June 2019: a weelend in an ancient fishing town on the south coast of Sicily.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Events in June:

Events in June:

Festival dei Due Mondi; Spoleto (Umbria); www.festivaldispoleto.com; 28 June to 14 July; The Festival of the Two Worlds is an annual summer music and opera festival held each June to early July in Spoleto, Italy, since its founding by composer Gian Carlo Menotti in 1958 - an international event that brings together European and North American Opera, music, dance and theatre.  This year’s festival (the 62nd) features the Fashion Freak Show by Jean Paul Gaultier; Exodus by Emma Dante, a celebration of the centenary of the Bauhuas and the concerti by Daniele Gatti.

 

Il Mar-Museo Archeologico Romano; Via Flavio Goia 7, Positano; https://marpositano.it.  Two recent archaeological campaigns have brought to light the spectacular remains of a vast Roman villa (including a richly painted mural 35 metres square) under the foundations of the church of Santa Maria Assunta in the heart of the gorgeous seaside town of Positano.  The villa, owned by one Posides (who gave his name to the town), was buried by pumice and ash blow from Vesuvius in 79 AD in the same eruption that destroyed Pompeii.  The state-of-the art museum takes you along metal and glass gantries down through layers of history deep below the church.

 

The Stradivarius Sound Bank Database; Museum of the Violins, Cremona (Lombardy), www.museodeiviolini.it.  Cremona was the home of Stradivarius and still produces some of the finest stringed instruments in the world.  Its museum holds seven priceless examples of the master’s work, each around three hundred years old.  Despite all care, they won’t last forever.  Earlier this year, to preserve their sounds for ever, the streets of the centre of the city were closed to enable engineers to record in perfect silence.  This is why I love Italy!

Exhibitions in June:

Exhibitions in June:

Letizia Battaglia: photography as a way of life; Casa dei Tre Oci, Venice; http://www.treoci.org; until 18 August.  The generous spaces of the Casa dei Tre Oci are the perfect venue to present over two hundred photos, many of them not previously seen in public, tracing the career of Letizia Battaglia.  Born in Sicily in 1935, Battaglia challenging intellectual, her images both political and poetic, always placing social context at the heart of the work.

Caravaggio Napoli; Capodimonte Museum; http://www.museocapodimonte.beniculturali.it; until 14 July.  Like Maradona and Naples, Caravaggio and Naples were a match made in Heaven.  Caravaggio sent the last 18 months of his turbulent life in Naples.  This extraordinary exhibition brings together seven paintings realised in this period and considers their influence on later painters of the Neapolitan school. 

Oliviero Toscani; Museum of Art; Ravenna; http://www.mar.ra.it; until 14 July.  Born in Milano in 1942, Toscani was already an internationally established fashion photographer in the 1960’s but he gained worldwide attention when he joined forces to create the United Colors of Benetton campaign that combined advertising with public discussion of challenging social comentary such as the kiss between a priest and a nun, a billboard nude of a girl suffering from anorexia during the Milan Fashion Week or the Human Race series.  The exhibition presents 150 very memorable images.

Weekend in June: an ancient fishing town on the south coast of Sicily.

Weekend in June: an ancient fishing town on the south coast of Sicily.

Sciacca (pronounced ‘shacka’) is unapologetically a non-tourist town, a bustling fishing town on the south-western coast of Sicily between Agrigento and Trapani, a fascinating place with two souls:

Its harbour is home to a fleet of over one and eighty fishing boats, one of the largest in the Mediterranean.  The harbour is scruffy and busy, as it should be, with the boats lashed together at the quayside, docks crowded with delivery vans coming and going; crew, repairmen and chandlers going about their business.  The upper town, by contrast, is a quiet, perfectly preserved Medieval town.  Apart from the town’s name (which derives from xacca, the Arabic word for water), this warren of twisting lanes, dead-end alleys and closed courtyards, enclosed by a high defensive wall, is Sciacca’s most apparent legacy of nearly two hundred and fifty years of Arabic occupation (between 840 AD to 1100 AD). 

