I have been to Sicily, chaps.
I had been wanting to go to Sicily for many years. Everyone else wanted to go back to Cyprus this year, because we had such a fabulous holiday there last year, but I stuck my heels in and demanded to have my way. When we arrived in Catania at ten o’clock at night and set off into the pitch dark on roads that were more pot hole than tarmac, I began to question this tenacity. I worried that the family would tie me up in a Sicilian ditch and run away to Cyprus without me. Had I made a hideous mistake?
Once the sun rose, everything became splendid and stayed that way for our entire ten day holiday.
We rented a villa from a Sicilian family in a gated community about half an hour up the coast from Catania city on the east coast of the island. We were met by the care takers at the property, neither of whom spoke any English and with my Italian limited to food groups, it was quite the challenge communicating vital informations at eleven o’clock at night. Thank God for translation apps, although the chap trying to explain the gate system to us managed to accidentally call Jason a sugar plum, which was surreal.
I had read somewhere that Sicily is not quite as welcoming to bumbling tourists as mainland Italy, but even out of season and in off the beaten track places, we never got that impression. Everyone we attempted to speak to was friendly, welcoming and helpful. I think it helped that we did our best to speak Italian where we could, even though we mangled it completely. It also helped that we were evangelical about everything we ate. It seems to be a rule that if you love people’s cooking, they are delighted with you. As a woman who is committed to eating everything that passes her eye line, I can vouch for the fact that it is the perfect ice breaker.
Here are some things I learned that may be helpful if you are thinking of going.
Driving is hellish fierce. Jason, who likes to drive everywhere at 80 mph on two wheels, was genuinely terrified as a driver, until he got into the rhythm of Sicilian driving. There are only two speeds, 20 mph or 200 mph. Nobody pays attention to speed limits, road signs or personal safety. Gird your loins if you’re going to drive.
Some of the motorways are toll roads, but these are really cheap to use. Our longest trip on a toll road cost us about 3 euros. Exit routes on what are the equivalent of A roads and local roads are often really poorly sign posted and occasionally not sign posted at all. They almost always loop off the exit so be prepared to go into many, many bends at short notice. Try to breathe through these experiences.
Driving in cities should be avoided if possible. Parking is a nightmare. We went to Messina on our last day and gave up after 45 minutes of navigating down roads where people were triple parked on blind bends etc. The best thing to do if you want to visit a big city is use public transport. The day we went to Catania city, we found an outlying railway station with free parking and caught the train in. We went from Acireale to Catania central station for about 3 euros each and it took fifteen minutes.
The trains run on time and are cheap and easy to use. The announcements were in Italian and English. You buy your ticket from a machine that has an English language option. You must punch it at the station before you get on the train.
Buses are less efficient but also cheap. We had a day roaming ticket in Catania that cost about 2 euros. Our driver set off about 20 minutes later than time tabled because he was enjoying a coffee and a fag in the station cafe. We were in no rush so it was fine.
Driving in ancient places should also be avoided unless you have a teeny, weeny car and nerves of steel. If you’re going to drive, find out where the nearest accessible car park is to where you want to explore. This worked for us in Ortygia and in Taormina, two of our favourite places to visit, made considerably less stressful by the fact that we didn’t get the car wedged down a side street. Parking is also very cheap, or often free.
Pay attention to meal times. Lunch time kicks off at about 12.30 and slopes into siesta. If this time doesn’t suit, you will need to improvise. There are supermarkets on every corner so you won’t starve, but if you want proper, sit down meals, you can’t drift along when you please.
In tourist places you can get what we think of traditional, Italian dishes at any time. Outside of tourist places, you will be more restricted in what is available. If you want pizza for lunch, for example, in regular towns, you will have to buy it by the slice from a bakery. Pizza is an evening meal in many places.
In terms of pasta, if you want bolognese you may struggle. It’s not a Sicilian thing. A very popular pasta dish is pasta ‘norma’, which consists of roasted aubergine and tomato, with spaghetti and cheese on top. The pasta dishes I sampled were not ‘saucy’ at all. The ingredients were added to the pasta and then the dish was dressed with olive oil, pan juices and maybe a little of the starchy pasta water, so the pasta would be lightly coated with flavourful juices rather than dripping in sauce.
The food is amazingly tasty and cheap compared to here. There is an abundance of fresh produce, everything tastes of sunshine. I didn’t eat a single thing I didn’t love while I was there. Croissants full of creme patissiere, great balls of mozzarella so creamy they tasted like burrata, semi-freddo the size of a family car, seafood so fresh it threw itself onto your plate, tomatoes that made me weep they tasted so good. Gelato in every flavour and all exquisite. Great, creamy avocados you can scoop into your mouth with a spoon, sharp and fruity olives, the lemoniest lemons. It was all wonderful.
Siesta runs from about midday to half four. In tourist places like Taormina all the shops stayed open. Everywhere else we went, people take their siesta seriously. We learned to get up early and make the most of the morning and either go home for a nap or power down in a cafe or on the beach in the afternoons. Everything kicks off again from 4.30 p.m. and the shops stay open until about 9.00 p.m. Even on Sundays.
In terms of places we visited, as I said, Taormina is a must. It’s beautiful and even though it’s busy and tourist filled, it’s still stunning and worth going to see. Syracuse and Ortygia ran it a close second in terms of beauty and antiquity. Catania city is really interesting. Apparently not as old and lovely as Messina and Palermo, because it’s been ravaged by volcanic activity a few times, but we really enjoyed our time there. We only had a few hours there but I’d happily go back. There is a great market off the main drag of Via Etnea and there is (like everywhere) no shortage of museums, ruins and churches to see. I’d love to go back to Messina on the train and explore properly. We only caught glimpses of things because we didn’t plan our visit properly but I’d definitely visit again.
Lots of cities and towns have two centres due to age and volcanic activity. The older bits are always amazing but difficult to navigate, so park in the new bit and travel on foot. We explored Ragusa like this. Ragusa Ibla is the old town and if you love vertiginous paths and ancient churches it’s for you. We enjoyed visiting Modica which feels slightly more open, architecturally speaking. Bits of it reminded me of Provence. On our last afternoon we went to Giardino Naxos and hung out on the beach for a few hours. It’s just a dusty seaside town, but we liked it very much.
Oh, and Etna. I have to say that volcanoes are not really my thing. We did drive to the foot of the slopes, which was as touristy as you would expect. We watched people staggering their way across the blackened landscape on foot or by incongruously cheery toy train, and decided it wasn’t for us. I much preferred watching it from afar. Every day it was different and it dominates the landscape as you would expect.
Those are just the edited highlights. We explored tiny villages, beaches, industrial towns, shopping centres, places with interesting names (Linguaglossa) and anywhere that took our fancy. Everywhere you go, literally everywhere, there are sites of antiquity to visit, great restaurants (everyone takes food seriously, everyone, even at service stations) and amazing views. We bumbled about the entire east coast of the island on our travels. I’ve been told the west coast is completely different again. I hope one day to go back and explore it.