Travelling through Sicily can be an exhilarating and occasionally shocking experience, from the mix of Arab and Mediterranean culture and history, to the slightly lawless cities and of course the visible signs of Mafia influence and control.
After years of advice and recommendations from friends, relatives and many readers telling us to visit Sicily, we finally decided to take a trip. It seems strange and even somewhat absurd to have been to the remotest corners of the planet but to have not visited one of the most beautiful Mediterranean islands, less than a couple of hours flight from Milan.
First stop, Palermo, an alive and cosmopolitan city, very charming and full of history. Walking the streets of the old town is a relaxing it’s a good way to absorbe the atmosphere and history of the city including stopping for a coffee in bar hidden in the narrow alley ways, eat in a typical restaurant serving up delicious fresh fish, and ultimately being an observer to the daily life of the city’s inhabitants. All of this makes this city a place where you can stop for longer than you had planned.
The Palatine Chapel entirely covered with beautiful Byzantine mosaics; the food markets of the city where you can sample local specialties; the macrabe charm of The Catacombs of the Capuchins, where part of the thousand’s of skeletons buried there over the years can be seen.
After renting a car in the city, we travelled west out of Palermo one hour out of the city we arrive in Scopello, a small village close to the beautiful “Nature Reserve of the Zingaro”. The historic tuna trap, a few minutes walk from the village, is one of the most beautiful places in Sicily: the stacks that emerge from the sea and the crystal clear water make it a perfect postcard.
San Vito lo Capo is another breathtaking location: on the tip of a peninsular overlooking the sea, considered by many the most beautiful beach in Sicily. White sand and crystal clear water, is the ideal place to spend a few days in a state of complete relaxation. (Avoid the summer months when masses of tourists fill the beach and water).
A little less than an hour’s drive from San Vito Lo Capo you have Trapani with its elegant old town and typical restaurants in which one can try the local specialties like Cuscus alla trapanese, a seafood couscous which originates from the Arab culture which you will see is evident all over the city. From Trapani there is also a panoramic cable car to Erice, a medieval village set 750 meters above sea level: the narrow streets, churches, its castle and the silence that reigns,combined with the views create an almost magical feeling.
Moving westward we meet the Salt flats of Trapani: they appear almost out of no where along the coast between Trapani and Marsala. The old windmills, the white mounds of salt sitting in contrast to the blue sky and the sun reflected in the shallow waters make this place one of the most picturesque in all Sicily.
Going down the Mediterranean coast, we reach Sciacca: at first glance an ugly over developed city, with buildings springing up like mushrooms without logic or order. However behind the ugly facade hides a quaint and beautiful old town, very well preserved and with a huge terrace that offers spectacular views of the coast.
Late in the afternoon we arrive at the famous Staircase of the Turks: a white rock formation that sits on the edge sea, with natural steps (hence the name) arrive in the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
The main reason for coming to this part of Sicily, is undoubtedly to visit the famous Valley of the Temples: these extraordinary Greek ruins, enclosed between the sea and the city, are so alluring and they can excite even the most jaded visitors, especially when illuminated at night. The visit to the archaeological site takes between 2-3 hours the ruins some how manage to transport you back to the Greek era; of course the valley was once an area of worship and there is a definite beauty and tranquility that still exists today.
Piazza Armerina and Villa del Casale, is a surprise of the Sicilian hinterland: a couple of hours’ drive from Agrigento surrounded by fields and hills. The Villa del Casale is an must see visit for mosaics lovers, dating from the fourth century AD and it is unique historical site.
After Catania, we climb the steep road towards Taormina: it is situated in a spectacular location on the side of a mountain, and is the most sophisticated of summer destinations of Sicily. Its location offers a breathtaking view of Mount Etna and the Ionian sea; it’s considered chic! It is overrun by vacationers in the summer months but it is ultimately a quiet place during the off season and definitely worth a visit.
Going north along the coast and passing through Messina, we arrive to Cefalu considered the Taormina of the Tyrrhenian coast: the piazzas, the churches and streets of this medieval town are lovely and attract tourists from all over Italy. Fortunately, in October it is relatively quiet and allows us to enjoy a glass of prosecco while relaxing in the Piazza in front of the Medieval Cathedral.
The last stop before returning to Palermo is Monreale the mosaics in the cathedral are the main attraction and therefore make it a must see!
We leave Sicily after 2 weeks in which we have tried to capture the essence of this land of contrasts and contradictions: we will always carry with us the unforgettable moments from the beautifully diverse landscapes to the friendly and hospitable people.