Why Sicily is Europe’s greatest island for a family holiday (and now is the time to go)

What a summer it was. And now that the school year has cranked up again, it’s almost refreshing to think that temperatures will drop a bit, look forward to that glorious autumn palette and see if the moths have had the grace to leave you anything of your favourite scarf.

But it is much harder to look forward to the darkness and grey skies. If you are like me, you will feel you can bear anything under a canopy of crystalline blue. So while I’m ready to give up the scorching temperatures – almost relish it when it’s brisk – I’m sorry, but I’m not quite ready to give up that glorious sun. Not yet, anyway.

So what to do? Well, if you are young and free the answer is simple: book a cheapo package to a distant destination where the season suits your mood. But if you are looking to defy the weather gods and have a young family, you will almost certainly find yourself asking questions to which there is no perfect answer. A checklist for escape is created. The result is that as fast as you consider destinations you rule them out again. Guaranteed heat would be nice but long-haul flights with the monsters seem a nightmare.

So it strikes me that if you can hold out until October half term and temperatures “only” in the 20s are not a deal-breaker, there’s a good case for trying somewhere with a proper volcano. And with beaches. And with a heap of great stuff to see too, just in case you fancy some culture.

There aren’t many short-haul destinations for us autumn getaway artists, but Sicily ticks the boxes. And it’s sunny too – seven hours a day in October, to the British three.

Just remember to take a credit card. I know. What idiot doesn’t take a credit card on holiday? Well, rather in the same way that I have almost stopped using cash for contactless, I have got used to using a debit card for everything. So when my last credit card expired, I didn’t get another. Then we arrived at Catania airport, and I was feeling smug at how straightforward the journey had been, and the man at the rental car desk asked for my credit card. He wanted to put the deposit on it, in case of damage. Even though I had pre-paid the cost of the hire with the debit card, he wanted a credit card. Without one, he was “obliged” to charge me the cost of the full insurance car hire places demand. Three hundred quid extra. Just for having no credit card. So take one.

The irony was that, mindful of the Sicilian reputation for exuberance, shall we say, behind the wheel, I had already taken out extra comprehensive insurance. So it was the most phenomenally well-insured vehicle that nosed its way out of the rental lot.

Driving in Sicily proved to be enlivening, but not terrifying. We found that those who wanted to overtake around blind corners, while chatting away on their phones, did so. They did not – as elsewhere in Italy – drive up to our rear bumper at 150mph then flash their lights, demanding that we overtake around the blind corner first. In towns and cities, the rules of giving way remain flexible, but an automotive intuition soon builds, and in cities everyone is crawling along anyway.

So an hour after departing Catania, we were safely pulling into an agriturismo in south-eastern Sicily – home to such gems as the hill towns of Modica and Ragusa, the ancient port of Syracuse and plenty of beaches. Having caught a 7am flight in the driving rain, we arrived in time for lunch – and yes, it was blue skies and warm at 75F (24C).

The joy of an agriturismo or hotel is that when you do arrive, tired and stressed, you can collapse and – instead of immediately heading out to the supermarket as you might with a villa – request a plate of pasta and a beer. Agriturismi, or farm stays, are a real alternative in Sicily. With rural depopulation, many smallholders rent places, which like any B&B can be basic or as swish as top hotels. What makes them special is that you will usually have at least some contact with the owners, and find much of what you eat comes from the farm. In our case, everything from the olive oil to the fruit and veg was made on site, under the vast polytunnels that coat much of southern Sicily – while the fish was pulled from sea by local fishermen and the wine was the vintage of the neighbourhood co-op.

“You have been to Sicily before?” asked Roberto Giadone, the genial owner, at the supper table that night. No, we replied. “You expect Il Padrino, I know.” We had not, actually, been expecting to walk on to the set of The Godfather, but there is no doubt that an atmosphere endures in Sicily – a social conservatism, behind which, one suspects, any number of secrets may lie. It was only a few days into our holiday, for example, that my wife clocked just how few other women were out on the streets. Men aplenty, chatting in cafés and on park benches as anywhere south of the Alps. But few women. This is a society where not so long ago, women stayed mostly upstairs, and sheets were tied across balcony railings to protect their modesty from the glances of the men below. If you do go, read the great travel writer Norman Lewis’s In Sicily for more such background.

Of course, the one book that really sums up Sicily is Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The masterpiece describes the six months from May to October as an inferno “as long and glum as the Russian winter and against which we struggle with less success”. So best not to go in high summer. April, or late October, by contrast, stand in perfect anticipation of and conclusion to the heat. While in April the island is carpeted with an astonishing assortment of wild flowers, in October you can take to the hiking trails without having to stop every five minutes for a drink. The locals, bundled up against what they fear is the hypothermia to be endured at a mere 77F (25C), have no thought of heading to the beaches. So they are empty. Parking, a nightmare in high season, is free and easy, right up to the dunes.

The great thing about Sicily, and why it has so much to recommend it, is its astonishing, palimpsestuous variety, not only of civilisation: Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Norman, Spanish; but of activity, too: from cultural excursion to city exploration to sun-lounging laze, all within easy reach in a day.

