Travel in Sicily: Part 1

Our trip didn’t quite go as planned. Travel in Sicily can mean lazy days on isolated beaches of the Riserva Naturale di Vendicari, lush Avola gorge walks and aperitivi savoured on sun-drenched terraces in Palermo bars. But, unlucky for us, a few too many windy and wet days twinned with inefficient Easter public transport and no car hire, meant I relinquished some carefully-chosen destinations on my Sicily itinerary – or should I swallow my pride and admit, I tried to cram too much in?

And yet, Sicily – the deflated football, kicked by the Italian boot – worked its magic and I can’t wait to go back. There is plenty of talk about development funding disappearing, Cosa Nostra, ugly high rise blocks swallowing up the suburbs and there are certainly many littered and traffic-clogged cities. But, architecturally, the dilapidation works a certain rough-hewn romance. I always felt safe, everybody was friendly and very helpful, we devoured fresh seafood and swilled wine like water…in short, backpacking in Sicily packs a punch.

In my 2-week guide to Sicily I begin in Catania then travel south to the Baroque town of Ragusa with excursions to Siracusa and Modica. In part two I’ll be taking the coach through the centre of Sicily for 3 nights in Palermo. My last stop is along the north coast to the bustling seaside town of Cefalu with day trips to Mt. Etna and the Scala dei Turchi.

Sicily Tips

  1. To visit some of Sicily’s smaller towns off the tourist trail, beaches or go on hikes, hire a car then grin and bear the crazy driving. If you do opt for public transport, buses (visit SAIS and turn on your Google Translate!) are usually better than trains (visit Trenitalia).
  2. You are not guaranteed good weather in April or May. You could enjoy temperatures of 25° one day, and 12° the next. This is apparently typical across the Mediterranean. Yes, summer is hot (very hot) but this is when many of the Sicily festivals are held in the magnificent amphitheatres.
  3. Plan your day around siesta. Forget activities, shopping or trips to museums between 12-3pm because everything shuts. Instead, enjoy a long lunch, a sleep or stick to the beach.
  4. Dine from 9:30pm.  Any earlier and the restaurants are dead and lack atmosphere.
  5. As a rule of thumb, eastern Sicily is the more well-trodden area and hotel and restaurant prices in popular Siracusa and Taormina reflect that. There are more hidden gems as well as bargains to be had in the west and flights are cheaper to Palermo or Trapani.

Catania

In the volcanic eruption of 1669, the lava flow from Mt Etna reached the city. It was then flattened by an earthquake in 1693. History has not been kind to Catania, but I was excited to discover a city that had quite literally risen out of the ashes. Using Catania’s most plentiful raw material, many buildings were reconstructed out of lava rock and the effect is a singed and scorched Baroque elegance. It’s a constant reminder of Mt Etna’s  fiery threat that still broods and looms over the low-rise skyline.

Favourite things to do in Catania…
Piazza del Duomo: A good starting point and the city’s central square. You can see the Fontana dell’Elefante and wander inside the Duomo. From here,  set off in different directions to visit the other sights.
Via Crociferi: Catania’s historic street is filled with churches and adorning frescos including Chiesa Francesco d’Assisi, San Benedetto, San Francesco Borgia and San Giuliano.
Mercato della Pescheria: The Catania fish market should not be missed. Official stands are surrounded by locals flogging a single bucket of glittering silver anchovies – try a raw one if offered, they are surprisingly sweet. Clams squirt water in their half-filled trays and snails try to make a run for it. Swordfish are the main attraction at most Sicily markets. Apparently the Strait of Messina is perfect for funnelling these monsters into the fishing nets and you can find the fish on most restaurant menus.
Teatro Romano: This is Catania’s best preserved ancient site, much better than the crumbling remains of the Anfiteatro at Piazza Stesicoro. Admission €4
Castello Ursino: Although it houses the Museo Civico with a flighty collection of shiny objects, it’s the setting around Castello Ursino that I liked. the moat is bordered by picturesque trees, a few eateries – we were recommended the BBQs restaurants – and also a couple of nice local bars. I suggest you pick Sicily accommodation in this area.

