Sicilian Saunter Wine Trek

Sicilian Saunter

 

Hiking Sicily’s Western Shores

 

Tour Overview:

 

See Sicily close-up with seaside and inland walks in the Trapani and Marsala regions

Enjoy private, sit-down tastings at at Donnafugata, Ceuso, De Bartoli and other leading wineries

Hike around a Greek temple and amphitheater at the archaeological park of Segesta

Gawk at the splendid Byzantine mosaics at the Cathedral of Monreale

See ancient methods for making sea-salt and enjoy a boat ride in the surrounding lagoon

Visit the hilltop town of Erice and the Baroque port city of Marsala

Located smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sicily was at a maritime crossroads for countless competing civilizations: Phoenician, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, and more. Today, that multicultural layer-cake is visible in the island’s abundant archaeological and architectural sites—and in its cuisine.

 

There’s no better way to feel the sweep of history than by hiking in the archaeological parks, nature preserves, and wilderness areas that abound on the island. SICILIAN SAUNTER covers both sides of Sicily’s raw beauty: its rugged coastline, and its stark, mountainous interior. During our hikes, we’ll encounter the remnants of ancient civilizations—Greek at Segesta, Phoenician at Monte Cofano, and Norman on Marettima—and will keep our eye out for current residents like the pink flamingoes of the Stagnone islands and the wild horses on the Cofano nature preserve.

 

The tour is structured with morning hikes and afternoon wine tastings. We hike every day except one, when we transfer regions. Most hikes are approximately three to four hours (7 to 10 miles) along dirt trails, coastal paths, and country roads (see Trip Notes); van support is available only on the first day.

 

Most afternoons feature a winery visit. We’ve selected some of Sicily’s newer boutique estates, which are family-run and operate on a whole different scale than the industrial wine factories of yore. Here we’ll have the opportunity to meet the owner and/or winemaker and hear a personal perspective on how Sicily has made such great strides in recent years. We’ll become well acquainted with indigenous grapes like nero d’avola and grillo, and see how well international varietals like cabernet, merlot, and syrah have adapted to the Mediterranean sun.

 

Non-hiking activities are integrated throughout. We’ll see the magnificent Byzantine mosaics at Monreale Cathedral, the ancient way to harvest sea salt, and the Baroque makeover of Marsala, a rustic port town until this meditation wine made it big in Britain and brought in new wealth.

 

And of course, we’ll feast on la cucina siciliana every day. Seafood plays a big part, with tuna, swordfish, and cuttlefish caught in nearby waters, then grilled, smoked, turned into carpaccio, or tossed with pasta. Other classic primi combine sardines with wild fennel and breadcrumbs (pasta con sarde), north African couscous with fish, and eggplant with basil and ricotta salata (pasta alla norma), while secondi focus on fish by the sea and grilled meats inland. Desserts containing apricots, citrus, raisins, sugar, or sweet spices all show the hand of the Arabs, who brought these ingredients into play during their domination in the 10th and 11th centuries. Just don’t forget to take the cannoli!

Itinerary:

 

DAY 1 – BYZANTINE MOSAICS

 

When Palermo was the richest city in Europe in the 1100s, its outskirts provided hunting grounds for royalty. In 1166 the Norman King William II built a magnificent cathedral overlooking this fertile valley. Today the Cathedral of Monreale remains one of the masterpieces of Byzantine art, with floor-to-ceiling mosaics and gold leaf everywhere. After a morning pickup in Palermo, we’ll shuttle up to Monreale and begin with a visit to this spectacular church, soaking up the Eastern flavor of Sicily’s art. Then we drive an hour to Camporeale for our complementary welcome lunch and wine tasting at Alessandro di Camporeale. Here members of the Alessandro family will rustle up such regional dishes as caponata (sweet-and-sour eggplant and bell peppers), fresh ricotta made that morning, and homemade pasta—all accompanied by fantastic wines, from crisp cataratto to spicy syrah. From here, we do a warm-up hike along a quiet, winding, country road that goes towards Alcamo, getting our first taste of Sicily’s wild interior, with rocky outcroppings, vineyards, and windswept mountains—a truly bucolic setting. We then check into our hotel, which sits directly on the bay of Castellammare del Golfo, an active fishing village. Dinner features fish fresh from the Mediterranean.

