Palermo airport is on the headland at Punta Raisi west of the city. The city itself is around the headland and out of sight as our flight makes the approach but there is a fine view of the hills on the promontory across the bay. After collecting the hire car we took the autostrada west towards Alcamo and then south to Castelvetrano. The road doesn’t follow the contours of the land but floats over the valleys on viaducts and tunnels through the hills. The central reservation is a drift of pink and white Oleanders.

At Castelvetrano we picked up the SS115. We made good time to Agrigento but then missed the turning to Palma di Montechiaro which delayed our arrival at the hotel. We were staying at the Azienda Agricola Mandranova (*) . The hotel is at kilometre 217 on the SS115 but the entrance was not on the main road and it took us a few passes to locate the turn, which is at kilometre 215 and signposted to Campobello di Licata.

Mandranova is an olive farm now also diversifying into almonds. Our room was in the old railway station. Supper is a four course meal which was served communally at 8:30pm on the terrace, except for on the last night of our stay when the wind, the Scirocco, blew in from Africa and we had to move indoors. To go with the food there was an excellent selection of Sicilian wines. We tried three of the whites, a rose and a red on subsequent evenings, all from vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna.

Agrigento was established around 580 BCE as Akragas, one of a string of Greek colonies along this coast. The colonists came from Gela, around 75 kilometres down the road, which itself had been established in 688 BCE. Syracuse had been founded around 733 BCE. We didn’t get time to visit the modern hilltop town. The archaeological site occupies a ridge between the town and the sea. A wall once ran the length of the ridge augmenting the natural defenses. The temples themselves are largely in ruins. Only the Temple of Concordia and to some extent the Temple of Juno, both near the upper entrance, are reasonably intact.

We parked at the lower car park and took the taxi to the upper entrance. The queue at the entrance was quite slow and it took 40 minutes to get to the ticket office. What we should have done is buy the tickets at the lower gate where the queue was much shorter before taking the taxi ride.

The setting here is beautiful and it doesn’t really matter that most of the temples are now fragmentary when set here against a perfectly blue sky, the sea and the olive trees (*). Across the road and past a further three temples is the Giardino della Kolymbethra. The Kolymbethra was the basin for capturing water at the bottom of the ancient city’s water irrigation system. The garden is now an orchard of orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit trees. It is managed by the FAI, the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (*), an organisation founded in 1975 which draws its inspiration from the National Trust in Britain, and it turned out we could use our National Trust cards to enter. On the other side of the garden there is a climb to the furthest temple, the Temple of Vulcan. Just before the temple you walk across the branch line from Agrigento to Porto Empedocle. We were assured that trains ran only on Sundays (*).

After returning to the car we drove up the hill to the Regional Architectural Museum (*). The collection is well displayed and the curator’s notes are informative but I found it somewhat overwhelming. There were perhaps a dozen very interesting pieces here that could have been given prominence and focus. By the side of the museum is the old church of Saint Nicholas, unfortunately closed, and an amphitheatre, the Ekklesiasterion, which was used as a public space where city issues were discussed. It is now little more than a plan but with a good view of the temples from a higher vantage point.

The following day we took the SS640 towards Caltanisetta. Just before the town we left the main road and headed up to Enna, another hilltop town (*). At one end of the town is an octagonal tower built in the time of the emperor Frederick II. At the far end of the hill is the Castello di Lombardi. The castle, which dates from the 13th century, isn’t very interesting in itself but from the highest of the remaining towers there are views across the island in all directions. On the day we were there there was some cloud on the horizon and only the summit of Mount Etna, some 60-70 kilometres away, was visible; a plume of vapour blowing away to the south as if from the funnel of an ocean liner. After visiting the castle we had coffee and pastries at a pavement café just across from the entrance.

We had originally intended to drive to Syracuse but it was clear that travelling times were longer than we expected. Syracuse will have to wait until our next visit to Sicily. Instead we headed south. A few kilometres on from Enna is the Lago di Pergusa. It is supposed to be were Hades abducted Proserpina in Greek legend and is now a nature reserve. We couldn’t find a road down to the lakeside however; the reserve is entirely encircled by a motor racing circuit, the Autodromo di Pergusa.

