Like an overstuffed ricotta-cream-filled cannoli, my heart explodes with love for Italy. The intoxicating charm of the people, the evolving wine culture, the thoughtful cuisine, my ancestral heritage and the ability to be late for anything without judgement, continue to draw me back year after year.
This year was my first time traveling to the island of Sicily. We visited in March, so although it’s not particularly warm enough to sun and swim, it’s a beautiful time of year to visit. The crowds are minimal and the weather optimal for lots of walking without lots of sweating. I also prefer a little room to breath and Italians don’t always have a sense for the unspoken rule of personal space. So I forfeited my need for suntanned skin for the cooler temps and a greater space to roam.
Pipsqueaking & Co., myself and Sean that is, started our journey in Trapani on the west coast of the island, where we rented a modest Fiat (smaller IS better in Sicily – see rental car TIP below) and drove across the island, east, ending our journey in Catania. I often fight this internal struggle to travel slow or to travel like a maniac devouring every city in my path for fear I’ll miss something. This is where I spiral out of control, over-“itinerizing” until our last day we collapse under the pressure of my extreme schedule. Sean begged me to relax and leave the schedule more open for spontaneity. This trip would be different damn it! So we set our start city and our end city. The only set in stone plan was to land in Taormina on Tuesday to celebrate Sean’s parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. Although this lack of planning made my controlling obsessiveness self very uncomfortable, I need to learn to give up the Type A a smidgen from time to time. Sean:1 Kristen:0.
So we began our first jet lagged day exploring the enchanting commune of Erice (eh rEE chay) on the west coast of the Island. This medevil, 12th century lookout is perched at 2400 feet and has a stunning view over Trapani and the sea. It’s a quiet, sleepy town, but ever so pretty and well worth a drive even if only for an afternoon espresso and/or leisurely walk. It’s a fairly steep walk up to the top but we saw several “cheaters” that rented horses to help them with hike. If the little old ladies can walk up these streets every day, we can do it, right?
Next up, Palermo. The complete opposite of Erice. I’ve heard vacationers often decide to skip Palermo and save their sanity from the crowded streets and many unsavory, crime ridden neighborhoods. Good thing we aren’t sane! I couldn’t imagine visiting Sicily without experiencing those very things and I never feel unsafe enough to keep me away from an adventure. Be smart and aware- yes! But don’t be too scared and miss out on an adventure! On the drive from Erice, I booked us a hotel at the Ambasciatori Hotel .
Parking in Palermo is not for the faint of heart. It is difficult and driving is on par with being in a video game. The only difference, is these cars leave dents when they hit each other! Cars half an inch from every side of your car, whizzing by, always too fast, with obnoxious amounts of honking, weaving through lanes that are merely suggestions. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating! Stay calm and turn it into a Mario Cart game. Not only does it make it more fun but really what else are you going to do? Needless to say, finding a hotel with easy parking is a colossal challenge. The garage parking for this hotel was difficult to find, but in reality, it only took two laps to discover. Now that I think about it, it did looked a little like a chop shop, but seemed reasonable enough to me. This is why it’s always a good idea to travel somewhat light in Italy. There are no ramps and the streets are usually cobblestone, or uneven at the least. There’s always a short walk from the parking…this one was 2 minutes. The good news is we didn’t have to get back in the car for a while because the hotel was walking distance to some of the famous food markets and close to all the sites. Breakfast on the rooftop had a pretty dope view and remember, breakfast is usually included with just about any hotel stay in Italy, so take advantage to save some dough. Another tip, you can usually get a la carte eggs prepared even if you don’t see them on the buffet. You just need ask.
If you do anything in Palermo make sure you go to the Ballaro food market! It gets overwhelmingly crowded, so drag your wine headache out of bed, and go early! Street upon street of beautiful, seasonal, local fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood, spices, olives, nuts, cheese, and breads will entertain you for hours. Be sure to grab some bread and the freshly made ricotta cheese. It also doesn’t suck that it was strawberry season while we were there either! Grab some snacks and nosh in one of the beautiful parks.
We didn’t stay in Palermo long because the weather was so dreary the next day, and the scene is a little intense. So instead, we took off to the charming, and much quieter, seaside town of Cefelu, just one hour east of Palermo on the north central part of the island. It came with rave reviews from friends that have traveled to Sicily before us, and so, off we drove. In just a short hour drive we arrived to, no doubt, one of the highlights of our trip for several reasons, but perhaps the most important being that there was an actual sandy beach. Sandy beaches are not as prevalent in Sicily as one may think, being an island surrounded by water, so enjoy them when you find them. Cefelu is a charming, compact town and is easy to get around on foot. We stayed in the heart of it all at La Plumeria Hotel. There is no parking in town, because like most quaint Italian villages they are walking only, so we parked just outside the historic city limits and had a car service drive us to the hotel (taxi’s are allowed during certain times).
