In this blog post we explore Sicily’s numerous Greek and Roman archaeological sites, get a taste for hiking in its beautiful countryside, and savour some Sicilian food specialities and wine. James also gets to flex his climbing and mountain biking muscles.
We spent a couple of weeks meandering around Italy waiting for the Sicily forecast of rain and severe weather to clear. It finally did! So we booked a ferry ticket, drove south in a hurry and hopped on the 20 minute ferry ride from Reggio Calabria to Messina. The sun was shining. We were on our way hoorah!
Our first impressions weren’t very good. The highway heading south from Messina was a deathwish, with roadworks suddenly appearing without warning, dark ill-lit tunnels where one just hoped to make it to other side alive, and crazy end-of-spectrum drivers (on one end of the spectrum is sloooooooow and drifty, on the other just-plain-nuts). And there is evidence of fly-tipping everywhere.
It didn’t help that our first attempted stop was Taormina, a town built high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. It looked beautiful, but it was also chock-full of tourists, had tiny hilly streets and nowhere safe to park a campervan. So we aborted and headed south to Giardini Naxos where google maps kept trying to take us down a tiny non-street to get to our camper stop. We finally found our way with some manual navigation, parked, and breathed a sigh of relief at having survived the morning. Aileen then made some pasta carbonara which we washed down with wine for lunch. It was needed.
But after 2 weeks, we’ve come to love Sicily. Once we got used to the crazy driving, and accepted that the fly-tipping and the hint of lawlessness is just part of its “character”, we found it a fascinating and alluring place, with beautiful and varied countryside, amazing archaeological relics and interesting food and wine.
A short note on the geology of Sicily
Sicily sits on a fault where the Eurasian and African plates are colliding. This Wikipedia article explains the geology far better than we ever could, but in a nutshell, the Eurasian plate is expanding eastward to fill the space of the African plate subducting westward. How this translates in practical terms is the northern half and eastern side of Sicily are quite mountainous, whilst the southern half has gentler mountains and rolling hills. And there’s also that huge active volcano Mt Etna (3,357m elevation), sitting on a fissure point where the Ionian and Tyrrhenian slabs of the Eurasian plate are colliding, drawing up magma from under the African plate. It’s all going on, and it makes for the interesting and varied countryside of Sicily.
We headed clockwise around Sicily. Our first proper stop was at Mt Etna, where we hoped to do some hiking. The weather was not so accommodating.
We stayed at a campsite on the southern edge of Mt Etna, and drove up to do a hike along the edge of the main crater. We found our trail head covered in thick clouds so we aborted that plan, and started to do a hike around the Silvestri craters. Zeus was not a fan of the scree-like volcanic matter under foot, so we aborted this too after a short walk in the mist around one of the 5 craters. It was cold, snow was still on the ground, a stark contrast to the dark volcanic “soil”, and strong winds continuously pushed thick clouds into the mountain side. Not great conditions for a hike.
We decided to descend to below the cloud level and did a hike to Monte Grosso, which turned out to be quite a good hike geek-wise, and also had great views of the coast. Along the hike you could see and distinguish lava flows from different eruption events. The 1886 lava was covered in lichen or Mt Etna broom trees. It takes a looooong time for vegetation to start taking hold. The 2001 lava fields were pretty barren. The top of Mt Grosso was covered in trees, a forested area that escaped the lava. There was also an interesting vulva-shaped volcanic structure which we later found out was the lava cone from the 1886 flow.
We left Mt Etna the following day, and she was still shrouded in clouds. When we passed her again on our drive back to the ferry she was still shrouded in clouds. We hope to visit Sicily again in the future so another attempt to do a hike or two near the summit is on our to do, and hopefully we’ll see her peak then too.
Noto, and a taste of Sicilian-Baroque architecture
Our curiosity for Baroque architecture was piqued by some impressive specimens in Porto, such as the Clerigos Church and its distinctive tower visible from much of Porto, and the Igreja dos Carmelitas which we didn’t get to see the inside of but had read it was dripping in baroque-style gold decorations.
