This is part one of a personal tale of a trip to Western Sicily was written by broadcaster, writer and blogger Laura Ciarallo. Laura is one of the two ‘Martian Sisters’ who travel Italy for their independent and intelligent travel blog: www.sorellesumarte.it.
Introducing travellers to the secret side of Sicily by taking them on original, personalized itineraries is the mission of a niche tour operator, Cognoscenti Travel. This little gem of a company is the brainchild of Alberto Ciarallo who – I am proud to say, is also my very own brother. He’s been working in travel and bespoke event planning for over twenty years. Why focus just on Sicily? Only a place which has so many layers of thousands of years of culture, and which is a melting pot of races and peoples can offer the broad spectrum of experiences from which to design an unforgettable journey.
I already know the island of Sicily quite well. I’ve visited it several times, travelled far and wide (even in a classic car!), but what I saw thanks to Cognoscenti Travel was totally new and special to me. The trail I followed was from Palermo to Marsala, a trip evocatively titled “Sicilian stories, between salt pans and vineyards on the discovery of the most unknown parts of western Sicily”.
What elevates a simple tour to a remarkable journey? First you need an exceptional guide – we had Anita Bestler, a scholar on Sicily who has earnt her honorary Palermitan status after more than 25 years of guiding, writing and sharing her knowledge with great passion. Secondly, the choice of unique locations, the visit to private villas that are not normally open to the public. Thirdly, the perfect planning of every detail by Alberto who creates each day as if it were a wonderful event unfolding and seems to know everyone! And finally, seamless transfers managed by our driver Giuseppe. Visiting as a local is definitely much more intriguing than being simple tourists. So, here’s how we enjoyed this lesser-travelled part of Sicily as real locals.
Sicily: Palermo – unusual excursions and a cooking class
Each trip offered by Cognoscenti Travel is personalized and very original. In Palermo we stayed in one of the oldest historic buildings with its 12th century, Arab-Norman tower. It is located in the Albergheria district, which is central and full of contrasts, a feature that makes it even more special. The private wing of the palazzo was revealed via a visited guided by Countess Alwine Eder herself.
A cultural visit to Palermo must include the magnificent Palatine Chapel dated 1140 the Palazzo dei Normanni, an admirable synthesis of 4 monotheistic religions, described by the French writer Guy de Maupassant as “the most beautiful church in the world”, and the Oratory of S. Cita with the plaster stuccoes by Giacomo Serpotta, the ‘Sicilian Bernini’.
Cognoscenti Travel combines the classic itinerary with some unexpected treats like a coffee stop with a spectacular view at Rinascente and a visit to the ancient silversmiths district. This respected Palermo craft dates back to the 1400s, and some artisans still have their shops here, proud to show off their manual skills. Old and new sit side by side in Palermo, and there is no shortage of colourful street art to be found.
Another wonderful experience is the historic cooking class we had with the Duchess Nicoletta at Palazzo Lanza Tomasi. First, we went shopping at Capo market, one of the oldest in Palermo, and then we took the fresh ingredients back to the Duchess’ kitchen where she expertly taught us how to prepare a lunch of typical Sicilian dishes. To start: panelle a chickpea-flour snack, pasta with sage, then stuffed calamari and scented honeydew melon jelly to finish. At the end of the class, we ate the menu together with the Duke and Duchess in the elegant dining room which was set up in great style with silverware and crystal. The Palazzo is a treasure-trove, which houses, among other things, the original manuscript of the famous novel Il Gattopardo by the Duke’s illustrious relation: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.