Western Sicily road trip: Marsala


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. :)


12 delicious Sicilian foods (that are just the tip of the iceberg)

Sicily is all about food. We went to Sicily this summer for our honeymoon, and spent a high percentage of the time eating! Local cuisine picked the best from every conqueror that governed this island, and now is a delicious mixture of Italian cuisine and Arabic influences. Sicilian sweets are considered to be the best in Italy, but there are also fresh seafood, pasta, and all sorts of fruit and vegetables that thrive on the islands fertile soil under the hot Mediterranean sun.

I made a list of 12 foods I tried and liked the most, but in reality, the list is quite longer, and the comment block below is just waiting to be filled with your ideas and picks on this topic!

Here they go:

1.      LEMONS&ORANGES- Warm climate with loads of sun during the entire year is the reason for such abundance of citruses. Sicilian blood orange ( Arancia Rossa di Sicilia ) is a an indigenous sort, which has a protected geographical status. Lemon and orange trees grow literally on every corner of Sicily. We saw abundant orange trees with ripe oranges falling on the ground on bus stations and no one even picked them up! We had a big lemon tree in the garden of our apartment in Modica, and brought a bunch of lemons back home in a suitcase. One of the most popular lemon products is limoncello- a sweet and sour liquer made of lemon zests!

Freshly pressed lemon juice on our lovely terrace in Modica

Freshly pressed lemon juice on our lovely terrace in Modica

2.      CAPONATA- traditional Sicilan dish made of aubergines and tomatoes (melanzane e pomodoro). As any kind of stew, the longer it cooks, the better it gets! One of the best I’ve had was in the Sicilian restaurant in Berlin! Who would have guessed, right?

3.      GELATO- Italy is a land of gelato, but Sicilian gelato is something special indeed. Introduced by Arabs, first Sicilian gelato was made with snow brought from the slopes of Mount Etna to the nearby towns. Secret to its quality? It has a less percentage of cream comparing to those of other countries. There are numerous sorts of Sicilian gelato, but the pistacchio sort was the tastiest I’ve tried. Gelato with brioche is a typical Palermitan dish, and the locals say that you can’t leave Palermo without trying it- one more reason to go back to Sicily! 

Enjoying the best gelato on the main square of Zafferana Etnea

Enjoying the best gelato on the main square of Zafferana Etnea

4.      CANNOLI- crispy tubes filled with fresh ricotta and often dipped in candied fruit, pistacchio or chocolate. The tastiest ones are filled minutes before serving, and could be eaten for breakfast, as a dessert after lunch or dinner- practically any time is a good time for cannoli!

Cannoli for breakfast from Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica!

Cannoli for breakfast from Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica!

5.      GAMBERO ROSSO- as big as scampi and as delicious! It is a typical Mediterranean species of prawns with a specific taste. Served with pasta, as a main dish or antipasti, seafood lovers (like me) could not get enough of it. On our first evening in Cefalú (and on Sicily) we found a great restaurant which served this pasta with gambero rosso- it was sooo delicious!

Pasta con gambero rosso in the La Brace restaurant

Pasta con gambero rosso in the La Brace restaurant

6.      PASTA CON LE SARDE- traditional Sicilian pasta dish, (usually) made of spaghetti with sardines, fennel, raisins, pine nuts and saffron. Arabic influences can be tasted in its aromatic mixture of sweet and salty, and since it’s one of the signature dishes of Sicilian cuisine, you shouldn’t leave Sicily without giving it a try!

I enjoyed this flavoury meal on every ocasion I could and this photo was taken in a restaurant in Taormina

I enjoyed this flavoury meal on every ocasion I could and this photo was taken in a restaurant in Taormina

7.      ARANCINE- fried rice balls with all sorts of fillings, such as meat ragu, mozarrela and prosciutto or tomato sauce. They are crisp on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside, and a great street food option for a quick meal! The name comes from its shape and color that resembles the orange.

8.      SALAMI&CHEESE- In every restaurant where we ordered a cold starter we got excellent sorts of local cheeses and salami. Sicilians are very proud of their own products, and most likely are going to informe you about the region of origin of the served food. I particulary liked the pecorino with peppercorns and the salami with pistacchios!

Breakfast on our terrace in Modica- this place was truly divine!

Breakfast on our terrace in Modica- this place was truly divine!

9.      PESTO DI PISTACCHIO- Italy is known for its great pestos which can be used in pasta dishes or bruschettas, and Sicily is known for pistacchios. Logical combination? – Sicilian pesto di pistacchio. I’ve tried it in deferent pasta combinations and it’s delicious! This one was made especially for us, on a farm below the town of Petralia Soprana- we sat on the terrace and watched the cook picking the mint leaves and then blending them with pistacchios- it really couldn't get any fresher than that!


10.   CHOCOLATE- for chocolate enthusiasts, the town of Modica is the place to be! There are many chocolate shops in the town, but the most famous is the one runned by Bonajuto family since the year 1880. The quality of their chocolate relies on the ancient Aztec recipes, brought to Sicily by Spaniards. Chocolate is made of cacao beans with granulated sugar which gives this chocolate its peculiar taste, and you can choose from all sorts of flavors such as white pepper, salt, orange, nutmeg, chilli pepper...

Chocolate tasting in Dolceria Bonajuto- most of our souvenirs were bought here! :)

Chocolate tasting in Dolceria Bonajuto- most of our souvenirs were bought here! :)

11.   PASTA NORMA- another typical Sicilian pasta dish made with aubergine, tomato, basil and salted ricotta. Like Pasta con le Sarde, can be found on every restaurant’s menu and there is really nothing not to like regarding this dish! The one below was served with gnocchi instead of pasta- both versions are delicious!

Pasta Norma in the lovely resturant called Osteria dei Sapori Perduti in Modica

Pasta Norma in the lovely resturant called Osteria dei Sapori Perduti in Modica

12.   BISCOTTI DI PASTA DI MANDORLE- I’ve tried this soft almond cookies in Sicilian Restaurant in Berlin (again!), but if you’re going to Sicily, do not miss them out! Forget about dry crispy cookies- these have almost creamy texture and you will not get enough of them!

I am aware that this is the worst photo I published so far, but what was I supposed to do when the cook came out of the kitchen with a freshly baked platter of this deliciousness? I took one quick photo with my mobile phone before they disappeared back in the kitchen. :)

I am aware that this is the worst photo I published so far, but what was I supposed to do when the cook came out of the kitchen with a freshly baked platter of this deliciousness? I took one quick photo with my mobile phone before they disappeared back in the kitchen. :)