A friend of mine told me once that Erice is the most beautiful town she has ever been to. I enjoyed its cobbled streets and stone houses, the amazing views of San Vito lo Capo on one side, and Trapani with Egadi islands on the other side, but especially, the scent of baked sweets coming from Pasticceria Maria Grammatico. Sicily is already very well known for its delicious sweets that include the cannoli, genovesi, gelato and granitas, chocolate, cassatas, brioches, cornetos etc., but at this pastry shop you can find the frutta martorana, that is, unbeliavably realistic marzipan fruits, typical of this region.Read More
I fell head over heels with Sicily, its peculiarity, its warm and curious people, its unique cuisine and architecture influenced by centuries of foreign rule. I fell for Umbria's hearty dishes, green hills, lake landscape and almost frozen in time hilltop towns, I fell for Matera's cave dwellings and humble history, I fell for the modern city of Milano and bare mountain peaks of the Dolomites. And this summer, as if returning back to Sicily wasn't enough, I was completely spellbound by the Western Sicilian island of Marettimo.Read More
Mazara del Vallo was known to me mostly as a place where delicious Sicilian red prawns come from (gambero rosso di Mazara). Reading about Mazara, I found out that it is home to the largest fishing fleet in Italy, that it was governed by the Arabs in 9. and 10. century, and today's old center called kasbah still retains Arabic urbanistic influences. Mazara is about half an hour drive from Marsala, and makes for a perfect daytrip.Read More
In June we returned to Sicily. We first visited Sicily three years ago on our honeymoon, and it's still one of our dearest travel memories. Back then, we traveled from Palermo to Cefalu, over Madonie mountains to Taormina, then climbed the Etna, spent a couple of days in Modica visiting the baroque towns of Val di Noto, followed the archaeological trail to Agrigento, bought some ceramics in Sciacca before returning to Palermo and flying back home.
This time we wanted to explore Western Sicily, especially the island of Marettimo, inspired by Jamie Oliver's series Great Italian Escape. We started with three days stay in the city of Marsala and a daytrip to Mazara del Vallo and Porto Palo beach, then headed to the port of Trapani from where we took the speedy boat to Marettimo and stayed there for another three days. On our way back we visited the hilltop town of Erice and spent our last two days in touristy but quite impressive Castellammare del Golfo.
Marsala is mostly known for its sweet dessert marsala wine, and as a place where Giuseppe Garibaldi started the process of Italian unification. (Once in Marsala, you will easily notice that every other bar, restaurant or kiosk bares Gaibaldi's name). The town exceeded my expectations by far, due to its always present sea breeze, golden hued baroque buildings, delicious sweets and lively beat of the streets.
Once in Marsala, we immediately switched to Italian state of mind, sat in a bar, ordered two focaccias and a couple of sweets filled with ricotta and wild strawberries (how good was that), and waited for our host to show up. Without pressure, our holiday truly began. The apartment was one of the most amazing AirBnb's we've ever stayed at (and this is not a sponsored post), its biggest advantage being beautiful, spacious terrace overlooking the main square and the cathedral. We spent quite some time there, relaxing in deckchairs, munching on Sicilian sweets, fruit and the granita al limone our host made for us. In the evening we would open a bottle of wine and listen to the evening sounds of the city, or watch the locals at their daily passegiata, a lovely Italian practice of taking a stroll in the evening.
Marsala's city center is small enough to have the main sights, restaurants and bars within couple of minutes reach, but big enough to feel like you would like to stay longer than three days we had there. On our first evening, we took a walk in the Villa Comunale Cavallotti park, simply called Villa by the locals, and enjoyed a beautiful golden hour among its palm trees, giant Moreton Bay figs, flowery bushes and fountains.
