I drove around Sicily back in October. I had a business trip in Rome, and I had this general impression that I should go somewhere. Somewhere warm, because I live in Boston and Boston winters are a cruel meteorological joke, and October is when I start wondering if this winter will be the one that sees me wander into the snow out of sheer desperation to die. Sicily, I was aware, is warm, reasonably sized, and has very good food. I had also never seen Greek ruins and I figured seeing Greek ruins is something a person should do if they’re lucky enough to have the opportunity. Someone told me it was surprisingly inexpensive. So, I went, drove around the island for a week, and became one of those annoying people who tells everyone they should go to Sicily. Hey, you should go to Sicily!
I describe my itinerary below: the main thing to remember is I started from Palermo and drove clockwise around the island. I’d like to spend more time in the interior of the island next time, particularly to see the Roman mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale. Here are some general thoughts on these places.
Taormina: Taormina is a town that is somehow Superglued/cemented/mysteriously affixed to a cliff near Mt. Etna. It is spectacularly gorgeous and is absolutely horrifying to drive in. It had the most tourist presence of anywhere I went in Sicily, but that does make sense what with the Greek theatre and the incredible views. It’s a good place to take long walks at night. There is a beautiful park built by an English heiress who married a local royal, and there’s also the San Domenico Palace Hotel, which has hosted a lot of famous writer and historical figure types. I am not fucking kidding about the terrors of driving here, or the fact that Google will egregiously lie to you about this. It is worth it. I also drove up Mt Etna during one of the days I stayed here, which was fantastic.
Siracusa: Siracusa is just Syracuse, which should sound familiar if you’ve retained any Greek history. It’s the hometown of Archimedes, which they actually don’t play up as much as you’d think (I didn’t see a single offensive Archimedes t-shirt). It’s a quiet, small Mediterranean city with a lot of the tourist attractions and activity confined to the ancient fortress island of Ortygia. The remains of the Greek theatre and Roman amphitheater outside of town are large and impressive, with wind rustling through cedar trees and lemon groves and not a lot of people around, at least in the fall. You can walk into the maybe natural or maybe man-made NONE CAN SAY “ Ear of Dionysius” cave, which the eponymous tyrant supposedly used to spy on particularly stupid Athenian prisoners. You can also drive out to the Plemmirio natural reserve and walk along the cliffs by the ocean: you will pass by Greek tombs cut out of the rock in the backyard’s of people’s villas.
Agrigento: I didn’t actually visit Agrigento proper: everyone comes here for the Valley of the Temples, an enormous UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains some of the planet’s best-preserved Greek ruins. The ancient Greek city of Akragas. which dates back to the sixth century B.C.,was built on a ridge with a strategic view of the ocean: it is drier now than it was back then, I think, and the desolate desert landscape is gloriously juxtaposed with the enormous white marble temples, many of which are improbably still standing. (One was preserve by being converted into a Christian church). The temples that have collapses are overgrown by olive trees and gigantic bulbous prickly pears. There are also many mysterious and slightly creepy Paleo-Christian necropolises carved into the ridge, some of which you can go into with special tours. There’s the Edenic garden of Kolymbetra, which was originally an enormous Greek-built artificial lake built out of an aqueduct. The Moors realized that the spot would make a great garden, and cut irrigation channels from the original pool to water it: it was spruced up not long ago and is now a gorgeous and nice-smelling botanical garden.
Palermo: Palermo is one of those places that I had no prior mental image of whatsoever, which meant that it was a really pleasant surprise when I arrived. Arab-Norman, Baroque, and rococo architectural styles meld here into something particularly weird and fantastic (which may permeate your dreams). It’s a great walking city, where you’ve got interesting things going on and people roaming the streets late at night and lots of street food. I wandered into the Vucciria market, which I’m sure every tiresome Instagrammer does, but it really is a wonderful thing: it reminded me a lot of the markets I’ve been to in Southeast Asia and India, including the creative arrangement of animal innards and the rhythmic shouting. I only spent a day in Palermo but I would like to spend more.
I have a few general suggestions for seeing Sicily.
- I rented a car. This is what you should do if you go to Sicily. I’ve read you can use public transit to get around the island and I have no reason to doubt this, but it also sounds like a much clunkier affair than getting in a car and driving places. A lot of the interesting stuff in Sicily does not appear to be easily accessible by railway. Also, Sicily is one of those places that really rewards one of my favorite travel activities: very long drives through gorgeously intimidating landscapes that allow you to think a lot. Surprisingly enough, I was even able to rent an automatic car – I am still learning to drive manual – and the markup wasn’t that terrible.
When you say you’re going to be driving in Sicily, people will look horrified and say things like “but they’re such horrible drivers there, aren’t you afraid?” I had no great retort to this, beyond pointing out that I’ve ridden motorcycles in Cambodia and am still alive. I can now confidently say that drivers in Sicily are probably better than drivers in Boston, and are also quite a bit more polite. If you can drive in Boston, you can drive in Sicily. There are a few weird little quirks of Sicilian driving, sure. People are a little less slavishly attached to staying in their lanes than American drivers, which leads to some haphazard merging in cities, but this actually is pretty logical if you sort of mind-meld yourself with what’s going on (imagine you are a sardine, in an immense school!) and everything will be fine. Probably.
