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Tuscany’s Hilltop Treasures

Tuscany’s Hilltop Treasures

by Alan Gow  |  June 2019  |  Italy

Tuscany evokes alluring images of vineyards, olive trees, good food, picturesque towns and loads of sunshine.  There is a good reason why Tuscany is one of the most visited regions in Italy – it is absolutely gorgeous.

Siena, San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Cortana, Pisa, Lucca…. the list of spectacular historic towns is seemingly endless. Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano… the names of the unique regional wines just roll off the tongue as easily as the wine flows down the throat.


Tuscany’s Hilltop Treasures

We had three weeks, in May 2019, to nosey around this little patch of paradise and visit some of the well-known, and not so well-known beauty spots.  I confess that by the end of this time, seeing yet another ancient walled hilltop town ceased to be the thrill it was at the start.  There was always something however that was unique and made the effort worthwhile.

I’m not going to bore you with a detailed regurgitation of Dr Wikipedia’s facts about each place we visited.  Instead, there will just be a few pictures and maybe a sentence or two to explain the individual specialness (if that’s a word), that we found there.

For a change, we were not staying in our motorhome in Tuscany because Betsy was in for repairs. We stayed in AirBnBs in three towns and used them as bases for exploring others.

We will still give you some likely spots to park up your motorhome for free.  We found most of these, as usual, on Park4Night.  No guarantees but they looked good to us so should work unless the local authorities have an about face and start restricting the parking.

Colle Val D’Elsa

The views from this charming medieval walled hilltop town immediately captivated us.  The sturdy ancient stone walls, the delightful Tuscan countryside and the fresh vibrant spring flowers welcomed us to Tuscany. The low number of tourists visiting this less well-known jewel was delightful.

There is a large car park where you can park overnight near the old town (GPS 43.4226, 11.1140).  Most of the parks are better suited to smaller campers but there are some slots where you can reverse your overhang out over vacant ground (bring your ramps). Park4Night has some other places in the new part of town which may be better for bigger vehicles.

View of Colle from the old Convent

View down the beautiful Val D’Elsa Valley

Old Colle and the Church tower

Typical archways and narrow alleys

Plants anyone?

San Gimignano

The USESCO listed San Gimignano is one of the most well-known of the Tuscany hill towns and as such was brim full of visitors even this early in the tourist season (May).  The 14 tall towers that are a hallmark of the San Gimignano skyline were built by the rich families between the 11th and 14th centuries as a symbol of their power and wealth, and to provide protection from other families.

To watch a UNESCO video click here.

Not far from here we had a great day out at Ulignano truffle hunting, wine tasting and scoffing delicious food.  Great value and a special day out that we thoroughly recommended.

There is an authorised camper parking area at GPS  43.4521, 11.0556  however at €1/hour (€15/day) it is pricy for a longer stay.  You can use the services there without going into the parking and a free alternative parking can be found on the other side of town at GPS 43.4716,11.0285. This place looked like it would be fine for overnight however we stayed just a few hours.

San Gimignano spotted through fresh spring growth

Typical towers of San Gimignano

Busy, narrow streets and arches


Described as one of the most perfect examples of a medieval town, the UNESCO listed historic centre of Siena blends almost seamlessly into the contours of three hills.  For us riding our electric bikes, it also seamed to have the steepest hills of any of the Tuscan towns.

To watch a UNESCO video click here.

A parking area just outside the walls allows an opportunity for campers to park overnight but there is a bit of a gradient involved so ramps recommended (GPS 43.327561, 11.335099).  We didn’t stay here but spoke with other travellers who slept here without problems.

Siena and the Cathedral from the Medici Fortress

Piazza de Campo famous for the annual horse race

Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico

World Class Siena Cathedral


We spent several nights in an AirBnB just outside the medieval town walls and had several opportunities to soak in the sights and feelings.  Of special interest were the underground towns carved out by the winemaking families of the region.  These chambers with interconnecting passageways were (and still are) used for making and storing the famous local red wines and cheeses. 

Panoramic view from the town walls

Wine cellar in the underground city

Montepulciano main piazza

Enter the underground city here

One of the gates into the town

Montepulciano walls and houses


Pienza is a little off the beaten tourist track but also features a historic centre listed by UNESCO due to it being the first example of Renaissance-era town planning.  The pet project of the Pope at the time.  This resulted in a beautiful town square while still preserving the older medieval structure and walls of the town.  Pienza has been referred to as the jewel of Tuscany.

To watch a UNESCO video click here.

There are a couple of potential overnight spots for campers including these authorised camper parking spaces at GPS 43.079949, 11.673309.

Pienza main piazza with the Cathedral

Inside the Pienza Cathedral

Stunning views over the Tuscan countryside

Spring flowers among the ancient buildings

Back streets and cafes

Narrow cobbled streets with few tourists

Frescoed gate in the town wall


Another delightful walled town is Cortana with now-expected imposing walls, narrow streets and medieval buildings.  The unexpected highlight was the gorgeous interior of the Basilica Santa Margherita which was reached after a very long and steep climb up ancient stone roads and paths.  Our bikes could only take us so far.  We love being surprised when we walk into somewhere new and have that ‘blown away’ feeling.  There are some possible overnight parking spots for motorhomes as you drive up the hill. We found a small slot at GPS 43.2733, 11.9860. There was an authorised campervan parking here but that was closed for renovation when we visited and may or may not reopen (GPS 43.272985, 11.987823)

The view from the walls of Cortona 

Steep road by the walls leads to the Cathedral

The Basilica di Santa Margherita is worth the walk

Tuscan cobbled streets and art galleries abound

Old buildings and new flowers

Looking up the hill to the town is like looking at a fairy-tale


Arezzo was one of those pleasant surprises because you don’t read about it being a top tourist attraction.  However, it had everything you would want.  A great spot to park a camper not far from the entrance (GPS 43.4725,11.8831 ), a stunning cathedral, Medici fort and plentiful narrow alleyways, piazzas, old buildings, parks and shops.

The gorgeous Arezzo Cathedral

The Cathedral frescos are mesmersing

Monument of Francesco Petrarca

View from the Medici Fortress over the cemetery and beyond

Bagni San Fillipo

The small town of Bagni San Fillipo is famous for the natural hot springs that flow close by.  These have been left largely undeveloped (thankfully).  A visit here allowed us the rare chance to sit in piping hot thermal water, surrounded by trees and towering structures of thermally deposited minerals including the renowned “Balena Bianca” or White Whale.  The best part is that it was all free of charge (apart from the parking).  It is a popular destination but we arrived later in the day and spotted some English people we had met a few days earlier in Siena.  They invited us to sit in ‘their’ pool, which was the best spot.  Nice having friends in high places.

The massive “Balena Bianco” (White Whale) natural sculpture

Soaking in a warm stream of thermal water


This was another of the less visited Tuscan towns and one that we immediately liked. We stayed high up in sports ground parking area not far from the walls (GPS 43.3976, 10.8616) and close to great views of the surrounding countryside.  The Medici fort here is still used as a penitentiary so we couldn’t visit.  The large weekly market and the fantastic outlook over the partly excavated Roman Theatre were particularly memorable.

Early morning views over misty Tuscan landscape

A well preserved Roman Theatre is a highlight

Baptistery of San Giovanni

The old Etruscan Gate

Where are the tourists?

Volterra views

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Sicily – An Island of Contrasts

Sicily – An Island of Contrasts

by Alan Gow  |  April 2018  |  Sicily, Italy

One of the great benefits of touring in a motorhome with no fixed agenda or schedule is the flexibility to just stop and enjoy a place that we are passing through.  Often when talking to fellow travellers or locals we will hear about such and such spot and our loose plan allows us to check it out even though it wasn’t on our radar five minutes ago.

We planned on spending a month in Sicily however this extended out to over seven weeks as there were some places we just didn’t want to pass up.  Eventually we needed to leave as we’d completed the full circuit of the island and had an appointment to take Betsy back to her motorhome dealer near Turin, for some TLC (tender loving care).

It’s a bit of a cliché to say this, however Sicily is a land of contrasts.  There is much to admire, love and appreciate but there are also some less than perfect aspects.  We really enjoyed our time here however with so much still to see and do in Europe, we probably (never say never) won’t return for another stint.

