A Sense of Sicily – an 8 day tour of Italy’s ‘other’ island…

INTRODUCTION

Sicily – An island that benefits from not only the near-perfect Mediterranean climate, but a remarkable and spectacular landscape. Add to that its rich culture formed from over 3000 years of history and you may begin to understand the rewards waiting for those who venture here. Whether hiking volcanoes, sun-bathing on idyllic beaches, exploring ancient temples or simply sampling the outstanding cuisine, none are left short on what to do. Indeed the only thing you will be short on, is time (and maybe sunblock)…

I should start by stating the obvious – one week isn’t nearly enough! I doubt whether one month would be, but there you go – one week (or eight days to be exact) was all we had. And so I write this post which aims to shed some light on how you might tackle this extraordinary island, should you also find yourself in the unfortunate position (glass half-empty?) of only being able to spend one week here. It is both a reflection on our time – things we both liked and disliked – but also an 8 day itinerary for those ambitious enough to see and do (and eat) as much as you possibly can on Italy’s ‘other’ island…


DAYS 1 – 3 CEFALU AND THE NORTHERN COAST

CEFALU

GO?

Stuck for ideas on where to go (we were between weddings of all things – one in Puglia and our own in the Dordogne just ten days later), we took the opportunity to explore this island about which we knew so little. In truth we had hoped to go to Croatia by taking a ferry from Bari to Dubrovnik but were sad to admit the timings didn’t make sense (Only the second time we have tried to holiday in Croatia and failed). So, instead, we flew from Bari to Palermo to begin an 8 day tour of Sicily.

Palermo airport was easy for us to fly in and out of with connections from Bari, where we had come, and onto Toulouse, our next stop. The other major airport serving Sicily is Catania which also has a large number of connections. For us however we booked our flights in and out of Palermo as the dates suited us best. This in turn dictated out itinerary.

Flying into Palermo on Monday 4th of September and flying out the following Tuesday 12th, we decided to drive a loop from Palermo to Cefalu then Taormina, Syracuse, Piazza Armerina and back to Palermo. The motorways that connect these towns (E90, A18, E35 and A19) are fast easy roads to drive, meaning we could maximise our time at each stop. Just be aware that some of these are toll-roads.

In terms of transportation, it’s hard to think of any other way you might get around with any real efficiency without renting a car. Transportation options are fairly limited on the island. You can do it, but the quality and frequency would mean you’ll see a great deal less. This is especially the case given the time constraints of 8 days. Hiring a car also gave us a great deal more flexibility allowing us to make a number of breathtaking stops between the towns.

My top tip for renting a car in Sicily? Make it small – preferably an automatic and something that can carry its weight. As soon as you venture off the main roads expect some seriously hilly terrain with bendy roads and super narrow streets that will have you breathing in as you pass by other cars. We hired through Budget for an extremely reasonable price and ended up getting a smart four which turned out to be perfect. We could only fit one of our suitcases in the boot, but used the back seat for the second. It goes without saying (but I will) you should book in advance.

    

SLEEP?

The drive from Palermo airport to Cefalu takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes. I really don’t recommend driving through the centre of town, let alone trying to park here. The BnB we checked in with had a great arrangement in which we parked easily near the harbour front on the eastern side of town and were then picked up and driven to the accommodation via golf cart! They offer the return service when you check out.

The BnB in question was called Palazzo Raho. Perfectly located in the centre of town within easy walking distance of everything you might want to see (or eat). The staff were extremely accommodating and the rooms were spacious with all the amenities you’d expect from a mid-range accommodation. Recommended!

      

SEE?

After we checked in, we decided to have a quick stroll around town before climbing up to La Rocca viewpoint for sunset. The hike takes about 30 to 45 minutes winding past ancient ruins and old city walls until you are left with staggering coastal views and a bird’s eye of the town itself. You can make the hike longer if you desire and head to the Castello Di Cefalu. Entrance to the whole park area was 4 euros but be aware it closes from 7pm onwards (May-Sept). Something the entrance guard was very keen to point out!

