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Published: November 12th 2016
View of the Messina coast line from Taormina
This is the view from the terrace of our rented apartment. We spent a weekend here. I was so sorry to leave this place.
I started my last holiday blog to Romania with the words “We almost went to Italy” and then we did! Right at the very end of summer we saw a cheap flight to Catania in Sicily and decided to grab it. People say that Sicily is different to the rest of Italy but I thought it was typically Italian with a twist. With just two weeks before our trip and without knowing much about our destination I started reading about it and within a short time I felt completely overwhelmed. So much to do! So much to see! So much to eat and drink! We decided to stay on the east coast and leave the rest for another time. We like slow travel, getting up late-ish, going to bed whenever, taking our time, and planning our day according to the weather. So we don’t see everything but always have a good time and a reason to come back. We just loved Sicily. It’s fabulous.
We stayed the entire week in apartments. We may never stay in a hotel again. We stayed two days in Catania, two days in Taormina and 3 days in Syracuse. We didn’t make it to Etna,
even though it was right there all the time and we didn’t have time for the islands – so we really have a reason to return and we’d also like to visit the western side of the island. On the plane to Catania there was a group of pensioners that saw the entire island in 7 days – including two nights on Lipari island. We saw them again on the way back. They had a fantastic time, even with long days from 8 in the morning to 9 or 10 at night. They have more energy than us – it would take us at least two weeks to do what they did, maybe 3 or 4.
Catania is a city in the shadow of Etna. In the center of Catania you can see Etna looming over the city at the end of the shopping street Via Etnea. Lots of impressive ruins, baroque buildings and churches, pretty squares and grungy backstreets. Many major civilizations have left their mark – Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, they’ve all been here. It is pretty and grubby at the same time – Etna erupts from time to time, the last being in May this year,
and often belches a big ash cloud onto Catania. We had an apartment on the fourth floor with a nice terrace among the roofs. All the rental apartments we had in Sicily were on high floors without a lift, but this was the highest. There was a mosquito problem everywhere we stayed, so bring plenty of repellant and coils or whatever you use.
There are lots of bars, restaurants, shops and markets. I was going to skip the fish market but fish is a really big part of life on the coast of Sicily and you soon get used to the smell of fish everywhere. Don’t skip the market, even if you don’t like the smell, it’s very colorful – it would seem that there are no fish left in the sea because they are all in Catania market. Lots of huge tuna fish, they are protected five months of the year, I ate fresh tuna steak a lot, it was delicious. Swordfish is also popular but I don’t like it so much. The food is fresh and delicious. Quite simple, not too many ingredients, right up my alley.
After two days, we drove up the coast to
Taormina. For the first part of the day we could see Etna quite clearly, the clearest and closest we saw it during this trip. We stopped at a few fishing villages and beach towns along the way and drove into Taormina at about 2 in the afternoon. Wow! The views along the coast are fantastic and by the time we drove into pretty Taormina I was already in love with the place.
The town is a popular tourist attraction. I don’t think they have an off season. There are a lot of day trippers from cruise ships. Needless to say it is very touristy but we had a great time here and as with Catania, two days was not nearly enough. Taormina is on a hill and you can’t park your car in the town so we left our car quite a way down the hill and walked everywhere or took public transport. The town is much bigger than I expected. There are a lot of shops and bars and restaurants on the main street, linked together by a series of squares and churches and with many, many little streets leading off in all directions, winding up and down
and with lots of steep staircases. I expected it to be much more expensive than it was – maybe because of all the competition, the restaurant selection was very large, the food was good and the prices not bad at all. I really got to like those ceramic heads that you see everywhere in Taormina. I saw a really nice one marked down from 250 euros to 140 euros, decided it was too expensive for me and then was sorry when I saw how expensive they were everywhere else we visited and not nearly as nice. I loved walking around the little streets, with their ceramics and paintings, bougainvillea, charming shops. Yes, lots of tourists but not so many at the end of October, very festive and happy.
We were staying in an apartment not far from the main gate with a huge terrace overlooking the sea and coast. There are no words to describe the feeling of waking up and being greeted with an amazing sunrise that envelopes you in a purple glow as you lie in your bed and marvel at how lucky you are. This was a funny, old apartment. It was like staying in your
The symbol of Catania
The elephant has been there since the 13th century. It is the mascot of Catania but nobody is sure why.
elderly aunt’s living room. It seemed that every traveler that had ever passed through had left something behind – a book, a vase, a painting, a bottle or two or three or four of alcohol – whoever left the bottle of Calvados, thank you very much.