In between these two worlds runs Corso Vittorio Emanule, linking Piazza Duomo with Piazza Scandaliato and its panoramic terrace.  This elegant tree-lined boulevard is the main shopping drag and holds the town’s most impressive buildings.  It is also the scene of the evening passeggiata, which always finishes at one of the stylish cafes that line the belvedere.  If you stand on the terrace of Piazza Scandaliato, you have a breath-taking view out across the southern Mediterranean towards Africa, Tripoli is one hundred kilometres due south.  On a clear day, the profiles of the islands of Pantelleria and Malta are visible on the horizon.

Twenty kilometres west of Sciacca, following the coast road, is the small town of Menfi, ‘capital’ of largest wine producing area in Sicily, the extensive vineyards spreading down from the volcanic hills to the unspoilt coastline.  Menfi is home to two of the island’s most prestigious vineyards:  the historic producer I Settebagni and La Planeta, a pioneering producer which has a beautiful resort nestled amongst its vineyards.  Both wineries are open to the public.  A short drive further west of Menfi is the largest archaeological park in the Mediterranean, based around the impressive ruins the temples and necropolis of Selinute, in its day, was one of the most powerful cities in the ancient world.  If you are really keen, the archaeological marvels of Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples is only an hour’s drive from Sciacca in the other direction, heading east along the coast.  More than enough for a weekend exploring a little-visited part of Sicily!

How to get there:

By car:  Leave the provincial capital of Agrigento to the west, taking the State highway  624, Palermo-Sciacca.  By air:  The closest airport is Trapani Brigi, 95 kms way, which has regular Alitalia and Ryan Air flights from Milan, Rome and Bologna.

Where to stay:

La Foresteria Menfi (Menfi, Passo di Gurra, provincial 79 km 91, https://www.planetaestate.it/en).  This gorgeous and refined wine resort is owned and operated by the Planeta family.  Surrounded by vineyards, it sits on a hill with views over the towns of Menfi and Porto Palo to the sea.  It has 14 rooms with terraces with sea views, as well as a swimming pool and an excellent gourmet restaurant.  Worth a trip on its own!  Double rooms from 90 euro b&b.

Domus Maris Boutique Hotel (Sciacca, Cosros Vittorio Emanuele 113).  Set in a restored noble palazzo in the centre of town, this is an elegant and very comfortable hotel, with a central location and views over the port and the sea.  It has nine rooms with contemporary furnishing.  Doubles rooms from 70 b&b.

Villa Palocla (Sciacca, Via Cartabubbo 40).  A short drive from town, this attractive 4-star hotel in true Sicilian-style is surrounded by citrus orchards.  A family-run business, the hotel has 8 comfortable rooms and a very good restaurant.

Where to eat:

Hostaria del Vicolo (Sciacca, Vicolo Sammaritano 10).  The more than 30 years’ experience of the restaurant has been combined with the flair and creativity of their new chef Lila Bentivegna to make this small restaurant in the historic centre a must visit.  They offer two different degustation menus, each based on locally sourced organic ingredients.  Around 40 euro per person.

La Bottega del Porto (Sciacca, Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo 26).  Situated on the waterfront, the town’s celebrated fresh seafood is the absolute protagonist of this restaurant.  Their signature dish is spaghetti with red mullet ragu.  Around 35 euro per person.

Arco Antico (Sciacca, Corso Vittorio Emanuele 16).  This lively pizzeria on the main drag, specialises in thin-crusted pizzas cooked in wood-fired ovens.  The star turn is the ‘mare piccante’ a spicy seafood pizza that unites Sciacca prawns with hot Calabrese sausage and is topped with a local garnish of onions, anchovies, olives and pecorino cheese.

Liccumarie (Menfi, Corso dei Mille).  If you have had enough seafood, head to this small restaurant in Menfi where chef Samuele Marrone will offer you dishes such as duck breast with grappa marinade with spring onions and myrtle berries; rabbit with crunchy artichokes or a vast range of delicious local beef steaks.

