The car rental agent is clear. ‘This is the only car we have that can accommodate your family of six!’ he says, pointing to a vehicle that could only be described as a minibus. We’d just arrived at the airport at Catania on the east coast of Sicily and even as the husband is grumbling that this was not what he had booked, we realise that we are left with little choice. Picking up the keys, we get into our ‘car’, heading off to explore the island of Sicily.
Taormina is our first stop on this island adventure and as we drive along the motorway, Mount Etna – Europe’s largest active volcano – comes into view.
A trip to the fiery Mount Etna –with volcanic gravel crunching underfoot – is a must-do, as is the ancient Greek theatre in Taormina.
The triangular-shaped Sicily lies to the south-west of mainland Italy and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. A lengthy list of invaders including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards and the Normans have each conquered and left their mark, evident in Sicily’s gastronomy and also its numerous protected historic ruins.
Rumbling down the highway, we catch a glimpse of the blue sparkling sea and our minibus makes its climb into the hills towards Taormina. Several minutes of hairpin bends and narrow lanes ensue before we arrive at the ancient footsteps of our little boutique hotel – Ariston and Palazzo Santa Caterina. The hotel has been around since 1970 and overlooks a lush mountainside on one side and on the other a peninsula that reaches into a sapphire sea in the far horizon. From our large wooden windows we see a few tourists making their way down to the Ancient Greek Theatre, a popular attraction in Taormina.
With good eats, framed by Mount Etna and beaches, and with quaint shops and cathedrals littered about, Taormina is one fabulous town.
As the sun sets and the sky turns a deep shade of violet, the lights around Taormina blink and twinkle in the approaching darkness. The town could not have asked for a more stunning setting with Mount Etna as the backdrop and the beautiful beaches along its coastline.
The next morning after a quick breakfast of fresh breads with local orange marmalade, we head off to get better acquainted with the areas around. The streets, we soon realise, are either uphill or downhill, which makes for a rather rigorous walk. Cafés and bistros line the cobblestoned pathways in the pretty piazza, their menus displaying all manner of pastas and pizzas, spaghetti and risottos. Not surprisingly, seafood dominates the culinary scene.
Taormina has its own duomo, a building that looks more fortress and less cathedral with brown stone blocks and battlements along the perimeter. Little shops selling trinkets sit alongside trendy gelato bars – an immediate magnet for the kids.
Although it is late morning and the sun is shining bright, there is a nip in the air as we set out to explore Mount Etna.
Tourists would have no problem finding the route to the summit as the streets are well marked, but we switched on our GPS – just in case. Curving roads take us past quaint little villages and even alongside a morning market that is simply too good to resist. Elderly Sicilian mamas sit behind carts of fresh oranges, bottles of olive oil, and heaps of lemons and grapes. The fertile, volcanic soil and the long growing season make agriculture the primary industry on the island, we are told.
As we approach the mountain, the snow-capped peak surrounded by sooty black volcanic ash that layers the slopes becomes clearer. Ancient Greeks believed Mt Etna to be the residence of the one-eyed monster, Cyclops. The height of this active volcanic mountain has altered with each eruption and currently it stands at about 3,350 metres.
We stop at a designated parking area and begin our climb up to one of the craters. The experience as we tread around the charcoal-coloured crater is surreal with the volcanic gravel scrunching under our feet. After posing for selfies, we prepare to return.
Taking a tip from a guide who suggests that we visit Castello di Calatabiano, we stop by on our way down at an ancient fortress in a setting that seems straight out of a Tintin adventure story.
A steep funicular shuttles visitors to the top of the fort and then back down to a little store at the foot of the hill. Old stone walls pockmarked with large gaping holes that were once windows overlook the Alcantara Valley below. The chambers of the fortress, however, are intact.
‘This is one of the main halls of the fortress and we use it for small concerts and theatre performances even today,’ explains the guide leading us through the fort. In a corner of the hall sits a grand piano, used for such performances.
Back in our room late in the evening, we have a relaxing dinner at a Sicilian restaurant and hit the bed.
The following day, map in tow, we head north to Messina, the north-east tip of Sicily.
Green hills, farms and olive groves line the road while sheep-spotting on the hillsides quickly becomes the game of the hour.
By late afternoon, we are quite hungry and stop at a small restaurant in a village called Randazzo. The family-run establishment Etna Quota Mille also boasts farms of tomatoes, lemons, olives and herbs. Ducks quack in a pond nearby; the setting couldn’t get more countryside.