The next day was overcast and with scattered rain but it was warm and also quite humid so a very good day for walking and visiting all the sites. We started off by walking to the amphitheater. Etna can be clearly seen behind the main stage on a nice day but on the day we visited we had to settle for dramatic clouds. It didn’t really matter, the place is just amazing. The setting is literally breathtaking. It is built in such a way that you don’t see it until you are inside. Originally a Greek theater that was hewn from the rock of the mountain, the Romans converted it into an amphitheater and built a stage with a wall that partly blocked the view. I don’t know if the middle part of the wall fell down by itself or had some help but it has opened up the view again. A 10th
This is what Italians drink in the afternoon, relaxing after work. I drank one too. It has aperol, prosecco and sparkling water in it. Aperol is like Campari but sweeter
century Arab invasion did a lot of damage but what is left is more than enough and from the top of the amphitheater the views down the coast and over the town are wonderful.
From the theater we walked to the cable car and went down to the beach and Isolo Bella. The day we arrived we took some nice photos of it with the sea sparkling in the sun, and people sunning themselves and swimming. Not many people on a cloudy day, a few holiday makers determined to return home with a tan and a couple of fishermen winding up the season. We spoke to one man. He told us that there are only a few fishermen in Taormina and they spend the summer taking tourists around the islands and coast. He said this was the last week of the tourist season (end of October) and soon they would start fishing again. He also said that there are much less fish than there used to be apart from the tuna which is protected for five months of the year.
Not many people speak English in Sicily. They speak a Sicilian dialect. Even so, I spoke to a
lot of people in broken English and Italian with a lot of waving of hands. They are very warm and friendly and when asking directions or a question, it did not seem to matter that we understood not a word of what they were saying, they would give us a long, very detailed explanation and we would nod and smile and continue on our way – and yes, we got lost many, many times.
After the beach we took a bus up to the very top of the hill to Castelmola. A sleepy town that overlooks the entire coast and as the clouds had cleared Etna could be clearly seen but as this was late afternoon the sun was now directly above it and therefore, right in our eyes. Etna was just a shadow. We walked up to the castle but had left it a bit late and much of the view was now in shadow. It was starting to get quite cold. There is a café there that is well known for its phallic theme. Even though it is very small, we didn’t see that, but I did notice a general phallic theme all through the town. In
one shop they were selling wooden penis bottle openers and statues and on our way out we noticed a souvenir shop run by a sweet, old lady that had an apron at the entrance with a close up of David’s private parts emblazoned on the front. I certainly didn’t expect to see that. Then again, it’s awfully quiet there on a lonely mountain, not much to do during the long, cold, winter nights …
We had a couple of very nice meals in Taormina. We didn’t go to the recommended restaurants, just wandered around until we saw something we liked, sat outside in the still nice weather, and everywhere we ate was good. We are not so hard to please. We ate mostly fish or meat with a salad or vegetables, always accompanied by very good bread, olives, olive oil and balsamic, and didn’t have room for desert. For something sweet you can try the ricotta filled cannoli, marzipan, chocolate from Modica and of course, gelato ice cream.
After one last sunrise, it was time to move on to Syracuse. We had decided to visit Etna on the way. The weather was supposed to be good but it
Poor little goat
I don't eat red meat anymore. I eat chicken and fish. It's all over as soon as you start to connect the animal with what you are eating (although I don't think I ever did eat goat)
wasn’t and by the time we got to Zefferana Etnea on the slopes of Etna, it was grey and misty and the supposedly pretty town was dull and grey. We took the hint and abandoned any ambitions of visiting Etna and went on our way. Back on the coast, it was sunny and warm and we drove to our rental apartment on the small island of Ortygia which is the historical part of Syracuse.
We stayed behind the fish market, next to the old prison. We only stay in the best places! We like places with personality and this had loads of it. The fish market, surprisingly, smells of fish, but they close at 2 and clean it up thoroughly. Our landlady told us that they have only been doing that for two years and that in the summer with temperatures reaching 50 degrees in the sun, it must have been like hell. Apart from the market in the morning and the little restaurants that opened there at night, the little streets were fun to get lost in. The area around the prison was built by the parents of the prisoners. They could see them and speak to them
over the fence. It is called the prisoner’s parents neighborhood. The area is gradually being fixed up but a lot of it is very neglected and there are a lot of interesting streets, houses, windows, walls, etc. Our little flat in the middle of all this, was of course, newly renovated and we had a very comfortable and enjoyable stay there.
Stretching from Catania to the Val di Noto in the south, there is an area of Sicily that was completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1693. The new towns were either rebuilt on the same spot as the old towns or right next to it. There are a number of stunning, little, well-preserved towns with high architectural standards in what’s called the late Sicilian Baroque style. We certainly didn’t have time to visit them all but I wanted to see at least two of them. We chose Ragusa Ibla and Modica.