On day 2 we spent the morning chilling on the beach. The main beach arcs away from the Western side of the historical centre, however if you head into town you can find a beautiful small stretch of sand next to the long pier at Cefalu Porto Vecchio just off Piazza Marina. We took an umbrella provided by our BnB and bought a large towel to settle on for a couple of hours. FYI if you decide to rent an umbrella and deck chair from the one of the vendors expect to pay in the region of 20 euros for the privilege! Be sure to arrive early to bag a decent spot!

After lunch we decided to go for a long hike in the beautiful wooded Parco Naturale Regionale delle Madonie. Among a host of outdoor activities you can go hiking, cycling or even horse trekking. The park is home to a great deal of wildlife including wild boar (we spotted several), wolves and eagles. There are also several beautiful mountain towns worth exploring should you have the time (we didn’t). For more information, you can head to the Ente Parco delle Madonie information office in Cefalu. The park is located due south of Cefalu and between 30 minutes to an hours drive away depending on where you go. Our top tip for hiking in the Parco Regionale: Bring insect repellent! We didn’t and regretted it… massively!

    

EAT?

I’m not sure whether this was a good thing or not, but the best meal we had in Sicily was also our first. It left us with particularly high expectations for the rest of the trip and were sad that nothing came quite as close. Still this meal will be well remembered as one of best we have had on our travels. That restaurant in particular was called Qualia. This was my review:

This was the standout meal of our tour in Sicily. We booked on a whim seeing it only had a few reviews on TripAdvisor but that all of them were excellent. I’ll happily join the party. My wife and I ordered one tasting menu and three other courses to share with a bottle of wine. The total bill coming in at just under €130. Not the cheapest restaurant but given the sheer quality of the food we felt well worth it. I won’t bore you with a description of all the dishes, although the ravioli we had was perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted (filled with what I think was smoked aubergine). Everything was of Michelin quality in my opinion which all made sense when the chef David introduced himself to us at the end of the meal. He had previously trained at a 3 star restaurant in Norway and another 1 star place in Copenhagen. Qualia serves contemporary Sicilian food clearly influenced by the Chef’s background of training in Nothern Europe. David had only recently returned to set up his own place here in Cefalu and is keen to showcase the beautiful local produce available. They had only been open 6 weeks when we went which is the only reason I can think for the place being completely undiscovered!!! Absolutely book yourselves in here as I’ve no doubt you’ll need to in the future. Highly highly recommended.

        

THE NORTHERN COAST’S BEST KEPT SECRET?

On day 3 we left Cefalu for Taormina. It was the single longest drive we did in any one day taking approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes. We decided to break this up by stopping for lunch and finding somewhere to explore in the afternoon. After a bit of research (I ended up looking at places on google maps just off the highway approximately halfway along our route) we decided to stop at the Riserva dei Laghetti di Marinello – an unusual nature reserve wedged between the sea and a large cliff face. To say we were blown away is an understatement! The reserve consists of a number of lagoons surrounded by a variety of local flora attached to a long beautiful sandy spit beach. We spent a good couple of hours here but could easily have spent the day. You won’t find a mention of this place in your lonely planet book but we highly recommend stopping by! The best thing was we felt like we had the entire reserve to ourselves – easily one of Sicily’s best kept secrets!

     


DAYS 4 – 6 TAORMINA, MT ETNA AND THE WESTERN COAST

TAORMINA

GO?

Once you arrive in Taormina expect a fairly stressful time driving through town! The streets are particularly narrow here and if you’re not sure where you are going it can be easy to get lost in its windy one-way system. Your best course of action is to have a good look at a map before you arrive and make sure you know where it is you’re going to park! There are a few large car parks on the outskirts of the town. Once you are settled the main bulk of Taormina’s centre is pedestrianized so walking is easily your best and least stressful mode of transport here.

    

SLEEP?

