Travel in Sicily: Part 2

In Travel in Sicily: Part 1, Madeleine Wilson began her trip in Catania with day trips to the Riviera dei Ciclopi. Next she introduced us to southern Sicily and the beautiful Baroque town of Ragusa and Siracusa.

In part two, she turns inland across mainland Sicily on a 5-hour coach journey to Palermo. A few days later, she’s determined to become a beach bum and stick her nose in a book. She heads along the north coast to spend some quality time on a sun lounger in Cefalù. But can Mount Etna be conquered in white espadrilles? Let’s find out…

Palermo

We stayed in one of the most run-down areas, Albergheria, panicked and feared for our lives (and our new cameras hung around our necks). But in fact, we didn’t witness a spot of bother. Yes, the drivers and traffic were at their all time worst but somehow, it won me over.

It’s the kind of city where you stumble through a run-down housing estate with buildings left as bomb-sites since WWII, but around the corner you are quick to find twinkling and inviting bars; instead of wrinkling your nose in the damp alleyways darkened by overhanging laundry, smells of a home-cooked Sicilian dinner waft into the street. A number of dilapidated palazzi and bombed churches host cultural events some of which you can stumble upon but most remain hidden behind closed doors – some research before setting out will pay off. Palermo is one up-and-coming city!

Favourite things to do in Palermo…

Fontana & Piazza Pretoria: In and around one of Palermo’s loveliest squares, the Fontana Pretoria is a startling and flamboyant rendezvous with the Gods of Mount Olympus. Around the corner you will also find Teatro Bellini and the unusual Norman churches La Martorana and San Cataldo with landmark red domes. (Corner of Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele)
Foro Italico: There is not much to it but the colourful dotty benches are a glimmer of the intention to make this seafront stretch more of an attraction. An almost nuclear smog hung over the place – just another day of bad weather for us – and there is no beach to speak of. But with a gelato in hand, and your gaze turned away from the ugly Capitaneria di Porto, it’s an escape from the city centre.
Mercato della Vucciria: The market is one of the most colourful in Palermo and a chance to come face to face with your dinner. Aside from picnic ingredients including fresh fruit and veg, street food vendors sell pane con la milza (veal spleen sandwiches), panelle (chickpea fritters and sfincione (pizza snacks). Come hungry!
Teatro Massimo: At the busy crossroads of Porta Maqueda, the theatre is worth a glimpse even just from the outside which featured in The Godfather Part III.
Catacombe dei Cappuccini: Not for the faint-hearted, the catacombes display preserved skeletons still dressed in their finery. Most are strung up along the walls in a series of tunnels, others lie outstretched in their coffins, glaring at you from their final horizontal resting place . The youngest and alarmingly well-preserved is the doll-like, two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo. (€2, Piazza Cappuccini 1)
Giardino Garbaldi: One of Palermo’s flourishing areas, the Giardino Garibaldi in the Piazza Marina is surrounded by a number of design-conscious bars, restaurants and the domineering Palazzo Chiaramonte. The magnificent banyan trees provide a shady spot for local domino players. Around the corner, pop in to the Museo Internazionale della Marionette Antonio Pasqualino for a fantastic display of over 3000 puppets and performances in the summer. Admission €5

Something to eat…
At Trattoria Bellini, sit in the shadow of the beautiful teatro (unfortunately covered in scaffolding for our visit. Tut!) and swig house wine and deliciously cheap pizzas in the centre of the piazza. (Piazza Bellini)

Something to drink…
Blink and you will miss it but RISO (Museo d’Art Contemporania della Sicilia) is a lovingly restored palazzo complete with bookshop and contemporary bar. Great for a cocktail and some of the best aperitivi we gorged on in Sicily. They also have internet kiosks and Wi-Fi. (Corso Vittorio Emanuele 365).

A must-visit for later on in the evening is Kursaal Kalhesa, carved out of the Palazzo Forcella along the Forco Italia. The cultural venue has a fabulous bar with very reasonably priced cocktails, aperitivi, a bookshop, internet cafe and low-key concerts. We also enjoyed a wonderful candlelit meal in the courtyard behind the bar. (Foro Umberto 21)

Somewhere out of town…
On our (only) sunny day Palermo, we headed to Mondello, a beach resort favoured by locals during weekends in the summer. It’s a 20 minute bus ride from Teatro Politeama Garibaldi. Another popular trip is to Monreale. Also just 20 minutes by bus (no. 389) from Piazza Indipendenza, this hilltop town offers spectacular views over Palermo and boasts one the most awe-inspiring Norman churches. It’s not exactly off the tourist route, but it is a must-see. Admission €6

Somewhere to stay…
Hidden down a backstreet of Ballarò, design lover’s will fancy B&B Porta di Castro. The entrance and lounge area has high ceilings and cavernous bare stone walls. There is breakfast bar where lovely Alessandro or Massimo are on hand to offer you a selection of pastries; delicious filled croissants with marmalade, chocolate or ricotta and a fresh coffee and blood orange juice.

