Click on the tabs below to read a different account of the same experience told from His and Her points of view.
“The air of Sicily has the distinct smell of the sea”, she said. Having grown up in Portugal, next to the Atlantic Ocean, in a country of sailors and seafarers, where much of its historic narrative is one of great maritime feats, I ascribed this statement to an exaggeration arising out of a fondness for her homeland. We had booked our vacation to Sicily months in advance, but changes in Ryan Air’s flight schedules meant that instead of waiting a couple of hours after our flight from Lisbon, we’d have to spend about 12 hours in Rome.We slept on the floor of Rome’s Ciampino airport, waiting for our morning connection to Trapani. I figured that in this sense, Sicily and Portugal had something in common: they’re both poorly served in terms of direct and affordable flights. The airplane parked on the apron at the small airport in Trapani and as soon as the airplane doors opened and we stepped outside I was embraced by the damp hot air and my nostrils were invaded with that distinct sulfury, blue-green, briny scent of the seashore. She was right, it did smell like the sea.
Her dad picked us up at the airport. I sat in the back of the car taking in the landscape. I didn’t know exactly what to expect. My knowledge of Sicily was limited to the faded memory of a couple of films portraying a rural Sicily of golden hills peppered with sheep and olive trees overlooking pastel coloured villages and as one of the birthplaces of the Mafia. Bright fields rolled by outside of the window and everything in the landscape had tones of yellow or brown. After a while we hit the coastline and stopped at a pastry shop in Castellammare del Golfo and I tried a cornetto, a croissant-style pastry, filled with pistachio cream – this wonderful treat became a feature of my breakfasts on the island. The motorway to Palermo followed the coastline and I was struck in awe by the rugged mountainous peaks rising along the coast as fortresses of barren rock peering into the Mediterranean.
Sicily is the largest island of the Mediterranean with five million inhabitants — about one third the size of Portugal and half its population. It has been occupied by countless peoples, including Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Germans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and even experienced a short-lived British rule. With such a rich history, it’s no surprise that Sicily has so much to offer in terms of architecture and historical sites. Unfortunately, it was also often not more than a bargaining chip for those large empires, or it was simply coveted for its resources, and as a result it is poorer and seems more backward when compared with the rest of Italy, particularly the richer northern part of the country. This became obvious as soon as we approached the outskirts of Palermo. Towns of earthen coloured buildings of a simple, squared design, which seemed to swell up and down along with the topography of the land and climb up the sides of the steepest peaks like an army of ants, looked shabby and poor. It was hot and humid and the traffic chaotic. At times it felt as if I had arrived in Southeast Asia. Trash accumulated in huge heaps around waste containers, public transport seemed scarce and old cars and mopeds, criss-crossing the main arteries of the city, coughed out dirty exhaust fumes. When we went out of the city and the towns, woods were littered with garbage. It reminded me of how Portugal was 20 years ago.
I must confess that none of this really bothers me. After all, I am a backpacker and adventurer at heart and not a fan of picture perfect postcard destinations. But I’m afraid that this ugly picture of Sicily is what strikes a lot of visitors to the island who, not being to overcome this negative impression, are left unable to otherwise appreciate all the richness and variety to be found on the island.
Sicily, being on the Mediterranean, is hot and sunny, and boasts a wonderful variety of seascape. There are beaches of fine white sand or of a coarser, darker kind; rocky and pebbles beaches; wooden platforms and decks built on rocks with ladders leading down to the sea. Some of them are located right in front of delightful pastel and earth-tone old towns, while others lie at the foot of majestic and breathtaking coastal promontories. Whatever suits your taste, there is one common denominator: the sea is perfectly still and warm like a massive swimming pool.
