Sicily…. hot temperature, warm water, outstanding Italian food, cheap wine, accommodation, car rental… Is there anything more you could possibly think of to make your holiday more idyllic? Well, that was my opinion after my first visit in 2013. Imagine my big surprise, when every time I mentioned that I’m going back to Sicily in October 2016 to my Italian friends, everyone just said: “Oh… Sicily… Be careful. It’s so expensive…. And you know… be careful.” I thought: what the hell… are we talking about the same island? I remember my impression from the previous visit: Sicily was still unspoiled by mass tourism and, in a sense, cheap (during the first visit I think I paid around 400euro per 11 days, flight and car rental for 4 people, accommodation and food included). So I was wondering: did I miss something the last time? My additional concern was Konrad’s reaction 😉 Don’t get me wrong, working full time with the German, he’s completely not accustomed to the, say, “southern” lifestyle. I mean sure, we went to Finale Ligure, but I sort of forgot that there is a major, I mean major, difference between northern and southern part of Italy and, which I actually didn’t know before, between eastern and western parts of the island.
Two sides- two faces
During my last visit, we stayed on the north-western part of the island, so this time we started with visiting Taormina to see more of the East side. First big surprise, when you approach Catania, you have to pay a toll for the highways (in the western and northern part-up to Palermo, they are all for free). It’s not that they are in better state or anything, no… It’s just that the rules are different.
Second thing, the cost of accommodation. We paid for 2 days (app. 75euro) in an apartment more that for 3 days in the other side for much higher standard (app. 60euro). The east coast is more tourist oriented and not much different from other resorts in e.g. Spain. There’s one main walkway right in the middle of the Old City. The Old City, and the center in the same time, is indisputably charming, with loads of little restaurants, souvenir and pastry shops. However, it’s also crowded even off season.
In comparison, the west and north-west side of the island remain calm. In San Vito lo Capo (arguably the best know tourist destination in that area), in the restaurants or on the beach there is no trace of the crowds. It’s much less touristic and the city lives in its slow pace. The surrounding villages are even more secluded, seem somehow frozen in the previous era. People live here, doing traditional jobs, farming, though the soil is not kind, herding sheep and goats, which makes a unique impression. Also the aura and the atmosphere here is different, everything happens so leisurely and slow and it’s contagious.
While visiting Taormina or any other city nearby, it would be hard, if even possible, to overlook its greatest neighbor, which towers above the eastern coast. Etna tempts visitors with its beauty and magnitude. It also gives many options for those who succumb to its charm.
For the less ambitious or simply not willing to struggle, the southern slope offers a cableway option and then special off-road cars can take you to the craters. The northern slope also allows to drive the entire way up.
But if you’re a little bit more ambitious, then Etna can be a nice place for trekking as well. We chose the northern path, from the parking spot at the end of Via Provenzana (the street starts from Linguaglossa). From the parking, remember to go a bit back and then head up, as the tempting option to follow the road a bit further and then go up by the ski slope will lead you nowhere… believe me… we checked (and lost 45minutes for that). As far as the trekking is concerned, it’s around 10 km of a wide road leading continuously slightly up. It was pleasant and, honestly, very simple, which surprised me, as I’d chosen that way due to the supposedly higher difficulty level. After about 2-3 hours you get to the top craters.
The first and most important thing- check the weather forecast! We did and it was marvelous, when we started, but even so, after around 2 hours we got into a real horror of freezing hail, blowing wind and, generally, the conditions that gave no encouragement to continue the trail. Remember, Etna is a high mountain and the weather can change immediately and very drastically.
Second, we have a slight divergence of opinions, when it comes to the level of difficulty. I run 4 times a week, usually around 50km, and didn’t even feel the hike, but I was honestly surprised by the difficulty which Konrad had to make another 200 meters up, when we approached the top. It reminded me that for non-experienced or less prepared physically people, 3300 meters can be really a lot and is not a piece of cake. Give yourself plenty of time for that trekking, as you never know how your body will react to the altitude and struggle of a long walk.
Take long distances into account while planning
While planning your trip to Sicily, take distances into account. When we landed in Palermo at 9PM, took the car and had to drive another 300km to Taormina, trust me, we weren’t happy… really… Then we drove from Taormina to San Vito lo Capo, which gave us another 400km…
If you plan to travel around the island, remember that you have 4 airports to choose between and can save yourself a couple of hundred km behind the wheel.
