I’ve read once that residents of Sicily consider themselves Sicilian first, European second, and Italian third! As a first generation Italian-American, I was mildly insulted by that statement, and decided I needed to check out this island for myself and see what all the fuss was about.
With a free 2 1/2 weeks between meeting friends on the mainland of Italy, I hopped a flight to Palermo, picked up a rental car and hit the road. My goal was to discover the highlights of this island that is firmly planted between Europe and Africa - known for its diverse landscapes, culinary delights and cultural treasures.
The first stop on my road trip was the northeast part of the island; the area around Mt. Etna and along the Ionian coast. I spent 3 full days here, basing myself in the town of Castiglione di Sicilia.
Day 1: Mount Etna
Mount Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe, and currently measures ~10,922 ft high, although this varies based on constant summit eruptions! It is the highest peak in Italy south of the Alps and is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Mount Etna is in an almost constant state of activity, and has recorded so many eruptions - both big and small - over its long history that it is nearly impossible to count them all. In June 2013, the volcano was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Because I looked into organized hikes of the volcano shortly before I arrived, I could not find an outfitter that had open spots when I was available. Instead, I was only able to get a spot on a tour of the lava fields and lava caves which, while impressive, was not as spectacular I am sure as being up high on the volcano (there’s always next time!).
One cannot help but be impressed with the size and scale of this volcano, particularly given it’s constant state of activity and relatively close proximity to so many towns nearby.
Day 2: Aeolian Islands
Before researching Sicily, I knew nothing about the Aeolian Islands, a group of islands formed from a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily. With names like Vulcano, Stromboli and Panarea, it seemed to me that these island were worth a visit. Because my time was limited, I decided to take a (long) day trip with an organized group out of Taormina.
The present shape of the Aeolian Islands is the result of volcanic activity over a period of 260,000 years, and underneath the sea the “islands” are actually all connected to one large piece of land. There are two active volcano islands - Stromboli and Vulcano - and you can clearly see the smoke rising from the top of Stromboli all day long! The Aeolian Islands are also on the UNESCO world heritage site list.
The day trip I took stopped at the islands of Stromboli and Panarea. It is possible to hike with a guide to the crater rim of Stromboli volcano, which would have been super cool but did not unfortunately fit into my plans (again, another activity I will have to save for the next time I visit). Instead, I was able to stroll around both Panarea and Stromboli for only a few hours each.
First stop was the island of Panarea, which I found to be particularly lovely. White painted homes were set into the hills against deep blue skies: it was charming and quaint. Many boats arrive daily into the harbor and the little avenues fill up quickly. It’s best to walk up into the hills off of the main area in order to avoid the crowds; here you will get some stunning views, with Stromboli looming in the middle of the sea.
Our boat left 2 1/2 hours later, and after a 45 minute ride we docked in the main harbor of Stromboli, a very small island with a total population of only a few hundred people. The island is known for it's active volcano and black sand beaches. A nice stroll up to the church and around the marina were about all that’s possible in the short amount of time we had, although there’s no shortage of outfitter shops offering hikes to the edge of the crater for those with several hours.
We left Stromboli as the sun began to set, and made our way out into the sea and around to the Sciara del Fuoco (the steep black lava scar down the volcano's side, where you can see Stromboli's explosions at night). We were unlucky and didn't see any of the fiery emissions that would have been cool in the near dark skies. Considering the 45 minutes drive to Taormina from my hotel, the one hour bus ride to the port, the one hour + boat ride to Panarea, etc etc, it was a 16 hour day for me! Worth it? I guess so, as it was the only way I was really going to get to the visit the islands. Had I more time, I would have spent a few days on the largest island (Lipari) and day-tripped to the other islands.
Day 3: Taormina
Spectacularly perched on the side of a mountain, Taormina is one of Sicily's most popular summer destinations. It’s a fancy resort town that is uber popular with day trippers and cruise ships, and therefore is quite touristy. Even in September, the pretty streets and narrow lanes were clogged with people and, because of that, I can see how it’s easy to develop a love-hate relationship with this town.
