Comiso airport in Southern Sicily is just 2hrs 45mins away from the UK. That’s only slightly longer than an episode of Inspector Montalbano, the Italian Detective series that recently pricked my (and so many others) interest in visiting this part of the world. If you’ve never read the books or seen the TV Series it’s a bit like a Mediterranean version of Bergerac, but instead of Jersey it holds the incredible towns and villages of this area, including Ragusa, Modica, Syracuse and Scicli as its backdrops.
I visited the area for 3 days in mid-March to taste the local wine, sample the food and to soak in the atmosphere. At this time of year the the locals wear Winter coats as if it was snowing, the Sun still shines brightly, but by mid afternoon a cool air often drifts across from the sea. If you come here in the Summer, it’s significantly hotter and the temperature is more akin to North Africa (Malta is only a short ferry away). Life shuts down between the hours of 1pm and 4pm and only mad dogs and Englishmen brave the fierce midday heat.
During mid-April or later in the year around September is a perfect time to visit, the Sun is more forgiving and prices are lower too. First off is Scicli.
A small charming town set in a deep gorge, Scicli (pronounced shik-lee) lies only a couple of miles from the sea and the villages of Donnalucata and Sampieri are both easily accessible. Less well known than its surrounding neighbours, the peaceful and relaxed atmosphere reflects its status as a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.
Much of the town was rebuilt in a Sicilian baroque style after a huge earthquake in 1693 and the character remains to this day. High above the village is the old church of San Matteo, which can be reached via a winding path close by to the ancient, abandoned cave settlement of Chiafura. Early settlers to the area lived in the caves on the hillside and some are still used today. From here the views are spectacular.
Back into town, head along the beautiful Via Mormino Penna and past Santa Marìa la Nova. This where all exterior shots for the Police station are filmed for the Inspector Montalbano TV series. With the local town hall also doubling up inside on the first floor as the commissionaires office a steady stream of ‘Montalbanians’ are happy to part with a Euro to pay homage.
Compulsory is a stop at the cafe opposite to enjoy a cool Caffé Shakerato (freshly ground espresso shaken over ice and poured into a martini glass) or try a Sicilian local wine (Aglianino or Donnafugata are both highly recommended) fits the bill. Just leave time to watch the world go by.
Ten minutes by car from Scicli is a small family run Olive Oil producer, Fratelli Aprile. The land is managed by brothers Roberto and Daniele (below) and like many Sicilian businesses has been in the family for generations. Among the different kinds of olive oil they produce is 274, named so because traditionally the olives are picked on the 274th day of the year (October 1st). They also make a popular Sicilian pasta known as ‘Busiate’, dense and spiral shaped it holds the sauce wonderfully (just ask Mama).
It’s possible by prior arrangement to see how the olive oil is made and learn about the traditional methods they still use. Alongside the families house there is a lovely outdoor dining area (see www.fratelliaprile.it) and guests are able to enjoy a wonderful traditional home-cooked Sicilian lunch and amazing local wine. I did and it was.
As is often the way in Sicily, the young children get enthusiastically involved in preparing and serving the food alongside the Grandparents, who in turn share their knowledge and traditions to the next generation. Long may it continue.
Coming soon… more in Southern Sicily: Ragusa, Modica and Syracuse.