Rupert Parker takes a car in Sicily, from Palermo to Agrigento and Noto, running into Greek Temples and avoiding the long arm of Inspector Montalbano.
Sicily is one of those places where it’s much easier to explore under your own steam, rather than using public transport. I arrive in Palermo at night, pick up a hire car and make my way to Cefalu, around 100km to the East. Fortunately it’s motorway all the way, as I’m not yet ready to negotiate Sicilian towns which I’ve heard can be a nightmare to get around. My hotel, aptly named Hotel Tourist, is right on the shore and I fall into a pleasant sleep to the sound of breaking waves.
Next morning I look out onto a long sandy beach and realise that I’m in a bustling holiday resort. In the distance the medieval town centre nestles under a towering crag and I spend the morning wandering the steep narrow streets. The Norman cathedral dominates and the interior is decorated by Byzantine mosaics, dating from 1148, well worth a visit. The beach is pleasantly deserted in early October but it’s still warm enough for a quick dip so I join the handful of people braving the water.
It’s sunny as I start the road to the South, but as I climb past hilltop towns like Geraci Siculo and Petralia Sottana, I’m soon in the mist. I drop down to the motorway and within two hours am in Valle dei Templi in Agrigento. Originally called Akragas, this was one of Sicily’s richest and most powerful Greek cities and now only the 5th century BC Doric temples remain. They’re exceptionally well-preserved and their position, on a low ridge, means they tower above you as you approach.
Porto Empedocle, six kilometres away, is the birthplace of Andrea Camilleri, the author of the Inspector Montalbano novels and was the model for his fictional town of Vigata. It’s a rather unimpressive industrial port, dominated by a huge cement works, and the director of the TV series wisely decided to shoot it in Ragusa. I set off East along the coast and spend the night in a rather delightful olive farm, Azienda Agricola Mandranova. It’s harvest time and truckloads of the ripe fruit are arriving to be crushed in the mill. As you’d expect, food here is excellent, local produce to the fore, and all is accompanied by their glorious green olive oil.
This is the heart of Sicily’s dreamy south, with little development, and I pass tomato greenhouses, in various stages of decay, and abandoned farm houses before arriving in Punta Secca. This tiny seaside village is home to the TV version of Inspector Montalbano and the house where they shoot is now a B&B. It’s in a glorious position, right on the beach, with a large terrace opening out to the sea. He always begins his morning with a swim so, of course, how can I resist? The water is warm, slightly choppy, but very refreshing. In the summer this place is packed but today it’s almost deserted.
My next destination is Scicli, half an hour inland, where the town hall doubles as the police station. This is one of the South’s famous baroque towns, rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1693, and it’s the location for many scenes in the TV series. Driving here is a nightmare, since the streets are so narrow, and the GPS takes me down blind alleys as I try to make my way to Hotel Novecentro. This is a restored Palazzo with just a handful of rooms and mine has a magnificent painted ceiling, with a balcony opening to the street. It’s a good base for exploring the town, so I abandon the car and set out on foot.
Above the centre is a limestone ridge, the site of the original settlement, crowned by the abandoned church of San Matteo. As defence became less of a priority, the town gradually moved downhill to its present site, although people were still living in caves in the side of the cliff until the 1950’s. As you’d expect, the views are spectacular and rambling overgrown paths lead past deserted cave dwellings to the church of Santa Maria della Catena, itself built into the rock.
Back in the centre, the Municipio or town hall is at the head of the pedestrianised Via Momina Penna. Two immense columns frame the entrance and there’s a grand balcony above flying the flags of Italy, Sicily and the EU. The street itself is a long assembly of ornate churches and palazzi with tables outside ready for that early evening aperitif. The Palazzo Bartolomeo, just round the corner is perhaps Scicli’s Baroque masterpiece, with grotesque grinning figures, complete with bald heads and tongues outstretched, support its long balconies.
Noto, around an hour away, was started afresh on a new site after the 1693 earthquake destroyed the original town, now completely abandoned a few miles away. The baroque centre is built on a grid pattern, with two distinct sections – the lower town for the political and religious buildings and the upper for the people. The main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, starts at the imposing Porta Reale, runs past the twin towered Cathedral, and is stuffed full of the town’s celebrated buildings.
Ragusa, in the other direction, was also built on a grid plan after the earthquake but here the original town was rebuilt by the inhabitants following the medieval street layout. It makes for two distinct sections, Ragusa Ibla below and the Baroque town of Ragusa Superiore above. You need to be fairly fit to climb to the new Cathedral but the reward is a stunning view of the roofs of the old straddling its outcrop of rock.
Driving is Sicily is not for the faint-hearted – Italian drivers seem to ignore the speed limits and arrive impatiently at your rear bumper, trying to push you forward. It’s wise to ignore them, keeping closely to the limit, as there are traffic cops everywhere. In the towns people stop suddenly without signalling and some of the streets are so narrow that you’re lucky to come away with your mirrors intact. It’s worthwhile taking out extra insurance to cover you for minor damage as they’ll painstakingly look any slight scratch when you return the car.
If you don’t want to drive, there is a fairly extensive rail network in Sicily run by Trenitalia, but services can be slow, particularly between small towns. I would advise making a base, for example in Scicli, and using local travel agencies to do day trips. Ragusa, Noto and Agrigento are all within easy range and there are specialist Montalbano tours which run most days.
Prestige Holidays (01425 480400) offers a five night break in Sicily for £489 pp. It includes flights with Ryanair from Stansted to Palermo, a hire car (Group A), two nights at Hotel Tourist on HB, one night at Mandranova on BB and two nights at Hotel Novecento on BB, then Ryanair flights back from Comiso to Stansted.
One week’s Meet and Greet airport parking at Stansted Airport with Airport Parking and Hotels (APH) costs from only £63.
Italia has information about the country.