A tempting tier of biscuits and a tart are on display if you feel peckish throughout the day. Rooms are lovely and cool in summer months and you are a short walk from the exciting and 1000-year old Mercato Ballarò, Palazzo dei Normanni and the buses at Piazza Indipendenza. A must if you like to lap up local atmosphere, eateries and bars.

Joining forces with sister and brother-in-law (the only person in our group with enough guts to drive on this crazy island) for the final part of our trip meant…rental car! We drove eastwards, along the coast to the popular seaside resort of Cefalù; a quieter alternative to pretty but tourist-hoarded Taormina.

Cefalù

This was our spot for spending some quality time on the sun lounger. The town itself has a cobbled street centre and is surprisingly popular with Germans as well as other Italian holiday makers. At the heart of Cefalù is the Duomo, which glows at sunset. Inside, marvel at a glittering Byzantine mosaic, although, you might have been spoiled by Monreale!

Something to eat…

Tempting as it may be to eat in the charming Piazza del Duomo, skip this tourist trap. Begin with aperitivi at Da Nino, which occupies a prime spot overlooking the beach and the promenade. We ate at Ristorante il Normanno (Via Vanni, 9), a restaurant tucked down a side street with a good value set menu and some beautiful fresh fish – it’s a fishing village after all!

Most nights however, we were happy cooking for ourselves; buying fresh local ingredients and throwing together a Niçoise salad here, tomato and basil-piled ciabbata there. The tipple of the trip had become a Campari and tonic or local Nero D’Avola wine.

Somewhere to stay…
And the reason we were so happy not leaving the house? We stayed in the most beautiful villa! Villa Sette Frati had a stunning view from the terrace. It overlooked a garden, the (almost) infinity-style swimming pool and out to sea.

The owners, Pino and Rita live in the apartment below and busied themselves with cleaning the pool area every morning and rolling out the luxurious sun loungers. The villa was beautifully kept with a flat screen telly, laundry facilities and a quaint traditional kitchen. You certainly need a car here; the villa is 5km from Cefalù on a hillside and unless you fancy a loooong walk to the bottom, there are no nearby shops or cafes. But we had peace, quiet and a breathtaking view.

Somewhere out of town…
We were very unlucky with the weather, in fact, it forced us to get in the car and drive huge distances in the hope that the weather might improve on the other side of the island. This way, we travelled to the Mount Etna volcano.

Mount Etna

We checked the forecast before setting off and headed for the northern access point at Piano Provenzana – advised that it was quieter than the south entrance, Rifugio Sapienza, which is predominantly for people visiting from Catania. From Piano Provenzana you can, on arrival, pay €40 for a 4×4 car to take you to the upper viewing station.

We were shocked to find a dilapidated corrugated iron shack selling drinks, postcards and strange plastic black Madonna statues. The surrounding area trickled with fields of black rock and strange bleached-white trees. These were a skeletal reminders of where the lava had flowed down the hillside, destroying everything in its path. The man working behind the bar – who we later discovered was a victim of the Mount Etna eruption in 2002 and who’s hotel was now nothing more than a huge pile of rubble – informed us that the snow on the mountain meant that no 4×4 cars were not allowed to drive us to the viewing station that day. There was a chair lift but it did not seem to be working.

We climbed as far as we could on foot (me in a pair of white espadrilles, my sister in ballet pumps), crossing narrow ridges and crater-like drops on either side. The landscape is extraordinary, the closest thing to life on another planet. We felt the rocks warm beneath our feet but saw no bubbling, sulphuric and lava-filled craters.

We heard tales from other climbers who had visited from Rifugio Sapienza that they were required to wear thick-soled boots (which can be hired from the visitor centre on arrival) for areas where the ground was soft from the scorching molten rock. The south is also more popular because of the cable car which takes you 2500m up (€30 return, or €45 for cable car plus 4×4). We were unlucky, but the Mt Etna day trip was my favourite thing to do in Sicily.

It was great having the flexibility to drive and stop off for photos in our hired car, but via public transport I suggest doing Mt. Etna from Catania. Get to Catania Borgo station and catch the Ferrovia Circumetnea train which circles the base of Mt Etna for pretty views. 5 Balconi B&B, where we stayed in Catania, were able to arrange a good-value excursion to Mt. Etna for the day and it came highly recommended by other guests over the breakfast table.

Agrigento & La Scala dei Turchi

We skipped the ruins of La Valle dei Templi at Agrigento – was it the wind, the threat of rain or the €14 entry fee? Who knows. But we decided instead, to try and find La Scala dei Turchi.  We headed along the coast west of Agrigento, spotted a brown sign and we were there.

The ‘Turkish Steps’ is a surreal rock formation of limestone and clay of brilliant white that lead down to the sea. Its name stuck when Turks and Saracens raiding the area took refuge in the sheltered bay and climbed the steps to pillage the nearby towns. The steps are particularly fantastic at sunset and bathers lie outstretched on the rocks. Again, you really need a car but you could catch a bus from Agrigento to Porto Empedocle and walk 5km west.

Trapani, the cable car to the historic Erice, the touristy but beautiful Taormina, a boat trip to the Aeolian islands…there was simply not enough time on this particular trip. But watch this space!

Images and text by Madeleine Wilson

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