Who: Sicilian Experience
In the eco-villagge various activities in the area have created new job opportunities for the locals and 20 women, as well as tour managers, cooks, guides, teachers and hospitality workers.
All this in Sant'Ambrogio, a tiny cobblestone village with bougainvillea covered houses, once almost abandoned but now being renovated, where you will find artisans still practicing some of the old handicrafts.
One woman, Carmelina Ricciardello, made the rebirth of this village possible. Carmelina's love for her roots in Sicily brought her here 8 years ago when she decided to help and encourage the locals to start renovating and attract visitors to the village. She introduced various activities that take the visitor all over the island. All this resulted, not only in an increase in employment for women and the younger generation, but also a whole bunch of foreigners who have visited have now become part of the community.
Carmelina's first assistant was Margherita Cortina, who now manages 50 rental apartments, bed and breakfast facilities and numerous villas, all found on her new website: www.sicilyrentalandsales.com
Sitting in Mimmo Zito's restaurant, Bacchus, right on the village belvedere you can sip a glass of wine, eat a plate of pasta con le sarde and watch the sun go down over the sea. Mimmo is a professional chef and wine buff and runs his restaurant together with his two sons. Another village resident, Signora Maria Cinquegrani who has a collection of centuries old recipes, bakes bread in the wood burning oven. Certainly 8 days spent in their company learning how to cook, bake bread, visiting street markets and other quaint places, will open up your taste buds.
For budding travel writers instead, the sources of inspiration here are numerous. The majestic Arab/Norman cathedral of Cefalù, the Greek ruins of Halaesa near Tusa, the forests of Castelbuono, the vineyard of Sant'Anastasia Abbey and a host of other places. In an 8-day course Gail Simmons, a renowned travel writer and journalist, will teach you how to create a sense of place, how to write about food and how to structure a travel blog.
Another woman. Another experience. This time for the course of photography with Jaqueline Tune who is a professional photographer and teacher at the Art Institute in Siena, she will lead you into the details and the colours of fishing nets and shepherds in their fields, ruins and street market stalls, mixing light and creativity with techniques.
But of course, that's not all. For active types and those who crave meditation, you can meet the shepherds who make cheese, pick olives, trek on foot or by horse across the island, taste different Sicilian wines and enjoy dinners cooked by the women of the Nebrodi mountains. Something more cultural? Visit villages and historical sites with local guides, sleep in 18th century aristocratic farmhouses and wake up to views of olive and lemon groves.
After having overcome mountains of indifference and tracing her own personal itineraries of knowledge, Carmelina doesn’t believe that she has arrived at the end of her project. In fact she’s already looking into new activities, as she tells us.
You grew up in Australia then passed through Gabon, the Middle East and Tuscany. What made you stop in Sicily?
I arrived in Sant’Ambrogio with a strong desire to put down roots in the land of my family origins. I wanted people to see the true Sicily without changing it into another fashionable area like Tuscany, at the same time helping the locals and giving visitors the unique experience of living alongside them.
Now that you have succeeded in introducing Sicilian life into your visitors’ lives, are you satisfied?
At least I can say that today the people in the village have a new source of income and are taking the initiative to create something new for a village that was on the verge of being totally abandoned.
How did you begin all this?
I began by renting an apartment and getting the owner to organize the hospitality part. I made friends with the shepherds who are the ones who had the soul to show me the real culture of this island. I started collecting information on the area, convincing others to rent their rooms or houses and giving them some ideas on how to manage their properties. I never lost sight of my original intent, however, to maintain the centuries old traditions of the village. Not just the renovated houses, but the pace and silence of the village. After creating the structure I made my first tentative steps into Sicilian bureaucracy and presented myself to the mayor of Cefalù. I am now part of the Pro Loco (local tourist organization) and the Associazione Driadi.
What advice would you give to another woman who wants to set up a similar sort of organization
First of all I would say it’s important to build trust. Not only in herself so as not to get discouraged but also in the community and the incoming visitors. Now after 8 years, people come to me for advice but at the very beginning of my activity here I had to battle against a barrier of suspicion.
So how do we begin?
Each individual has to take into consideration local and national laws. For example the owners of bed and breakfast facilities, room rentals or house rentals have to know whether to be present or not at the time of the rental, whether to rent all year round or just for a few days a year. Accountants know which are the different categories so they help the owners focus in the correct way.
How do you qualify who does the organizing?
If the person who organizes the holiday vacation and tours is just the manager of the booking, then it’s not necessary to be a travel agent but just a middle-man. The activity code 799019 states: “other booking services and activities of helping tourists with tasks not carried out by travel agencies”.
How and what do you organize?
We have around 50 properties between the village and the coast, all period buildings, well looked after and all respecting local building traditions. Every rental property has information on local walks in the area (we have catalogued 10 hikes in the immediate area). Then there are more farther afield treks with multi-lingual guides. There are visits to the olive press, to a local engraver, to vineyards with the local peasants or to the herb gardens. You can also learn to cook, go wine tasting, watch cheese being made, go bird watching or see falconry displays. Every property has a system of recycling refuse for compost and there is also a competition every year for the prettiest flowering balcony. We are thinking of establishing a museum of ancient knowledge and traditons.
How do tourists react to your way of hospitality?
Cefalù, just 5kms away, already has a long history of tourism but we noticed that the northern Europeans especially, were looking for experiences of relatively untouched nature and culture. Now there are quite a few foreigners, women in particular, who have decided to settle here after originally coming on holiday. A Norwegian translator will be living here for the next 3 years and another lady from Oman told me that she found ‘a family’ here and felt really free.
What is your aim?
To create an eco-village, prevent emigration by the locals, create jobs, and protect the culture from mass tourism. I am convinced that the best way to help the Sicily I love is to promote it to people who want to experience living and feeling like ‘sicilians’. There is a lot of authenticity missing in the world today and coming to Sant’Ambrogio seems to provide people with many of those things that are missing from their lives.
An example of location?
B&B Case Saponara
Bed and breakfast facilities in an 18th century farmhouse among olive and lemon groves. There are 4 rooms with 9 beds. €70 per night for two people sharing with breakfast.
Apartments in Sant’Ambrogio range from €300 to €600 per week.