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Western Sicily - June/July 2019

caliroan

10+ Posts
John Denver wrote a song with a great line, about a man "coming home to a place he'd never been before."

That's how I felt about my first visit to Sicily, the land my grandparents left 100 years ago.

It's not the most polished or tourist accessible region. Depending on your tastes it may not have the "best food." It's certainly not the cleanest part of Italy.

But the sum of the Sicilian parts make for an enchanting whole, and I fell, hard. I have a new favorite region of Italy (sorry, Liguria).

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(My family name in Bagheria)

My paternal grandparents were born in Bagheria, just east of Palermo. Their families both knew struggles and even occasional hunger.

Someone once said Italian immigrants to America came from many places, but all moved in the same direction - from hopelessness to opportunity. That was Francesco and Francesca.

I grew up hearing stories about and looking at old black and white photos of Bagheria. The pastry shops. "La Chiesa Madre." The Villa of the Monsters.

I'm not sure why I waited until my 14th trip to Italy before visiting. But that's how things unfolded.

-------

We wanted to cover a fair bit of ground in Western Sicily, so made plans to base ourselves in three cities.

First, Bagheria.

We arrived after a week visiting family in the Vorarlberg region of Austria.

Austria is prosperous, pristine, manicured.

Bagheria is... not.

As we drove along Corso Baldassare Scaduto towards our rental property, we saw bag after bag of trash. Broken electronics, dirty clothes, rotting food. Shameful, and frankly - disgusting.

"Oh my God, dad. You dragged us out of Austria for THIS???" My teenagers were not pleased.

But we soon learned to look past the trash to the treasures.

As soon as we arrived at Villa Argento everyone relaxed a bit. Seafront property, beautiful pool, trees loaded with lemons and oranges, olives and apricots. Simply furnished unit, very polished host. He steered us to Pizzeria Can Caus for a wonderful meal of seafood and pizzas.

Dazzling sunshine the next morning further improved our moods. I ran to a cafe in the nearby fishing village of Aspra for two takeaway cappuccini and five delicious pastries. Eight euros.

Have you ever used Airbnb to find "experiences?" I checked several months before our vacation and found a young woman in Bagheria who offered an "Improve Your Italian Over Coffee" experience. She was more than happy to act as a tour guide for our Friday morning visit to Bagheria.

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(Entrance to Villa Palagonia)

We met Marzia outside Villa Palagonia - the villa of the monsters which is pretty much smack dab in the middle of the city. Parts of the villa are literally crumbling and preservation efforts appear to be half-hearted. The ticket office doubles as a sad little gift shop, offering a few books and dusty post cards. Still, we spent a very fun hour there, strolling the Villa and the grounds, taking lots of pictures of the bizarre sculptures that decorate the walls. The ballroom with its mirrored ceiling is particularly impressive, even if most of the reflective surfaces are dirty, cracked, or missing.

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After a short break at a lovely modern cafe, we strolled the shopping district. My last name, Aiello, is very common in Bagheria, and we saw it everywhere. We made a point of visiting several "Aiello" businesses, including Boutique Aiello and Fratelli Aiello Meat & Cookers, where the owner, Mauro, works wonders with all things for carnivores. He put out a huge platter of his homemade salumi, opened a bottle of wine, and we ate so much our plans to stop for lunch went out the window. He sent us home with a Fratelli Aiello apron, and lots of happy memories.

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We also asked about local ceramics and were taken to the workshop of Mirella Pipia where we bought some beautiful souvenirs.

(I should say I speak 'intermediate' Italian - I've never been to a region of Italy where the locals reward any effort to speak the language more than in Sicily)

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(Bagheria street scenes)

Marzia and other young Bagheresi are trying to kickstart tourism in the city, pushing for things to be cleaned up, tourist signage improved, streets to be made "aree pedonali" free of vehicular traffic. Bagheria seems to have a certain lethargy and I'm not sure how successful these efforts will be.

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(Pool at Villa Argento)

After an afternoon in the pool at Villa Argento, we cleaned up and headed to Porticello for apertivi and dinner at the port, looking at the boats that brought the fish all the restaurants were serving.

We took the train to Palermo on Saturday. I think Palermo exists so people in Naples can say "wow, that place is crazy."

The Ballarò market was complete madness, to the point it gave me a headache. But my wife and kids loved the sights and sounds.

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(Palermo)

Vincenzo, a tour guide in an Ape Calessino, charmed us into hiring him for the 10 minute ride up to the Catacombe dei Cappuccini. Creepy stuff. We wandered back down into the city for lunch, shopping, and a quick tour of the Cathedral and also the elaborately decorated Jesuit church. Then back to the villa for more pool time, dinner once again at Can Caus, and a walk along the pleasant waterfront in Aspra which is definitely geared to locals more than tourists.

We left Bagheria Sunday morning, making the short drive to Monreale, a charming hilltop town with a spectacular, mosiac-filled Cathedral. In a country blessed with amazing churches, this one definitely qualifies as awe inspiring. Wonderful. Monreale has good restaurants and excellent shopping - we particularly enjoyed meeting the artist/owner of La Torre mosaic shop.

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(Sunday mass at Duomo di Monreale)

Next stop - Agrigento.

Staying at Colle dei Rustici in the hills near the Valle dei Templi was a highlight of our trip. This place was peaceful, chic, and gorgeous. Feels remote but just 15 minutes to touristy civilization. We drove to the lovely promenade at nearby San Leone for dinner - very lively and family friendly.