Although seven weeks sounds like a long time, it is really only enough to scratch the surface of what there is to see and experience here.  The history is so colourful and unbelievable and land so rugged and beautiful.  There is a (very) brief summary of the history below. We chose to visit from late March through to early May and experienced overall nice comfortable spring weather.  It wasn’t warm enough to enjoy the many fantastic beaches but that was offset by the lack of swarms of summer tourists and the sweltering summer heat. That suited us, however if beach bathing is your thing then you are best to visit a month or two later.

As you would know if you read our other blogs, we almost exclusively free camp and use some great free Apps as well as information from other travellers to find our overnight stopping spots.  We had no problems doing this all around Sicily however in the high season there are more restrictions on where motorhomes can park.  This is probably necessary as there is a huge influx of campers in summer and without some controls, especially around the coast, I can see there could be problems.

We have shared all of our overnight stopping spots including GPS Coordinates and notes at the end of this blog.

Fresh Drinking Water

Sicily has been one of the few places where we have had to hunt around at times to find fresh water.  It may be driven by the economic crisis, however, in many towns, the public water taps had been disconnected.  We never actually ran out but we had to be a little creative in our water gathering at times.

Having said that, the water, when we found it, was usually fresh and sweet.  Our electric bikes and a couple of 10 litre water canisters were invaluable as it this allowed us to leave Betsy parked while we foraged far and wide for a functioning tap.  One hint is that if you are struggling to find water then the local cemetery is often worth a look.  Check that there are no signs advising that the water is ‘Non potable’ (not suitable for drinking), and if you intend to drink straight from your fresh water tank, you should always taste it first.  If you are happy to stay in camp grounds then you won’t have the problem of water scavenging.

For us, it is all part of the game and experience of travelling on this journey we have chosen.

Ruth joins the locals filling up at Piazza Amerina

Olivetti Public Fountain – very slow to fill but geat water

Scrounging water from a Taormina service station – we were washing clothes so needed to find it somewhere

The Roads

The roads are another slight drawback to Sicily, especially if you are in a full-sized motorhome enjoying the complete Sicily experience by avoiding the toll roads.  There are places where the main road passes through kilometre after kilometre of built up towns and your right wheel is constantly just centimetres from the kerb.  We were sometimes left swearing at our GPS which is supposed to know our dimensions and not send us down roads that are too narrow.

Accepted Sicilian parking behaviour dictates that you can park wherever you want and it is up to the moving cars to get around you.  This means that as a 2.2m wide motorhome, we were constantly stopping for oncoming traffic to pass so that we could take our turn.  It gets tiresome after a while but I reckon it would be far worse in the high season with a pile more 2.2m wide motorhomes and other holiday traffic to contend with.

Overall the condition of the roads is best described as marginal with many potholes, worn out surfaces, cracks and other defects. The south coast was much better than the north coastal roads.  Obviously not a lot of money here for road maintenance.  There is an Autostrada (motorway) around most of Sicily, however, we mostly kept off this, partly to avoid the cost but also as you just don’t see as much of the country travelling on these.

We mainly stuck close to the coast so can’t comment on how the roads crossing Sicily may be but some of them certainly looked narrow and windy (according to the infallible Google Maps).  From the roads we encountered when we did venture inland, they too were quite narrow.

Are we really going down there?

You can’t be serious!

The Food

Sicilian food is great.  It has unique characteristics compared to the rest of Italy. It is fresh, it is tasty and it is healthy (for the most part). We enjoyed a Sicilian Cooking Class at Mama Corleone Cooking School while in Palermo and learned  some great dishes which we have continued to cook.

Mama Corleone Cooking Class

Our favourites included Caponata, which is a wonderful infusion of cubes of fried melanza, (eggplant), celery, capers, tomato passata, olives, pine nuts and wherever other vegetable you can find. This is cooked slowly then finished off with vinegar and sugar.  Served cold with fresh Sicilian bread, it is slightly sweet, slightly sour, absolutely bursting with flavour and seems to just melt in your mouth.

The eggplant involtini was also really tasty and was just slices of fried egg plant, rolled around a stuffing of breadcrumbs, chopped ham, grated local cheese, and olive oil.  This is then placed in a baking dish, covered with tomato passata and cheese and cooked in the oven until the cheese is nicely melted.

Caponata with aubergine, olives, capers, pine nuts etc plus lots of olive oil

Involtimi – slices of fried aubergine, stuffed and rolled up and baked

Sicily also contributed dishes such as Arancini to world cuisine.  These are balls of rice flavoured with saffron, filled with either ham and cheese or ragu (tomato meat sauce and cheese), then dipped in bread crumbs and lightly deep fried. Their most famous desert seems to be Cannoli, which look a lot like brandy snaps with a sweet, crunchy biscuit shell, stuffed with a ricotta and cream mixture.

While in the small seaside town of Licata, we enjoyed our first ever experience of dining at a Two Star Michelin Restaurant.  To read more, click here two-star-micheli

The Rubbish

Unfortunately, when talking about Sicily, its hard not to mention the rubbish, because it is just such a visual feature of the landscape in many areas.  From our experience, Palermo is the worst with enormous piles of garbage accumulated at the side of the road.  It was sad and disturbing that the people of Sicily would participate in defacing their country like this and that the local government couldn’t collect the rubbish within a reasonable timeframe, or control the problem.  In Caltagirone we witnessed a respectable looking woman pull up to the side of the road and start to unload plastic bags of garbage onto a clear sidewalk.  There happened to be council garbage collection man in a small truck who clearly took her to task about what she was doing.  After much waving of hands and raised voices they unloaded her small hatchback boot, back and front seats of at least 16 bags of garbage and put them directly into the garbage truck.  Maybe when you grow up with this it seems normal but to us, and any other visitors we spoke to, the amount of rubbish was quite unbelievable.

Typical Roadside Rubbish in Palermo

Rubbish Collection Day – Piazza Amerina

Outstanding in Sicily

So what really stood out in Sicily?

For me, that would have to be the churches or cathedrals and the archaeological history.

To say that the churches are amazing just doesn’t do them justice.  Nearly every major town we visited boasted a Basilica or Cathedrale that was not only spectacular but also managed to be markedly different to the others.  Monreale Cathedral, near Palermo, stands out due to the magnificence of the thousands of square metres of religious mosaics and beautiful Baroque style marblework.  Erice, perched high on the Mountain of God, also deserves a mention with so many stunning churches in such a small town perched high on a mountain. Milazzo, Palermo, Cefalu, Siracusa, Ragusa, Catania…. the list of cities with amazing churches goes on and on.  We have included photos of some of the best later in this blog.

After growing up in New Zealand, a country with a very short history, trying to digest and appreciate the impact of the various cultures that have conquered, occupied and shaped Sicily over a 3,000 year period takes a fair bit of effort.

Just in case you are interested and want to get a feel for what this place has been through, here follows a very brief history of Sicily.  I have tried to keep it short and interesting however if this sort of thing bores you, then just skip the next section.

Sicily – A Brief History

15th Century BC (that is about 3,500 years ago!) – Sicily is settled by three tribes, The Elmians, The Sicani and lastly the Sicel. The name Sicily is derived from the names of the latter two tribes.

11th Century BC – The Phoenicians began colonising the western part of the island, building important cities including what was later to become Palermo.  The powerful Phoenician city-state of Carthage in modern Tunisia controlled and protected the Phoenician interests here.

8th – 4th Century BC – The Greeks began founding towns/cities around eastern and southern Sicily as part of their cunning plan of expanding Greek influence.  The cities were fortified and sited at regular intervals so that they could communicate with, and support each other.  We had previously just been in Crete, so to hear that Cretans from towns we had visited were among those early settlers was fascinating.  The existing inhabitants were pretty much absorbed into this new strong culture.  Syracuse became the most populous Greek city in the world in the 3rd Century BC and the great temples, theatres and monuments that remain today were built during this period of relative prosperity and cultural enlightenment.

The Greek and Phoenician settlements co-existed for many centuries albeit with regular wars and sacking of each other’s cities.  Mind you, the cities ended up being governed as separate city-states and you would often find two of the Greek cities scrapping it out with each other on the battlefields, sometimes with help from the Carthaginians on one side or the other.

