Sicily: an ancient island at the tip of Italy’s boot

With a total coast length of 1,484 km, four international airports and a few major ports, Sicily, the biggest island of the Mediterranean Sea, is nowadays one of the hottest European summer destinations. And the word “hot” goes very well with July temperatures, too. The Mediterranean climate, normally characterized by mild winters and dry summers, is highly influenced by the African currents, which means that summers tend to be unbearably hot. A fact that I can confirm, as I felt it on my skin… Literally.

Since I didn’t travel that much this year, I put on paper a very long and compressed itinerary. At first sight, ten days seemed enough to drive around the island, encounter charming, picturesque towns – whose names I’ve already started to forget, eat delicious food, catch some tan and swim inside the ever so salty Mediterranean sea. And, at the end of the trip, I felt that its length was just right.

One of the coolest things that Sicily provides to the visitors are all the majestic monuments, present everywhere, left behind by the nations which controlled its land at various times throughout history. And I’m referring here to some of the greatest former superpowers, like the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Moors, the Normans or the Spaniards. Apart from the impressive and diverse cultural heritage, you will also find many fine sandy beaches and mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe (3,326 m).

Old building facade, Catania

But Sicily is not all sunshine and rainbows, as the island faces some major challenges, too. First, it’s the trash. The waste management – if it exists – is done in a horrible way, and it’s a shame to see tons of garbage along the roads or lying on the streets of the major cities, like Palermo or Catania. Second, it’s the way the Sicilians drive. It’s simply insane, as most of the times they tend to ignore the traffic regulations, and as a consequence everything feels chaotic. So in case you’ll be traveling by car, arm yourself with extra attention and patience…


Getting there and traveling around Sicily

The starting and ending point of the trip was Sicily’s largest and busiest airport, Catania – Fontanarossa Airport, located on the east part of the island – a second option would have been Falcone Borsellino Airport, near Palermo. You’ll find plenty of low-cost carriers flying to either one of them, so getting there without spending a fortune won’t be a problem. Still, during the summer months prices are higher, so make sure to book some months in advance.

In order to travel from a place to another, I’ve rented a car from the company Budget – via Rentalcars, as I do most of the times. I tend to get the smallest car possible when traveling, especially since I am not that interested in the engine power or the interior space. If it has an engine, a steering wheel and four wheels, it’s perfect. The prices weren’t low – well, yeah, no surprise there, it was high season, therefore I ended up paying €300 for a “mighty” 1 litre, 70 horse power Smart ForFour, with full protection included. It was the ideal car for the extremely narrow streets of the Sicilian towns.


The Sicilian Cuisine

Oh, yes… jackpot! I love Italian food (in case you want to check my other recent trips to Italy, here are the articles: Bologna and Florence or Tuscany), and the Sicilian cuisine doesn’t disappoint. Palermo is one of the best cities in the world for street food. Arancini (a deep-fried rice croquette, containing different fillings) is probably the most popular type of street food, but you’ll also find a lot of other snacks, like scaccia (a rolled flatbread containing vegetables, cheese or meat) and, of course, an Italian classic: pizzaPasta alla Norma, a vegetarian dish made with ricotta, eggplants and tomatoes, has its origins in Catania. Seafood is pretty popular too, especially in the towns and cities that are next to the sea.

Inside a traditional Sicilian grocery store - Fratelli Burgio, Siracusa

Italian dinner at Mastunicola, Palermo

And when it comes to desserts, well, Sicily is the place to be. Cannoli, the famous fried pastry doughs filled with ricotta, were invented here, back in the Middle Ages. Pasticceries selling these types of sweets can be found almost everywhere. Most of them also sell frutta martorana (marzipan sweets) and granita siciliana (a semi-frozen dessert, made from sugar, water and various flavourings). And since the weather in Sicily is warm most of the year, let’s not forget about the delicious gelato!

