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Italian Islands
Italian Islands
03.29.12

The islands of Italy are like countries unto themselves, each with its own distinct feel and rhythms. In this issue, we go island hopping from Sicily to Sardinia and discover history, cultures and cuisines each their own.

Palermo – Tiles of Ancient History, Art & Culture

Palermo

As a major port of commerce through the centuries, Palermo has witnessed all Sicilian wars along with a myriad of conquests and cultures, and is flavored with deep history and contrasts. Occupied by the Carthagnians, Romans, Saracens from North Africa, Christian Normans and the Holy Roman Empire, the city harbors a fabulous array of architectural and cultural markings that range from dusty decay to polished grandeur. Churches, palazzos and piazzas punctuate narrow streets and back alleys in the historic district, as do Palermo’s buzzing outdoor markets that showcase the vibrant --and sometimes chaotic -- local life. Wander the thousand-year-old Mercato Di Ballaro (Ballarò Street Market) in the heart of Palermo to sample local culinary delights and watch Sicilians haggle over tables brimming with fruit, vegetables, herbs, seafood, cheese and meats.

To appreciate Sicily’s artistry of color, book a visit at the offbeat Casa Museo Stanze al Genio (Rooms to the Genius). The enchanting 16th-century museum-house in the center of the city showcases a vivid collection of antique ceramic tiles from around the island along with other interesting memorabilia. To purchase modern examples of this artistic heritage, head to the Via Calderai, a street filled with shops selling Sicilian ceramic and craft products. The established De Simone (Via Gaetano Daiti 13B) sells majolica ceramics with the Picasso-inspired scenes of Sicilian life rendered by Susanna DeSimone, daughter of renowned artist Giovanni DeSimone.
For more information, visit:
http://seepalermo.com/markets.htm
www.stanzealgenio.it (scroll right on the home page to navigate)
www.lafabbricadellaceramica.it/it/azienda.html

Palermo – Palazzi e Fortezze (Palatial Residences & Fortresses)

Palermo - Palazzi e Fortezze

The palazzi of Palermo and their grandiose buildings and residences are rich testaments to the wealth accumulated over the centuries in the ancient port city. The early 14th-century Palazzo Chiaramonte (Steri Castle) first housed the family of powerful Sicilian lord Manfredi Chiaramonte, Count of Modica, and features gothic stonework that epitomized fortresses of the Chiaramonte fiefdoms. The medieval structure later housed Spanish viceroys before becoming Sicily’s royal palace. Beginning in 1601, the fortress served as the Tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. You can still find the graffiti intact on the walls of Steri Prison, located in the dungeons below, where thousands of people were interrogated, tortured and killed during this period.

For a less morbid experience, Palazzo Mirto provides a splendid example of an opulent aristocratic mansion (built in the 13th century and renovated in the 19th), and remains one of the few in Palermo open to the public. Its somewhat hidden location in the city’s historic center, along with a lack of English information or guides, keeps this gem off the beaten path. Lavish baroque furnishings, art objects, opulent silk paneling and velvet wallpaper, embroidered tapestries, and floors crafted with marble and mosaic populate this sumptuous piece of history occupied by four centuries of the princely Filangeri family. Rooms, each with their own theme and color scheme, reveal treasures of paintings, family photos, porcelain, silverware, weapons and books, not to mention kitchen and bathrooms, a ballroom and Chinese salon, all left as they were when last occupied. A carriage house and stables further point to the level of its owners’ wealth, while a secret entrance to a hidden staircase—revealed through a mechanism in the goddess statue of the courtyard fountain—allowed owners to become voyeurs, as they spied on guests unnoticed. Wander through this lavish time capsule and imagine the intrigues of Sicilian nobility.

Palermo – Dressed for a Post-Mortem Occasion/
Personal Preservations

Palermo - Catacombs

For a bizarre and macabre twist on Sicily’s capital, head downward into the Catacombs of the Capuchins on the outskirts of the city. Under the large cemetery of the Capuchin Monastery, subterranean passageways reveal thousands of mummified citizens of the 17th to 19th centuries. Besides monks, the catacombs also housed priests and attracted the well-heeled when mummification became a 19th-century Palermo trend. For an annual fee paid by relatives, the deceased could reside in the catacombs preserved in their former state and dressed in their finery—some even requesting to have their attire periodically changed.

