The following itinerary lists a range of site visits which we plan to visit. Many are accessible to the public, but some require special permission. The daily activities described in this itinerary may change or be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate alterations in opening hours, flight schedules and confirmation of private visits. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents. The tour includes breakfast daily, lunches & evening meals indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=dinner.
Syracuse – 3 nights
Day 1: Friday 11 October, Catania – Syracuse
- Transfer from Catania Airport to Syracuse for participants taking the ASA ‘designated’ flight
- Welcome Meeting
- Evening at leisure
Our arrival in Sicily is at Catania airport, but we will set off immediately for magnificent Syracuse. Its layers of history, the labyrinthine streets of its island core, and its superb ruins, make it a place that truly encapsulates Sicily’s beauty and historical importance. Syracuse was once the largest city in the ancient world.
We will be staying on Ortygia (the first settlement was founded there by the Corinthians in 734 BC), a mini-peninsula with incredible views. After our welcome meeting at the hotel, you will have time to explore what novelist Lawrence Durrell called “this honeycomb – so full of treasures, a real Ark of the human covenant”, the maze of skinny streets lined with palazzi and vibrant cafes, or wander in the fabulous Piazza del Duomo, a masterpiece of Baroque town planning.
Note: Participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight are scheduled to arrive at Catania’s airport in the late afternoon. Participants not travelling on this flight should meet the group at the Grand Hotel Ortigia in Syracuse. (Overnight Syracuse)
Day 2: Saturday 12 October, Syracuse – Catania – Acri Trezza – Syracuse
- Biblioteche Riunite Civica e A. Ursino Recupero, Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena
- La Casa Museo di Giovanni Verga, Catania
- Tomb of composer Vicenzo Bellini, Catania Cathedral
- Palazzo Biscari visited by J.W. Goethe in 1787: Guided Tour
- Casa del Nespolo Museum, Acri Trezza: setting of Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia
- The Rock of the Cyclops, Acri Trezza
- Welcome Dinner
The Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena is the second largest Benedictine monastery in Europe. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it forms part of the University of Catania. Within the complex we visit the 18th-century Baroque library whose collection, which includes historic manuscripts and texts pertaining to the history of Sicily, was carefully preserved by the monks through the centuries. The impressive reading room, Sala Vaccarini, named in honour of its architect, includes a magnificent vault frescoed by Giovanni Battista Piparo depicting the the triumph of science, arts and virtues.
When he visited in the 1780s, Goethe was not impressed with the city of Catania. Today, however, this city in the shadow of Mt Etna has great energy and spirit, and its historic centre is a UNESCO-listed wonder.
Giovanni Verga, realist writer and playwright (today best remembered for Cavalleria rusticana, his play which was turned into a glorious opera by Mascagni) was born in Catania. The Giovanni Verga Museum is in his birthplace, also the home he returned to at the end of his life. The Museum, which we will visit, holds the fabulous ‘walnut library’ (his collection of beloved European authors), his desk, etchings and manuscripts. D.H. Lawrence was so taken with Verga’s work that he translated much of it into English.
The Cathedral is dedicated to St Agatha, patron saint of the city. She was born in Catania in the third century AD and lived a modest and happy life until a Roman governor fell in love with her. When she refused his advances, she was imprisoned and tortured (her breasts were pulled off with pincers, then she was roasted on hot coals). She is said to protect the city when Mt Etna erupts and every year a huge festival is held in her honour. We’ll explore the cathedral and also get to see the tomb of Vincenzo Bellini, another citizen of Catania, whose operas are masterpieces of the ‘bel canto’ era. He died in France, but his remains came home to Catania 41 years later.
The Palazzo Biscari is the most important private palace in the city. Goethe went there in 1787, met the Prince, and admired the frescoed halls. We will enjoy a guided tour.
Our last visit of the day is to the Casa del Nespolo Museum in Aci Trezza, a magical place where you can ‘enter’ the pages of Verga’s novel I Malavoglia. Often translated as The House by the Medlar-Tree, this important novel was published in 1881. It tells the story of a family of fishermen, torn by ancient rivalries. The 1948 Visconti film The Earth Trembles was based on the book. The museum, located in the heart of the seaside village in a building which is a perfect example of a 19th century fisherman’s home, has a room dedicated to the movie and another to the novel.
Aci Trezza, with its lava-stone beach, has the Rocks of Cyclops. According to legend, one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus, son of the sea god, killed a young shepherd named Aci. The nymph Galatea loved the boy and after his death she asked the gods to transform his body into a river, the one that flows into the bay where the Rocks of Cyclops stand. The jagged rocks are said to be the missiles that the furious Cyclops hurled at fleeing Ulysses after he and his men had escaped his cave by hiding under the bellies of sheep. There will be time to view these legendary rocks before returning to Syracuse.
Sicilian food shows the traces of all the cultures which have entered the island over the centuries. Greek, Spanish, French and Arab influences make it an exciting and vibrant cuisine. Sicilian chef Mithaecus is the earliest cookbook author in any language whose name is known. Tonight we will dine at Don Camillo’s and sample some of the traditional foods of the island. (Overnight Syracuse) BD
Day 3: Sunday 13 October, Syracuse
- In the footsteps of Elio Vittorini, author of Conversation in Sicily: Temple of Apollo, Casa Natale di Elio Vittorini (exterior) & Cathedral (Temple of Athena)
- Fonte Aretusa
- Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo
- Greek Theatre & Quarries, Syracuse
- Caravaggio’s late masterpiece, Burial of Saint Lucy, Church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro
For author Elio Vittorini, travel was “not just an opportunity to record new sensations, but the means to recover a human dimension or to recover one’s own identity”. His book Conversations in Sicily describes a train journey from northern Sicily to the south (he was the son of a railway worker) and also celebrates his birthplace of Syracuse. The book, published in 1941, got him jailed for its anti-fascist sentiments. The first American edition had a foreword by Ernest Hemingway. This morning we will take a guided walk around Ortygia in the footsteps of Vittorini, seeing his birthplace, the Cathedral, the Ponte Umbertino, and much more.