Food is extraordinary. For example, it’s all but impossible to find bad pizza in Sicily. Even pizza at service stations tastes good and your can easily find traditional oven baked pizza almost anywhere. There’s also delicious fresh pasta, seafood and traditional salty treats such as arancini, which are stuffed fried rice balls. Blasted with consistently bright sunshine, the island has near-perfect vine-growing condition and offers wonderful wines to taste. Pastry desserts are excellent, with the heavenly cannoli standing out above all. The granitas are refreshingly delightful and for ice-cream lovers Sicily is a paradise. Nearly every shop has an impressive variety of rich ice-cream flavours and you can order ice-cream even during the wee hours of the morning. In fact, Sicilians are known to end their clubbing night-outs eating ice-cream in a brioche, which I found surprisingly pleasant.
Even though we only had the chance to explore the Western half of the island, there were so many diverse sights. In Agrigento, on the southern coast, we visited the aptly named Valley of the Temples, a World Heritage Site, where seven well-preserved Greek temples dating from the 6th and 5th centuries BC have been excavated. I was surprised there were only a handful of tourists around. It was mid-July but it felt more as if we were in the low-season amid a terrible crisis. Not that I complained about it, as I suffer from a chronic loathing of mass tourism, but it confirmed my idea that Sicily is poorly promoted. On top of a short mountain, overlooking the city of Trapani, stands the the ancient town of Erice. It looks as if it is the epitome of the Middle Ages, with its stupendous Norman castle, old cobbled stone streets and medieval churches, but it is in fact much older than that. It is associated with he legend of Hercules and it dates back as far as ancient Greece. We took the cable car up there and spent a couple of hours ambling through its streets, which fortunately were not clogged with tourists. In fact, certain streets had the peaceful atmosphere of a forgotten village in the mountains.
In addition to being an island itself, Sicily has several surrounding minor islands. We took a day trip to the Aeolian islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily, named after the demigod of the winds Aeolus. We departed from the port of Milazzo and made a first stop of two hours in Panarea. This small island is a true Eden of luxury – a beautiful retreat of bright Mediterranean houses, terraced gardens, paths of stairs leading down to hidden rocky coves and numerous snorkelling opportunities. Then we headed straight to Stromboli, a masterpiece of nature, one of the two active volcanos in Sicily. It’s mountainous cone first appeared as a blue-grey spectre on the horizon, then as a green island with slopes that had been clawed by volcanic eruptions. The water was warmer here and the the seabed was covered with black rocks. At sunset, the boat slowly made a half-circle around the island and we watched the grey cloud of smoke billowing out of the volcano. On our way back we lay on the floor of the top deck of the boat watching a magnificent dark velvet sky peppered with bright stars and came up with constellations of our own.
For all its flaws, Palermo is a city with its own special character and beckons further discovery. It is hot, rugged, at times decaying and dirty, but hides in its womb rich layers of history and folklore. There are churches with Arab red domes, of Byzantine, baroque and Norman design; palaces and cathedrals and even a Chinese Palace commissioned by a king. In Piazza Pretoria, stands a magnificent fountain, the work of the Florentine sculptor Francesco Camillia, with animal heads, nymphs, monsters, nude human figures, Olympian gods and goddesses and ornamental staircases and balustrades, and is informally known a the “Fountain of Shame”. The Mondello area, with its picturesque seafront promenade and Art Nouveau villas takes you back to the beginning of the 20th century. A former library doubles as a restaurant and a bar, a flight of stairs leading up to a sort of tropical terrace sandwiched between buildings and a façade in ruins, where you can smoke and sample cocktails in the heat of the night. In Ballarò market there are Sicilian flavours on sale, mini-markets and Africans sit in front of shabby cafes and African hairdresser shops. I image Palermo as a city where a traveller in bygone eras would arrive from the sea, immerse themselves in the city and drift away from their world.
Sicily has enough variety to appeal to all sorts of travellers and tourists. Some visitors may be put off by the first impression of uncleanliness and disorganization, but once you get past it you’ll be marvelled by the wonders of Sicily and you’ll realize that you should’ve stayed longer. There’s a lot of untapped potential in the island. Sometimes it starts where you least expected, without anyone paying attention, slowly building up a hype between adventurers and backpackers, much like what happened in Lisbon, which then gets passed on to other types of travellers and tourists. And Sicily already has all the right ingredients to become a backpacking haven.