Bodies of the deceased, most still dressed, are arranged and displayed in dim limestone corridors by social class. Priests, monks, noblemen, professionals, women, virgins and children sitting, standing or lying in unnervingly lifelike poses, line the walls. Canes, swords, silks, satins, gold and jewels adorn the bodies, some with lips, eyelids and hair still intact. Famous residents include Giuseppe Tommasi, prince of Lampedusa and author of the Sicilian work The Leopard. Two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo was the last corpse interred in the catacombs in 1920. She is nicknamed the “Sleeping Princess” due to her remarkably preserved lifelike status. Nothing short of eerie, the catacombs give a fascinating glimpse into the depths of Palermo’s past.

Capri

Capri

Just a 45-minute ferry passage from Naples, the diminuitive island of Capri was once the fortress and purported pleasure retreat of Roman Emperor Tiberius (42 B.C. – 37 A.D.). Villas he built still remain in place in various states of preserve. Grottoes, hills, immense sea views, impeccable homes and profuse flowering gardens alluringly tucked behind wrought-iron fences continue the island’s status as sought-after destination. You can take the funicular near Marina Grande up to the chic town of Capri that resides regally on the hillside above the picturesque harbor, but you’ll get a better feel for island living if you climb by foot, passing quiet residences, courtyards, gardens and greenery. Spend some time poking around luxury boutiques, streets and eateries before heading up to the remains of Villa Jovis on Mt. Tiberio. The former residence of Tiberius stands on the cliff’s edge, ensuring it both privacy and security to thwart attempts at the emperor’s life. His paranoia was legendary as you’ll see when you come across Tiberius's Leap, where insubordinates and unwelcome guests were hurled over the cliff.

To cap off the day, make summer dinner reservations at the enchanting Da Paolino in Marina Grande. On an illuminated terrace within a lemon orchard, you can savor traditional and seasonal island flavors like tomatoes and aubergines from the robust antipasti buffet, followed by homemade ravioli capresi, linguine al limone or fresh seafood catch as an entrée. Then delve into the dessert bar for a taste of sublime lemon cream puffs. Thereafter, it is only fitting to consume the local Limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur) as a digestivo to live happily ever after. 

Capri – Landscapes & Cliff Walks

Capri Landscapes

Although most visitors budget a day trip for Capri, it will seem too short once you fall in love with the postcard-perfect island. Further west of Capri town, the island’s second major town of Anacapri is reached by a spectacular bus ride that climbs and winds up a narrow road, passing sheer cliff drops not for the faint of heart. From there, a chairlift or hike up Monte Solaro grants magnificent 360-degree views over the lovely olive groves, villas and gardens that cascade down to azure waters. Not far away, the stunning Villa San Michele, former home of Swedish physician, writer and naturalist Axel Munthe, lets visitors get a glimpse of living in idyllic Capri. Pergolas, columns, busts, walkways, gardens, a café and fantastic views across the Gulf of Naples make for a fascinating and peaceful afternoon. To view the other side of the island, take a walk from the terraced Gardens of Augustus on the winding walkway of Via Krupp. Situated on the southern backside of the town of Capri, this marvel of engineering winds down hairpin turns to Marina Piccola, zigzagging past classic Mediterranean vegetation and marvelous panoramas at every turn. A lovely swimming beach and the fantastic sea view restaurant Terrazza Ciro a Mare await those who descend the hour-long walking path. Buses and taxis chauffeur walkers who wish to avoid the steep, uphill return climb back up to Capri.
For more information, visit: www.capri.com

Taormina – Sicilian Patch of Paradise

Taormina

On the fertile volcanic foothills of Mt. Etna, Taormina clings like an Italian terrace on a cliff above the sparkling Ionian Sea. Perched on Sicily’s east coastline, the lush public gardens and palazzi of Taormina are legendary in Italy and have worked their charms on writers and celebrities past and present. Venture down the lively Corso Umberto, the see-and-be-seen cobblestone street in the old town filled with shops, gardens and celebrated dining establishments like Café Wunderbar, a favorite haunt of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Beguiling side alleys and staircases make for perfect exploration. On a hot day, idle at a streetside table with a granita (flavored crushed ice), one of the simple pleasures of Sicily. With the stamp of approval as having the best granitas in town, BAM Bar features a bar decorated with hand-painted ceramics, lots of locals, and 22 fresh, rotating flavors. Order up a granita with a brioche and take a seat at one of the bar’s outdoor tables, situated on a charming street perfect for people watching.

For nature and historic activity, take a day trip to nearby Mt. Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano. Visit the ancient Greek Ampitheater on the city’s edge at sunset, viewing splendid panoramic views of sea and volcano as the ancient Romans did. Back in town after dinner, try the fabulous traditional Sicilian sweets, pastries and homemade gelato at Chemi's Gelateria Pasticceria Etna (Corso Umberto, 112). Then retire to Villa Britannia Taormina. The boutique villa offers a homey Sicilian experience during your stay in Taormina. Recline on the terrace or idle in the lovely garden that both D.H. Lawrence and Truman Capote used while staying in the villa next door.

