Fly to Palermo. On arrival you will be transferred to the four star hotel Crystal for three nights, fully air-conditioned, modern in character and ideally situated on the edge of Trapani’s historic centre allowing easy exploration of this truly atmospheric town on foot.
Western Sicily has always been more African than European and the first known settlers were the Elymians, probably Trojan refugees, about whom little is known. Trapani was the port for their capital, Erice, which today is a simply stunning spot crying out for exploration and a true microcosm of the entire island. Firstly it is renowned for its magnificent location, towering 750m above the nearby coast and offering astonishing views of the fertile valleys below, with rocky headlands stretching beyond and onwards out to the deep blue sea. Unmistakably medieval, and home to a collection of some of the most fascinating and beautifully decorated churches, monasteries and abbeys you will ever find in one tiny place. Varying from Byzantine to Baroque, these edifices range from the simple to the elaborate, some swathed in rich frescoes with extensive intricately carved marble and alabaster, whilst others display unmistakable Moorish influences too. The whole village is dominated by its Norman castle plus the original temple is still in evidence, so after our guided tour you can explore where you wish. After lunch, we visit Grotta Mangiapane, an unusual archaeological site, first discovered in 1870 by Marquis Guido Dalla Rosa when investigating the area’s potential for economic contribution to the Kingdom of Italy. The most incredible cave dwellings were discovered, with artefacts and cave paintings preserved for over 20,000 years. Incredibly, a whole series of dwellings was found – five two storey houses, two warehouses and stables, literally built within the walls of the caves. Now the site is often used as a film set, and still very much an undiscovered gem, unspoiled by mass tourism. We later return to Trapani with the remainder of the day unscripted. 2018 departures: Eating is a Sicilian passion and so for the next two evenings we have arranged dinner in two different and high standard local restaurants so you can sample the excellent local cuisine at its best.
This morning, we take the short drive to Segesta, an outstanding archaeological site with a similar hilltop setting to Erice, dating from much the same era. Repeatedly fought over by Sicily’s numerous invaders before finally being abandoned during the Middle Ages, today its magnificent remains are so wonderfully peaceful compared with equivalent other European sites, lending a magical quality and allowing a more intimate perspective on its ancient inhabitants. It’s staggeringly important too, still largely unexcavated with its highlights including one of Europe’s finest preserved ancient Greek Doric Temples – virtually complete except for its roof and an amphitheatre with outstanding views over the valleys below. This afternoon in Marsala, we discover another Sicilian masterpiece, learning all about the creation of the delectable dessert wine which bears the town’s name and is enjoyed throughout the world. We are guests of one of Marsala’s finest producers and after the visit enjoy a tasting. There is an immensely attractive seascape to be enjoyed here, but the sea endows another gift to mankind; the extraction of salt by evaporation, exploited since Phoenician times. Using windmills for power and an ingenious system of connecting reservoirs, today, salt is staggeringly still harvested largely by hand. At a wonderful family-run museum, we learn about this ancient craft and the proprietor, whose family has been engaged in the trade for generations, explains this arduous lifestyle and occasionally breaks into traditional songs! This evening we enjoy yet another dinner in an excellent local restaurant gaining another view of Sicilian cuisine. Afterwards why not join the locals as everyone, of all ages and dressed as only the Italians know how, wanders arm-in-arm, slowly around the streets, watching everyone else do the same. The passeggiata – it’s a wonderful Italian tradition.
Driving eastwards our scenic coastal journey offers tantalising views of bright blue waters and pleasant vistas of Sicily’s mountainous interior, en-route to the capital, Palermo. We have a guided tour during which you will unravel the past’s mysteries gaining a real understanding of what makes this fascinating island actually ‘tick’. There are some incredible monuments here, most dating from before 1861 when Sicily was an independent Kingdom. You will love some of Italy’s most brilliantly decorated churches, plus tiny, almost timeless piazzas but most outstanding of them all, the Norman Palace. Once the seat of Kings, now occupied by the Sicilian government, in the Middle Ages it was Europe’s most decorated royal court. During our visit you will see the huge Carthaginian foundations, whilst upstairs is the royal church, literally covered in some of the finest gold medieval mosaics in existence and without doubt Palermo’s undisputed artistic gem. 2018 departures: This afternoon we visit the nearby hillside town of Monreale and you have the opportunity to visit another of Sicily’s secrets - the superb abbey cathedral, where the Normans reached their magnificent architectural zenith. Outwardly simple, its interior is stunningly rich in its decoration but you cannot fail to marvel at the magnificent glass mosaics displaying bible stories covering the entire interior as you wonder at the sheer skill of the craftsmen involved. We stay in the charming coastal town of Cefalù, in the four-star Alberi del Paradiso set just behind Cefalù on small hill affording wonderful views of the town and sea beyond, with the beach and historic centre just a mile away. The well appointed rooms have the facilities that you would expect of this standard, but to make your stay more comfortable, why not upgrade to a superior room with a side sea view and balcony? There is a spa and pool for relaxation, whilst for the energetic there is also a tennis court. The superbly comfortable lounge built in Sicilian style with exposed stonework, is the perfect spot to relax, whilst the restaurant presents local and international cuisine to a high standard. After dining you may wish to visit the bar terrace with extensive panoramic views and live background music several times weekly. A shuttle bus operates to Cefalu’s centre and beach.
