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No need for 'smoasting' in sultry Sicily
I blame smoasting, or social media boasting, for the reason why people always feel like they're underachieving with holidays if they don't fancy hoofing it up Mount Kilimanjaro or digging a ditch on some beleaguered island. There are times when you're just fed up with the weather, tired from work and just need a good old-fashioned holiday at a reasonable price with copious amounts of good food, reliable sunshine and a beach to sink your toes into while a cold, frosty drink cools your palms.
Sicily first popped up on my radar after speaking to Lonely Planet's Tom Hall, who had just returned from there bursting with good things to say about the place. I confess, I didn't know much about the place beyond Palermo - that crumbling, grubby-yet-quaint city, and that the mafia had enough of a presence to warrant its own section in various guidebooks.
But then again, so does the driving, on which Rough Guides says: "A character in Andrea Camillieri's Inspector Montalbano novels drives "like a dog on drugs", which is a pretty fair assessment of local driving skills". But that shouldn't put you off hiring a car, as it's one of the best ways to explore the landscape.
Our introduction to Sicily began in the Marsala region, located in the north-west of the country. Your camera will be spoilt for postcard views, where the landscape's hills appear to wear a leafy knitted shrug across their shoulders, and where churches and solitary dusky pink houses rise from an amber sea when the sun hits the fields.
Cà Testaredda - the villa we stayed in
The fact that it is also one of the cheapest places in the eurozone to fly to and stay in also doesn't hurt - not to mention it has very warm weather up until October. But the Cupid's arrow really was the long, lazy days that seemed to flow into one, where not much happened beyond tucking into ripe tomatoes, nibbling at bits of perfectly cured ham and drinking bottles of the local fizzy wine.
We decided to hire a villa from Tuscany Now, who chiefly deal with Tuscany (and what beautiful villas they are) but also have a small portfolio of Sicilian properties. Prices are fairly reasonable too - Cà Testaredda, where we stayed, starts at around £1,600 a week for a villa that sleeps six people.
There were grave doubts of finding the villa following a near-disastrous trip in Portugal where we ended up in a field rather than our villa, but aided by our Tom Tom (I can't recommend buying the local maps enough), it was a zippy 45-minute journey from Palermo straight down the A29. This motorway would prove to be an extremely convenient lifeline when visiting Marsala, the magnificent Roman ruins in Segesta and undertaking a day trip to Palermo's dusty streets.
A few minutes from the town Castelvetrano sat Cà Testaredda, a seriously gorgeous rustic-chic ochre-hued villa set down a long path, nestled in a four-acre olive orchard. This was more than just a place to stay - it was home. And a particularly swish home at that.
Inside Cà Testaredda
Past the heavy, carved door is a palatial three-bedroom spread. My favourite place was by the crystal clear infinity pool that overlooked a sweeping view of the surrounding hills, but other highlights included the outdoor barbecue and a long wooden table under a leafy trellis that seems perfect for a family get-together.
The bikes I ambitiously hired to explore the local area sat there collecting dust because the grounds were just so pretty. Tiny lizards darted in and out of the blistering heat, and beyond the cool shade of the house, olive trees twisted towards the sky, sprinklers puttered along spraying diamonds of water on the path.
The house has been designed to cope with Sicily's baking weather, and indoors, it is surprisingly cool, with soaring ceilings crossed with hefty wooden beams.
Castelvetrano isn't necessarily the most exciting of towns, but the fish and fruit markets are lovely and it is a place famous for its olives; they hit the mouth with a tang of salt, a touch of bitterness and then a creamy finish. Giusy, our thoughtful caretaker, left a fridge stuffed with a box of them, as well as a loaf of black bread - the local speciality which is a dense, flavoursome loaf that tastes good even on its own - and a hamper of other essential food and drink treats including wine.
Temperatures can soar to the high 30s in summer, and so the combination of crisp white linen, sand-hued chairs and loungers and a dazzling stripe of blue from the pool will make it hard to leave Cà Testaredda. But owner Barbara's helpful list of things to do and see will eventually pique your curiosity - our favourite jaunts included a trip to Giorgio Locatelli's favourite restaurant, Da Vittorio in Porto Palo, set by a stretch of long, uncrowded coastline.
After a few beers at the world's strangest hotel near the restaurant - there were dogs, no guests to speak of and plastic paraphernalia - we turned up slightly sozzled to find out that not only was Giorgio dining that night (ambling around in flip-flops), but that Vittorio wasn't a stranger to a glass or ten of wine either.
Still, it was one of the best meals of our trip, and that is an Olympic effort considering how consistently good the food had been at every juncture. La Pineta, an atmospheric, candle-lit fish restaurant on the shore at nearby Selinunte served up Spaghetti alla Vongole - pasta with clams - that made me yearn for a second stomach to savour it all over again, while one-euro arancini (the local speciality of bread-crumbed rice balls filled with ham and cheese and other stuffings) in Marsala and five-euro fresh octopus in Palermo (served on the chopping block, ink and all) completed our food journey.
(L-R) Where the wine is housed, the Florio shop and the tasting room
Choosing Marsala as a region was no coincidence, however. I wouldn't classify myself as an oenophile but I was drawn to the area to find out more about the local wine. It may seem tricky to know which vineyard and winery to visit - a lot of them, including Planeta, offer lunch with a tour and tasting for around 20 euros, but the name that kept cropping up among foodie friends was Florio.
Located in Marsala itself, the winery is housed in a huge estate that is deceptively plain from the outside. Through the gates, you are greeted with a pretty garden and a vast barn-like structure that has implements used in the wine-making process dotted around.
We had been huffing our way up and down the streets of Marsala sightseeing and getting very hot and bothered, so entering the darkened, cool rooms where the wine was kept was like a cold compress to the brain. Looking down the length of the first room, in the still quiet, the stacks of barrels seem to stretch into infinity.
Benedetta, our guide, explained that Marsala actually was created by the British in 1773 by sea trader John Woodhouse, who tried and liked the wine of the region, and took barrels of it back to England but had to fortify the wine so it would last the journey. The Florio family are businessmen and so started producing Marsala wine commercially. Through the years, perhaps because of the family's business connections, a lot of bigwigs have passed through the same rooms as we did, from Garibaldi who unified Italy to Mussolini.
Nearby San Vito Lo Capo has some of the best beaches
The wine, depending on the vintage, is left for a minimum of two years (the base wine or the reserva), but there are plenty of other 'important' barrels, some of which are decades old.
As you walk through the Anglo-Saxon building, you get the sense that you're somewhere very calm and old, and that is a pleasant contrast by the time you get to the new purpose-built tasting room.
It's very modern and swish with a long wooden table running down one side, laid out with parmesan and biscotti to accompany the wines, which when drunk, lit a slow fire in our bellies.
We tottered home happy and slightly sunburnt, with the satisfied knowledge that we'd got to know Sicily in the laziest, most enjoyable way possible.
Saying you had a good holiday which involved long, lazy naps, superb food and eminently moreish wine may not sound like the best Facebook 'smoast' but perhaps not needing to boast how amazingly brilliant, wonderful and dazzling your holiday was, in fact, speaks volumes about good it really was.
Stay: Cà Testaredda sleeps six people and starts from £1,610 per week. For more information readers can visit www.tuscanynow.com, call 0207 684 8884 or email email@example.com.
Drink: Florio is located on Via Vincenzo Florio in Marsala. Visit the website for tour details and times, or call +39 0923 7811 11.
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This package included : Transport, Accommodation and Guiding
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