Fortunately for us the accommodation we chose to stay at had a small garage which we were allowed to use for free. Unfortunately finding this particular accommodation meant driving through the centre of town! Still, this was a small price to pay for what was easily the best accommodation we stayed at during our time in Sicily. This was my review:

You won’t regret booking a room at Villa Britannia. This was by some distance the best accommodation we stayed at during our tour of Sicily. We loved it so much we changed our plans to stay an extra evening. The welcome we received from both Louisa and Marco was second to none – explaining everything thing from what to do to where to eat (they are big foodies). The room itself was beautifully appointed and very large with a beautiful terrace to sit and enjoy the view. Their villa is only a short walk (approx 5-10mins) into town with onsite parking available for guests (Just FYI it’s a bit of challenge getting there by car, especially if you use google maps which places you in the wrong spot – be sure to have a good look online before you set off – you have to pass near the centre of town and enter the cul-de-sac via a narrow stone archway.). Their breakfast out on the terrace was wonderful and a great way to start each day. In particular it was Marco and Louisa who made the stay so special (it was our honeymoon and they had generously placed a bottle of sparkling in the fridge for us to enjoy one evening). I can’t thank them enough for their amazing hospitality and will definitely be back in the future.

     

SEE?

The day after we arrived we decided to go for another long walk from Taormina to Castelmola. You can hike from one town to the other via Taormina castle – an old castle with breathtaking coastal views overlooking both the towns of Castelmola and Taormina as well as Mount Etna to the South. The total time takes about an hour and a half (45mins to the castle then another 45 to Castelmola). Once you arrive in Castelmola I highly recommend getting lost among the back streets and stopping for lunch at one of many charming restaurants (we ended up at a great one called Bocciòla – recommended)!

The following day we decided to go on a guided tour of Mt Etna. There are several organizers who run various tours depending on what you’d prefer and how much hiking you’d like to do. We went through a group recommended to us by our BnB hosts called Etna People. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t ideal, but we did at least manage to get in a hike of the upper region before the heavens opened (Not to the summit although that is an option depending on the conditions)! This was followed by a quick tour of a lava cave before lunch at a local winery and then a visit to the nearby Alcantara gorge. Despite the rain we were glad we went on the tour. The upper parts of the Volcano felt like we were walking on a different planet. The large black soil dunes surrounding extinct craters contrasted sharply with the rare species of ‘white’ birch trees only found on Etna. Look closely enough and see if you can spot the ‘eyes’ watching you…

    

EAT?

To be honest we felt the food in Taormina was significantly more expensive and less exciting that what we had experienced elsewhere on the island. Still we did get our Cannoli fix here – a local Sicilian tube shaped pastry filled with a ricotta cream! We tried them at two different pasticcerias – Pasticceria Gelateria D’Amore and Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto. Holly and I had differing opinions about which we believed was best – D’Amore added pistachio and local candied fruit to theirs whereas Roberto’s was more traditional. Anyway you should try both and decide for yourselves which you prefer!

                                        

SYRACUSE

GO?

Once we arrived in Syracuse we parked our car relatively painlessly close to the centre of town at the Molo San Antonio parking lot. The system works via number plate recognition cameras and you pay when you depart. I can’t remember the exact cost but don’t recall it being unreasonable. For us it made sense to park here as our B&B was only 2 blocks away. I’d recommend it anyway if only to escape having to drive through and try parking on Ortigia itself.

  

SLEEP?

The B&B we booked at was called B&B Nostas – It’s not quite on the island of Ortigia where most of the sights are, but for the ease of parking nearby and slightly better rates than other BnBs we decided to book here. It’s an easy short walk to Ortigia nonetheless. The staff were very friendly with recommendations on where to go and what to eat when we checked in. Our room wasn’t quite ready yet but they let us in to drop of our bags and use the loo before we headed into the town. The rooms themselves were very clean and modern with all the amenities you’d expect. The only thing we weren’t so keen on was the breakfast so decided on eating elsewhere before we set off the following morning. Recommended.

   

SEE?

Syracuse is easily one of Sicily’s prettiest towns within which you’ll find a treasure trove of beautiful baroque architecture. Having only one day here (because we extended our stay in Taormina although ideally I reckon you need at least two nights) we decided to simply get lost in and among the cobbled streets of Ortigia – stopping to eat several times along the way of course! We started off by heading to the market for lunch before winding our way south stopping at a number of sights along the way including the Duomo di Siracusa and the Castello Maniace. Once we got bored of that we headed back along the eastern edge of town to join the locals for a quick dip in the sea. From what we could tell there are three areas to do this. One of which you have to pay for the privilege to use their deck chairs and tables (there’s a bar as-well). We opted to jump in for free next to the Forte Vigliena and then chill on the rocky outcrop there with the locals as the sunset…

   

EAT?

