I had an appointment with Francesco Pantaleone, wanted to visit his contemporary art collection since I'm very interested in the work of Francesco Simeti and he has some fine pieces. But Pantaleone was called away to Catania and my visit was cancelled. Yet another excuse for a return to Palermo. We went to a trio of palaces in the neighborhood - Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri, with an iconic Guttuso Vucceria painting among other thrills, Palazzo Mirto and Palazzo Abatellis, an old favorite newly reopened, 14th-century architecture, Carlo Scarpa restoration project, and a collection of Sicilian paintings, sculpture and decorative arts from the 12th to 17th century. Wow! We checked out of Nicoletta's apartment and she told us we simply had to visit Himera on our way toward Etna. So we did. The part of the archeological site that can be visited, with the remains of the Temple of Victory, is quite small. The guard asked if we had a ticket, we didn't, it had to be purchased at the museum, but when we told him we planned on going to the museum he let us in. We strolled around the unkempt site, lots of columns in ruins, weed-filled fields of big stones. We had a difficult time finding the Antiquarium but were in total shock when we found it. It documents a massive 480 B.C. battle where Greeks defeated Carthaginians, 150,000 soldiers dead on the battlefield, and, in 409 B.C. the Carthaginian revenge when they completely wiped out the Greeks and eradicated Himera. It's the largest necropolis in Sicily and there's even a separate burial ground for horses that died in battle. The Italian railway is doubling tracks that run through the site and, along with the Palermo Cultural Heritage Board, is financing the dig. But the most spectacular object in the museum is the Phiale d'Oro, a solid gold votive plate with three dimensional concentric rings of acorns, lotus flowers and bees (more about them later), etchings of grapevines, grapes and leaves. We were the only visitors in the place. Fabrizio Carrera had called a friend with a rural tourism farmhouse that he wanted me to visit, and given me a phone number. I called, and Fabrizio Russo met us at the museum to lead us to his property, which I found out was called Terre di Himera. We were welcomed by his wife Maria Gambino. Their rural tourism (not an agriturismo because they don't sell their agricultural products) farmhouse-inn, all stone and wooden beams, is tastefully restored, reasonably priced. There's a large patio with shade from the Sicilian sun, with views of the sea and the Madonie Mountains. Each of the 6 rooms is unique, with old-fashioned Sicilian furniture, attractive linens on comfortable beds; all look out on the garden. We settled into our room, lounged on the patio until it was dark then adjourned to the living room. Maria explained that all the vegetables were from her garden, everything else from the area, including special honey made by Sicilian black bees, wines chosen by our friend Fabrizio Carrera. Our dinner was hyper-seasonal and local, beginning with deep-fried zucchini blossoms, zucchini, cardoons, and artichokes in featherweight batter, wild asparagus frittata, salami and cheese, followed by stigghiole, which I love but they're not for the squeamish. Homemade pasta was sauced with fritella (or fritedda), braised peas, fava beans, artichokes and wild fennel. Dessert was a beautiful fruit tart, concentric circles of citrus--oranges, blood oranges and tangerines on light custard-topped pastry. After a leisurely breakfast the next morning Fabrizio suggested an excursion to Cerda, to visit gelato master Antonio Cappadonia. Cerda is famous for its artichokes and Antonio makes artichoke gelato, but it wasn't available. I tasted spectacular pistachio, almond, lemon and coffee gelato. He explained all about the Sherbeth (paying homage to the original Sicilian name for Arab-derived sorbet) festival he organizes in September, inviting dozens of gelato-makers from all over the world. I must return.
We drove up a winding road with views of Madonie Mountains, looking decidedly Alpine, lots of pine trees instead of palms, to the village of Castelbuono. Restaurateur-chef Giuseppe Carollo (we were going to his restaurant for dinner) recommended we stay at the Ypsigro (Byzantine name for Castelbuono) Palace Hotel, not really palatial but clean, reasonably priced and convenient. I had planned a visit to the Francesco Mina Palumbo Museum (local naturalist) but it was closed. I was interested in manna, a low glucose, low fructose sweetener (slightly laxative) made with sap from ash trees, a Castelbuono specialty. And found dozens of shops selling it. I had a taste and didn't feel I needed to take some home. And I knew I'd find manna on the menu at Hosteria Nangalarruni. The hotel name looks unpronounceable, it means mouth harp in Sicilian dialect. The menu features rustic, well prepared and presented dishes based on local mushrooms, black truffles, wild greens, Black Nebrodi pork, all perfect reasons to drink red. And utilizes manna in a semifreddo dessert. Giuseppe Carollo is passionate about wine, has more than 600 labels available, including older vintages of Sicilian wines, a real treat to find. Since we were staying nearby, a five minute walk, I drank big, and Giuseppe made me a member of his club, U.V.A., Unione Volontaria Alcolizzati. I think it's an honor.
Next stops: Etna and Taormina