In the 1st century BC Cicero visited Ortygia and praised the 5th-century BC Greek temple that stood there. Only vestiges of that temple now remain. A 7th-century cathedral was built on its ruins and it became a church when the island was evangelised by St Paul. In the Inspector Montalbano novel Round the Mark, Montalbano goes there as part of his investigation into human trafficking.
The Arethusa Fountain is a spring welling up into a reed-filled basin (it’s one of the few places in Europe where papyrus grows). Arethusa was a water nymph who enjoyed bathing at Olympus. The river god Alpheus fell for her, but Arethusa was having none of his lust, and fled. She asked Artemis, protector of women, to aid her, and he turned her into a spring which went underground from the home of the Gods to Ortygia, where she surfaced. Her suitor followed, and his waters now mingle with hers in this sacred fountain. It’s a subject designed to appeal to the Romantic poets. Mary Shelley wrote a play about Arethusa, and Percy Bysshe Shelley penned his poem Arethusa and imagined the pair sleeping “in the rocking deep / Beneath the Ortigian shore”. The place was also admired by Coleridge when he visited in 1804 and was mentioned by Wordsworth in The Prelude.
We end the morning with a visit to the Museo Bellomo, an art museum in a 13th-century palace, which includes the Annunciation (1474) by Sicily’s greatest 15th-century artist, Antonella da Messina.
This afternoon we visit the town’s archaeological park which includes a Greek theatre. This 16,000 capacity amphitheatre staged the last tragedies of Aeschylus, including The Persians, and he was present to watch his own works being performed. Next to the theatre is the mysterious Latomia del Paradiso, a deep limestone quarry from which stone for the ancient city was extracted. Riddled with catacombs, today the deep chasm is filled with citrus and magnolia trees.
After visiting the park, we enter the Church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro, home to Caravaggio’s stunning painting depicting St Lucia’s burial. According to legend, the young woman refused to recant her Christian beliefs, so was sentenced to be dragged to a brothel. Miraculously, nothing could move her from the spot where she stood. She was stabbed in the throat as she stood there and that spot is now her chapel. Caravaggio painted this masterpiece in 1608. He’d just fled to Syracuse from a prison in Malta. St Lucia’s remains had been stolen from the church, which was eager to promote her reputation and the authorities thought a good painting might help achieve that. Caravaggio worked to a tight deadline. Was he trying to bury his own torments along with the saint’s body? We’ll study this mesmerising art work, written about by Australian Peter Robb in M: The Caravaggio Enigma. (Overnight Syracuse) B
Ragusa – 3 nights
Day 4: Monday 14 October, Syracuse – Noto – Modica – Ragusa
- In the footsteps of Montalbano including Palazzo Ducezio and Palazzo Nicolaci, Noto
- Tina di Lorenzo Theatre, Noto
- Palazzo Castelluccio (Fondazione del Grand Tour), Noto
- Museo Casa Natale Salvatore Quasimodo, Modica
- Sabadì Chocolate Ageing Cellar, Modica: guided tour and tasting of the chocolates
This morning we head for Noto, a Baroque gem of a town which could be mistaken for a film set, and has indeed often been used as one. Noto is situated on a slight rise, about 10km from the coast. Until 1693 it was in another location altogether, but a devastating earthquake annihilated it. Architect Guiseppe Lanza was commissioned to build a new town, and he decided it should be a work of art. Today Noto is justifiably a UNESCO World Heritage site, a superb snapshot of a single style, the Baroque. Lanza used a honey-coloured stone and the place glows with soft colours. Poet Adam Zagajewski describes Noto as “a baroque town where even the stables and arbours are ornate” and a town “too perfect for its inhabitants”.
This is Inspector Montalbano territory and we will again follow in his footsteps by visiting Palazzo Ducezio and Palazzo Nicolaci. Palazzo Ducezio, now Noto’s Town Hall, was used for the exterior of the Narcotics Headquarters in the Montalbano episode of The Mud Pyramid, while Palazzo Nicolaci features in the episode Artist’s Touch as the office of a notary who, after drawing up an important will, is found murdered. Montalbano must find out who committed the murder. The palazzos’ arches, ionic columns, richly brocaded walls and wrought-iron balconies all give an idea of the sumptuous lifestyle of Sicilian nobles, as captured so evocatively in Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard.
The petite Tina di Lorenza Theatre was named in honour of the silent-film actress who grew up in Noto. The great Eleanora Duse once acted there, and the theatre continues to offer regular performances.
Late morning it’s time to see Palazzo Castelluccio. When its last aristocratic owner died, this gorgeous palace languished, becoming more dilapidated by the day. It was rescued by Jean-Louis Remilleux who spent 3 years lovingly resurrecting house and gardens. His book A Palace in Sicily recounts the challenges of repairing such an historic home, and includes an introductory essay on the building’s now-vanished way of life. The Prince of Salina in Lampedusa’s classic insists that “the owner of a palace who has visited every room in the building is not worthy to live in it”. Cyrano, the 2021 musical film based on Edmond de Rostand’s famous play about a man with a huge nose, was filmed in this building (it becomes Roxanne’s apartment) and in other glorious Baroque homes and streets in Noto.
