It’s not often that, as a family of four, you get invited to dinner by total strangers. But this happened on my visit to Sicily: a chance meeting over prams led to a pasta feast in the modest home of a fireman and his wife. While the grownups stumbled through the language barrier Will, aged one, and Lucy, aged six, bonded immediately with the other children. At the end of the meal Lucy was presented with a pizza cutter that we still use today.
That is the single best reason for taking your family on a Sicily holiday. Italians as a whole are pretty keen on children but here, warmed by the southern Mediterranean sun, this enthusiasm seems more forceful and pervasive. New children are show-stoppers, treated as little stars in their own right: there’s nothing like this constant, kind attention to put a glow on their holiday experience.
Villas are Best
With a family the best holidays are often in a private villa. Italian hotels in general tend to be expensive and haute cuisine is often wasted on the young: in a private villa mealtimes and menus can be flexible and free. The best villas with pools tend to be the highlight of any holiday, providing hours of exploration and entertainment through long sunny days.
By staying in a villa in Sicily you get to experience Sicily as the locals do. You can track down the best shops selling particular regional delicacies, the olives, pistachios, cheeses and wines that make the Sicilian diet one of the healthiest in the world. Market stalls are pervaded by almost tropical scents while Sicily’s many harbours are thronged with fishing boats of all sizes, harvesting the Mediterranean for shrimp, squid and octopus.
Loaded with local supplies your holiday home can be the perfect haven, with long leisurely lunchtimes stretching late into the day. Children can run around in freedom splashing in and out of the pool and the whole family can relax in peace.
Choosing a Sicilian Villa
When choosing your villa it’s important to appreciate Sicily’s sheer size. It takes over two hours to drive between the two main airports of Palermo and Catania. Where you stay and where you arrive will be closely linked.
Palermo is the capital, an atmospheric city whose ancient centre has an almost medieval feel. There are some wonderful sights here, including the somewhat gruesome Capuchin Catacombs, where hundreds of corpses, still fully dressed in period clothing, are hung up on the walls, waiting for the afterlife. This is a good base to explore the vineyards and fertile farmlands of western Sicily; the mediaeval hilltop town of Erice, the wine-flavoured cuisine of Marsala, and the Greek temple at Segesta. If this enchants – and it usually does – drive further south and you’ll find 12 more temples spread around the countryside of the ‘Valley of the Temples’ by the town of Agrigento. There are countless beaches in Western Sicily, but perhaps the most fashionable are around the elegant resort town of Cefalù, spread out below a glorious cathedral that blends Norman, Arab and Byzantine elements.
Catania is the gateway to eastern Sicily, dominated by Mount Etna, whose brooding and often snow-capped peak is almost always in view. If your children have learned anything about volcanoes, Mount Etna will blow away their modest pre-conceptions. It is so much bigger than any first-time visitor can imagine, and often politely erupting a plume of smoke into the sky. Coastal settlements cling precariously to cliffs as the mountain’s lower slopes plunge into the sea. The most visited resort is Taormina, a beautiful town set above curving crescent beaches, its narrow alleys dense with small, family-run restaurants and exclusive boutiques. There are plenty of amphitheatres in Sicily but the one in Taormina is possibly the best: with views of Etna’s snow-capped peak, it often hosts performances of classical music and opera, the perfect place to enjoy Italy’s cultural achievements and its ancient history.
Out and About
Sicily is far more than just a fly and flop destination. The Mediterranean was the cradle of western civilisation and Sicily was at its heart: it is littered with relics from the last 3,000 years. However tempting the pleasures of your holiday villa, it’s well worth getting out and about to explore. My children are often left cold by the major, well-excavated and more organised archaeological sites, but they love the wilder, neglected ones – and in Sicily there are plenty of these. Their favourite was at Palazzolo Acreide just above Syracusa, where they could run freely around the steps of a huge, deserted amphitheatre and then burrow around in ancient Greco-Roman galleried graves. The archaeological sites you choose to visit are likely to be the ones nearest to your villa – and that’s a perfectly good way of shaping your holiday experience.
Family Friendly Sicily
The family-friendly attitude of the locals will infuse your experience of Sicily, easing your passage through city centres, restaurants and resorts. Even the food seems made for children: few can resist the delicate flavours of freshly-cooked pasta, newly-baked breads or hand-thrown pizza. And that’s before they catch sight of Sicilian ice cream, banked in a range of flavours at countless streetside stalls.
Warm at Easter and hot in summer, Sicily’s also one of the few places in Europe that is also sensibly sunny for all the half-term breaks. For your next family holiday it’s a natural choice.
And if my visit was any guide you’ll be left with lasting memories. And Lucy’s pizza cutter, that brings back a waft of Sicily every time it’s used.
If this has tempted you to take your family to Sicily, visit www.thinksicily.com where you will not only discover a range of villas suitable for the family, but you will find more information about Sicily. There is even a complimentary iPhone app you can download so you can have a guide to Sicily at your fingertips.