Trapani – Sicilian Salt Shaker

Trapani

On the northwestern point of Sicily, ancient Trapani stands surrounded by shimmering salt flats, windmills that used to grind salt, and a history stretching back thousands of years. As capital of the salt industry, Trapani has a heritage of industrious people who harnessed the blazing sun and winds to harvest the sea. Travel the Via del Sale (Salt Road) that runs between Trapani and Marsala to view one of Europe's oldest salt marshes. Harvesting occurs mid-summer in the salt pans (shallow pools of seawater) where water is monitored and tasted for flavor and locals still rake evaporated salt into mounds. Traditional local dishes flavored with salt-cured capers and olives elicit authentic pieces of old Sicily as do fish-based couscous and tuna, which locals often prefer dried. Trapani’s regal old town juts out on a land finger into the sea and feels distinctly European. However, Sicily is never lost. The pedestrian thoroughfare of Coro Vittorio Emanuele in the heart of the old town reveals local gems like Versi de Rosso. Serving up a fabulous selection of Sicilian wines, fresh seafood appetizers and delectable cuisine in a musical setting, a meal here will remain imprinted in your Sicilian dreams. The city’s summer music festival in July (Luglio Musicale Trapanese) brings further reason to celebrate.

As the jumping off point for the Egadi Islands, Trapani is also the ideal hub for surrounding must-sees. Take the funivia (cable car) to the picturesque medieval village of Erice, precipitously perched on Monte San Giuliano. A splendid array of over 60 churches and two castles reside within the walled city, also known for its beautiful ceramics, woven carpets and coral. In August, the Festival of Medieval and Renaissance Music brings history back to life. If you fancy a regent’s stay, book a room in the 11th-century Pepoli Castle, converted by the Pepoli family to create the Torri Pepoli Resort.

Favignana – La Farfalla (The Butterfly) of the Sea

Favignana

Just off Sicily’s western coast, Favignana is the largest (5.6 miles long and 2.7 miles wide) of the Egadi islands and only a 20-minute hydrofoil trip from the Sicilian city of Trapani. The Egadi Islands are famous for tuna, and Favignana has plenty of it. The 19th-century Tonnara Florio, once the largest tuna fishery of the Mediterranean and the only one left, is now a beautifully restored industrial archaeological site showcasing a traditional tuna processing plant. In May or June, when tuna migrate in droves past Favignana, local fishermen participate in the spectacle known as mattanza, a traditional rite accompanied by song and ritual to trap the tuna for the kill. If that’s too much to stomach, local fishermen bring fresh catch to the Favignana’s small port every morning for a colorful show. Beyond tuna, visitors come for beaches, coves, bays and caverns that surround the island. Take a boat excursion to explore, dive or snorkel. In the summer evenings, amble the streets of Favignana, the island’s principal town, past simple houses and flowering gardens to the main squares of Piazza Madrice and Piazza Europa, where bars, cafes and shops buzz with activity. Ply local trattorias to sample tuna croquettes, swordfish, octopus, squid and lobster fresh off the boats. Situated inside a hotel just off the main square, the Albergo Ristorante Aegusa provides a lovely garden courtyard setting under the shade of pomegranate trees. Unwind and relax as friendly and knowledgeable staff suggests traditional Sicilian dishes that may well be the best on the island.

Marsala – Wine Capital in the Port of God

Marsala

Since the 8th century B.C., Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans have all inhabited the ancient settlement of Lilybaeum, christened by the Muslims in the 9th century as Marsa-Allah (port of God). Situated just 13 miles from Trapani, it shares the same western coastline, but thrives on its history with wine. In the 18th century, an Englishman first produced the famous marsala wine that came to replace the standard rum on long seafaring journeys. Fortified with Brandy to last longer, it can stand on shelves for over 100 years. The dessert wine is now employed mostly for cooking Sicilian specialties, creating Marsala sauce and flavoring Italian desserts like Tiramisu and Zabaglione. To learn about the history, the wine and Italy’s strict designation for its winemaking regions, book a tour of the Cantine Florio. As a major entrepreneurial force in the region, Vicenzo Florio left his mark in shipping, ceramics, tuna fisheries, car racing and Marsala wine—his wine estate started production in 1833 and continues its legacy.