Somewhere to stay…
5 Balconi B&B, which offers single, double, twin and triple rooms, was a real gem. Our beautifully furnished and bright room had a cavernous ceiling, small balcony and lots of charming touches with a shared bathroom right next door. A short walk into the centre and the bus station, the immediate area of Castello Ursino had a nice local atmosphere. Breakfast is included and you can arrange day trips and Mount Etna tours.

English owner Rob, was full of anecdotes about the city – which has been his home for 8 years – nightime adventures up Mount Etna enjoying a bottle of red and watching the glowing lava, he offered great spots for lunch, dinner and where to fill up your empty water bottles with wine for €1. We felt very sad to say goodbye! Hostels in Catania.

Something to drink…
Tertulia: An adorable bookshop a few steps from Teatro Massimo and with a romantic bar attached. Browse the beautifully illustrated covers over a glass of wine. (Via Michele Rapisarda)

Something to eat…
Savia: Locals snack on them but we were stuffed after devouring an arancine – stuffed and fried rice balls containing spinach or ragù. We scoffed ours over the road in the pretty Giardino Bellini botanic gardens with views of Mount Etna at the top. Also a nice spot for an aperitivo (about €5 for a cocktail) and free nibbles standing at the bar. (Via Etnea 304)
Metró: My favourite meal of my Sicily holiday was at this slow food restaurant.I recommend the fragrant swordfish steak with an orange and pistachio drizzle (Via Crociferi 76).

Somewhere out of town…

Take the bus north along the coast for a trip to the beach. This stretch is called the Riviera dei Ciclopi after the legend of Ulysses who, as he fled, blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus. The enraged Cyclops hurled huge rocks at the departing ship and created the rocky coastline.

Aci Castello is a lava rock-strewn bay. There is a Norman keep atop the cliff and a pleasant square where you can enjoy a refreshing granite; flavoured crushed ice and popular all over Sicily. The rocks made for uncomfortable sunbathing but a purpose-built lido was being constructed and it’s a great spot for swimming.

I wanted to head south to visit some of the infamous Baroque towns which were rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake. Siracusa, is probably the most well know, but it is also the most touristy. We settled on Ragusa with the intention of visiting nearby Noto and Modica on day trips. The Catania-Ragusa coach cost just €8 for a 2-hour trip.

Ragusa

The town is divided in to two areas: Ragusa Superiore is the upper and more modern side and, separated by a narrow and leafy gorge, Ibla is a cobbled affair wrapped around its own hillside. Ragusa has 18 UNESCO buildings (18!) and there seemed to be a beautiful church or view around every corner.

It is perfect for idle wandering, and there is little need for planning. A rough idea is to head down the hillside of Superiore, which means descending a giant staircase then, when you pop out at the bottom, start the climb up the other side to Ibla. At the peak, the Cattedrale di San Georgio is the crown with a pedestrianised strip running through the centre with gelaterias, cafes and a lovely bookshop with a few English titles.

Ragusa is home to one of Sicily’s most-loved fictional detectives: Inspector Montalbano by Andrea Camilleri. I picked up a translated copy of one of the most popular in the series ‘The Terra-Cotta Dog’.

Perched on the eastern edge of Ibla, the Giardino Ibleo is a public garden with views over the surrounding lush hills and a palmtree lined walkway. It was a damp and windy day but this would be a fantastic and cooling spot in summer.

In Superiore, the Piazza San Giovanni is ideal for breakfast. At Caffe’ Italia we sampled some our finest cannolli – a ricotta-filled pastry tube that is so rich, you can easily share one – and a coffee or spremuta (freshly-squeezed juice). In fact, much of our time in and around Ragusa concentrated on food. The region produces some wonderful cheeses including Ragusano and caciocavallo, which my boyfriend enjoyed dripping over a huge steak or, if you order a selection of cheeses as an antipasto, they are often served with a spoonful of honey, another speciality from Ragusa.

