A Multicultural Mecca, from Palermo to Marsala
Visit new and historic wineries in the Alcamo and Marsala regions of Western Sicily
Enjoy private sit-down tastings at Planeta, Donnafugata, Ceuso, De Bartoli and more
Lunch at a boutique olive oil producer and taste samples from different types of olive trees
Take a private boat ride around the saline, where sea salt is made the ancient way, using windmills and evaporation ponds
See a perfectly preserved Greek temple and amphitheater in the archaeological park of Segesta
Be awestruck by Byzantine mosaics in the cathedrals of Palermo and Monreale
Over the ages, Sicily has attracted Phoenician seafarers, Carthaginian settlers, Roman troops, Arab and Norman conquerors, Spanish conquistadors, and British merchants. Now wine lovers are invading its shores.
Though Sicily’s viticultural history dates back 2000 years, the island has recently become one of Italy’s hottest new wine zones. For decades, industrial wineries dominated the land, churning out oceans of bulk wine. But in the 1990s, a complete makeover began. Emphasis shifted from quantity to quality, and boutique wineries began popping up, focusing on handcrafted, limited-production wine. Many were started by veteran winemakers who’d toiled for decades in the industry and now, in pre-retirement, wanted to apply their passion and know-how to their own labors of love.
These are the wineries DISCOVER SICILY explores. We’ll visit pioneers like Planeta, which introduced Sicily’s native grapes to the world. We’ll meet family members at Ceuso and Alessandro di Camporeale who will personally lead us through the wineries they built from scratch. We’ll taste elegant Marsalas at De Bartoli that will cause you to reassess this all-but-forgotten meditation wine. And throughout, we’ll become acquainted with indigenous varietals like nero d’avola and grillo and see how international grapes like cabernet, merlot, and syrah respond to the Mediterranean sun.
We begin in Palermo, the Mediterranean’s richest, most cultured city in the 1100s. Its multicultural history comes alive during a walking tour that winds through the city’s major architectural monuments and dips into its lively outdoor bazaar for a preview of good things to come: exotic spices, olives of every kind, dried red peppers, salted capers, African couscous, and fish pulled from the Mediterranean that morning.
Food, of course, is front and center on this gourmet trip. Nightly wine dinners feature homey and haute renditions of classic Sicilian dishes. Lunch at an olive-oil producer takes us behind the scenes at the olive press and offers tastes of single-varietal olive oils. Marsala’s saline show how salt is naturally extracted from the sea—and will forever change what you want to sprinkle on your plate.
Art and architecture are also a thematic thread. We’ll see competing Byzantine cathedrals—in Palermo and Monreale—where medieval royalty tried to out-do each other with displays of wealth. Sheathed with shimmering gold-leaf-and-glass mosaics, these magnificent cathedrals offer unparalleled splendor. Baroque architecture adds elegance to Marsala’s city streets, while the Greek Doric temple at Segesta takes us to the dawn of civilization in this ancient land.
DAY 1 – PALERMO, PAST AND PRESENT
Glittering Byzantine mosaics, ornate Baroque churches, domed Arab mosques, and grandiose Norman cathedrals stand shoulder-to-shoulder in Palermo, the richest city in the Mediterranean during the 1100s. DISCOVER SICILY starts with a walking tour of Palermo, which touches on this complex history as we stroll through major sites like the Cathedral and Palatine Chapel, a jewel-box of Byzantine mosaics and Arabic carvings. We’ll also dip into the Vucciria market, an outdoor bazaar with strong Sicilian atmosphere and carts loaded with produce, fish, and spices. Lunch is at the historic Focacceria S. Francesco, which features Sicilian street food like arancine (meat and rice balls) and panelle (chickpea fritters), as well as classics like Pasta alla Norma, caponata, and, for dessert, sublime cannoli. Afterwards, we head east of the city to Abbazia di Santa Anastasia, a 12th C. abbey that was transformed into a winery in 1980. Tasting their elegant, award-winning nero d’avola and cabernet, we’ll see that the monks knew how to pick ideal vineyard sites. Dinner is at a friendly restaurant near the hotel that specializes in traditional Sicilian dishes.
D • Politeama Palace Hotel
DAY 2 – BYZANTINE SPLENDOR
In 1166, the Norman King William II commissioned the Cathedral of Monreale. Built on a hill overlooking Palermo, it stood on the spot where the Virgin reputedly appeared to William and revealed where his father had buried a treasure. Coated with mosaics, gold leaf, and intarsia, it’s one of the world’s greatest masterpieces of Byzantine architecture. We then travel an hour south to Alessandro di Camporeale. Owner Antonino Alessandro or a family member will escort us through the boutique winery, which excels in syrah; their Kaid is a symphony of dark berries and spice. Lunch will be close by at an agriturismo. From here, we head to our second tasting, at Planeta. Founded in 1995, this is the winery that put Sicily on the map, first with their intense chardonnay and merlot, then with their succulent nero d’avola, berry-like cerasuolo, and floral fiano. From here, we’ll drive across the stark rolling hills to Alcamo, a medieval town at the center of the Alcamo DOC wine zone, where we’ll settle into our second, countryside hotel. For dinner on your own, we’ll drive down to a marina in the fishing village of Castellamare del Golfo, where seafood eateries line the harbor.
