Ah, Sicily! Talk to anyone who has visited and you’ll find absolute passionate devotee’s versus a small minority who have an air of ambivalence. Having driven, cycled and bussed around the country for three weeks, I’m guessing the latter stayed but a day or two.
Sicily oozes a rich history of invasion that includes Greeks, Romans and Arabs, as well as a mix of Europeans to reveal many exotic layers seen in the architecture, food and culture. As an island about one-third the size of Tasmania, there’s an abundance of beaches, the east is dominated by the moody Mt Etna, there’s sunbaked mountains south of Cefalu and Palermo; saltpans on the Moorish west coast, and rolling countryside along the southern coast.
What about the driving you ask? Initially intimidated by the unpredictability of traffic especially at intersections, we learnt to drive, or ride our bicycles, ‘like a Sicilian!’ My advice is to: ‘act confident and be assertive,’ and then drivers politely give way to you.
For anyone who’s wavering on a trip to Sicily, here’s my list of favourites:
1. Food and wine: Sicilian food is seasonal and fresh because it’s grown or fished locally. Thank the ancient Greeks for olives, figs, artichokes and sheep’s milk cheeses; the Arabs for citrus, almonds and eggplants and pasta dishes with the odd combo of sardines, raisins and pine nuts; and the Moors for tomato and chocolate. There’s an abundance of street food and sweet food. It took me one bite to succumb to my first canoli – a cylindrical shaped biscuit case filled with the most creamy ricotta cheese, dusted with icing sugar, pistachio and a slice of glace orange. And the gelati and granita are taste sensations, even in a brioche bun for breakfast! It’s rare to see wine listed by the glass on a menu. Don’t worry, ask to taste the local white or red and you’ll be surprised by the quality as well as the price.
2. Greek and Roman archaeological sites at Agrigento, Taormina, and Syracusa are breathtaking. The row of Doric temples that make up the Valle dei Templi out of Agrigento are far more significant than any in Greece and loom large from afar especially when floodlit at night. Combine a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Noto, Scicli, Ragusa and Modica where you’ll see splendid ornamental Baroque palaces and churches which, when we visited in September, were abuzz with bridal parties.
3. Mt Etna: Still active, the volcano sits at 3,323m and acts as a beacon along the east coast from Catania to Taormina and its impact is felt as far away as Messina. Our guide, Marco, a local geologist in a battered four wheel drive shows the two of us recent dark volcanic lava flows that wend their way down to the coast as a contrast to the fertile foothills. At times we’re off road and sway from side to side over rocky landscapes. Later we’re issued helmets and lights and straddle rocks to walk underground into a lava cone before driving up to what is the base of the ski-run in Winter. Walking over this lunar landscape to circuit the cornice of one of the craters isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s steep and narrow and with every step the gravelly surface slips from under your foot, but the view is spectacular.
4. Bars: It’s doubtful that you’ll find roadside bars featured in any guide book on Sicily as they are totally understated and underrated and they rarely close for siesta. The indication of a good one usually is the number of men sitting outside chatting and drinking coffee. Inside you’ll find coffee and pastries, brioche, gelati and pannini that are fresh and amazingly cheap, as well as wine and spirits and importantly, a clean loo.
5. Stay at a local Agriturismi: This is where you’ll meet the heart and soul of Sicily – incredibly welcoming farmers, wine makers or olive oil producers who have opened their homes for a farmstay. If you eat in, the food has few or no food miles and it’s often cooked or served by the family who’ve worked on the farm that day so don’t expect anything before 8pm. By then you’ll have an appetite for the traditional four courses that includes a pasta dish before main course, and for dessert, the possibility of a plate of fresh cannoli…and that’s one huge temptation!
6. To experience Sicily at grassroots, cycle: Around East Sicily there’s guided and self-guided trips and our six day, extended to eight, enabled us to leisurely explore the Baroque towns starting at Palazzolo Acreide on our way to Syracusa, the ancient Greek metropolis. The combination of cycling on backroads often hilly, through cobblestoned UNESCO Heritage listed towns; visiting wetlands and bird sanctuaries; olive groves and vineyards as well as flat coastal roads around sandy beaches, suited us well. For anyone wishing to cruise up some of the hills more prevalent during the first few days, e-bikes are available.
7. Island Hop: at some stage on your tour of Sicily you need to island hop. Favignana, one of the Egadi Islands is a short half hour ferry trip from Trapani on the west coast. Hiring a bicycle or scooter is the main means of transport around the island which was once home to tufa quarrying evident by stone or chiselled walls and lush sunken gardens. Dozens of swimming holes and rockpools with glistening turquoise water beckon. The tuna warehouse and cannery which closed in 1999 straddles the port and is now a museum well worth visiting as is the medieval township of Favignana which comes alive at night as locals and tourists promenade.
8. And finally, the people: Sicilians are proud, generous people who welcome you with open arms even if you don’t speak the language or have a relative living there. The only time I wished I’d brushed up on my basic Italian was at our first Agriturismi outside of Palazzolo Acreide. Though, I was amazed at how we were able to understand our host with his strong Sicilian dialect, flaying arms and raucous laughter.