Beyond Tuscany and Umbria, another region of Italy which is becoming well regarded for both rural tourism and agriturismo is Sicily, somewhere that is sometimes dismissed as a backwater but which was once an important piece of geography for so many ancient civilizations.
Much of rural Sicily is strikingly beautiful, its coastal regions are an obvious attraction but there is much beauty and quiet solitude to be found in its barren, rugged interior too.
Most visitors will come with a plan in mind which involves the main cities and coastal towns but for the more adventurous a slow journey through rural Sicily and a stay at some of its wonderful agriturismo farmstays gives an extra insight into one of Europe’s most fascinating corners.
Food is of course a big part of the agriturismo Sicily experience, and you’ll find a lot of the traditional food here a little different; they eat a lot more seafood in Sicily and they make greater use of vegetables, fruit, nuts and herbs in their traditional dishes. (You can read more about food in Sicily farther down the page.)
Rural tourism is becoming popular in Sicily but still nothing at all like in Tuscany up north for example, and you’ll generally find the agriturismo Sicily experience refreshingly traditional and rustic.
Here are some of our highlights of rural Sicily, an introduction to its fantastic food, plus, at the bottom of the page, all our recommended agriturismos in Sicily in 2018.
WHERE TO GO: SICILY RURAL HIGHLIGHTS
Though agriturismo farmstays are becoming increasingly popular, for the most part tourism in Sicily means city breaks in Palermo or Catania or beach holidays in resorts like Taormina. And when visitors do leave the built up areas it is usually for a hike around Mt. Etna or a tour of some of its many historical ruins.
This means that Sicily, Italy’s largest region and the largest Island in the Mediterranean, can feel surprisingly unexplored.
A trip into the sparsely populated interior or some of its more isolated stretches of coast isn’t so easy though, public transport is limited so having/hiring a car is pretty much a necessity, but it very much leaves a lasting impression.
Agriturismo in Sicily is an ideal fit for this kind of exploration, it can be an integral part of the experience in fact, and all the rural, off the beaten path, highlights reviewed below have some quality agriturismo within easy reach.
The medieval fairy tale like town of Erice in the far north west of Sicily stands on a mountain top over 700 meters above the port city of Trapani. It can be reached by a winding road or by the 10 minute cable car journey from the edge of the city.
It is a spectacular, almost mystical sight, whether to look on it from below or around the town itself. The views are simply incredible, though the altitude sometimes means it is shrouded in grey clouds.
Erice has kept its medieval old town in good shape and is a very atmospheric place for a stroll around. It has many old churches, most notably Chiesa di San Martino, Chiesa Madre and Chiesa di San Giuliano, and a lovely sloping old square at its centre; Piazza Umberto I which is the evening gathering point for both locals and visitors alike.
In terms of food be sure to sample some of Erice’s famous almond pastries at one of its many pasticcerie.
The town was the site of a temple to the female deity known as Venus to the Romans, Aphrodite to the Greeks and Astarte to the Phoenicians. The temple has gone but in its place there is a twelfth century church; Castello di Venere which, though not particularly beautiful in itself, has on clear days absolutely stunning views; over the coast and islands, and the surrounding hills and plains. It also has a particularly good view of the nearby 19th century villa/castle at Toretta Pepoli sitting precariously high up on the edge of a nearby rocky cliff.
Another spectacular walled town farther off the beaten track is Enna, at the very centre of the island. It is even higher than Erice at over 900 meters and has unrivaled views over Sicily’s sparse interior as far as Mt. Etna off to the north east.
Like Erice it too was a centre of devotion to an ancient deity; the Goddess known as Ceres to the Romans and Demeter to the Greeks, with the centrepoint being the Rock of Ceres just outside of town, a fairly anonymous looking rocky outcrop whose ordinariness belies its ancient mystical status.
The center of Enna hasn’t preserved its medieval heritage as well as Erice but nevertheless has atmosphere and charm. Its major sight is the formidable walled fortress of Castello di Lombardia. Originally built by the Saracens it was later reformed by the Normans it included a series of towers, twenty in total of which six now remain.
Near to Enna another lovely stopping off point in central Sicily is the town of Piazza Armerina. It too is deeply historic and has kept something of a medieval atmosphere.
Its main highlight is also one of Sicily’s highlights and is a UNESCO world heritage site; the 4th-century Roman villa of Romana del Casale, an absolute must see in this area for its thousands of square meters of beautiful mosaics.