Eating cannoli on the streets of Erice

Here’s a list of places where you can experience the local cuisine, in at least one of the forms described above:

  • Comis Ice Cafè (Piazza Vincenzo Bellini 8, Catania)
  • Fratelli Burgio (Via Emmanuele de Benedictis 2, Siracusa)
  • Esperia Pizzeria Ristorante (Via Salvatore La Rosa 72-74, Noto)
  • Caffè Sicilia (Corso Vittorio Emanuele 125, Noto)
  • Osteria Ricotta & Co mangiare di casa (Corso Umberto I 261, Modica)
  • Trattoria Al Faro (Via Porto 25, Sciacca)
  • Pasticceria Maria Grammatico (Via Vittorio Emanuele 14, Erice)
  • Gelateria Vernaci (Corso Bernardo Mattarella 40, Castellammare del Golfo)
  • Mastunicola (Via Venezia 71, Palermo)
  • Cannolissimo (Via Vittorio Emanuele 407, Palermo)
  • Cappadonia Gelati (Via Vittorio Emanuele 401, Palermo)
  • Osteria Villa Zuccaro (Corso Umberto I 38, Taormina)

Accommodation

Since the plan was to see as much as possible, I didn’t want to stay in the same place for more than a night. The only location for which I booked two nights was Palermo, and that’s because I planned to spend a full day exploring the island’s capital city. There were nine nights in total, with eight different accommodations. Here’s where I stayed:

  • 1st night: Mara’s Home (Via Vadalà 16, Catania) – probably the worst accommodation of the journey. It was an old fashioned apartment, highly overrated on Booking.com, located not far from the city center, in a traditional Sicilian neighbourhood. The only plus, probably.

Sicilian neighborhood, Catania

  • 2nd night: B&B Montevergini (Ronco Sgadari 3-5-7, Noto) – a small bed & breakfast family business, part of a church: Chiesa di Montevergine. The room I stayed in used to be a chapel… How interesting does that sound?
  • 3rd night: Iblainsuite (Via Capitano Bocchieri 46, Ragusa) – set in a beautiful, old renovated house, in the heart of Ibla – Ragusa’s Baroque area. The room was both stylish and modern, the breakfast buffet, made only with fresh local products, was simply mouth-watering, and the roof terrace offered a great view over Duomo of San Giorgio. A place where I would come back tomorrow!
  • 4th night: B&B Alla Cattedrale (Vicolo Seminario 9, Agrigento) – located in the old town, close to the Duomo, it featured freshly renovated rooms and new furniture, but the whole place looked a bit kitschy. I liked the fact that the owner incorporated some parts of the old walls into the room design.
  • 5th night: Antico Canale (Via Plaia 15, Castellammare del Golfo) – despite the name it carries, it’s a pretty modern B&B, located in the central part of the town. I received a large room with two balconies, overlooking the sea and the port area. The owner was really friendly and made me feel welcomed. Another great accommodation!
  • 6th / 7th night: B&B Federico Secondo (Via S.Cristina 24, Palermo) –  a 100% authentic Sicilian mansion, not very large in size, with a small courtyard and large rooms. It is situated in an authentic Sicilian neighbourhood, between narrow streets, a few minutes away from Palermo Cathedral.
  • 8th night: La Fucina di Vulcano (Contrada Difesa – S.S. 284, Bronte) – a modern hotel, with a pretty cool location. Situated on the outskirts of Bronte, it offered, from its garden, a breath-taking view of Mount Etna. And the room with terrace was pretty nice as well, despite the fact that it didn’t provide the same amazing view.
  • 9th night: Il Giardino degli Ovali (Strada Provinciale 72ii, Fiumefreddo di Sicilia) – last but not least, an accommodation that promised a lot, thanks to its heavenly location. Surrounded on all sides by citrus trees, and guarded by two friendly Shepard dogs, it disappointed a bit in terms of the room furniture, its facilities and overall cleanliness. In one word: it lacked the attention to details.

