Cheaper than Italy and home to a charismatic detective, Sarah Freeman heads to Sicily in search of sun and a certain Inspector Montalbano
If there were ever proof needed of the difference between us and our European neighbours it can be found at an airport. At Manchester’s Ryanair check-in, bags are carefully scrutinised. Those with luggage like mine which are deemed an inch or two too big to fit in the cabin are sent to the back of the queue and ordered to pay £30 to have them stashed in the hold. At Girona, for the second leg of the journey to Sicily, they don’t go in for rules much.
Everyone looks unconcerned when I explain the oversight and ask where I need to pay. Instead I’m ushered on board along with oversized baggage which also happens to contain heaps of supposedly contraband items. Us Brits have always been sticklers for rules and hopelessly uptight compared with our continental neighbours.
In Sicily, a relaxed attitude to life is an art form. Timetables exist only to be ignored, with lunch often lasting until dinner.
It’s an attractive mix and the island, which for so long was overshadowed by the big boot of its neighbour Italy and its well publicised Mafia connections, is finally embracing tourism. For the last few years visitor numbers have been on the rise, partly thanks to word of it being a cheaper alternative to many European countries and partly due to the popularity of a certain detective.
Based on the novels of Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri, the original series of Inspector Montalbano went out in the late 1990s. It was rebooted a few years ago with a younger, but not less brooding inspector and ever since there has been steady stream of fans heading to the island.
It comes as a slight disappointment to discover that not all men in Sicily look like Montalbano. However, the hilltop towns, winding streets and rolling hills that provided the backdrop for the series are thankfully genuine. The island, the largest in the Med, is home to seven Unesco World Heritage sites, from the ancient city of Agrigento to the volcanic Mount Etna.
In most other locations that would be reason enough to have built a lucrative tourist trade, but Sicily has struggled to attract the same numbers who flock to Tuscany just a few hundred miles to the north. It’s something that has long frustrated Sicilian-born Renato Gagliano, who after a number of years working in Milan has now returned home determined to promote the island to the rest of the world, in particular Brits.
“We have the perfect climate, great food and so many beautiful historic places,” says Renato, who runs the villa company Scent of Sicily. “But we haven’t been good at letting other people know about it.”
Most flights from the UK arrive in Palermo and it’s worth spending a day or two exploring Sicily’s bustling capital. Catholicism still dominates the country and there is pretty much one church for every day of the year, from the impressive 12th century cathedral to the equally breathtaking Baroque vision of Chiesa del Gesu.
Palermo is a working city with a vibrant street food scene, but it’s away from the crowded markets and in one of the main rooms of its City Hall that Palermo’s more recent history is most starkly illuminated. On one wall there is a large memorial. It looks like those dedicated to those who died in the First World War. It’s not. It’s a list of politicians and councillors who were killed because of their attempts to break the stranglehold that Mafia families once had on Sicily. That fight has, says Renato, largely been won and the island is hoping that eventually it will be better known for its vineyards and spectacular coastline than references to Goodfellas.
To explore the place properly it is best to hire a car as the public transport, while cheap, is also slow and won’t get you into the heart of the hills. It’s here where you will find the best of what Sicily has to offer, from the ancient settlement of Erice, which has spectacular views across the harbour at Trapani to Monreale, home to a grand Norman cathedral.
The hours spent exploring will also help you justify indulging in the island’s signature dishes, in particular the Genovesi pastries which Montalbano has a soft spot for.
Sicilian food won’t make you slim, but it will make you happy and chefs like Emanuele Russo, who runs the slow food Le Lumie restaurant where most of the ingredients come from the kitchen garden, are helping to put it on the international culinary map.
Renato is right. Sicily has everything summer holidays are made for. Now it just needs the tourists.
Scent of Sicily has a large portfolio of luxury villas available to rent. Most have their own private swimming pools. To find out more go to scent-of-sicily.com.
Direct flights to Sicily are available from London airports with British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair. Flights from Manchester go via a number of other cities, including Girona and Brussels.