We had booked a tour guide for both the Valley of the Temples and the Catacombs. In retrospect, the Valley guide was a waste of $200, while the Catacombs guide was definitely worth $90 for the "inside access" you can only get by hiring a guide. I think the temple tour is completely doable with just Rick Steves or Lonely Planet to guide you. The ancient history here is fascinating, and I understand why the Valley is at the top of the list for many who come to Sicily.

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(View from Colle dei Rustici)

That afternoon we drove to the Scala dei Turchi beach. The eroded rock formation is interesting but not the "must see" some say it is. It was Canada Day and lo and behold we met a family from Toronto. My wife and I were some of the "plane people" diverted to Gander on 9/11, the story told in the Broadway show "Come From Away," and will forever have a soft spot in our hearts for our northern neighbors.

We decided to take full advantage of our digs at Colle dei Rustici, so we cooked a mixed grill dinner, dined al fresco on the patio, and enjoyed a quiet evening looking at the lights twinkling on the hillside.

Agrigento proper sits on a hill above the Valley. From a distance it is ugly, with a wall of concrete modern buildings. Up close, it's charming, with an extensive centro storico, winding streets and alleys crammed with shops, cafes, restaurants, and historic sites, including an 8th century church and a home associated with Luigi Pirandello (his birthplace is now a museum near the Valle dei Templi.) On our final day here we made our way up to the Cathedral, climbed the bell tower, and soaked up the expansive view.

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(View of Agrigento from Duomo bell tower)

After lunch back at our rental, we drove to San Leone to hire a boat and driver for three hours at sea. Our swim was cut short by a jellyfish sting, and we still loved our afternoon on the water. We picked up takeaway chicken for the kids to eat at the villa so my wife and I could enjoy dinner on our own in Agrigento. Our meal at Sal8 (salotto, see what they did there?) was the best of our trip.

Leaving Agrigento on Wednesday, we decided to swing by FARM Cultural Park in nearby Favara. This is an artists' co-op, their attempt to breathe life into a dying Sicilian village. I wish we had listened to the Agrigentini who told us "go at night, when it's much more lively, a real happening." Still, we enjoyed a pleasant hour strolling the grounds and viewing the exhibits.

Next stop - Marsala.

Our inexpensive hotel, Relais lo Stagnone, wasn't much to look at but the room was very clean and cool, and the owner, Roberto, was friendly and fun. We relaxed in the above-ground pool and then drove to Marsala for a gelato break, shopping, and dinner. A pleasant city with an inordinate number of jewelry shops and men's clothing stores. There was a wedding taking place at the Cathedral so we chilled at the adjacent Fratelli Pappalardo cafe for a bit to join in the applause for the bride and groom.

When we returned to the hotel, Roberto gave us two glasses of Grillo, the local white wine, and four bottles of water, on the house. And when we checked out the next morning, he gave us a bottle of the wine as a parting gift.

Thursday morning was a highlight of our trip - a boat ride on the lagoon to see the salt ponds and visit Mozia, a Phoenician settlement where an extraordinary number of artifacts have been recovered. There are two companies that provide boat service - we used Arini e Pugliese. The boat played an audio tour in Italian and English, and the captain served all the adults a nice glass of Marsala wine.

An extraordinary man named Guiseppe Whitaker bought Mozia island and devoted his final years to documenting its history. The Museo Whitaker is a must-see in Western Sicily, IMHO. The Phoenician artifacts on display are stunning in their variety and quality. A beautiful 5th century BCE Greek statue on display was found under a pile of rubble in 1979.

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(Museo Whitaker, Mozia)

We booked a very pleasant B&B near the Palermo airport for our final night. Driving there, we stopped in Castellammare del Golfo, a fun seaside town, and enjoyed lunch on the waterfront. We returned later that night to stroll, shop, and enjoy our final meal. The attractions near Castellammare, including the Zingaro Natural Area, are definitely on our list for further exploration.

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(Castellammare del Golfo street scene)

Over the years, so many Italians have told me Sicily is their favorite part of the country. I would think - not the Amalfi Coast? Gulf of the Poets? Lake Garda? Lucca?

Now that I've been to Sicily, I'm beginning to understand. The bello and the brutto coexist there in a way that must distill for Italians everything that enchants and infuriates them about their country. Non vediamo l'ora di tornare.

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caliroan

10+ Posts
Thanks Pauline :) When we return, we plan to do the Eastern part (Taormina, Siragusa, Mt Etna) to have a more complete experience of the island.
 

milgreen2

10+ Posts
Great report! Your family will always have great memories of visiting your ancestral town.
We'll be in Sicily in October, and can't wait! We'll be doing east and west, but skipping some of the areas you describe......makes me wonder if we shouldn't have concentrated on one or the other for a deep dive.
 

ItalophileNJ

100+ Posts
I too loved Mozia even though the ferry and the island were overrun by rambunctious school children for most of my visit! Lovely Phoenician artifacts on the museum And I wandered out to the tophet, supposedly where children were sacrificed to Moloch. But more likely just bad press for the Phoenicians.
 

caliroan

10+ Posts
I really thought our last full day in Sicily would be kind of a throwaway. But between the lagoon, Mozia, and visiting Castellammare del Golfo, it turned out to be one of the best days of the trip.

I've read that the Phoenicians left no written histories of their own civilization, so no wonder they get bad press!
 

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