We must have walked the entire city five times over in just a couple days, exploring, shopping, and dining. Even though we visited during the off season, the streets were jam packed in the evenings with Italian tourists. Nearly every restaurant had a wait for a table, especially the outside/beach side restaurants. I can’t imagine what this small village would be like during peak season? I would say, not much fun actually. We didn’t enjoy any life changing meals here unfortunately, but we drink plenty of Aperol Spritz’s in the sunshine! Two things not to miss: the beach sunset and hiking La Rocca. Watching the sunset is THE thing to do on a clear, breezy evening. So grab a little wine (or a lot of wine) and your partner to settle in for a little romantic sunset show. La Rocca is the beautiful rock/mountain that sets the dramatic backdrop for the village. Be warned, this is no leisurely hike. It’s fairly steep but pain is well worth the rewarding views from the top. Oh and the views!! Mamma Mia, they are beautiful and completely different on both sides of the climb. I’d say plan on spending 2-3 hours exploring La Rocca.
Next up was the city of Enna. Instead of exploring only the coastline, we decided to switch it up and drive right through the center of Sicily on the way to Taoromina. It’s a very different part of the country with rolling hills and high peaks where entire towns seemingly hanging from the tops. Doesn’t seem possible how these villages are built up there! The highways are fairly new and not very crowded, but let me warn you, Italians drive FAST! If you’re not passing, stay right or you will be heckled, flashed with headlights, honked at and given “the look.” We stopped for lunch and a walk in Enna, and enjoyed a simple meal, cooked by a sweet grandmother as we sat in the beautiful sunshine. This is not a heavily visited tourist town. We maybe saw two or three other tourists? But the locals were kind and loved talking to us, in broken English with lots of hand gestures, over lunch.
Next up, Taormina. This is where Sean’s parents would be renewing their vows after 50 years of marriage. Such an amazing accomplishment and we were honored to celebrate this moment with them in a special and spectacular city. Taormina was our biggest high and our biggest low. I shall try to accurately explain why, but this is where “The Great Reversing Debacle” took place.
Driving in Taormina is like driving on a cliff, in a toaster (our Fiat), with nowhere to turn around, while cars are riding your bumper and honking at you the entire time! This is a high stress environment for any relationship and it got the best of us. My, we’ll call them “poor”, navigating skills, would lead us down a wrong, minuscule, dead-end street, flush on both sides with crookedly parked cars and a “lane” barely wide enough for our car to fit past. Add in a 45 degree incline and a road that just ended. There was no where to turn around, we were stressed, it was dark and we were stuck! After 20 minutes of trying to drive backwards up said 45 degree incline, past cars parked every which way, Sean may or may not have had some choice words for me? I don’t blame him, but I was at a loss of ideas to get us out of this mess. We tried 200-point turns and reversing, but just couldn’t quiet get out! After, what seemed like an eternity of sweat, pain and failure, we decided to just abandon the car and continue on foot to the hotel in search of assistance.
The hotel was close, only maybe a five minute walk down several stairs and down a couple winding streets from where we left our rental vulnerable and trapped. We began the check-in process, and then broke the news, “so sir, we were hoping you could help us. Like a couple of yo-yo tourists we got our car stuck and were not sure what to do? Can you help?” The kind gentleman followed back to our car, removed his jacked and then proceeded to drive that rental car, like a boss, backwards through the dark mess. It took us a good 30 minutes and four smoking brake pads to get out, but “we” did it! Only then could we exhale and laugh. Our concierge was our HERO! This was followed by a couple days of pointing and looks from the staff as if we were local celebs:) Quite the talk of the hotel.
Speaking of the hotel, we scored ourselves the best room at Hotel Villa Paradiso on the drive from Enna. The room included a separate grand lanai complete with ocean view and plenty of room to spread out. Because it was dark when we arrived later than expected on account of the parking “issue”, we would be unable to see the view until the morning. We had more important fish to fry anyway! Our nerves deserved a glass of wine and some food! We had a nice meal, Sean started talking to me again, and then retired to our suite with a bottle of wine to relax. The next morning I woke to Sean saying “babe, there’s a surprise waiting for you” and this was what my morning eyes were greeted with…Heaven.
The stunning view continued on at Villa Scimone where we celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of Sean’s mother and father. An accomplishment that is worth celebrating indeed. It was a special ceremony followed by a sunshine filled luncheon accompanied by a Somm-led wine pairing of Sicily’s greatest hits. The night was full of street wondering, dining, and drinking around town.
