Phase Two of our Sicilian expedition started in a small parking lot at the port of Trapani where we rented a tiny Citroen to get us around the island. Sicily could easily be considered either large or small depending on what you choose for comparison. Versus some of the tiny Cyclades in Greece, which can be comfortably circumnavigated on foot in a couple hours – large. Versus Australia – eh, not so large. So maybe a more accurate descriptor would be that at very most it is only around 300 kilometres straight across in any direction. Not that there is a single straight road to be found, but that’s an entirely different story. Our plan was to journey down the west-centre, along the south coast, back up through the east-centre, over to Mount Etna on the east coast, then make our way south along the Baroque trail of pretty little cities, eventually finishing in Syracuse.
We were already well-prepared to face the aggressiveness and unpredictability of Sicilian drivers after two weeks of watching them repeatedly perform reckless and incomprehensible acts on the road. So, mentally, I was ready. Physically, and in actual fact, the entire experience still provided its fair share of stress, shock and frustration, and I think the Sicilians themselves would be fairly disappointed if it hadn’t. There are a number of things Sicilians seem to take pride in – food, a colourful Mafioso history, wildly kinky hair and their fearlessness behind the wheel. Now, as a naturally aggressive/impatient/enraged driver myself, this maybe wasn’t as hard a transition for me as some, but it still took some time to get used to cars racing around 60-80 km/hr over the speed limit and passing on every hundred-metre straightaway or corner with low railings. And my unwillingness to abandon the use of my signal lights continued to mark me as an adorably wary tourist. What next – an “I Y Sicily” sun visor? A Godfather fanny pack?
All in all, though, it went fine. I slowly gained a feel for “the real speed limit”, since the posted ones are obviously some kind of inside joke, or maybe just clues to a complex mathematical equation whereby you double it, add twelve, and then add another ten just to be on the safe side. Passing signs that say 50, 80, 60, “speed monitored by electronic radar”, 80, 40 all within a few kilometres while cars going somewhere in the 160-180 km/hr range bust pass my 100 km/hr ass in alarming fashion still leaves me baffled. But alive, thankfully.
Our first stop on our Grand Sicilian Road Trip, and first taste of Sicilian ruins (assuming we don’t count every third building in every city so far). Segesta dates back to the Elymians sometime before 1,000 BC and boasts a fascinating history involving war, deception, intrigue, and the building of a magnificent Greek-style temple on top of a scenic hill in hopes of impressing the Athenians into an alliance against those deviants to the south in Selinunte. The ancient historic version of today’s cheese platter and edgy Powerpoint presentation. Long story short, it didn’t work, they got their ass kicked, never completely finished the temple, and probably would be quite surprised to learn that 2,400 years later thousands of tourists visit every day to take photos and purchase breath mints and energy drinks from conveniently-located vending machines.
Ah, I bet you were wondering if I’d get to those dastardly Selinunteans. In fact, the vast remains of their powerful city-state was next on our list. Located right at the edge of the Mediterranean, its impressive temples and strongholds were quite spread out, which meant a lot of walking but a chance to get a real feel for what it may have looked like in its prime. Especially on the small overgrown path, presumably used by the peasants on market days, that led us through the ancient gate onto the city’s main thoroughfare. I could picture them walking the exact same route, but with carts full of chickens and vegetables instead of a daypack with a bottle of water, an iPhone and hand sanitizer. There are incredible views around the entire region – beaches to both sides, the sea, all the way to Africa on a particularly clear day, and even the odd Machop if you know where to look.
This is the most famous of Sicily’s ancient sites, featuring a long stretch of ruins and some very impressive temples. The Temple of Concordia is probably the most intact Greek temple we’ve seen anywhere (even the inner walls are still standing, or possibly re-standing). While considerably smaller than the Acropolis in Athens, it is nonetheless in much better shape, occupies arguably a better location on a ridge outside the city, and there was only a fraction of the tourists. That one Japanese couple that arrived the same time as us who seemed to arrive at every spot at exactly the same time as us, well, they were no bargain, but I still give the overall experience the edge. Even if I did badly miscalculate where to stand in our photo of me and the fallen statue of a nude man.
