Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Summer in Sicily


Garden in Ragusa

Getting away with unlawful driving (who, me?), endless cannoli, ice-cream sandwiches for breakfast and glorious sun and sea - what more could I have wanted from my summer holiday... whilst most of you have probably planned your holidays already, and Sicily is getting almost unbearably hot, I thought I'd share my itinerary for summers to come. I have also made a handy map with all the stops plotted on.


We flew into Catania and went straight to the car hire stall, waited, got the car and off we went. My first experience driving abroad since having passed my driving test this January. Only later did we realise that you are supposed to have been driving for a year to be allowed to rent - oops! Thankfully there were no major incidents to report, despite the Sicilian's best efforts, and the minor parking dent I made in the shiny new Fiat 500 went unnoticed, phew...




Our first stop was the beautiful seaside resort of Ortigia. Whilst we weren't blown away by any of the restaurants there, we had an unforgettable sandwich. Said sandwich was made by chef Andrea who has built up quite the cult following. We queued for over an hour for this monstrosity of a sandwich but were kindly offered beautiful baked ricotta dressed in oregano, oil and garlic as we waited. Needless to say we shared one between two and still couldn't finish!




We stayed in a small, clean, modern and reasonably priced airbnb right in the centre, with a great cafe opposite where we had ice cream sandwiches and decent coffee for breakfast. We also found a great cannoli seller called Giovanni Artale that was open quite late and made up most of our desserts. They are humongous (something of a theme) but made up fresh in front of you using top quality sheep's ricotta. In the city itself there is a beautiful Piazza and a rather important Caravaggio in the Duomo. In the evenings you can also take a stroll down to sunset bar (or any of the others along the coast) to watch the sun go down over a chilled glass of wine. This will serve as the perfect base for a night or two and has the best market where you can buy brings pistachios, strattu, salted ricotta, citrus peel and other inaccessible Sicilian ingredients.


From Ortigia we visited several of the surrounding towns including Modica, which has some beautiful cathedrals and is famous for its chocolate - spiced and crunchy made to an original Aztec recipe (or so the legend goes). One of the best is Antica Dolceria Bonajuto from which I filled half a suitcase with chocolate to bring home (one of the benefits of this recipe other than the unique taste and texture is the high melting point and shelf-life).


Another top attraction is Locanda del Collonello - joint top restaurant of our visit - which serves exquisite pasta dishes alongside an excellent wine list. This was so good we drove hours out of our way to go back a second time.






This Vodopivec was our best wine find of the trip (not from Sicily unfortunately)

Also great to visit are Ragusa, the little seaside resort of Marzamemi, Noto and the Oriented Nature Reserve which is open despite what the internet suggests.




Whilst we were there we also did a tour of the Planeta estate nearby but if you follow our itinerary it makes more sense to visit their more Easterly plot since you get to try wines from across their estate anyway and that one is more conveniently located.

Our next stop was far away in Menfi. We planned our route to stop by the the Villa Romana del Casale - an escalated Roman Villa with an incredibly impressive and intricate collection of tiled floors. We easily spent a couple of hours gazing down at the different scenes and motifs, and it was an unexpected highlight of the trip.





We pressed ahead to our next stop - the infamous Da Vittorio restaurant on the coast near Menfi. Because I wanted to drink we stayed the night here. The accommodation is basic and somewhat expensive so I would probably just go for lunch next time (you also have to speak Italian to book) but it was good to be able to eat here twice. We had mixed antipasti and lobster for dinner. The antipasti were a bit meh but the lobster was delicious. Still, it didn't quite live up to the high expectations I had of it so we dined there for lunch the next day when everything became clear. We had the seafood pasta for two and it was absurdly good. Juicy prawns, clams and lobster in a nest of spaghetti with a rich bisque and olive oil sauce. So good you can't even hope to recreate it at home (though if you do the recipe is in Georgio Locatelli's Made in Sicily). 




If you are planning on doing a wine tour, Da Vittorio is minutes away from one of Planeta's estate which also make several varieties of delicious olive oil.

