Think of Sicily, think of the Maf.... No. let's not mention it. Instead, think of sun, sand, hospitable people and glorious, glorious cuisine
No Photo, please
“We here are unfamous (sic) for only one thing. Yes, in the whole wide world, only one thing we are unfamous for!”
I chose not to correct Angelo’s faulty vocabulary. Speaking in urgent tones, his whisper ceased completely whenever someone passed by the entrance of his little woodcarving workshop. We both knew he was talking about the mafia, yet not once did he utter that name during our conversation. Yes, I could take his photo but, no.... it couldn’t appear in my guide, he insisted.
Don’t worry about taking a ‘family’ holiday in Sicily. Even in the shabby backstreets of Palermo, which look like they’ve been untouched for half a century, there's no sense of danger. Not in daytime, anyway. No men with violin cases; no bodies decorating the pavements; some statues are missing some limbs, but, hey, that's a worldwide problem.
Ryanair Bus v AST Bus - go local
Despite our daytrip to Palermo, our week was actually based in Castellammare del Golfo, a seaside resort about an hour away from the Trapani or Palermo airports (Fly to either by Ryanair, www.ryanair.com). You can pick up an airport hire car on arrival, of course, but we used public transport. For once we were not keen on dashing around, ticking off the ‘must-sees’ and ‘have to visits’. We flew to Trapani and took the bus from the airport to the town centre. And here’s a tip: ignore the Terravision bus kindly provided by Ryanair at 8 euros one-way. Instead, put a 4 euro smile on your face and take the blue AST (www.aziendasicilianatrasporti.it) local bus which will be waiting faithfully outside the terminal for half the price. Stick to the planes, Michael.
Time for our first espresso, a look at the sea and a wander in the streets of Trapani, waiting for the Cantina Siciliana (Via Giudeca 52, tel 00 39 0923 28673) to open for lunch. At 1pm, it was empty, fifteen minutes later it was full of diners, all summoned to meet the ‘big fish’: no, not The Godfather, rather the sarde allinguate or breaded sardine, a delicious local speciality. The couscous con brodo di pesce (couscous with fish sauce) for main course was just as good. Couscous plays an important part in the area’s cuisine: North Africa's just across the water. We didn’t begrudge any of the 40 euros we paid for lunch, wine included.
From Trapani, take the bus or train (www.trenitalia.com) to Castellammare del Golfo and its picturesque harbour, full of yachts, fishermen sanding down their boats and ….weddings? We saw four happy couples on our first day, posing in front of the imposing 17th C castle. Leaving the newlyweds and their sharp-suited, ponytailed photographers behind, we strolled past the many harbour-front restaurants, reasonably-priced considering their location. If nothing else here, drink a cool, delicious latte di mandorla, made from almonds and sugar. Or try a refreshing granita. Again, no alcohol, just flavoured crushed ice. I’d recommend a lemon one, as the overpowering coffee version is perhaps an acquired taste.
Shabby v Chic - only one winner
The backstreets here are not chic, nor shabby-chic. They are just shabby. Washing hangs drying from every balcony. And yet, the town is atmospheric. In the Piazza Europa, attitude-laden adolescents gather to pout and pose (politely) from the seats of their Vespas. Old men watch the world go by from plastic chairs positioned outside their front doors; passionate conversation spills onto the streets through the gaps in window-shutters. All the clichés of Italy are here to behold. But no mafia.
The Palazzo del Commune, the civic building, is a grand enough edifice from the outside, but it keeps a secret hidden from passers-by. Pass through the doors and out the back to discover a modest, open-air amphitheatre, still used for plays and musical performances.
Swordfish v Tuna - no contest
We chose an outside table at the Egesta Mare (Piazza Petrolo, tel 00 39 0924 30409, www.egestamare.com), and ordered swordfish. The waitress was disappointed, telling us that the swordfish had been frozen on board the boats, whereas….she insisted that we went inside to meet some freshly-caught and never-been-frozen tuna, glistening red beneath a glass counter. She weighed it in front of us and we couldn’t refuse. Tuna 2, Swordfish 0. On its return from the kitchen, the best tuna ever was accompanied by a now-smiling waitress - and a green salad shaped to look like a fish: a body of lettuce, tomatoes for fins, an olive eye. They care about food here. Three courses with wine, for two: 60 euros. Not for the first time in Sicily, nor the last, the bill was inexplicably rounded down by a few euros!