After lunch we drive to Modica, yet another glorious Baroque town, rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake. It is superbly photogenic, so was of course used in the Montalbano series. It is also associated with Gesualdo Bufalino, novelist and teacher who described the town as being “like a pomegranate cut in two; close to the sea but with an air of the countryside; half of it crammed onto a rocky spur, half spread out at its feet.”
Salvatore Quasimodo, poet and translator, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959. He was born in Modica in 1901 and became one of the foremost Italian poets of the 20th century. In 1908 his family moved to Messina, to assist recovery from the devastating earthquake, and the tragedy left a lasting impression on the boy. He moved away from his birthplace as a young man, but Sicily, religion and death remained recurring motifs in his writing. His birthplace is now a museum and we will visit the two rooms and see displays about his life, rare editions of his works, and items that belonged to this influential man of letters.
Modica has the first cellar in the world for ageing chocolate. Sabadì Chocolate, a traditional Sicilian sweet, is made according to a cold-working process, has no added fats and retains all the beneficial properties of the cocoa. It was the Spanish, who ruled the Kingdom of Sicily between 1500 and 1700, who introduced this chocolate into Modica. After a guided tour of the Ageing Cellar, there will be time for tasting!
We drive on to Ragusa, our base for the next three nights. It’s a town with two faces – we can ignore the modern face and focus on Ragusa Ibla, the magnificent historic centre. The central piazza at the steps of the cathedral has appeared in many Montalbano episodes. Vigàta, the town where the novels are based, is a fictional one, but in the film series Ragusa stands in for much of Vigàta, and we will explore some of the fabulous film locations. The Montalbano trail has become a major tourist industry. (Overnight Ragusa) B
Day 5: Tuesday 15 October, Ragusa
- Ragusa: in the footsteps of Inspector Montalbano including: Cathedral of San Giorgio, Church of Maria delle Scale, Palazzo delle Poste and the Cathedral of San Giovanni
- Giardino Ibleo a Ragusa as seen in the Montalbano episode The Paper Moon.
- Il Circolo di Conversazione (Caffè dei Cavalieri)
Andrea Camilleri (1925 – 2019) was a poet, screenwriter, and director who tried his hand at many literary forms before turning to the crime novel. In 1994 he published The Shape of Water, the first of many books featuring Salvo Montalbano, a fractious detective in the town of Vigàta (based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle). Millions of copies of the books sold and the TV series, starring Luca Zingaretti, further increased Camilleri’s fame.
Today we explore places in Ragusa used as locations in the series. There’s the Piazza Duomo, the Cathedral of San Giorgio, and there are the stunning views from the church of Maria delle Scale which set the scene for many episodes. As well as gaining insight into the world of Salva Montalbano and the popular TV series, we will also delve into Ragusa’s history and explore its world heritage buildings.
We also stroll to the Giardino Ibleo, an attractive public garden laid out in the 19th century. Salvo Montalbano waits here for his girlfriend Livia to arrive by bus, and he meets an old thief here to ask for his help.
Our program includes a visit to Il Circolo di Conversazione a Ragusa Ibla, a splendid 1850s building constructed in the neoclassical style. The building appears in several Montalbano episodes – The Terracotta Dog, The Smell of the Night (when it becomes King Midas’ financial agency) and in The Paper Moon. The ballroom has a superb frescoed ceiling, with medallions at each corner depicting Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo and Bellini. (Overnight Ragusa) B
Day 6: Wednesday 16 October, Ragusa – Scicili – Donnalucata – Punta Secca – Ragusa
- Montalbano tour of Scicli including the Vigata Police Station and Montelusa Police Headquarters, Office of the Quaestor of Montelusa, Antica Farmacia Cartia & Palazzo Spadaro
- Seafood lunch in Donnalucatta
- Stroll along the Donnalucata Promenade in Punta Secca past the Casa di Montalbano and Enzo a Mare Restaurant (Montalbano’s favourite restaurant)
- Castello di Donnafugata housing the Collezione Gabriele Arezzo di Trifiletti
At nearby Scicili the town hall, which in the TV series was used for the exterior of the police station, offers a permanent Montalbano exhibition and the chance to view the office of the most famous police commissioner in Italy, as well as that of his trusted deputy Mimi Augello, and the Quaestor’s room. The historic pharmacy along the road is where the inspector needs a fake bandage applied in The Smell of the Night. The Palazzo Spadaro was used in filming to create the Mayor of Vigàta’s home, but the building is also an art gallery, showing works by the ‘Scicili Group’ – Piero Guccione, Franco Sarnari, Franco Polizzi and others.
We travel on to the small fishing village of Donnalucata, famous for its freshly fished squid which is prepared following traditional recipes. Lunch will be enjoyed at a local seafood restaurant. We also view the long expanses of sand where Montalbano often finds himself; the beach is amongst the loveliest on this stretch of the Sicilian coastline.
Next, we travel to Punta Secca. Overlooking the beach of Marinella is the house used as Montalbano’s beloved home in the TV series. Today the house is a B & B, and the little square where it’s located is Piazza Montalbano, while the Punta Secca lighthouse features in the opening credits of the series. The inspector regularly swims at the beach, or takes walks on Donnalucata Promenade, while nearby Palazzo Mormino Penna was used for some interior shots of the police station where he works. We also pass Enzo a Mare, another of his favourite dining establishments, where he knows he can guarantee fresh and delicious seafood.