Modica is about one hour from Syracuse. The guide book said that its attractions are spread over a large area but I thought the whole town looked amazing. I was surprised by how lived in it was. It is a typical Sicilian city, large and bustling
with people. A Unesco heritage town, it is built over a series of steep valleys and is very hilly. Most of the restaurants and shops are down in the part of town with 18th
century buildings. The medieval part is on top of the hill. There are a lot of impressive churches with lots of statues of saints. We didn’t see too much and spent most of the time in the lower part of the town and visited the church there and walked around the back streets. It would make a good base for exploring the towns in the Val di Noto with lots of places to stay and restaurants.
It is also famous for its chocolate. Now, I am a well-known chocolate connoisseur (at least to myself) and am quite well acquainted with the better makes of chocolate around the world. I would not be leaving town without sampling and buying some Modica chocolate. When the Spanish invaded in Medieval times they brought with them cocoa beans from South America and also an Aztec recipe for chocolate which is still being made in Modica today. It doesn’t have milk and added fats and it is not
cooked at such a high temperature so it is not smooth and creamy like the chocolate we are used to. It consists just of ground cocoa beans and sugar and the sugar is not dissolved so the chocolate is grainy. It’s also yummy. After a tasting at one of the shops along the main street we carefully selected our purchases and stored them in a compartment at the side of the rental car. And there they stayed. We only remembered when we got home. We seem to do that sort of thing rather a lot. But other people do it too. Remember the Calvados?
We actually came home empty handed this time. We hardly bought anything. We thought we might buy things at the end but then we were too busy and when we arrived at the airport late at night all the shops were closed. So all we had to show for all the fabulous produce on sale in Sicily was dry oregano branches and some almond paste. I didn’t even buy any ceramics and I always buy at least a bowl. Another reason to return.
So we drove on from lively Modica to Ragusa. Of course
Etna -- interesting cloud at the side
We didn't visit Etna and we didn't actually even see it -- as it was mostly behind clouds -- this is the best view we had of it.
we went straight up to the new town because we neglected to write that we wanted Ragusa Ibla on the GPS. So we got a bit lost and then had to drive all the way down to the historical town of Ragusa Ibla, another UNESCO heritage town. On the way we stopped for an amazing view over the entire town. When we got down and parked the car, it seemed to be completely deserted. It was the end of the tourist season and also during the siesta – a concept still honored in Sicily. So apart from us and a few other tourists, we had the place to ourselves. It was actually a bit creepy walking around the little streets, almost like a ghost town or an abandoned village.
When the town collapsed in the 1693 earthquake, the new town was built on the top of the hill and the historical center was rebuilt on exactly the same spot on another hill further down. So we had a bit of a walk around the streets but didn’t get to the top – it’s pretty steep – and went back down to the center and walked up to Santa Maria
dell Itria, the church with the blue dome, on the other side. By this time there were a few more people around and the town seemed to be slowly waking up. It was also getting late and we still had a one and a half hour drive back to Syracuse. So off we went back to Syracuse, with no time to stop in Noto on the way, arriving just before darkness for our last night in Syracuse.
We were still recovering from our sandwich in the morning so weren’t that hungry. Before setting out to Modica, we went to the market on our doorstep and stopped at the famous sandwich bar. It is so popular that you have to take a number. As we were first in line at 10 o’clock we didn’t have to wait. They start off by taking the insides of the roll out and they fill it with layer upon layer of peppers, olives, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, cheeses, prosciutto, 3 times baked ricotta – may have forgotten something here – and it is all liberally sprinkled with olive oil. The resulting “sandwich” is then cut into two and must weigh at least two kilos and
City of the Dead
We were a bit lost in Enna -- as usual we ended up in the new part when we were aiming for the old. When we saw this huge cemetery we thought it was a new neighborhood
we couldn’t even finish our halves, we kept them till later and ate them in the afternoon.
Finally, at nine o’clock that evening we were getting a bit hungry and again didn’t have to go far to find what we were looking for. There was a newly opened wine bar in the market with a nice ambiance and a small selection of interesting snacks. We had a delicious fish terrine and a pumpkin and ricotta filled ravioli cooked in fish stock. We also had a small octopus salad. All very nice.
On our final day we intended to visit the huge archaeology site of Greek and Roman remains. But it was a particularly hot day so we decided that we didn’t want to be out in the sun and anyway, we wanted to explore the island of Ortygia a bit more and that’s what we did. We walked around the entire island and when it got too hot we ducked back into the shade of the streets and had a really nice day wandering around. The little lanes had pretty cafes and restaurants. We stopped for lunch and had a seafood mix in a wooden box with a
City of the Dead
Neat and tidy streets lined with family mausoleums. The burial place is not neglected and are visited and well tended and never forgotten
glass of prosecco sitting on a wooden bench under an umbrella in one of the lovely Ortygia streets and with a nice sea breeze to cool us down. All in all, a great holiday with great scenery, great people and great food. Viva Sicilia.
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