Around 3rd Century BC, the Romans stepped in, and had a go at the Carthaginians, finally taking control by 242BC.  Most of the cities of Sicily then rebelled and tried to kick the Romans out however by the end of the Second Punic War around 210BC it was all over rover and the Romans were in charge for the next 600 years.

200 BC – 400 AD – not much of note happened over this time.  The Romans just used Sicily as their ‘bread basket’ to grow grain for the empire.  The lands were owned by distant Roman landlords and as little effort was made by the Romans to ‘Romanize’ Sicily, the culture remained mainly Greek.

468 AD – the Vandals, a Germanic tribe responsible for trashing Rome, conquered Sicily but only had it for 8 years before it was briefly held by the Goths who were then thrown out by the remains of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantines.  In spite of various rebellions and infighting, the Byzantines had a good run at ruling until around 826AD when the Arabs invaded and over the next hundred years gradually knocked off all of the Byzantine strongholds.

900 – 1086 AD – Although under Muslim rule over this period, it was not a happy time for them as the Byzantine Christians rebelled and revolted regularly and generally made life difficult.  The Arabs did, however, leave a great legacy of North African foods and cooking techniques that help make Sicilian cuisine distinct from the rest of Italy.

1091 – 1194 AD – The Normans, still buzzing after thrashing the English at the Battle of Hastings took control with help of the Vikings and brought in a golden age for Sicily.  The Norman kings governed wisely and encouraged immigration from strongly Roman Catholic countries, such that Sicily has strongly followed that faith to this day.  The spectacular cathedrals that we saw at Monreale, Palermo, Cefalu, Erice etc are primarily due to this prosperous and benevolent period.  Many castles and other fortifications also remain from this period.

The next few hundred years was a real mess with various kings, wars, and rebellions which saw Sicily bounced around between the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Spanish and the Bourbons without a lot of concern for what the locals wanted.  Eventually, the much revered and loved Garibaldi landed with an army of 1,000 men to sort out the Spanish.  Garibaldi conquered all before him and his army grew as more of the countryside rose up to support him.  Sicily was effectively united with Italy in 1860.  Wherever you go in Sicily, you find Via Garibaldi’s (Garibaldi Roads) and statues and monuments to him.

The Earthquakes

Whilst Sicily’s culture results from the amalgamation of many civilisations over nearly three thousand years, the modern day appearance of the cities and settlements also owes much to the forces of mother nature.  Earthquakes have had a massive impact on Sicily even up until relatively recent times when in 1908 a huge quake just off the coast of Messina saw over 90% of its buildings destroyed and some 80,000 people killed.  Messina now lacks the heritage of old structures we saw elsewhere.

Although they were disastrous at the time, the earthquakes also led to some of Sicily’s most valuable and unique current architectural treasures.  In 1693, an earthquake virtually levelled the cities in southeastern Sicily and wiped out 100,000 civilians.  The cities of Catania, Ragusa, and Notto, for example were flattened.  In an amazing display of unity and cooperation, these cities were rebuilt by modifying and adapting the Baroque style of the day to construct the now famous Baroque towns of this region.

In some cases, a new town was built beside the old one.  For example in Ragusa, the neighbouring hill was used for the new site however the old one was rebuilt in any case and is known as Ragussa Ibla

Old Ragusa Ibla viewed from ‘New’ Ragusa (300 years old)

In other cases, the rebuilt town is in an entirely new location, for example, the new Noto was built 8km from the old one.  We parked outside the old Noto city walls one night, then explored the extensive ruins the next day on our bikes.  Some of the city wall and the Norman castle was reasonably intact but most of the other buildings were just broken-down jumbles of overgrown stones.

Sleeping Outside the Ancient Old Noto Walls

Old Noto Norman Castle as the sun rises

New Noto (8km from the destroyed Old Noto)

Mount Etna

How can anyone ignore that massive growth on the southwest edge of Sicily called Mount Etna?

Able to be seen from the other side of the island, this impressive active volcano lets off steam and ash every couple of weeks.  She continues to blow out lava regularly with decent eruptions about every ten years, which have spawned a series of lateral craters down her slopes.  The surrounding towns are quite used to shovelling ash as well as snow off their paths and roofs.

Catania is the nearest big city and although it has never suffered serious damage, one historical eruption sent lava right up to the city walls.  The walls were designed to repel foreign invaders but played another role of turning away the stream of liquid rock.

On driving up Mt. Etna, the vegetation rapidly gives way to weathered lava flows and becomes increasingly desolate and inhospitable the higher we climb.

As we reach the upper car park, we are not far from the first patches of snow and the outside air has that distinctive frosty alpine feel to it with 11 degrees as opposed to 25 down below.  Apparently only a few weeks earlier there had been so much snow and ice on the road that you couldn’t get up without chains.  Whew – good timing once again for the B (for Betsy) Team.

The view in the morning from the car park was worth getting up early for.

We splashed out some of the money we had saved by free camping on the Mt Etna package which includes the gondola ride, the 4W ride up to the 3,500m level and the guided tour.  A little pricey at €68 each but we would have regretted not going.  As expected, there were great views from the gondola.

We then scrambled into the 4WD Unimogs with Ruth being cheeky enough to ask if she could sit in the front passenger seat so she could take some video.  We crawled up a steep narrow gravel track into the heavy snow country and beside the two gaping lateral craters that had formed during the 2002 eruption.

I had hoped to see some spewing lava, steaming geysers and smoking vents but alas, that was not to be seen at this level.  There are other expeditions up to the summit where that is no doubt the norm, however, that was not for us today.

2002 Eruption Crater

It’s Tough at the Top

The Valley of the Temples

With so many ancient archaeological sites to see we were inclined to get a little ‘ruin weary’ so we drove past the road that led to the ancient Greek city of Selunite, one of the largest archaeological sites in the world.

That was a shame and I regret not experiencing it.  However, The Valley of the Temples, was one place we did visit which will stick in the memory forever (or at least until advanced dementia kicks in).

Who would have envisaged this stretch of land, near the ancient Greek city of Agrigento, would be littered with the ruins of a dozen or more temples dating back to the Greek occupation?

We were able to wake up at our parking spot and watch the sun rising through the 2,500-year-old ruins

Later in the day we walked along the ancient fortifications and admired the temple structures from close up.  The Temple of Concordia is the most complete of the temples mainly due to it being re-purposed as a Basilica in the early Christian days.  Other structures are less complete but still magnificent reminders of what once was.

The remains of the massive Temple of Zeus cover an enormous area and was said to rival the temple at the Acropolis in Athens in size and grandeur.  Apparently, a man could stand within each of the flutes of the main columns, and between each stood a colossal statue of Atlas some 7.5m high. This was never quite completed and walking around the site today, it is hard to picture the ‘nearly finished temple’ over 2,500 years ago.  In the Agrigento Museum there is a model showing how it is believed to have looked.

One sad fact is that right up until the 18th century, rock from the ruins was still being taken and reused in other building projects meaning that large parts of the structures are now gone forever.

Temple of Concordia

Temple of Zeus – Atlas Statue

Model of the Temple of Zeus

Bronze Statue of Icarus

The Churches

Whether you call them Churches, Cathedrals or Basilicas, Sicily is home to a vast number of these beautiful buildings.

Many of the churches have their origin in the Norman or Byzantine times however restorations over the last centuries have bestowed upon them unique features and styles so that no two appeared alike.

The ABC of Europe (Another Bloody Church) could have been our reaction around Sicily, however, every one offered new things to see, appreciate and wonder over.

Below is a selection of photos from some of the churches that impressed us the most.

Monreale Cathedral

Monreale Baroque Marble Details

Castle of Erice (Venus Castle)

Ragusa Ibla Basilica

Royal Catherdral – Erice

New Noto

Mama Corleone Cooking Class

Our Stopping Places

We stayed in a total 20 places around Sicily and had no problems with locals, police or other wildlife at any of them.  We only stayed at one camping ground (when we had family visiting), and paid a small amount for parking at two other spots.  There are likely to be stricter restrictions staying at many of these places during the summer months so be careful.

Here are the GPS coordinates and a brief description of each of our overnight stops.

