Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Those who are curious will come."

So says Pino Cuttaia of La Madia restaurant in Licata! There are only 2 Michelin starred restaurants in Sicily and his is one. Being close by in Agrigento we had to make a pilgrimage there.......... being...well... curious!!
After negotiating many narrow streets, shortest route possible being taken by GPS we finally arrived and were able to park directly outside an very uninteresting building!

The door was locked and we had to ring a bell for entry. We followed the maitre d' along a narrow passageway and ended in a pleasant dining room.

We then found that we were the only people there for lunch! Everyone else was at the beach! Lunch was definitely an experience! The chef himself advised... and when we couldn't seem to make up our minds he offered to have us share certain dishes. Food was as promised... excellent. However as a word of caution to anyone going there.... he does not have a lunch menu ( something we have gotten used to in France!) and makes no concession in price, which was very very high! The excellent wine we had there helped us endure the pain!!!

A room with a view!

Imagine looking out your shower window at this fantastic Greek temple!  Except it is not in Greece but in Sicily!

We arrived in Agrigento to stay at the Hotel Athena. This hotel is the closest to the
Valle dei Tempi and has fabulous views of the temples and is also within walking distance, allowing us to be among the first there in the morning, before tour buses started arriving. And also before it became too hot!

Arriving at the hotel we were happy to find that there was plenty of parking in front of the main door. We went in to check in and immediately were asked to have the keys for the car in order to move it to the car park area. Had never before encountered such eagerness! My initial reaction was a little negative as I had not decided exactly what I needed from it... we were spending a month touring around and did not need to take all of our stuff into hotels each time! Then I decided they wanted to remove us quickly as the car needed a carwash after the dirt roads we had just traversed, having missed the freeway signs! Turned out they were expecting....but didn't know when..... the marketing team for a new model BMW! They were photographing around the temples for future advertising. We saw their car lights up by the temples as we were having dinner on the terrace and the team did turn up eventually around 10pm! We never did get to see the new BMW.... under wraps??

The site was having a very interesting sculpture exhibition.

The sculptures were by Igor Mitorj .

Friday, August 5, 2011

Flower power Italian style

Our adventure in Sicily began when we arrived in Palermo by boat a little earlier than expected.... 6:30am to be precise. We ambled along the coast road but still arrived in Cefalu too early to get into our rented apartment. We wandered around town but restless, we decided to head out of town to a well-recommended restaurant in Castelbuono.

Thirty minutes later we followed our trusted GPS who took us on an encounter with pedestrian alley ways in the "Centro historico" only to ditch the car and find our way by foot to the restaurant with the most unpronounceable of names..... Nangalarruni. Known for its truffle dishes, the food was fantastic!

This is how we stumbled upon the 'infiorata' festival held two days prior. The festival lasts only 4-5 days until the flower petals wilt and the whole town participates in making these beautiful designs. The theme commemorated Italy's 150th anniversary and above are just a couple of the wonderful flower designs on display. You can see more in this video from last year's festival which captures how the beautiful designs are created:

Touched by an angel or two

We should have known that someone was looking out for us in Cefalu (see last blog entry) when we chanced upon this random store window. The rest of the shop was filled with life-size Christs and the like.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Divine intervention: Rooming with the Sisters

Last winter I had the brilliant idea of not just visiting Sicily but enrolling in an Italian course (to give us a real reason to go) and I organized everything, accommodation included, months in advance.

Come June, on our first day at the Italian course in Cefalu, we were asked to describe our personality. Without thinking I blurted out "bisogno di tutto sotto controllo" which should (but may not) translate to "needing everything under control."

Ok, so now you know a little more about me. Imagine my horror then when we find out that we had nowhere to stay for the last few days of the course.

First some context: We spent the first few days in a rented apartment and then were meant to move to a small boutique hotel for the last couple of days. Our Italian host called the day prior to switching accommodation to check on whether there was a way to drop off luggage. (You can infer that our Italian did not reach fluency in the week's course!) This is how we discovered that our reservation had been 'lost'. And yes, this despite email verification. Then they claimed that they had a hot water problem and nothing was possible. 

So panic ensued with calls to all local hotels which were, predictably, all fully booked. But not to worry, there was one room left in town. At this stage we couldn't be picky and well, a rooming house run by 90 year old nuns sounded positively divine.

The 11pm curfew didn't matter much as the hosts were in bed by 9pm and the location was incredible. 

This photo is from our room! Would we return? Sure, in ten years time when it will no doubt be converted into a boutique hotel which will no doubt "lose" our reservation... 

The lows and the highs of travel... and the surprising consequences of fate

Booked into Da Vittorio in Menfi (Sicily) only to find out that our sea-view room had morphed into a room best described as an after-thought with views of a parking ramp, we were thrilled to find a room instead at La Foresteria -- a mere 4 km away but worlds apart in terms of comfort and hospitality.

We knew of La Foresteria thanks to Judy Witts who runs cooking courses mostly in Tuscany but has been enamored recently with Sicily. Established 18 months ago, La Foresteria is truly a find, nestled away in the vineyards just inland and with breathtaking vistas of the sea and the surrounding countryside.

We whole-heartedly recommend this beautiful low-key hotel with superb food, friendly service, and gorgeous facilities. A highlight of the dinner was the unusual wine degustation, perfectly complementing the delicious meal.

We ended up staying there two nights and would have liked to stay longer... and definitely will next time in Sicily. In fact, we may well sign up for one of their cooking classes in the future.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

To beef or not to beef? That is the question...

In early June on our way down to Sicily we stayed in Tuscany where we visited Panzano -- a hilltop town we used to visit many years ago. One of the unique features had always been Dario's butcher. Back when we first encountered Dario, he played classical music in his butcher store, entertained shoppers waiting for his delicious cuts by distributing wine and bread. Since those days he has become an Italian culinary sensation and tv star, whose meats and secret herb spices are sought out by those in the know. 

We were therefore encouraged to see that Dario has moved beyond a butchery (word?) and has opened Solo Ciccia -- a restaurant featuring, of course, the best meat cuts of the region. Here's how it worked: we were sat at a table for fourteen, were offered wine and were served only once all guests had arrived. We were amused to see that the last four guests were making a commotion at the other end of the table -- it turns out that one of their party was vegetarian and thus chose to spend the next couple of hours wondering the village instead.

The meal was, well, meaty. Probably so much so that we will not seek out a meat-intense menu for the next several months. And whilst the meat might not bring us back in a hurry, the ambience and Dario's charms and warm welcome will certainly continue to lure us back.

Discovering Isadora

Visiting the Villa Romana del Casale last month in Sicily sparked a revelation. The mosaics of bikini-clad women exercising with dumbbells and the like over 2000 years ago made me think about how we have possibly so much more to learn from our ancestors whose lives were not all too dissimilar to our own. Of course, we may not be physically thrown to the lions these days, but metaphorically?

These ponderings have led me to finally, and with gentle nudging by various family members, to start this blog. I hope it will allow me to capture some of these thoughts, jog a few memories, and perhaps even start dialogues with others who are themselves uncovering rich discoveries...