Sicily - an island of surprises waiting to be explored at Rocco Forte Hotels' Verdura Resort - Scotland on Sunday Travel
From golf to Albanian churches, this island in the Mediterranean is full of flavours
Sicily turned out to be full of surprises, the first of which was finding myself hitting a ball on a golf course and loving it. I knew I was heading for a golf resort with two championship courses and a nine hole, but to be honest there were other attractions waiting at Verdura Resort, Rocco Forte Hotels’ coastal retreat near Sciacca in the west of the island. Set among olive and orange groves in 230 hectares of sun-kissed Mediterranean coastline, there is a rejuvenating spa, light-filled rooms with sun terraces and views of hill top villages, sandy beaches, Michelin food, tennis courts, water sports, kids’ clubs and the intriguing island itself.
But I tee’d my trip off with a golf induction lesson with the encouragement of the resort’s professional Giacomo Dovetta, who made me feel like I’d be able to play this game simply on the grounds of my country of origin. “I love Scotland - St Andrews, Muirfield, Turnberry, Gleneagles…” he listed. No pressure then. No, I wasn’t a natural, but I did make contact with the ball and began to understand why some of the resort’s visitors might spend their holiday in pursuit of the perfect round.
If you’re a golf fan, like Rocco Forte who built Verdura because he wanted “an exquisite place to play”, this is nirvana. And if the nearest you get to the game is tootling around in a buggy or ebike from your Olga Polizzi-designed room or traditional baglio-style villa to dreamy Thalassotherapy sessions at the Irene Forte Spa, cocktail-making classes or Sicilian cookery lesson, fine dining in Zagara Restaurant, or lounging waterside watching the sun track its dazzling trail from sunrise to orange tequila sunset over a white sandy beach, you’ll be in paradise too. Think of it as a luxury resort with golf.
Too much golf would mean missing the other surprises awaiting on the island, revealed by the resort’s connoisseur of insider experiences Pierfilippo Spoto. After driving through the lush hilly landscapes with fields red with early summer clover, our first destination was the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO archaeological site among the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Akragas, at modern day Agrigento.
En route we couldn’t miss La Scala dei Turchi or Turkish Steps, a massive geological formation of dazzling sea cliffs of white clay, limestone and shells of ancient plankton, forming vast steps cascading down to the beach. A former landing spot for pirates, today it’s a draw for visitors’ aiming for the perfect Insta shot.
Then it was on to further spectacles at The Valley of the Temples. The 2,600-year-old temples are remarkable, towering against the azure sky, with seven in the park, including the best preserved Temple of Concordia, and the guided tour is fascinating, from Roman statues, down to to the last temple, an unfinished reconstruction after Sir Alexander Hardcastle discovered a column sticking up in his garden.
After the searing heat at The Valley of the Temples it was bliss to enter the cool of the Sicilian Cart Museum run by La Scala Family at Aci S. Antonio. Before cars were king, wooden carretto or carts pulled by donkeys were the mode of transport and much prized. Elaborately carved and painted, built by sculptors, wood carvers and blacksmiths, like Marcello La Scala’s father Raffaele, they are works of art depicting scenes from Sicilian history and life. Now Marcello and family are preserving the carts and passing on the skills to students.
“It’s not just the beauty of the carts, but the story of my father’s life, our family and our heritage,” Marcello tells us.
A further taste of Sicily awaits upstairs where Marcello’s wife Rita produces a feast of meats and cow's-milk cheese produced in Ragusa, 18-months aged, washed down with local wines, sirah and nero d’ Avola, a black wine from Avola.
Back at Verdura Resort it’s impossible not to enjoy dinner from a menu created under the creative directorship of renowned Italian Michelin starred chef, Fulvio Pierangelini, celebrating the island’s produce, from olives to almonds, seafood to wine.
Sicilian food is a blend of homegrown flavours, fertile volcanic soil making for a lush garden floating in a plentiful sea, compounded by the methodology and crops introduced by those arriving on its shores: three centuries of Arab rule brought irrigation along with pistachios, almonds, pomegranates and aubergines.
It’s this larder we explore as Salvatore Ferrante, Verdura’s sous chef, leads a Sicilian cooking class on the terrace at the resort’s pizzeria. We make a salad of the region’s speciality red prawns, gamberi rosso, with juicy oranges and green beans then fresh pasta and sauce bursting with tomatoes, basil, aubergine, peppers and parmesan, and finally stuff cannoli with sweetened ricotta and pistachios. Eating it is as much fun, sitting around a table being caressed by a warm breeze as the waves lap onto the sandy beach below.
Another Sicilian surprise was to meet locals speaking Albanian, indicative of the many waves of immigrants from Ancient Greece through North Africans to Jewish, Norman, Spanish and Albanian, each leaving their imprint on the island’s unique culture and five million inhabitants.
Inland around the village of Contessa Entellina, the Albanian influence is in evidence at the Feudo Pollichino dairy where sixth-generation cheesemakers Giovanni Lala and Maria Stefania Pollichino and their children turn milk from the 800 sheep into their prize-winning Vastedda del Belice, Pecorino Siciliana and ricotta.
“We grew up thinking this was not a job, but now we want to build it and make it a tourist destination as well as a cheese producer,” says daughter Carolina.
As we nibble on creamy samples, traditional style cheesemaking progresses all the while, with Giovanni inviting us to stir big barrels of heated milk into curds and whey, and wicker baskets packed with cheese, some flavoured with pistachio, some with pepper, stacked to age.
Laden with cheese we move on to Contessa, where washing dries in quiet streets as the bell of the 15th century Albanian church in the cobbled square peels siesta time. Embraced by its cool interior we chill out gazing at its elaborate icons and black and white photographs recording the Arbereshe community’s traditions; brides in red veils and children dressed for parades.
Back on the road we visit Abbazia Santa Maria del Bosco, a grand old monastery and organic farm and holiday destination with film-set courtyards, artefact-filled rooms and cellars of 400-year-old oak barrels filled with Perpetuo wine.
All too soon it’s time to drink one last toast to Sicily up in the hills at the Filari Della Rocca farm. Here the Benanti family introduce us to their Catarratto, Merlot and Organic Nero d’Avola wines and yet more Sicilian treats, from olives to arancini laid out on their dining table.
It’s hard to say goodbye to such hospitality but long after I’m home, a splash of their sublime extra virgin olive oil, also found on the tables at Verdura Resort, is all I need to transport me back to the land of surprises that is Sicily.
The La Scala Family’s Sicilian Cart Museum, Via Cavaleri Magazzeni, 38, 92100 Villaggio Mosè AG, Italy
Val di Kam Experience https://www.valdikam.it/
Feudo Pollichino Dairy https://www.feudopollichino.it/