THE glorious Mediterranean is impossible not to fall hopelessly in love with. Everyone from the Carthaginians and the Phoenicians, to the Greeks and the Romans, and on to the Catalans and the Italians has swished through, with one island in particular striking as a collage of so many rich cultures and influences. That island is the utterly unique Sicily.

Back on Sicily, my base in Palermo beautifully sets the tone. Villa Igiea ( comes from the same people behind Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel. You feel like royalty staying at this turn-of-the-century palazzo here at the foot of Mount Pellegrino, with the Gulf of Palermo unfurling all around.

The Villa Igiea was originally designed as a sanatorium and it does feel like a breath of fresh air – all sea salt, swishing palms and airy grounds. The polar opposite of central Palermo then, which awaits just a short trip away on their free shuttle bus.

I love big, raffish Mediterranean cities like Genoa, Marseille and Naples. Palermo is the mother lode – even more frenetic, in your face and more utterly compelling than its Neapolitan cousin just up the road. If you like cities that manicure their historical treasures behind Perspex and sanitise civic drama, Palermo is not for you.

If, however, you’re fine playing Frogger with the chaotic traffic, staggering off broken pavements, and dodging overflowing rubbish bins just to make it into a local bar alive with delicious snacks, where you’re as welcome to sip the €3 Aperol Spritz as everyone else, you’ll love Palermo.

All life is here on the crammed streets – races, nationalities, life stations and other divides dissolved in the effervescent human cocktail. At least temporarily.

I would tell you exactly where I walked in Palermo, but I can’t. This warren of a city is gloriously confusing. Starting at the epic vaulting cathedral, I throw myself into the arancini rice balls and fresh pasta of the Capo Market, and a glass of the excellent Sicilian beer from Messina.

The National: Palermo’s rollercoaster of life

The rest of the afternoon is lost chancing upon one elegant piazza after another, one baroque beauty after another and one buzzing wee café after another. Palermo is like a giant theme park for adults. No actual rides, just a human rollercoaster you zoom off on, so the best advice is to just strap in and enjoy the life-affirming ride.

Dinner back at Villa Igiea is the perfect antidote to Palermo’s chaos. I peer through the palms on its terrace over a city the sun is setting on, but like some cheeky toddler, Palermo is refusing to be put to bed. Florio Restaurant is a calm oasis. Seared scallops with truffles shaved over kick things off, before a fillet of turbot laced with clams and fresh Sicilian vegetables. Proper coffee and a wee cannoli provide the ideal sweet finish.

Burrowing south, I head for the rough around the edges fishing town of Sciacca. The local fleet hauls in the delicious red prawns you find on menus throughout Sicily. Being Sicilian, Sciacca is not short of historic treasures. Founded in the fifth century as a spa town, look out for the Renaissance portal of the old Santa Margherita Hospital and the hulking Porta San Salvatore, the 14th-century gate. At Castello dei Luna, I learn about the local Romeo and Juliet from the feuding Luna and Perollo families.

Sciacca’s “5 Sensi” initiative impresses too, bringing together a sweep of independent business. It also aims to bring visitors closer to communities, reminding me of our excellent SCOTO initiative back in Scotland. Artisan jewellery maker Giuseppe Conti works with the unique corals fired from the subterranean eruption off Sciacca in 1831.

He says: “We always like getting Scottish visitors in this town as they are always interested in our history.”

The Sciacca seafood is a joy. At Trattoria Al Faro, I savour a platter of stewed octopus, calamari and fried fish sweetened with jam. The main course brings those local red prawns served raw atop homemade pasta. Their crisp dry house wine is a snip at around £5 for a half litre.

I end this Sicilian adventure at the Verdura Resort, the island’s other Rocco Forte property. It’s not quite up there with Villa Igiea, but it looks sublime and enjoys a gorgeous location, unfurling along a quiet rocky beach with rugged mountains forging a spectacular backdrop.

Verdura is a massive resort. I swim off that beach and snorkel too – there are shallow reefs alive with exotic marine life. I dine too at Liola. This upmarket trattoria serves fresh vegetables grown here and delicious pasta. I savour local specialities like decadent arancini and rich dessert cannoli. The Sicilian wine stars too, from Terrazze del Vulcano, a mineral-laced wonder grown on Mount Etna’s slopes.

The National: Palermo’s rollercoaster of life

I spend my last morning easing along the ancient shoreline as the sun burns up over this most ancient of seas. Is that a Phoenician ship on the horizon, or maybe even the Romans?

In Sicily the past and the present gloriously, constantly interweave in lush Mediterranean brushstrokes. Join me next week as my Italian adventure continues as I take the train onto a ferry (yes, seriously) up Italy’s littoral to the Amalfi Coast.

easyJet ( flies direct to Sicily from Edinburgh. Lonely Planet’s Sicily guide opens up the island.


Go open-ended – If you want to try something different on holiday why not fly into one airport and out another? This often does not cost any more; sometimes it’s even cheaper. On this trip, I flew into Sicily, but will be flying home from Naples. This opens up a whole week of opportunities in between like Amalfi, Sorrento, Capri and Pompeii. Where would you go? The planning is all part of the fun, especially for families.