Arthur Frommer: Experience Sicily in a welcoming village

04/17/2011 12:00 AM

04/17/2011 12:49 AM

Born in Sicily, Carmelina Ricciardello moved at the age of 7 to Australia, where her father could obtain work. But 28 years later, the homesick Carmelina returned to her seaside village of Sant'Ambrogio, and later decided that the right type of tourism could revive the fortunes of her Sicilian hometown. (In the 1990s, young people had deserted Sicily in droves to seek a better life in Rome, Bologna and Milan, and the population of the aptly-named Sant'Ambrogio had dropped from 2,300 to just 500 people. Numerous ancient homes stood empty.)

So she formed a company called Sicilian Experience (www.sicilianexperience.com), which essentially, rents villas, chalets, townhouses and apartments in Sant'Ambrogio for periods of as little as a week, and at remarkable prices. Throughout much of the year, a one-bedroom villa will rent for as little as 350 euros weekly ($490), and three-bedroom villas have been known to go for 500 euros ($700) —that's about $100 a day for a family of six people. Many visitors come here for one-week stays and end up remaining for 1 to 6 months.

And that's just for starters. Once in Sant'Ambrogio, foreign guests are invited to visit and observe the daily preparation of bread and rolls at the local bakery, to meet with the town's shepherd, to witness the pressing of olives into olive oil (and, in November, to actually assist in picking the olives), to observe the making of cheese, the harvesting of grapes and the subsequent production of the area's famous Nero d'Avolo red wines, to attend cooking courses, and — in general — to integrate themselves into the life of the community. Village residents are constantly taught, at seminars led by Carmelina, how to open their homes, their crafts, their businesses and their hearts, to foreign visitors — and thus become the best kind of tourist attraction. That local way of life, according to Carmelina, hasn't changed in centuries.

As for one's meals in Sant'Ambrogio, Carmelina insists that 15 euros (about $21) can buy enough food for three days. Nothing is frozen in Sant'Ambrogio; at outdoor markets, everything is ripe and fresh.

Sicilian Experience _ learning how people live in a typical seaside Sicilian village an hour or so from Palermo, enjoying introductions to Sicilians, savoring a lifestyle that hasn't changed in centuries — is very much a work in progress; Carmelina Ricciardello tells in her website about the many ongoing projects (small museums, cooperative businesses and the like) that she has envisioned for the future. But in the meantime, a week or more in Sant'Ambrogio seems a rewarding and unique experience.

And how do you get there? From Palermo, you take the train for less than an hour to Cefalu, and there you'll be picked up by a driver arranged by Carmelina. I, for one, plan to do just that on my own next trip to Sicily.

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