Talking about driving… Sicily has a fairly good web of highways. And while taking a highway isn’t a problem, driving in any of the big cities is completely a different story.
I had a dubious pleasure of driving in Palermo and was absolutely sure we would end up, in the best case scenario, in hospital. After that experience, I gave that pleasure away to Konrad. He was brave… I have to admit. He didn’t say word the first time we had to drive through Trapani during the rush hours, and the drivers just decided to pass us by on both sides on one-lane road. The second time, well… it wasn’t that good.
A friend we met there admitted that passing a driving license in Sicily is not a problem, the problem starts later, as every person that uses the road becomes its absolute owner.
Now about directions. The rented cars will frequently have a GPS map built in. It’s a very convenient option, when you don’t know the place. We also had offline google maps downloaded on the cell phone. But none of this helped. The GPS works fine for general directions, but when you look for a more specific address or a place, be prepared for surprises. Especially for the west, the maps are frequently outdated and it can be quite funny when you’re supposed to go forward and the road ends O_O (it somehow didn’t amuse Konrad, who already managed to lose his temper for Sicilian quality).
Another surprise waits for you in the northern-west part of Sicily(up to Palermo). It can become quite of an issue, when you try to refuel the car before returning it. All of the petrol stations are automatic- no shop or service. You can pay in cash or by card, however it doesn’t accept European credit or debit cards, or American-Express; a local one is needed. It becomes an issue, when you’re in a hurry before the departure and are out of cash- at least high amount of cash and there is no ATM around. And it’s a big and unpleasant surprise, when you first visit the eastern coast, where the stations are like in other countries, with regular shops and possibility to pay by your card.
The Sicilian mentality
Having listed all the above points, which may seem discouraging, this point is actually making up for everything. Apart from the splendid views, wonderful rocks for climbing, it’s actually the people that made me fall in love with the place at once.
First of all, you have to realize that, like other southern nations, the Sicilians think and live (and especially- work!) a bit differently. And accept it! The pace of life is much, much slower and it can be seen. There’s no point in getting angry (especially in the west, because in Taormina, the customs where more similar to ours) that in the middle of the day literarily nothing is open (except from the cafes and restaurants). So if you need to go shopping or, say, to the post office, check the opening hours first. There is a huge chance that it’ll shut down around 12 and re-open around 4PM for another two hours (or not).
If you need to get something quick, you’ll probably hit the wall, as nothing works fast in Sicily. Ok, this can be annoying. But on the other hand, I honestly envy these people their culture and this no-rush lifestyle. You immediately see the outcome of it, people are generally much more relaxed, laid-back and simply happier.
On the other hand, when you really need something, I don’t think I’ve ever met more helpful people. We had a very simple example during our visit. We wanted to adopt a cat (no comment… ;)). We found him in San Vito lo Capo and had only 2 days to organize all the papers and permissions to get him on board of the plane with us. Not knowing Trapani, the country laws and requirements and, most importantly, anyone there it was quite of a challenge. In general, the Sicilians like animal (which is like a huuuuge plus for me) and immediately a cleaning lady from our apartment offered to help. In just a couple of hours we managed to find a vet to do all the vaccinations 40 km from the place we lived in and agree to write the fake dates, as you need a month between the procedure and the departure. Then, to my horror, obviously the citadel (where you get the passport form) closes up at 12, and it was already the midday. But it turned out that the vet called the office and 4 people stayed at work after hours to wait for us and help with the procedure. Everything with no problems and showing a lot of care for us. Many people helped us completely gratuitously and with no hesitation, which was really heart-lifting and amazing.
Ok, it’s just an example, but it doesn’t happen very often that you have to deal with the officials on your holidays and we did and have only positive experience.
Just a thing to be aware of, be prepared that nobody speaks English or any other foreign language. Taking their inborn hospitality into account, it’s not really a problem, because it turns out that a sign language is generally enough. But it’s a very good idea to pick up some basic expressions in Italian, as it opens a lot of doors, even if you cannot continue conversation in this language, they will find the way to communicate with you. Another example, the previous time I went to Sicily, we sat with a guy in the plane who didn’t speak a word of English. But he managed to tell us plenty important tips for our visits (such as the regional food for each part of Sicily, where to go, what to see and even some history) and, after landing, helped us with the car company.
If you consider going to Sicily, definitely go, relax, slow down and ENJOY!