Postcards from Sicily
July 12, 2019
After a lot of setbacks, we fought the good fight to make this trip our #1 priority of 2019. I had visited Sicily for a long weekend when I was in college and fell in love. I was dying to get back to Sicily.
To give you a disclaimer: we are slow travelers. We did not want to be going non-stop on this trip. We wanted an equally relaxing, restful, and Italian filled experience. (Read: wanted to eat and drink all things Italy, while sitting on a beach). We like getting to know a place, dwelling there, and really taking in the culture and feel.
I am going to highlight the best parts of the trip, what we wouldn’t do again, and explain our itinerary, along with some tips that we learned along the way.
To take some time away from the digital world, I decided to only take photos of our trip on my 35mm SLR film camera- a Minolta XG-1. Jason got this camera for me as a wedding gift after I spent my senior year learning how to develop black and white film in the dark room. I have not used it a ton since I got it, but I knew I really wanted to take the challenge of shooting it solely on this trip. I shot Porta 400 and Fuji 400 film stock and got my photos processed and developed with Photovision Prints, which I could not be happier with. I am so blown away at how well they turned out despite my light meter not working correctly. I will cherish these photos for the rest of my life, and I can’t wait to share them with you all.
We flew Richmond, to Boston, to Istanbul, to Catania, Sicily. It was quite a trek, but overall went smoothly thanks to Melatonin gummies. We arrived in Catania around 10 pm, had to pick up the car we rented, and then had 1-hour drive north to our first destination: Taormina. Due to some unfortunate language barrier circumstances, our first night Airbnb reservations got canceled when we arrived in Catania, so we had no place to stay. Luckily I found a hotel in Catania nearby with one room left that we snatched up. We had not planned on spending any time in Catania but decided to stay put for the night so we could get some sleep and food, and make our way to Taormina in the morning.
The volcano on the island, Mt. Etna, was erupting when we arrived that evening, and since we ended up staying in Catania that night, we had a good view of the volcano from the rooftop of the hotel. We got to see the lava spewing and erupting! It was cool. We had an amazing first meal in Catania that night. We were dressed in dirty travel clothes, exhausted as heck, in a hip part of a college town, where everyone was wearing winter jackets and clothes. I had sandals and a t-shirt on. The stares I got that evening were hilarious. We shared caprese, a bottle of red, and a pizza that I still don’t know what was on it, but it was amazing.
A WORD ABOUT THE CAR
Renting a car in Italy is an adventure in itself. PRAISE that they drive on the right side of the road like us, but that is probably the only thing that is similar to driving in America. Jason was a real trooper. Before we went, he had to go to AAA and get an international driving license. Super easy to do and took 10 minutes. We had rental car insurance through our Chase Sapphire Preferred card so we didn’t have to pay for the expensive (rip-off) insurance that they tried to offer you in Sicily.
We rented an automatic car because neither of us knew how to drive manual, but it was more expensive. It was a must-have for us though. We got a brand new 4 door diesel Fiat car. It was half automatic, half manual, and you could go back and forth between the two. We found out quickly that stalling out on windy steep roads was a normal occurrence for this car. Yikes.
TOP driving TIPS:
-ask what kind of fuel the car takes before you drive it away from the rental lot
-don’t drive with the parking brake on. There is no “park” gear, only neutral.
-go to a gas station that has an attendant that pumps the gas for you OR do what we did and ask an old man hanging out at the gas station to do it for you.
-parking sucks. it’s just going to be that way. ask anyone you can if where you parked is legal before you leave the car there. Make sure it’s not a pay to park area, and if it is, look for a parking meter machine nearby, or the nearest “tabacci” store. Some spots are color coded, such as blue or white spots. They mean different things in different cities, so just ask a local what they mean. Sometimes it means parking only for citizens of the town.
-The speed limits don’t matter. Drive at a speed that doesn’t completely scare the crap out of you.
-Stop signs are optional. So are lanes.
-Carry extra euros in the car for tolls. Most cities have them when you enter them and when you leave. When you enter, you get a ticket from the machine. KEEP THE TICKET. Then give it to the attendant at the next toll. They will tell you how much you owe and you pay it. It is normally 2-3 euros.
