Sicily: Ten Days, Five Towns

After a long 10-hour flight delay from Cagliari, Dave and I finally arrived in Catania, Sicily. For this leg of our trip, we intentionally left four days open with no reservations or firm plans. We would start in Taormina and end in Palermo, but everything in between would be spontaneous.

Taormina:
Instead of arriving at noon with a full day to explore, we arrived at 11:00 PM, very ready to fall in to bed. It was too late to get a proper meal at a restaurant so we settled for a doughy square of pizza at the airport and a cold beer. The car service we arranged to transport us from Catania to Taormina cancelled due to the constant flight delays, and we were stuck taking a taxi which cost €100 more than the car service. Thankfully the host of our Airbnb apartment was not too bothered by the late hour of our arrival and he helped us get settled in to our home for the next three nights. The apartment was bright and clean and very large, but as we had become accustomed to in Italy, the mattress was quite hard. The apartment was furnished with a lot of extra blankets and comforters so we wasted no time layering them on the bed to create a plushier surface.

The next morning we were excited to see the town in the daylight, but we first had to get provisions. There was a small market a few steps from our door and we were able to get our coffee, water and laundry soap as well as some toiletries. Having 10-days before our next flight, we could enjoy the luxury of full sized shampoo and conditioner (when you live out of a carry on, this is suddenly a big deal). It’s the small things.

Taormina is a tiny little town so “getting lost” while you explore is not very risky. We walked downhill towards the sea and found a café hugging the cliff that offered spectacular views. Having recently traveled from Cinque Terre and Lake Como, we thought we’d be hard pressed to find anything that would compete, but as we looked over the coast of Sicily we were proven wrong. With only two full days to explore, we had to prioritize our sightseeing. We really wanted to do a tour of Mt. Etna but it would have consumed a full day so we agreed to save that for our next visit.

Villa Comunale: A unique park created by Florence Trevelyan in the late 19th century with whimsical buildings and breathtaking views of the Ionian Sea and Mt. Etna. Although not the most well-maintained park (it’s clean but not overly manicured), it’s a great shady spot with few crowds, and a nice place to take a walk or maybe even a picnic.

Teatro Greco: This ancient ruin has the benefit of one of the most beautiful backdrops in all of Sicily. Although it’s assumed the ruin is Roman (due to the building materials), it is believed that it was built on an earlier Greek structure based on the design. There is a small fee to enter the grounds, and even if you just sit on one of the seats for a few minutes admiring the view, you’ll get your money’s worth. The acoustics are amazing (we could hear someone’s cell phone very clearly from the upper rows) and the site is still used as a performance venue. If you’re really lucky, you’ll time your visit to Taormina to catch a show at this spectacular place. img_3608

Corso Umberto: This is the main street in Taormina and is lined with shops, restaurants, cafes and gelaterias, and is bookended by two charming piazzas. At one end is the Palazzo Corvaja and the Santa Caterina church, and at the other end is the sparkling Piazza IX Aprile with its expansive terrace overlooking the sea, plenty of cafes, and two churches (San Guiseppe and the Church of St. Augustine). In the Piazza IX Aprile, you’ll have some great photo ops (watch out for the selfie-stick brigade) and it’s a must to stop at the glamorous Wunderbar Café for a prosecco or espresso (I wouldn’t eat here). From here you can continue along the Corso Umberto through the stone arch to the 13th century Duomo di Taormina that looks like a combination of fortress and church.

Isola Bella: Venture down to the beach to access the property of Ms. Trevelyan (founder of the Villa Comunale). To reach the property, you’ll have to traverse a sandbar so prepare to get your feet wet! if you’re short on time, you can stop along the Via Nazionale to peer over the edge of this beautiful spot of coastline. img_3624

Syracuse (or Siracusa):
We read that this town is one of the most beautiful in Sicily and were prepared to stay multiple nights. Syracuse is divided in to two parts: the mainland and the island of Ortigia. We decided to stay on the island and we are glad we did. After driving through the mainland to get to our hotel, we were underwhelmed. Ortigia was much nicer, however. If you drive to Syracuse, almost all street parking is reserved for residents. There is some visitor street parking, but we found a parking deck close to our hotel that was €10 a night. We checked in to our hotel which was situated near Largo Bastione Santa Croce and were greeted with yet another impossibly hard mattress which pretty much determined we would only be staying one night.

We were starving and after dropping our bags we headed out to find food. We were learning the hard way that once you leave the large cities like Rome, it’s really tough to find a decent restaurant open between 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM. We finally found something and had an OK meal. After dinner we explored the town and found the spectacular Piazza Duomo which is home to the 7th century cathedral and the 5th century BC Temple of Athena. This is by far one of the most impressive piazzas we’ve ever seen and was the highlight of our visit to Sicily. We also visited the 6th century Greek ruins of the Temple of Apollo, which is surrounded by cafes and market stalls, and is home to a lot of black and white kittens.