Despite our perplexing inability to master the door of our hotel which led to us climbing out the window to make it to breakfast (the elaborate trick, apparently, was to “pull”), we eventually set off from Agrigento on a long meandering drive through central Sicily. We passed by and through numerous spectacular hill towns, many of which perched boldly atop the tallest hills in the area, then we stopped for a traditional lunch experience at grocery chain-store Lidl. After causing a re-located American considerable shock using our familiar accents in the middle of his local dairy section, we treated ourselves to salami and cheese sandwiches and ate them sitting in our car in the parking lot. A little while later we randomly came across the Agira Canadian Cemetery in what felt to us like the middle of nowhere. Which is much the same, I’m sure, as it would have felt to those 20-year olds fighting a foreign war 73 years ago. Several of the 490 Canadian soldiers buried there were even members of the Saskatoon Light Infantry, dying in the ultimately successful Allied invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943.
One of the “Decade Volcanoes”, sixteen of them grouped for monitoring and study based on their ongoing volcanic activity and overall volatility, 3,300-metre Mount Etna is the highest point on Sicily. By the time we made it up to Rifugio Sapienza at 2,500 metres the temperature had dropped to 10 degrees, and by 5 pm the clouds had completely settled in around us. While hoping that the morning would bring clear skies and pleasant hiking, we took in a hearty meal (Laynni’s “one-person” pizza ended up serving as both her dinner that night and then lunch for the both of us the following day) and drifted into sleep to the soothing sounds of about a dozen screaming French “kids in the hall”. Thankfully, the weather cooperated, and we spent an at times quite pleasant – and occasionally agonizing – few hours climbing up Etna’s ominous black molten lava slopes to stupendous views into the craters, up to the smoking summit and out over the clouds and sea. We badly underestimated the short “path” that appeared to cut out all the gradual lollygagging and just headed straight up the side of the crater. The fine sandy lava clearly couldn’t wait to help us slide right back down anytime we hesitated for more than a second or two as though it continually suspected we might change our minds and realize we weren’t up for this after all. The group of stray dogs that followed us up, constantly sniffing at our legs and getting underfoot, didn’t help either. But it was, as Laynni justified in a desperately chipper voice once we had finally crawled over the edge, gasping and panting, really nice to make it to the top before the first of the many 20-person groups arrived by bus at the base of the crater. It took me two days to get all the lava out of my shoes, and my calves were sore for longer, but yeah, that was nice. Because once the rest of the groups had rolled in, well, clearly 40 Helens Agreed… that hill is the best hill.
With naïve visions of quiet country roads through pastoral rural scenery dancing through my head, I convinced Laynni to override Google Maps and snub its “fastest route” in favour of a rather interesting-looking alternate route that looked great, on paper at least. Well, as it turns out, GPS Judy isn’t one to just roll over and give up. No sir. She fought us every step of the way, switching back to her favoured route any time we weren’t looking, resulting in an extremely painful route to Ragusa, changing roads every few kilometres, requiring increasingly complex recalibrations. We were relentless, however, and finally made it to Ragusa on our terms, about an hour later than we could have. Congratulations to us.
Ragusa, however, is a beautiful little city, maybe the nicest we’ve seen in Sicily. It is the first of a string of featured “baroque” cities with ancient histories but buildings that were mostly erected in the 18th century following the devastating earthquake of 1693. Here we enjoyed wandering the elegant old town, basking in yet another nice rented apartment and came to the dual realizations that these apartments, in the off-season at least, were unequivocally better value than hotel rooms, and that while you can never be entirely sure exactly what each one will be stocked with, since the dawn of time there has never been an Italian kitchen without a pasta strainer.
Castello di Donnafugata
I talked Laynni into this small detour to a castle recommended by our host which is apparently interesting enough to appear in both the wildly popular Inspector Montalbano TV series and the wildly unpopular movie, Tale of Tales. Compared with many of the stunning seaside castles and forts we’d seen lately this turned out to most closely resemble an uninspiring room-by-room 19th century fashion show. On the bright side, the garden contained a very cool stone maze. It tested our sense of direction, patience and powers of concentration as we struggled to master the confusing labyrinth while simultaneously blocking out the startlingly hairy Italian man standing on top of the wall in equally startling red pants and, naturally, no shirt. Sweaty work, apparently.