The weather was the complete opposite the following day. Dreary rain drizzle and a chill in the air. No soggy sneakers would deter our sightseeing, however, so we grabbed our umbrella and took to the drizzly outdoors in search of historical enrichment. The Teatro Antico di Taromina is really a must see. On a clear day Mt Etna is peacocking in the background and the ocean breeze rolls in like something of a dream. This ancient Greek theater’s original structure was built directly into the hard rock of Mount Tauro in the third century BC and still stands, however expanded, today. Here they host an array of events from film festivals to concerts. They are very proud that Sting played there once.
After a little sightseeing it was time to head to wine country. FINALLY! A lovely drive, even with the poor weather conditions, led us up the volcano that is Mt Etna. Still very much active, the more you climb the winding, near deserted roads, higher and higher in elevation, the more you see the rich, dark volcanic rock slides. You can tell their age by the massive size of the “fresh” boulders lining each side of the road where just enough lava was removed for the road to even be passable.
About an hour and half from Taromina lies the small town of Randazzo. This town sits on the north-west side of Mt Etna and is the nearest town to the summit at around 2,500 feet. This is where Marc de Grazia established Terre Nere Winery in 2002. It’s also here, where Nerello Mascalese (the grape) is king and makes some truly impressive volcanic soil wines. Wines that are declared as “Etna Rosso DOC” are all about integration of tannin, strength and power united beautifully with acidity, finesse and poise. The wines of this region show real stunning posture and strength. In Randazzo, the place Marco’s vines call home, he has purchased several unique parcels and is making some of the regions first single vineyards. One of which is planted to prephyloxera vines, some of which could be upwards of 160 years old!
A short drive further down the southeast coastline, we arrived at our next stop – Syracuse/Ortigia Island. As travel fatigue began hitting its ultimate apex, we were up for sightseeing and light walking, but mostly our limbs were tired and we were in need of a snack. It was brisk and windy on this tiny island, just a walking bridge away from Syracuse (we rented bikes), but it was here that the sandwich angels would shine a light on one of our favorite food experiences of the trip. If you visit Ortigia, there is truly one stop that will make the entire visit worth the all the parking woes and communication breakdowns. All the one-way street debacles and bad tourist food mishaps. It’s tucked away on the northern end of the Ortigia Street Market. It spills out onto the street, its red awning a beacon – and it’s called – Caseificio Borderi. Here, the sandwiches are free-form with the local legend, Andrea Borderi, standing in front of his pallet of ingredients. He will ask you “do you trust me?” This is where you say “si Signore.” A sandwich master, Andrea proceeds to make you the best sandwich to ever grace our lips. Each one-of-a-kind creation a unique sandwich experience or as he says “not another one like it.” I dream of this place weekly and have even considered flying him to Atlanta to teach us the ways. This deli is a must! We also visited the local cemetery on the way out of town. It’s massive and a calm place to take a quiet walk and digest that unforgettable sandwich.
The last stop before boarding our flight back to the US, was Catania. Our final hours spent with a lovely array of room snacks, wine and conversation with Sean’s parents, followed by a much needed spa massage to ease our sore walking legs and feet. With happy feet, we went in search of our final and most controversial meal of our vacation. A traditional dish in Catania – horse meat (cavallo). I know, this sounds wrong and yes activists are fighting hard to end this delicacy in Italy, but it can still be found and my adventurous side just had to try it. We opted for two types – Florentine(bone in) and filet. It was not surprising, very similar to beef, though not as gamey as I expected. The filet was a bit dry and kind of boring, but the Florentine with its bone in-tact and plenty of fat to keep it moist, was a pleasant surprise. The restaurant, Il Borgo di Federico was packed with locals and very affordable. In fact, it was so affordable that we thought all the dishes were served as small plates and accidentally ordered enough food for six people. You can probably imagine, we were the embarrassed Americans! Especially when they had to slide over a second table to present all the food we had ordered!!!! I’ve never seen so many judge-filled onlookers and also it was a perfect way to end our trip.
CAR RENTAL PRO TIP: Most American Express cards will not help you with any sort of insurance in the entire country of Italy (because, crazy drivers!). Sicily is known for theft and fender benders galore and so we highly recommend getting the top insurance. They’ll nickle and dime you for everything at the counter including fees for an extra driver and a different city drop off ($75), so be ready for that. I do think it’s worth the splurge to protect yourself with the insurance coverage. We didn’t have any issues but there are plenty of horror stories out there, so for piece of mind, we spent money here and saved other places like cutting back on fancy hotel rooms when we would just be there for a short time. We used Auto Europe for the car rental and it went pretty smoothly. I would highly suggest NOT making your reservation online but calling and speaking to a representative that can help walk you through everything and explain all the fees. Don’t be fooled by $8/day online advertised prices – false. We probably over did it and ended up not needing the additional driver coverage (because I was terrified to drive and Sean did an amazing job) but it was around $500 for the week.