Il Giardino degli Ovali, Fiumefreddo di Sicilia


Guide to Sicily

Summarizing the ten days in a condensed, but relevant way is not easy. I’ll again split my itinerary by days, as I did a few other times in the past:

  • Day 1 (Catania)

Discovering Catania, the island’s second biggest city, can be done pretty easy, as its old town is quite small. Piazza del Duomo, its main square, is a good starting point. Right in its middle you’ll spot Fontana dell’ Elefante (the elephant is the symbol of Catania), surrounded by two palaces, Palazzo degli Elefanti (hosting the town hall) and Palazzo dei Chierici, and by the Duomo – also known as Cattedrale di Sant’Agata.

Piazza del Duomo, Catania

Not far from Piazza del Duomo, on the other side of the town hall, there’s another major square, Piazza dell’ Università, home to a few more nice-looking palazzi and to the historical building of the University of Catania, the oldest in Sicily, founded in 1434.

The courtyard of Palazzo Sangiuliano, Catania

A walk along Via Etnea will open your appetite for shopping, as many Italian and international stores are located on this long street. But while strolling, keep an eye open for one of the finest examples of the Sicilian Baroque: Basilica della Collegiata.

Basilica della Collegiata, Catania

Oleanders on Via Antonino Di Sangiuliano, Catania

The last stop of the day was at Teatro Massimo Bellini, an opera house named after Catania’s most celebrated son, the composer Vincenzo Bellini.

Teatro Massimo Bellini facade, Catania


  • Day 2 (Catania – Siracusa – Noto)

After a relaxed Italian breakfast, a strong cappuccino and a short morning walk, it was time to leave Catania and head towards Siracusa, a Greek colony in antiquity and the birthplace of the great mathematician Archimedes. If you’re into archaeological parks, then you have to visit Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, a well preserved site, with landmarks such as Teatro Greco, Anfiteatro Romano or Orecchio di Dionisio. I said pass to the opportunity, as I visited the park many years ago, in 2003. And I was pretty sure that not many have changed since then.

My main focus this time was Ortigia, a small island which is the historical centre of Siracusa. Also known as Città Vecchia (meaning the Old City), it contains many palazzi and historical attractions, such as the Duomo di Siracusa, with its Greek Doric temple structure, Piazza Archimede, with the beautiful Fontana di Diana, the citadel Castello Maniace and Fonte Aretusa, a natural spring studded with wild papyrus.

Duomo di Siracusa

Fontana di Diana, Siracusa

After a few hours of wandering the streets of Ortigia, I hit the road again and reached the final destination of the day, Noto, a town of many Sicilian Baroque churches and palaces, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This place was astonishing, it was definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip. After dinner, I joined the huge crowds of people that were sitting down on the stairs of Cattedrale di Noto, looking at Palazzo Ducezio, on a normal Saturday evening. It was one of those priceless experience.

Cattedrale di Noto

Via Corrado Nicolaci, Noto


  • Day 3 (Noto – Sampieri – Modica – Ragusa)

The third day marked my first day to the beach, in Sampieri, a small fishing village, with stone houses and paved streets. It felt a bit like in the 90’s, due to the multi-coloured umbrellas and to the absence of sunbeds… I totally liked it!

Sampieri Beach

After half a day at the beach, I was fired up and ready to see another mountain town, Modica, famous for its chocolate (Cioccolato di Modica), produced after an ancient Aztec recipe. The town’s setting is spectacular. Built on several hills, it features a magnificent historical center, with gems such as Duomo di San Giorgio, Castello dei Conti and Chiesa di San Pietro.

Modica panorama

Duomo di San Giorgio, Modica

The day ended in another hilltop town, Ragusa, very similar to Noto and Modica. You’ll discover here the same patterns: there’s a lovely main square, where people meet and enjoy a cup of coffee together, and there are stunning palaces and imposing churches, for as far as your eyes can see. Out of all, Duomo di San Giorgio really stands out.

Duomo di San Giorgio, Ragusa Ibla


  • Day 4 (Ragusa – Caltagirone – Enna – Agrigento)

Before leaving Ragusa, there was one more place that I wanted to see. At the eastern end of Ibla, there’s a small park, Giardino Ibleo, the perfect place to take a break and enjoy the local flora. Besides the alley of palm trees and the red / pink / white oleander shrubs, there are also a few sculptures and three small churches.