B, D • Grand Hotel La Batia
DAY 3 – GREEK TEMPLES & BOUTIQUE WINERIES
We begin the day at Cusumano. With eight vineyards spread across the island, they excel in both monovarietal and blended wines. We’ll taste their excellent lineup at their new cellar in Partinico, situated in a 19th century baglio. Then we’ll move on to the smaller boutique winery, Ceuso. Started in 1990 as a labor of love by the three Melia brothers – a farmer, an enologist, and an agronomist, Ceuso makes luscious, oak-aged blends of nero d’Avola and French grapes, inspired by mentor Giacomo Tachis (of Sassicaia fame). Our host will be Giuseppe Melia, who will show us around the 1860 baglio (a plantation’s walled farmstead) that the brothers slowly restored. He’ll give us a first-person account of the winery’s rise to success. After lunch, we take a trip back in time. On Monte Barbaro, a thousand feet above the sea, lies the temple of Segesta. Once the political center of the indigenous Elymian and Ionian Greek people, this is now a vast archeological park. Here we’ll see a beautifully preserved Greek Doric temple and, higher up, a Greek amphitheater with an unparalleled view of countryside and sea. Dinner is at the hotel.
B • Grand Hotel La Batia
DAY 4 – SALT & OIL
This morning, we move down the coast towards Marsala. First stop is Erice, a stone village perched high atop a mountain that is famous for it churches and breathtaking view of the sea. Next is lunch at an olive oil estate, where, in a new trend, different types of olives are separately pressed to make diverse oils. We’ll see the stone press and hear how extra virgin olive oil is made, then taste these various oils over lunch. Afterwards, we drive to the picturesque saline, or sea-salt ponds, where sea salt is made using an ageless technique of windmills and diked evaporation pools. We’ll see a fascinating short film that shows the entire process, then take a chartered boat past the windmills towards the Isle of Mozia, an ancient Phoenician settlement. We then check into our third hotel, in the historic center of Marsala, and have dinner in town.
B, L, D • Hotel Carmine
DAY 5 – MARSALA: THE TOWN AND THE WINE
In 1773, a sirocco storm forced British merchant John Woodhouse into the port of Marsala. Here he found the local perpetuum wine (named for its perpetual blending/aging process) to his liking. He sent a shipload back home, adding grape spirits to stabilize it for the long sea journey. It was a smashing success, and soon Marsala was the most famous wine of Italy. This morning is devoted to the town and the eponymous wine. First we’ll head to the bustling outdoor market in the old city center, where locals shop for their fresh swordfish, prickly pear, Pantelleria capers, and other local goodies. Then it’s on to Marco de Bartoli, where we’ll discover the real marsala. Inheriting his mother’s estate, this former race-car driver has done more than anyone to resurrect the reputation and quality of marsala, using techniques that harken back to the perpetuum aged wine that Woodhouse so loved. We’ll taste his nutlike 10-year-old Vecchio Samperi, sweet passito wine from the windswept island of Pantelleria, and his dry table wines. Our second winery is Donnafugata. This family-run estate, a setting in the novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), pioneered night harvests in Sicily and routinely wins coveted wine awards. Afterwards, there will be free time to stroll and shop in Marsala before our farewell dinner at the elegant Bottega del Carmine.
B, D • Hotel Carmine
DAY 6 – BUON VIAGGIO!
A shuttle to the Palermo airport and assistance with your travel plans. B
Palermo (known as both Falcone-Borsellino Airport and Punta Raisi Airport), located 22 miles west of the city
Plan to land in Palermo a day before the tour begins; that’s necessary to be at our starting point on time. To get from the airport to the city, you can take a cab (50+ Euros) or a Prestia e Comandé bus (5.80 Euros). The latter runs frequently and makes multiple stops in town, including the Politeama Theater near our hotel (40 min) and the main train station (55 min).
For your pre-tour hotel, the most convenient choice would be to stay at the hotel we use on Day 1 (see Accommodations); we can make that reservation for you. If you prefer other options, email us for suggestions or consult a good hotel search engine, such as TripAdvisor or Venere.
In Palermo city center, in the lobby of our first hotel.
Shuttle to Palermo airport by 11:30 a.m. Contact us if your flight requires an earlier arrival.
Italian train schedule
Click here for an English-language version of TrenItalia. Be aware that the schedule is posted only several months in advance, so if you’re looking for long-range dates, try something sooner, just to get an idea of departure frequency and trip length.
DISCOVER SICILY focuses on the western side of the island, where the major historic wine regions are located. The eastern side of Sicily, however, is where you’ll find many of Sicily’s most famous archaeological sites. Thus, if you wish to spend some extra time in Sicily pre or post-tour, you could easily devote 4 to 5 days to touring this area by car. (Public transportation leaves much to be desired here.) Pick up your rental car at the airport, then do a loop trip, covering sites such as the following:
Caltagirone, a town founded by the Arabs and famous for its ceramics (caltagirone means land of vases in Arabic)
Piazza Armerina and Villa Romana del Casale, a Roman patrician Roman residence with sophisticated and well-preserved floor mosaics
Taormina holds one of the most celebrated ruins in Sicily: the Greek theater, on a summit overlooking the sea. (Concerts and theatrical performances are still held here.)
Mt. Etna, the highest and most active volcano in the world. Hiking excursions are available up the 11,000’ slope, which the Greeks believed to be Vulcan’s home. (Visit Etna from your base in Taormina.)
Siracusa, a Greek colony with many ancient ruins, including the largest open theater in Europe; also famous for its Sicilian Baroque architecture
Return to Palermo
This is recommended to protect you from needless loss caused by last-minute cancellations, lost luggage, and more. One source is Travelex Insurance: http://www.travelexinsurance.com, (800) 228-9792 (please use our compay code: 21-0043 LDV).
When packing, check http://www.weather.com. Go to “Palermo, Italy” to get a general idea of temperatures and forecast. In May, expect beautiful weather, with an explosion of wild flowers. Temperatures will be comfortable, averaging 75º by day and 60º at night.