Messina ( 38.23256, 15.57133)

We stayed here after arriving on the ferry from the mainland.  This is a parking area by the sea a few kilometres north of the ferry terminal.  It is beside the main road so there is some traffic noise.  A freshwater fountain about 800m back towards the ferry is a good source of excellent water.

Capo Milazzo ( 38.2652, 15.23777 )

There are some larger slots near the end of the main carparks which fit a moho nicely.  The views from here are fantastic and Mt Etna can be seen clearly.  Walking further down and to the end of the cape is recommended. No services except rubbish bins.


Oliveti Beach (38.12869, 15.05817)

A bit unfriendly feeling place for free camping motorhomes with a lot of ‘no camper’ signs and height restrictions on car park entries.  There are several camping grounds available so they are wanting people to use these.  We found a car park with no barriers and stayed here for one night.  We found a public water tap in town on the left just after passing under the bridge.  The water flow rate was slow though but the locals friendly.  We were given Pasquale (Easter) biscuits which are hard boiled eggs, wrapped in sweet biscuit dough, baked then decorated with icing.


San Georgio (38.17555, 14.94515)

A few places for mohos to park up here just 50m from the beach.  Along the actual beach were some ‘no camper’ signs.  There are water fountains here but the water is salty.  A nice place with a strong history of tuna fishing.

Acquedolchi (38.06162, 14.59513)

Strange that the name literally means Sweet Water but there were no functioning public water taps or fountains to be found anywhere in town.  The parking is along the road beside the beach with loads of space.  There are showers but they weren’t working when we were there.  The local police came down to check that no-one was exhibiting ‘camping behaviour’. We were thankful it didn’t rain because driving back up on the slippery cobblestone street could to the main road have proven challenging.

Cefalu Marina (38.03942, 14.0316)

You can park in town for €20 or for free on the marina adjacent to the café then walk or cycle into town.  The business of the marina just seems to carry on around you without anyone being too concerned.  Cefula has a wonderful old world feel about it, very cool buildings and a great history.

Palermo (38.1977, 13.28098)

Camping Ground.  Adequate camping ground but we don’t really like going into these places.  They allowed us to leave Betsy on site for €10 per night while we spent three nights in an Air BnB in Palermo.

Capa San Vito (38.17498, 12.76962)

This is apparently a real tourist hot spot in the summer but was quiet when we arrived.  The main car parks in town had closed for the winter.  We drove out of town and found this picturesque spot beside an ancient watch tower out on the point.


Erice (38.04165, 12.5875)

Well worth the climb up a windy mountain road to reach this small car park just outside one of the ancient city gates.  Erice is one of our favourite spot in Sicily and the views are spectacular.  No services other than rubbish.  There may be a charge in summer.  There is a blog just for Erice here.

Marsala Saline del Stagnone (37.86191, 12.48546)

This is a signposted free camper park adjacent to the salt museum and windmills.  No services but a handy overnight stop and reasonably quiet.

Sciacca  (37.50512, 13.0800)

A good stopping place down on the fishing dock, however, may be little smelly depending on what is around you. Rubbish only available here but handy for exploring this pretty fishing settlement.

Agrigento (37.28872, 13.5840)

This is a restaurant/accommodation that allows campers to park overnight for €5.  Very close to the Valley of the Temples and we couldn’t find anywhere closer.  They have a hose which we used to fill our tanks.

Licata Car Park (37.10425, 13.9399)

We spent the night in this central car park.  A little noisy with cars passing through and could be potential for unwelcome visitors however we had an uneventful night here.  We stayed here so we could visit ‘La Madre’ which is the only Two Michelin Star rated restaurant we have ever been to.

Caltagirone (37.20503, 14.51349)

We found this small car park off the main road which is a little overgrown and unloved but was reasonably quiet and felt safe enough.  It is a little out of the main town and are other parking areas closer in, including where we parked the next day for exploring.  Caltagirone is the first of the Baroque towns that we visited and is famous for the Scala di Santa Maria del Monte stairs which run up the hills and divide the town.  These are richly decorated with ceramic tiles at each step.

Piazza Armerina (37.38022, 14.36725)

The stopping place here is in a parking area for the sports stadium and just off the main road.  No parking restrictions were seen. The view of the Baroque town from here is fantastic and there is a great public fountain not far but down a really steep road.

Ragusa (36.91435, 14.72744)

Ragusa is another fantastic Baroque town with the new Ragusa built on the hill beside the original Ibla Ragusa.  The public carpark is in the newer part and is generally quiet and motorhome-friendly, however, there are two entrances and one takes you through some lower hanging branches.  Try the entry directly off the road rather than through the car parking area.  There is a full camper service spot less than a kilometre from here and one day we were cheeky enough to do our washing and hang it out to dry in this area.

Noto (36.89502, 15.06822)

The new Noto is very touristy but this car park welcomes motorhomes and is close to a supermarket and the town.  On a slope but not too steep.

Old Noto (36.94642, 15.02305)

Very interesting place but the road in is really only one lane and if you have a big moho it’s not for the faint hearted.  The parking area directly outside the ancient walls is sloped.

Syracusa Marina (37.06915, 15.29141)

Lots of moho’s parked here on this beautiful marina so you should have company.  Syracusa is another wonderful Baroque town and is on the must see list for nearly all Sicily visitors.  We bought 2kg of juicy, tasty, fresh mussels off a boat which landed directly in front of Betsy.

Catania (Various)

We spread ourselves around a little in Catania, mostly crashing in shopping complex car parks.  The Lidl car park (37.47375, 15.04763) was quiet and convenient.  The guard at the Auchan car park at Misterbianco (37.51332, 15.02221) was going to kick us out at 11.00pm but allowed us to stay.  We also spent two nights outside Decathlon (37.46863, 15.04729) while we got our e-bikes replaced with new ones free of charge (that’s another story).  We were able to fill water containers in the bathrooms in the mall.  A bit of a nomadic time doing car park surfing but quite relaxing overall.

Mt Etna ( 7.69931, 15.00043)

A large area for camper parking at the top car park but also high demand.  Arrive in the late afternoon or early evening for the best shot at finding a slot.  The cost is €12 and the tickets are bought from the kiosk.  Views, as one would expect, are stunning from up here.

Taormina (37.84866, 15.28673)

A really nice parking area with a view over the sea and not too far to cycle up to the historic town. We even managed to get our washing done and dry here. No services except rubbish and water was hard to find.

Driving in Italy

Driving in Italy

Driving in Italy can be fun and it can be a little bit challenging at times…

Today is one of those days that will stick in the memory and be a talking point, as well as a show and tell opportunity, for many years to come.


Because it was the day we took the non-toll (aka free) route to our destination and nearly came unstuck.

Looking at these roads, otherwise called spaghetti, we should have known better.

Take another look at that photo above.  When driving in Italy and following a GPS you need to know that  the pink road is our destination (according to Emily our GPS), then the green are secondary roads, the orange other main roads we could take, the blue is a river, and the grey, well don’t go near the grey, they are narrow and horrible.

You see we came across a very poorly maintained secondary road, which apparently is okay according to Emily who knows Betsy (our motorhome’s) dimensions.  However, someone had decided to place two huge concrete blocks and barriers accross the road with a miserly 2.2m gap between them.

How wide is Betsy?

Well, err, um, she is 2.2m wide.

So, what would you do if you were driving in Italy?  No, really, WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

Stop for a moment to contemplate your fate here.

They say the operator always blames his tools.  Alan, the mild-mannered ‘hardly ever swears’ one blames Emily.  He even called her a b*t*h!  He never(!) uses that word because he knows I hate that word.

Anyway, here’s what we did.

I got out to survey the opportunity or lack thereof.  Watch the videos to see what happened next.  Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to hide on the dash cam video that picks up every word (sorry)!

When I got back into Betsy I was nervous that the barrier was an indication of narrow roads ahead.  The driver of the car that passed us suggested we should turn around (spoken in Italian so that we could only assume that’s what he was saying – despite our language learning lessons).  I was envisioning a 5 metre long bridge that was 2.2m wide.  Alan thought that slips ahead could potentially have washed out the road and provided a 2.2m clear way.  Understandable given we have driven past snow on the road today in these high mountains.  It was just three weeks ago when it was mandatory to carry winter tyres!

