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From the ancient Greeks to the White Lotus: a Sicilian road trip

by Staff

The baby grand piano in the bar of San Domenico Palace in Taormina — since its starring role in last year’s HBO hit now commonly known as the White Lotus hotel — was silent, but every stool at the half-moon bar was taken. I ordered a glass of salty Mount Etna white wine and struck up a conversation with an Upper West Sider travelling around Sicily with her Italian relatives. “I had to see the White Lotus hotel,” she said, “I’m a huge fan.”

The series, in case you haven’t watched it, is about spoilt rich people behaving badly on vacation, not necessarily something one would want to emulate — it’s the glittering, glamorous backdrops that have had travellers hitting the search engines. In the US, Google searches for Sicily doubled after the show aired last year; UK-based Italy specialist Citalia has seen a 50 per cent rise in demand since January. Bookings at San Domenico Palace, managed by Four Seasons since 2021, spiked when the show aired; staff now have mandatory training on White Lotus plot lines and locations, such is the grilling they receive from guests. 

My husband and I are also fans but that wasn’t why we’d come to Taormina. We were here because of the Greeks. My eight-year-old daughter has, for some time, been obsessed with Greek mythology — there’s been a lot of “would you rather be turned to stone or gouge out your own eyes?” around the dinner table. While just about every ancient civilisation left its prints on Sicily — Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines — the Greeks’ were arguably the most indelible. Greek remained the lingua franca during Roman times, and there are still communities in Sicily that speak a Greek dialect. The island has some of the best-preserved Hellenic monuments in the world, including Taormina’s celebrated amphitheatre, making this the ideal starting point for our Greek ruin road trip.  

The San Domenico Palace in Taormina, the filming location of the second season of the HBO series, with a snowy Mount Etna behind © Greco Giulio fotografo
Two women in summer dresses walk down the ancient steps of a cathedral
Meghann Fahy and Aubrey Plaza in ‘The White Lotus’, outside the Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi all’Immacolata in Noto © Fabio Lovino/HBO
A wife and husband sit at a table on a hotel terrace looking out over cliffs and the sea
Plaza and Will Sharpe in a scene set on the hotel’s terrace

It was surreal to be staying at San Domenico Palace — the front desk! The porcelain busts! — particularly, given the sex-focused plot of The White Lotus, with a six- and eight-year-old, but we found the hotel incredibly family-friendly. My son cartwheeled joyfully down the carpeted corridors; we helped ourselves to the prosciutto, burrata and cannoli from the breakfast buffet and ate it on the terrace with a snowy Etna view one way and cavorting dolphins out to sea the other. We played Uno under the striped umbrellas by the infinity pool while eavesdropping on an American family who had brought their British nanny. (“There are some Norland nannies I wouldn’t leave my cat with,” I heard her say.)

The hotel had arranged for guide Margaret Raneri to take us around the amphitheatre, and she was full of entertaining stories about the site. The one that interested both children most was the origin of the Cyclops myth. When the Greeks discovered elephant skulls on Mount Etna, she told us, they thought they belonged to giants and that the trunk hole was an eye — and so the tale was born.

A hilltop Ancient Greek amphitheatre looking across to the town of Taormina with a view of a smouldering Mount Etna in the background
Taormina’s Greek amphitheatre, built in the third century BC, with Etna behind © Getty Images

It turned out that the White Lotus cast stayed at our second hotel, too, while filming scenes in Noto. Il San Corrado di Noto, which opened in 2021, is a converted 18th-century masseria, the former country retreat of local nobleman Prince Nicolaci, with 26 suites, two vast swimming pools, and eight pool villas dotted around a hilly olive grove. The owners’ many holidays at Aman Resorts are reflected in the slick, modernist look of the whitewashed buildings, beautifully designed inside and out, right down to the metal hinges on the mahogany wood doors. Cushions made from the owner’s late mother’s collection of Hermes silk scarves decorate the sofas.  

GM130510_23X WKD Sicily-Torre Salsa map

Before we headed into Noto for the Easter Sunday parade, my husband and I decided to attempt a length of the sparkling 100-metre pool. It was chilly for April, and we emerged from the cold water bright pink and endorphin-boosted. An hour later, at Noto’s Caffè Sicilia, I felt entirely justified in eating the two almond granitas I had erroneously ordered. As I scraped the second cup clean, I remembered another of Margaret Raneri’s stories, about how the gelato-sorbet hybrid originated 4,000 years ago when Mesopotamians harvested snow from Mount Etna.  

A suited and sunglass-clad crowd was gathering on the steps of Noto’s Baroque cathedral and along Corso Vittorio Emanuel, and a brass band had begun to strike up. My children, nibbling marzipan fruits, spotted a goat kid on a lead. A priest wove through the crowd, kissing babies, as the simulacrums of the risen Jesus and the Madonna, held high above the spectators, approached each other; then fireworks showered the procession with confetti as they mounted the steps to the cathedral.

A boy stands on a cobbled street
Kate Maxwell’s son with some classic Italian cars in Noto
Colourful flowers in a plant pot on a windowsill
Plants on a windowsill in the Baroque city © LightRocket via Getty Images
An elaborately styled cathedral high situated high up on a hill
The Duomo di San Giorgio in Modica. The city is one of the filming locations for the TV series ‘Inspector Montalbano’ © Getty Images/Image Source

As the crowds dispersed, we made our way through the gold-stone streets with their gargoyle-festooned corbels to Palazzo Castelluccio. Completed in 1782 and a dead-ringer for the Palermo palazzo described in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, it was renovated by a French television producer after lying abandoned for 30 years. I was worried that my companions were about to crash from their marzipan sugar highs, but they enjoyed nosing around the palace, racing each other down its twin staircases, marvelling at the tiled floors and trompe l’oeil walls, and peering into pots and pans in the kitchen and pantry, which still smelled faintly of cheese. 