Visited in the right way, however, Taormina can be magical and is worth going for it’s stunning ancient theatre, people watching and breathtaking vistas. Even as a day-tripper myself, I found ways to enjoy the town without feeling overwhelmed. Here are my top tips for how to survive a day in Taormina:
* Set out early *
For anyone staying in the many little hotels dotting the hillside, this is easy, but for me it meant leaving my hotel around 8 am. I arrived at 9 am and headed straight for the town’s main attraction - the Teatro Greco (Greek theater). This perfect horseshoe-shaped theatre was built in the 3rd century BC, and is in a stunner of a location: overlooking the sea on one side with Mt Etna in the background. It’s the most dramatically situated Greek theatre in the world and the second largest in Sicily (after the one in Syracuse). In summer, it is still used to stage international arts and film festivals, which would be oh-so-awesome to experience. Around 10-10:30am seemed to be the time when most tours arrived, but by then I had had enough time to walk amongst the ruins, take some Instagram-worthy photos, and contemplate (in semi-silence) what it must have been like to witness a play or theatre production 2000 years ago!
* Take a break in Villa Comunale *
To escape the mid-afternoon crush, head to these stunningly situated free public gardens. Created by Englishwoman Florence Trevelyan in the late 19th century, they're a lush paradise of tropical plants and delicate flowers. I ended up sitting on a bench here for quite a while, enjoying the view and catching up on my journaling. The gardens seem to be relatively unknown, and there was not a tour group or cruise ship passenger in site when I was there.
* Walk away from Corso Umberto I *
Taormina's lovely pedestrian-friendly, boutique-lined street is called Corso Umberto I, and is great to wander upon - although in the middle of the day it’s nearly impossible to enjoy it! A better option would be to stroll in the morning when the tours are all at the Greek theater, or later in the evening when all the day trippers have left.
In the middle of the day, wander and you will come across cobblestoned side streets with balconies full of flowers, farm stands and more. Make sure to find your way to Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto to enjoy a heavenly cannolo (that’s the singular noun / the plural is cannoli) or visit Bam Bar for a delicious granita con panna (flavored shaved ice with whipped cream)
* Splurge on an Aperitivo at the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo *
If you can’t afford to stay here (I couldn’t!), at least treat yourself to a nice cocktail in the early evening / late afternoon at what is the most stunning hotel in Taormina. The Grand Hotel Timeo boasts one of the world’s most incredible views from it’s large terrace, and most people there respectfully kept their conversation hushed, so it was easy to forget about all the tourists in town.
The views over the rooftops of the medieval town, past the coves and headlands of the volcanic coastline, and to the active peak of Mount Etna are second to none. The hotel is easy to find, as the Greek theatre is right next door. Yes, an Aperol Spritz at €26 is expensive, but they also provide snacks and honestly in the scheme of things, the price is worth it for the view alone!! I spent a lovely hour + here, writing postcards and just taking it all in. I highly recommend a visit.
SICILY ROADTRIP - PART ONE: THE DETAILS
The drive from Palermo to Castiglione di Sicilia took me about 4 1/2 hours, including a short stop in Cefalu.
I rented a car at the Airport in Palermo using Hertz. I made my arrangements directly on their website before arriving, as I needed to make sure I reserved an automatic (versus a manual) transmission car. The rental car process was easy and straightforward.
The roads in northern Sicily are fine: most highways were nearly empty except when I was traveling the ring-road around Palermo. Driving in Sicily is not for the easily intimidated however: some people drive super fast and do not pay attention to the marked lanes. Even so, if you stay to the right and mind your own business you will be fine :-)
I use a Michelin map as the backup to my phone's Google Maps app (my US based T-Mobile plan provides me with free data in most European countries). Be aware that one of the owners of an agriturismo at which I am staying warned me that the rental car GPS only works near the busy cities. I am not sure if he was correct because I planned to use Google maps anyway (which proved to be invaluable in numerous ways).
I spent three full days / four nights in this part of Sicily. I wish I had more time. One could easily add on a few days actually on the Aeolian Islands (instead of taking a day trip), plus another day to just enjoy your hotel and the town of Taormina, plus another day or two for some wine tours around the Etna region.
Castiglione di Sicilia: I stayed for 4 nights at Il Picciolo Etna Golf Resort & Spa. It’s a perfectly nice, well appointed, large hotel. That said, I would probably stay in Taormina next time - I would have found it to better to be centrally located for all the things I planned to do.