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05 March 2021

Sicily: Ragusa and Agrigento

Aruci Aruci caffetteria, gelateria & Casa Siciliana Trattoria - Scicli, Ragusa province.

A few reminiscences, sightseeing tips, places to stay, photos and a little food and wine condensed from a lucky-break week spent in Sicily last September in between Covid restriction lockdowns. The plan was to avoid big towns and cities (so no Palermo or Catania this time unfortunately), hire a car, stay in the middle of nowhere and not tour around too much (pretty much the opposite of a 'normal' holiday), which part of the south of the gorgeous island provided a perfect backdrop for (Ragusa province and Agrigento a couple of hours up the coast).
The blurred picture above, taken through a glass cabinet wearing a face covering, would be a familiar one seen everywhere in Italy, but at this shop, Aruci Aruci gelateria in Scicli (pronounced 'shee-clee'), the selection included the most sensational dark chocolate ice cream imaginable made from the local Cioccolato di Modica (front middle), which has a celebrated history and was granted IGP status in 2018 (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) covering a controlled production zone around the town of Modica lying about ten kilometres southeast of the provincial capital Ragusa. Find out more on the official site: www.cioccolatomodica.it.

On arriving in Scicli, catching your breath back after the spectacular drive coming from the north on the winding road that ascends and descends very dramatically, it may first come across as a small sleepy historical town. But it's home to nearly 30,000 people and spreads over a deceptively large area surrounded by and partly built across tall hills rolling in different directions ('nestled at the intersection of three valleys' is how the official website describes it). It's a great place to slowly explore and absorb all that history, architecture and elegant worn-out feel, inevitably tempting you to continue climbing higher up yet another steep old-stone lane or path taking you to a breath-taking vantage point. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002, the town's mediaeval base was added to in the late Baroque period and into the 18th century after a terrible earthquake in 1693. More info: www.visitsicily.info.
Photos above and below: Scicli, an awesomely old town a few kms from the sea (Donnalucata). More shots around Scicli are on my Facebook page as well as Agrigento (read on).

Agrigento is one of if not the most obvious tourist choice destination(s) but shouldn't be shied away from just because of that, in fact it's an unmissable site and sight. The Hellenic monumental remains at the Valle dei Templi in any case, as the town of Agrigento just off in the distance to the north doesn't look that remarkable (but it could be). It's about 130 km or 2 hrs plus from Ragusa to Agrigento; the fastest way is along the mostly coastal road heading east and lightly northeast, although, like most of the roads around there, it's hard to keep track of the speed limits on any stretch as they keep varying with confusing regularity. You are signposted into a fairly expensive car park, but there's no getting around it because you can't really park anywhere else and easily access the site. It sprawls over a vast exposed area taking in the majestic and almost-intact Tempio della Concordia to the 'only four columns left' structure of Tempio dei Dioscuri, which looks curiously like an ancient Imperial Walker from the early Star Wars films (photo below)! There's further detail on the Visit Sicily website linked above.

Back in Ragusa province, Chiaramonte Gulfi is a fair size town for this area (8100 population) perched up strikingly at over 600 metres above sea level (hence the fab view in the photo below), which over time witnessed the arrival and departure of Ancient Greek, Roman and Arab invaders among others until the 'new' town was rebuilt up on high and fortified at the end of the 13th century by count Manfredi Chiaramonte. Parking near the old centre is a bit tight, so it makes for a pleasant and energetic walk by leaving the car on the way up and walking slowly up successive looping streets or, to cut the corners, a series of steep steps. There are several lovely old churches to have a look at as well as plenty of places to eat and enticing food stores and bakeries. More @ www.comune.chiaramonte-gulfi.gov.it.