More Baroque delights lay ahead, in Modica, a hilltop city that, like Noto, was rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake that devastated southern Sicily. Modica is famous for its cold-pressed chocolate, made with only cocoa and sugar, which came in handy when persuading the children away from the cactus garden at Roccaseta, a new bed-and-breakfast with swimming pool and sea views where we were staying, half an hour’s drive to the south. The chocolate’s taste and texture are quite different from the conventional variety — gritty and clean — and it’s reputed to have many health benefits. Whether or not this is true, my husband enjoyed his cup of cold chocolate from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Sicily’s oldest chocolatier. 

Despite its considerable architectural charms, Modica had not yet benefited from the White Lotus effect (it happens to be one of the locations for another TV series, Inspector Montalbano.) We found its vertiginous, palazzo-stuffed streets silent and empty, the wedding cake-shaped Duomo di San Giorgio locked. Every other building seemed to be for sale and posters advertising octogenarians’ funerals were pasted to the walls. Refreshing as it was to have left the hordes behind, it was also sad: a reminder of the brain drain that’s sweeping southern Italy.

Our Baroque flirtation over, we drove west, towards Agrigento. Aside from the odd industrial carbuncle on a white beach, acres of plastic tunnelling, and unnecessarily elevated motorways, the views were breathtaking. We drove through almond and olive groves, and hills strewn with wildflowers: buttery sea marigolds, two-tone purple sweet peas, poppies, campion, and clouds of mimosa. 

But the best view of all was from Il Canneto, the three-bedroom villa we were staying at for the last part of our trip. It was like a greatest hits of southern Sicily’s physical attributes: the wildflower-speckled green of Torre Salsa nature reserve, then a curl of white sand and the sea and sky, plus a slice of blue pool in the foreground.

Il San Corrado di Noto, an 18th-century masseria converted into a smart hotel which opened in 2021 © Alfio Garozzo
A gnarled oak tree and an ancient Greek temple
The Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, built around 440 BC © Alamy

Sand, I’ve found, is the best form of childcare, which is why my favourite meals are on beaches. Marina Gio, a restaurant a short drive from the villa, fulfilled the brief perfectly. We ate lightly battered fritto misto, chips and tuna tartare with grillo wine, while the children built a “palazzo” in the dunes. That evening, the feasting continued, when a chef visited Il Canneto to cook us a delicious artichoke casarecce pasta, followed by aubergine Parmigiana and ricotta cannoli.

We struck gold with our guide for the Valley of the Temples the following day, organised by the villa rental company The Thinking Traveller. Marco Falzone is an archaeologist who helped excavate the site’s catacombs, and his boundless enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of Agrigento, from the design and construction of the hefty sandstone temples to their “recycling” by the Romans, captivated us all. We loved Marco’s stories about the territory-expanding Septimius Severus, the first African-born Roman emperor, who grew up in what is now Libya and died in York, and left with a far richer understanding of Sicily’s culture-meshing, open-armed history — in contrast, as he wryly pointed out, to the isolationist Italy of today.

The pool with a view to the sea at Il Canneto, a villa sleeping six just south of the village of Montallegro © The Thinking Traveller

I imagine the Ancient Greek scouts were as pleased with themselves when they first discovered the coastal plot on which they were to build their city Selinunte as The White Lotus location managers were when they visited San Domenico Palace. It was the last day of our trip, and only a small part of the 270-hectare Selinunte Archaeological Park, whose earliest temples date back to 550BC, was open, but it didn’t matter. Nothing was out of bounds: we were able to climb the sandstone steps to the Doric-columned Temple E, resurrected from rubble in 1959 and thought to be dedicated to Hera, gaze at the sea one way and olive groves another, then scale the colossal, marigold-swagged remains of Temple G. “I feel like a demigod,” said my daughter, reaching up to the heavens.

As we drove back to Catania airport, cars slaloming around us, I asked her what her highlight of our trip had been. “Standing inside the Temple of Hera at Selinunte,” I imagined she’d say, or “collecting fragments of Roman pottery at Agrigento”.

“Arancini,” she replied. I considered launching into a history of the Sicilian rice ball, introduced by the Arabs and yet more evidence that the island’s past is as layered as tiramisu. But I decided she’d had enough learning moments for one holiday, and when she asked me to put Taylor Swift on the stereo, I complied. 

Kate Maxwell’s novel, ‘Hush’, is out in paperback this month (Virago)

Details

Kate Maxwell was a guest of San Domenico Palace, a Four Seasons hotel (doubles from €1,900 including breakfast; fourseasons.com), Il San Corrado di Noto (doubles from €680 including breakfast; ilsancorradodinoto.com) Rocca Seta (doubles from €120 including breakfast; roccaseta.com), and The Thinking Traveller (thethinkingtraveller.com), which has more than 100 villas in Sicily; a week at Il Canneto starts at £4,155  

Note: this article has been corrected. An earlier version mistakenly referred to elephants’ tusks instead of trunks, and confused east and west in one instance.

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