How to explore Sicilian towns

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When people come to Sicily they tend to go along the well followed tourist road, sticking to places like Palermo or Catania or visit coastal resort towns like Taormina or Cefalù which are all beautiful and worthwhile but the island can offer so many more unique experiences.

I always advise people to go and visit a smaller town, whether it be tracking down the village where long-lost Sicilian ancestors came from or simply hiring a car for a day and heading  up into the mountains, along the coast or into the interior of the island. There are literally hundreds of smaller towns to see. In the province of Messina alone there are 108 towns each with their own unique history, sights, sounds and tastes.

Small towns aren’t going to be as bustling and vibrant as the bigger cities but visiting them will give you a sense of the real colour and pace of day-to-day Sicilian life which is much more satisfying than merely crossing things off a bucket list.

You can easily hire a car from any major airport in Sicily and with GPS technology it is easy to get off the Autostrada and explore.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Bring a phrasebook

Once you get out of the tourist areas the frequency of spoken English disappears so you will need some Italian to make yourself understood. Some guidebooks will make you believe you will be hearing mostly Sicilian dialect, but the reality is most people are well versed in Italian although it will be spoken with a thick Sicilian accent. Once the locals see you trying to make yourself understood in their language they will do everything to accommodate you, as they are proud of their town and will do anything to show it off.

 Ionian Coastline

Get there early

Get going early as most towns tend to slow down after midday and you will have to avoid any traffic heading out of the bigger cities. I suggest arriving in time to have breakfast (strictly a coffee/cappuccino or fresh orange juice and croissant which most cafe’s/bar offer regularly) and that way you can ask the waiter or barista what you should be doing in their town. Bar owners are fonts of great local knowledge as they are usually located in the centre of town and are always in the know. Sicilian’s freely give information on local events and the best local places to eat, so you can’t go wrong by simply asking.

Chiesa Madre, Sinagra

 Start with the churches

The best place to see traditional Sicilian art is in Sicilian churches, the Roman Catholic church once engaged the best local artists and artisans to beautify their places of worship and so you will literally find a treasure trove of sculpture, architecture and paintings.

Even the most run down looking church will give you the best surprises. Most churches are open throughout the day, they don’t cost you anything and you can walk around without any problem just as long as there are no religious services and you are respectful and don’t take too many photo’s especially of the altar. If you are feeling generous you can slip in a donation into the Offertory boxes which usually go to the upkeep of the church.

Castello Sinagra

 Castles and palaces

Every town with either have a Castle/Fortress (Castello) or historical aristocratic Palace (Palazzo). Many have been turned into museums and most will be opened to the public. They are always fascinating places to visit as they are focal points for local history. Sicilian small town are places with many centuries of history, the island has been inhabited since prehistoric times so there are endless fascinating historical sites to see. Once again be sure to ask the locals for advice.

Small town Sicily

 By foot

The best way to see a Sicilian village is to park the car and walk around the town focusing on little side streets, suggestive abandoned houses, tiny little stores and hidden courtyards. If you are visiting a mountain town this walk with mean hiking up, discovering new perspectives and picturesque views. While coastal towns will give you romantic strolls along the seaside or panoramic outlooks carved out of the landscape. Sicily is perfect for slow travel as Sicilians always take the time to savor the moment.

 

Feste, Sagre and Market time

If you want to see a Sicilian paese with it’s best face on, then you must visit when there is a local Festa (saint day celebration) or Sagra (local food festival). Each town has its patron Saint and protector which is celebrated with elaborate markets and processions during the year, so it is always great to see this celebration which is usually accompanied by other events like art exhibitions and concerts.

Sicilian’s are great connoisseurs of food and always love to promote their own local products, throughout the year each town celebrates their food by offering visitors a taste. For a few euro’s you can often enjoy a full meal. There are food festivals dedicated to everything from ice cream, to pistachio’s, sardines, salami, roasted pork, chestnuts, ricotta and oranges, the list is endless. Most are advertised through large posters fastened to walls on the side of the road or on billboards and above all by word of mouth. So if you see one be sure to swing by. These are usually evening events so you may have to arrange accommodation for the night.

The market day tradition is still very much alive in Sicily and each town has its own open air market day during the week. You never know what you will find at the markets, there can be anything from cheap Chinese clothing, fabrics, local fruit and vegetables, cheeses, food carts, folk art and antiques. It will always be worth the effort even if you simply grab a few local products to taste for a picnic lunch.