We nervously carried on our way thinking that we will cross that bridge when we come to it, so to speak. Or we will turn around and go back. The thought of going back was nerve-wracking.  It would have to be the lesser of two evils.

There always has to be a silver lining when driving in Italy, right?  That’s how the universe works, doesn’t it?

I hope so.

In fact, I believe so, because we were richly rewarded with the views.

OMG!  Villa Santa Maria!!!!!

Look at the picture above.  Can you just imagine coming across this when you are driving in Italy?

We drove around a corner and saw this sight.  It came out of nowhere, it was unannounced, on no tourist destination, and almost felt like a town forgotten by time.  She is so beautiful “bella” they say in Italian.  We would love to go down there and explore if Betsy wasn’t so large.  I doubt anyone down there speaks English, let alone having ever seen a 7.5m long motorhome in their streets before.

There are townships and villages stuck on the side of rock faces everywhere we look when driving in Italy, particularly on the mountainous backroads.  Why would people live like this?  The answer is, ‘possibly’ because they always have and why not.

I think there would be very few motorhomes taking this route, however, should you feel keen, then you too will be richly rewarded when you are driving in Italy.

Fortunately, there were no washouts, narrow bridges or any other thing for that matter to justify the 2.2m width restriction.  Maybe they just had some excess concrete blocks they needed to put somewhere?  There were, however, two other blocks placed 2.2m wide another 10km or so further down the road, but this time there was another lane with some barriers that we could, and did, dismantle and moved so we had a comfortable 3m or more to cruise through.  Phew!




Erice – The Mountain of the Gods

Erice – The Mountain of the Gods

by Alan Gow  |  April 2018  |  Sicily, Italy

Seven hundred and fifty metres above sea level, atop the mountain of San Giuliano and overlooking the city of Trapani sits the medieval town of Erice, or as it is pronounced in Sicily, “Air-reach-ay”.

For nearly 3,000 years this unique place has inspired man to contemplate the deeper meaning of life and his/her relationship with the gods.

We had read other travellers accounts of their pilgrimage to Erice, and their recollections of their experiences here placed this mystical spot firmly near the top of the ‘must-do’ list for Sicily.

Our travels around Sicily had so far been confined to the coasts and this was our first foray up into the mountains that crowd much of Sicily’s interior.  We hoped to see beautiful churches, ancient buildings, mountainous landscapes and to sample some of the local delicacies while we were there.  We were not disappointed.

Our short journey from our last stopping place near Capo San Vito was unremarkable until we saw San Giuliano, the mountaintop partly shrouded in mist, with the Erice perched on top and clinging on tightly.  Betsy happily climbed the steep road to the summit, regularly dodging buses on tight hairpin bends.

We pulled up outside the ancient Spada Gate, parked up beside the other campers and immediately poked our noses inside the town walls.   The wide path directly to our right sloped steeply alongside the ancient walls which were originally constructed around 800 BC.

Steep road inside Erice’s 800 BC  walls
Directly ahead was a flatter path leading to a church and beyond.  We pulled our noses back in and took in our wider surroundings.  The view from our lofty parking spot was over the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea and the lush countryside we had traversed that day.  The parking area was fringed with a profusion of yellow, orange and blue wildflowers and the only sound was the wind rustling the trees which towered over the lichen covered stone walls behind us.

This is what we absolutely love about the motorhoming lifestyle – being able to park and sleep beside absolutely unique and astounding landmarks and sites, where all the money in the world couldn’t buy you a room.

Betsy’s view from Erice

Betsy’s view from Erice

We couldn’t help ourselves and just had to have a quick looksie around the area while it was still reasonably light and warmish.

At this altitude the wind certainly had a bit more bite so we took some warmer clothing just in case.  Unloaded the bikes and we were off through the Spada Gate only to meet a small on-coming truck – how the hell was he going to fit through there???  Somehow, he made it with a couple of centimetres on either side of his wing mirrors.  He had clearly done that before.

It seems that everywhere in this village there is a unique story to tell and the gory story of the Spada Gate (Gate of the Sword) was the massacre of the French Angevins in 1282, who were occupying Erice during the Sicilian Vespers Wars. We made it through un-massacred fortunately.

The track went steeply upwards and was obviously not made for bikes, (not even ebikes like ours) and included some gravel and rough paths.  But we made it safely onto the streets of what is said to be one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.  The first thing that struck me was how they have built the roads.  The stones are laid in an eye-catching geometric pattern which combined with the grass growing up through the cracks created a very attractive effect.  Four long stones are chamfered at both ends and butted up to each other to form a square, which is then infilled with other stones to make a solid road.  The result is not just aesthetically pleasing but also robust as nearly all of the roads are in good condition despite having to cope with modern traffic.

The Stone Lattice of Erice’s Roads

The Road and Wall of the Royal Cathedral

This same technique was used for both the larger roads and smaller footpaths and perfectly complimented the local stone buildings.

Erice is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sicily and can be reached by private car, bus, taxi or via cable car from nearby Trapani.  In the summer it is usually heaving with tourists but on this pleasant autumn evening the crowds were nearly non-existent.

No-one can visit Erice without popping into some of the nearly 60 churches of historical value.  Why so many churches you may ask?  Well, it seems that the site has been occupied since at least 800 BC, conquered and resettled by many cultures and virtually everyone has considered Erice to be a special, sacred place.  Therefore, every civilisation left traces of their unique religious heritage in the form of history, ruins, churches and traditions, which we can still appreciate today.

We made great progress around the town, ever thankful for the convenience and ease afforded to us by our ebikes and came across the Chiesa San Martino.  This is one of the most impressive of all the churches, built in the 1600’s on the site of a 14th-century Gothic church.  We wanted to get a head start on our sightseeing so we purchased the discounted tickets for seeing eight of the best buildings, only to find out that two were closed – ever mindful of getting the best value for money, I was a little dismayed to lose 25% of the discount before we even started.

You would think that after having visited dozens of churches, cathedrals and mosques in Italy, Greece and Turkey over the last ten months, it would all become a bit old for us – the ABC of Europe (Another Bloody Church), but no, we still had our breath taken away regularly.

One of these occasions was previously at the Monreale Cathedral and today was another epic one.

The majesty, the elegance, the lightness and the opulence just grabs hold of your bottom jaw and wrenches it as open as it can possibly go.  Many churches are darkened and you have to look hard to see their hidden treasures but San Martino is white and light grey, delicate stuccos, bright frescos, mottled columns and intricately inlaid marble altars, floors and bannisters.  Best of all, we were totally alone in this treasure to enjoy the solitude and to marvel at the workmanship and quality of the restoration work.

San Martino Church Interior

San Martino Church

San Martino Church Ceiling

Still buzzing from our experience, we wandered down the steep decline of Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Monastari de San Salvatore, which to be honest was a bit of a let-down after our last high, as it was completely unrestored, and many rooms were closed off.  There were however the original ovens (in use until relatively recently) used by the monks to bake bread and the local speciality, sweets.

Original Monastery Ovens

By this time, it was starting to cool down and the wind was whistling through the narrow streets like a herd of screaming banshees so we high tailed back to Betsy for dinner and bed.

As the sun dropped below the horizon we were blessed with a lovely sunset and we couldn’t wait to get started tomorrow and see what else Erice had to offer us.

The sun sets over Erice (and Betsy)

The next day thwarted the weather forecast and dawned misty and cool instead of bright and sunny.  Apparently, Erice makes up its own mind about its weather and tends to like hiding in the clouds.  Probably to keep up that mystical appearance.  Tendrils of mist wafted around Betsy and blocked out the view below and the peak above.  This didn’t seem like good ‘cycling-around-Erice’ weather so we rested up and waited for the clouds to clear.  Once the sun was shining we cycled around the road to the main gate of Porta Trapani, which was close to two buildings on our hit list; Duomo Dell’Assunta (Cathedral of the Assumption), otherwise known as the “Royal Cathedral” and the Bell Tower beside the church.

The Bell Tower was a little freaky to climb up inside and is no place for anyone who is claustrophobic as with a ducked head you climb the tiny staircase that wraps around the inside walls.  We both managed to navigate our way to the top.