Nearby, Agriturismo Villa Zottopera is a wonderful place to stay even if tricky to find - luckily, getting lost for the third time travelling to it from Catania airport, we once again encountered some charming locals who insisted on driving out of their way (with the whole family on board) to lead us right to the unobvious entrance off a hard-to-find country track (gateway pictured below)! And what a place. This old working farm - olive groves, vines, fruit trees, vegetable plots, animals - has a massive farmhouse property (dating from the 1800s) at its centre with adjoining buildings forming a big walled courtyard on either side, where most of the upper floors, former stables below and other outbuildings have been converted into a variety of sizes of well-equipped apartments and suites.
The owners and staff are very convivial and helpful, and the place appeared to be mostly run by Anna who also cooked all the meals. Breakfast was copious and varied (extra charge) - you could have pretty much what you wanted - and the four or five course dinner served on the terrace cost €25 including wine. With delicious olive oil fresh from the mill of course. Some of the apartments have a spacious kitchen so you could cater for yourself too, although a mix of both was a good idea (and Anna didn't cook every evening). There's a nice wee swimming pool in the garden below the restaurant, and bikes are available for free for guests: just help yourself. There are more of my photos of Zottopera in this Google album. For booking check out Agriturismo Villa Zottopera Facebook or www.villazottopera.it or on Booking.com. And talking of tasty olive oil, I've since discovered that Tesco's Finest Sicilian Extra Virgin Olive Oil (£6.50) is produced somewhere close to Zottopera!

Flying there: Comiso airport is just a few kilometres down the road although there are limited flights; otherwise Catania is the nearest. Obviously there are several ferry options from the mainland too. If you have time to kill waiting on the way to the latter airport, to the south of Catania there's a series of wildlife and bird reserves along beautiful untamed beaches and coves. And not forgetting Etna of course to the north of the city, which naturally hogs the background vista in that direction much of the time (it erupted a little again recently). By the way, driving in Sicily can be a tad stressful; there's always somebody sitting right on your tail impatient to pass whatever your speed and the road is doing ahead, often in twos and threes. Perhaps take some advice from the 1976 movie The Gumball Rally: "The first rule of Italian driving: what's behind me is not important!" as he pulls off the rear view mirror (quotation found on www.pinterest.com).

Don't forget the espresso! So-Italian coffee machine @ Zottopera.

Finally, a little wine talk. Here's a handful of highlights, or at least the ones photoed and remembered, sipped with food and pleasure on the elevated terrace outside or in the apartment, as on this occasion we didn't eat out in a restaurant apart from at Zottopera outside on their simple terrace. A mix of supermarket wines and a couple from the winegrower on the estate there (Antiche Cantine Rosso): the organic 'natural' styled Grillo (majority) and a tasty Frappato red not mentioned here, as I didn't photo the label, which was similar to the one noted below yet a bit richer and earthier from memory. Plus a 'new wave' Nero d'Avola red purchased recently from a local wine merchant in Belfast (see below too). Generally, there's a good amount of vineyards in the province of Ragusa in the south, mostly around Vittoria, although not as much as in the west of Sicily.

There's more on Sicilian wines on this blog here (Lidl Italian wines August 2017), here (Syrah/Shiraz tasting March 2017), here (Italy south & north July 2016), here (Italian 'wines of the mo' November 2014), here (Bosco Falconeria August 2013), here (Italy south July 2013), here (Italian reds July 2012), here (Valdibella Camporeale June 2012), here (Spotlight on Sicily update November 2011) and here (Italy page including Spotlight on Sicily).

Isoletta Vermentino 2019, Cantine Settesoli (organic) - Fragrant and zesty/lees-y dry white with citrus and aniseed undertones.
Aura 2019, Antiche Cantine Rosso, IGT Terre Siciliane (13.5%) - Made mostly from the sumptuous Sicilian white grape variety Grillo (85%) blended with a little Fiano by a small organic producer based outside Chiaramonte Gulfi, this natural-edged deep-coloured wine is rich and exotic with quirky stewed apple and yeast notes, long dry finish.
Barone di Bernaj Grillo 2019, Cantine Madaudo - A different style of varietal Grillo bought in a supermarket showing more typical aromatic Grillo character with perfumed apricot and peach, full rounded palate and fresh finish.
Barone di Bernaj Frappato 2019, Cantine Madaudo - Sicilian red variety Frappato produces relatively light spicy and fruity wines, this one was delicious ever so lightly chilled.
Tank No. 26 Nero d'Avola Appassimento, Sicilia DOC (13.5%) - Made from Sicily's signature red variety, which is left to dry out or shrivel slightly on the vine before picking. Earthy, spicy and wild herby with sunny black fruits, kirsch, liquorice and raisins, warm and rich with soft fruity finish, balsamic undertones and dark chocolate twist. £8.99 DC Wines (south Belfast).
Isoletta Nero d'Avola Rosato 2019, Cantine Settesoli - Nero d'Avola can be turned into various types of red wine, usually rich ripe and earthy, and full-bodied dry fruity rosés like this very nice example from the well-known co-op winery Settesoli.
'Aura' photo from sicibia.it.

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