Barely minutes after we sit at the table, warm plates of pasta alla norma arrive. A popular eastern-Sicily dish with fried eggplant, basil, ricotta cheese and tomatoes, it is served with warm toasted bread. A delicious sfincione follows, a kind of pizza with cheese, onions and olive oil.
A proper Sicilian siesta is the need of the hour, but explore we must and so we continue making our way northbound.
Once we leave the motorway, the road twists and turns before we arrive at the harbour city of Messina. The beachside is spectacular, though the sea is rough, and after a few photos we hit the road to Taormina.
Stop at Trapani, considered one of the most romantic places in Sicily, via the busy streets of Palermo – make sure to snack on some cannoli.
The following day we pack and move from the east to the west coast of Sicily. Our first stop is Trapani and for that we have to pass through the city of Palermo and its busy streets.
Like Taormina, Palermo is a port of call on Mediterranean cruise itineraries. The highways twist and curve around the countryside with the beautiful coastline coming into view every now and then.
We have booked ourselves into an agriturismo or local farmhouse, where we will be spending a few nights at a place called Don Carlo located in the sleepy nook of Fulgatore on the outskirts of Trapani.
Olive groves welcome us as we turn on to a dusty path off the main road and pull up in front of a lovely farmhouse. Paulo, the owner, waves out. ‘You have good weather for the next few days so make the most of it,’ he says as he shows us to our rooms.
A typical agriturismo offers meals as often they are located in remote areas away from towns and any eateries. A sumptuous dinner of Italian food later, we head off to our rooms.
Waking up to the sounds of clucking hens, crowing roosters and barking farm dogs is a truly novel experience and quite a reminder that you are far from a five-star hotel, away from the din and humdrum life of a city.
I peer out of my window to see the kids have discovered an old swing in one end of the garden and a swimming pool in the other, and are making the most of both.
The concept of a farmhouse stay is quite popular and gives guests an immersive experience, living with the locals and eating home-cooked meals. Breakfast is served in a rustic dining room that boasts a fireplace and a heavy wooden table with simple comfortable chairs for the patrons. Warm breads, fresh orange juice and farm eggs make up the homely morning meal.
The family run ‘hotel’ is just one of their business ventures, says Paulo, joining us at the table. ‘Olive groves and orange plantations are our mainstay,’ he says.
He suggests a short day trip to the town of Trapani, set at the foot of Monte Erice. ‘It boasts a lively port with a beautiful old town and is considered one of the most romantic places in Sicily with its long stretches of sandy beaches and many castellos,’ he says. Taking his advice we head off to town. It’s a pleasure to walk around the enigmatic old town with its lovely stone buildings and little coffee shops. To the south of Trapani lies Piazza Garibaldi and the harbour with clear views of the Egadi Islands and the salt pans. The little windmills of Sicily are as iconic as the salt fields of Trapani on the west coast. Salt production began in the 15th century and soon became Trapani’s primary industry for several centuries.
To the southern side of the harbour is the island of La Colombaia, a tourist attraction with a fortress that dates back to the 15th century. In later years it was used as a prison.
It’s late evening as we huddle back into our bus to return to our agriturismo.
The next morning we set out to visit Erice, another medieval town with tiny shops, cobblestoned pathways and stunning views. It is not the easiest place to reach but well worth the trouble.
Erice might not be easy to get to, but its grand castles like Venus make it worth the trouble.
Dotting the landscape of this hillside township are castles such as Pepoli and Venus as well as churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Local residents walk their dogs as small cars squeeze past and into narrow single lane streets. Open squares or piazzas are flanked either by a church or a castle. As we stop to look at some gelato in a shop, we are beckoned inside to sample some. ‘It’s the best in Sicily,’ the shopkeeper promises us. It is delicious and I’m inclined to agree with him.
Little boutiques sell handmade chocolate specially made with orange, lemon and grapes packaged in little brown paper bags.
The ruins of the Greek town of Segesta.
A bit of shopping later, we set off to a secluded spot in the hills where the ruins of the Greek town of Segesta lie. Special tour buses drive visitors up the hill past the theatre and temple. More Greek ruins pepper the hillsides and you can easily spend an hour exploring the area.
On our last night at the agriturismo, we are treated by our hosts to a special cannoli, a sweet delicacy of stuffed ricotta cheese and almonds.
After bidding goodbye to Paulo, it’s back into the minibus for our trip to the airport. ‘Time to give this minibus back, just when I got used to driving the thing,’ mumbles the husband as he hands over the keys.