When it comes to culture, Sicily is no stranger to sustainability. For nearly 25 centuries, it was dominated by several civilisations and has kept aspects and relics from them all. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish have controlled this stunning Mediterranean island at some time and Sicily has distilled their architectural and culinary influences into its own identity, which it now protects with a fierce sense of pride. It’s no surprise this small cultural tapestry is attracting a growing number of visitors and, amidst the potential for mass tourism, a new sustainable movement is developing to preserve the island’s vibrant character.
The Sicilian Experience is a social enterprise that offers visitors an insight into the fascinating but fragile traditions of this historic island. It consists of a network of apartments, villas and B&Bs in the area surrounding the baroque town of Cefalù on the Northern coast. Its founder Carmelina Ricciardello was born in Sicily and moved to Australia when she was seven-years-old, but the magnetism of the island remained with her. Having travelled the world, working in tourism and development, she returned to her birthplace and set up the Sicilian Experience from the village of Sant’Ambrogio. Her aim was to safeguard the area through sustainable initiatives such as recycling, agro tourism, renewable energy and water conservation but also to retain the island’s traditions, especially around food and its preparation.
'I just had the idea to create the real holiday in Sicily so that we can protect our history,' Carmelina explains. 'The whole concept is more about connecting with the natural beauty and the people because they can tell you so much about the place. The ingredients and resources were all here in terms of local produce and skill but it was about bringing them together to create a sense of joint responsibility among both the community and tourists.'
All of the abodes in the Sicilian Experience network are charming in their simplicity. Uncluttered and unfussy, they emphasize and enhance the area’s beauty. We stayed in a top floor apartment of a renovated house in the centre of the village of Sant’Ambrogio. The bedroom windows opened straight onto a view of the azure sea, while from our kitchen we could peer down at the coming-and-goings of the piazza and people-watch to our hearts’ content. Indeed it is the combination of nature and community warmth that make the Sicilian Experience one to truly remember.
Carmelina has worked hard to integrate the community aspect into the project and provide travellers with opportunities to see, smell and taste the real Sicily. Not only for the benefit of the tourists but to help sustain traditions and welfare through to the next generations. Visitors can watch and partake in the making of cheese, bread, lace, wine, olive oil and other local products. The experiences are offered by Carmelina with the perfect balance of enthusiasm and choice, and are made all the more enticing by her rapport with the local characters.
These include the local shepherd, Giulio, who can recognise every goat in his herd and knows every nightclub in the vicinity. As you walk down the narrow well-worn track, he cuts a striking figure amidst the twitching, bleating flock. Milking starts at 7.00am, and cheese making at 10.00am no matter what time he went to bed the previous night or that morning. Stoking his small stove with one hand to heat the whey, he uses the other to ladle and pat the warm curd into baskets that give the soft ricotta cheese its familiar lined pattern. All the time he chats to Carmelina and, although the names are unfamiliar, the conversation has the recognisable rhythm of village gossip, interspersed with Giulio’s raucous laugh. At intervals he offers us bowls of warm curd to eat with bread then he packs up his rounds of cheese before finally releasing his herd to wander the hills until the next morning.
Similarly memorable in character is Mimmo who hosts evenings of culinary delights within his micro-winery. In the mornings Mimmo works as a chef in a secondary school in Sicily’s capital city of Palermo, returning to the village in the afternoon to work on his gastronomic projects. Sitting amongst his various vintages we are served delicious platefuls of homemade bread, tuna steak, aubergine caponata and involtini made from pieces of swordfish rolled with pine nuts, tomatoes, olives and capers. All this is washed down with Mimmo’s wine, produced from the local Nero d’Avola grape and finished off with traditional cannoli made from sweet ricotta cheese piped into biscuit shells and topped with homemade candied fruit.
Food is central to the Sicilian Experience and Carmelina can direct you to many delicious restaurants in the area. Whether you’re eating freshly caught bream on the seafront in Cefalù or sampling the fantastic mushrooms and wild boar in the inland town of Castelbuono, the food will never disappoint. The slow food movement may have been christened in nearby Puglia, but its heart has been beating in Sicily for as long as anyone can remember. And just as time is needed to prepare and eat the food, it is also needed to digest it afterwards. Fortunately the siesta is an integral part of life here.
The Sicilian Experience undoubtedly capitalises on the island’s pride in delicious cuisine but Carmelina also nurtures pride in the community. She has introduced recycling into the local psyche and encouraged the use of environmentally friendly cleaning products and locally sourced produce. Terracotta pots of geraniums decorate the cobbled streets, watered by the villagers each morning. Everything you need is accessible, and there is also plenty to explore by foot or by horse in the surrounding area. In each abode there is a veritable bible of suggestions for walking, alongside the option of longer treks with local guides.
'It’s the exchange that is so important,' she says. 'The local people also get something from the visitors: not just a financial gain but an exchange of cultures. And that is really central so that it doesn’t feel invasive and the people that come here really appreciate being here. I think the world is moving so fast now and we need to take hold of the exchanges and traditions that are real and genuine.' Indeed, it is enterprises like the Sicilian Experience that can help ensure tourism maintains and nourishes the island’s cultural richness, rather than become another example in its long list of historical invasions.
Sustainable tourism is a complex concept to put into practice, and its success requires a deep understanding of the community with a global perspective on sustainability issues. This is a quality that Carmelina undoubtedly contributes to this enterprise but perhaps what is more essential, is her genuine motivation. There isn’t a hint of green wash about the Sicilian Experience and this is reflected in her tenacity. Despite struggling with red tape, local politics and finances, Carmelina remains determined to preserve the local environment and provide visitors with a unique and unforgettable holiday. Hopefully she can continue to sustain the traditions, natural beauty and economy of the community alongside the memories, and the waistlines, of its visitors.
For more information visit the website of Sicilian Experience here: www.sicilianexperience.com