Donnfugata Castle, near Ragusa, appears as the home of infamous Mafia boss Balduccio Sinagra in the Montalbano films. It is also where actor Luca Zingaretti celebrated his wedding reception with actress Luisa Ranieri in 2012. This sumptuous aristocratic residence now houses the Collezione Gabriele Arezzo di Trifiletti, an extraordinary collection of fashion and costume. This includes the gorgeous ballgown worn by Claudia Cardinale in Visconti’s luscious film of The Leopard. (Overnight Ragusa) BL
Agrigento – 3 nights
Day 7: Thursday 17 October, Ragusa – Vizzini – Piazza Armerina – Agrigento
- Vizzini: In the footsteps of Giovanni Verga including sites associated with Mastro-don Gesualdo & Cavalleria rusticana and the Museo dell’Immaginario Verghiano
- Lunch & tour of Il Borgo A’Cunziria: setting for Giovanni Verga’s Cavalleria rusticana
- UNESCO World Heritage-listed Roman Villa of Casale, Piazza Armerina
- Dinner at a local restaurant
Giovanni Verga, who lived in Vizzini for a time, used the hilltop town of Vizzini as the setting not only for Cavelleria rusticana but also for his last major work, Mastro-don Gesualdo (1888). Our guided walk in the morning will take us to places connected with his life and works. We’ll see the Palazzo dei Ventimiglia (which burns down in Verga’s novel), the Salita Marineo (a staircase decorated with majolica tiles), the Santa Teresa church (where the ritual kiss of the duel-challenge is given) and we’ll visit the Museo dell’Immaginario Verghiano, which exhibits Verga’s photographs and provides excellent information about the life and works of this important realist writer.
Next we drive to Cunziria, an ancient artisan’s village in Vizzini. It’s a wonderful example of the agricultural style of 18th century Sicily. Thanks to a local spring, tanning became an important industry and houses were strategically placed so as to increase sun exposure and hasten the drying process. A prickly-pear grove just near the tanning factory was the site of a famous duel between local married lady Lola and her ex-soldier lover Turiddu. Lola’s husband Alfio killed Turiddu in the duel and it was this fight which inspired Giovanni Verga to write a short story, which he then turned into a play. His Cavalleria rusticana was developed in 1890 into the opera of the same name. It remains one of the most performed operas around the world. Zeffirelli’s film version of the opera was shot in Cunziria. When the tanning industry declined, the village was left untouched – we will explore its white stone houses and ruins, and call to mind the rustic community and seething passions of lovers and cheated husband in Verga’s story and Mascagni’s opera.
This afternoon we visit the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Roman villa of Casale at Piazza Armerina. The villa, which was probably owned by a senator or member of the imperial family, dates from early 4th century AD and is famed for its superb mosaics. These cover 3,500 sq. metres of floor and are in a remarkable state of preservation (they were covered for centuries by a 12th century landslide). The villa was uncovered in 1929 and work has been going on there ever since. More than sixty rooms are decorated with several hundred million individual tesserae, forming scenes from mythology and history. There’s an awesome menagerie – panthers, tigers, antelope, flamingos, rhinos and snakes. And the mosaic humans bring the ancient world vividly to life, with their detailed sandals, hairstyles, jewellery and fashion accessories. The ‘Room of Ten Girls in Bikinis’ is a particularly popular attraction within the villa.
We then head for Agrigento, a city which began life in 581 BC, when it was established by Greek colonists. The Greek ruins, known as the Valley of the Temples, have been attracting writers since the classical era. Pindar thought the settlement was “the most beautiful of those inhabited by mortals”. Shakespeare praised it in The Winter’s Tale, Goethe was awed by the temples, and when Guy de Maupassant visited, he felt that “all Olympus” was stretched before him. Quasimodo wrote a poem about the place, Camilleri renamed it Montelusa in his crime series, while Vincent Cronin was captivated by the sight of the local almond trees in blossom. Sadly, today’s Agrigento has too much urban sprawl, although the wonderful medieval heart of the city remains.
Dinner will be enjoyed at a local restaurant – the city enjoys both a coastal and a mountain cuisine. (Overnight Agrigento) BLD
Day 8: Friday 18 October, Agrigento
- Archaeological Museum, Agrigento
- Church of St Nicholas, inspiration for Pirandello’s theatrical drama The Festival of the Lord of the Ship
- UNESCO World Heritage-listed Valley of the Temples
- Lunch at a local restaurant
The archaeological museum at Agrigento is one of the most important and visited museums in Sicily. The building was constructed in the 1960s on the site of an ancient agora, and shows a perfect blending of restored old remains (the Cloister of St Nicholas) and the modern. The more than 5000 artefacts displayed illustrate, chronologically and topographically, the history of the Agrigentan area, from prehistory to the end of the Graeco-Roman period.
The 12th century church of St Nicholas has a severe façade and an austerely simple interior, typical of the Cistercian style. One of the side chapels holds an artistic masterpiece – Gagini’s sculpture of the Madonna and Child. In another chapel is the crucifix of ‘the Lord of the Ship’ and it was this which inspired Nobel Prize winning writer, Luigi Pirandello, to write his play The Festival of the Lord of the Ship.
