It’s hard to get a handle on the Italian island of Sicily since it has so many facets. Is it full of history from thousands of years ago? Yes. Does it have a spectacular volcano that is still active? Yes. Does it have congested, polluted, wild, untamed streets run by “unsavory” elements? Also yes!
Though not even 10,000 sq miles, 25,700 sq. kilometers, about as big as the state of Maryland in the US, Sicily is in fact an island, separated by less than four km from mainland Italy, yet has a unique face and feeling that demands a visit.
My girlfriend, Kathleen, and I landed in Palermo, Sicily, exactly one year ago, in late October 2019, and what a different time that was. COVID, of course, changed everything, but even a virus could not overcome the natural primal and manmade beauty of Sicily. We stayed several places but primarily on the small island of Ortigia, at the most southeastern tip, in the city of Syracusa (Siracusa). I’ll get to that in a second, but let’s start with Palermo, one of the craziest, most chaotic places I have been!
As a motorcycle rider, I did some research and discovered that there were more options to rent in Palermo, than in Siracusa. We got a room in Palermo and were there for just a few days, and it was noisy, chaotic and vibrant. Palermo, which is always referenced in Mafia and Godfather movies, is reputed to be the haven of crime, but fortunately we never found out firsthand. We felt safe walking the streets, but they were very dirty and congested so decided not to risk it late at night. The one thing that truly blew my mind about the city was the traffic.
Cars everywhere, driving like fiends (we took a few taxis) and as crazy as everything looked we saw no accidents at all. Lots of honking, yelling and finger gesturing, which are all very Italian-like road instances, but overall everyone seemed to drive very safely. The city is full of one-way streets and with construction tearing up the roads near my bike rental agency, I confess I was forced to drive the wrong way down one way streets. I felt like such a rebel and fit right in!
We stayed long enough to rent the bike and I rode the three hours from there to the southern tip. Even in October it was chilly, but magnificent scenery, with the still active volcano, Etna, looming off to the east.
The city of Siracusa is the only city on Ortigia island, which is small and can be walked in just a few hours. Hard stone lined the streets, majestic temples and cathedrals were on every corner, and at the entrance to Ortigia we were greeted by the Temple of Apollo, which was built in the 6th century BC and is partially intact. Just a few blocks away is the magnificent Fountain of Diana, in one of the town squares. History galore oozes everywhere on the island, which was the birthplace of the great mathematician, Archimedes, and they have a museum of his work.
Three quarters of the island is surrounded by surf with just a bridge you can walk over in a few minutes between the island and the mainland.
We were there for our customary six weeks and were able to enjoy the amazing fresh food farmer’s market, plus some of the loudest and rainiest storms I have experienced! The buildings are solid, with walls as thick as a meter, which created wonderful insulation.
Since we had the bike we took several side trips, including to the magical city of Taormina; the mountain village of Castelmola, right above it; the city of Ragusa, and we went as far west as Agrigento, the home of the Valley of the Temples.
This was our second long term stay in Italy, but was so different than Tivoli, where we had stayed just six months earlier. Even though Sicily is part of Italy, it truly has its own vibe and feel and of all the places we have stayed in our travels, we recollect more memories of this island than anywhere.
Our first venture from Siracusa was the mountain town of Taormina. I had been advised by many friends that this was the “Must See” place to see on the island.
And they were right.
Just 90 minutes north of our base, the E45 highway should have been a more beautiful ride, but was too far inland until we got north of Catania, the second largest city. One of the most inspiring sights on this ride came as we exited one of the many tunnels into Catania; there was Mt. Etna, shrouded in clouds, looking surreal. We never did get to the Etna tour since the temperature was too cold, but will save that for a future visit.
Before we got to Taormina, I noticed what looked to be a town WAAAAY up on a hillside, so started heading in that direction. Kathleen questioned hopefully, “We’re not going up there, are we?” to which I replied, “You better believe it!”
The “up there” turned out to be the city above Taormina; Castelmola. At an elevation of 1,736 feet (529 meters), and a route up the hill that was able to barely handle two vehicles, it was a fun, scary, stimulating ride to the top, with some of the most breathtaking views ever. After a fantastic lunch for a very reasonable price, we traversed back down the hill towards home, catching a rainstorm on the way.
Until we got to Sicily and ventured out to the city of Agrigento, I had never been to Athens or seen the Acropolis and Parthenon. But it was very high on our list.
We got a wonderful preview of what that would look like in the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, which was a larger area filled with dozens of temples, like the Parthenon. These were started in the 5th century BC and over the millennium have been ransacked, razed and rebuilt several times. Even so, what is still standing, and is a UNESCO protected site, is worth the drive out.
Sicily has it all. Big cities with hustle and bustle, and wide open spaces for nature to explode. It has beaches and mountains, and everything in between peppered with thousands of years of history. And if you want to try something really different, you can catch an overnight ferry from Palermo and 12 hours later find yourself in Tunis, Tunisia. That ferry ride was as wild as the city of Palermo itself!
A note: The government of Sicily had proposed travel incentives to visit, which would cover one half the airline tickets plus discounts on lodging. Since border restrictions are still a work in progress, be sure you check this out as well as any visa limitations.
photo links: https://photos.app.goo.gl/o8FHTm3sy86ybtPh7
Norm Bour left the USA permanently in February 2019 at the age of 64. His goal was to travel the world six weeks at a time, which he did, and wrote a book about his experiences. A sequel is pending and available Q4 2020. Over 14 months he visited 23 countries along with taking 36 plane trips. Norm was motivated by the Millennial generation who make travel look so easy, so he teaches fellow Boomers how to "travel like a Millennial." You can follow his journey at www.TravelYounger.com, along with his Facebook blog by the same name.