So from Mt Etna we headed south to Noto, one of three cities in Sicily famous for its Sicilian-Baroque architecture, a style that evolved whilst Sicily was part of the Kingdom of Spain. It features grinning masks and putti in addition to the usual over-the-top Baroque flourishes. The other important feature of Noto is that it has a climbing wall.
We parked our campervan in a quiet parking lot and went for a stroll in the centre of Noto, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. The cleanliness and relative calm and order of the city, as well as the gleaming Baroque buildings gave it a slight “theme-park” feel. We enjoyed a mushroom-filled pastry whilst sitting in the sunshine on Noto Cathedral’s stairs, meandered around town and particularly enjoyed the grinning lions of the balconies of Villaforata palace. After some cocktails, the worst food we’d had in Italy (some paninis where the bread to sad filling ratio was way off), and some people watching in a cafe, we headed back to our campervan. James went for a climb (the climbing centre was a 5 minute walk away), then we had dinner and a snooze in a parking lot. #glamourouscampervanlife
Valley of the Temples, Agrigento
From Noto we headed south and west through some stunning countryside of steep limestone cliffs and deep valleys littered with gleaming hilltop villages. South East Sicily looks worthy of exploration, but we were on a mission to see the famed archeological sites of Sicily.
Our first stop was Agrigento and the Valley of Temples.
Being one of the most famous Greek archeological sites, we were expecting to be impressed. But there was still a “holy-cow” feeling on seeing the number and sheer size of the temples in person. The row of 8 temples sit on top of a ridge that was the southern edge of what was the ancient city of Akragas. When we visited, above us was cloud-free boundless blue sky, and around us were valleys of rolling green, with blossoming almond trees and evergreen olive trees. It’s a stunning setting for temples.
The temples themselves amaze when you think about how much effort and energy went into building them. The temple of Zeus is estimated to have been 112 metres long by 56 metres wide and 20 metres high. It featured 40 colossal atlas statues giving the illusion of holding up the roof. It is believed to be the largest Doric temple ever built, though studies suggest it might not have been completed. We wondered if it was just too ambitious a design for the laws of physics to support.
It took a good half a day+ to explore the site, so it was a good thing that they allow you to bring your pet family members. While we ogled at the temples, Zeus made eyes (aka intrusive staring) at other tourists.
Selinunte Archeaological Park
Selinunte is like Agrigento’s less famous sibling. We found it to be an equally impressive archeological site but with far fewer crowds, so you got to get a lot closer to the ruins. It is also happily situated in beautiful surroundings – on the coast and at the mouth of a river, the site overlooks the sun-dappled sea. When we visited, the site was also covered in lush greenery, spring flowers and buzzing bees.
The site has lots of informative notice boards (we love a good notice board) which described how the Doric temples were built – how the stone was sourced, shaped, transported, then how temples were built, including reconstructions of the cranes, pulleys, transport mechanisms, etc. that would have been used.
Selinunte was a wealthy trading city, and this is evident by the sprawling site – 270 hectares of it. So you can spend all day walking to the various features that remain. Aside from the temples we saw remains of the acropolis and wall fortifications, sanctuaries, shrines, and even an ancient baptistery pool by the river.
Unfortunately we had underestimated the size of the site and failed to pack a lunch. None of the refreshment booths were open when we visited so we had to call it a day when we’d seen the main sites but missed seeing the antiquarium, and the north end of the acropolis.
Selinunte is also, happily a dog-friendly site.
While visiting Selinunte, we stayed at a camper stop along the coast south of Menfi. On our way there we spotted a nice looking winery overlooking rolling hills lined with grape vines. With some google map sleuthing, we identified it as Mandrarossa Winery, and booked a winery tour.
We didn’t know much about Sicilian wine other than Nero d’Avola being a famous grape of Sicily, so we were intrigued by the winery’s motto – “La Sicilia che non ti aspetti” (A Sicily you don’t expect) and opted to try their “Innovati’ range in the tasting part of our tour.
