Stepping off the beaten tourist track to the less well-known southern corner of Sicily, join HB travel writer Holly Byrne to immerse yourself in the soul of the island and its fascinating history. Venture south of the Italian peninsula to discover baroque architecture, pristine beaches and plentiful produce.
Taking to the roads of Italy behind a steering wheel is a brave choice in any of the country’s 20 regions, but as locals will proudly tell you, Sicily is in a league of its own. The speed limits on road signs seem to be mere suggestions, and the blaring of a horn overrules the colours of a traffic light. Parking along narrow, cobbled streets is cortisol-inducing and you’ve got to stick to the right side of the road (that is, not the left). But with more than 25,000 square kilometres of volcanic terrain, rugged coastlines, and picturesque townships to explore and thousands of years’ worth
of history to discover, it’s well worth the risk.
A crossroad of cultures, Sicily has a complicated history having been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish. Each rule left behind remnants of culture and tradition, making the island a true melting pot of the Mediterranean, which influences everything from architecture to the local cuisine – you’re just as likely to spot couscous on the menu as you are pizza or pasta, and may find yourself admiring a grand baroque church as well as an ancient Greek theatre all in the same day. It is the birthplace of arancini, the fried rice ball believed to have been invented during the time of Arabian dominance, and you can find dishes of every course seasoned with the pistachio nut or ‘green gold’ as it’s known.
“While breezy seaside towns such as Cefalù and Taormina are the common itinerary headliners, the southeastern corner shouldn’t be overlooked.”
The island region is celebrated for its seafood, too, which should come as no surprise given its positioning in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, this also means you’ll find some of the most blissful beaches (and beachside resorts) in Europe. But while breezy seaside towns such as Cefalù and Taormina are the common itinerary headliners, the southeastern corner shouldn’t be overlooked. Just over an hour’s drive from Catania Airport is Val di Noto.
At its core, this region is an agricultural hub where local farmers work to produce everything from almonds, olives and citrus to beef and pork. Rolling green hills lined with crops ripe for the picking appear uninterrupted until you arrive at any of the eight townships of the area, all on the UNESCO World Heritage List, where it feels as though time moves a little slower. There are still beautiful beaches to enjoy – and just as with everything on this enigmatic isle, even the architecture has a unique Sicilian fingerprint.
The grand old town of Noto itself is described as the capital of Sicilian baroque, a distinguished and flamboyant style of architecture born here while part of the Spanish empire, after the region was destroyed by an earthquake in the 17th century. While the mainland’s Puglia region is known for its white buildings, Noto is distinctively ochre as homes, palazzos and soaring cathedrals were crafted from local limestone. Along the logically linear streets, artisanal shopfronts and charming trattorias are an exhibition of the region’s finest produce and crafts.
Perhaps the greatest gem to discover near romantic, old-world Noto is Dimora delle Balze. The fortified 19th-century estate is about 20 kilometre south of Noto and has been transformed into farmstay-style accommodation. Sun-bleached courtyards, ancient gates and a regal bell tower make a grand first impression, while the rooms – some of which were once stables and storage– have been lovingly restored to become luxurious lodgings without compromising the historical character and charm of the property. Earthy hues, organic textures and balanced lighting imbue warmth more akin to a home than a hotel, while sweeping views of the surrounding farmland is a wholesome touch.
A TRAVEL GUIDE TO SICILY
WHERE TO EAT:
Lumìa Organic Restaurant, Noto. This is Dimora delle Balze’s onsite restaurant embracing the farm-to-fork movement and showcasing the estate’s produce.
Jonica Pesce Puglisi – Pescheria Ristorante, Piazza Sgroi, Noto.
WHERE TO VISIT:
Noto Cathedral, Piazza Municipo, Noto.
Vendicari Reserve, located between Noto and Pachino, visitsicily.info. Head there for a wonderful experience in nature.
Fontane Bianche, Syracuse, visitsicily.info.
Go for a white sandy beach and sparkling waters.
WHERE TO SHOP:
Vior Home, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 36, Noto.
Moro Design Store, Via Camillo Benso di Cavour, 48, Noto, morodesignstore.com.
Fly into Catania Airport; flight prices start from around $1335* for a one-way trip from Sydney with Cathay Pacific. Expect at least two stopovers along the way. Dimora delle Balze is over an hour’s drive from the airport and car hire in Sicily can be as little as $25 per day depending on the make and model.
Don’t want to drive? The property will gladly arrange a transfer service from Noto train station from €108 each way. Visit flightcentre.com.au to help plan your trip and flights.