Mr Smart, Head of Art is ultimately responsible. Chatting last term to Beautiful Boyfriend (mine, not his) he recommended as the starting point for our imminent vacanza, a swanky Palazzo apartment owned by a Countess he happens to know.
It came to pass then, that on a dreamy day in July we arrived at Butera 28. Here, our light and lofty rooms were laid out with such achingly beautiful symmetry that from the bed, one could gaze through the dining and sitting rooms to a perfect window that framed an azure sea, sky and slender horizon.
Lovely Mr Smart, himself in vacanza, took possession of our first night. Steering us through landmark Palermo piazze and strade, he took care to provide reference points for our future sorties around town. A bijou bar drew us in for the first delicious holiday Prosecco and to watch the very Italian goings on around us. We didn’t loiter long though, for dinner and Mr Smart’s Sicilian Partner both called. SP is a collector of Barbie dolls, owning some 5,000 original examples; excited conversations ensued about the groundbreaking Twist ‘n’ Turn model, which of course I owned back in 196hmff.
The essential London antidote, five days in Palermo gave us lessons in the art of slow. A late and lazy start to the day, with chilly watermelon and steamy coffee in bed would drift into a light lunch and hazy siesta, after which we might venture out into an abated heat, to seek Sicilian treasure.
Jewels and gems aplenty were to be found; the flea markets yielded a pretty, pale pink antique glass lens, ancient silver pencil sharpener and some lace. The food markets were a-brim with fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and herbs, not to mention floury and flavourful pane of every description. We’d return home in deep debate about … dinner.
Palermo: sighs and scenes aplenty, drawn from architecture, art and true Italian artifice. If you visit, make sure you take in the mosaic-rich Cappella Palatina and the Museo Internzionale delle Marionette – a curious collection of puppets compiled by clever curators with an eye for the arcane.
Pasta pesto (10 minutes)
100g fresh basilico. 100g fresh rucola, 3-4 spicchii d’aglio, 50g pinoli, 125g parmegiano, 2 limone, 125ml olio di oliva vergine, sale e pepe. Pasta fresca.
Toast the pine kernels. Finely chop or crush anything choppable or crushable, grate everything else, throw it all into a large bowl, blend with the olive oil. Add chilli if you fancy some extra heat. Season. Serve with fresh pasta. Sprinkle some halved baby plum tomatoes around the side for a bit of tricolore action. Ecco.
We found ourselves in Cefalù due to a tiny window of opportunity between Palermo and the next six nights of our holiday in a nearby spot further up the Northern Coast.
An early morning €20 First Class ticket-for-two took us to this lovely place. Cefalù did not disappoint; a seaside city founded by the Greeks (some ancient remains lie hither and thither) its population of 14,000 anticipates the summer arrival of several million visitors.
Within minutes of arriving we were beachside; the hot-sand-in-the-toes moment was well worth the Palermo pause. We splashed about in the sublime and oh-so-salty sea for hours.
Come late afternoon we sauntered through the streets unbelieving of our good fortune and the richness of our holiday thus far. After a reviver at the piazza we climbed steep steps into the beautiful Cathedral, apparently commissioned by King Roger II in gratitude to God for saving him from a violent storm at sea.
The most arresting sight in here is the monumental mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, whose face bears Roman eyes and nose, Arab mouth and chin. One hand is raised in benediction, the other holds a text that reads in both Greek and Latin: “I am the light of the world …” A lesson for today’s religious muddle lies perhaps, within this great work.
Campofelice di Roccella
Our longest sojourn was at Campofelice di Roccella, within a modest villa that lay just five minutes walk from a long, clean, sandy and under-populated beach. Here, our luck grew to almost indecent proportions (time now, to salute BB’s diligent planning methinks.)
It was here, too, that BB excelled himself. The heat in our bedroom that first night was less than comfortable; on waking, he disappeared up to the discreet sundeck that had persuaded us into renting the place. He returned and silently dragged the mattress upstairs. Asking no questions (I know better) I left him to his machinations, hearing only occasional muffled thuds and snatches of song.
The outcome of this mysterious episode? Our sleeping arrangements had moved aloft and we slept thereafter under a beautifully constructed mosquito net and the sparkling starlit sky. BB even pointed out my sign Taurus. I have never before slept under stars. I have never before seen Taurus. I have never been away with a man who just happens to bring with him the clips and other necessaries with which to construct a substantial and effective barrier against small fanged flying things.
Over these few days we witnessed every sunset and even a sunrise from the beach. Swimming under a palette of pink and orange is happiness indeed; the rhythm of our even slower days here also took in a regular siesta, a movie, Prosecco, a passeggiata and were yes, structured around food and fine wine.
Our prevalent luck extended to a daily circuit of mobile vendors who arrived with clockwork regularity, plump, juicy fruit and vegetables and an assortment of pane to die for. Regrettably, the ice-cream van came only on day two; in our excitement we failed to unlock the gate in time … I’m told the Roccella ice cream is really very good.
Crushed watermelon ice
Fill 1/3rd of a 2ltr water bottle with water and place in freezer for 24hrs. Scoop the flesh of ½ large watermelon into a bowl and crush to pulp. Shake the frozen water bottle vigorously to break-up the ice and then add the juice. Shake again and return to the freezer for an hour or two. Repeat daily. Take to beach.
The grand finale: a few nights in la bella Balestrata. This resort-in-waiting gave us a bohemian apartment within an ancient building close to the sea, which we often watched from our balcony. The days here unfurled gently with the sound of the street rousing us from slumber. We awoke to open french windows, sheer, pale golden curtains billowing in a kind breeze, rooftops only just visible under the bluest of blue skies all seen through slender wrought iron swirls.
There are three beaches in Balestrata.
The first is smooth and long, cliff behind and sea afront. Groups of sun seekers scatter across the broad sand; there is no crowd, no clutter, no café, no bar, for the people who come here are self-sufficient. They leave no imprint of their stay on this unspoiled beach.
The second is smaller and trickier to reach. More private, it is less rewarding for the sunbather and swimmer but a goldmine for the explorer, with rocks and pools, wondershells and shimmering stones.
Beach three is the Papa. Away from the centre, out of earshot from the town, rickety bars have been erected along the prom; music blares, boys strut, girls pout, mothers cluck and fathers gaze from under snoozy eyelids. Everywhere there is Italian chatter and song, for this Balestrata beach is Palermo’s playground. There are no tourists here, no Inghlese, no Francese. Just Italians doing what Italians do best.
Food was clearly pivotal to our holiday, food that we bought and prepared ourselves (slowly). Sunday however is all about pasta and today, I wanted mine cooked by a pro. We strolled out to Trattoria da Geronimo. Here, the eponymous, round, smiling owner purveys true Sicilian fare and the sweetest Panelle: a fried chickpea confection which, sprinkled with salt, is served as street food. But Geronimo knows how to woo his guests with Prosecco, panelle and perfect pasta. We loved Geronimo.
And so, Balestrata and its beaches took us gently by the hand to the end of our holiday and now, to the end of this story.
There are of course many more tales to tell, but not here and not now.
© Giovanna Forte