Having driven a lot, we had organised three nights in a more luxury setting. Homi Country Retreat was idyllic and remarkably good value especially considering we had it all to ourselves by coincidence. The only downside is that it is quite far from anywhere for lunch and doesn't have a kitchen but a private chef makes you breakfast each day and if you are a bigger group you can organise for her to stay. Otherwise the nearby Pizzeria la Borgatella will sort you out for dinner and the Piazetta Balestrate will do you a simple lunch. For something more special you can go to Primafilla in Terrasini for dinner.










Primafilla


After a wonderful few days we made our way to Monreale to see the incredible cathedral before arriving in Palermo.


In Palermo we stayed in B&B Cubbaita which was lovely, well decorated and came with the most charming, helpful owner and a private parking spot. In Palermo there are plenty of things to see but the Paletine Chapel was, for us, the most impressive. The puppet theatre is supposedly worth watching but we missed this, not realising that it is only at 6.30pmeach day. 



Oratory of Santa Cita



The market there is great fun and with salesmen yelling at the top of their voices and lots of fried dishes to try alongside soft ricotta topped with pistachio. Since we were there during a big Dolce & Gabbana event we kept bumping into models in the market which was a little surreal.




Our best meal there was at Bistrot Bisso - a rustic, central restaurant that does a decent plate of pasta. This restaurant was listed as one of Georgio Locatelli's favourites under a different name and has had to move and change names because of refusing to pay mafia protection money. Our best cannoli and ice cream (try the yoghurt) was at a famous shop called Spinnato in piazza castelnuovo.




Famous Palermo 'lorry' and an artwork depicting it

Pretty ship-wreck / art? by the port

We had a wonderful holiday and would recommend this trip to anyone. We packed it into 8 days because of last minute planning where it would have been better over 9 or 10. As a reminder here is the itinerary in full:

Day 1: fly into Catania and drive to Syracuse / Ortigia. Stay night in Ortigia.
Days 2-3: explore Ortigia, Modica, Noto, Ragusa. Stay in Ortigia
Day 4: drive to Villa Romana del Casole then to Da Vittorio for dinner. Stay night at Da Vittorio.
Day 5: hang out on the beach for the morning, lunch at Da Vittorio, drive onto Homi Country Estate. Stay night at Homi
Day 6: relax in Homi. Stay night at Homi.
Day 7: relax in Homi, drive to Monreale in the afternoon, stay night at B&B Cubbaita in Palermo.
Day 8: explore Palermo, fly late evening

Map here.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Last House: Tangale


As I write this I'm nestled in the arm of a sofa overlooking the sea. It's nighttime and on this remote piece of Sri Lankan coast the Sky is pitch black. A smattering of stars is shining brightly enough to illuminate the stepping stone path that trips its way down the garden to the beach. This is what it looks like during the day.



The sofa in question is perhaps my all time favourite. It's a dark-wood 70s bench with curving arms and a deep mattress-like seat. It belongs to a boutique hotel that's nestled on a jungle beach just along the coast from Tangale. 


The last house was designed by Geoffrey Bawa, the founding father of the Tropical Modern architectural style and Sri Lankan born to British parents. There are many other examples of his architecture throughout Sri Lanka but this was the last house that he built before he died.




We were recommended it by a friend and nearly didn't make the trip, as we were headed towards the more popular Unawatuna beach on the West Coast. When we decided to come, Flo and I had thought it would be for one night, but three nights later here I am. If you're wondering what I've done with Flo, she left for India late last night, after delaying her journey long enough to stay for another dinner.

So if you're going to Sri Lanka go to The Last House for a chill out between sight seeing and this is what you'll find:

Incredible food concepted (and often cooked) by the resident manager Ananda. The menu varies from authentic Sri Lankan curries cooked with fresh seafood to thai food to more Western cooking. 



Beautiful surroundings and proper Sri Lankan coast line with far fewer tourists than The South. We went off-season at the start of October though, so had an unusually tourist free time.











If you follow our quick Sri Lanka trip yourselves, I'd do as we did and make The Last House the last place you stay before going home. 
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