What to do:

Friday:

Arrive early, check into your hotel and enjoy the evening passeggiata along Corso Vittorio Emanuele, starting at Piazza Duomo and finishing at Piazza Scandaliato, where you can have an aperitivo and watch the sun set over the beautiful Mediterranean.

Saturday morning:

Spend the morning exploring Sciacca.  Start at the town hall, which is housed in an impressive ex-Jesuit convent, the 4th largest of its type in Sicily.  From here it is a short walk to Piazza Duomo and the cathedral.  Originally built in the 13th century under Norman rule it was refashioned in Baroque style in the 17th century.  The façade includes statues by the Gaggini brothers, two if Sicily’s most celebrated sculptors.  Its treasure is a miraculous statue of the Madonna which saved the town from plague in 1626.  Nearby is the Scaglione Museum set in a 17th century noble palace with floors covered in maiolica tiles and frescoed roofs.  It holds the vast collection of Francesco Scaglione, an eclectic collection of ‘objects of art and ancient things’. 

From here you can follow the twisting lanes of Terravecchia (the old town) which climb up behind the cathedral) to the ruins of the Castello Luna (the Castle of the Moon) with spectacular 360 degrees over the sea and over the vineyards of nearby Menfi, your destination for the afternoon.

Saturday afternoon:

After light lunch and a lie down, drive 20 kms north to Menfi and the vineyards of Cantine Settesoli and La Planeta.  The first stop should be the older of the two, Cantine Settesoli (https://cantinesettesoli.it).  Founded in 1958, it is cooperative that currently involves over 2,000 people and 70% of the families in this part of the island.  Its vineyards cover over 6,000 hectares and it is the largest producer in Sicily (accounting for 7% of total production).  It is possible to taste and buy their wines from their shop front (Strada Statale 115, Menfi).  Visits to their cellars can be made by appointment from Monday to Friday at a cost of 12 ceuro.

La Planeta is a family-run business that was founded by Diego Planeta.  They have a reputation for high quality wines and innovation.  Although now with a number of wineries throughout Sicily, their original holdings are the beautiful Ulmo and Maroccoli vineyards on the hills around Menfi, developed around a 16th century ‘baglio’ which has been in the family for many generations.  A visit here can include a tour of their cellars, a wine tasting, a short walk through their vineyards following a lovely marked trail (La Segreta) and then dinner at their restaurant.

Sunday morning:

Visit Selinunte, 35 kilometres west of Sciacca (www.selinunte.gov.it) .  The archaeological park that surrounds the ruins of Selinunte is the largest in Europe and is relatively little visited (particularly when compared to its ‘big brother’ in Agrigento).  The colony was founded by the Greeks in 650 Bc and grew to be one of the most prosperous cities in the whole of the ancient Greek world.  Sacked by Carthage, it was shaken by a series of earthquakes and finally abandoned in 250 BC.  The 270 hectares of the park have a beautiful setting stretching along the coastline and include numerous ruins of temples, include the spectacular Temple C, as well as two necropolises. 

An additional visit well worth the effort are the quarries of Cusa, a further 11 kms drive from Selinunte, are rarely visited and perhaps even more evocative.  It was here that the stones for Temple G, planned to be the largest temple ever built. were quarried.  When the Carthaginians attacked the workers downed tools and escaped and the plans abandoned.  Walking through the overgrown site it is still possible to recognise the variations stages and types of work being done, half-completed as they are.

Sunday afternoon:

Go for a walk.  The Lake Preola Gorghi Tondi Nature Reserve is a short drive from Selinunte.  A WWF ‘Oasis’, this low-lying area of marsh and swamplands is half-way house for migratory birds in spring and autumn.  There are two marked trails with lookout points.  Guided walking tours can be arranged by appointment: http://www.wwfpreola.it/riserva.htm

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