Cefalù’s atmospheric medieval centre clings around the base of a huge rocky outcrop called la Rocca which dominates the terracotta coloured roofs below and at whose summit is a temple dedicated to the goddess Diana. This morning you will have a short orientation walk, with the rest of the day yours to enjoy. The jewel in Cefalù’s crown is its splendid Cathedral, another majestic Norman edifice held to be the zenith of Sicilian Romanesque architecture and containing mosaics, which though smaller, like those at Monreale, are exquisite. You will love Cefalù’s gentle pace - protected by the huge Saracen ramparts, the quaint fishing port is lined by picturesque bars and excellent fish restaurants. You can soak up the unique ambience, amid hardly any other nationality but Italians, enjoying the maze of picturesque medieval streets, the splendid selection of shops, cafes and bars. Perhaps though, a lazy afternoon on or by the splendid sandy beach is a temptation? Whatever your choice, you are assured an idyllic day in this wonderful spot before dining in the hotel’s restaurant.
This morning’s drive takes us along the scenic coast road, then we cruise across the astonishing Aeolian Islands. Firstly as we pass Vulcano, you may get a hint of the characteristic aroma from this island’s sulphurous hot springs – then we land at another of Sicily’s secrets, Lipari. These islands are almost unknown outside Italy, except perhaps for Stromboli, Europe’s most active volcano. Still surrounded by its historic walls, Lipari has been the chief amongst these islands since Neolithic times and remains the most populous, so there is plenty to see. Firstly on arriving at its picturesque fishing port is the staggering realisation that such a beautiful mooring and its delightful waterfront is still used for its original purpose and has not been taken over by mega-yachts. Perhaps you’ll take a long fish lunch with a crisp white wine in one of the delightful restaurants here, but you should not miss the astonishing archaeological museum tracing the islands’ history. Lipari is but a small village yet displays extensive remains from the Stone Age and every era since. The harbour and necropolis have yielded the contents of several wrecked ships from antiquity and implements for the afterlife of Greek and Roman origin. Not short of staggering they would not be out of place in any major world-class museum. The superb ceramics, jewellery, amphorae, coins and all sorts of everyday objects are incredible in their detail and quantity. But there are so many ambiences here in Lipari, just amble where your feet take you and discover a true Shangri-la in a busy continent. All too soon it’s time to leave this fascinating spot and return to your hotel for dinner.
In Cefalù’s lofty hinterland is the Madonie Natural Park, a wild and rugged mountain range, high enough to ski in winter, with its crags and forests home to wolves, eagles and wildcats, making it the islands most important natural habitat. After enjoying this wonderful topography with just the occasional shepherd tending their flocks for company, tucked away in this marvellously unspoilt corner, is the stunning hilltop village of Castelbuono. Dominating the medieval village is a 14th century castle, fascinating for its melange of Arabic, Germanic and Norman architectural styles. Inside, the Cappella Palatina chapel is sumptuously decorated with precious marble and friezes as befits the home of the holy skull allegedly of Saint Anne - mother of the Madonna, and reputedly stolen from France 300 years ago! Castelbuono is the perfect place to end your tour of Sicilian secrets with its restaurants featuring super Sicilian food and the host of excellent food shops offers the full range of island specialities at their very best, ensuring you won’t return home empty handed! Descending to the coast, tantalising glimpses of the glittering Tyrrhenian Sea herald our return to delightful Cefalù for a final dinner and a chance to compare notes with your fellow travellers of which was your favourite experience of this outstanding tour.
At the appropriate time you will be transferred to the airport for your flight home.