L, D • Cala Marina

 

DAY 2 – HIKE AROUND MT. COFANO

 

Today we explore Monte Cofano, a nature reserve on a Dolomite limestone promontory jutting out between two gulfs (1-hour drive from hotel). Networked with trails, the park covers an area once inhabited by shepherds and tuna fishermen. First we climb up a rocky path to go over a mountain pass; here grazing sheep and circling falcon will be our only companions on this solitary and scenic trail. As we descend to sea, we’ll finds traces of the old settlements on the hillside: in abandoned terraces, the remnants of shepherd huts, and an abandoned tuna factory beside the sea. The path then skirts the sea, weaving past huge boulders and rocky shores, and interspersed with Mediterranean flora and fauna. (This hike is officially rated “medium” difficulty with a 820’ climb and takes around three-and-half hours.) In the afternoon, we head to the boutique winery Ceuso for a tour and tasting. Ceuso was started in 1990 as a labor of love by the three Melia brothers – a farmer, an enologist, and an agronomist. It 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. Dinner is at a seaside restaurant in Castellammare, where we’ll find such dishes as seafood risotto and grilled swordfish with cherry tomatoes. And who can say no to cannoli, one of Sicily’s most beloved desserts?

B, D • Cala Marina

 

DAY 3 – THE GREEKS AT SEGESTA

 

On Monte Barbaro, a thousand feet above the sea, lies the temple of Segesta. Once the political hub of the indigenous Elymian and Ionian Greek people, this is now a vast archeological park. Its centerpiece is a beautifully preserved Greek Doric temple and, higher up, a Greek amphitheater with an unparalleled view of countryside and sea. Today we’ll hike through the archaeological park of Segesta. While we’ll be sure to visit the main attractions, we’ll also get off the beaten path and hike on secondary trails, where blackberries, fig and almond trees, and prickly pear beckon with their bounty. After stopping at the temple and pondering the ephemeral nature of world power, we’ll ask the eternal question, “What’s for lunch?” We’ll rub elbows with the locals at a neighborhood trattoria, Baglio Segesta, eating family-style on their shaded patio. Next is our afternoon tasting. This will be at Spadafora, an award-winning, family-owned winery that also runs an agriturismo. Our tasting presents a panorama of wines, from indigenous nero d’avola to wonderful cabernet blends that show how much French grapes like the Sicilian sun. We’ll return to Castellamare for dinner.

B, D • Cala Marina

 

DAY 4 – ERICE

 

Today is our transfer to Marsala, so we’ll take a day off from hiking and have some time to relax in the morning. First destination is the westernmost tip of Sicily, where Mount Erice rises 750 meters above the sea. At its top is the town of Erice. Offering a strategic overlook, this was an important Hellenic settlement until it was destroyed by Carthaginians in the First Punic War (c. 250 BC). It later fell under Arab rule for three centuries, until the Normans seized it in 1167. Today, there are two significant remnants of this layered history: the Pepoli Castle (now a hotel), dating from Saracen (Arab) times, and the Venus Castle, dating from the Norman period. The town also offers charming stone streets—and a fantastic bakery. (Another cannoli, perhaps? Or some marzipan treats?) The afternoon takes us to the port town of Marsala, our second home base. Today’s tasting is at Donnafugata. One of Sicily’s most prominent wineries, it is owned by the Rallo family, which once made Marsala, then sold the brand name and switched to dry table wine in the 1980s. Naming their new enterprise after a character in Gattopardo (The Leopard), Donnafugata is consistently among the Tre Bicchieri winners for its nero d’avola–based blends and its nectar-like passito, Ben Rye. After settling into our hotel in the heart of Marsala, there should be free time to roam the Baroque historic center before dinner at an elegant restaurant a short walk from the hotel.