We spend the afternoon in the famed Valley of the Temples. As a Greek city, Agrigento prospered only until 406 BC, when it was sacked by the Carthaginians … then captured by the Romans, then the Saracens, then the Moors, and so on. The various temples are dedicated to different gods. Goethe described the Temple of Jupiter as being “like the disjointed bones of a gigantic skeleton” (though today it is less disjointed than it was, thanks to the restorations of the 1920s). Ezra Pound and his wife Dorothy Shakespear found the row of temples “along a ridge with olive, almond, and the sea a couple of miles away – very romantic and lovely”. We will visit the Temple of Zeus (planned to be the world’s largest Doric temple, but its construction was interrupted by the Carthaginians), the Temple of Hercules (the oldest of the temples in the valley), the Temple of Concord (model for UNESCO’s logo, and a building which has survived almost entirely intact since 430 BC) and the Temple of Hera (with its 500 year-old olive tree and Byzantine tombs). This is a rich walk through history! (Overnight Agrigento) BL
Day 9: Saturday 19 October, Agrigento – Racalmuto – Palma di Montechiaro – Caos – Porto Empedocle – Agrigento
- Casa Museo di Leonardo Sciascia & Statue, Racalmuto
- Walking tour of Palma di Montechiaro (The City of the Leopard): Palazzo Ducale dei Tomasi di Lampedusa, Church of Saint Mary of the Rosary, Convent SS. Rosario delle Benedettine
- Lunch at Azienda Agricola Mandranova, Palma di Montechiaro
- Casa Natale di Luigi Pirandello & Tomb, Caos
- Dinner at leisure in Porto Empedocle (Montalbano’s fictional town, Vigata)
One of the first Sicilian authors to tackle honestly the dangerous subject of the Mafia was Leonardo Sciascia (1921 – 1989), who was born in Racalmuto. He wrote about the place of his birth in The Wine Dark Sea, while in Salt in the Wound, a semi-autobiographical work, he renamed it Regalpetra. His best-known work, The Day of the Owl, showed how the Mafia had managed to sustain itself in Sicily, and revealed the treachery of alliances and allegiances. Racalmuto has celebrated its novelist, essayist, playwright and politician with a statue, showing him striding down the Via Garibaldi towards the central piazza. But there’s another tribute to him as well – a literary foundation and museum which was established in his childhood home. We will visit to learn more of this courageous author.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) has been voted Italy’s most beloved and acclaimed novel, and in 2012 it was named by the Observer as “one of the ten best historical novels”. Amazingly, it was turned down by several publisher and only appeared in 1958, after Lampedusa’s death. In 1963 it was made into an award-winning film. He was the last in a line of Sicilian princes and based his main character, the Prince of Salina, on his own great-grandfather. Today we follow in the footsteps of this remarkable novel and its characters.
The ducal town of Palma di Montechiaro has the Convent of the Holy Ghost, founded by Lampedusa’s ancestor in 1637. The convent was host to some of his eccentric forebears, including one who liked to sleep in a coffin. Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, enjoys the “faculty of canonical intrusion” which comes from his inherited right to enter the convent. We will enjoy a walking tour of the town, seeing places associated with the novel – the 17th century Ducal palace, the sumptuous Church of St Mary of the Rosary, and the convent (exterior only – unlike the Prince, we do NOT have an inherited right of entry). The nuns sell ‘Gattopardo’ biscuits, the ones Don Fabrizio so enjoyed.
After visiting Palma di Montechiara we enjoy lunch at the Azienda Agricola Mandranova, all sourced from the freshest local ingredients.
Luigi Pirandello is best remembered for his play Six Characters in Search of an Author, but he also wrote short stories, poems and novels. He was a forerunner of the theatre of the absurd and for his “almost magical power to turn psychological analysis into good theatre” he won the 1934 Nobel Prize. It’s appropriate that he was born in an area called ‘Caos’ (‘chaos’ in Italian) at Porto Empedocle near Agrigento. His former home, an 18th century rural house, is today an excellent museum, with manuscripts, photographs, paintings and first editions. Pirandello counted Albert Einstein as one of his close friends.
From birth to death, Pirandello did not travel far. His tomb is a short walk through the garden of his birthplace. The town has a dapper statue of him, looking down at the world from his plinth. In the TV episode Love Salvo Montalbano watches two elderly actors performing in this special spot. Porto Empedocle also boasts a statue of the inspector, but it does not look like the actor who portrayed him on TV, but is rather an imaginary depiction of the character as he appears in the Camilleri novels. Camilleri based the fictional setting of Vigàta on Porto Empedocle, where he was resident for some years. The books are written in Italian, but with a great use of Sicilian slang and dialect, often with comic effect (this gives translators something of a nightmare). Interestingly, Camilleri, as a boy, met Pirandello – the two men have done so much to place the town on the world’s literary map.
Montalbano treats his palate with huge consideration. You too might wish to “wrap your taste buds in the comforting cuisine of southern Sicily” in your choice of restaurant for the evening. (Overnight Agrigento) BL
Palermo – 4 nights
Day 10: Sunday 20 October, Agrigento – Selinunte – Santa Margherita di Belice – Palermo
- Temples and City site, Selinunte
- Gardens of Gattopardo Villa, Santa Margherita di Belice
- Palazzo Filangerie Cutò, Santa Margherita di Belice incl. the Museo del Gattopardo
The ruins at Selinunte are amongst the most captivating and impressive archaeological sites in Sicily. The Greeks knew the place at Selinos and made it a powerful city with over 100,000 inhabitants and an extraordinary temple building programme. We will spend the morning exploring this widespread complex. The temples are identified, not by gods, but by letters – for example, the shrine dedicated to Hera is unpoetically known as Temple E. Jorge Luis Borges hated this system and instead classified the buildings according to favourite authors, such as ‘C for Conrad’, when he visited in 1984. For writer Alejandro Luque, the ruined architecture of Selinunte “still whispers the splendour of its people”.