If you’re staying in town, hit the open-air produce market between Piazza Addolorata and Piazza del Popolo in the morning before moving on to the city’s museums and baroque monuments. Then wander the winding, narrow streets of the old town. For a slice of local life, try the Pizzeria-Ristorante Divino Rossi, which also operates as a wine bar—and a popular disco later in the night. It is well frequented by locals and occupies a perfect spot on the main pedestrian thoroughfare of Via Mazzio with a view of Palazzo Pici. Since Sicilians usually dine after nine, come in advance or make reservations for a table outdoors during peak hours to people watch and wait for the nightlife of Marsala.

Scicli – Fragrant Farming

Scicli

On the southern tip of Sicily near the ancient town of Scicli overlooking the azure seas, a family-operated herb ranch offers a fragrant journey into delightful culinary flavors. Featuring 150 native varieties of aromatic herbs with a profusion of scents, Gli Aromi de Russino lets visitors feast their eyes on idyllic scenery while smelling and tasting the perfumed essence of Italy in the form of thyme, capers, sage, lavender and more. Owners Enrico and Rita operate this wonderful farm garden with passionate and dedicated aplomb. Ardent connoisseurs about the properties and aromas of plants and herbs, the enthusiastic duo offer tours and tastings, not to mention cooking classes and demos on how to use herbs in the kitchen and cultivate them at home. Special organized events feature dinners, wine tastings and more. As Rita prepares dishes for visits and occasions, Enrico enthusiastically leads guests about his farm in Italian or fluent English as he shares his business intents, among them a restaurant scheduled to open in 2012 in nearby Scicli. Warmly hospitable and highly engaging, Gli Aromi de Russino is a uniquely personal and familial Sicilian experience that can only be described as flavorfully enriching.
For more information, visit: www.verbomangiare.it

Central Sicily – Cucina in Campagna

Central Sicily

Tucked within 1200 acres of the familial Regaleali Estate (established 1830) on the island’s interior, halfway between Palermo and Agrigento near the tiny village of Vallelunga, a cooking experience beckons food lovers to the heart of Sicily. Sign up with the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School for a lesson and lunch, or stay over a multiple-day period to soak in classes, tastings, touring, repast and leisure time while residing at the family estate. As you learn to prepare homemade pasta, seafood and vegetables in Sicilian tradition within a charming tiled kitchen called Casa Vecchie, look out over acres of unending hills ripe with grapes, olive and fruit trees, vegetable gardens, sheep and chickens. Taste olive oil from olives grown on the property, cheese from local herds and tomatoes from the garden and sundried in the courtyard. In the warm summer evenings with stone buildings as backdrop, enjoy a glass of wine with friends before retiring for the night with the cooling breezes of an open window overlooking classic Sicilian scenery.

Plan meals with the proprietress the night before and watch them come to life the following day. Wander the flowering gardens and savor the flavors of sun and sea while living the life of a vineyard contessa.

Agrigento – Pinnacle of Mortal Cities

Agrigento

Although many flock to Athens and Rome to see ancient ruins, Sicily has one of the best-preserved sites. Archaeologists maintain that Agragas—on a hilly coastal flank of southwestern Sicily—was already a Greek settlement in the 7th century B.C. The city rose to great power in the following centuries, bringing it vast wealth and cultural influence. The height of the city’s political influence and construction came under Thero’s reign (488-473 B.C.) and continued on in the form of magnificent temples dedicated to Greek gods. The Hippodamian grid pattern laid out in the area between the Acropolis and the great temples hails from the 5th century B.C., while influences from Greek, Carthaginian, Roman and Christian traditions also appear.

As one of Sicily’s most important archaeological sites and one of its best maintained, Valle dei Templi (The Valley of the Gods) is a must-see. To appreciate the scope, history and construction of the site, hire a guide or start at the nearby Valley of the Temples Museum with an audio guide—signage at the temples is sporadic and often not in English. During summer (July to September), the site reopens at 7:30 p.m. for evening visits and night tours when the majesty of these stone wonders becomes surreal. As the heat of the Sicilian sun fades to dusk, illuminated temples cast otherworldly enchantment of epic proportions worthy of the Greek gods themselves.

