Southwest Sicily, running east from the major fishing port of Mazara del Vallo across to Agrigento, is a varied area indeed and one that invites exploration. Carpeted with vineyards and olive groves, home to some of the Mediterranean’s most prestigious Greek archaeological sites (think Selinunte and the Valley of the Temples), and delimited by seemingly endless stretches of sandy beach, there is something for all tastes. Inland, ancient mountain villages preserve age-old traditions and offer fascinating insights into the island’s history.
Moving from Mazara del Vallo along the coast one soon comes to the archaeological site of Selinunte, with its impressive array of temples and other remains, and the fascinating Cave di Cusa, the quarries whose stone supplied Selinunte's building trade. Continuing east, the long beach of the Belice River Nature Reserve is followed quickly by the seaside resort of Porto Palo, and by the wine-making centre of Menfi. Following a southeastern trajectory from here, our next stop is the historic town and fishing port of Sciacca, known since antiquity for its spas. At the southeasternmost point of southwest Sicily is Agrigento and its world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Valley of the Temples.
In the last decade, the southwest of Sicily has found itself back on the map, an unspoilt, genuine and humble corner of Sicily with much to offer the curious visitor.
Nature, food and wine
The craggy mountains of the interior give way to rolling vineyard-carpeted hills, which gently descend to the coastline and some 150km of sandy beaches, several of which are practically deserted even in the high summer months. Dramatically positioned, time-defying villages and towns cling to the inland mountains and a visit to the area would be incomplete without a trip to one of two of them, such as Caltabellotta or Palazzo Adriano (where Nuovo Cinema Paradiso was filmed). The Sicani National Park offers great walking, as do the area's two outstanding coastal nature reserves of the Belice River Delta and Torre Salsa.
One of the few interruptions to the sandy beaches are the multi-strata, wind-sculpted, chalk and marl cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi.
In terms of gastronomy, fish dishes reign supreme: two of Italy's largest fishing fleets work out of Mazara del Vallo and Sciacca, ensuring that the freshest seafood is always on the menu. Cheese-making is an important element of the area’s gastronomic life, as is olive oil production. The thriving local wine industry, meanwhile, produces some of Sicily’s best vintages, making the southeast a go-to destination for those who enjoy vineyard-hopping and wine-tasting.
History and monuments
Powerful Greek colonies were established in Agrigento and Selinunte in the 6th century BC, and their archaeological sites are amongst the most impressive in the entire Mediterranean basin. Dating back to a similar period are the Cave di Cusa, the quarries from which Selinunte’s column sections were hewn, and Eraclea Minoa, whose theatre sits in an unrivalled panoramic position looking out to sea. With the arrival of the Romans, Sciacca’s potential as a spa town was maximised and still today people head there to take the waters.
During Arabic rule, between the 9th and the 11th centuries, one of Sicily’s most important towns was Mazara del Vallo. Its umbilical link with North Africa continues today, thanks to the large number of Tunisians who have settled there over the years to work on the fishing fleet.
In 1282, the Sicilian Vespers – a revolution against the island’s Angevin rulers - was officially brought to a close with the signing of a treaty in Caltabellotta, a vertiginously-perched mountain-top town above Sciacca.
The southwest of Sicily fell into peaceful anonymity and relative obscurity for centuries and only in the last decade or so has it found itself back on the map, an unspoilt, genuine and humble corner of Sicily with much to offer the curious visitor.