One thing we were really excited about was tasting the Sicilian cuisine again. That evening we dined at Assud Porta Nova, a cozy little restaurant about a minute walk from the park. Spaghetti with pistachios and famous Sicilian gambero rosso prawns (one of my favorite tastes of all time), tuna steak, Sicilian salad, grillo and marsala wines won us over. The music was good, the staff so friendly and welcoming that we went there two more times (third time greeted like friends, and regaled with "sconto fedelta", or loyality discount).
A smart detail was a glass bottle of filtered water on each table with an explanation that water should stay a common good, available for everyone, without a price tag to it. A restaurant to my taste!
Sicilian sweets might be the best in the world as far as I'm concerned, and we arrived to Sicily determined to indulge on a daily basis. There was a simple pasticceria called Dolce Tentazione (Sweet Temptation, and what a convenient name) that makes the best cannoli (crunchy pastry rolls filled with ricotta cheese) and genovese (custard filled pastries). We would buy the sweets and have them on our terrace each morning. When we first entered Dolce Tentazione, we engaged in an interesting conversation with the owner and the funny older gentleman (presented as Mr. Bean by the owner) about Croatia. We were asked many questions about our country, and eventhough we did our best to explain everything in Italian, their general conclusion was: That we were playing football that month against Iceland (true), and that we were once part of Yugoslavia (true), along with Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria (false, but we didn't tell them that).
On our second day we explored the center- its churches, a former monastery, little local museums, and a very interesting Museo Archeologico Regionale Lilibeo, its prize exhibit being the reconstructed remains of a Punic ship. As an art historian that used to work in archaeology, I found the rest of the exhibits interesting as well- Roman sculptures and temple remains, mosaics, amphoras and ceramics all telling the long history of the area.
I loved Marsala's architecture and urbanism- its regular street layout, lush baroque churches and palaces, the golden colour of the stone, sometimes in combination with white washed walls, polished cobbled pavement and hidden courtyards with trees and fountains. I also loved the buzz of the streets and how most of the social life takes place there- on the market and the main square, wherever there's a place to sit in the shade. We visited the market that day as well, just to marvel at the brightest coloured vegetables and glittering fish, and to soak in the sounds and the everyday talks. The fish vendor caught our eye, and eventhough he looked effortless and indiferrent while posing for photos, in reality you could see how proud he was of his fish, of how peopled reacted to it. He also threw in some football talk with the locals and a couple of Sicilian gestures, which was a perfect scene for a little project of ours (more about that at the end of this post).
Foreign tourists in Marsala in June are not that often (there were however Italian tourists), and we felt quite exotic- everywhere we went, museums, restaurants, bars, people would ask us where we came from, how did we like Sicily, how long were we staying, and showed general kindness and friendliness to us.
In the afternoon we went wine tasting at Cantina Fodera, a family owned winery at the outskirts of the city. We were shown around the property and the cellars and explained about the process of wine making by a darling father and son duo. From the wines we tasted, we particularly liked the grillo, a Western Sicilian sort of white wine and the merlot tardivo, a sweet dessert red wine made out of the grapes left to dry in the sun for 12 days after the harvest. I am far from expert in wines, but I can recognize a good wine, and that merlot was one of the most specific, delicious wines I've ever tasted. There was another, Italian group from Bologna, that proclaimed the merlot to be oro nero, or black gold, and we could only agree. One of them even stated that when the time comes, he would like to leave this world dipping a cantuccino biscuit in a glass of it! We bought three bottles that made their way with us to the island of Marettimo, where we enjoyed them every evening on the rooftop of our b&b. Happy times!
On our last day in Marsala, we made a daytrip to Mazara del Vallo, planned but not succeeded to visit temples in Selinunte, and spent a beautiful afternoon on the beach of Porto Palo, followed by a delicious dinner at famous Da Vittorio restaurant. I will write about it in my next post.