Our lunch and early afternoon will be spent at Santa Margherita di Belice Park. Nearby is the palace of Filangeri Cutò, where Lampedusa spent happy childhood holidays. He wrote of it in his memoir Childhood Memories and mentioned the Villa Communale and the Café House, both to be seen in the gardens today. It was in the Santa Margherita gardens that Don Fabrizio tried to persuade his nephew not to join the forces of Garibaldi. We will visit Filangeri Cutò in the afternoon. Lampedusa immortalised the palace in The Leopard as Donnafugata, and today there is also a museum for the novel. It’s not often you visit a museum built entirely around one novel. Here you can see pages of manuscript complete with authorial corrections, wax figures representing the characters, and can listen to a recording of Lampedusa’s voice.
We then head to Palermo, a city on the wide sweeping bay of Conca d’Oro (or Golden Shell). When Goethe caught his first view of the city, he was overcome with delight. Oscar Wilde called it “the most beautifully situated town in the world”, and Washington Irving delighted in its alleyways. For millennia, the city has been a crossroads of civilisations – it’s a city at the edge of Europe and at the heart of the ancient world. The capital of Sicily will be our base for the next four nights. (Overnight Palermo) BL
Day 11: Monday 21 October: Palermo
- Palazzo dei Normanni: Cappella Palatina and Royal Apartments
- Church La Martorana
- Church San Cataldo
- Oratorio San Lorenzo
- Private tour of the Palazzo Valguarnera Gangi, where Luchino Visconti filmed the famous ball scene for his cinematic adaptation of The Leopard
- ‘Teatro dei Pupi’ – traditional Sicilian puppet show
Let’s get to know the rich and intriguing city of Palermo! Our day begins with a visit to Palazzo dei Normanni, home to Sicily’s regional parliament. It dates back to the 9th century, although owes its current look to a major Norman makeover, when spectacular mosaics were added to the royal apartments and chapel.
Next we visit ‘La Martorana’ (Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio), a centrally-planned Byzantine church decorated with, arguably, the finest mosaics in Sicily (1140). It was built by Roger I’s admiral, George of Antioch, and in 1433 was presented to a monastery founded by Eloisa Martorana, after whom it was later named. In 1588 it gained a Baroque façade.
The companion to the Martorana is San Cataldo, a small, fascinating church. This cuboid building was never completed because, when the patron died, work on it ceased. Although San Cataldo never gained its mosaics, there is the hidden benefit of being able to clearly discern the structure of an Arabo-Norman church. Nearby is the Bellini restaurant, where Lampedusa wrote much of his great novel, The Leopard.
After lunch we visit the Oratorio San Lorenzo, built in 1569. It once housed a superb Caravaggio, but that was stolen in 1969 and has never been recovered (a reproduction is displayed). The glorious stucco work by master rococo sculptor Giacomo Serpotta is still there, as is the marble floor and benches with ivory and mother-of-pearl inlays.
Of all the gorgeous scenes in Visconti’s film of The Leopard, the one that is justifiably the most famous is the ball. It lasts 45 minutes and every detail is perfect. This scene was shot in Palazzo Valguarnera Gangi and we are lucky enough to have a private tour (though I fear none of us will be appropriately dressed for such a splendid venue). The rococo home, built in the 18th century, is still a private residence, and is almost exactly as it was in the age when the novel was set.
In the late afternoon we attend a special puppet show, enacting the wars of Charlemagne and his knights against the Arabs at one of Palermo’s few remaining traditional puppet theatres. This lively performance, in which there is much fighting and spilling of puppet (actually marionettes) entrails (in the form of streamers), draws upon theatre traditions of the 19th century which romanticised Sicily’s past; it was at this time that literature began to emphasise the island’s ‘exotic’ heritage. The epic cycles told in the puppet shows, however, draw upon more ancient sources. When the art of puppetry was introduced to Sicily in the early 19th century, it fused with the craft of the Sicilian storyteller who entertained people in the streets of the cities, towns and villages. This form of entertainment is thought by some to have its roots in the Norman period. (Overnight Palermo) B
Day 12: Tuesday 22 October: Palermo – Segesta – Monreale – Palermo
- Temple and Theatre, Segesta
- Cathedral and Cloister, Monreale
This morning we visit the Greek site of Segesta. This city, whose well-preserved temple and theatre have few parallels, was founded by the Elymni. Its temple, which remained unfinished, gives a fascinating insight into how Greek temples were built. Its present state probably resulted from Segesta’s defeat by Selinus in 416 BC. High above the sacred area of the city stands a 3rd-century theatre, looking out over a vast panorama, a vivid indication of the importance of siting and orientation to Greek cities and shrines.
According to a Sicilian proverb, ‘whoever visits Palermo without visiting Monreale arrives a donkey and leaves an ass’. This hillside town is a cultural treasure, one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture in Europe. Its mosaic-encrusted interiors are superb. Travel writer and scholar Vincent Cronin said of entering the cathedral: “To cross the threshold is to throw a golden light forward over the rest of one’s life.” Irish poet W.B. Yeats referenced Monreale’s “hammered gold and gold enamelling” in Sailing to Byzantium.