The big regret (f*** up) of our holiday was what we didn’t eat here. Famous the world over and found in the market is Caseificio Borderi. I’m told it’s one of the best sandwiches you’ll ever eat! We tried to go here during the middle of peak lunch hour but decided against the long queue thinking we could come early the next day before we left. It was clever thinking except for the fact that the following day was Sunday and it was closed… I can’t report on the place but I’m sure if you go it’ll definitely be worth the wait (the master behind the sandwiches likes to take his time)! Still we did end up having a lovely seafood lunch nearby at La Lisca Cucina e Bottega. I highly recommend the mussels! Other than that I can also recommend grabbing an outstanding gelato from Gelateria Artigianale Belfiore Gelato & Cioccolato. We also managed to get our arancini fix here – another Sicilian specialty consisting of deep fried rice balls stuffed with a variety of different ingredients – usually a ragu. We had some excellent ones at Panificio del Corso (Marconi) not far from our bnb.

                 


DAYS 7 – 8 VILLA ROMANA, PALERMO AND THE MIDLANDS

PIAZZA ARMERINA

GO?

The drive to Piazza Armerina and Villa Romana took approximately 2 hours and is almost exactly halfway between Syracuse and Palermo (not far off the fast A19 motorway that dissects the middle of Sicily). As such we thought it was ideally positioned for a nights stay to break up getting back to Palermo for our flight out. Driving in Piazza Armerina can be tricky given its narrow streets however the town itself was pretty quiet and parking easy enough to find (we parked on the street for free next to our B&B).

     

SLEEP?

We stayed at the characterful B&B Dimora del Conte. Our room was adequately sized and cleanly and the host was extremely accommodating. Breakfast was decent however the best thing about staying here was the view from our balcony over the historic Piazza Armerina (see below) – stunning! We were able to park easily enough on the street side next to B&B which the host kindly helped us with. Its centrally located in the heart of town on Via Roma. Recommended!

SEE?

Aside from getting lost exploring the beautiful historic centre the main tourist draw card is the Villa Romana del Casale. Villa Romana is a beautifully restored ancient Roman villa located approximately 3km from Piazza Armernia. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, here you’ll find one of world’s largest and richest collection of preserved Roman mosaics dating back to the 4th century AD. I would factor at least two hours if not more to explore the Villa.

   

THE QUESTION OF PALERMO?

Our final day consisted of driving to, and exploring Sicily’s capital Palermo. To be frank we felt Palermo was the least special of all the areas we visited while on tour in Sicily. The driving in particular was by the far the most stressful with the most aggressive drivers we saw on tour here. I won’t give you a full run down as I don’t have that much to recommend given our short stay however I will say, at least, you can eat very well here! We would probably give it a miss next time we visit and I don’t think you need to come here if you only have a week as we did.


CONCLUSION

I should confess that when we chose to tour Sicily I was a little disappointed. Having traveled to Italy several times, I wasn’t entirely excited by the prospect of exploring another of its regions. Not because I dislike Italy (who could?), but because I simply wanted to explore somewhere altogether different – another country I had never been. Happily, in my ignorance, I didn’t know just how different Sicily was. It might as well be a different country.

Sicily is an island of massive contrasts. From spectacular mountain ranges that fall into the sea to the rustic simplicity you find in the many varied villages scattered across the island. Sicily both mirrors and contrasts the mainland. Much in the same way most countries both somehow mirror and contrast those they boarder. Indeed you could be forgiven in mistaking my descriptions for that of somewhere else in Italy or another neighboring Mediterranean country. However if you look closely enough, there are certain subtleties. A wildness in the way of things, that sets it apart. It is still Italy, yet it is also somewhere entirely different.

The most ironic part of the process we made in coming to Sicily stems from the very limited amount of time we had here. Had we had any longer, or even if the timing of various connecting ferries and flights had been different, I’m certain this would be a post about Croatia and not Sicily. I started this post by stating that one week isn’t nearly enough time here, but I certainly wouldn’t advise against coming if that’s all you have. You may only get a taste in 8 days but boy, what a taste you’ll get! If we had a small appetite when we began, we were starving by the time we left. Sicily, like all the most beautiful corners on this planet, will leave you wanting more. Much much more, no matter how long the length of stay…

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