Setting out each morning, therefore, presented an unpredictably rich menu, and one which we could alter as required. An hour here or there, scrambling through the streets of beautiful Modica, say, then recharging with an ice cream, before spending the afternoon on the beach near Pachino. Indeed, there is so much to see in Sicily, that you could exhaust yourself trying to cram it all in.

Joyfully, with a three and five-year-old in tow, there is no prospect of that. An impressionistic snapshot of each place is all you can hope to capture. We took the mini tourist trains to the tops of hill towns then ran down the steps. You can and should save your energy likewise at Agrigento; perhaps the most celebrated site on the island for its succession of Greek temples, breathtaking even for a former Athens correspondent like me. Park at the bottom, then catch a taxi to the top, and walk the mile or so down. Three euros a head seems pricey for a four-minute journey, but it’s worth it to maximise the energy in little legs.

We stopped at Agrigento, halfway across a traverse of the island, after three nights in our comfortable agriturismo. From south-east to north-west, the whole slalom took four or so hours. The landscape is dramatic, unyielding. The cypresses reach up through craggy outcrops, not gently undulating vineyards, and towns emerge between the cleft of hills or, around a sudden bend, on top of them.

The great joy of arriving at a villa is that you can unpack everything. While our agriturismo was a base, and ideal for a few days (longer if you are travelling as a couple) the villa was a destination in itself, on the days when we simply wanted to lie around. Note: Sicilians do not heat up their pools, so they may be brisk – but sea swimming is one reason to come in autumn – the water maintains a temperature of about 72F (22C). But whatever its temperature, you must demand a pool with a fence around it, like ours. Who can relax when you have to keep the little ones under supervision? And if your pool can’t be heated, make sure your villa can. Even if the days are blazing, autumn nights can get cold.

Our villa was superbly comfortable, and kitted out thoughtfully, like a real home, and was a great launching point for day trips to Palermo and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, Monreale. I endured enough ABC (Another Blasted Church) tours in my childhood – and now inflict the same – to feel that I am a reasonable judge of churches.

In fact, a year before our visit to Monreale we were in St Peter’s in Rome. But there is no comparison. Monreale, outside and in, is possibly the most extraordinary church I have ever been in. Even the boys fell silent and sat in awe at the fabulous golden mosaics. Norman Sicily at its finest.

You will, sadly, inevitably see Sicily at its worst, too. The scourge of fly-tipping and rubbish is a disgrace that stains the island – and stands out as a greater blot because of the beauty of the natural backdrop. From A-roads to country lanes, everything from stinking plastic bags to entire discarded bathrooms is too often simply junked. Rubbish collection seems spasmodic. It is not something to deter you from going, but be warned, when you do you will sigh more than once at the ruination.

But mostly you will be gasping in wonder at the ruins. And the ice cream. Those are the memories that will endure. Along with a sense that somehow your visit contributes another patina to an island that has experienced and been shaped by millennia of foreign arrivals and departures, and yet somehow remains distinctly its own.

How to do it

Prestige Holidays has a seven-night stay in Sicily at Relais Torre Marabino, departing Oct 20, from £1,485 per adult and £799 per child based on two adults and two children sharing a suite on a B&B basis. This includes return flights with easyJet from London Gatwick to Catania and a hire car for the duration (prestigeholidays.co.uk). If you would like to replicate the writer’s dual-destination trip, Prestige offers three nights at the Relais, with the same flight and car hire for the duration of the 10-night trip, for £1,179 per adult and £799 per child. For an additional cost, a week at Villa Renee with soloSicily (solosicily.com) costs from €1,910 (£1,702) sleeping six, self-catering.

10 reasons why Sicily is perfect for children

1. Gelato

Not a uniquely Sicilian treat, but the Sicilians feel they do it best. Who are we to disagree?

2. Food

Pasta, of course, but seafood too. Coastal villages have fishmongers where the fishermen bring home their fish, squid or shrimp, which you can buy or eat at a café next door.  

3. Weather

Avoid the crushing heat of summer. Spring and autumn are ideal.

4. Distance

Flights from a mere two-and-a-half hours; more tolerable than four hours to the resorts of Greece. 

5. Islands off the island 

A boat trip to the Egadi Islands is easy and quick from Trapani, while the Aeolian Islands are accessible from Milazzo.  

6. Beaches

There’s a lot of coastline – some of it protected in natural reserves, like Vendicari, south of Syracuse, or Lo Zingaro, west of Palermo, the biggest city on Sicily.

7. Culture

The Temples at Agrigento or the great Norman basilica at Monreale have the jaw-dropping power to stop even small children in their tracks. Variety in a small area is Sicily’s chief attraction. If one thing doesn’t work, just zip to the next.

8. Mount Etna

If you land in Catania, the great volcano will loom over you as you arrive. What? An actual, real volcano? Children can’t quite contain their excitement.

9. Hill towns

Modica, Ragusa, Ortigia are blissful, often pedestrianised, mazes to explore, full of steps to run up and down, nooks and alleyways for the children to poke their noses into while you drink in the surrounding beauty – and maybe a well-earned Birra Moretti, too.

10. Reception

Sicilians are a little more reserved than many Italians. But it’s still a culture which treasures children and where you are welcomed – not sighed at – when you arrive with the bambini.

SOURCE: Telegraph.co.uk

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