The cathedral, built in the time of William II, is considered the finest example of Norman architecture in Sicily and was completed in 1184 after only ten years’ work. Mosaicists from around Europe came to decorate it – their work shimmers still today. You can see Noah’s ark perched atop waves, a grumpy looking Eve sitting on a rock while Adam labours in the background, and Christ healing a leper.
To the south of the cathedral is its cloister – a masterful fusion of Islamic form and Norman decoration. The arches of the cloister, like Monreale’s apse, are patterned with inlay. In one corner, a fountain shaped like a palm tree is surrounded by a small arcade; an architectural representation of an oasis. The columns of the cloister, in contrast, are topped with storiated capitals like those of Cluniac monasteries and churches on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. (Overnight Palermo) B
Day 13: Wednesday 23 October, Palermo
- Private tour, cooking class and lunch at Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Sicilian palace
- Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita
- La Zisa, 12th-century palace in the Arabo-Norman style
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa, was born in Palermo in 1896 and grew up in the heart of the city. He described its decaying splendours brilliantly in The Leopard. His family home was destroyed by a WWII bomb and he never recovered from its loss. In Palermo, Lampedusa led the life of a dilettante, sitting in cafes, talking about books, and reading widely in several languages.
This morning we visit his last home, Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, now owned by his adopted son Duke Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi. Our private tour will allow us to admire the stunning views of Palermo’s seafront from the windows, we will sigh enviously over the well-stocked library, and see the complete original manuscript of The Leopard. The Duke is a renowned musicologist, and the Duchess will give us a cooking class, specialising in local ingredients, and lunch. Next door to the palazzo is the former Hotel Trinacria, which is where the Prince dies on the balcony in Lampedusa’s novel – it’s a symbol of the Duke’s declining power that he dies in an impersonal hotel, rather than in one of his estates.
Next we visit the Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita, which has artistic panels, and a marvellous altarpiece by Carlo Maratta, depicting Madonna and child. A highlight of the decorative scheme is the representation of the important Battle of Lepanto that covers the rear wall of the room.
Outside Palermo’s city walls, in the Conca d’Oro, the Normans laid out a royal park in the Islamic style, with palaces and hunting lodges. The Zisa Palace was built here by William II (1166-1189). This cuboid structure takes the form of an Islamic hall with a central cruciform reception chamber flanked by smaller rooms. The roof has muqarnas or stalactite decoration, corbels, and walls decorated with blind arcades. Water runs in a narrow channel through the palace. The building evokes the poetry of Islamic palatial life. We will tour the place and gardens before ascending the hills which surround the Conca d’Oro to Monreale, where we visit the cathedral and its cloister. (Overnight Palermo) BL
Lipari – 3 nights
Day 14: Thursday 24 October, Palermo – Cefalù – Capo d’Orlando – Milazzo – Lipari
- Cefalù Cathedral & Cloister
- Villa Piccolo, Capo d’Orlando
- Hydrofoil from Milazzo to the Aeolian island of Lipari
The seaside town of Cefalù reminded Lawrence Durrell of “a great whale basking in the blueness”. Its cathedral is a supreme example of Norman-Byzantine church architecture and has glorious mosaics.
After visiting the cathedral and cloisters, there will be time at leisure. You might like to check out the local laundry, dating from the Middle Ages, where women did their washing in an unusual stepped sequence of basins. According to an inscription there, the water is “purer than silver, colder than snow”.
We then drive to Capo d’Orlando, a prosperous Tyrrhenian coastal town. Lucio Piccolo lived here with his eccentric siblings. Cousin to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Piccolo was the first of the family to achieve literary fame. After his father frittered away the family fortune, Lucio and siblings moved to a villa in Capo d’Orlando and there lived a rarefied existence. There was always a room kept for cousin Giuseppe when he came to stay. Lucio was a poet and when he won prizes and was invited to literary festivals to speak, his cousin began to think that perhaps he could be a writer too. We will visit the villa, admire the library which is a true testament to the deeply literary atmosphere of the house, and stroll in the garden, perhaps with a descendant of one of the dogs that Lucio so loved. Casimiro Piccolo was an artist, Agata Piccolo was a keen gardener and botanist (the adjacent park has rare plants that she cultivated), and the house is redolent of the presence of all the siblings because so little has been changed.
Off the coast from Capo d’Orlando are the Aeolian Islands, named for Aeolus, keeper of the winds. The islands are mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey – he describes them appearing as if floating on the sea. From Milazzo we take a ferry to Lipari (Guy de Maupassant arrived there in a rowing boat!), the largest of the islands in this archipelago of volcanic origin. There’s a pretty pastel-coloured seafront, but away from the port Lipari has a rugged landscape and dramatic cliffs. (Overnight Lipari) BLD
Day 15: Friday 25 October, Aeolian Islands: Lipari – Panarea – Stromboli – Lipari
- Morning at leisure in the town of Lipari
- In the footsteps of Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne & J.R.R. Tolkien: Cruise to the islands of Panarea and Stromboli
The morning will be at leisure to explore Lipari. People have been living on Lipari since 5000 BC and its history is colourful – it was briefly a prison where writer and war correspondent Curzio Malaparte was imprisoned. Pumice mining was an important industry on the island, but today the place attracts wealthy people from the film world. Lipari was named for Liparus, father of Aeolus. It can’t have been an easy place to live, with eruptions, pirate attacks, and punitive taxes. It’s not surprising that huge waves of emigration sent its residents to such places as Australia. Today, however, tourism has revitalised the island. You can spend the evening exploring its labyrinthine alleyways, or climb to the citadel from which Barbarossa once conducted a reign of terror. There’s a pretty marina, and a huge choice of bars and restaurants.