B, D • Hotel Carmine

 

DAY 5 – THE ISLAND OF MARETTIMO

 

Off the western coast of Sicily are the three tiny Egadi islands: Marettimo, Levanzo, and Favignana. Today’s hike is on the most scenic, Marettimo. We’ll take a hydrofoil from Marsala to Marettimo’s single, white-washed town (90 min.). From there, we’ll hike along a rugged seaside path that weaves in and out of the rocky sea cliffs, always offering spectacular views of the turquoise sea. Our destination, at the far end of the island, is an ancient Norman fortress, towering high above a narrow spit of land. After a picnic lunch and maybe a dip in the water, we’ll hike back to town to catch the late-afternoon ferry. Our return trip will include a detour to the island of Favignana, where we can stroll in town or grab a seat in a café that offers 30 flavors of granita, the original ice slurpy. Dinner is on your own in Marsala.

B • Hotel Carmine

 

DAY 6 – MARSALA AND SEA SALT

 

A steady sea breeze and protected coves have made western Sicily an ideal spot for harvesting sea salt. Since ancient times, Sicilians have used evaporation ponds and windmills to crystallize salt from the sea. We’ll visit the saline, watching a film that shows the year-long process, then take a private boat ride across the stagnone (big lagoon) to the island of Isola Lunga. A Carthaginian base along with neighboring Mozia, this flat island makes for easy hiking; we’ll walk amidst prickly pear cactuses and marsh vegetation, and might spot some of the pink flamingoes that inhabit the lagoon. After lunch at Eubes, a trattoria that excels in Sicilian-style pasta, we’ll head to De Bartoli, the winery that resurrected the real marsala as a praise-worthy meditation wine. We’ll see how marsala is perpetually blended and aged using the solera system, then sample De Bartoli’s array of dry wines (including Sicily’s first 100% grillo), marsala, and passito from Pantelleria. Our farewell dinner is outside of Marsala at an elegant hillside restaurant.

B, D • Hotel Carmine

 

DAY 7 – BUON VIAGGIO!

 

A shuttle to the Palermo airport by 11:30 A.M. and assistance with your travel plans. B

 

Hiking Level of Difficulty

In terms of trails, this is our easiest hiking tour. However, there is van support just on one day, so the rest of the time you must be prepared to go the distance! The surfaces we walk are relative easy: One day, we’re on a country road; another day, it’s a coastal trail that hugs the seashore in a nature preserve; another hike is on paths that wind through an archaeological park; and still another is on a flat island. The most challenging hike is on Marettima, a rocky island; here the trail is halfway up the hillside and runs parallel to the sea, following the contours of the coastal hills. There is some up and down, but nothing too difficult.

 

Airport

Palermo (known as both Falcone-Borsellino Airport and Punta Raisi Airport), located 22 miles west of the city

 

Pre-tour

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 (40 min) and the main train station (55 min).

 

For your pre-tour hotel, one possibility is the 4-star Mercure Palermo Centro. This is located in the city center, a couple of blocks from the Politeama Theater, near the Prestia e Comandé bus drop-off. There are many other hotels in this vicinity as well. For other options, email us or consult a good hotel search engine, such as TripAdvisor.com or Venere.com.

 

Meeting point

In Palermo city center, in the lobby of our first hotel.

 

Departure day

Shuttle to Palermo airport by 11:30 a.m. Contact us if your flight requires an earlier arrival.

 

Italian train schedule

Click here for the Trenitalia schedule in English. 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.

 

Trip extensions

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

Italian train schedule

Click here for the Trenitalia schedule in English. Be aware that the schedule is posted just a few months in advance, so if you’re looking for long-range dates, try something sooner, if only to get an idea of departure frequency and trip length.

 

Weather

When packing, check check http://www.weather.com. Go to “Palermo, Italy” to get a general idea of temperatures and forecast. In mid-September, expect summer weather, with daytime temperatures averaging 85º and nighttime 70º.

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