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The island of Sicily, sat just off the foot of Italy, is bigger than I thought and the first challenge was to see if a short visit would be able to do it justice.
We based ourselves in Catania, approximately midway down the Eastern coast of the island. Flying into Catania Airport we collected a hire car and with the aid of the satnav found our hotel in the city centre within thirty minutes of leaving the airport. It was late, not helped by the two hour delay in the car hiring process caused by their system failure. However, apart from being tired we at least hadn’t lost any real time as far as seeing some of the island was concerned.
We stayed at the Liberty Hotel in the centre of Catania which, when inside, was a really lovely place for us to stay and base ourselves from. Car Parking felt like it was going to be a problem as the surrounding streets were either full or the empty spaces were restricted to disabled or permit holders but after stopping outside and dashing in to speak to the Concierge the problem was easily solved, for a small daily fee. “Sir, we have one available parking space in the back garden if you would like that for the duration of your stay”. This was a real bonus, off the road and behind secure electronic gates and parked on site. Ideal.
A good night sleep was in order; it had been a long day. With that plus breakfast out of the way we set off southbound to Noto, a baroque town a little beyond Siracuse which would be our second stop. We had planned what we wanted to do and see well in advance of travelling and basically we would cover the entire East coast of Sicily over the three full days.
Noto was busy but eventually we managed to park and spend a couple of hours walking around the town and visiting one or two places of interest with the compulsory coffee (or beer) stop thrown in for good measure. It was building into a hot day in Sicily following two days of rain prior to our arrival but it was nice to be able to extend our summer slightly having left behind some gloomy days in the UK at the beginning of September.
Noto was less than half an hour south of the coastal town of Siracuse which is where we headed next. It was a lovely day and good to be by the Mediterranean. Siracuse is a fishing port with also a marina and was generally prettier than Noto without feeling of as much historical interest. Having said that, there were one or two places of historical interest and the castle by the sea and, all in all, Siracuse had a really nice, relaxed feel to it and one where you could easily spend two or three days wandering round at leisure. There were plenty of places to stop for a drink and eat and car parking was easy too.
Siracuse was less than an hour from our hotel in Catania so it allowed us to stay as late as we wanted before driving back. The intercom service on the wall at the back of the hotel opened the gates for us to drive our car in to what felt like a privileged space, despite paying for that privilege!
Our second full day included a booked trip to Mount Etna for half of the day. A small group of 7 of us, Etna sits right on the periphery of Catania so can be seen close-by but with the drive up and around the mountain it took us about one hour from the hotel to reach the eastern side of the volcano passing through one or two small villages on route including Fleri and Zafferana, both damaged by the December 2018 earthquake. One village that we drove through is now completely deserted following the quake with all the houses and businesses beyond economic repair.
From having a really clear view of Etna from Catania on what was described as a perfect day to visit the volcano, the weather changed and by the time we reached ‘base camp’ Etna was shrouded in cloud with a threat of rain. Not untypical we were then told. It wasn’t a problem as such as visibility was still good enough for seeing what we were there to see but it would have been nice to have had a full panoramic view of the volcano to take ‘the photo’ from a distance. After a brief comfort break at the café/restaurant area we set off on our short hike on Etna. The hike took no more than an hour and with knowledge from our Italian guide explaining about Effusive Eruptions and Explosive Eruptions and the different events involving Etna it was a half day well spent.
We were back at our hotel in Catania by about 2 pm and this gave us good time to explore Catania for the rest of the day. It’s quite an edgy, working-class city with its share of history and places of reasonable interest to wander around – and of course plenty of coffee/beer stops and places to eat. We walked aimlessly in many ways for quite some time and chanced upon an ‘arty’ bar area being washed down with hoses ready for what you could guess would be a regular nightly onslaught. The main square is a prominent hub in Catania with its cathedral, busking musicians and restaurants and during our time there it was filled for a few hours by a rally of a Fiat 500’s club, all the cars immaculately maintained by their owners.
After a full day of walking we collapsed at a restaurant just off the main square before walking more back to our hotel and recovery time before a final full day in Sicily.
Day three we ventured North from Catania and headed for Savoca. Again, this involved driving just over an hour and the landscape was noticeably different; more mountainous with the lava flow from Etna’s more epic eruptions visible even at this distance.
Without knowing beforehand, Savoca was one of the locations for the filming of The Godfather with the church and Bar Vitalli both featuring in memorable scenes. It certainly added interest to what is a small hilltop village that takes little time to see although the views are definitely also worth the effort.
We made a quick visit to Castelmola from Savoca. I say quick; the mountain roads slow you down quite a bit but the research told us that the views of the coast and of Taormina, our next destination, were fantastic. To be honest, they were ok but nothing more and probably if I had the time again I wouldn’t bother. I would instead got to nearby Forza da Agro which played the role of the Corleone village in The Godfather.
Before we travelled to Sicily, people that I spoke to that had already been to the island all spoke about Taormina, a resort town just south of Savoca and Castelmola. We would spend the rest of the day and evening at Taormina.
A short drive back down the mountain from Castelmola, Taormina was clearly a busy place when we arrived. This was confirmed when we found the multi-storey car park and needed to go to the top of seven levels before we found a space to leave the car. One of the main attractions of the town is the Greek amphitheatre. Amphitheatres, or at least the remains of one, can be found in many of the towns but Taormina’s is probably the best preserved and is still used for concerts today, as evidenced by the stage being constructed and sound equipment being set up while we were on the site. The views of the coast and surrounding hills from the amphitheatre site are also very photogenic.
Away from the historic site it is a buzz of artists, bars, restaurants and a variety of nice shops. The artists frequent the main square close to the church from where you can catch views over the bay and from there the main artery of a precinct takes you through the shops and eateries with side streets both up the hill and down to explore and get a drink or something to eat. Whilst undoubtedly a resort, Taormina has a really nice atmosphere and it is easy to understand its appeal and its position in the minds of people who have visited Sicily.
With one day more I think I would have wanted to visit Palermo but on this occasion I think we pitched it just about right and I wouldn’t change anything given the time that we had.
The following day, our last, would be dominated by thoughts of getting to the airport and home but we had the morning left to wander locally around Catania and reasonably close to the hotel. The final few photographs in what for me was always largely a photographic journey.
I don’t know if we will ever go back to Sicily to fill in the gaps. There are so many other places and if we never return it certainly won’t be because the island isn’t worthy. It had been a relatively short visit to somewhere I felt was distinctly different to its mainland but one I am pleased that we did. But be wary of the driving there. From a mainland Italian who has been living in Sicily for four years, “The driving here is crazy, utter madness!”.

Posted by david.byne 07:08

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