Luxury Break in Sicily to Test Drive The Karoq by Alan Douglas
If you haven’t yet seen the detective series Inspector Montalbano on TV, then you’ve missed out on a cracking drama which combines crime fighting with quirky off-beat humour. But probably more importantly, you’ve also not seen the accompanying great views of the countryside and distinctive architecture of the Italian island of Sicily where the series is set. i find myself on luxury break in Sicily to test drive the Karoq.
I’ve always a had a soft spot for this place, the largest Mediterranean island just off the “toe” of Italy’s “boot”, which before the arrival of the charismatic detective was best-known for its rich history, Mount Etna, one of Europe’s highest still-active volcanoes, and less proudly, for the tourist authorities at least, as the home of the Mafia. It is very much Italian in nature but has its own individual character with an amazing range of landscape in each corner and you’re never really very far from the sea.
I’ve been there a few times with car companies, largely Fiat and Alfa Romeo, who find the variety of roads from fast smooth motorway to bumpy and lumpy country lanes, perfect for test drives. Most notably, I remember a Fiat launch a few years ago where the assembled group of motoring journalists were given privileged treatment everywhere we went in a land where the name Fiat literally opens otherwise closed doors.
I had the novel experience of being waved the wrong way up a one-way street by uniformed Carabinieri who later joined us, in uniform, for a prosecco in the square of the local town which was our base. At every turn, a local “fixer” who was obviously well connected, had arrived ahead of us in a large Lancia to prepare the ground to make sure the event ran smoothly. Exactly what his connections were, we hesitated to ask, but I wouldn’t have to liked to upset him or I might have found something unwelcome in my bed at night.
I was there on my latest visit to test drive the new compact SUV from Skoda, the Karoq, which is a replacement for their hugely successful Yeti and Sicily’s great variety of roads – including some mountain tracks – were great to put the vehicle through its paces. With a starting price of just over £20,000 it’s a very capable machine which was great at performing lots of tasks in tricky countryside while still happy in a different role as a long-distance cruiser.
We were based at the splendid Verdura Resort, part of the Rocco Forte Group, on the southern coast of the island, south of the capital Palermo. It is set in 230 hectares and nearly two kilometres of private Mediterranean coastline including its own private beach. There are three golf courses laid out by the international designer Kyle Phillips, and with a 60-metre infinity pool, six clay tennis courts, a world-class spa, four restaurants and five bars there’s plenty to keep you occupied without even having to step out of the resort.
But that would be a shame because there’s so much to see on this island of wine, citrus fruits and ancient landscapes and architecture. Its rich history is reflected in sites like the Valley of the Temples, the well-preserved ruins of seven monumental, Doric-style Greek temples, and in the Byzantine mosaics at the Cappella Palatina, a former royal chapel in Palermo.
The city is a good starting point because being at the crossroads of important Mediterranean trade routes, its long history is influenced by the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantine Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards. There are glorious 12th-century mosaics in the church of La Martorana, the Capella Palatina and if you’re feeling energetic it’s worth the climb to Monreale to see the Norman mosaics in its cathedral.
The centro storico, or old town, is delightful for its old buildings, churches and restored palazzos and when it all gets too much, you can relax in a vast array of bars and restaurants. On the opposite east coast is the city of Syracuse best known for its ancient ruins such as the central Archaeological Park Neapolis, comprising the Roman Amphitheater, the Teatro Greco and the Orecchio di Dionisio, a limestone cave shaped like a human ear.
Further up the coast is the hilltop town of Taormina which sits near Mount Etna, one of Europe’s highest active volcanoes and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From here there are trails leading to the summit. It is currently 3,329 m (10,922 ft) high, though this varies with eruptions, and as the footpaths aren’t brilliant you’re best to use a qualified guide although you can get close to the summit by the cable car that runs from Rifugio Sapienza on the south side of the volcano.
The area has a balmy climate that allows jasmine and bougainvillea to flower even in the winter months so there are splashes of colour on every corner. The grand country estate at Regaleali, near Vallelunga, is a leading winery and cookery school. You can have a tour of the vineyards with wine-tasting and stay for lunch, or book in for a five-day cookery course.
Around the island there are great eating opportunities everywhere, which is not surprising as Sicilians enjoy their food. Lively restaurants, many of which are simple, basic and cheap, are one of the joys of Sicily. Back to the showbiz element of Sicily. The Inspector Montalbano series has been adapted for TV by RAI, Italy’s state broadcaster, from best-selling books by a Sicilian author, and if you’re a fan it’s easy to get organised tours of the various locations used for filming.
That includes the Inspector’s seafront house in “Marinella”, which is, in reality, the small village of Punta Secca, just south of Santa Croce Camerina. Best of all, you can stay there as his house is now a bed and breakfast just off the main square which has been renamed Piazza Montalbano. A word of advice though. The series is incredibly popular not just in Italy but around Europe and you’ll have to book well in advance if you want to stay.
A bit further back in movie history, scenes from The Godfather were filmed on the island including at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, where they shot the opera scene for Godfather III and again, you can get a tour of most of the locations.
One thing you’re unlikely to see – on the surface at least – is any evidence of The Family’s operations, but whatever or wherever they’re doing anything, Sicily is well worth a visit.
Broadcaster & Car Journalist