After three days in Palermo, we set off to explore Western and Central Sicily for a few days before heading to the Tyrrhenian (north) and Ionian (east) coasts of the island. Here were our highlights:

Ridiculously awesome Greek and Roman ruins

The number and range of significant archeological sites peppered across the island of Sicily is astounding, and we got the chance to explore a great number of these during this phase of our trip.

{Acropolis at Segesta}

{Acropolis at Segesta}

The first we visited was Segesta- an ancient Elymian city that was heavily Hellenized over time, and of which just an incomplete Doric temple and an amphitheatre remain today. Though merely an hour west of Palermo, the site is located in a scenic and almost untouched valley, giving the wonderfully preserved and austere temple a unique aura.

{The partially reconstructed Temple of Hera at Selinunte}

Segesta was in its time in constant conflict with the Greek city of Selinus (now Selinunte in Italian), located about 40 km south and which we visited the following day. Though Selinunte was a major power center and a sometime ally of the Carthaginians, it is Carthage that eventually forced its inhabitants to move to Lilybaeum (modern day Marsala) and destroyed it. The site was significantly degraded with time and earthquakes to the extent that no building is left standing today, but some of the attempts at rebuilding the temples on the Eastern Hill and the Acropolis gave us a glimpse of the scale of this city.

{The Temple of Concord at Agrigento}

The beautiful temples in Agrigento's Valley of the Temples were also a major highlight of our trip so far. What remains of the Greek city of Akragas is simply astounding - the temple of Concord in particular is one of the best preserved buildings from Ancient Greece and is particularly beautiful at nighttime.

{Mosaics of the Great Hunting Scene at Villa Romana del Casale}

{Mosaics of female gymnasts in bikinis at Villa Romana del Casale}

After a long period of domination by Greek city-states, Sicily eventually became an important part of the Roman Empire. One of the most significant sites remaining from the Roman rule is the Villa Romana del Casale, a villa built at the center of an agricultural estate at the beginning of the 4th century. The villa was submerged in mud in the 12th century following a flood, and the mosaics throughout the site were, as a result, amazingly well-preserved and are probably one of the most beautiful things either of us has ever seen.

{The amphitheatre at Morgantina}

Also impressive, though far less accessible for tourists, are the ruins of the ancient Greek town of Morgantina, which feature an interesting small amphitheatre, an agora, and residential quarters. Much of the site continues to be under excavation.

Charming towns and villages

Though there are many towns and villages that we had to bypass on this trip, we were particularly struck by Erice, Marsala, and Piazza Armerina.

{A medieval street in Erice}

{Hand-painted Majolica ceramics at Ledacrea in Erice}

Erice is a hilltop town that has been a sacred site for generations (its predecessor was mentioned in the Aeneid) and it maintains a distinctly medieval character due to its narrow cobblestone streets, Norman fortress, and well-preserved city walls. Though there were unfortunately a number of ordinary-looking twentieth century buildings which we felt slightly hampered the town's charm, we still thoroughly enjoyed our time here. We bought some lovely hand-painted ceramics at Ledacrea, where Leonarda designs beautiful motifs inspired by the tiles in Erice's old churches.

{A quaint street in Marsala}

Most people would stop by Marsala to grab a few bottles of its eponymous sweet wine, but it would be worth a visit even if there were no wine to be found here. We really enjoyed walking around the city center, which has a couple lovely central streets and a lively atmosphere. And, of course, tasting some of the local wine did no harm to our experience here.

Though we did not get the chance to spend much time in Piazza Armerina, the town adjacent to the Villa Romana del Casale, we found it to be very enticing. The town seems unattractive upon first entry (as do many towns in Sicily), but becomes ever more charming as one approaches the hilltop, which leads to a beautiful Piazza del Duomo. This is without a doubt a place we want to explore more on our next trip to the island.

More Sicilian food, obviously

{Some pastries from Maria Grammatico}

{Very life-like marzipan apricots at Maria Grammatico}

Beyond being a charming place to walk around, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of food in Erice. We had great meals at Ristorante Massimo, adjacent to the city gate, where the busiati pasta with Trapanese pesto (made with fresh tomatoes instead of basil) was particularly good, as was the caponata. We also enjoyed our dinner at Monte San Giuliano, a very classic, casual Italian restaurant. But the most memorable food establishment we visited in Erice was La Pasticceria di Maria Grammatico, a pastry shop that we visited three times during our less-than-24-hour stay in the town. The most memorable pastries were the cassatine (a miniature version of the Sicilian cassata cake consisting of sweet ricotta cheese and a thin marzipan coating), and bombolone (a doughnut with chocolate-hazelnut cream filling).

{Tuna carpaccio at Da Vittorio}

About 15 km east of Selinunte, we had outstanding fresh seafood at Da Vittorio in the relatively hard-to-find town of Porto Palo di Menfi. The town itself isn't notable by any means, but it is absolutely worth a stop as it provided one of our best meals in Sicily yet. We started off with a very fresh and rich tuna carpaccio topped with local olive oil and a bit of rock salt and black pepper -- a dish that would put many sashimis to shame. For main courses, the sea urchin pasta and very simply grilled and seasoned orata (a variety of bream) were both top-notch.

{View of the Temple of Concord from Villa Athena's terrace restaurant}

Near Agrigento, we had dinner in the restaurant of the luxury hotel Villa Athena, whose terrace provides a breathtaking view of the Valley of the Temples. Beyond its world-class view, the restaurant also offers an outstanding culinary experience. We thoroughly enjoyed the pasta con le sarde (pasta with fresh sardines, a traditional Sicilian recipe) and paccheri stuffed with ricotta. The apple rosemary tart we had for dessert was unusual and ridiculously tasty, and the wine we had to accompany the meal recommended by our waiter (Terre delle Baronie, a blend of indigenous Sicilian white wine grapes Inzolia and Catarratto from the winemaker Giuseppe Milazzo) was hands down our favourite of many wines we had tried thus far on this trip.

{Wine production in action at Regaleali}

{Wine tasting session at Regaleali}

{Fried sage leaves}

{Panelle - fried chickpea pancakes}

This was until we had the fortune of spending half a day at the Regaleali Estate winery for a tour, wine tasting, and lunch. The wines we tried here were very interesting, particularly the very mineral-intensive Nerello Mascalese, from the unique red wine grape variety grown around Mount Etna. The meal here was highly refreshing, beginning with delightful Sicilian street snacks such as panelle (fried chickpea flour pancakes) and fried sage leaves (a household specialty), and followed by freshly made ravioli stuffed with ricotta made on the estate and a solid main course of roast chicken. And the meal ended with the best cannolo we have ever had, which was filled with ricotta from sheep on the estate. A visit here is highly recommended for both the wine and the food - they even have a popular cooking school on site, as well as lodging.