After having spent time on both the Ionian Coast (including a day trip to the Aeolian Islands) and in the Siracusa/Val di Noto area, I geared myself up for a long drive through central Sicily to my final destination for this part of my road trip, the far northwest corner of the island . En route, I made a stop at Villa Romana del Casale to see some of the best preserved Roman mosaics in the world.
The drive through central Sicily was quite beautiful despite being an overcast day. The hills were layered with acres and acres of almond, pistachio and olive trees, as well as lots of vineyards (unfortunately, there weren’t many places where I could stop and take photographs from the side of the road, so I was only able to take a few on an overcast day.) Including my visit to Villa Romana del Casale and making another stop for lunch, it took me about 6 hours to get to my accommodations for the next few nights, which was located near the town of Alcamo. ((Side note: I was underwhelmed by Agriturismo Tarantola - see the latter part of this trip report for more details))
I ended up spending three nights / two full days in the northwest corner of Sicily, and during that time I visited the 5th-century BC ruins of Segesta, drove the dizzying road to the hilltop town of Erice, and hiked to hidden beaches in Zingaro nature reserve.
Tip: If you have time, I would suggest adding a few things to your itinerary in this part of the island that I did not get to, specifically: visiting the windmills and salt pools of Saline di Trapani; eating seafood couscous in the town of Trapani itself; enjoying the town of Marsala and learning about it’s namesake wine; and visiting wineries along the Strada del Vino e dei Sapori Erice DOC.
Villa Romana del Casale
It was about a 90 minute drive from my accommodations in Ragusa to the UNESCO site of Villa Romana del Casale. Whether you make your visit a day trip from the Val di Noto, string the site together with Agrigento, or make a stop while heading north like I did, you definitely want to budget a few hours to visit central Sicily’s biggest attraction.
I don’t believe there is any clear proof as to what Villa Romana del Casale actually was used for, but the most popular theory is that it was the country retreat of Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, Rome’s co-emperor from AD 286-305. The sheer size of it suggests that it was definitely some sort of palace or, based on the theme in some of the mosaics, a hunting lodge.
I suppose that my expectation beforehand had been that I would see a few well-preserved, medium-sized mosaics. In reality, it’s a huge complex with room after room of mosaics found in four interconnected buildings. It was so vast that it was difficult for me to visualize how large this place must have been when it was intact with roofs, walls, etc!
The other mind-blowing thing about Villa Romana was the well preserved nature of the mosaics. Following a landslide in the 12th century, the villa was buried under many, many feet of mud for nearly 700 years, thereby protecting it from wind, rain, theft or destruction during wars. The real excavation of the area only began in the 1950’s: the complex is now sheltered by a wooden roof to help preserve the mosaics from natural elements.
I was truly stunned by the size and complexity of the mosaics themselves. Because of the shade thrown off by the roof, they were a bit difficult to photograph, but as you can see from the images in the slideshow below, the details portrayed in the various scenes is truly remarkable.
I always laugh when I hear people talk about how “old" some places are in Philadelphia, where I lived in the US for 10 years - obviously these people haven’t been to Sicily!!! Long before even the arrival of the Greeks, Segesta was the principal city of an ancient civilization that supposedly descended from the Trojans. The ruins here are from the 5th-century BC and are one of many different ancient sites I visited during my time in Italy.
The main attraction in Segesta is the remarkably well-preserved Doric Temple, which dates from about 430 BC. The temple still retains all t’s columns and, standing alone in a field, makes for some great photographs. The sheer size of it is also pretty spectacular!
I always love the look of B&W photos for ancient sites like Segesta…plus, the day started off cloudy with a few raindrops which doesn’t make for good color photographs. The sun did break through after a short while and itcompletely cleared up - that’s weather in Sicily, it seems!
The other key site in Segesta is the Greek Theatre. Though not as impressive as the one in Taormina, it’s definitely worth a visit. My tip: forego the shuttle bus (which will cost you an extra €1.50) and walk the 1.5km up to the theatre. It’s completely uphill, but the views back down to the Temple are amazing!!
I got to Segesta before any of the tour groups, but they weren’t far behind me! There weren’t as many people as you’d think, but getting there (or to any of these ancient ruins for that matter) early definitely pays off.
I took a cruise once that stopped in this part of Sicily, and I remember taking an excursion to the impossibly high hilltop town of Erice. I decided to return, but this time I had to drive myself up the 750m extremely winding road to get to the top! The views are drop dead gorgeous, and when there was an opportunity to jump out and grab a quick photo on the drive down, I took it!
When I got into this old town, I was pleasantly surprised to find very few tourists, which I’m sure is not the case in the summer. Yes, Erice has lots of souvenir shops, but it also has cobblestoned streets, stunning views of the sea and is home to Sicily’s most famous pastry shop, Maria Gammatico!!! I spent a few hours meandering the streets, including stopping for a lunch of fish couscous, common in this part of Sicily and a clear culinary nod to the island’s north African influence.
Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro
After visiting so many different towns and ancient ruins, I needed a “nature day” and went to Reserve Natural della Zingara, Sicily’s first nature preserve. I am so glad that I did. The coastline hike, which winds 7 km from Scopello to San Vito Lo Capo, is one of the most breathtaking hikes I’ve done in a very long time! I have not edited these photos at all - the skies were that brilliant the day I was hiking!
The scenery along the coast reminded me of a hike I did once in New Zealand, as here too I found myself stopping every 50 ft. to take yet another photograph :-) The difference was that, along this hike, there were several small little beaches, beckoning you from below with their blue green, crystal clear waters.
Tip: I started the hike in Scopello and recommend stopping in town to grab some picnic / lunch supplies (including water) before you get to the park entrance. There is a small visitor center shack in the parking lot where you pay your €5 park entrance fee and can pick up a map. There are a few hikes, but the best is the coastline hike: it’s an easy 7 km one way, which takes 2 hours more or less, not including stops at the beaches. There are also a few museums along the trail as well. It’s a pretty popular thing to do. I stopped at the last beach closest to San Vito Lo Capo and it was pretty crowded, mostly with people who I think hiked the 30 minutes from the San Vito Lo Capo side of the park.
SICILY ROAD TRIP - PART THREE: THE DETAILS
My drive from Ragusa to near Alcamo, with a stop at Villa Romana del Casale, took me about 6 hours. My day trip from Alcamo to Segesta was about 45 minutes, with another 30 minutes to Erice. My other day trip to Scopello took about an hour. Ideally, I would have done the 4th part of my roadtrip (the southwest corner) before this part, but due to scheduling issues I couldn't.
The main roads to the different sites are easy to navigate, although I learned the hard way that the country roads leading to my agriturismo are very much in need of repair! Again, Google Maps saved me MANY times!
I had originally planned to spend 4 nights at Agriturismo Tarantola: based on the Trip Advisor reviews it seemed amazing. I honestly do not see what all the fuss was about. I was underwhelmed to put it mildly, and ended up leaving a day early and moving on to the next part of my trip. I wrote a more in-depth review on Trip Advisor, but in a nutshell - the landscape around the agriturismo ws beautiful, but that’s where the appeal stopped for me. I found very llittle to be redeeming about the place, especially since I paid more per night than I had paid in Ragusa or Modica.
If I had to do it over, I would have spent either 4 nights in Scopello or San Vito Lo Capo and did my day trips from there, or 2 nights in Scopello and 2 nights in Trapani.