-Renting a car is worth it! It was the only way we got to see so much on our own terms. I would say it is a MUST if you’re trying to see Sicily. The train and public transportation there isn’t super reliable compared to the rest of the mainland of Italy.
Our first stop was Taormina. We made the mistake of driving up into the city center when we first got there, instead of just going to our Airbnb. Tip: DON’T ever drive into the city center. The roads are crazy. There’s no room for two cars to pass each other. There’s no parking.
We went back down the mountain to our Airbnb which was a bed and breakfast called Sottocoperta. Alessandra and her husband own the property that overlooks the sea at the base of Taormina. The room was so cozy and clean. The breakfast and property itself were a dream. Their son, Dario, was one of the best parts of our trip. He was so kind and welcoming to us. He gave us the best recommendations when it came to places to eat and the winery we ended up going to. He really cared about our trip and how everything was going. We will most definitely be back to just stay here! We loved this family so much. It felt like a real treat. Highly highly recommend staying here.
From our Airbnb, you could hike up the side of the mountain to the city center. The views were insane on the way up, even though it wasn’t the easiest trek in the world. The photos of the sea below were taken from this hike up to the city.
Taormina is known to be the most “touristy” town in Sicily but after going to places like Venice and Rome, it was barely touristy at all to us. It is a beautiful little town where all of the streets are walkable. You could get from one side to the other in 30 minutes. The whole city overlooks the turquoise sea filled with yachts and sailboats. It is definitely one of the nicest towns we visited.
We spent the first day in the city center. Day two we got up early and headed to Isola Bella, a beach at the foot of the city. The water was COLD, but it was such a beautiful beach to visit. I wish we had more time there, but we had to get back to our car to make it to the winery we had reservations at that afternoon.
Dario set us up with his favorite winery in the area and we went for the afternoon. The winery was on Mt. Etna, where the volcanic soil is prime for growing grapes. It was about a 45 minute drive from where we were staying. Gambino Vini was not a disappointment to say the least. After the trek up the mountain in our little fiat, we were greeted at the door with a glass of white wine. We got to our table and started our tasting. We went with the tasting that included food pairings for 30 euros a person. The amount of food we were given was impressive. My favorite part was the local cheeses they gave us to try with the wines. In Italy, wine tastings go a little differently than here in the States. They would give us an entire glass of wine to taste, tell us which foods to eat with it, and they would walk away and let us drink it for around 30-40 minutes. Then they would bring the next wine and do the same thing. We learned so much history of the area and how the wine culture in Sicily is being taken more seriously these days. Every time they switched to a new wine to taste, they would leave the previous bottle on the table for us to just drink as much of as we wanted. We were blown away by this. It did not cost extra, but was just a part of the tasting. By the end, they had left 4 bottles on our table for us to have as much as we wanted. This day at the winery was one of our favorite things we did the whole trip. The people were amazing and the wine was out of this world. Highly recommend Gambino Vini.
We drove 2.5 hours northwest to Cefalu, a quiet little coastal town that many Italians go to for vacation. We really fell in love with Cefalu. We spent most of our time there on the beach and exploring the streets. We had some of the best sandwiches and brought them to the beach and sat for half a day, walked the local markets, and watched the sunset. We stayed in an Airbnb right by the town square or as they call it, the piazza. Mornings at the cafe in the piazza was one of my favorite things about Cefalu. It is a day trip for people staying in nearby Palermo, but in the mornings before the tour buses came, it was quiet and beautiful. The perfect morning cappuccino spot! On the only day that was a little cold and cloudy, we had planned on renting two chairs and an umbrella on the beach for the day. Despite the weather not being ideal, it was still a great day. We rented the chairs and umbrella for 20 euros and were out there from 10 am till 6 pm. There was a cafe on the beach where we could grab food or drinks and gelato right behind the cafe. We took the day to lounge and read our books. It was amazing and worth every single euro to have chairs to sit on.
Cefalu is charming and a must-see spot in Sicily.