I just couldn’t wait to get off the plane to replenish all my senses with a fresh intake of my adored Sicily. It’s my home, where I was raised. The perfume fills my nostrils and my mind starts picturing images of my family at home waiting for me to arrive. I feel already their warmth and arms squeezing me. My ears can already hear their voices, already imagining what they’ll say as soon as they see me, and my grandmother talking loudly while waving her arms and hands in a frenzy. This is when I get hyper excited! It was also the first time Rui had ever visited Sicily and I wanted to make sure I’d get the chance to spend time both with my family and with him visiting some of the most amazing places in the western part of Sicily.
Each corner of this island has its story and precious memories. Each time I go back, I truly need to overcome the massive mistakes made by Sicilians over time. For some reason, there is this inability to safeguard our own precious and most unique inheritance. The question that keeps popping up in my mind is: “Why can’t Sicilians understand its value and why isn’t there a sense of respect towards its environment and monuments, infrastructures and natural reserves?” Sicilians spend most of their time cleaning their homes, so “why is rubbish nearly everywhere you go?” – Beauty surrounded by rubbish and/or clutter. Luckily, the most touristy places are somehow protected.
The first thing that shocked me was the new installment of a tram service that was running up and down the main streets of Palermo. It created more traffic, considering that it hasn’t been running for not more than a couple of weeks and work is still in process. Just too many cars and tram at the same time. I wonder if Palermitans will really leave their cars to opt instead for a ride on the tram to work or just even to buy the bread at the bakery around the corner, or go and have their typical Sunday “passeggiata” (walks) using the tram instead.
As I started to get uptight by all that chaos, I turned to my right, to find a new park had been opened (right where Reina, one of the Mafia family’s bosses was found and captured). I later discovered that it was funded and managed by my neighbourhood. Finally! Some signs of my beloved Palermo!
It has been changing drastically over the years and within the current economical crisis, there is an attempt to still live within a community, helping each other as much as possible. Everybody knows his or her neighbours and gossip is part of the ordinary.
I asked my dad to stop the car, so I could go to the park and have a quick look. Everybody around me welcomed me as if they knew me. The sense of community and union seemed to have been spread out into embracing the whole area of Uditore (the neighbourhood where I grew up and still have most of my Sicilian family living there) – and not just the houses in my street (you get neighbours asking for an egg, sugar, or other with the promise they’ll give it back to them as soon as they go to the supermarket). At that point, I felt home again.
The sense of urgency distracted me; I was reminded of how desperate I was to see all of my family. Summer 2015 was going to be the best ever, as it was going to be my English grandmother’s 90th birthday, and I was going to be able to see all of my relatives coming from the UK, America, Africa and of course the Sicilian ones all at once and in the space of a couple of days.
Having satisfied my first impellent need, the second urge was to get to the beach and then get my hands on some Sicilian food. It’s not sufficient to just state that food is delicious, as simply anything you eat tastes better than in any other part of the world. More precisely, the palermitans’ food is better than in any other in Sicily or Italy.
My favourite restaurants/trattorias are without order of preference:
- Pizzeria – Trattoria Lo Strascino
- Pizzeria Sciuscià
- Ristorante/Pizzeria Cotto a Legna
- Trattoria ai Cascinari
- Trattoria Biondo
- Trattoria da Salvo (Fish)
- Ristorante Falstaff (steakhouse – 1 steak is sufficient for 2)
- Pizzeria Ciccio Passami l’olio
- Trattoria Il Cambusone
- Polleria e Pizzeria Pelledoca (most delicious grilled chicken ever)
- Polleria e Pizzeria Savoca (take away grilled chicken and you get for free loads of fries and rosticceria mignon)
- Zio Caliddu (Contrada Piana dell’Occhio – Torretta) (crowded but the best typical traditional food in Palermo – Organic farming and genuinely fresh flavours at only €19,00 p.p. fixed menu which I recommend to share with another person) – ask for “faccia di vecchia and muffoletta”, inclusive are a cannolo and coffee. (I always leave this place to the end of my journey so to take away those unique genuine flavours).