Giardino Ibleo, Ragusa

Chiesa di San Giacomo Apostolo in Giardino Ibleo, Ragusa

The central part of Sicily is mostly hilly and it would be too much to say that the landforms are striking. The good news is that it’s way cleaner than the coastal areas. Caltagirone is known for its colourful ceramics and for Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, a monumental 142 steps staircase, which rises from Piazza Municipio to Chiesa di Santa Maria del Monte.

Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, Caltagirone

Nicknamed “belvedere” and “l’ombelico della Sicilia“, Enna is located roughly at the center of the island. It is the highest Italian provincial capital, at an altitude of 931 m. Piazza Crispi is an excellent viewing area of the valley below and surrounding towns. Not far from this square, Duomo di Enna impresses with its Corinthian columns and stucco decorations.

The town of Calascibetta, seen from Panorama da Piazza Crispi, Enna

The interior of Duomo di Enna

I don’t have much to say about Agrigento, as my stay was quite short. From a historical point of view, it was one of the most important cities of Magna Graecia (the ancient Greek colonies from Southern Italy) and has an outstanding archaeological legacy, well preserved in Valle dei Templi. But since I had already visited the site in 2003, I wasn’t interested in seeing it again. That’s why I was happy with just a night walk.

The narrow streets of Agrigento by night


  • Day 5 (Agrigento – Scala dei Turchi – Sciacca – Erice – Castellammare del Golfo)

Agrigento might have not attracted me that much, but I was curious to see another landmark from the area: Scala dei Turchi, a rocky white cliff, formed by marl. The formation itself is interesting and well deserves a visit, but the beach that’s next to it is not that great. For sure you’ll find other places in Sicily with better sand.

Scala dei Turchi

From a driving perspective, this was going to be one of the longest days. While on route, I did a quick stop for lunch in Sciacca, only to discover a large fishing port, with ancient origins.

Porto di Sciacca

But the best part of the day was Erice, a village/town that’s among the most beautiful ones in all of Italy. Once you pass through Porta Trapani, you’ll have the feeling that you’ve traveled back in time, in medieval periods. You’ll be struck by Duomo dell’Assunta and its tower, made out of stone and marble. The cobblestone streets of the town are extremely narrow, the sea and valley views are simply staggering, and all these factors are creating a magical place.

Narrow, cobblestone street in Erice

And the delightful atmosphere continued, as Castellammare del Golfo was so much nicer than I had expected. Sitting on the hotel terrace, with a glass of local wine, overlooking the harbour to the north and the steep mountains to the south, was the best way to end the day.

Panorama over Castellammare del Golfo

Porto di Castellammare del Golfo


  • Day 6 (Castellammare del Golfo – Mondello – Palermo)

I was getting closer and closer to the capital of the island, but before reaching it, I wanted to spend another half a day at the beach. The beach resort of Mondello, which nowadays is actually a borough of Palermo, seemed like a good option for some sunbathing and swimming. The beach was pretty crowded for the middle of the week and I must say that it was not easy to find a spot; luckily, the fine sand and the turquoise sea came in compensation.

Mondello Beach

I reached Palermo in the afternoon, excited to see it again, after 16 years. The city was almost exactly like I remembered it, which was no surprise. Almost everything that’s relevant from a tourist’s perspective can be found on or around Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele. The two streets meet at Quattro Canti, the traditional center of Palermo. It’s a magnificent octagonal square, with four Baroque buildings that illustrate different themes, like the four seasons, the Spanish kings of Sicily or the patron saints of the city.

Via Maqueda, Palermo

Just a few meters away there’s a masterpiece of the 16th century, Fontana Pretoria, presenting sculptures of the twelve Olympians, mythological figures and animals. The level of details in the sculptures is incredible. The piazza is surrounded by Palazzo Pretorio (the Town Hall of Palermo), two baronial palaces and Chiesa di Santa Caterina.

