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Self-Guided introduction to Sicily

Sicily really is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Yes there are areas of hideous and depressing industrialisation and some of the cities are shabby and run down but there is so much more. Dramatic coastlines, landscapes that takes your breath away, architectural evidence of the island’s incredibly rich and varied history and some very fine museums. The traffic in the bigger cities is a nightmare, a friend of ours’ in Palermo explained that the problem was not that there were no rules but that there were too many because every driver has their own. However the motorway systems across the island are excellent and if you become bored with them most of the minor roads are pretty good.  If you are driving you can cover a lot of ground but it is perfectly possible to get around by public transport, we have covered large parts of Sicily by train and ‘bus and in many ways it is more fun than taking a car. It isn’t as convenient but you see a whole lot more life!  The best times to visit are between March and early May, Sicily is at its most beautiful in the spring when the wildflowers and the blossoms are out. The weather is good and not too hot and places are not horribly crowded. Alternatively look at late September through October, many of the crowds have gone home and although the island may be parched it is still lovely.

7 day option (2 bases)
4 nights in Palermo with optional extension.

Bear in mind that (from England) it can takes the better part of a day to get to Sicily, most flights go to Rome or Milan where you change for the short hop south. You can fly to either Palermo or Catania. Palermo is probably the better option since there is a lot of stuff to see in Palermo Province and you can fly back from Catania. All the major car hire companies have offices at the airport and the drive to Palermo city takes about 45 minutes. A shuttle bus also runs from the airport into the centre. You may not want to stay in the city, We love it but a lot of people do not, it is noisy and busy, it is a city after all. Monreale is less hectic, very close by and with good bus links to central Palermo. The seaside town of Cefalu is only about 50 minutes away by car or train and is relatively quiet out of season. The plus points about staying in Palermo are a good choice of hotels and b&bs and lots of places to eat, the downside is that the traffic is awful and parking difficult so if you are using a car it may be better to leave it in a garage and use public transport for the day or so you are exploring the city. Most of it can be done easily on foot.

Day 1 - Palermo - the city itself.

Palermo itself is a mad mixture of Baroque architecture, big Fascist era buildings and stuff thrown up after the city was virtually destroyed in WW2. It also has some truly lovely survivals, buildings dating from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. Probably the first place you should go is the Palazzo Normani, (top of Corso Vittorio Emanuele) built for the Norman rulers of Sicily (cousins several times removed to the Normans that conquered England). The palace was built on the site of an earlier one made for the Saracen conquerors of the island who had Palermo as their capital, There is not a great deal remaining of the Norman palace except for the Palatine Chapel which is gorgeous, created by Arab and Byzantine craftsmen in the 12th century and covered with mosaic scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The rest of the palace is closed to the public except for the Sala di Ruggero, the private apartments of  Roger of Sicily dating from the 12th century and beautifully decorated with hunting scenes done in mosaic.

Close by is the 12th century monastery of San Giovanni degli Eremiti – very small, very simple and peaceful and very Arabic, it was constructed from a mosque. (closed on Mondays) Just down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele is the Cathedral; personally I would stick to looking at the outside, an amazing mixture of Norman and Gothic architecture. In many ways the exterior is a potted history of Sicily, the apse end is a marvellous blend of Norman and Arabic elements, the porch dates from the conquest of Sicily by the Aragonese and is pretty frou-frou Catalan Gothic, the domes date from the Bourbon 18th century The inside was completely modernised, that is to say buggered up in the 18th century so unless you want to see the tombs Roger II and Frederick II and his wife don’t bother.    

Back down the Corso is the crossroads called the Quattro Canti, a great piece of early 17th century city planning where the four corners are defined by matching facades. If you like Baroque architecture you can visit the San Guiseppi dei Teatini (closed between noon and 5.30) on the south west corner, otherwise cross to Piazza Pretoria where there is a huge 16th century fountain positively heaving with nude figures of the gods. Around the corner is the Piazza Bellini on which are two ‘must sees’. One is La Martorana, originally a Norman church paid for by King Roger’s Admiral in 1143. It has been considerably altered over the centuries but still has fabulous 12th century mosaics. (the Martorana was being restored in March 2012 so it may not be possible to visit) Next door is the tiny San Cataldo – no mosaics this time, no decoration of any kind. It is just the most extraordinary building with little Saracenic domes that look like red jelly moulds. (there is a good restaurant on the Piazza that does very substantial pizzas and delicious fish) Opposite the Martorana is the church of Santa Caterina, take a deep breath before entering because this is full-on Sicilian Baroque with no surface left undecorated.