San Rocco

 Eat local

Food is never a problem in Sicily, even if you hurriedly run into a small supermarket just before they close for the lunchtime siesta you will still be able to ask them to make up a quick panino and deli lunch which you can wash down with a beer or wine easily available from the store.

If you are shrewd enough to have follow my advice and asked the local barista where you should go for lunch you would already have a selection of recommendations for a place to enjoy a local meal.

Generally if you want to taste fresh local fare the best bet is to eat at a Trattoria (family run restaurant) or Agriturismo (agricultural tourism hotel) rather than a Ristorante (restaurant) which will charge you more and give you less.

 

Tourist Information

Each small town has a local tourist information office which is usually associated with the local town hall. If you decide to find a place to stay and experience the town over a few days they will be the place to go for recommendations about local bed and breakfasts and other places to stay overnight. The Pro loco will be a great font of knowledge as each town is connected through a network of other tourist information centers so they can give you in depth information about the surrounding areas too as things like web pages and online information is hard to come by.

Sinagra from Castello

There is no reason not to go forth and explore.

Sicily has had a bad reputation in the past but if you use the same level of caution you usually use while traveling overseas there is no reason to be afraid. Keep in mind things like controlling your change while shopping so you don’t get short-changed, don’t leave cameras or expensive equipment in your car, keep valuables either at home or close to your person, don’t take too much cash and keep your documents in a money belt under your clothes to avoid falling victim to pickpockets. Don’t be ostentatious in the way you dress as it will identify you as a foreigner and you will become a target for a mugger or tourist fraud.

Generally avoid run down neighborhoods or isolated areas like train stations or abandoned city squares late at night, if you don’t see people around it means you shouldn’t be there either and simply be aware of any potential danger.

These are the general rules to follow if you travel anywhere around the world, Sicily is no different to any other international travel location.

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Dividing Sicily into bitesize pieces

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There are many ways of exploring Sicily, from visiting the bigger cities and tourist centres, food and winery tours or seeing the major historical sites from Greek temples to endless museums.

Logistically moving around Sicily is difficult simply because of the mountainous landscape, bad infrastructure, lack of reliable public transport and really confusing or absent signage. Rather than attempting to see the entire island in one weekend (which I assure you is impossible), the best thing to do is simply break the island into smaller pieces and explore a smaller part of it.

It is easy to hire a car from any major airport and together with a reliable GPS, a guide book, a little research and some Italian, you can easily negotiate yourself around a particular area.

One trip or vacation to a concentrated part of the island is a perfect way to soak up the culture and colours associated with each of the nine different provinces (Palermo, Catania, Messina, Siracusa, Ragusa, Enna, Caltanissetta, Agrigento and Trapani.)

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Western Sicily  for example includes Trapani, Marsala and basically everything west of Palermo from Castellammare del Golfo around to the Aegadian islands, down the coast to Mazara del Vallo, if you want to be particularly challenged you can make it down as far as Agrigento (but I think Agriento deserves more time to be savoured and is best to be grouped together with central Sicily).

central-sicily

Sicily can be sliced down the middle from Palermo into its heart to Piazza Armerina, Enna, Caltanissetta down to Agrigento which are filled with much history, archeological sites and festivities during the year.

north-eastern-sicily

Then there is North Eastern Sicily which can be done by car from Palermo along the coast towards Messina and can include visits to places like Cefalù, the Aeolian Islands, many small coastal and mountain towns around to Messina and the resort town of Taormina.

If you decide to arrive at Catania airport you can start from there and explore along the coastline as there are many fascinating fishing villages and resorts all the way down to Siracusa and Ragusa.

val-di-noto

A few days to explore the Val di Noto towns inland from Catania will give you the chance to experience the eight Baroque treasures of south-eastern Sicily: Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli, were all rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and are filled with ostentatious architecture, breathtaking scenery and equally rich culinary landscape to taste.

mt-etna

From Catania it is easy to catch the Circumetnea an historic railway which takes you leisurely around the base of the Mount Etna around to the picturesque seaside town of Riposto. From Catania airport it is simple to explore Etna itself and the endless small towns near and around the Mount Etna regional park, this area also boasts world class wineries, restaurants, historical sites endless farm stay or luxury bed and breakfasts, spas and a golf course. 