Fontana Pretoria, Palermo

Fontana Pretoria and Santa Caterina dalla clausura, Palermo


  • Day 7 (Palermo)

The day started with a visit to Cattedrale di Palermo, an architectural complex completed over a span of six centuries. Originally built in the Arab-Norman style, it is one of the treasures left behind by the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. The cathedral impresses with its size and with the multitude of architectural styles used (Norman, Moorish, Gothic, Baroque, Neoclassical).

Cattedrale di Palermo

Another fine example of the Normal style is Palazzo dei Normanni, with its renowned Cappella Palatina. Between the cathedral and the palace you’ll find a small, but luxuriant park, where you can relax and sip up the summer: Villa Bonanno.

Villa Bonanno, Palermo

One of the most intriguing – and macabre, in the same time – places  in Palermo is Catacombe dei Cappuccini, burial catacombs containing more than 8000 corpses and 1250 mummies. The entrance fee is just €3, but definitely the catacombs are not for everybody.

Catacombe dei Cappuccini, Palermo

The last place I’ll talk about is Chiesa del Gesù, a church which has one of the most extravagant and eye-catching interiors that I’ve ever see. Don’t be fooled by its rather dull exterior, as the marble decorations and the frescos from the inside are truly amazing.

Chiesa del Gesù, Palermo


  • Day 8 (Palermo – Cefalù – Parco dei Nebrodi – Bronte)

Palermo was more than welcoming, but I was looking forward to having another encounter with the Mediterranean Sea, in Cefalù, one of the busiest resorts on the island. And it’s quite easy to understand why. Dominated by a 270 meters high monumental rock, and home to yet another gem of the Normal architectural style, the Duomo, the town has also one of the finest beaches in all of Sicily. And its location is marvellous.

Cefalù Beach

The road from Cefalù to Bronte passes through Parco dei Nebrodi, a natural park that incorporates a large area of forest. It is a nice one hour drive, along curvy, mountain roads. You start near the sea level and in almost no time you end up at almost 1.800 m. While driving through the woods, I was even able to spot wildlife: right next to the pavement there were two wild boar, walking slowly.

I did not plan to visit Bronte, which is not a very touristic town. It was just the final halt, before Parco dell’Etna. But there was one image that stuck in my mind: the truly mesmerizing view of Mount Etna, at sunset.

Mount Etna in the evening, seen from Bronte


  • Day 9 (Bronte – Parco dell’Etna – Taormina – Fiumefreddo Sicilia)

My trip was almost coming to the end. While on the verge of leaving Bronte, I was lucky to spot a Fiat 500 Club Italia gathering and see an original 1967 Abarth Fiat 595. How cool is that?

An original Abarth Fiat 595, Bronte

The first stop in Parco dell’Etna was at Rifugio Sapienza, one of the two place where you can actually ski during the winter. But I was not there for winter sports, of course. I was interested in the craters from the area, know as Crateri Silvestri, formed by the massive eruption from 1892. The superior one is at an altitude of 1.986 m, and can be reached after a moderate hike.

Crateri Silvestri, Mount Etna

The second place where you will find ski slopes is Piano Provenzana. From here, you will have a great view of the legendary Ionian Sea. Just imagine that sight while skiing… But since it was the middle of the summer, I couldn’t do much, except for examining the lava rocks.

Lava fields, Piano Provenzana, Mount Etna

You cannot leave Sicily without a visit to the chic resort of Taormina and a stroll on Corso Umberto I. This pedestrian street culminates at Piazza IX Aprile, a square with many monuments around, from where you can admire the panorama of the entire bay.

Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Taormina


  • Day 10 (Fiumefreddo Sicilia – Catania)

The last day in Sicily was short and passed very fast. Tired after so many days on the road, I felt that it was time to loosen up a bit. It was a day without sightseeing, a day in which I wasted some time relaxing and shopping in Catania. At 2 PM, I had already dropped the rented car and I was preparing to enter the departure terminal, to head back home.

Traditional houses in Catania


I guess that now, after such a long story and after such a great adventure, there aren’t many things that can be added, expect for maybe one: saying goodbye to Sicily.

Arrivederci, Sicilia!

Author: Marian Bulacu

Live. Love. Travel. Make a difference.

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