- Pizzeria da Totó (Monreale)
- Trattoria da Calogero (Mondello – Fish)
- Le Antiche Mura (Mondello)
- Ristorante Kursaal Kalhesa (Wine-bar, Restaurant, Night Club, Cultural Centre, Secret garden – Greenhouse in the winter – medium to expensive restaurant)
- Tonnara Florio (a bit pricey)
- Caflish Café (best ice-cream)
- Il Baretto (Mondello – an institution! You just simply want to cry when you put that brioches with pistachio and nut ice-cream (nocciola) in your mouth)
- Bar Pasticceria Gelateria Gastronomia Pizzeria New Paradise (alternative to Caflish Café – very good ice-cream)
- Gelateria Pasticceria Recupero (best rosticceria and ice-cream)
- Rosticceria “Ai Cuochini” (best rosticceria mignon)
- Bar Rosanero (best Arancine – huge!)
- Bar Oscar (best Arancine)
- Bar Matranga (alternative to Bar Oscar)
Finally, it may be a no-brainer to most, but never eat at places that offer a “menu turistico” or similar, just pretend you didn’t see the place and walk past it. The best thing to do is to ask the grocers’ and café owners where to eat – they’ll help you out for sure: “Mi può consigliare un posto dove si mangia bene ad un prezzo conveniente?” And repeat stressing the words “Ma bene!” looking at them in the eyes and raising your brows.
It was then time to reach the beach of Mondello, a small seaside resort with a wonderful beach just a short bus ride (15 mins depending on traffic). It is more or less a suburb of the city, and is the only place (apart from the high street in the centre) where Palermitans would actually leave their cars to have a walk, or “passeggiata”, and have an ice-cream. The best ice-cream is the one at the Baretto right opposite the main roundabout that you see as you get right in front of the sea. So first stop there, then second at the “Ombelico del Mondo” to chill out right on the beach, equipped with deckchairs, umbrellas, children’s play area and café. The beach and sea are perfect for kids, and of course for me! There is a constant low tide perfect for wallowing in the sea.
All along the beach it is generally crowded in the summer, but there’s a sunny holiday atmosphere at Mondello, and like the locals, tourists like to take time off from their business of sightseeing, and relax with a few hedonistic hours by the turquoise sea. I personally prefer going to Capo Gallo or Addaura (rocky beaches with sandy patches) for a swim or away from Palermo, stopping at Isola delle Femmine “Lido Tropical” or “La Rosa dei Venti” or further away. A must is a day out at a beach like Balestrate, lo Zingaro (pack as if you were going camping, there is quite a walk to reach the paradisiac pebbled and sandy beaches) or San Vito Lo Capo (all 3 on the western side of Palermo).
Cefalù (only a 35 mins drive east from Palermo) is another holiday beach town, famous for its small old town and cathedral. There is always a festival or event being organized. It is also a destination for its Nightclub “Le Calette” and nightlife in general. After visit Cefalú and having had a swim, if you prefer a chilled out evening reach Castelbuono where you must try Fiasconaro’s “Panettone ” with their pistachio, red fruits, nut, almond spreads to go on top of each slice. The top-restaurant where you must go is “Nangalarruni” (Jew’s harp in Sicilian dialect). The whole town is car free, you must park in the town’s outskirts. There is a great Jazz Festival going on every summer in the main square at the foot of the Norman castle from which the town gets its name.