Sicily is a multifaceted place with endless things to explore, simply do some research into whatever you may be interested in and see if you can explore the island through your hobbies and passions.

There is something for everyone Sicily is a paradise for people interested in hiking, mountain biking, nature photography, snorkelling/diving and windsurfing.

Sicily boasts some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean, if your family is originally from Sicily you can visit the town of your origins, foodies will have endless things to taste with a succession of Sagra food festivals throughout the year and the island has some of the best wine in the world.

There are literary parks to explore Sicily through its greatest artists, if you are after a luxury holiday there are many five star hotels and resorts, you can take a helicopter ride around the island, sail around the coast and hop around the surrounding islands, take archaeological tours around the most well preserved Greek temples outside of Magna Grecia, immerse yourself in the thousands of museums, palaces, castles, markets, religious or food festivals, squares, do an inspector Montalbano, Mafia or Caravaggio inspired tour.

The possibilities are endless simply break off a piece of Sicily and have a taste.

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What to do in Sicily

I am constantly sitting down and planning out trips to do through Sicily. Often I don’t do everything on my list as I run out of money but I am generally happy if I do one of the trips every year as they are based on my experiences living here on the island.

Sicily is so rich, there are endless itineraries you can complete if you search on google but these are the things I’d recommend to my own friends and family.

The island can be terribly uncomfortable in July/August so I suggest do some of these in June as the weather is warm without being too humid or if the summer holds out as it usually does September is a perfect time to visit the island, with a lot less tourists too!

Aeolian Islands

These ancient islands off the north-eastern coast in the province of Messina make gorgeous day trips and are easily reached from Messina and Milazzo.

The ‘seven sisters’ as the islands are colloquially known are a series of wild and volcanic archipelagos surrounded by a deep turquoise colored sea. Alicudi, Filicudi, Lipari, Panarea, Salina, Stromboli and Vulcano were the home of Aeolus the mythological guardian of the winds who populated these islands with his family.

You can usually pair up a couple of the larger islands for a leisurely day (Lipari/Vulcano or Salina/Lipari) or be more adventurous and hike out to the more distant rocky islands (Filicudi/Alicudi). If you shop around there are mini cruises and sailing trips to the four main islands (Vulcano/Lipari/Panarea/Stromboli) and night time cruises to see the volcanic eruptions on Vulcano.

North coast of Sicily

I am always going on about how easy it is to experience Sicily by road and I urge people to hire a car from Palermo, Catania or Messina and plan out a trip.

I’d grab a hire car from Messina and head along the coast towards Palermo stopping at which major coastal city may tickle my fancy. Do you research and see if there are any food festivals (or sagras) on the way to stop and taste. I’d stop at Milazzo for some great seafood in the summer, browse around the ceramic stores at Santo Stefano di Camastra, see the Norman Cathedral at Cefalu’, spend the night at Palermo be sure to visit some museums, the Teatro Massimo which is known as the La Scala of the south and if you want to be impressed there is the Duomo, the Palazzo Normanno which is the seat of the regional government and both decorated by golden mosaics left behind by the golden age of Norman rule in 12th century Sicily. A day trip from Palermo is the Abbey of Monreale a magnificent arab/norman cathedral built by William the II in the 1100’s.

I encourage people to keep heading west along the coast and visit the cities of Marsala and Trapani filled with delightful beaches in the summer, fine food all year round, museums and towns to explore.

The heart of Sicily

The central provinces are seldom explored by tourists so I would pack a lunch and head out to the belly button of the island for a new experience.

I’d go straight to Piazza Armerina, outside of the town is the Villa Romana del Casale which is one of the most well-preserved archeological sites from the late Roman period and allows you to walk through an aristocratic Roman villa filled with elaborate mosaics which have recently been restored.

Enna, Caltanissetta and Agrigento are easily reached from Piazza Armerina and are filled with rich historical sights and festivals depending on what time of year you visit.

Noto Valley

For the lovers of the Baroque a fascinatingly rich part of the island is the Noto Valley (Val di Noto) which is a UNESCO world heritage site and includes many towns in the south-east of the island.

I’d meander my way down the coast from Catania and stop off in each of these towns who were all rebuilt in the Sicilian baroque style after a major earthquake in 1693.

Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli represent a considerable collective undertaking which created an amazing architectural and artistic achievement.

Further down the coastline from the Val di Noto in May and June every year there are performances of ancient Greek Classics in the Greek amphitheater at Syracuse which give world-class performances in this suggestive ancient location.

Around Etna

A fantastic way to experiencing the depth and breathe of the Mt Etna volcano is to take a trip around its base thanks to the Circumetenea railway (Ferrovia Circumetnea) which goes from Catania stopping at most small towns around Etna and ending up at the coastal town of Giarre (perfect for lunch and museums dedicated to ancient times).

You can also stop at Randazzo which is a suggestive small town that connects the provinces of Messina and Catania in fascinating dark lava historic center.

If you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus out to the station and head either towards Catania or Giarre for the day.

Cultural Sicily

You can plan an entire trip to Sicily simply by going from museum to museum which can be an effort. I suggest choosing a couple of major museums and trying to fit in other cultural activities such as the theater.

I’d defiantly check out Teatro Massimo if you are staying at Palermo, their 2015 season is filled with orchestral concerts, ballets and opera. This elaborate historical theater can be visited during the day with regular tours.

The same can be said of the Teatro Massimo Bellini at Catania.

Rather than rushing through Taormina during a hot summer rush with the rest of the tourists why not take in a show during the Taormina Fest and spend the night in this beautiful town which will no doubt be unforgettable.

If you want to book tickets I suggest you try to get these done early to avoid disappointment.

The cultural element in Sicily is best explored towards the end of the summer even better in September.

Enjoy your summer or early autumn/fall in Sicily and be sure to let me know how it went.

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A Sicilian wish list for the summertime

 

Church of San Giuseppe Corso Umberto, Taormina
Church of St Catherine Piazza XI Aprile, Taormina

 Daphne’s house: Giardini Naxos, Castelmola and Taormina

Taormina is a beautiful town to explore but it is terribly touristy and there are many other things to see in the vicinity.

Be sure to visit Casa Cuseni an historic house which became like a real character in one of the best books around about Sicily by the late great Daphne Phelps titled A House in Sicily. The book is a wonderful love letter to this Sicilian villa which became Daphne’s home after she inherited the grand old house built and designed by her talented Uncle, painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson from 1905 to 1907. It has been converted into a luxury bed and breakfast and museum.

Be sure to see a show at the Ancient Greek amphitheater at Taormina as it is one of the most famous postcard views of Etna and it will be an unforgettable memory to see an open air summer show of contemporary music or opera depending what may be on offer. Take the chance to do this now as the Taormina festival is suffering some major cuts in funding.

Be sure to explore the nearby towns who are just as beautiful as Taormina and with a lot less tourists Castelmola is above Taormina with positively vertiginous views. While Giardini Naxos below on the coast near Taormina, easily reached by cable car with some great beaches and cute little ‘Trattorie’ restaurants who offer great seafood at more reasonable prices than the tourist traps at Taormina!

 

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Three Sicilian Cathedrals: Monreale, Palermo,Cefalu

If you love churches in the grand Norman style I suggest you do a mini tour of three of the most amazing cathedrals you will ever see.

The Cathedral of Monreale, outside of Palermo has the most spectacular mosaics including a giant depiction of Jesus Christ which covers one Dome of the grandiose church, filled with precious stones and gold. 

The Palermo Cathedral is a mixture of Norman,Gothic,Baroque and Neoclassical styles with extensive mosaic decorations and art treasures.

The Cathedral- Basilica of Cefalu’, dates from 1131 and was originally built-in the Norman style. The building was erected by Roger the second the King of Sicily after he escaped from a storm sheltering on the Cefalu beach. The fortress-like character of the building, which, seen from a distance, rises above the medieval town and is a powerful statement of the Norman presence in Sicily.

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 Piazza Armerina

Along the theme of mosaics is the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina which is an ancient Roman villa so well preserved you can walk through the different rooms and marvel at the beautiful mosaic decorated floors. It has recently been restored and as of 2006 there are new archeological excavations underway.

Visiting Piazza Armerina will give you an opportunity to explore the belly button of Sicily which has its own unique character, be sure to take a drive around the ancient towns like Enna, Piazza Armerina,Nicosia and Mistretta which will give you a sense of the timeless quality of Sicily.