A little further south is the town of Piazza Armarina and just outside the town down another road lined with pink and white Oleanders is the Villa Romana di Casale, a world heritage site (*).  The villa was occupied in different forms from the 1st to the 12th centuries but the mosaics date from the 4th century when it was an extensive country estate. They had been buried under agricultural land before being rediscovered and excavated in 1929. The villa itself can only be suggested by paneling but the mosaics are extensive. In the tourist centre by the car park we have coffees and our only sample of Arancini during this trip.

On our third day the wind was subdued enough and we went out on the speedboat with the owner of the Mandranova. We drove into the fishing port at Licata. Reflecting a cloudless summer sky the deep water was a deep blue and the shallow water close to the shore turquoise. Giuseppe says that properties are now expensive on this coast and it easy to see why. The water is clear for snorkeling. In places small colourful fish swim around islands of seaweed-like fronds just below the surface. Resting on one of these shallows I joined a couple who owned one of the beach front villas. It later turned out they were friends of Giuseppe’s and we met them again at supper that evening.  Back at the port, we watched the fisherman unloading their catch.

On our last day for touring we headed back west along the SS115 to Castelvetrano and then took the Autostrada west to Marsala. Unfortunately the museum we wanted to visit, which houses a ship which fought in the wars between Rome and Carthage (*), is closed, so we headed north along the coast towards Trapani. There are salt pans by the road here. We were heading for Erice, which is built on a rock almost 750 metres above the Mediterranean. From the top Africa is sometimes visible but the cloud is quite low today and below the level of the summit, obscuring the view. We stroll through the street to the Norman tower. In reality Erice has become too much of a tourist destination. I imagine it was once worth the three stars the Michelin guide awards it but if I had to make a choice I would give this a miss and go to Enna, which has only one star, instead.

We were also somewhat ambivalent about Segesta, our final stop on this tour. There is a Greek temple here that appears in photographs to be set in isolation in an Arcadian landscape. At the summit of the neighbouring hill is an amphitheatre. The signpost indicates that this theatre is 1.25 kilometres from the gate but forgets to mention that all those metres are uphill and the ascent is steep. But it is worth the walk. The amphitheatre is still used for performances and the view looking back down the valley, now crossed by the viaducts carrying the autostrada, is spectacular (*). This is also the best view of the temple, the view in the photographs. Later, when you walk up to the temple platform itself the building, which, seen from across the valley in hazy afternoon sunlight had evoked an image of the ancient world, is gone and what is there is a somewhat scrappy ruin, a collection of stones now fenced off and braced with iron scaffolding.

We left early the following morning to return to the airport at Palermo. This was our 4th trip along the SS115 and the quickest as there was much less traffic early on a Sunday morning. At these times these are the best kind of roads to drive. We reached the airport in just over 2 ¼ hours.


The flight time to Rome is little more than an hour but then there is the delay at the airport to collect the luggage. We then took the train from Fiumicino airport to Termini station which takes only half an hour and then the metro to Lepanto. Our hotel, the ISA Design Hotel (*), is on Via Cicerone, just north of Piazza Cavour.

We were last in Rome in 2005 and visited most of the main tourist sites during that visit but we missed the Vatican due to the long lines at the entrance (*). As a coda to our Sicily trip we are therefore returning to make good the omission, this time well prepared. We booked an early morning tour with Real Rome Tours (*). The rendezvous point is only 15 minutes’ walk from our hotel but we still had to skip breakfast to be there by 7:15 am. The tour promises to skip the queues which it does. There are a fair number of similar parties but we are at the entrance in good time and the guide gives our small group of five a succinct presentation on the paintings in the Sistine Chapel while we wait at the entrance.

The early start and the additional cost are worth it. We were in the chapel for about 40 minutes. Other early tours start to drift on after about 20 minutes, so that at 9 am, when a priest enters to say prayers, the room is fairly empty. Later it will be full and much less comfortable.

After a coffee break we do a fairly quick tour of the Vatican Museum and then walk through to St. Peter’s Basilica. It is substantial and ornate church, not particularly sympathetic in my view. I preferred the simplicity of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul which we visited in 2014 (*). We didn’t have time to climb the dome. Michelangelo’s design is modeled on Brunelleschi’s for the dome of the cathedral in Florence which we visited in 2001 and has the same double structure to create buttressing. After lunch we strolled down to the Tiber and then along the banks towards Trastervere.

On the two evenings we were staying, after supper at nearby bistro’s we went up to the roof terrace of the hotel for cocktails. From the terrace the view across the rooftops is towards the dome of St Peter’s and we could watch the light reflected on the dome change as the sun set and the lights came on (*).