The most annoying thing about driving in Sicily is actually not intimidating, thick men in suits in Ferrari’s off to go commit crimes rumbling by you at 100KM an hour. It is very elderly small people in very elderly small cars putting along the highway at 15 kms an hour, unbothered and uninterested in the youthful bullshit of the people whooshing past them. Sometimes you will get stuck behind one of these Sicilian grandparents for thirty minutes or more on two-lane roads, and you will wonder if they are doing this on purpose, if they are asserting their dominance over callous youth by forcing you to crawl, slug-like, behind them through the Sicilian countryside. There is nothing you can do about this. Accept it.
There are lots of these tunnels on the eastern side of Sicily. You have to drive through them: I guess that’s a function of building a civilization on a small rocky island, and then adding highways at a later date. They are poorly lit and slightly terrifying. Some of them drip and are covered in vines. You should also become accustomed to this.
Order the thing on the menu that is least familiar to you. It will probably be really great and will taste different from any other sort of Italian food. Sicilian food combines North African and Mediterranean flavors in really marvelous and unusual ways, which is sort of what you get when your island has been occupied by the Greeks, by the Romans, by the Normans, by the Moors, by the Spanish, and by the French at one point or another. Eat anything that involves: sardines, swordfish, pistachios, sea urchin. Most things involve one of these ingredients so you’re probably going to do OK. People don’t eat before 7:30 at the very earliest, so don’t be some gauche American asshole by entering a restaurant at 7:00 sharp and staring blankly at the servers until they do something about it.
People in Sicily, in my massively limited experience, are very friendly and helpful. Such as the two guys who helped me navigate my car out of one of those stupid treacherous alley-ways in Taormina (remember, it is built onto the side of a mountain and affixed there by some sort of weird black magic Superglue, it’s like a nightmare Habitrail for cars). It is a very easy place to travel for this reason. Even if you are being intensely stupid people will probably help you out of a sense of basic human decency. I speak OK Spanish, which for some reason means that my brain actively repels Italian words: they always just come out as Spanish but with more strangled “i” sounds at the end of words, which makes me sound even worse than I’d sound if I just spoke English. I cannot make up the difference with hand gestures. Sicilians still managed to tolerate this. Please be nice to them in return. (They are also, like most people in Italy, really fashionable in a very distinct “tight jeans and elegant designer athletic shoes” way).
Sicily is very safe. You are highly unlikely to find yourself in the middle of a shooting Mafia war over an ancient and long-contested stand of orange trees or whatever pops into your mind when you consider the topic. Shooting wars between the Mafia are not a thing you are going to somehow stumble into while you are looking for a poorly sign-posted winery on the slopes of Mt. Etna. Far as I can tell, Sicily is significantly lower-crime than pretty much any urban area in the United States. Insofar as I can determine the main dangers of Sicily are prickly-pear cactus spines, aggressive sunburn, and driving the wrong way down little teeny tiny roads (which may empty out over a sea-cliff). Organized crime or any crime at all is not in the equation of fear is what I’m trying to say. I spent many happy hours wandering around at night in Sicily and felt completely unthreatened. Probably don’t wander about with your wallet and iPhone dangling out of the buttpocket of your jeans, but 1. You shouldn’t do that anywhere and 2. Come on, why are you displaying expensive consumer goods on your butt? Who does that? Weird.
Sicily is a good place to stay at little bed and breakfasts. I did not use Air BnB: I just used TripAdvisor and Hotels.com to identify places that looked decent, then tried to book directly at the property through their website. I stayed at a succession of little hotels that were really inexpensive and really pleasant. You get some great bang for your buck for your hotel dollar in Sicily. Hotels will pretty much always offer some kind of breakfast as well, although this ranges from “eh” to “fresh home-made cannoli.”
See lots of Greek ruins. Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples were incredible. I loved wandering around the pines and into the caves at Siracusa. The lonely Greek ruins at Selinunte, right by the sea cliffs – which I pretty much had to myself – will be an indelible memory forever. You should also check out the regional museums whenever you can, as they seem to contain ridiculous quantities of amazing stuff, the sort of stuff that would be marquee pieces at US museums and here are just “oh, ugh, that old thing.” You’ll be wandering around ruins and see some incredible Roman mosaic that is just sort of sitting there in plain sight unbothered and unguarded.You could probably go up and lick it if you wanted to.
It gets fucking cold on the summit of Mt. Etna. I was aware of this before I left, but somehow managed to not factor this into my packing and did not bring along my good hiking boots. Or pants. It was going to get into the thirties (F) on the summit, and I decided not to be that person who pays € 63 to go up to the summit (including the cable car and a jeep trip) and then ends up getting hypothermia. I plan to return wth appropriate clothing to hike up to the summit. The main point is that you cannot get away with flip-flops and shorts on Mt Etna, and while they will rent you cold weather gear, do you really want to rent cold weather gear? Other people’s dubious hiking boots? No, surely you do not.
I’ll put up some individual posts about the places I went in Sicily as I get to them.