If you’re planning a trip to Sicily, get ready to plan more than you would in the rest of Italy. This is because public transport is available, but not frequent and do not allow you to reach all the places you would like to in a short time. Also make sure you have a GPS, because road signs aren’t great and locals do not speak English. Most businesses in Sicily take a siesta in the afternoon, often from 1:00pm until 4:30pm or a bit later. Dinner is eaten at a late hour — you’re best off waiting until 9:00pm. This is because after your gelato, you might also have an “aperitivo rinforzato”. So you probably won’t start feeling hungry before 9-10.30pm. The “aperitivo rinforzato” is the UK version of “Happy Hour”, but the main difference is that you get food for 1€ more on the price of your drinks. You may get served rosticceria mignon or a buffet with rice salads, caponata, parmiggiana, mozzarella etc. depending on which café/pub you choose. People will be out having dinner well past midnight.
As for the Palermitan nightlife, I would recommend you check out these places on their Facebook pages before you go as they have updates on the coming up events:
- Kursaal Kalhesa (offers live music, wine/cocktail bar and DJ sets)
- Ribot (Ristolounge)
- Tonnara Florio
- La Cuba
- Piazzetta Bagnasco – Premio (Wednesdays aperitivo starts at 7:30pm
- Q-Zero (every evening drinks and light aperitivo)
- Premiata Enoteca Botticé (every evening aperitivo, wines and gatherings)
- Tribeca (aperitivo and sushi with DJ set)
- Terrazza Excelsior (aperitivo and late cocktail bar)
- Cala Levante (Sea Lounge Club)
- Phi Beach Club (Sea Lounge Club)
What we did
Day 1: Agrigento (Valley of the Temples) and Scala dei Turchi (beautiful beach destination – reach Porto Empedocle and look for road signs coloured in brown) the right road to the beach gets very steep, where you may be lucky to find free parking space just before. The beach is well equipped, but the most important is to continue walking to your right, leaving the beach café called “Lido” behind you and follow the sandy path. Then you continue along the seashore to only stop once you reach the white rock surface, similar to an enormous marble staircase. You will discover one of the most beautiful coastlines you have ever seen. The origin of the name comes from the many invasions of Turkish pirates and the “stairs” are formed by eroded marl, clay and silt similar to calcite and limestone. We set back to Palermo by around 7pm. We had dinner at 10pm and of course Rui opted for pizza and I took him to a place near home called “Lo Strascino” – delicious!
Day 2: Spent the day visiting Palermo and Monreale. Every 14th July, people from Palermo stop all they are doing to celebrate and honour our beloved patron saint, Rosalia, a girl from a rich and noble family, who refused her privileged conditions and retired at a very young age to a cave on Mount Pellegrino (beautiful panorama of Palermo and you can visit the sanctuary, very important destinations for pilgrimages). But why do Palermitani love her so much? Because back in 1624, she saved the city of Palermo which was infested by the plague. She appeared in her cave to a hunter and asked him for her bones to be taken back to the city. As the hunter reached the city with her bones on his cart, the plague miraculously disappeared. To celebrate this event, every 14th of July, a Mass is held to thank the saint for her miracle, after which a litter leaves the square in procession and is carried on shoulders to the Quattro Canti and then the Foro Italico, the heart of Palermo. And this is where the fun begins: when the procession reaches the Foro Italico, there are fireworks and singing which will give you goosebumps. There are also plenty of concerts and exhibitions in her honour. The festival of Saint Rosalia is not only a religious event, but also a moment of fun and sharing in the Sicilian community (a must is to stop for a “panino con la milza, formaggio e limone and/or panelle e crocché” at “Focacceria S.Francesco”).
As we did not have time and were too tired, we decided to walk around Palermo before the festival started in the evening and parked in this square here (safe and free parking). Easy way to get as close as possible to the main monuments, and then get out of the centre avoiding traffic on the way back. The route we did on foot was Cattedrale – Villa Bonanno, Cappella Palatina, San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Ballarò market, went down Via Casa Professa towards Piazza Pretoria, continued along Via Maqueda to reach Teatro Massimo and Piazza Politeama. Walked back to the car.