Elba – Crown Jewel of the Tuscan Archipelago

Elba

Legend has it that a jewel from the crown of Venus fell into the sea off Elba’s coast, transforming the island into a precious gem. Positioned between Tuscany and Corsica where the Tyrrhenian Sea meets the Ligurian Sea, jagged mountains, Italian vineyards, romantic hamlets, deep gorges and dramatic roads with daring switchbacks make this 86-square-mile island an enticing destination. Napoleon was exiled here before escaping to make his march on Waterloo, and Elba benefited from many progressive social changes during the emperor’s time here. Besides Napoleon’s residence, the island boasts over 150 beaches and lures legions of European sun worshipers. Spend the day at the uncrowded Cavo Beach on the northernmost point of the island. Located directly on the town’s promenade, the large beach sits on a calm bay with craggy mountains serving as backdrop. Laze on the beach and enjoy transparent waters and pleasant breezes, hop on a canoe to paddle along the cape and try one of the many bars and restaurants. Ample free parking is a bonus.

If you tire of lounging, take the funicular up to the summit of Monte Capanne from Marciana Alta on the island’s western north shore for spectacular views of surrounding scenery. Through the office of tourism (www.aptelba.it) in Portoferraio, reserve a wine tasting at the Acquabone Estate, the oldest and largest on the island; or take a wine tour on the Elba Wine Route to sample the Elba blanco and Elba rosso wines of the region (reserve ahead, especially during high season). For a special treat, drive to the small mountain town of Poggio on the western side of the island. Known for its bottled Napoleonic spring waters and surrounded by chestnut trees and panoramic vistas, it also hosts the Ristorante Publius, which hangs on Poggio’s hillside overlooking splendid sea views. Diners here can splurge on chocolate ravioli filled with wild boar and savor a fantastic wine selection fit for Napoleon.

Ischia – The Emerald Isle

Ischia

Seventeen square miles of pine-forested hills, sand, palm trees and lush vegetation make Ischia a popular neighbor of Capri. The green volcanic island is well known to Europeans for its healing thermal pools and spas fueled by Mt. Epomeo. Thermal locations with hot springs, volcanic mud, thermal sands and seawater are scattered around the island, and hotels often have their own thermal pools filled with hot spring water. Splendid day spas like the Giardini Poseidon Terme (Poseidon’s Gardens Thermal Spa)in the colorful township of Forio make for an entire day’s outing. Set amidst gorgeous flowering hillside gardens on the western sea, the spa offers 22 secluded pools regulated at different temperatures, some with waterfalls. All manner of health and beauty treatments, Turkish baths, changing rooms, a private beach and restaurants make this a complete retreat.

Set to a tempo of health and leisure, the pedestrian friendly island is filled with walking zones and island buses that take visitors to bright towns and all sites of interest. Lush gardens like La Mortella gushing with waterfalls, flowers, singing birds, fountains, ferns and views further enhance the mood of peace and idyll. Summer on Ischia is marked by festivals dedicated to food and wine, the sea, traditional culture and foreign cinema—heralding the island’s legacy as a filming location (e.g., Cleopatra). For a local specialty, head to the fumarole section of Maronti Beach in the tiny fishing enclave of Sant’Angelo and try cooking pollo fumarole al cartoccio (foil-wrapped chicken cooked in hot sand). Natural steam vents (fumaroles) in the sand can literally cook a whole chicken in about an hour and a half.

Note: Because the island is packed with Italian and German tourists in late July and August, try visiting in May, June or September.

Lampedusa – Where Africa Meets Italy

Maldives

Italy’s southernmost island lies between Malta and Tunisia plunk in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Considered part of the African continent, its Roman, Arab and Greek influences blend with a more arid geography flavored with shepherds and bell-clanging sheep and goats. Fine, white sandy beaches, clear turquoise waters and dive sites draw nautical enthusiasts in the busy summer months. Visitors arrive at this small two- by seven-mile island by ferry, hydrofoil, or a quick flight from the mainland. Easily accessible beaches and nature trails serve as the island’s main attractions. Follow the crowds, or explore by moped to find inlets, bays and your own private sand or pebble beach. Local dive shops rent diving and snorkel gear and some offer instruction. The nearby I’lsolotto dei Conigli (Rabbit Island) makes a nice day trip to even less populated beaches. Choose from over 60 small hotels and guesthouses that dot Lampedusa. The hosts of the small and welcoming La Rosa dei Venti Club are like personal friends that exude friendly and thoughtful hospitality in a professional manner. Their daily boat excursions to explore dive sites and coves come with the same alluring ethnic flavor and freshly prepared Sicilian cuisine. Settle down for a few days or a week to enjoy brilliant sunshine, aquamarine seas and local trattorias featuring fresh seafood, arancini (deep-fried, stuffed rice croquettes) and granitas. The slower, simpler life will soon overcome you.

Ready to Go?

Shop our site for clothing, swimwear, shoes, hats and accessories suited to island travel. And consult our packing guides for a free checklist of everything you need to pack for the trip!

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