We had a lovely experience. The sun was shining brightly, and from the winery’s balcony you could see the nearby rolling hills covered in spring flowers and neat rows of grape vine trellises, with the blue sea and sky as a backdrop.
One of the great things we’ve really enjoyed about travelling in winter and spring is that most sights haven’t been crowded. And in the case of winery tours, we’ve had the unintentional pleasure of enjoying private tours, which is nice as it takes on more of a more conversational tone with the tour guide. We learnt for example, that the ubiquitous cheerily yellow cape sorrel plant carpeting much of Sicily is in fact edible, and we tried some our guide pulled off the ground (it’s got a distinct lemony flavour) as she described growing up in Sicily exploring fields while munching on cape sorrel. She also put us onto pasta with pistachio and red prawns, her favourite meal with Mandrarossa’s Larcera, a light dry white wine made with Vermentino grapes, which was the first of 7 wines we tasted that day.
It was such a pleasure to explore the different grape varieties and blends of the winery’s Innovati range. Our favourites were Santanella, a white made with a blend of Fiano (a local grape variety) and Chenin Blanc, and Bonera, a blend of Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Franc.
Before we left, our guide pointed out a cycle/pedestrian path that you could see running past the vineyard and explained this was the old Castelvetrano-Ribera railway line that has been converted to a cycle/pedestrian path that links villages along the south coast through vineyards, olive groves, and wheat fields. We decided this is something we’d definitely love to come back and explore in the future.
Segesta Archeological Park
From Menfi, we drove north west and as we did the scenery changed to impressive limestone mountains. We saw more stone fruit trees and sheep grazing.
Our first stop was Segesta Archeological Park. We arrived a couple of hours before dusk so everything was bathed in a nice soft light. Segesta has an impressive temple but also an amphitheatre and some less distinct ruins of the ancient city. The really striking things about Segesta is where it is situated and how well preserved the two main structures are. We speculated that the reason for this could be that limestone in the area was harder and more weather resistant than that at Agrigento and Selinunte. The temple sits alone on a hilltop within a col, the amphitheatre and other buildings sit on a hilltop that forms the col. The amphitheatre has a stunning backdrop of a deep valley leading to the sea. It made the physical and mental battle to get all family members to the top of the hill worthwhile.
Following the visit we headed to Trapani via the most expensive tank of diesel of the trip. Tip for travellers to Sicily (and southern Italy): At petrol stations there are two prices, one to pump yourself, one for someone else to do it for you at a significant markup. Ignore people waving you to the serviced pumps and choose your pump with care.
Trapani and Climbing in Bosco di Scorace
Our plan for the next day was to do a morning climbing trip to Bosco di Scorace crag, followed by a later lunch in Trapani. Getting to the crag however involved some very poor roads followed by some dirt roads. We got there later than we’d planned and decided to defer lunch to dinner so that James could have a good exploration of the crag.
Bosco di Scorace is an excellent crag. The rock is bullet hard sandstone, the features are nice and have variety, the boulders are mostly a decent height (not many sit starts) and the people developing the crag have done a great job building safe landings, clearing paths and documenting on 27Crags. James really enjoyed it. It’s not a big enough venue to justify flying to Sicily for, but if you are there on holiday already, it is definitely worth checking out. We didn’t see anyone else climbing, but a local farmer did come to watch and cheer James during his warm up and a few boulder problems.
For dinner we’d been looking forward to trying the fish couscous that is a speciality of Trapani arabesque cuisine, and pasta with pistachio cream and red prawns, which our wine guide at Mandrarossa recommended. The restaurant we went to had the couscous, but sadly not the pasta. We enjoyed the couscous, small oily fish lent good flavour and the textures worked well together. The rest of the meal was sadly unmemorable.