Day 3: Island of Mothia, Trapani and Erice – I drove all the way to Mothia to show Rui the salt culture and give him a better idea of Sicilian beauties and traditions. We took the boat to the island (click here for info). I found the visit very relaxing and enjoyed the boat trip that gave us a view of this outstanding and unique small archipelago. We set off by 11am to reach Erice. I parked the car for free in one of the lanes around the parking lot and went up the mount-top by cableway (fabulous views and hassle-free because you avoid driving up the very narrow and steep road that gets you to the top). Amongst the most visited sites are the two castles, Pepoli Castle and Venus Castle. Other attractions include the sixty churches including the Gothic Chiesa Madre (1314) and the Mediaeval Church of Saint John the Baptist. Otherwise the maze of cobbled medieval streets is a pleasure to wander around and the views are stunning. On a cloudless day, the Egadi Islands off the coast of Trapani (if you spend 2 days in this area – I recommend visiting the islands and have lunch at one of the restaurants right of the small harbours “order Speghetti con i ricci and vongole”) are clearly visible, while to the west the panorama takes in vast strips of eastern Sicily, the Tyrrhenian Sea and the coastline towards San Vito Lo Capo, Monte Cofano and the Gulf of Castellammare (stop at the Bar La Sorgente on your way as it is just of the motorway exit to taste the Cassatelle and croissants with pistachio cream). Erice today plays host to a series of renowned international scientific conferences and, in particular, an annual congress dedicated to Astronomy. Don’t stop there for lunch but go back down to Trapani and have it at “Ai Tipici”, which is open until 3pm (we had the Busiate Allo Scoglio again wanted to cry – at every mouth full, Rui and I kept repeating to our selves that it was the best pasta dish we had ever eaten in our lives). We then went for a walk around Trapani and stopped for a swim at “Lido Paradiso”. We showered and got changed for the evening. Went for a drink in one of the bars in the lanes of Trapani and for a late dinner had to stop at another well-known eatery “Pizzeria Calvino” (it was 10pm by then). Drove back to Palermo.
Day 4: Trip to the Aeolian Islands. Where I re-fell in love with Panarea (all info needed here). On this holiday we only had a day for this visit, so we chose Panarea and Stromboli. Amazing nature and views, which gives you the chance to check out the variety of beaches offered (Stromboli has black sand – don’t worry it doesn’t stain your clothes at all!). It is very tiring to do all in one day. Most of the stime is spent on the ferry or coach if you are leaving from Cefalú. Even if you have a car, I would recommend parking it in the free car park at Bar Santa Lucia, so you get some time to sleep before driving back to Palermo (don’t forget to have breakfast there at Bar Santa Lucia (take away food is excellent too, especially the rosticceria). The coaches leave from the petrol station right opposite. Rui chose to do the mini-cruise Stromboli – Panarea by night (some recommendations – don’t waste time eating on the islands and buy your lunch also at Bar S. Lucia before taking the coach; also order a pizza to take away and eat on the ferry on the way back, also use the toilets on the ferry. I’d order it 30 mins before the return journey and specify the time your ferry is leaving to the lady at the till).
Day 5: A day out to San Vito Lo Capo (if you have time, book a night in a B&B and spend at least 2 days). It is famous for its white sandy beaches, its crystal clear sea and its famous Cous Cous dishes. It proves to be a ‘good logistics base for visiting the Zingaro Nature Reserve, the temples of Selinunte and Segesta. As usual I went to have dinner at “I Profumi di Cous Cous” – divine!
Sicily is my home and I just can’t find a better place to spend my summer holidays at such a convenient price and getting such a variety out of a single place to fully satisfy all my senses. Next time I will explore the Eastern side of Sicily with Rui and I’ll share with you its hotspots.
For a more visual account of this journey click here.