This was originally built as a watchtower to look out for enemies so the view from the top was spectacular as expected.  From the town and salt marshes of Trapani with the cable car stretching to Erice, to the inland pastures and mountains and over the roofs of the township, everything could be seen for miles around.

The view over the town roofs from the Duomo (Royal Cathedral) Bell Tower

If entering Chiesa San Martino was a ‘wow’ moment, then the Duomo (Royal Cathedral) was at least as big a ‘Wow’ and maybe even a little wowier (is that even a word??).  How can they have made each of these churches so different inside?  They are similar in how they are laid out but so varied in the details that each appears entirely unique.  What stood out here initially was the ceiling of the Gothic arches, which was an amazingly detailed lattice of cream stucco, originating from restoration work in the mid-1800’s.  Each nave and apse held new treasures to exclaim over and photograph.

Royal Cathedral Interior

On our day went, with the visiting of buildings only briefly interrupted by a quick sidestep into a bakery for a selection of local sweets and pastries, one of which was so loaded with alcohol we weren’t sure we should be riding our bikes afterwards.

After lunch, we rode around to the 12th-century Norman Castle of Erice or the Venus Castle, so called because it is built on top of an ancient Temple to the Goddess of Fertility.  The castle is not large but still looks spectacular perched high on the walls and surrounded by clouds of spring wildflowers.  Inside there is not a lot to see however again the outlook is out of this world and you could image the pagans carrying on their fertility rites here a couple of thousands of years ago (well what you can imagine will depend on your imagination eh?).

Castle of Erice (Venus Castle)

The View from Venus Castle

Meandering further around the outskirts we found the twin medieval towers of the Torri dal Balio and stunning panoramic views over the sea and landscape.  Looking down you can see the Torretta Pepoli, which is a small quaint castle built in 1870 that is now a place for quiet reflection.

Panoramic from the Torri  dal Balio

The Torretta Pepoli and Venus Castle

The Torretta Pepoli – 19th Century Castle

The Church of Saint Giuliano was our last church stop in Erice and was a little understated compared with what we had seen previously – I guess they can’t all be just outright amazing.  The plain white interior still exhibited nice stucco features.

Church of Saint Giuliano

Church of Saint Giuliano

Of particular interest were the Easter (Pasqua) religious displays which are carried through the village during the Easter parades.  We were there just in time as someone turned up and started removing them while we were looking at them.

Church of Saint Giuliano

Church of Saint Giuliano

We ended our time in Erice with a final cycle through the steep streets and around the central square then back to Betsy, where we slept a second night before continuing on our way towards Marsala.

The overall impression I had of Erice is a sense of the very long and continuous relationship between man and God that has existed in this place.  While other towns in Sicily have been sacked, burned or toppled by earthquakes (often all three), Erice has consistently displayed the reverence and devotion to faith of whomever has occupied her.  As far as I can see there is no sign of that changing any time soon.

Experiencing an Italian Two Star Michelin Restaurant

Experiencing an Italian Two Star Michelin Restaurant

by Ruth Murdoch  |  April 2018  | Sicily, Italy

Why would someone dine at a fancy Two Star Michelin Restaurant when they can cook great food themselves?

Reaching deep into my purse and parting with hard earned cash just to fill ones stomach for an evening doesn’t sit well with my financial values. In fact this traveller has avoided such gastronomic pleasures.

That is, until today.

After a hearty recommendation from a wine expert in Marsala, we decided what better time to indulge in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant experience ourselves than when in Italy?  After all, we only live once, right? Although we didn’t need another excuse, we also had a second, Alan’s birthday provided the perfect reason and soon we were booked and looking forward with keen anticipation.

How Do You Get A Michelin Star?

One can only assume that in order to achieve such accolades of not one, but two, Michelin Stars there must have been hours and hours of hard work slaving over a hot stove only to have someone scoff the food within a matter of minutes.  Then there would be the wait for praise or criticism by some apparent food critic that could change your reputation (one way or the other) after a single plateful or two of toiled delights.

It so happens that the Michelin stars are the most coveted food award that a restaurant can achieve. The reviewers are all one hundred percent anonymous and the stars are based only on the quality of food. The ambience, furnishings and the quality of the service are not supposed to make any difference.  Although the exact judging criteria are nearly secret, in order to win two stars the chef will generally have to display unusual creativity, use unique and specially sourced top quality ingredients, and display exceptionally high consistency in their dishes. 

Two Star Michelin Restaurants are supposedly inspected monthly and just one less-than-perfect dish can be enough to drop one or even two stars. Gordon Ramsay is said to have cried when his New York restaurant lost its stars due to inconsistency.

So Is It Really Worthwhile?

Ristorante la Madia

Let me tell you about our first ever experience worldwide dining in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant, let alone an Italian one.

Ristorante la Madia can be found in the most insignificant streets of Licata, a smallish town located on the south coast of Sicily, at the mouth of the Salso River, about midway between Agrigento and Gela.

With just a small nameplate to identify its almost hidden location, we arrived at the frosted glass door of the entrance to Ristorante la Madia at 8.02pm for our 8pm reservation, only to find the door was locked!

What restaurant would lock its doors after the opening time? Were we even in the right place, on the right day, at the right time, or had they just forgotten to unlock the front door?  It seems that our door knocking eventually landed on someone’s ears, and the door is opened by two impeccably uniformed maître d’s.

Welcoming smiles saw us entering the unassuming premises and we notice the door is locked again behind us. This felt like we are entering a private, somehow exclusive, establishment we have been granted temporary access for the evening.  One maître d takes our jackets while the other confirmed our reservation.  I cringed as Alan handed over his leather jacket to expose a very un-ironed shirt underneath (it’s not easy to get creases out when you live in a motorhome and you can’t justify the space or weight that an iron would require).

The Ambience

Having confirmed our reservation, we are led down a short hallway into a sparsely, but classically decorated room.  Two walls have simple light brown timber panelling with a couple of quotes in Italian (of course).  The other two walls are painted a dark grey, almost looking sad and dreary.  I spied an old-fashioned record player with some vinyls (on top was Tracey Chapman) sitting on a ledge, which unfortunately just sits idle all evening.

Clearly, this place is about the food, not the music.

A curiously uninspiring single photo adorned the room.  I ask myself, “who puts up a photo of a couple of bed sheets hanging on a washing line with a cat in the yard?” Even the cobblestones beneath the cat were obviously not staged as they were amassed with weeds growing in what little sand they could find.  If this photo is intended to piqué ones curiosity then it achieved its goal. Perhaps it meant something to the chef?

Looking around, there is just one window that is located behind my seat, enclosing a small courtyard with various ceramics and green plants.

That is the extent of the lavish décor of this Two Star Michelin Restaurant.  Artistically pretentious this place was not and I just hope the food is of a higher standard than the ambience.

As we settle in for the evening, we ask to sit side by side, only to be politely told ‘no’. Whether our request is lost in translation or not, we didn’t push the point. The seating appeared to be meticulously planned and who are we to upset their careful creation?  Looking around I counted 23 place settings and assumed, incorrectly, that the restaurant was in for a busy night.  Sadly, there were just three couples keeping the staff on their toes this evening.

The Menus

Menus are delivered, in Italian of course.

Our very basic understanding of Italian and even Google Translate cannot help us decipher what was being offered as the words just don’t seem to translate into anything sensible.  With some assistance from the waiter, we settle on a menu heavily weighted towards seafood and look forward to enjoying the evening.

We order sparkling water, which is the easy part whilst I combed through the vino (wine) list.

The most beautiful tall fine steamed wine glasses I have ever seen arrived on our table.  Being tactile, I can’t help but touch and am instantly taken back into my childhood where I could hear Mum say ‘don’t touch, you’ll break it’. The delicate glass is fitting for the fine Chardonnay that soon follows.

On each of the tables sits an odd diamond shaped clay jug decorated with a face and has a fish for the lid. What this is for, we never found out. There was also literally a small rock of pink, almost translucent, salt and a miniature grater.


I wondered if this is more for decoration than use, as I would expect the dish to be perfectly seasoned before leaving the kitchen.

An Unexpected Treat

The first dish to arrive is an unexpected treat from the chef.  A kind of pre-starter to our seven courses, because in traditional Italian cooking, and especially in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant as we are learning, the chef must ensure the guests are well fed!

