Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Report 1904: Slow Boat to Sicily
By Marian McCain from Devon, Spring 2011
Trip Description: Feb 20th to March 30th, 2011. A five-week journey all around Sicily by public transport with an emphasis on beautiful places and walking.
Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Sicily
Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Vacation Rentals; Sightseeing; Walking/Hiking; Independent Travel; 2 People
Page 1 of 1: Slow Boat to Sicily
Laundry, Italian Style
Unlike many travellers to the island, our main interest was not in Sicily’s thousands of ornate churches or its wealth of ancient ruins but in the land itself, its atmosphere, its food, its streets and squares and its people. Slow travel, for us, is about moving around slowly, soaking things in, getting the feel of a place. And walking. So we decided to spend five weeks, with a maximum of seven stops, and to base our itinerary around a very useful little book called Walking in Sicily, by Gillian Price (Cicerone, UK, 2006) and specifically around the walks that could be easily accessed by public transport. (I have referenced the walk numbers in this report, but we adapted many of them to suit our own needs.)
For us, being ‘greenies’ who try to fly as little as possible, the journey took us three days. It began at London’s St Pancras station, where we caught the Eurostar for the two and a half-hour train trip to Paris. From Paris’s Gare du Nord, we caught the metro to Bercy for the overnight (Artesia) train to Rome. After a day of wandering around Rome, we went by train to Civitavecchia, where we boarded the Grandi Navi Veloci ferry for Palermo.
Saving our exploration of Palermo till the end of the trip, we headed straight from the port to the station and caught the train along the coast to our first stop, Cefalů, where we were greeted warmly by our landlady, Luisa, whose cosy little rental apartment would be our home for four days. Perfect for two people, the apartment has a kitchenette for self-catering and a supermarket just around the corner, and is only a ten minute walk from the centre of town. Luisa, a New York-born Sicilian, speaks perfect English—a rare find in Sicily—and treats her renters like honoured guests.
Cefalů is dominated by 'La Rocca' - a ginormous rock that seems to rise right out of the middle of town and which, of course, begs to be climbed. Except on very wet and windy days, when the gates are closed for safety reasons, it is possible to walk all the way to the top (Walk # 33)and of course the view from there is magnificent.
Like most Italian towns, Cefalů has at its heart the centro storico, the original town centre with its maze of narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways, always such a delight to explore. Here, we found an ancient, medieval 'lavatoio', a communal wash-house where people came to do their laundry many centuries ago. It has fresh water running through it but is separated from the ocean by just a few yards of rock. And through that archway on the right, which leads to a small cave, seawater surges in every few seconds with a splash and a roar. I found the whole place fascinating and slightly spooky!
After four nights in Cefalů, we walked back down to the station and caught a train along the north coast of the island to Messina and then changed to a southbound train as far as Giarre, south of Taormina. Here begins the Circumaetna , the little toy train that, as its name suggests, travels its slow way all around the base of Mount Etna. Through citrus orchards at first, the train climbed steadily and soon we were amongst the strange and eerie lava fields that surround this giant volcano. Half way round the circuit, we reached our second destination, the ancient and beautiful mountain town of Randazzo that sits on the very edge of Etna’s north-eastern slopes. It is the closest town to the mountain and almost got buried in the last eruption in 1981. The lava stopped right at the edge of town. It is an absolutely amazing sight.
Etna is stunning. A mighty mountain rising up more than nine thousand feet against a bright blue sky, with smoke billowing slowly out of the top. Pure white snow on the upper slopes, lava fields below and then, on the lowest slopes, vineyards and orchards reinstated on the rich, volcanic soil. It was snowing when we arrived and next day we were trudging along the little medieval alleyways through several inches of snow. But then the sun came out. We had two fabulous walks: one up the lower slopes of Etna, through the lava fields, (this one we found not in Price’s book but on page 276 of Hiking in Italy by Brendan Sainsbury which we found on the Internet - link under Resources) and the other (adapted from Walk #40) along a lovely mountain valley.
Our accommodation in Randazzo was in a rather trendy and unusual apartment called the B&B Etna Taormina. (although, confusingly, the sign outside said ‘Holiday in Sicily’ instead, so we might never have found it had the owner not been watching out for us to come lumbering by with our backpacks!) This one had no kitchenette, unfortunately, but its highlight was a private sauna and jacuzzi. For breakfast each morning, which was included in the price, we were instructed to go around the corner to Giuseppe’s bar, where, like the locals, we breakfasted on coffee and cornetti con cioccolata (croissants filled with chocolate spread and dusted with icing sugar).