(If you're on a budget, any pizzeria in town will box up the remains of your evening pizza (about 8 euros), ready for your next day's lunch.)
Hotel with Pool v City Centre Stay - honours even
The Hotel Punta Nord Est (Via Leonardo da Vinci 67) was our home for the week. A ten-minute walk from the town centre, along cracked pavements lined by overgrown foliage, unsuitable for the elderly or infirm. The hotel’s clientele was mainly Italian, with few Anglophones. August, we were told, is hectic, so perhaps a month to avoid. Magnificent views of the gulf could be had from the private terrace that came with our suite (110 euros per night, B and B, which didn’t seem cheap). But the staff were friendly and professional. It has an outdoor pool, and a private beach which is pebbly, but good for a quick snorkel. Five minutes' walk to the east, however, is the Alcamo Marina beach. The sand here is beautiful and there are bars and restaurants to refresh you. Sunloungers and umbrellas are available, but the beach is not private, so hiring them is not compulsory.
For a more central hotel, the three-star Al Madarig (Piazza Petrolo; 90 euros B&B, double with seaview) is chic and close to the action by the harbour.
From the harbour at Castellammare, you can take an all-day cruise up the coast to San Vito lo Capo, a pleasant resort at the western end of the Golfo. You pass spectacular rock formations and the Zingaro Nature Reserve. Pack your costume, as the boat stops off a couple of times for passengers to swim in the azure sea. It’s irresistible. Snack lunch is included and the friendly staff provide commentary (though only in Italian). 32 euros per person, ticket agencies line the harbour front.
The Godfather of Scopello's Car Park v An Innocent Man With a Car - no contest
On the trip, the boat passes Scopello, a tiny hilltop village clustered around its baglio (manor house) and overlooking a beautiful cove below. We took the bus there at night, to attend its well-attended festival. There’s plenty of lodging options here, and restaurants, but we had to return to our hotel. Too late for buses.
Approaching a man who seemed way-overdressed for his role as car park attendant, we explained that we needed a taxi. When he found out where we were staying, he summarily dismissed the ‘taxi’ option, saying:
“I arrange everything” before narrowing his eyes and obliquely adding “I’m from New York, too.” Accosting the first couple returning to the car park, he instructed them to give the “Americans” a lift. No discussion took place. The nominated driver merely nodded his assent, and soon we were in the back of this stranger’s car on our way to the hotel, feeling grateful to "il Padrino del Parking" (the'Godfather of Parking').
The Palermo Puppets - don't mess with them
Next day, the fare for our bus trip to Palermo (1.5 hours) was a mere 8 euros return, and the journey gave us an opportunity to appraise other coastal towns en route. More shabbiness, more narrow streets, all charming in their own way. Palermo itself is well-covered by other Simonseeks guides, and a day is not enough to do a proper review. There are grand buildings, churches and palaces here, yet surely it’s the atmosphere of the narrow streets, with balconies almost touching each other, that give Palermo its unique character? The Puppet Museum (Museo Internazionale delle Marionette, Via Butera 1, tel 00 39 091 328060, www.museomarionettepalermo.it) is quirky and worth a visit. Puppets are sinister, whether they’re in Palermo or elsewhere, don’t you think?
And lunch in Palermo? Well, Foccaceria del Massimo (Via Bara all' Olivella 76, tel 00 39 0913 35628) is a strong tip if you don’t want to splurge. You can’t go wrong here….no, actually you can – not with the food, but the ordering system. It goes like this (I think!). Peer into the glass cabinets by the kitchen, peruse the ‘Specials’ board, then go to the main counter and pay. Take your receipt to the kitchen counter and exchange it for a numbered ticket. When the number is called by the portly chefs, go up and collect your food. Understand? No? Neither did I - just stand around looking helpless and hungry and you’ll eventually end up with a delicious slab of lasagne for 3 euros.
Join 'The Family' - you may not have a choice
This part of Sicily is poor, shabby. It isn't Monte Carlo or Nice, that's for sure. Castellammare is as much a working port as much as a resort, it takes a couple of days to become its friend. There's not too much pandering to the visitor. But the sea is crystal-clear, the food around here is unbeatable.
And only slightly below the surface, the Sicilians are truly warm and wonderful. You may end up feeling like ....one of 'The Family'.