Expressive, enthusiastic, passionate and highly knowledgeable – what more could you want in a Sicilian? Ah yes, that the Sicilian in question wants you to share in the good things of his island, to immerse yourself in the flavours, scents and atmosphere that he loves. Whilst Montalbano has shown us Sicily on the television, our man wants to give you that experience for yourself.
Renato Gagliano grew up in the capital of Sicily, Palermo, and it’s a city he still loves for its architecture, culture and extraordinary street food in the historic souk-like markets, quoted in Forbes magazine as one of the top ten cities in the world for these culinary triumphs, with traditions dating back 1,000 years. After moving to the mainland for work, he bought a holiday home in Marsala and found himself drawn into travel and tourism almost by default. Renato realised that there was limited marketing for villas and holiday properties on the island. So with his corporate background and skills, he decided to see if he could improve this and ensure that the villas are not only presented professionally but also of the highest standard internally and externally, as quality is crucial. Thus, the company Scent of Sicily was born!
Renato started in the Marsala/Trapani region in western Sicily, with beautiful villas that needed renovation and refurbishment which he undertook, ensuring all was to his satisfaction. Then about 6 years ago, he started to expand the programme, although working directly with the property owners took time: the professional standards and marketing were all new to them! After a while, the decision was made to start working with agents too, to ensure quality holiday homes and to have them available across the whole island, including the east of the Sicily in Syracuse, Catania and Taormina. So Scent of Sicily brings together all the small agencies under one umbrella, as a hub. And the company is constantly expanding, with more villas being added all the time, including some at the luxurious Rocco Forte Verdura Resort.
There is a property for everyone, whether you’re looking for ultra-luxury, budget conscious, the depths of the countryside, very spacious for your extended family or close to the beach. What is vital, though, is a hire car; it makes exploring the island and getting to hidden or secrets places so much easier.
In addition, the company also offers unique excursions and a concierge service, using local specialists. Should you fancy yoga in the villa garden or shiatsu in the pool, it can be arranged. As can gulet trips to the three Egadi Islands close to Trapani, tours to mythical Segesta, where the ancient amphitheatre is host to Greek theatre and poetry at sunrise in August, local vineyards or – my favourites – a street food tour in Palermo to taste the authentic Sicilian fusion dishes combining Arab, African and Italian cooking or a market tour, cooking class and lunch with a local chef. All fine additional experiences to add to your holiday.
I asked Renato about what makes Sicily special and his words tumbled out at speed! He explained that there are many UNESCO sites on the island; two for natural beauty being the Aeolian islands and Mount Etna between the cities of Messina and Catania, and five World Heritage Sites, namely the historic city of Syracuse, the Archaeological Area of Agrigento, Villa Romana del Casale, Arab-Norman Palermo and the Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto. The island is a living history lesson, reflecting all the nationalities who have lived here, stretching back centuries. Good times to visit these sites are early in the season, April and May or later in September and October, ideal for silver travellers. The peak summer months are pretty hot, which are great for the beach and lazy days.
The unique food and the atmosphere truly define Sicily, Renato said, where no one culture dominates: with Arabic place names across the island, North African influences in the food through couscous, almonds, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges and pistachio and Norman buildings adorned with Byzantine mosaics and Islamic motifs. Even Nelson was given a castle here by grateful Ferdinand I, King of Naples, when he rescued him during the Napoleonic Wars; the island was under British rule from 1806-1815. Sicily has been at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe since the dawn of civilisation, and it shows!
And a little secret to share from last year: in October, Sicily played host to one of our favourite eclectic silver ‘rockers’, the legendary Sir Mick Jagger. Renato would be delighted if we follow in Sir Mick’s footsteps.