The thin outer buffalo casing is the skim off the cheese with its delicate flavours enticing.  Perched on top sits finely grated herbs, green mint leaves, and a thick tomato jelly type dollop (sorry that’s not an official description).  Inside we are delighted to find a fluffy aerated buffalo mozzarella cheese centre that seems to dissolve like a savoury candyfloss in your mouth, surrounded with a cold, smooth, flavoursome pomodoro zuppa (tomato soup).

If this is any indication of the other food yet to come, then bring it on.

I’m looking forward to an evening filled with intrigue and discovery, and that’s exactly what unfolded.

The Starters

Next to arrive is a variety of two breads – warm crusty wholemeal bread obviously fresh from the oven and breadsticks with the finest Sicilian olive oil.  I had never before laid eyes on such green olive oil.  The waiter pours his precious liquid gold into the small dish sitting patiently beside the bread.

This was no ordinary oil – it is the best money could buy and is treated with the utmost respect.  It appears the waiter has earned the right to possess such an important ingredient in our presence with his fine wrist movements, slow gentle pouring, and slight twist at the end preventing spillage.

Scallop and Prawn Temptation

The next delight to adorn our table is a delicate scallop and prawn temptation that is out of this world in both presentation and taste.

The outer scallop casing appears to be scallop rolled thinly and placed back into the shell to resemble the shape of a traditional scallop shell.  Atop are fine slivers of orange zest that appeared to have been soaking in pure orange fragrance, as the flavours are intense, making this a welcomed original tang away from the usual lemon citrus one would expect to find with seafood.

Now I’m getting into the swing of this Two Star Michelin Restaurant food experience.

Towards the rear of the outer shell casing a delicious light pink sauce peaks through.  Created from the orange scallop roe this dressing is silky smooth and delicately sits on ones tongue to enrich the flavours suitable only for the finest seafood.  Inside the scallop casing rests poached prawns cooked within milliseconds of perfection and sliced lengthwise.  Cooked for one second longer or shorter and the prawns would have been spoiled (or so it seemed).  They are perfect.

Arranged and served upon finely sliced crispy fresh lettuce, the prawns nestle into a circle, hugging each other while the roe dressing intertwines to coat each element and brings together a skilfully balanced creation.

How can this food get any better?

Just you wait…

Each dish is served on a silver platter by two professional waiters and beautifully presented before our expectant eyes.

I watch as a theatrical play appears to unfold before our eyes.  The performers make us believe we are the most important people in their lives at that very moment and they live only to serve.

Rock Octopus

Next is ‘rock octopus’, according to the waiters?  I’d never heard of rock octopus.

Ah, it means octopus in a rock.

Here the octopus is beautifully presented in a foam-like, slightly crunchy, aerated dark pink coloured outer casing which resembles the rocks from where it once may have lived.

Unfortunately for this poor octopus, it poked its head out to a waiting and willing fisherman and wound up on our table for our tasting pleasure.

Within the ‘rock’ and under the octopus is a fragrant and flavoursome sauce concocted from mussels, sea urchins and other oceanic delights.  The octopus has obviously been marinating for some time, as it is perfectly tender.

What a shame to break open and eat this delicious dish as in doing so means destroying the masterful culinary art that has obviously taken hours of design, tasting, testing, and reengineering, to arrive at the final goal of perfection.

A lovely card preceded the following dish that provides the story of Mamma (I presume the chef’s mother) and the Atalunga Tuna.

On one side is a picture of a Mamma and child and the other side holds the story that the chef wants to impart to his diners.

For those of you who can speak or wish to practice your Italian, here are the beautiful Italian words, followed by my close translation below.

Memoria Visiva

 Un po’ tutti siamo cresiuti con la fettina. 

La fettina era l’attenzione della mamma quando le sembravamo magri o ammala ti. 

Era una fettina sottile e tenerisdima, quasi non masticabile, condita solo con un po d’olio e limone.

Un piatto semplice e nutrien te.

Questo piatto di Tonno Alalunga e un omaggio all’amore delle nostre mamme e alla memoria della nostra infanzia.

Per me, il suo simbolo piu forte e il seme del limone: la perfezione imperfetta del gesto domestici… Mai una mamma lo avrebbe tol to, mai una mamma lo avrebbe fat to mancare.


Visual Memory

From little, we grew up with the slice.

The slice was the mother’s attention when we looked thin or sick. 

It was a thin slice and tender, almost not chewable, seasoned only with a little oil and lemon. 

A simple and nutritious dish.

This dish of Alalunga Tuna is a tribute to the love of our mothers

and to the memory of our childhood.

For me, its strongest symbol is the lemon seed:

the imperfect perfection of the domestic gesture…

Never a mother would have taken it away, never a mother would have missed it.

Out Of This World Tuna

This thin slice of tuna is the third dish to grace our table.

It was lightly seared on one side, drizzled with oil and the slightest hint of lemon, miniature chives and one perfectly placed lemon seed in the middle. (No this wasn’t a mistake, as both plates had the seed strategically placed in the centre of the tuna).  Sprinkled lovingly with crystals of rock salt this addition provides a delightful crunch and adds more flavour to Mamma’s dish.  Served lukewarm this is a simple but delicious dish and every bite melts in our mouths like it need not be chewed.

By this stage, we are really enjoying ourselves and the flavours of each dish seem to complement the one before.

We wait for the next masterpiece with a sense of anticipation and expectation, as we know we are in the presence of a culinary magician.  What appears before us next does not disappoint.

Outside the Norm

Sicilian food traditionally features a lot of pasta and aubergines but what turns up now is far from traditional.

I guess it is this sort of creativity that is expected in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant.

The al dente (harder than we’re used to at home) thin spaghetti is wrapped tightly around what appears to be a whole baby aubergine, stalk intact.  This is topped with a special Italian tomato sauce, miniature basil leaves and finely grated ricotta (I think) cheese.

I open the parcel to reveal that the aubergine has been transformed into a buttery smooth puree that was wonderfully flavoured and perfectly seasoned.  Multo saporito! – “very flavoursome” are the best Italian words I can come up with to describe this dish.

No More Wine!

We ask for another bottle of wine as the beautiful vino that has been accompanying us all night has run dry.

The waiter won’t or can’t allow us to have another Chardonnay.  Again we didn’t know if this is lost in translation or they just didn’t want to sell another expensive bottle of Chardonnay.  The waiter, however, has a half bottle of something he is willing to serve us, which for me, unfortunately, tastes just like a Sauvignon Blanc – the one white wine I actually detest.

Alan, bless him, takes one for the team and devours this all by himself.  For me, it’s sparkling water from here on in.

Given that we still have a few dishes due, it is somewhat of a pity to be denied a decent tipple to accompany them – this is Italian food after all!  

Moving right along…

The name of the menu we are enjoying is called “Illusion” and had been specially created by the chef so that each dish would be a surprise and would be somehow magical.

This was best demonstrated with the next delight.

Steak and Potatoes!

I’m not a big barbeque flavour fan at all, in fact, I would run a mile from that smoky, burnt, charred ash flavour.

To my delight, the coals were nothing more than part of the illusion (thank goodness for good logic and a sense of humour).  Lying before us was steak and potato, but not as ordinary as my label might suggest.

On the first pass, the beef looks raw.

Served just above warm in temperature, this melt-in-your-mouth beef, which appears to have been cooked in sous vide style, lives up to the expectations I have now come to realise is all part and parcel of a two Michelin Star restaurant.

I could get used to this and become an expert in things food (or at least be the taster).

The detail on our plate is impeccable; from the finely sliced square of rock salt on the beef to the tiny specs of ash sitting below the oil and the jacket potato which needs no further flavours for enhancement.

The spud and beef are perfectly complemented.

Wisps of breath over the top of the charcoal and she lights up, (providing one doesn’t blow too hard and decorate the table with ash – Alan!). The glow adds to the theatrical intrigue of a dish simply labelled by the waiter as “BBQ steak”.

There is nothing simple about this divine dish.

Unsurprisingly, I’m getting full now.

Pre Dolce and Dolce

Just two dishes to go… Pre dolce and dolce (before sweet and sweet).