We returned quite late from that daytrip, only to be greeted by a midnight dance gathering on the main square. And around the corner, a street music performance by a local band gathered an eclectic crowd seriuosly in the mood for singing and dancing. There was Bob Marley along with traditional Italian songs, and older gentlemans channeling young hipsters in dance moves. It was one of the most fun evenings of that trip and a perfect ending to our time in Marsala (we did however crash a wedding couple of days after, more about that soon).
I am excited to share with you that we decided to try making short travel videos, the first one being about Marsala. You can see it below, and let me know what you think- an advice or two would come in hand. :)
About this time last July, we visited Milan. The main reason for our visit was Bruce Springsteen's concert at Stadio San Siro, but also, we've never been to Milan before and wanted to explore the city a bit. Turned out (unsurprisingly) that we loved it and that three days in the city are sometimes just what you need for a perfect summer escape.
On our first day, we arrived just in time to catch the golden hour over the Duomo (Milan Cathedral) rooftop. Touristy as it may sound, but climbing that rooftop would be a shame to miss. It took six centuries to finish the construction (from 1386.-1965.), almost 80 architects and engineers, and an organization called Fabbrica del Duomo, which has been responsible for preservation and restoration of the cathedral for more than 600 years now. With the construction spam so wide, it is hard to talk about unified style, but in the end, it is predominantly gothic and neo-gothic, and one glimpse of its lush ornamentation including flying buttresses, spires, gargoyles, and sculptures will leave no doubt about it. You don't always get the chance to see the architectural ornamentation up close; that, with a bird view of the piazza in front of the cathedral and people looking like figurines in a model train landscape, makes this rooftop one of the most interesting spots in the city.
Since Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is located right next to the cathedral, we had just enough time before dinner for admiring both Italian architecture and style (and I'm not only referring to the shops but to elegantly dressed Italians as well!). The gallery was designed by Giuseppe Mangoni in the second half of the 19th century, with the epoch's characteristic glass and steel dome and vaults construction. The legend says that if you spin three times below the central dome it will bring good luck. I did do that, and only afterwards read that this is causing damage to the floor mosaic (note to self- don't act like a classic tourist.).
First in the line of restaurants we tried in Milan was Trippa, based on the good Tripadvisor reviews. It was indeed good, I couldn't say spectacular, but the funny part was meeting two other Bruce Springsteen fans sitting on the table next to us. Stories from past concerts have been shared, along with a couple of guesses which songs was he going to play this time and the general conclusion how Bruce loves his Italian fans and how concerts in Italy are the best.
We had luck finding the apartment, not only because it was located 15 minutes walk from the stadium, but also because it was located about 5 minutes walk from the Gelateria Baci Sottozero, a place where I had a lot of pistachio ice-cream and Luka a lot of Sicilian cannoli. Both for breakfast and dinner. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, well, lucky you.
For a real breakfast next day, we headed to Pave, a bakery situated on a completely opposite side of the city, which didn't stop us from hopping on a metro, and having first in a row of three most delicious breakfasts we've had in a while. There were little sandwiches made of crunchy croissants, creamy cheese and walnuts, plum cakes and muffins, mint milk and freshly pressed juice, just about anything a sweet tooth's heart could wish for. It also had young staff, funky old school furniture, and a large open space perfect for people watching- needless to stay, we didn't do breakfast the Italian way (that is, having something sweet and a quick sip of coffee on the counter).
Our plan was to visit the Castello Sforzesco afterwards, a giant castle built by Duke of Milan in the 15th century. We circled the castle from the outside, were lured into the greenery of the Sempione park in front of it, and then discovered that there was a Milan Triennale taking place, with a part of the exhibition in the Triennale building inside the park. As contemporary art aficionados, we couldn't resist that, so we left Castello Sforzesco for some other time, and spent the next two days exploring the Triennale exhibitions. I think that even for people who are not that into contemporary art, this would be very interesting, as there were interior design, contemporary pottery and jewelry included, along with a couple of interactive sound installations, and an amazing exhibition on human technologies tracing back to prehistory, with final exhibits such as drones and fake eyelashes (called Neo-Prehistory). We took many photos, but I've cut that selection to a couple of ones I found most interesting.
