By Sarah Rodrigues
Think Sicily and, all too frequently, the images that spring to mind are hyperbolised nonsense, the stuff of film scripts. Entertaining in their own way, but not a patch on the dark fatalism, mixed with an odd but utterly charming humour, that characterises the Sicilian way – not to mention the stunning landscapes and irresistible cuisine.
It was, in my memory at least, at the turn of the century, when fate so conspired that a strong pound, a glut of budget airlines, and a UK presence in the EU enabled people to buy overseas property, whether for relocation or rental purposes. Sadly, despite the number of relevant magazines I read and television programmes I watched, the stars did not seem to align thus for me.
So when I arrived in Catania, Sicily, I wanted to fully immerse myself in the destination; to pretend, however childish that may seem, that this was my actual life. I didn’t want a chain hotel with inoffensively bland decor: I wanted to be a local, at least for a weekend.
Villatravellers, a Sicilian villa company established in Palermo in 2006, makes this entirely possible, thanks to its founders’ genuine desire to share their passion for the island and its culture, as well as to provide high-quality villa accommodation and exceptional customer service.
Casale degli Erei Villa
And ‘exceptional customer service’ is no exaggeration: unlocking the door to our first accommodation, the glorious Casale degli Erei Villa, near Ragusa, we found that the kitchen had been fully stocked with all of our dietary requirements in mind, and that we’d been provided with guidance on where to go and what to do, so as to live like a local without having to aimlessly ‘peri peri’ (the Sicilian expression for ‘wandering around’) Within our first day at the villa, we drank aperitivi in a square populated by garrulous old men and laughing school children, and witnessed, at close range, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Villa Romana del Casale, with its beautifully preserved mosaics dating back to the 4th century. We also, of course, wolfed down a traditional Sicilian dinner, prepared in-house by a chef.
Surrounded by vineyards and countryside, and housing nine bedrooms, Casale degli Erei Villa outdoor pool area is shaded by palms; in the poolhouse nearby, we could choose from a warming jacuzzi or a wine spa which, which allowed us to relax in a tub full of warmed wine. The polyphenols of wine are beneficial to skin radiance, but the treatment also has a sustainable edge, making use of end-of-season and surplus product: the owner of Casale degli Erei produces his own wines, and treated us to an informal poolside tasting.
We were determined to be involved, as well as indulged, however, so Villatravellers arranged a private cooking lesson for us, during which we got to spend time in the villa’s spacious kitchen while a local expert taught us how to make a Sicilian meal, complete with pizza and cannoli from scratch.
Despite its relatively small size – Sicily is about one-fifth of the size of England – the island has an incredibly varied terrain, encompassing sparkling beaches and soaring mountains, volcanic landscapes, rows of prickly pears and rolling agricultural land. After spending two nights at Casale degli Erei, we travelled onwards to Sicily’s northern side, a drive that had us glued to our windows for the views, presided over by Mt Etna, which was active as recently as November 2022.
In Cefalù, over which La Rocca Mountain looms, we hiked steep paths for a bird’s eye view of the fishing village, a charming tangle of alleyways and traditional architecture, punctuated by the twin towers of a Norman cathedral. Back at sea level, we rewarded ourselves with a seemingly never-ending lunch at waterside restaurant ITTICO, where platter after platter of fresh seafood appeared on the blue-checked-cloth table in front of us.
Il Borgo de Barone
Our next Villatravellers property, Il Borgo de Barone, was originally constructed in the 17th century, and now perfectly blends antiquity and modernity. Built over three floors, its original olive press stone is a focal point of the entrance space, and after yet more food – again, thanks to Villatravellers arranging in-house dining – we each retired to one of the property’s seven bedrooms.
It was with a heavy sense of Sicilian fatalism that I fell asleep that night, knowing that tomorrow we would be heading home. ‘Chiù nniuri ri mezzannotte nun pò fari’, I thought to myself, sadly: it can’t get any darker than midnight.
Casale Degli Erei features 9 bedrooms and sleeps 17 guests, starting from 3,230 EUR per week;(www.villatravellers.com/
Il Borgo Del Barone features 7 bedrooms and sleeps 14 guests, available through Villatravellers from 4,400 EUR per week;