Within easy walking distance of Piazza Bellini is the Museo Archaeologico Regionale (March 2012 closed for restoration). Visit this if you can because it contains finds from many archaeological sites on Sicily, Egyptian, Phoenician, Etruscan, Greek and Roman. I love this place and in truth, one visit is not enough to see everything. Better to concentrate on a few things like the Sala di Selinunte that houses the sculptures from the various temples at Selinunte, earlier and less sophisticated than those from the Parthenon but full of life and imagination. On the first floor are two stunning Greek bronzes, a life size ram and a Hercules and on the second some beautiful Roman mosaic pavements. If the Archaeological Museum is still closed you might   visit the Galleria Regionale situated on Via Alloro 4 in La Kalsa, one of the oldest quarters of the city. (closed on Mondays) The building itself is a graceful bit of 15th century Gothic and houses a collection of frescoes, panel paintings and sculpture. My favourite is a vast ‘Triumph of Death’, lovely scary stuff!  

Day 2 - Monreale. Half Day.

8km from Palermo and reachable by bus is Monreale. Give yourself plenty of time for this because it is stunning. The cathedral was built in record time (11 years) the 12th century by William II of Sicily as a rival to the Cathdral in Palermo. It is huge and entirely covered in the interior by mosaics done by Byzantine craftsmen. Take a pair of binoculars with you if you have them because the various scenes from the Old and New Testaments are well worth a close look.  The figure of Christ in the apse is especially beautiful and below him (2nd figure to right of central window) is the first ever representation of St Thomas a Becket (SCS Thomas Cantab) standing among various other saints, he was canonized in 1173 just before the mosaics were begun. (William II was married to Joanna of England, the daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and she had an especial devotion to Thomas) You can get up the tower of the Cathedral and from there onto a walkway around the roof that gives you views of the valley sloping away to Palermo and the sea. The exterior of the Cathedral is pretty amazing, especially the richly decorated apse but you must go into the Cloisters (entrance by the right hand tower of the Cathedral). Just beautiful with pointed Arabic arches, each with a different capital depicting Biblical scenes, events from local history and various characters from pagan mythology)

Back to Palermo for La Zisa. This is a pleasure palace built for William I in 1160 and inspired by the Arabic palaces of North Africa complete with harem. It originally had fabulous gardens with lakes and fountains (now being restored) and a collection of exotic animals given to the king by various eastern emirs. It is an incredibly sophisticated building with water cooled air conditioning and some lovely Islamic mosaic decorations. It is worth visiting for the interiors alone but also houses a good collection of Islamic art.           

Day 3 - Segesta and Erice (or the other way around.

In either case get lunch in Erice because Segesta has only a rather expensive café). By car it is easy to get to Segesta  going west on the A29 autostrada and if you are feeling that you have seen a few too many churches this is a great contrast. The site, tucked away in the countryside has the remains of a 4th century BC city including an almost perfect (apparently unfinished) Doric temple and a beautiful theatre. The climb to the top of the site is worth doing for the stunning views away to the sea. (there is also a little ‘bus) In the spring the place is covered in wild flowers and in the autumn if the weather is damp Segesta has spectacular rainbows.

North of Segesta on the coast is Erice, a magical medieval walled town perched high above the sea. The Greeks had it, then the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Arabs and the Normans and everyone left a mark. The views from the town are spectacular, on a clear day it is (just) possible to catch sight of Tunisia. Erice is a great place to wander, full of ancient buildings, the Cathedral is a little 14th century gem containing a surprise; the elaborate Gothic interior actually dates from the 19th century. At the top of the town is a 12th century castle, the Castello di Venere built on the site of an ancient temple to Aphrodite. You can drive up the long winding road to the town (car park outside the walls) or better yet you can leave your car at the bottom of the hill and take the cable car and watch a whole panorama gradually unfold as you glide upwards. (there are lots shops in Erice selling local herbs and spices; don’t buy here unless you want to pay over the odds for fancy packaging, wait for Catania market (see below).  

Day 4 - Agrigento.

This will be a big day, it is a longish drive from Palermo to Agrigento on the SW coast but there are decent roads and the Valley of the Temples is one of the ‘must sees’ with the most spectacular Greek temples outside Greece. The Greek colony at Agrigento was one of the wealthiest in the west and thus able to afford to create shrines to the most important gods. The site is pretty easy to negotiate, the oldest temples are in the lower part and the later more complete ones are situated along the ridge. There is a decent car park with a tourist office, a not bad café and a shop where you can get site maps, souvenir brochures and so on Apart from the temples there are the remains of a sizeable Roman town and a very good museum that contains scale models of some of the temples.

Day 5 - Transfer to Taormina.

Suggest that you break you journey east at Cefalu, an enchanting little seaside town first built by the Arabs when they had Sicily, it still has a few Arabic remains) It is holiday resort and in season the beaches and restaurants are packed, off season it is relatively quiet although if you are missing English voices you are sure to hear some in Cefalu whatever the season. The town is a maze of little streets climbing up from the bay to the central square and the great Duomo. This is the oldest of the Norman foundations in Sicily, the mosaics were done about 40 years before those at Monreale and are beautiful (of course) There is a nice little museum but you might just want to wander about and if you like seafood this is the place to find it.