Making room for the next scene, everything is cleared away from our table silently and without fuss by the waiter whose experience shows through his lack of intrusion into our space.

Now for the dessert…

But wait, before the dessert I must sample the Masala, especially as we had recently visited the township down the road and bought a bottle after an enjoyable Marsala tasting session. (Plus, there’s only so much sparkling water one can drink in an evening!)  I just love the glass the Marsala is served in, another favourite!  I grasp it with a full hand underneath and navigate it to my lips!  Yum.  Just as well my hands are no smaller, or the glass any larger.

Mandarin Jelly

The ‘ore dolce’ is first to come to our table, it’s a mandarin jelly bursting with incredibly intense citrus flavours topped with pistachio nuts.  Yum.

This pre-dolce is, I assume, to cleanse the palate before the final act appears on our stage.

Take a good look at the photo and pretend you can move it – then imagine how the wobble moves in front of you.  The bottom appears fixed to the plate while the top dances all around as far as it can reach.  Such fun.

The final dish appears.

Tiramisu!  My Favourite!

Tiramisu!  My all-time favourite Italian dessert for me and for Alan, the Profiteroles.  The Tiramisu, whilst incredibly creamy, was on the strong side for a non-coffee drinker.  I know, I know, I’m in Italy and I don’t drink coffee!  Perhaps that is what kept me awake all night.

Alan’s dessert was past his lips, over the tongue, and down into the depths of his stomach within minutes (if not seconds).  A hazelnut moose on a slightly chewy base garnished with two freshly split juicy raspberries and a single mint leaf on top.  A colourful and divine plate.

We go to bed with full bellies, a smile on our faces and the memory of the best gustatory delights of our trip to Europe so far.  I doubt we could find a better restaurant in all our travels.

If this is what a Two Star Michelin Restaurant is like, I’m in.

We just need to figure out how to make the budget stretch to enjoy more delights like those professionally served at Ristorante la Madia.


The Chef

Pino Cuttaia, the creator of this fine theatrical experience greeted us with his presence, post scoffing.  I love it when Chefs do this.

It’s like there’s no place to hide and we can ask questions of him, compliment him, or pick his brains for the recipe.  Just kidding, I doubt he’d give me his recipes in any case.  With his limited English and our limited Italian, the smiles said it all.

Would We Go Again?

So what did we think of our fine dining experience?

I would rather visit one special restaurant a year than ten ordinary restaurants if this is the quality of food on offer.  The entire evening was delightful and I’ll soon be looking for the next excuse, reason, or occasion to find another Two Star Michelin Restaurant…

La Madia is unaware of our review and we paid for our meal in full (in case you were wondering).

La Madia Snc Restaurant – Corso F. Re Capriata, 22 – Licata (Ag) – Tel. (+39) 0922 771443 – [email protected] P.iva 02292500846 Visit their website

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A Good, Good Friday in Sicily

A Good, Good Friday in Sicily

Easter’s Good Friday started with the Gow/Murdoch family tradition of a cuppa tea in bed with a Lindt Chocolate Bunny to scoff.  We decided it’s too long to wait until Easter Sunday to start eating chocolate, so we start on Friday and make it a four day event.

We discussed the first quarter financials and discovered that despite being significantly over budget in March due to ferry crossings back from Crete and then over to Brindisi, Italy, not to mention toll costs, we were actually under budget YTD.  That put us on a high for the morning, until we then realised we have significant fixed costs, namely insurances back at home, that put up the cost of just simply being alive. Oh well, at least our day to day living expenses are tracking the right way.

Jumping out of bed, I decided, involuntary, to kick the toilet door and proceeded to take off half my big toe nail.  Alan said ‘ouch’ more than I did while I just held my toe and watched the blood pooling around and under my nail that was only just attached.  Bugger.

It didn’t stop us though, and being a tough Kiwi I put a plaster on it and carried on, as we had a big day ahead.

First stop was to ride our bikes to the most northern point of Sicily and admire the stunning view on such a perfect day of 26 degrees and a gentle warm breeze.  From up high with the beating sun warming our faces, it was most tempting to want to dive into the crystal clear waters below and just have the cool water envelop us.

Our next visit was the ‘Church in the Cave’ at Capo Milazzo called Santuario di Sant’Antonio da Padova.  Why a church would be built here is anyone’s guess, however, they did a great job constructing this into a cliff face.  Check out the ceiling, which is still original.  I’d hate to think how cold this place would be in the dead of winter!

Thirdly we drove to Castello di Milazzo (Milazzo Castle), and ignoring Google that suggested the castle was closed until 4.30pm (it was now 1.30pm), we parked close enough to walk into the town that is built around the base of the castle and headed up to see how far we could venture. To our delight the castle was in fact open, so we paid our ten euros and walked in.

The castle is one of the few we have come across that is a mixture of old and newly reconstructed.  In fact, this place has the most chequered history of any Castle during our travels.

The first fortifications were built around 4000 BC and the present castle built between the 9th and 17th centuries.  It appears that anyone who was nearby had a part to play in the history of Milazzo Castle.  The Greeks modified it into an acropolis, then it was later enlarged by the Romans and Byzantines, the Normans had a crack around 1200 AD, and built a ‘keep’.  Next the Arabs built and enlarged the castle, and the outer walls are of Spanish construction.

The castle was subsequently converted into a prison in 1880 and underwent a number of alterations.  The prison closed in 1959 and the castle remained abandoned for a couple of decades.  There was a Benedictine Convent built during the 16th century and has been since restored, as is obvious from the lift inside.  The basement still looked fairly original and upstairs, newly laid marble adorned the floor in what appeared to be conference rooms.

After many years of neglect and deterioration, the castle was restored between 1991 and 2002, and again between 2008 and 2010.

The entrance of Castello di Milazzo

Newly renovated Cathedral showing the new and the old side by side

Looking down onto the prison courtyard from above. 

Stunning view of the surrounding Milazzo township

Evidence of prisoners counting the days on the cell’s ceiling

We continued to drive further around the coast and arrived in Oliveri where after the unusually difficult task of finding a suitable place to park Betsy, a water hunt began.  The camper occupants in front of us suggested there was no water, except for in the camping ground.  Being mindful of budget restrictions, we decided to ignore their suggestion of having to book in and went searching for water.

Luckily, most of the townships have a water fountain, and Oliveri was no exception.  We found it but it has a slow flow, which meant sitting in the seats provided and waiting to fill our two bottles, about 20 litres in total and about 15 minutes waiting.  Meanwhile, I went off to find a few groceries and came back having hunted down dinner from a local butcher – chicken schnitzel (supposedly).  After cooking up however, it resembled white boot leather in texture and tasty slightly ‘porkish’. Not out best experience of buying local produce. I also wanted to buy eggs, and instead of asking for uova (eggs) I asked for olio – an honest mistake.  Being directed to olive oil, I proceeded to tuck my arms into my side and make out like a chicken with the customary clucking noises and then showing the size of an egg with my hands.  The shop assistant picked up on my charades and we both laughed at our language translations and communication methods.

Meanwhile, while waiting for the water fill, the neighbouring household was outside, decorating what looked like biscuits.  We asked what they were and on the next water fill visit, Alan was given two of these delightful treats by this lovely family who spoke not a word of English.  Although we know a few Italian words, Google Translate helps to fill in the gaps.  The son was offering Alan a ‘regalo’ (gift).  They are called Biscotti or Pastaria Easter Cookies.  The Nonna (Grandmother) was baking with her son and grandson (figlio and nipote) who were decorating these biscotti with lemon icing and colourful sprinkles. They were still warm when Alan came back home.  It made my day to be partaking in something unexpected and so very traditional.  A bonus of being here at Easter time.

Next thing Alan knows is there is an Easter (Pasquale) parade happening right in front of his eyes. Lucky thing. The parade was depicting Jesus, the black Madonna and Roman Guards.

Meanwhile, I was back at Betsy making a lemon cake, part of which we will be taking to the family who unselfishly gave up two of their Pastarias for foreigners who are total strangers. The kindness of people is such a beautiful thing to encounter when travelling.

If you would like this lemon cake recipe, I will endeavour to put it up on our recipes tab.  Happy Easter to you all.

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