Ah Sicily – or Sicilia (sicheelia) as the Italians pronounce it, much nicer.We truly love Italy and have explored a reasonable amount of it – the Alps, Dolomites, Venice, the Lakes, Lucca, Florence , Tuscany, Rome, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Paestum. Sicily had always been on the agenda but somehow, we’d never made it there unti now.What I’d do differently – visit in winter or spring, when it’s not as hot and humid. It was exhausting in mid-Sept though not busy. I wouldn’t visit the Val di Noto again though it was well worth seeing the grand Baroque churches. I’ll focus next time on Palermo/Monreale then head for Taormina and some neighbouring small villages(beautiful Savoca is a must for Godfather fans like me!) That part of the coast was really beautiful.There are lots of day tours out to the islands from Taormina too which appeal. An organised trip up Mount Etna’s final slopes is also possible as a long day trip from Taormina – we didn’t plan our visit to this nearly 11,000 foot volcano properly and next time, I’d love to hike its summit. The downsides of Sicily were the litter and decay and grime of rather too much of the countryside and towns/cities.But overall, this was easily counterbalanced by so many truly mesmerising sights, some the finest I’ve yet seen in Europe.
Day 1: Catania to Syracuse/Ortygia
Arrived in hot and humid Catania via EasyJet from Manchester, picked up our hire car from JoyRent very quickly and headed south to Syracuse, barely an hour away.
I have to say our first impression of the countryside was poor; the amount of rubbish littering mile upon mile of landscape was pretty horrible. We negotiated Syracuse fairly easily and found our Airbnb on Riviera Dionisio Il Grande. It was a peeling ,slightly grimy street but our accommodation was delightful. Tucked off the road behind a security gate, our room was a rhapsody in blue and white, with enormous ceilings and windows on all sides that opened onto the sea crashing gently below. Handily, we were able to park inside the gates too though there was plenty free and safe street parking. The young woman who greeted us was super friendly and passionate about Sicily .We told her we loved many parts of Italy but that this was our first time on the island – ‘ah, mainland Italians will call me paesano! ‘ she laughed. I’d heard this before of mainland Italians, looking down their noses at anyone from south of Rome. It’s the same the world over, little snobberies about who comes from where – we have it in Scotland and the UK.The human condition!
It was time to explore Ortygia, the ancient island promontory and historical centre of Syracuse and a flat 15 minute stroll from our room. It wasn’t the loveliest of walks but we were soon in amongst the almost white stone of the old town. Somehow we found ourselves in the fish market area, the stink from it as it was swept clean at the end of a long day making us reel. A quick change of direction and we were soon on our way to the famed Piazza Duomo. The cattedrale was a stunner but it was the interior that was the most memorable. The structure used to be the Temple of Athena , built in the 5th century BC and the original Doric columns still line each wall. I always find it astonishing how very deeply something of great age affects me, in a way which later architecture doesn’t. I’ve had the same feeling in Rome’s Pantheon.
Apart from the cathedral, there were some grand Palazzos and cafes at one end but the Piazza wasn’t quite as appealing overall as I’d imagined it would be and seemed lacking in atmosphere. Now, we really just wanted a seat and a coffee so wandered towards the sea walls to find a café with a view. Find one we did and we slumped down gratefully at an outside table, bathed in sunshine. Seconds later, I heard the dreaded thumping pop music blaring from speakers and if I’d had the energy, I would have upped and left there and then! But we were in need of a seat, it was in a lovely situation and most places we’d passed seemed intent on deafening their customers in a similar way. If it had been Puccini or something more suited to the surroundings, fair enough but not Ed Sheeran or whoever else was wailing out their latest hit, all sounding the same and depressingly middle of the road.
Great coffee though, but then, this was Italy! We’d barely drawn a breath since our 7am flight that morning so it was a relief now to just sit and enjoy having arrived.
Recharged with caffeine half a hour later, we strolled along to 13th century Maniace Castle, a wonderful Arab – Norman structure built on the very edge of the peninsula. Wandering the ramparts, the sun a dazzling white orb of heat, the creamy stone walls, Moorish doors and ceilings and dusty courtyards, I felt we were in North Africa, rather than southern Europe; it was my favourite part of Ortygia.
Our hostess had suggested a stroll through the narrow streets of the attractive old Jewish quarter full of elegant houses with ornate iron balconies and a lovely area it was indeed.
Then the rain began, quite torrential and in minutes the streets were running with water. We sheltered in a covered entrance way off the Piazza Duomo, conscious that we still had an hour to go before our chosen restaurant for the night opened. It got surprisingly chilly too as darkness fell – so much for flagging in the heat just an hour previously!
We were lucky to get into ‘Sicilia in Tavola’ without a booking. It was charming inside, the sort of little family restaurant you hope you’ll find, lots of old artefacts on the walls and shelves, cosy and small. Shared an octopus starter that wasn’t as tasty or tender as we’d hoped; then a decent Linguine Norma for me, a classic Sicilian dish, with a hearty tomato and roasted aubergine sauce. Chris’s squid wasn’t good, two whole squid on his plate, no sauce or dressing and very unappetising to look at, overcooked and lacking in taste. I know many people rave about fish in the Mediterranean/Southern Europe but I generally find it poor in flavour and not well prepared, compared to our own at home. Tried the Tiramisu as I love a good pudding but it was bland with little flavour. Not our best meal in Sicily overall and a disappointment given the reviews.
As we walked beside the shallow bay back to our room, the sea, now lit by a full moon, was full of little boats and yachts, clanking in the breeze. We are happy travellers and despite being a little underwhelmed with our first day, were excited that the rest of our Sicily adventure lay ahead. And our room was a delight to return to, just the sound of the waves crashing gently against the rocks below.
Day 2 – the World Heritage Sites of the Val di Noto and the pretty fishing village of Marzamemi Sicily in a Week: Noto, Modica and Marzamemi