Taormina is probably the most tourist oriented town on Sicily, it has been a favourite since the 19th century and all kinds of famous and infamous people have stayed here. It gets millions of visitors in season and is a nightmare, however, it is very, very beautiful, all the day trippers are gone by the evening and the town is a different place. There are a lot of hotels at Taormina which makes the town ideal as your base for the east coast. The main attraction is a truly spectacular Greek theatre that overlooks the sea and gives views to Mt Etna. You will probably get there too late to do much culture crawling so visit the theatre the following day.

Day 6 - Onward from Taormina.

From Taormina it is easy to get to Catania along the coast road. Catania isn’t anyone’s idea of a pretty place but it has the most spectacular market in the world, the size of a small town. If you get there in the morning the place is in full swing and you will get sensory overload just from the vegetables. This is the place to buy your dried herbs, spices, pistachio nuts (a local product) and such but if you are at all squeamish steer clear of the butchers’ section, it is very ‘real’. From Catania you can drive or take the Circumetnea railway line that take you as far up the mountain as you can go unless you take a very expensive Etna tour. The road and railway go right around the volcano passing through orchards, groves of nut trees and huge expanses of lava before finishing at Riposto, It takes around 3 and a half hours for the whole trip and it is pretty spectacular giving impressive views of the volcano. You pass through Bronte:- the town gave its name to the Dukedom given to Admiral Nelson in 1799 after he helped restore Sicily to the Bourbons, Charlotte Emily and Anne’s pa changed his surname from Brunty to Bronte in Nelson’s honour (comes into the category of useless information) Randazzo is the end of the railway line, the town is closest to the summit and has never been inundated, if you go you will see that it completely shuns the volcano. It is a rather lovely brooding medieval place carefully restored after having been bombed during WW2. It also has a restaurant, La Veneziana that serves absolutely divine mushrooms. The road ends at Riposto on the coast about 30 km south of Taormina so you can get back to see the theatre.

Day  7 - Home or on to Siracusa

If you are flying home from Catania you don’t need so very much time to get to the airport. If you take an afternoon flight you have time to just mooch about, if you have been following this itinerary you will need it!

If you can spend another couple of days I suggest you head south down the coast to Siracusa. There is a lot to see in the south east and Siracusa is a good base to work from, it is also has a lovely old town and some decent hotels. The oldest part is Ortygia, an almost island joined to the relatively new part of the city by a couple of bridges. Here was an incredibly wealthy Greek settlement, for a while the richest city in the whole of the Greek world. It has a very gaudy history having been at war with pretty well everyone before the Romans took it (Archimedes was in charge of the defences against the Romans and it wasn’t his fault that they won). Ortygia is a real architectural mix, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque and a maze of streets. Down by the sea is the Fonte Arethusa, a fresh water spring that according to the Greeks connected directly with the sanctuary at Olympia. (it is now occupied by very charming ducks).

At the centre of the town is the Duomo, converted to a church in the 6th century from a great temple to Athena – you can see the way in which they walled up the spaces between the columns and I have to say that the place doesn’t feel all that Christian despite a very over the top Baroque façade. Close by in the Piazza del Duomo is the convent church housing Caravaggio’s ‘Burial of St Lucy’ Ortygia is a great place to wander, you can walk the road that runs around the whole island in an hour getting heartbreaking views of the Ionian sea. Over the bridge is the ‘new town’ which is not great but beyond that lies Tyche. Here is the Basilica di San Giovanni below which are catacombs – I am claustrophobic so I have never been down there but I am told that they are worth a visit. Close by is the beautifully designed  Museo Archeologico which has the best collection of antiquities in Sicily (or anywhere). They run the gamut from pre-history to Christian Rome and there are some stunning things, my favourite is a statue of a mother suckling twins, it dates from around 500 BC but it looks incredibly modern as if it had been made by Henry Moore. Be warned, the Museum has no café.

North of the Museum is Neapolis and the Parco Archeologico where the ancient city’s temples, theatres and so on were situated. Here is the Teatro Greco, one of the most prestigious theatres in the Greek world and absolutely spectacular, (if you are there in May you could go to an evening performance of one of the Greek plays, take a cushion). Close by are the quarries from which the rock was cut to build the city and which were used as prisons for the Athenians who attempted to take Siracusa. There are a couple of caves in the quarries, the so called Ear of Dionysus which has great acoustics and the Grotta dei Cordari used by the Greek ropemakers. There are also extensive Roman remains in Neapolis including an amphitheatre built for circus games. About 7km outside of Siracusa and reachable by ‘bus is the Castel Eurialo, one of the only Greek castles left standing and dating from the 3rd century BC. Archimedes is believed to have been responsible for the redesign of the fortress and it certainly is impressive. Best of all it is seldom visited and it is possible to wander all alone through the ruins with only lizards, butterflies and a very amiable site dog for company.

For something completely different you can head inland to Noto, an exquisite, small Baroque town built entirely in the early 18th century after an earthquake destroyed the old town. It was carefully planned as a series of vistas and built from honey coloured stone that positively glows in the evening. It looks a bit like a spectacular, if slightly faded, theatre set except that it is full of people just getting on with their lives.

If you stay in Siracusa you will do best to fly home from Catania, it is an easy drive or a short journey by train or coach.