After the briefest of stops in similarly baroque Modica, where we did a brief wander, admired another church and indulged in our latest gelato fix, then a final night in the likewise pretty town of Noto, home to reputedly “the nicest street in Sicily” (certainly impressive – great atmosphere, inspiring scenery, although not a single Arby’s along the entire block), and then we were on the move again to Syracuse (known as Siracusa in Italian). We had been looking forward to it from the start based on everything I’d read about its history, maze-like old town, fascinating cultural mix and the rumour that, supposedly, they have a boat. Although we would actually be staying in an old apartment on the tiny island of Ortigia, first we had to find our way through the new city and, even worse, find a place to park and drop our rental car, apparently the Syracusan version of Mission Impossible. In the end it took over twenty minutes of driving around in vague and time-consuming figure-eights struggling to safely co-exist within the mass of bumper-to-bumper vehicles, obey the foot cops directing traffic in seemingly random and inexplicable directions, detour around the messy and plentiful construction blockages, all while ensuring we tackle the one-way streets in the correct, and therefore marginally less dangerous, directions, and then somehow combine all these factors into an end result that put us on the right street heading the right direction at just the right time to grab a spot to park. And by “spot to park”, of course, I mean just enough space beside the currently parked cars to pull off something that resembles a double-park, but with most of our vehicle still occupying the driving lane. I would wager those curbside spots have been full since Mussolini was just a spry young tail-gater.
So, to recap, walking is better.
Ortigia itself is a far cry from the more modern areas of the city, a small island separated from the mainland by just a tiny sliver of water easily traversed by a pair of picturesque bridges. This area is the heart of what was once one of the most important cities in the Greek empire. It is filled with impressive old architecture, castles, fountains, and an insanely gargantuan church surrounded by a similarly gargantuan piazza which the rest of the town revolves around. All around the perimeter grand baroque palazzos (mansions) loom and epitomize the term “surveying their domain”. We spent hours every day simply wandering its confusing warren of nice old streets, shocked each time we stumbled across another little alley we somehow hadn’t yet encountered.
Obviously, Italy is famous for its food. Italian food is outstanding, and Sicilian specialties equally so, although as with most of Italy, eating in sit-down restaurants can be a budget-busting proposition. Even in the most basic places having some pasta and a beer we are hard-pressed to walk out spending less than 30 euro ($45 Cdn). Cheap takeaway sandwich and panini places are much more affordable than actual restaurants, usually running at about 5 euro per person, but even better is that the local bread is amazing and there are excellent delis on practically every corner selling enormous varieties of salami, prosciutto and cheese, making it a simple task to outfit ourselves for three or four lunches for under 10 euro. Plus, every corner shop stocks at least 20 varieties of delicious pastas (can’t believe how good the ravioli and tortellini are here) and great sauces for just a few euros per meal. So, self-catering is so much cheaper than the alternatives as to barely constitute a decision.
Another interesting anomaly regarding Sicilian food is the almost shocking lack of international variety in their cuisine, a direct contrast to most popular tourist spots around the world. There are plenty of specific choices within the restaurants themselves, but the overall theme is either going to be Italian, Sicilian or, if you happen to stumble across a real outlaw, maybe “Mediterranean”. There is at least one Chinese restaurant in Ortigia, but they really just seem to serve Sicilian dishes listed in Chinese writing, plus I never actually saw it open. Apparently two different Irish pubs have gone out of business in the last couple years. And don’t even waste your time looking into Mexican tacos, Argentine grills, or Thai noodles. A few places might have a version of a Greek salad hidden somewhere in the menu, but for the most part you should plan for the 3 P’s – pizza, pasta and paninis. And Percy, but only if you are shopping in the street market and choosing a large variety of fresh vegetables all priced differently that he will nonetheless lump together in one bag to place on the scale, then tell you “cinque euro” without ever actually looking at the resulting weight. I trust his judgement.
All in all, Syracuse was one of our favourite places in Sicily, probably only behind Cefalù, and just edging Ragusa by a sliver. Beautiful, historic, multi-cultural, easily manageable on foot (in Ortigia, at least), and an ideal place to spend our final week in Italy before heading north to (drum roll) Budapest. Wait, let me try that again… (drum roll) Budapest! …Budapest? …#*$@ Budapest!! There we go, that’s the one.
Vegetable-seller graciously throws in worst tomato
Sicilian man saving signal lights for special occasion
Old sandwich-maker overestimates crowd’s enjoyment of his flamboyant parsley chopping
Italian mother considers options, settles on pasta
Tourist surprised that attempt to use foot to catch falling egg ends poorly
Fish-monger starting to find fish smell tiresome
Middle-aged man counting on connection between new BMW, female interest in penis
Italian family meeting about yelling descends into shouting
Old Sicilian woman barely suppresses smile, vows to be grimmer in the future
Groggy man in underwear on balcony makes awkward eye contact with groggy man in underwear on neighbouring balcony
Knife-sharpener longs for change, looking into scissor-sharpening
Schizophrenic madman describes Syracuse traffic as “really messed up”
Overweight father of three still happy with arm tattoo of naked lady straddling tiger