Alexandre Dumas was an avid follower of Garibaldi and he wrote about his adventures in Journey to the Aeolian Islands. He also wrote a novel set here, Pascal Bruno, published in 1837. This afternoon we will follow in Dumas’ footsteps, as well as in those of his compatriots, Jules Verne and Guy de Maupassant. An afternoon cruise will take us to Panarea Island, with a stop to see the prehistoric village of Capo Milazzese. Panarea is the smallest of the islands in the group, and is popular with fashionable jet-setters. Then it is on to Stromboli, but whether we can stop there will depend on Mt Stromboli, a volcano which is constantly active. It conforms perfectly to our childhood idea of a volcano, with its symmetrical smoking silhouette rising dramatically from the sea. Jules Verne set the conclusion of his Journey to the Centre of the Earth on Stromboli, while J.R.R. Tolkien identified his fictional Mount Doom in Mordor as Mt Stromboli. The 1950 Ingrid Bergman movie Stromboli is set on the barren island. Unlike many tourists, we will not have time to climb to the crater and peer over the edge – news that might come as welcome relief? We will enjoy wonderful sunset views of the volcano as we depart. (Overnight Lipari) BD
Day 16: Saturday 26 October, Lipari
- Lipari Archaeological Museum
- Lipari Island Tour
Lipari’s Archaeological Museum is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of the Mediterranean. Prehistoric artefacts provide insight into the island’s earliest cultures. There are items from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, and on display is the world’s largest collection of Greek theatrical masks. Masks were important in Greek theatre. Their distinctive features made characters instantly recognisable from a distance, they allowed actors to perform more than one role, they enabled men to act female roles, and they provided the opportunity for transformation – an ordinary man could go beyond his real identity and become a mythological hero, a satyr, or a slave. The museum’s amazing collection of such masks was found in the tombs of Lipari Necropolis.
In the afternoon we take a tour of the island. Today it is administratively part of Messina, but the island retains its unique character. From prehistoric traders in obsidian, to the stars of the film world who visit today, the island has experienced violent, varied and tremendous history.
Dinner will be eaten in Da Filippino’s, a restaurant near the citadel which has been feeding people for more than a century. It offers a tempting array of Sicilian dishes. (Overnight Lipari) BD
Taormina – 2 nights
Day 17: Sunday 27 October, Lipari – Milazzo – Messina – Savoca – Taormina
- Hydrofoil from Lipari to Milazzo
- Regional Museum of Messina (MUME) displaying Carravagio’s Adoration of the Shepherds and the Resurrection of Lazarus
- Savoca & Bar Vitelli, one of the main settings for The Godfather
We will take the hydrofoil back to Milazzo this morning. En route for Taormina, we stop at Messina to visit its Regional Museum, established in an old silk-weaving mill, which has two masterpieces by Caravaggio.
Touchy and violent, Caravaggio led a colourful life and in 1608 found himself in Sicily so worked for a while in Messina. It was his artistic innovations which inspired Baroque painting. In fact, it has even been said that he “started modern painting”. His ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ was commissioned by the Senate of Messina. In it, the artist interprets the divine characters as humble people, their agricultural tools nearby. The ‘Resurrection of Lazarus’ shows Caravaggio’s masterly use of light, which picks out crucial details such as Lazarus’ hands. Did he have a corpse exhumed so that he could paint realistically? We’ll never know, but the story attests to his artistic dedication.
Cervantes found himself in Messina in 1571 and set off from there to take part in the Battle of Lepanto. He was lucky to survive it and was brought wounded to a hospital in Messina. Thanks to an injury to his hand, Cervantes was forced to give up soldiering and, eventually, take to writing instead. The world can be grateful!
Lunch will be eaten in a bar made famous by The Godfather. Bar Vitelli in the little village of Savoca was mentioned in Mario Puzo’s novel and was used as a location in the 1971 Francis Ford Coppola film. The bar’s lemon granita with zibibbo, served with zuccarat biscuits, became world famous as a result. Situated on the ground floor of Palazzo Trimarchi, which dates back to 1731, it’s just one of the parts of the building that were used in the movie.
We then transfer to Taormina. French writer Guy de Maupassant adored Taormina: “Were a man to spend only one day in Sicily and ask, ‘What must one see?’, I would answer him without hesitation, ‘Taormina’. It is only a landscape, but a landscape where you find everything on earth that seems made to seduce the eyes, the mind and the imagination.” D.H. Lawrence, who lived and wrote in Taormina, knew he would “never be quite free from the nostalgia for it” when he left. The city is spectacularly perched on the side of a mountain and was founded in the 4th century BC. Over the centuries many creative people have sought it out – Goethe, Oscar Wilde, Rabindranath Tagore, Anatole France, John Steinbeck, W.B. Yeats, Ernest Hemingway, Andre Gide, Selma Lagerlöf and Tennessee Williams are just a few of them. (Overnight Taormina) BL
Day 18: Monday 28 October, Taormina
- Graeco-Roman Theatre, Taormina
- Afternoon at leisure. Optional walk to view exterior of Fontana Vecchia where D.H. Lawrence completed Women in Love and where Truman Capote finished The Grass Harp
- Casa Cuseni, Museum of Fine Arts and the Grand Tour of the City of Taormina
- Farewell Dinner