From Randazzo, we completed our train journey around the mountain to Catania and then south to Siracusa, where we stayed at the Aretusa Vacanza B&B., a charming little place right in the middle of the old part of Siracusa (Ortigia) and one that I fully recommend. Each room has a fully-equipped kitchenette, breakfast is served on the roof terrace and the staff are incredibly friendly and helpful.
Ortigia, which has been inhabited since umpteen centuries BC, is a separate island, with bridges going across, rather like Venice. I loved the narrow, curving streets, the maze of ancient alleyways and the gracious piazzas. This one, the Piazza Duomo, is the main one. Such incredible architecture.
It was carnival time when we were there (just coming up to Lent) and all weekend the children were wearing fancy dress and running round pelting each other – and everybody else – with confetti. This fancy dress competition, called ‘bambini in maschera’ is an annual event. Some of the costumes were amazing. People even dress up their babies and toddlers.
Best of all I loved walking all around the edges of Ortigia. And when, on our second day, the sea came up strong and fierce, I spent ages watching the waves.
Siracusa has a wonderful street market that operates six mornings a week, its stalls piled high with fresh fruit and veggies and all manner of yummy things. My favourite was baked ricotta, still warm from the oven, slathered with garlic, herbs and olive oil by the stallholder and handed to us in a little box. We ate it all for lunch and went back next day for more.
The next leg of our journey, also by train, took us inland to Ispica, a small town in the south-east corner of Sicily. It is a rather traditional, conservative sort of town and off the general tourist trail, so staying here a few days gave us the chance to experience the ‘real’ Sicily, Very few people speak English, so this was good practice for me with my rather rusty Italian. There are not many places to stay but the place we found, the Palazza Gambuzza, is spectacular. It is an old palazzo that was once the home of an aristocratic local family and it is built right up against the forecourt of one of the principal churches in the town. We had a suite of large rooms with antique furniture, painted ceilings (though in our bedroom the paint was flaking off) and a four-poster bed, plus a large terrace.
The day we call Shrove Tuesday is a special feast day in Sicily and we were awakened at the crack of dawn by not only church bells but fireworks and cannons. Then came the local band and at noon more guns and fireworks and bells and a religious procession, wherein a holy relic (allegedly a piece of the true cross) is carried around the town. Our main reason for coming here was to explore the southern end of the Cava d’Ispica, a spectacular 13-kilometer long canyon that is accessible right from the edge of the town (Walk #17, Part B). It bears signs of human habitation dating right back to Neolithic times and the walls of the gorge are dotted with caves that were used in times past as dwellings and as tombs.
In the middle of the town end of the canyon is a sort of rock island that hundreds of years ago was used as a fortress. It was set up to be self-sufficient so that people living up there could withstand sieges. My favourite thing was the cento scale (“One hundred steps”) which actually has 240 steps. The steps are inside a 100-metre deep tunnel that was carved right down through the rock - not vertically but at a slight angle - so that water could be bucketed up from the valley floor to the top of the rock fortress from the inside. Amazing!
Just below the fortress is an ancient church set right into the rock. At the town end there are orchards - mostly disused and overgrown now - and at one point we were walking over fallen oranges but the further we walked in, the wilder and more scenic it became.
Ispica was also a good base for a day trip to the nearby town of Noto, notable for its architecture.
We had figured from the Internet that we it would be possible to travel west from Ispica by bus (with three changes) but when we got here and checked the schedules at the bus stop, the early bus we had thought to catch was not running, probably as we were there outside the tourist season. I talked to a bus driver who was adamant that our best option would be to catch a bus back to Catania and then go from there. This seemed like a setback at first but it turned out to be a boon, as it gave us the opportunity to travel by train right through the middle of Sicily which is much more hilly and scenic than the south coast.
This took us to Agrigento, in the south-west, a sweet little town, built on a hill, overlooking a wide valley containing a number of well-preserved Greek temples dating back thousands of years. Our visit was only a short one but we did have time to visit the farmers' market. Oh those beautiful artichokes! And the place we booked for our overnight stop, the Antica Via B&B, was extremely comfortable and pleasant, with a little balcony overlooking the nicest street in town.
