It’s a destination that has always held a certain amount of mystery to me. I am a fairly seasoned traveller to Italy; however, as my family roots are in the northern part of the country, I have seldom made a trip further south than Rome. I had certainly never made it across to the bottom of the boot.
I had imagined Sicily to be an island teaming with Mafia, packed with tourists in baking mid-summer heat and plenty of sensational food and wine. The latter is a generalisation I apply to any region of Italy that I visit – I am yet to be disappointed.
Sicily itself feels more like southern Spain or Portugal than Italy. There are few green, rolling hills, except on the east coast. The centre of the island is rugged and kind of like driving through the something out of the American Midwest – real “cowboy country”. Sicily is distinctly poorer than other parts of Italy – kind of like a forgotten cousin – and the roads and general infrastructure are lacking and not well-maintained. Power outages are common. Nobody can ever change more than a ten euro note, and even that is a stretch at times. Hospitality is mixed – my hybrid, bastardised Italian was condemned as many times as it was complimented. Travelling with two young children was shunned as many times as it was welcomed. It’s a mixed bag; a place of extremes – majestic, natural beauty and quaint villages on one hand, full of history and archaeological wonders, and desperate, abandoned streets filled with rubble, litter and vacant buildings on the other. However, for all its downsides, the positives by far outweigh the negatives.
I have never had so many spectacular views in one destination. It gets better and better, even when you think it cannot actually get any more amazing. The water off the coast of Taormina is so incredibly clear and such a deep azure colour – photographs and words cannot even begin to describe it adequately.
As for the food and the wine… Sicily is teeming with vineyards, orchards and olive groves, resulting in an abundance of fresh, beautiful and locally grown produce. The seafood and meat are also sensational. Regional favourites include involtini (small, stuffed parcels of meat or eggplant), sword fish, mussels, sardines (especially on pizza), pickled and stuffed Greek-style vegetables and of course olives and pasta. Tutti buoni!
Wine is cheap and abundant. Grillo is a local white blend from Erice on the western coast, while on the east there are some fantastic red varieties including Syrah. The reds especially seem much lighter than what we are used to. A good bottle costs between eight and twelve euros, but in many case house wine is just as enjoyable and a fraction of the cost.
And the Mafia? Let’s just say that there were no Godfather-like figures sitting next to us in restaurants, or lying on the beach, so I may have been slightly off the mark with that stereotype.
The peak of summer was blazing hot, however I found that a good hat, sunscreen, plenty of water and at least one gelato and a dip in the pool each day made the heat quite bearable.
One of the highlights of our trip to Sicily was our week-long stay near Taormina. Perched on the slopes of a mountain overlooking the crystal clear waters of the Ionian Sea, this beautiful town was built by the ancient Greeks, expanded by the Romans, destroyed by the Arabs and then rebuilt by the Normans, finally becoming a renowned tourist resort in the mid-19th century. The centrepiece of the Taormina is the spectacular Greek Theatre, the second largest of its kind in Sicily. The breathtaking views from the terraces surrounding the auditorium reach right across to Etna, the town and the sea below. Taormina is bustling and the atmosphere is wonderful, with diners spilling out of cafes and restaurants and out onto the squares and terraces. The nearby seaside towns of Giardini Naxos and Mazzaro boast beautiful beaches for you to enjoy that cool, azure water first-hand.
Taormina makes a great base for exploring the north-eastern corner of Sicily. Easy day trips include Alcantara Gorge, the historical towns of Linguaglossa and Castiglione di Sicilia, the lava fields and caldera of Mt Etna itself, the tiny hamlet of Castelmola, Syracuse, and Savoca, a town made famous by the “Godfather” film trilogy and home to several mummified corpses.
On the west coast of the island are the coastal townships of Trapani and Marsala, famous for their salt-pans and windmills. There are several archaeological sites in the area, including the ancient city of Segesta, complete with Greek Theatre and magnificent Doric temple. However, the highlight is the hilltop town of Erice which is connected to Trapani by cablecar.
Sicily is a rough diamond in so many ways, however if you can see past the sharp and uneven edges, you will be blinded but its shine and clarity.
Where? Sicily, Italy.
We spent six nights at the delightful Lemon Tree Holiday Apartments about 2km from Taormina and up the hill from Giardini Naxos. Run by the fabulous Diego and Karen, this place was a highlight of its own. Wonderful, spacious apartments that are extremely well-kept and well-stocked. The view from the terrace is outstanding and hospitality absolutely blew us away. 5 out of 5. Website: http://www.thelemontree.eu/public/home/home.aspx
We then spent four nights at Duca Di Castelmonte – a converted farm about 15 minutes by car from the old town area of Trapani. We had a lovely 2 bedroom apartment with a private courtyard and lovely views of Erice from the upstairs bedrooms. The property prides themselves on their local produce and cuisine and the food certainly did not disappoint. Not as warm and welcoming of young children as we had hoped for, and the immediate area around the property was rather rough and derelict which detracted from our overall experience. 3.5 out of 5. Website: http://www.ducadicastelmonte.it/en/default.asp
When? 24 July – 3 August 2012 (10 nights in total)
The best bits? Taormina township and its Greek Theatre; swimming in the beautiful Ionian Sea and looking back across at the coastline and Mt Etna; Castelmola; Erice.