Focus on Sicily: from Mazara del Vallo to Agrigento
The journey continues southwards from Marsala (here you will find the article on western Sicily and here on Palermo)in the direction of Mazara del Vallo on Sicily's very southwest coast, and then towards Menfi, Sciacca and Agrigento. This stretch of the journey is best if approached slowly, enjoying the ride as much as the final destination.
This southwest corner of Sicily is quietly beautiful, it must be discovered bend after bend, town after town. From Marsala to Mazara del Vallo take the road which deviates slightly inwards from the seaside and crosses neatly ploughed and cultivated fields. The entrance to Mazara is not the prettiest so leave the car on the edge of the historical centre and walk in the heart of the old town to discover its hidden beauty. Famous for being one of the best equipped fishing ports of Italy, the town has a fascinating and very well preserved Arab Kasbah (Mazara was a key city of Arab Sicily) adorned with Baroque and Norman palaces.
Everything you want to see in Mazara is within a 5 minute walking distance so two hours are plenty for visiting the major sites of interest, beginning with the Museum of the Dancing Satyr, in Piazza Plebiscito, housed in the Church of St. Egidio. The bronze Greek statue of the Dancing Satyr, striking and expressive, was resumed in the stretch of sea that separates Pantelleria from Africa, because its leg (later detached) had remained entangled in the nets of a fishing boat.
Right in front of the Museum is the Jesuit College softened by a stunning Baroque façade, that boasts some interesting archaeological finds, the skeleton of a prehistoric whale and two rooms devoted to the works of Pietro Consagra, artist and sculptor from Mazara.
Walk one hundred meters and you will reach Piazza della Repubblica, the Baroque heart of the city closed on one side by the beautiful Cathedral, well worth a visit inside for the glitz of the decorations. From Mazara the trip continues towards Selinunte, another extraordinary Archaeological site, one of the most exciting experiences in Sicily, a location that sums the magical ruins overlooking the sea with a thick and velvety Mediterranean vegetation of olive trees, pines and wild flowers, which surround the temples.
Known by the Greeks with the name of Selinos, it was the most western Greek colony and counted, during its glory days, nearly one hundred thousand inhabitants. Selinunte was an ally of Carthage and then came under the protection of Syracuse, when Carthage was defeated by Gelon of Syracuse in 480 BC. It paid for it’s betrayal when it was destroyed in turn by Segesta, fierce and relentless enemy, who defeated Selinunte one year later in 409 BC with the help of the Carthaginian troops led by Hannibal. Take a few hours to visit the Archaeological Park, so you can enjoy the views of the temples with the sea as a backdrop.
Leaving Selinunte behind, continue towards Menfi and especially towards Contrada Passo di Gurra. This is the part of the journey that must be savoured, allowing yourself the luxury of stopping to boost your batteries and take time off for recreational and off-road activities. Surrounded by hills planted with vines that slope gently toward the sea, you’ll find the Foresteria Planeta, the Planeta family Boutique Wine Resort (www.planetaestate.it).
Nestled among the vineyards, surrounded by the scents of herbs that encircle the hotel, the resort is a true balm for the spirit.
Here you can explore the surrounding area with bicycles available for guests, along nature trails that run through olive groves and vineyards; visit natural reserves such as the Riserva Naturale Integrata Foce del Belice or the Riserva Naturale Orientata di Torre Salsa; you can test yourself by taking part in the blind tastings of wines from the Planeta family, visit, during the harvest period, the olive grove and the mill for an olive oil tasting, participate in cooking classes with Chef Angelo Pumilia and learn about traditional Sicilian dishes and ingredients that the territory seasonally offers. You can visit the Planeta Wine Estate in Sambuca di Sicilia and see the family’s old country house of the 16th century, overlooking Lake Arancio and enjoy a tasting of their signature wines or choose to spend a day relaxing in front of the infinity pool, with a glass of wine in your hand gazing at the rolling hills and the sea. The country chic rooms play on soft and warm colours and are very tastefully decorated, each one boasting a private terrace and sea views.
