Family warms to Sicilian escape: Mariuccia
DAILY EXPRESS: A break from their usual summer haunts led SARAH MERSON and her clan to discover the island's delights
IT MUST have made an unusual sight. Myself and our three young children hanging around outside the grocery shop in the heat of the afternoon, waiting for it to open.
Ostensibly we were there to replenish stocks of bread and milk for our nearby villa but who were we kidding? What we really craved was more of the shop's delicious Sicilian gelato.
My husband Josh and I along with our brood, Louis, eight, Olivia, six and three-year-old Jude, arrived at the island's capital Palermo two days earlier. Picking up our hire car, we'd driven the two hours direct to our villa, Mariuccia, through the mountainous interior.
Set just inland from Sicily's Mediterranean coast, our plan was to use it as a base to explore the island's beautiful western expanse.
It was late into the evening as we drove through the grand gates of the three-acre estate containing Mariuccia, so we were pleasantly surprised to find the owners waiting for us with a warm welcome.
Any apprehension we had about taking a break away from the standard family-friendly Med destinations quickly evaporated: the children were instantly adored. In Sicily, family is the bedrock of day-to-day life.
A few hours later, the sun was up and Jude insisted that we all were, too. We spent the day familiarising ourselves with the villa, which had a slightly incongruous Californian feel, inside and out.
The three terraces were decked out with BBQ and wood-burning pizza oven and various sitting and dining areas surrounded by colourful flower beds. Beyond that, the oak and olive trees offered privacy and shade. Inside, children delighted at the snooker room, table tennis table and PlayStation.
With five double bedrooms, it was a toss up who got the one with a balcony overlooking the wonderfully inviting pool. That evening a catering team organised by soloSicily, the villa letting agency, prepared us a tailored three-course dinner. Expecting the children not to deviate far from the pasta main course, I was amazed to see them tucking in to the freshly caught king prawns wrapped in deep-fried spaghetti.
Their liking for dessert was far more predictable: Sicily's beloved cannoli – tubes of fried pasta dough filled with ricotta, candied fruit and chocolate.
Sicily's sense of history was tangible every direction we went. A 10-minute drive took us to Burgio, a small farming settlement (with the gelato-stocked grocery shop).
Developed around the remains of a Norman castle, it is a beguiling warren of narrow streets and uneven rooftops with a defiantly laid-back air.
The focal point, the Mother Church, is intricately detailed with frescoes and mosaics but the pride and joy of the town is the Museum of Mummies.
Forget figures wrapped in bandage-like material; these are ancient corpses embalmed in oil and placed strategically in coffins.
The children were enthralled rather than unnerved at this bizarre spectacle and the stories surrounding them.
Later at Valley of the Temples, close to the city of Agrigento, we walked among the ruins of an ancient Greek city.
The area is dotted with gnarled olive and almond trees and the three temples, dating from 430BC, were extraordinarily beautiful against a brilliant blue sky.
One, the Concordia, looked strangely familiar. It was only later that I realised it is the model for Unesco's logo.
Returning for a day in Palermo, we shopped in the bustling street market, sampling “cucina povera” (cooking of the poor), effectively traditional Sicilian dishes. None of the children tried the snails, despite the stallholder gushingly insisting that the “bambini” must take one each, gratis.
The architecture of Palermo is enchanting, the car-choked streets and erratic driving less so. So we headed for the beautiful coastal resorts of Scopello and nearby San Vito lo Capo, perched on the tip of the north-west peninsula.
The former won us over with its white houses and smooth-stone streets, while the shimmering beach at San Vito lo Capo was in a league of its own. Here you are closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and the arid landscape and ubiquitous seafood couscous seemed to reflect that.
Back at our villa, the days took on a relaxed rhythm. Olivia overcame her fear of the pool's deep end, Louis kept a vigil for geckoes and Jude took delight in watching the wild Tibetan goats on the nearby hillside.
Come evening, the routine would always be the same. As we opened a bottle of red from the local Planeta Estate, the children would tuck in, once more, to the gelato. No wonder we were always running out.
soloSicily (www.solosicily.com) offers seven nights at Mariuccia from £2650 (sleeps six), selfcatering.
easyJet (0843 104 5000/www.easyjet.com) offers return flights from Gatwick to Palermo from £60. Italian State Tourist Board: 0207 408 1254/www.italiantouristboard.co.uk