Val di Notta:
This region of south eastern Sicily just to the south west of Catania and the west of Syracuse was granted UNESCO world heritage status for its 8 baroque towns/cities; Catania, Militello in Val di Catania, Modica, Ragusa, Caltagirone, Noto, Scili and Palazzolo Acreide.
What makes them interesting is the fact that all of the above towns were leveled by the great earthquake of 1693. A major rebuilding effort was started soon afterwards where architects and town planners took the opportunity to redesign and beautify the towns in a Baroque style that became known as southern Baroque, with ornate churches and central squares, and narrow streets with delicate artistic touches and pastel shades that seem to be aging beautifully.
Coming from Enna & Piazza Armerina the first of the towns you will encounter is Caltagirone, which stands apart from the rest of the towns and indeed any place else in Sicily for the wonderful ceramics that decorate the town. Ornate tiles cover many of the buildings and traditional ceramic craft shops are on every street.
Ragusa, farther south, is another ancient hilltop settlement whose old town is a charming jumble of narrow twisting streets and alleys, Baroque palaces and churches, small cafes and traditional stone houses.
Outside the town an interesting sight is the wonderfully named Castello di Donnafugata or castle of the runaway woman. It is a late 19th Century villa whose homage to ancient and exotic architectural styles make it look a lot of older than it really is. It also has extensive gardens to explore and many walking paths that lead off into the surrounding countryside and is a very pleasant place to wander around.
While in the Ragusa area you could take a trip to the little fishing village of Punta Secca too and sample some of Sicily’s famous seafood or visit the fairly low key seaside resort of Marina di Ragusa.
Nearby Modica is another baroque town which though having some of the best examples of Sicilian baroque architecture is also a relatively busy modern town, especially in the lower part of town. Some may therefore find it less charming than its near neighbour Ragusa but its attractions nonetheless. It is mainly famous in Italy for one thing; chocolate.
A legacy of early globalization, chocolate made its way from South America via the Spanish and the chocolate artisans of Modena have been producing some of the world’s best for centuries. You’ll find lots of chocolate shops and small manufacturers around the town and can treat yourself to some unusual and interesting sweet creations.
In between the towns of Val di Notta the countryside looks barren and sparsely populated though there are a few small farming villages dotted around surviving mainly through the production of cereals, olives, lemons and almonds.
Farming alone is difficult in such an environment and some of these farms also double as agriturismo. Therefore tourism adds a welcome boost to the local rural economy and a self guided tour of the Baroque towns can be very much complemented by an agriturismo stay along the way.
Nebrodi National Park:
Sicily has four national parks, one of which probably needs no introduction; the spectacular Parco dell’Etna or Mt. Etna National Park near Catania, and it, naturally enough, sees by far the most visitors.
Far less known are the other three dotted around the island. They see few visitors but have some interesting and beautiful landscapes to explore.
Across the Alcantara River north of Parco dell’Etna are the Nebrodi Mountains and their associated national park. It is Sicily’s largest park and so though generally a rugged area it is large enough to have a mixture of landscapes; mountains, rivers, lakes, woodland and grassy plains. It’s highest point is Mount Soro, at 1847 meters, and it has a few more of an almost similar height so there are a lot of spectacular views to be enjoyed if you come prepared for strenuous hikes.
You’ll find numerous olive and chestnut trees dotted around the slopes of the Nebrodi mountains as well as many orange trees at lower altitudes. It also contains much quite unique wildlife; if you keep an eye out you may spot some Nebrodian black pigs for example, or see small herds of San Fratello wild horses.
There are a few small villages around the park too some of which have ancient origins and are the site of Byzantine and Roman ruins, the best example of which is Tindari with its impressive 1st Century Roman basilica.
Madonie National Park:
Between Palermo and Cefalu is the Madonie National Park, and a slightly more popular place with visitors than Nebrodi. It is 400 square kilometers in size and contains Sicily’s second highest mountain after Mt. Etna; Pizzo Carbonara at just under 2000 meters above sea level. It is popular for hiking, mountaineering, mountain biking and horse riding and also has an adventure park for children.
Rather surprisingly for Sicily it contains a good proportion of woodland, being home to Europe’s most southerly beech forests. There is wildlife here too of course with the most famous being the rare Bonelli’s Eagle.
The town of Castelbuono is a worthy tourist attraction here too with its imposing castle which is also the site of the annual summer rock music festival of Ypsigrock (2017: 10-13 August. 2018: dates yet to be announced).
The last of the national parks is around the Alcantara Gorges near to Taormina and just north of Mt. Etna. The park itself is small but the gorges are magnificent.