Next, a lunch at Brunello, a restaurant proposed by Jamie Oliver's magazine (whose article on Milan was consulted many times before our trip). Brunello is a modern osteria, beautifully furnished, cozy, and most importantly serves delicious food. I went overboard with ordering a cotoletta a la Milanese on a hot summer day (I had to try it, it was great, could barely walk afterwards), Luka had the tuna steak with mayo, and we split the pesto pasta for a starter. Each thing on that menu was delicious, well thought of and nicely presented. It is one of those restaurants I would return to over and over again.
Conveniently, that neighborhood was also home to one of the architectural wonders I've been wanting to see for a while, Milan's Vertical Forest. It is a complex of two residential skyscrapers whose facade is home to more than 900 trees, planted on its balconies, providing residents with shade, fresh oxygen, moderate temperatures, noise protection and beautiful greenery. Boeri Studio's idea was to stop spreading the cities horizontally in order to avoid taking precious land for agriculture, but at the same time providing much-needed greenery, and the result is in my opinion fantastic. Now I'm very curious to see one of those apartments from the inside.
That evening was all about the concert. We went to the apartment earlier, to rest and have a couple of drinks before heading to the stadium. Next to the stadium, we had a grappa (which has sort of become a tradition for us before Bruce's concerts in Italy), then almost stayed outside because of the tickets that for some reason wouldn't pass the control, and in the end, ended at what turned out to be one of the best concerts of our lives. Everyone was in the mood: the fans, Bruce, the E Street Band. It was positive energy, shared emotions, and a very loud singalong for more than 3 hours. Some of the songs he pulled out will always make me think of Milan. Just an amazing experience.
Next morning was for Pinacoteca di Brera and Brera district. Brera gallery hosts one of the greatest collections of Italian painting, such as Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus or Mantegna's The Dead Christ and Three Mourners. You could spend a whole day in Brera's spacious and cool rooms on a hot summer day, enjoying both art and architecture, but we only had a morning. We wanted to explore more. Brera district is charming, with its streets on a human scale, restaurants, bars and cool shops. I couldn't help but enter a lovely jewelry store from a brand called Rosso Prezioso, founded by young Milanese designers who wanted to create a line of high-quality Italian design (which they did). I bought a pair of wooden earrings that look like precious stones, and are now one of my favorite pieces of jewelry as well as a lovely memory of our Milan trip.
For lunch, we headed to famous, nearby Latteria San Marco, a tiny restaurant praised by all food-related people I follow (Jamie Oliver, Mimi Thorisson for example). The owners both grow and cook the food they serve, and it is the simplest (in a good way) Italian food based on high quality produce. What did I enjoy most? Strawberry dessert and chatting with another guest and the owner about how Bruce Springsteen visited with his family once. It seems that everything evolved around the concert those days.
We spent the rest of the afternoon on the Triennale again. It was that good, and it was a necessity to hide away from the heat (it was July in the city after all). In the evening, we headed to the Navigli district where we had a fabulous plate of cold cuts at Ciaccia Coi Ciccioli, and then took a long walk down the canal. I think summer evening was a perfect time to explore this area, because all of those people, both young and old, lively bars, music, monitors broadcasting the Soccer World Cup, vendors selling beer out of the ice buckets on the floor. It felt like proper summer in the city.
We left Milano the next day completely excited and blown away by the concert, food, art and the beat of the city. I would dare to say that it was one of my favorite city escapes so far. And that I can't wait to go back.
*I wanted to say thank you to all the people following me on a regular basis (Hi, mom!), and all the people bumping into my blog online, finding it useful and interesting sometimes. It is really so much fun sharing this stories with you, and I always love to hear from you, be it just to say hi, share opinions or ask a question. I'm here and let's connect! A.