Don't miss dinner at the Foresteria Planeta in the lovely and homely convivial table, overlooking the vineyards. In the kitchen Angelo Pumilia is in charge, a young and talented head chef whose been working alongside the Planeta family for many years and that orchestrates and directs the Resort’s restaurant, also open to non-residents.
Technique (he was a pupil of Moreno Cedroni, 2 michelin star chef) passion, strong ties to the excellencies of the territory that find ample space in his recipes, Chef Pumilia surprises your taste buds with contemporary and refined Sicilian dishes, which remain firmly anchored to the island's gastronomic heritage and to the Planeta family tradition. Try the menu inspired by the family recipes and the seasonal menu (we went for the autumn one) for a full and comprehensive vision of its magnificent food and match the wines to the plates for a full on synaesthetic gourmet experience.
Stop at the Foresteria Planeta for two nights at least and enjoy the surrounding territory that combines many of the unmissable experiences of Sicily: archaeology, nature, sea, food and history. From Contrada Passo di Gurra the itinerary proceeds along the coastal road touching many lesser known beauties, a coast dotted with long, wild and sandy beaches fringed with pine trees and Mediterranean vegetation, hills and neatly cultivated stretches of unscathed countryside. Sciacca, overlooking the sea, with its colourful and attractive harbour, is famous for its Spas and for its flashy and vibrant Carnival.
Founded in the 5th century BC as a thermal destination for the nearby Selinunte, it flourished under the Arabs first (the name derives from the Arabic word "Xacca, meaning water) then under the Normans. The medieval structure of the town is intact and gently glides toward the sea. It’s definitely worth a visit, as is the main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, punctuated by beautiful palaces and Piazza Scandaliato, connected to the port below with a staircase. See also Palazzo Steripinto, imposing example of Catalan Gothic architecture, the Church of Santa Margherita and the lovely Chiesa Madre in Piazza Duomo.
Leave Sciacca behind and head towards Eraclea Minoa, an archaeological site impressive especially for the amazing coastal view it offers. It was a major Greek settlement and legend has it that it was founded by the Cretan King Minos, when he reached the shores of Sicily in search of Daedalus; historical records suggest that the city was founded by Greek colonies in the 6th century BC and flourished over the next two centuries.
Very few traces remain today but all agree in saying that the visit is especially worth for the view. After visiting the Archaeological site, you can always head to the beach below, bordered by eucalyptus trees, cypresses and chalk cliffs for a refreshing dip.
Push yourselves further and drive along the Southern coast until you arrive in Agrigento, just over an hour's drive. A few kilometres before the city, stop on the coast at La Scala dei Turchi, possibly one of the most spectacular coastal points of Sicily and the Mediterranean.
The Scala dei Turchi, evocative and descriptive already in its name (meaning the stair of the Turks), is a majestic white chalk hill that plunges in the turquoise sea, a wonderful ladder-shaped cliff moulded and sculpted by the wind, coveted destination in summer and also in autumn, when temperatures still allow for sunbathing and swimming.
Once you have visited the ladder, you will arrive at the last leg of the journey, the Valley of the Temples, archaeological spot par excellence. Unesco World Heritage site, the valley is one of the most magnificent and magical sites of the Island, boasting what art historians defines as the best preserved and most gorgeous Doric temples of the Greek period found outside Greece, which draw more than 600,000 visitors a year.
The ancient Agrigento (Akragas) was founded by Gela and Rhodes colonies in 581 BC and soon became one of the great cities of the Mediterranean, with a population of two hundred thousand. It was the Romans who renamed it Agrigentum in 210 BC, laying the groundwork through trade and agriculture for Agrigento to become an important commercial centre, which kept thriving up to and during the Byzantine era.Take half a day to calmly visit the site as it measure 13 square kilometres and also encompasses the ruins of the ancient city of Akragas. Highlight of the site is the famous Temple of Concordia, one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world. Try to be there in time for sunset when the sun's slanted rays will illuminate everything with an orange glow, transforming the Valley into an enchanted and bewitching place.
As in the earlier parts of the trip, the Lonely Planet Guide of Sicily continued to support, inform and entertain us on this journey on the road where we were able to discover , thanks to her, the treasures of the Southern coast.
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