Ceramic factory, Santo Stefano di Camastra
Ceramic factory, Santo Stefano di Camastra

 Santo Stefano di Camastra

The most spectacular souvenir to take home from Sicily are the ceramics. There are many tourist traps around the island who claim to sell authentic pieces but you really cannot go wrong visiting the ceramic factories at Santo Stefano di Camastra.

Stores in the town vary in price and style but if you stick to the big warehouses on the other side of the town away from the autostrada exit you will be buying directly from the producers, with wholesale prices and international shipping!

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 Nelson’s Castle, Bronte

Castello di Maniace (or Castello Nelson) is in the fertile countryside between Randazzo and Bronte.

 An historical English property which was given to Admiral Lord Nelson as a gift after he rescued the Bourbon king of the two Sicilies, after Nelson helped him to escape certain death during a revolution in Naples in 1796. 

I have blogged here about this places history before but to be honest and I am yet to make it out to see its beautiful grounds and museum, but can’t wait to get there this summer!

Etna cable car
Etna cable car

 Etna

All tourists who visit the island must go to Mount Etna! 

There are many ways of experiencing the volcano and the national park that surrounds it, from taking a tour bus from Catania to see the more touristy spots closer to its peak or take one of many walking tours. 

You can go up via cable car, riding on four-wheel drive buses or on Sicilian donkeys. For the less adventurous types there are many places to explore away from the main peak like old extinguished craters and shopping at higher altitudes for retail therapy.

If you are staying at Catania a wonderful day trip would be to catch the Circumetnea railway which takes you from Catania around the base of Etna all the way to near the coast at Giarre or if you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus and see the landscape in the opposite direction towards Catania. It is a wonderful way of seeing Etna (here is some great information on TripAdvisor.)

Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Randazzo
Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Randazzo

 Randazzo

I’ve always loved Randazzo at the foot of Mount Etna, it is a beautiful town made of suggestive lava stone, filled with historic buildings, castles and museums.

On Sundays there is a hug market which I love to visit with a bit of everything from local cuisine, antiques, to fashion.

My favorite gem at Randazzo is the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. It’s exterior is a contrast between intricate white lace and charcoal lava stone while inside is filled with art and the most outstanding stained glass windows.

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 Aeolian Islands

The Aeolian Islands are a popular way of passing the summer at the beach. There are seven islands along the Tyrrhenian coast in the province in Messina, all of volcanic origin including: Alicudi, Filicudi, Panarea, Stromboli, Salina, Lipari and Volcano.

Lipari and Volcano are the most popular and biggest islands with great beaches and spas to explore even if food and drink can get costly as everything is imported from the mainland. 

The smaller islands are less touristy and just as spectacular. There are many mini cruises available to explore them even if it can get uncomfortable in the summer humidity, it is defiantly worth the trouble.

 

Interior stainglass windows at the Tindari church, Messina.
Interior stainglass windows at the Tindari church, Messina.

 Tindari

Ancient Tyndaris became a Greek colony in three hundred and ninety-six B.C but had been settled during the Bronze age in about fifteen hundred B.C. Its strategic location looks out on to the Bay of Patti along the northern coast stretching up to Cape Milazzo which made it a perfect post to maintain control of the waters between the Eolian Islands and Messina.

The Basilica of the Madonna of Tindari is modern, work on it began in nineteen fifty-seven after the old church was unable to cope with the influx of pilgrims to the site. The main attraction is the miraculous statue of the Black Madonna. The sculpture itself is quite modest yet history has given it a mysterious past and has bestowed upon it many colourful legends.

According to the tradition it was brought to Tindari by a cargo that ship was returning from the east filled with precious merchandise and treasures. The statuette had been salvaged from the Iconoclastic wars which saw the destruction of many religious icons.  As the ship sailed through the Tyrrhenian sea its journey was interrupted by a powerful storm, which forced the ship to stop in the Marinello bay near Tindari.

It is said the statue chose it’s own home, the ship remained trapped in the bay and became free only after the sculpture was unloaded.

The statue has a magnetic quality to it. The whole church draws you towards the sculpture and it is the main focus for pilgrims. For me it is its ancient quality that creates an undeniable mystique and well worth the trip to this somewhat isolated spot along the coast from Messina.

