Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Exploring Sicily – A 9-day driving tour

Although I was skeptical from the beginning, it is possible to drive around the entire island of Sicily in one week.  And in doing so, there is the opportunity to see the full variety of terrain, treasures and tastes that this island has to offer.

Our interest in Sicily began in a bar in New York. The wine bar, which is no longer open, served only Sicilian wines, salamis and cheeses, and in the few times we visited, we felt we had tried (and loved) everything Sicily had to offer.  So, when we were looking for a place for a one-week vacation in Europe, we jumped at the chance to go explore this Italian island.

Overall, Sicily isn't as rough and tough as it may sound with its Mafia history, but it does have an edge that makes you believe some of the stories you have heard could quite possibly be true.  We found we enjoyed the north-eastern part of the island the best and could have spent an extra day or two there versus Palermo on the western side.  And we definitely would have planned the trip later in the summer since mid-May was just a bit too early to swim.

  • Day 1: Arrive in Palermo - Landing with just enough time for dinner, we realized very quickly that not all Sicilian wines are good, but that's OK because we have the entire week ahead to figure it out.

  • Day 2: Palermo - Sites often close over lunch or for the latter half of the day depending on the day, time of year or maybe just the staff's whims, so you need to plan some flexibility into sightseeing.  Lucky for us, we got the last tickets into the Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace) and the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) before it closed for the day. Well worth it for the intricate mosaics in the chapel.

  • Day 3: Marsala, with a quick stop at Segesta - The history of Sicily is fascinating because it has been conquered and controlled by everyone from the Greeks to Arabs, Romans to Normans and all have left their mark.  Segesta is one of the many temples that dot the landscape of Sicily and one of the best preserved, built in 430BC and still standing.

  • Day 4: Marsala (AM), Drive to Agrigento - Marsala is a small seaside town famous for its namesake wines.  After a morning strolling through the old part of town, we headed to Agrigento in the South to see the famous Valley of the Temples.  Two large Greek temples, including the Temple of Concord, are the highlights as they are still standing intact since the 6th century AD. But our favorite part of Agrigento was the food at Spizzulio (see below).

  • Day 5: Ragusa with a stop at the Villa Imperiale del Casale - Although a major diversion from the highway, and a seemingly popular stop for high school field trips, the mosaics on the floors of this 3 - 4c. villa are incredibly intact.  From women exercising to a variety of birds and animals, the site is an incredible collection of works which lead to its UNESCO World Heritage status.  It really isn't worth the time if you aren't a mosaic fan, but if you are, you won't be disappointed. More info on the history of Villa Imperiale del Casale and visiting hours here.  
  • Day 6: Siracusa - Our trip kept getting better as we went along, the seaside town of Siracusa a very pleasant surprise.  Our hotel was awesome and the owners so interesting that we considered staying an extra night. (See Hotel Cavalieri below.) The popular tourist sites include a cave in the shape of an ear that echos when the school kids scream and an old battalion on the waterfront, but the city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and beautiful.  And the atmosphere is young and alive, even at night, because of the schools in the town.
    • Day 7: Siracusa (AM), Drive to Taormina - As much as we liked Siracusa, Taormina trumped it simply because of its natural beauty.  Half the town is on top of a cliff, the other half is at the bottom.  A funicular takes you from the base to the top, but stops running around 10PM so if you spend a long evening above, you may be walking hundreds of steps down in the dark (or taking a cab).  The tourist/pedestrian area is perfect for strolling, taste-testing gelato and window shopping.  But the Greek amphitheater is the highlight and well worth spending an hour just sitting and enjoying the stunning view.  And down below you will find beaches including the famous Isola Bella, with a narrow strip of sand running between the beach and the famous island.  It was completely surrounded by jellyfish when we visited in early May, but still a picturesque place to lay in the sun and take in our surroundings.  
    • Day 8: Taormina (AM), Drive to Cefalu - While it was truly difficult to leave Taormina, we drove along the scenic Northern coast of Sicily to a small seaside resort town of Cefalu.  Unfortunately, our tiny Italian car couldn't make it all the way there on fumes, so we ended up meeting some nice locals who drove us into town and helped us get gas for our car.  That diversion left little time to enjoy the town unfortunately. 

    • Day 9: Thanks to an erupting Icelandic volcano, our flight was canceled, leaving us time to enjoy a long lunch in front of the famous 10th century cathedral in Cefalu and a stroll along the coastline before heading to the airport in Palermo.  

    Where to stay

    Hotel Porta Felice (Palermo, Via Butera, 45 90133 Palermo, +39 091 617 56 78, , A bit off the beaten track, but a nice 4-star hotel with amenities rare for Sicily (like free internet) and a great rooftop terrace perfect for sipping wine at sunset.

    Eremo della Giubiliana (near Ragusa, SP 25 per Marina di Ragusa, +39 0932 669119, An old convent converted into a boutique hotel, completely secluded from city life and quiet enough to enjoy a bike ride to the sea (bikes available at the hotel free of charge), an incredible brunch with homemade Sicilian orange marmalade that even people who don't like marmalade (like me) will love and a courtyard built for sipping wine or smoking a cigar.

    Hotel Cavalieri (Siracusa, Via Malta, n. 42, GPS: N37°03.909' E015°17.270', +39 0931 483635, This boutique hotel, noted for its design, is run by a charming couple who make sure that you are well taken care of, but behind the friendly facade are two expert architects and interior designers who have transformed an old building into a beautiful mix of old and new, modern and classic.  

    Where to eat

    Kursaal Kalh (21 Foro Umberto I, Palermo, 091 616 22 82, - I recommend this place as much for the bar as the restaurant with a young atmosphere and an open, relaxing setting to sit and enjoy the people you are with.  The food was wonderful and moderately prices and the service was accomodating to English speakers.  After a number of bad meals in Palermo, I'll go back here immediately upon my return to Sicily.

    Spizzulio (Via Panoramica Valle dei Templi, 23, 92100 Agrigento, 0922 20712,
    This is one of those places in Italy you always hear about - great food, traditional but simple cooking and a welcoming atmosphere - but never find.  Carmello is a charming host who speaks an incredible number of languages (Italian, of course, Spanish to the table next to us, French and English to us and who knows how many others) and actually recommended we skip the main dish when we got a bit carried away with appetizers and wine.

    Buon appetito!

    Resources and Souvenirs


    1. Beautiful photos of Sicily's best beaches in Frommer's Slideshow Bellissimo!

    2. A great list of spots for 'apertivos' in Sicily from, including our pick Kursaal Kalh -