Thursday, September 1, 2011


This article about a trip to Sicily was published in Relish, the magazine of the Winston-Salem Journal.  Here is the link:
See addtional photos on this blog.

My wife and I made this trip with Pat Thompson and Claudio Bisio of La Dolce Vita Wine Tours.  Check their website ( for itineraries in Italy and Spain.  We hope to go back again.  Let me know if you might be interested in joining our group.  Visits can be customized- you don't have to follow the posted itineraries if you have something special in mind.  Send me a note!

Sicilian Sun

Article and photography by John Batchelor

Initial impressions:

A landscape of giant craggy rock faces rising out of lush green bases, where the earth has fallen away.

Long days of intense, clear sunlight; dusk around 9 p.m.

Steady breezes, balmy temperatures.

Palermo: Litter everywhere. Chaotic traffic.

We walk along the harbor. Vendors sell squid, shellfish, tuna, swordfish, flowers.

We begin to perceive a way of life that flows from the sea and grows from the earth, unchanged in many ways for millennia.

My wife and I have an afternoon meal of cheese, bread and wine. At the Supermarcati, the cheese guy hands us two cannolis – free (we are obviously the only tourists). He says something- my wife remembers, “You are beautiful,” but it might have been, “The cannolis are beautiful.” (Both statements are true.)

His action begins a series of experiences that endear Sicily to us forever. Sicilians claim to be the friendliest people in the world. That characterizes our experiences as we explore the island’s northwest corner.

Palermo. We weekend at the Hilton Villa Igiea, a historic property overlooking the harbor. Dinner is exquisite: parmesan soufflé; lasagna with pecorino fondue; asparagus wrapped in prosciutto; swordfish and prawns with crushed pistachios; prawns with threads of fillo; eggplant and potatoes. The bill, including wine, is 100 Euros- the best meal for the price I have ever had.

On Monday, we meet our guide. With her assistance, we see underneath the dirt, and Palermo reveals itself as home to some of the most important art and architecture in the world. Over more than two thousand years, Sicily has absorbed elements of Greek, Roman, Norman, French, Arab, and Spanish cultures. Art, architecture, language, and cuisine reflect those myriad influences.

The Palatine Chapel (photo 01 Palatine Chapel interior) was constructed in the 12th Century. Mosaics depict scenes from the Bible. French author Guy de Maupassant considered this interior “the most beautiful in the world, the most precious religious jewel ever conceived by the human mind and carried out by the hand of an artist … .”

The Cathedral of Palermo (photo 02 Palermo Cathedral) was built in stages from the 6th through the 15th Centuries, reconstructed in the 18th in Gothic, Saracen, Byzantine, and Greek styles. It has been a mosque as well as a Christian church.

Along the coast. Landscapes are scattered with vineyards, olive groves, plowed fields, and low, steep mountains, framed in wildflowers. (photo 03 Sicily highway view) South of Palermo, at Agriturismo Ponte Calatrasi (photo 04 Agriturismo Ponte Calatrasi) (Agriturismos are small farms that have rooms converted into inns), we delight in a lunch of Sicilian antipasti: grilled sausage with onions, salami and pepperoni (all homemade), grilled eggplant and zucchini, baked zucchini with ricotta cheese, marinated mushrooms and olives, plus pecorino and fresh ricotta cheeses.

This tour focused on wineries and food, in addition to art and architecture. At Alessandro di Camporeale winery we encounter a grape variety that is native to Sicily and new to us: catarratto- more floral on the nose than chardonnay but as rich in flavor, with an edge similar to sauvignon blanc. Later, we began to enjoy another native Sicilian wine, the deep red Nero d’Avola- lighter than cabernet sauvignon but heavier than pinot noir, but with that varietal’s complexity.

Castellamare. We spend two nights in the harbor village of Castellamare del Golfo. (photo 05 Castellamare del Golfo harbor) Fishing boats tie up and vendors sell their catches. Town cats vie for scraps. (photo 06 Castellamare del Golfo cats circling) Pizza in Sicily is reputed to be the best in the world. At Bella Vista restaurant, overlooking the sea, we savor a crust of finely ground durum wheat flour, baked in a wood fired brick oven, layering homemade mozzarella cheese with pecorino cheese and roasted red peppers, plus local pepperoni and sausage. The owner spoke no English and I know only a handful of Italian words, but we enjoy a sporadic conversation while the pizza bakes. “Why are you here?” he wants to know. “For the wines,” I try to reply. A waitress knocks back her head with a drinking gesture and says, “Vino!” “Is best in Sicily!” he vows.

We visit Ceuso winery, where we experience moments of magic. Laura Mollica (, one of Sicily’s premier performers, is touring the winery with her friend Federica Bonaldi. We beg for a song (photo 07 Ceuso Winery Laura Mollica), and she shares a lament from a prisoner, jailed for his Sicilian patriotism. Although we cannot understand the words, emotions hang in the air, and as we wipe away tears, we move on to the wines. Ceuso Sicilia (a blend of Nero d’ Avola, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot) turns out to be another favorite.

Segesta. Overlooking the sea, atop Mount Barbaro, an archaeological park is home to a settlement that dates to the 2nd Century, including a Greek theater and temple (photo 08 Greek Temple at Segesta) constructed in the 5th Century, one of the best preserved in the world. From the theater (photo 09 Greek theater at Segesta), residents could look out over the sea to the horizon.

Erice. The peoples of Segesta also established Erice, with castles built during the Middle Ages. (photo 10 Erice castle and tower). Chiesa Madre (“Mother Church”), known for its fresco and baroque altars, dates to the 14th Century. (photo 11 Erice Chiesa Madre)

Back on the coast, in Mozia, windmills pump saltwater into evaporation ponds to make salt. This process has been ongoing for more than a thousand years. (photo 12 Mozia Windmills and salt ponds).

We end in Marsala, a large city on the coast, best known for dessert wines. A large open market (photo 13 Marsala market) occupies the center of the historic district.

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