These unique rock formations came about from the interaction of the River Alcantara and various lava flows from Mt. Etna. The resulting walls of basalt rock rise up to 15 meters in places and create narrow passageways that can be explored by descending down steps to the waterside, where you will even find a small beach; Gorge Beach. There are a number of relatively easy trails to follow around both around the river and gorges, and above the surrounding rocky cliffs.
Riserva dello Zingaro:
A little over half way from Palermo to Trapani in Northern Sicily is the Riserva dello Zingaro or Zingaro Reserve. This is a completely unspoiled stretch of coastline with a trail, the Via Khorzhevska, that runs from the towns of Scopello to San Vito Lo Capo and offers gorgeous sea views all the way.
All around there are hidden bays and coves, Calla Berretta, Cala Marinella, Cala Tonnarella dell’Uzzo and Cala dell’Uzzo to name just a few, perfect places for a refreshing swim along the way.
You’ll see the odd fellow hiker, or local shepherd, around but never too many. It is very much left to nature with many rare plant species allowed to thrive, and apart from the trails there are no roads, and very few houses to speak of. Indeed the reserve has an interesting origin in that regard; the reserve is the result of local action to prevent a road being made to join the two towns, a practical step for the local economy some might have said, but the majority of locals had other principles and pressurized the authorities to declare the area a protected zone.
The entire journey, from Scopello to San Vito will take at least four hours, not counting a few dips in the sea along the way, so make sure to bring enough water and supplies, especially during the harsh summer months.
WHAT TO EAT: FOOD IN SICILY
A strong element of the agriturismo Sicily experience is of course the food. Self sufficiency is strong here and there are a number of locally sourced staples that you will encounter in practically every local dish; things like seafood, lamb and goat meat, sheep and goat’s cheese, beans, olives, almonds, lemons, oranges, aubergines, tomatoes and various other fruits, vegetables and herbs.
From the above and a few other ingredients Sicily has created a vast array of quality dishes far too many to list here that can even vary quite a bit from region to region. Any good Sicilian agriturismo host will be an expert on the subject and be well able to both cook and teach a whole variety of native recipes without reference to any sort of books or guides.
There are many straight forward dishes that are popular island wide. Sfincione for example, sometimes known as the Sicilian pizza, differs from its Neapolitan cousin in that the bread is generally thick and they tend not to be so adventurous with the ingredients. The staple topping being a mixture of onions sautéed in olive oil and tomatoes, though many will also add cheese, anchovies and breadcrumbs.
You’ll find plenty of the Sicilian version of croquettes too, crocché to the locals, made with fried potato, eggs, cheese and a sprinkle of parsley.
Pasta here is less common than in other regions of Italy but there are a few standard Sicilian pasta dishes too, the most ubiquitous being pasta alla Norma, a fairly simple dish made with tomatoes, aubergines, ricotta and basil.
Other notables are some of the seafood pasta mixes which you will not find anywhere else; finnochio con sarde for example; a mixture of fennel and sardines with pasta, or seppia/cuttlefish and pasta with a standard Sicilian seppia sauce, often called black sauce from the black cuttlefish ink that goes into the recipe. You’ll find plenty of risotto in Sicily too but almost always it will be a seafood risotto.
Arancini is another staple Sicilian food that you certainly will be introduced to at any of the agriturismo. These are balls of rice with various fillings that vary with the region. In the interior of the island it tends to be chicken liver for example while around Catania it will be ragu, mozzarella and peas.
The vineyards of Sicily also produce quite a lot of wine though none of it has ever reached the fame of some of the the mainland Italian regions. The most well known is Marsala, a fortified dessert wine, and you will also find a variety of solid, good value, whites and reds served up in local agriturismo, masserias and restaurants.
One other notable, and unusual, wine to try is the vino alla mandorla. Also a dessert wine, it is made with almonds and is something of a speciality along the east coast though its nutty, strangely spicy flavour might not be to everyone’s taste.
Sicily too is famous for its desserts, some are local specialities like the chocolate of Modica and the almond pastries of Erice for example, and across the island you’ll find cannoli, those deliciously creamy and sugary ricotta filled crusts, absolutely everywhere.
Their ice cream is legendary too, many in Sicily claim it was invented there by the Romans and whether that’s true or not they serve some of the country’s finest, and with a variety of flavourings, from pistachio and jasmine to rum and mulberry.
One other unusual Sicilian dessert that should be sampled is the Frutta di Martorana; marzipan pastries shaped and dyed various colours to look like real fruit.