During the summer the road up to Tindari is closed but there is a bus every ten minutes or so and there are loads of souvenir shops all the way up. If you want to buy religious items like rosary beads the first shop directly next to the church is run by the religious community and profits go directly to the church.

The statue of the Madonna at the port of Messina. She greets everyone.
The statue of the Madonna at the port of Messina. She greets everyone.

 Messina

Messina is a lovely place to visit, in the summer it is not as chaotic and confusing as other Sicilian metropolises and there is always something to see and do. There are many museums and art galleries to visit and it is easy to stroll around the historical centre and discover many churches and beautiful palaces. I recommend climbing the bell tower near the Duomo, visiting the permanent exhibition downstairs in the Duomo which features wonderful historical artworks and treasures associated with the church and the celebration dedicated to the Virgin Mary which has a particular strong attachment with the city.

Messina is friendly for pedestrians and there is a tram service through the main part of town. Piazza Cairoli is an oasis in the confusion of peak hour traffic and is also the best place to rest and do some high-class shopping, the boutiques begin in the  square and continue either side of the tramline. Don’t forget to visit the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele which is practically next door to the town hall for a surprising glance at an original fresco by Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso depicting the myth of Cola Pese on the theater’s inner dome.

The best bookstore in town is Libreria Ciofalo on the other side of the Town Hall (municipio) and has a tempting array of Sicilian travel, history and literature.

It’s also easy to catch a ferry over to Calabria to explore Reggio Calabria and the main continent of Italy. Catching the ferry back over to Messina during the night is a magical experience.

Detail of Palazzo Nicolaci, Noto Syracuse
Detail of Palazzo Nicolaci, Noto Syracuse

Val di Noto

A wonderful way to while away your time in Sicily is to simply get out on the road. Why not hire a car and explore southeastern Sicily visiting the eight baroque cities which make up the Noto Valley. Create your own itinerary through Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania,Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli who are all UNESCO world heritage sites.

I’m a huge fan of the do it your self road trip and this area is easily enough navigated by car and there are endless resources online for suggestions on what to see. I suggest to do your research and try to book local bed and breakfast for memorable experiences as b&b owners will give you the best advice on what to see and where to eat. I have recently discovered Airbnb a great site with links to locals from all over the world who rent out rooms, houses and apartments to visitors which is a wonderful resources for travelers.

Another great idea for those who love theatre is to check out the summer program at the Syracuse ancient greek theatre, every year they offer a wonderful array of ancient greek classics, this year for example there is a lavish production of Verdi’s Aida.

 

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 Agrigento

Yet another UNESCO heritage site in Sicily is The Valle dei Templi or Valley of the Temples it is an archaeological site in Agrigento in southern Italy and contains outstanding examples of ancient Greece art.

The archaeological park and landscape of the Valley of the Temples is the largest archaeological site in the world with some 1,300 hectares.

The Valley includes remains of seven temples all in Doric style including: the Temples of Juno, Concordia, Heracles, Accra’s, Zeus, Castor and Pollux, Vulcan, and Asclepius.

The best way to experience The Valley of Temples is to buy yourself some local delicacies like cheeses, bread, olives, fruit and vegetables and a nice bottle of red wine and enjoy a rustic picnic beneath these wonderful ruins of the ancient world.

 

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 Trapani

The western coast of Sicily is filled with wonderful seaside towns to explore from Trapani with it’s windmills and salt producing artificial lakes, to Marsala where the dark sweet wine of the same name originated, up to the mountain top castle like fortress town of Erice. From the hills you can glimpse the Egadi Islands, Tunisia and Africa.

 This part of Sicily is an agricultural region filled with grape vines, olive trees, wheat and cotton fields which dominate the countryside and the coast provides salt, tuna and mackerel for consumers all around the world. 

Summertime is the perfect time of year to explore this part of Sicily, enjoying the sea air and sipping mildly chilled Marsala.

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I recently did a guest post for The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife about my last summer vacation in Sicily if you want more ideas!

Sicilian Experiences (part 1)

        

                                  (Taormina side streets)

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I’ve had a few requests asking me about places to see in Sicily. I’ve come up with my own personal list of places to visit on leisurely day trips or over a weekend or a few days in order to savour the tastes of Sicily.

