bartoli, his family and their ambitious and hard-working team. Welcome to the Farm Cultural Park #model.
After a millennial culture lesson, let’s head to a place where you enjoy a spectacular bath.
From the Temple Valley, follow the wild coast made from high limestone cliffs and very long beaches. The most famous (obviously very touristic) is Scala dei Turchi,15 minutes away from the Temples.
Our personal favorite is the WWF Natural Reserve of Torre Salsa (40 minutes away).
When you’re on the SS115 road and reach Montallegro, take the exit towards Torre Salsa. The access is difficult with steep countryside roads but at the end of the road is the amazing wild coast and turquoise waters. Bring a picnic.
You also can explore the natural reserve of Face del Fiume Platani and right next to it is the archaeological site of Eraclea Minoa. Access is easier following the indications.
Back to Caltanissetta, and have a delightful dinner at Lory Bella o Sale e Pepe. Italian and Sicilian cuisine with the best local ingredients. We do not finish a dinner without tasting THE local liquor, the Amaro Averna, which was born and is still distilled here. Its bittersweet taste and almond base is still a mystery and might have came from the Capucin monks.
AROUND CALTANISSETTA / TO ENNA & EASTERN CENTRE
Drive thirty-five minutes east and you’ll find Enna, the highest perched district capital of Italy also called « the navel of Sicily ». You can also see its imposing and very rich Duomo from the 14th century, the Lombardi Castle which base was built 1000 years BC, its medievals narrow streets and the 360° panorama on the perched villages (like Calascibetta in the front), the lakes below (like Pergusa) and far away, the Mount Etna. Enna is also a well-known university town.
Drive to the south-east...
Forty minutes drive away, you’ll find the Mining Park of Floristella and Grottacalda, one of the biggest archaeological industrial sites of Italy. Now operating as a strip mine, the site is composed of two big sulphur mines with two pits, galleries and buildings.
Thirty minutes away from there, the Siculo and Greek archaeological site of Morgantina and its numerous remains : the Agora sanctuary, the theater, the mosaics in the villas and the famous Morgantina Venus. The sculpture represents Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Strangely, the venus was exhibited at the Paul Getty museum of Los Angeles but is now back home in Aidone Museum.
Twenty-five minutes away from Aidone is the most visited touristic site in the heart of Sicily, the mythic Villa Romana del Casale (Unesco) in Piazza Armerina. You can admire the exceptionally well-conserved mosaics from the 4th Century A.D. Tourists buses come, stay 2 hours and leave to the bigger cities and miss all the rest. The charming village is also worth visiting.
Head further south-east to see Caltagirone and the elegant staircase of Santa Maria del Monte made of 152 steps beautifully decorated with ceramic arts. The city is world-renowned for its craftsmanship in ceramics (we told you about Made a Mano, founded by Rosario Parrinello).
For the itinerant version, why not stay in a wine domain at the Wine Relais del Pisciotto, in Niscemi.
AROUND CALTANISSETTA/ TO THE WESTERN CENTRE
Further west from Caltanissetta, we cross preserved hilly landscapes again for an hour. The road are a little less preserved…Up in the hills, you’ll find the small cities of Sutera, and its alive Christmas crib decor during the holidays. Itinerary of the most beautiful villages of Italy. In front of us, we can see Mussomeli and its imposing fortress from the 14th century which provides a panoramic view. We salute the editors of the magazine I Viaggi di Cicerone based here and their numerous initiatives to promote the region.
One hour away, Lorenzo Reina, artist/farmer decided 30 years ago to shape the landscape through huge work of art made of stones around his first creation, theTeatro Andromeda. Remarkable !
Enjoy the special program in the summer.
Heading towards Polizzi Generosa, we’ll visit the wine domain of Tenuta Regaleali Tasca d’Almerita.
To live a great expérience of dishes and wines 100% made in Sicily.
If you don’t want to spend too much time on the road, it is possible to completely disconnect yourself in a timeless venue at the Masseria Susafa. Slow life guaranteed !
. Mountains and perched villages landscapes such as Regional Park delle MadonieIt is the ideal start to venture into the Gangi at the top of a hill, and the Etna right behind.One of these municipalities had a mayor who decided to sell the abandoned houses for the price of 1 symbolic euro and the restored village is now one of the most beautiful of Italy.
which welcomes the CastelbuonoOne hour away to the north of Gangi, you’ll discover the environmentally responsible village of boutique festival of Ypsygrock, and its more and more renowned programm.
Welcome to the rural heart of Sicily, a rare preserved natural beauty and a exceptional historical heritage. Sicilians are sometimes surprised to see tourists but so happy to welcome them. The benevolent gaze delle nonne* the grandmothers, the colors, the smells, the gastronomy…
The youth, that back in the days wanted to leave the motherland is more and more conscious of the richness of the region and passionately attached to their land.
Here, the rhythm slows down, we t a k e time to do things. Happiness in the era of immediacy! Discovery, change of scenery, the center of Sicily offers its authenticity and singularity. A delight for the nomad souls looking different new horizons.
Hoping to see you there very soon…
Un caro saluto* warm regards to Stefano, Fara, Michele MC, Luigi G, Annalisa V, Leonardo O, Andrea M, Eros DP, Giuseppe A, Carmella A, Alice B, Irene B, Pasquale T, Andrea B, Salvatore & Maurizio S, Beatrice, Salvatore D, Michele S, Mario M and more...
*Journey realized in the center of Sicily in various periods of the year.