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Sumptuous Sicily

by
27 January 2017

Diana Bentley finds that a cruise around the Mediterranean island provides a feast of fine dining, culture, history, and architecture

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The island of Ortigia, in Syracuse

The island of Ortigia, in Syracuse

WE START as we mean to go on, relaxing in the pink twilight under the soaring ramparts of Valletta’s ancient harbour, in Malta, before we set sail for Sicily. Glasses clink as guests on board the Hebridean Sky introduce themselves, and we all sit down to enjoy a delicious meal under the stars.

This cruise promises to be memorable on more than one count. As a history addict, a tour of the ancient treasures is something I’ve long awaited, and this seven-night cruise with Noble Caledonia will take us the whole way around the island, neatly delivering us — after overnight sailings — to some of the most famed coastal cities and historical treats in Sicily. Missing are hours of driving and hotel-hopping which land tours entail. But this cruise promises music, too: on board are four classical singers from the London Festival Opera, who are here to entertain us.

After a smooth night of sailing, we dock early at Licata on the southern coast of Sicily, where we get off to a brisk start. Tour buses leave at 8.15 a.m. most days, but excursions are included in the price of the cruise, and there is a good turn-out from the start.

We drive an hour and a half into wooded hinterland to Villa Romana del Casale, an imperial hunting-lodge dating from the fourth century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the floors of this vast villa — abandoned in the 12th century after a landslide, and rediscovered just 88 years ago — the whole panoply of Roman life unfolds before us: children play games, men hunt tigers and antelope, and bikini-clad girls play a ball game. Vibrantly alive and totally compelling, collectively they represent the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world.

It is an elegant winery for a traditional Sicilian lunch of meats and cheeses, chickpea fritters, olive bread, pasta, and Cassata Siciliana, before we head back for some more on-board relaxation. The 118-passenger luxury small cruise-ship Hebridean Sky is compact and perfectly formed, and its crew lavish attention on us.

All guests have en-suite accommodation, and there is a library and club lounge that are soon well used. Meals can be taken in the dining room, but we opt for dinner on deck, and soon get to know our fellow passengers, many of them retired and loyal Noble Caledonian fans. Conversation flows, aided by an ample selection of wine, and, after dinner, it is hard to resist the ship’s pianist, who tempts diners to linger for nightcaps in the lounge before we set sail again over a moonlit sea.

The next morning, we wake up to Syracuse resplendent in the sun. We are berthed right in the heart of this city, founded by the Greeks in 734 BC. Not far from the port, through the elegant streets, we find the Neapolis Archaeological Park (an area of Syracuse where the most famous monuments of the Greek and Roman periods were built). We try out our lungs out in the Greek theatre — which is still in use today — then explore and marvel at the Roman amphitheatre.

The afternoon brings a walking tour of the island of Ortigia (the ancient centre of Syracuse, joined to the mainland by bridge). We meander round the ancient narrow lanes now crowded with glitzy boutiques, and pass crowds feasting under umbrellas by the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, the most ancient Doric temple in Sicily. We visit the stunning Cathedral of Syracuse, too, built in the seventh century on the ruins of the 5 BC Temple to Athena (or Minerva), later influenced by the Greek, Byzantine, and then Norman periods. Greek columns are embedded in the walls, inside and out; its Baroque façade was added during the 18th century.

Despite its changes, the city’s ancient past is so evident that it is easy to imagine the city that St Paul once visited; and which Cicero described as the most beautiful of all Greek cities.

Another day we visit Taormina, on the north-east coast: a picturesque walled town perched on a cliff high above the Ionian Sea, which offers us dramatic views of the brooding peak of Mount Etna. The stone-paved Corso Umberto 1 runs the length of the town. Swish boutiques stand alongside charming churches — including a 13th-century cathedral — topped off by sweeping views from the Greek (later Roman) Theatre at one end, giving Taormina an aura of ancient glamour and decadence that is still drawing the crowds. From the 18th century on, it became a mecca for writers and artists, and I discover where Oscar Wilde once stayed.

We bid farewell to our ports each evening with on-deck cocktails. Meals are serious feasts, and dinner is sometimes preceded by a talk: a journey through Verdi’s love-life, provided by the leader of the London Festival Opera, was one; an amusing account of the adventures of on-board life by our cruise director was another, on ours — accompanied by drinks and canapés.

After a longer night of sailing, along the north coast of the island, we dock in the capital city of Palermo. Once ruled by a cavalcade of invaders, from the Phoenicians to the Normans, it is now a vision of crumbling Baroque splendour. Its vast cathedral is an ornate 12th-century affair, and we also visit the near by Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, known as the Martorana, with its magnificent mosaics. A wedding is about to begin, and we pour into the square to clap the bride.

In the afternoon, I saunter off to admire the Archaeological Museum, located in a former monastery and one of the most important museums in Italy, before finding a cafe-lined lane, where boisterous waiters ply diners with delicious local specialities, including fried courgettes, caponata (a sweet and sour eggplant stew), arancini (fried rice balls), and sfincione (a soft pizza-like dish with cheese and onions). Later, we take a tour of the glitzy Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy.

In the evening, we enjoy our own concert in the sumptuous Baroque palace of Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi, now a private residence, whose gilded rooms open only for events such as ours. For our concert of famous arias, our London Festival Opera singers are dressed in 19th-century costume; afterwards, we all relax with drinks on the candlelit terrace.

The next day, we gather high above the port of Trapani, at the site of the abandoned ancient Greek town of Segesta, for more architectural magic. The Greek amphitheatre looks out across farmland to the sea beyond, but on a lower hill lies the temple. Built in 5 BC, it was never finished, and yet it is one of the best preserved Greek temples I have ever seen. A majestic and haunting masterpiece, it lies resplendent amid wildflowers and birdsong, and it is hard to leave.

We finish in Sardinia, where we wander the medieval streets of the capital of the island, Cagliari, and visit the 13th-century cathedral, dedicated for the Virgin Mary and St Cecilia, with our guide. In Olbia, we bid our fellow passengers farewell. We genuinely hope to see them again. Perhaps we will, and then we can share memories of the magic of Sicily.

 

Travel details
Noble Caledonia (phone 020 7752 0000; www.noble-caledonia.co.uk ) is offering a 12-night “Circumnavigation of Sicily” cruise, starting 13 May. It is priced from £5395 pp including flights, full-board accommodation, and shore excursions. A ten-night “Music and History in the Adriatic” cruise — starting 21 May and featuring the London Festival Orchestra — is priced from £3925 pp including flights, full board, shore excursions, and musical performances. Alternatively, there is an 11-night “Sicily under Sail” cruise from £6495 pp, departing 17 October, including flights, two nights B&B in Malta and one dinner, nine nights full board and shore excursions.

 

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