We attempted to visit the main ruins of Syracuse, located in a giant park-like complex called the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis. The park contains the remains of the 5th century BC Teatro Greco, Latomia del Paradiso, a deep limestone quarry that produced stone for much of the ancient city, the Orecchio di Dionisio, a huge grotto extending into the cliffside, and the entrance to the 2nd-century Anfiteatro Romano, originally used for gladiatorial combats and horse races. We arrived at the park by car and although parking is free, a woman demanded money to “watch our car”. We were afraid the car would be vandalized if we didn’t pay so we coughed up €2 and proceeded toward the park. We stopped for a quick cappuccino in the café, and it started to rain pretty hard. Dave and I were both struggling to get over colds, so between the rain and the tour buses, we decided we would have to leave the ruins to the other tourists and head to our next stop.

One last note about Syracuse… we were flabbergasted at the amount of litter and garbage, especially along the Bastione. There are also a lot of stray cats. I can live with stray cats but the garbage was incredibly off-putting and was the worst we saw our entire time in Europe. We saw a lot of trash along the roadways of Sicily as well. I wouldn’t let it deter you from visiting, just be prepared.

Agrigento:
Again we arrived between meal time and the only food we could find was what I would describe as something akin to a food stall under a tent. It was still raining and we were cold and getting wet, but we needed food. We settled on draft beers and some very bland pizza – edible but tasteless. We decided to go back to the hotel and get warm, take a short nap and regroup before dinner. To our surprise, our hotel had a fabulous memory foam mattress, which was so welcomed after four nights of hard mattresses. Needless to say,  our brief nap was extended beyond the dinner hour so we missed our chance to get a good feel for the town. No matter, our real purpose in Agrigento was to visit the ruins, so we got up early the next morning and headed out.

The town that is home to the ruins of Agrigento was established between 582–580 BC. The main attraction is the Valle dei Templi (“Valley of the Temples”) where seven monumental Greek temples were constructed during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Agrigento hosts some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece.

When visiting the Valley of the Temples, there are a couple parking and exploring options. We chose to park at the bottom of the Valley (downhill) and took a taxi to the top for €3 per person. There is a fee to enter the park; how much depends on which sections of the park you want to visit. We went to the main sites and spent about two hours walking back down towards our car. We could have easily spent another one to three hours but we were still under the weather and it was really hot so we didn’t linger around the monuments very long. A tour guide would be really useful as there is a lot of information and history about each monument. We’re not “tour group” travelers but if you like tours, this would be a good place to get one.

We stopped for lunch in the town of Realmonte which is home to the Scala dei Turchi, a giant white rock formation that draws a lot of visitors and is a great place for photos (and a swim if the weather is right). We walked along the beach after lunch and attempted to get to the rock, but the walkway was closed off and the only access was through the water. It’s impressive to see and next time we will cross the rock!

Cefalu:
We decided this was our favorite town in Sicily (followed by Taormina). Cefalu combines the charm and history of an old town, complete with piazzas and an imposing cathedral, with a beach resort town. We loved it here and after our first night decided to stay for a second night (having another comfortable bed helped in our decision). Driving in Cefalu is challenging, and it is nearly impossible to find street parking. We located a parking lot about ½ mile from our hotel that was fortunately a flat walk and manageable with our roller bags. We spent our two days walking the beachfront and stopping at cafes, and our evenings wandering the ancient town. If you are in good shape and want a challenge, you can hike to the top of La Rocca, an imposing rock that is the site of an Arab citadel, superseded in 1061 by the Norman castle (the ruins are still there). If you brave the climb you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the town below and the ruined 4th-century BC Tempio di Diana.

Palermo:
Our last stop in Sicily was the capital city of Palermo. Palermo is a busy, bustling city, but it’s also chock full of beautiful churches, gardens and piazzas. We had a lovely apartment right behind the Piazza Bologni which provided access to some amazing restaurants, a pharmacy and a mini-mart. In Palermo we saw a lot more anti-Mafia signage and billboards. Word to the wise… do NOT ask Sicilians about the Mafia. It’s not a source of pride and they don’t like to discuss it.

Some of the recommended sites when you’re in Palermo:
Quarto Cani: An unusual intersection with fountains and statues at each of its four corners.
Capella Palatina: An 11th century cathedral with the most impressive mosaics in Sicily. Be sure to have your legs and arms covered or you’ll be refused entry.
Cattedrale di Palermo: A mix of Norman and Arab architecture make this an interesting stop. The piazza around the church is beautiful with palm trees and a small fountain, and the interior includes the tombs of Norman royalty.
Teatro Massimo: A neoclassical opera house which is the largest in Italy and second largest in Europe.
Fontana Pretoria: A riot of statues and fountains that Sicilians found scandalous back in the day due to the amount of nudity. You could spend hours at this fountain and probably not take it all in.

Our favorite part of Palermo was the abundance of Piazzas and Palazzos – too many to list. Just wander around and get lost and be amazed at what you’ll stumble across.

Sicily has a lot to offer and we barely scratched the surface in 10-days. We got a small taste of the island, enough to know that we will be returning to this complex, ancient and diverse island.

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