 

Cefalù and Santo Stefano 

Cefalù, a short train ride from Palermo and it is a real hidden jewel often overlooked by commercial tours of Sicily, a wonderful city filled with suggestive medieval streets and a spectacular Norman-Arab-Byzantine cathedral. It’s easy to find a lovely little Trattoria (family run restaurant) to eat some fresh seafood.

 

Further down the train line is Santo Stefano the ceramic capital of Sicily, where you can browse endless ceramic artisans stores, the larger stores even have international shipping if you can’t resist. The train station stop is actually below the town so it is best to catch a bus if you don’t want a steep walk.

 

Catania-Etna-Randazzo 

I think you can easily take a day at each of these intriguing places, but you can even do the three quickly with a hire car starting from Catania. I’d spend a day exploring the mixture of the different architectural styles through Catania from the Ursino Castle to the Baroque and neo-classical styles in the other parts of the city rebuilt in the eighteenth century after earthquakes and volcanic eruptions from Etna.

Taking a drive up the many scenic routes through the Etna national park it’s easy enough to find a spot for a rustic picnic, a perfect way to celebrate an exceptional lunch time with a difference

 

While driving further inland there is Randazzo at the foot of mount Etna which is the host to a wonderfully diverse Sunday market and its countryside is filled with little wineries and surprising rustic pizzerias and restaurants to explore.

 

Messina-Taormina-Giardini Naxos 

I have a soft spot for Messina being a cosmopolitan university town, it’s easy to get lost in its side streets to discover the Duomo and its impressive clock tower (which goes through an elaborate series of clockwork motions at midday and midnight) there are many other smaller churches to discover, the Town hall is impressive and it is easy to catch the local tram to the regional museum and art gallery.

 

Catching a bus or cab to Taormina is easy from Messina and defiantly worth the cost as this ancient town is a dream spot to visit. Taormina’s streets have a medieval flavour with many suggestive piazzas, churches and residences all at the centre of town in walking distance. It is a terribly charming magical place to wander around filled with cute shops and cafes, you can see why it has attracted and inspired so many artists and writers like D.H. Lawrence.

 

There is funicular cableway connects Taormina to coastal Mazzarò below and nearby Giardini Naxos has some nice seafood restaurants.

Agrigento

Agrigento is a bit more of a challenge to get to as it is a long car drive from most of the major centres of Sicily but it is easily reached along the Autostrada highway. While the city itself is charming enough to visit the real tourist attraction to see is out of the town at the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Tempi) where there are some wonderfully well preserved ruins of an ancient Greek town site.

To be honest this is one trip that I haven’t done yet but I think that it is best to avoid doing this trip in the terribly uncomfortable heat of summer and would be ideal in the autumn or spring when the countryside is filled with greenery and wildflowers. I’m sure a wonderful picnic lunch in amongst all of that ancient history would create an incredible memory that would last a lifetime.

 

Noto-Siracusa-Ragusa 

This is another considerable Sicilian road trip to negotiate, but it is do-able as these cities are connected by the Autostrada, but you have to be patient and be open to a long leisurely road trip.

 

These three picturesque Sicilian towns are filled with wonderful history and spectacular sites to see. Siracusa (Syracuse) Noto and Ragusa are one after the other along the autostrada nearby the coast of southern Sicily, a beautiful part of the island that is rarely explored by commercial tour groups.

 

Sircacusa is filled with ancient Greek, roman and medieval treasures to explore the Orsi Regional Archeological Museum is defiantly worth a visit The Bellomo Palace, on Via Capodieci, was built as a castle during the 13th century and houses an art gallery with notable works from Caravaggio and Antonello da Messina.

 

Noto is about forty kilometers from Siracusa and was rebuilt after a violent earthquake in 1693 in the majestic and elaborate Baroque style. The centre of Noto seems like an elaborate film set for a period time, it is unbelievably beautiful and it takes your breath away.

 

Ragusa is unbelievably rich in history, that you won’t know where to begin, you can experience a bit of ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine or any other usual mix so common here in Sicily. I advise you to stretch these three towns over three days, as they deserve all of your attention, if you are crazy to do them all on one day trip be prepared to be overwhelmed and tired of seeing beautiful things by the end of it.

 

        

                                     (Houses at Randazzo)

A great source of information for this article is the online magazine the Best of Sicily (www.bestofsicily.com) which provided me with the extra details of places to see and some images.

Rochelle