ENNA + SCALA DE TURCHI
After 2 days in Cefalu, we headed to the middle of Sicily for our overnight spot in Enna. Enna is a very localized town in the mountains that we decided to stay in to be able to go to Scala de Turchi the next day, since it was only an hour’s drive from Enna. I was glad to see a different part of Sicily aside from the coast, but would not stay in Enna again. If I were to do it again, I would have stayed in Agrigento which was right outside of where Scala de Turchi was. Enna had an interesting feel to it. Since it was so local, we were not super welcomed there as tourists overall. I got a lot of angry stares from the women and there was not a ton to do there. Overall, I don’t need to go back, but thankful we saw it. The castle at the base of Enna was very cool and we enjoyed visiting it. The views in Enna were also worth the trip
Day two staying in Enna was the day for us to go to Scala de Turchi which translates to The Turkish Steps in English. I have had this place on my brand mood board for years now but had no idea that it was in Sicily until I did some research before our trip. I told Jason I had to go. It was definitely out of the way to get there and plan an entire day and living arrangement around it, but I will say that it was worth it. Jason and I looked at each other at the end of that day, sunkissed and sweaty, and agreed that it was worth the trouble. Hands down was the coolest place I’ve ever seen. The base of the “steps” is a beautiful beach with restaurants and cafes. You can climb up the limestone to see the view of the ridge from the other side. You can jump off of the limestone into the blue water, which was what a ton of local kids were there doing that day. We climbed and saw the limestone steps carved by nature, and then spent the rest of the day at the beach at the base of the steps. The water here was like the Caribbean and was so warm compared to the other beaches we had been to so far. We had the best day ever there. I was just so giddy that we got to go there and see it in person.
SIRACUSA + ORTIGIA
The last leg of our trip was in Siracusa, in the south east of Sicily. We had 3 full days there, which was really nice to have a solid amount of time to relax before we had to travel home. Siracusa is a pretty big city and we stayed in the city center, but a huge asset to Siracusa is the little island of Ortigia. There are no cars allowed on the island and it has a footbridge for people to walk over to it. Our Airbnb was a 5 minute walk to the island of Ortigia, which was awesome. We decided to stay in Siracusa opposed to Ortigia because we had the car, and parking was a lot easier in Siracusa. It was so easy to walk to Ortigia, it didn’t really matter at all!
We spent a lot of our time in Ortigia, making sure to walk every single street to not miss anything. We sought out a few ceramic artists there and bought a lot of gifts for family. We brought an extra bag that folded up for us to be able to bring home stuff. There were a ton of really cool local food and drink stores in Ortigia where we purchased olive oil, liquors, and pasta to bring home. There is also a shopping district where we had an unintentional afternoon at Zara, because when in Europe, right? This part of the trip felt so laid back and we didn’t “have” to see anything. We spent most of our time finding the best places to get drinks, food, and gelato. It was such a walkable city that didn’t feel overwhelming or touristy. We attempted to go see the famous caves and ruins in Siracusa, but when we arrived it was SO crowded and expensive to get in. It was also so hot. We gave up and went to get drinks at the end of Ortigia instead. Not mad about it!
The morning we left Siracusa, we had to leave around 5 am to get to Catania airport to return the car. Luckily this was a really easy process and went quickly. Though we were sad to leave, we felt like 13 days was the perfect amount of time to relax and see stuff. If we were to do it again, we probably would have hit one more city than we did, even if only for the day, but overall, with little to no planning, it turned out pretty perfectly.
TIP: don’t buy any duty free alcohol in the airport if you’re flying through Istanbul. They will take it for themselves along with anything else they want from your carry on! For real, the airport attendants were making their own piles of stuff that they wanted from people’s carry ons as they checked them. Just buy all alcohol or food when in Italy and check it.
If you have any questions about our trip, feel free to comment or email me to ask! I’d love to give more details where you’re interested!
BOTTOM LINE: Sicily is the bomb. I am Sicily’s #1 fan and think it is the most flavorful culture I’ve experienced in Italy. Thanks for reading along on our adventure!
A visual journal of our 13 day roadtrip through the wild and wonderful Sicily.