Somewhere to stay…
Ibla may be the prettier area, but it is pedestrianised and a long walk from the bus station so you are rather stuck for parking or making day trips.

We loved La Grotta dell’Angelo B&B, which is located in Ragusa Superiore. There are two apartments each with two double rooms and self-catering facilities. Traditional antique furniture, a ginormous bed and high ceilings gave it a delightful sense of grandeur and the terrace, where you can enjoy breakfast, overlooked the green valley.

The owner, Stefano, gave us a whirlwind tour of the town. With impossibly narrow streets, the whole thing felt like a Montalbano car chase! He owns a photography studio below the apartments and has published a book on the historic Ragusa sights and Baroque architecture – you are in educated hands! Stefano kindly offered to drive us with his family to the nearby beach town of Pozzallo one day and to the bus station on another rather rainy day. A wonderful host and no request was too great.

Something to eat…
We gave the two Michelin star Ragusa restaurants Duomo and Fattoria dello Torri a miss; local trattorias were such good value and used top quality produce. Get off the touristy path in front of Cattedrale di San Georigo and duck down a side street. We dined with other Italian locals and families at Regia Osteria Vecchia Ragusa (Via San Vito 128 ) with nice umbrella outdoor seating, a cavernous dining room and a great wine list. If you devoured your main meal at lunch and prefer something light for dinner, we were wowed by Antares Pizzeria (Via Orfanotofio 7-9). Inside it was a romantic and architectural treat with bare white stone walls, glass ceilings and pages of pizza from as little as €2.50-€5.

Something to drink…
At low key 2 Volte (Via Mariannina Coffa 4) they mixed us a mean Negroni accompanied by aperitivi and my boyfriend was happy to catch some football on the big screen. For a light bite they served tasty toasted sandwiches when we didn’t feel like cooking. Strangely enough, they displayed a huge array of whiskeys too.

Somewhere out of town…
Easter weekend + no car + rain = something of a disaster for catching buses and making trips out of town. But we made it to Modica and sampled the infamous chocolate – rather grainy in texture due to the slow cooking method dating back to the Aztecs. At Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (Corso Umberto I 159) you can devour loads of free samples including salt, 90% cacao, almond and coffee. The chunky bars of chocolate make great gifts and are beautifully wrapped. At lunch, we ate like kings in Osteria dei Sapori Perduti (Corso Umberto I 228-230, Modica) with a bottomless bowl of pasta alla campagnola and a heady bottle of Planeta, La Segreta. How we made it up to the top of Modica Alta for an afternoon stroll, I will never know. Modica hostels

We also made it to Siracusa, a 2-hour coach excursion from Ragusa to wile away a rainy day. But with an early start you can arrive and take in the archeological park in the morning, and enjoy a leisurely lunch on the historic island of Ortigia during siesta. We loved Al Mazarì (Via G Torres 7) tucked behind the Duomo. It was a moderately priced, ornate but homely Siracusa restaurant and, when all the other customers had left, the staff burst into song around a piano with a rendition of ‘Sapore di Sale’. Finally walk it off near the Fonte Aretusa, a freshwater spring that inspired classical myths. Siracusa would also make a great Catania day trip and is one of the few occasions where I can recommend to you either the bus or train. Siracusa hostels

We ran out of sunshine and time but other nearby places worth exploring include the Baroque town of Noto, a trip to the beach and the pretty fishing port of Pozzallo and, if you fancy a walk, the Cave d’Ispica is a 13-kilometre-long gorge with carved out Christian chapels.

We took the coach to Palermo, a five-hour trip through central Sicily –  surprisingly green although in April, the landscape has yet to be scorched by a summer of sun. €10 one-way. Bargain!

In Travel in Sicily: Part 2 I visit exciting Palermo, Mount Etna and Sicily’s favourite seaside resort of Cefalu. Sicily might look small on the map but don’t try to cram too much in.

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