Next day we headed off by bus to Trapani, where we had booked to stay for seven nights at the Alle Due Badie residence. This place had a stack of good reviews but it didn’t suit us as well as we had expected This was partly due to the huge amount of street noise, as we were there for the March 17th (unification day) celebrations and the whole population seemed to be partying right under our window for several nights in a row. Also, the kitchenette was not as well kitted out as the other places we stayed and we had to request whatever we needed rather than having it readily supplied.
Trapani is built on a peninsula, with an ancient castle at its tip. We stayed right in the old part of town, which is the usual spaghetti-like maze of narrow, twisting streets and alleyways, with just a few broad avenues running through it. It was fun to explore, though for two days the scirocco (a strong wind from Africa) nearly blew us off our feet.
We had two wonderful walks using Trapani as a base. One (Walk#25) was to the ancient, medieval town of Erice, perched high on a mountain, overlooking the peninsula. The other was a trip by hydrofoil out to one of the Egadi islands, Levanzo. (Walk #22) It’s pretty little harbour, dozing in the sun, was almost deserted. Which is not surprising, given that there are only about a hundred people living on the island in any case.
Levanzo is a lovely little island and we walked around it for several hours. Except for one old man with a donkey and one 4WD that passed us on a lane, we saw no other human beings. But plenty of birds. And there were wildflowers in profusion. The hillsides were ablaze with euphorbia. And there were little green lizards everywhere.
From Trapani, we traveled by train to Castellammare del Golfo, an attractive fishing port in the spectacular north-west corner of Sicily where the mountains come down to meet the sparkling blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. And from there, we took up residence for a blissful few days near the tiny village of Scopello, a thirty-minute bus ride along the coast. Here, we had booked to stay for five nights at Scopello Case Vacanze, a complex of eight small, nicely furnished and well-equipped houses in a gated community a kilometre from the village, right next to a small, peaceful beach. Scopello is not an easy place to stay without a car, for although there is a bar and several restaurants the nearest store is one and a half kilometres away and its fruit and vegetable section is only open at weekends. There is also no Internet access and only limited cellphone access. But we came prepared with several bags of groceries from Castellammare and we managed just fine.
This little piece of Sicily’s coastline - which many people agree is the most beautiful piece of all - was where film director Steven Soderbergh shot his movie ‘Oceans 12’, starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, and Julia Roberts. But its main attraction for us—and for most of the other visitors who flock here was Italy’s first national park, the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro.
Saved from exploitation back in 1980, when massive public protests successfully halted the plans to drive a road through it, the Zingaro is now a protected area, rich with wildlife and breathtakingly beautiful. Being here in spring, we saw it at its greenest and at the time when the wildflowers are the most spectacular.
Our little house was just 800 meters from the entrance to Lo Zingaro (though it took us ten minutes to walk up the steep driveway to the front gate!) and we spent as much time as we could walking the trails, both along the coast and up into the mountains. (various adaptations of Walk #26) Being over 65, we even got in for free!
The days we spent in Scopello were definitely the high point of our five weeks in Sicily and the memories of our wonderful walks in Lo Zingaro will stay with us always.
Then it was bus back to Castellammare and another bus from there to Palermo, our final stop. For our three-night stay here, we had chosen a very attractive loft apartment in the old Arab quarter. We loved the atmosphere of this neighbourhood, which was almost like a village within the city and just one block from the wide, seafront park where people sit, stroll, jog, fly kites, play and watch the ships and ferries coming in and out of the harbour. We also enjoyed the nearby garden of the Villa Giulia, with its amazing statuary. And for an urban walk that for once does not involve dodging cars and motor scooters, you cannot beat Sunday in Palermo, where they close the main shopping street (the Via Roma) for almost all of its length and set up stalls all along the middle.
Five weeks after we sailed into Palermo, we sailed out again, starting our long, slow trip back to England the same way we had come, overland and over (and under as well, if you count the Eurostar) water.
In five weeks, Sicily had given us so much to enjoy. And so much to remember.
In its original form, this trip report is posted online, on my website, accompanied by a map of the journey live links to the various accommodations and more than fifty photos. You can access the full version by clicking on 'full trip report with pics' under the Resources section below.
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