Hiking Monte Cofano
We spent the night at a camper stop south of Trapani, which has some historical salt flats. We were thinking of having a ride around these in the morning, but decided against it in favour of a drive north for a hike around Monte Cofano. We were treated to some dramatic scenery and a really lovely hike.
Monte Cofano is a limestone mountain that sits alone right along the coast, so it’s quite striking. We did a circumnavigation of the mountain which afforded views great views of the sea and coastline. Looking south we could see the dramatic ridge that Erice sits, and to the north were the dramatic mountains towering over San Vito Lo Capo. There was also a film being made where we parked – some chaps were walking around in western clothing, the ground was covered in sand, and they’d set up some swing doors of a saloon. Our guess is that it was for an Italian Western film, if such a thing exists?
San Vito Lo Capo and Mountain Biking in Boscoe do Scorace
From Monte Cofano we headed north to San Vito Lo Capo, which is a town that sits on the northern tip of a cape on the west coast of Sicily. We found it to be a nice seaside town. We started the day with some people watching over coffee and stuffed croissants in the town square (we would have preferred plain croissants over croissants stuffed with sweet filling, but plain croissants are a rarity in Italy), then had a pleasant morning cycling around the town, along tsits wide expansive beach, over to the edge of the impressive mountain ridge that overlooks the town, and a pretty lighthouse. We then headed to a pastry shop where we picked up profiterole-like pastries with pistachio and hazelnut fillings – very tasty but like stuffed croissants, surely a contributor to cases of diabetes :-). Unfortunately San Vito Lo Capo also had a herd of sheep with bells next to the camper stop. After our time in Soajo, Portugal, Zeus has been conditioned to think of bells as the harbinger of some foe e.g. a big cow. He was not able to settle and that prompted us to move on and head south east towards Palermo.
When we were driving out of the climbing area at Bosco di Scorace 2 days earlier, Aileen spotted what looked like bike trails. Some cross referencing with Trailforks and Instagram location tags confirmed this. So we stopped there on our way to Palermo so that James could spend the morning riding. Half the trials headed down one side of the mountain which was sandstone and the other down a side which was limestone. Nothing was super steep or technical, but all a lot of fun and nice long runs. Aileen and Zeus hung out in the campervan and waved hello several times to the farmer we’d seen at the crag a few days ago.
For our visit to Palermo we decided to leave the campervan at a campsite in a neighbouring town, catch the train into the city and stay a night in a B&B. That would give us two days where we could leave Zeus to have a snooze in our room while we visited things that weren’t dog suitable, without worrying he might be getting cooked in a hot van.
Food of Palermo
Aileen had read that the Pani câ Meusa (Spleen sandwich) was the must try food item of Palermo (apparently JFK was a fan when he was stationed there whilst in the airforce). So our first order of business when we arrived was lunch at Porta Carbone a respected sandwich counter with some kerbside tables near the marina.
The Pani cân Meusa is a sandwich made with a sesame bun with the top half hollowed out to accommodate more filling, and filled with mostly sliced spleen slow cooked in lard, although lung can be included. It is finished with either grated caciocavallo cheese or a squeeze of lemon (both are good, we preferred the lemon). We found it fascinating watching the men at the counter carefully construct the sandwiches – first hollowing out the top of the bun, then carefully forming a spleen mountain on the bottom half, drizzling some lard over the spleen mountain, and then topping it with cheese or squeeze of lemon before carefully replacing the top bun. Eating the sandwiches was a messy business but the flavour was amazing – Offaly tasty! – and the texture is soft like fall-off-the-bone meat. A cold beer was a nice accompaniment.
In the evening we wanted to try a typical Palermo meal. We went to Odori e Sapori al Vecchio Monte (Smell and Taste of the Old Mountain) where James got to try the pasta with pistachio and red prawns. The sweetnesses and saltinesses work well together. Aileen had spaghetti with sardines, another Sicilian speciality which features fennel, raisins and saffron, another dish where the influence of north africa is evident.
On our second day, our lunch choice was simple. We went back to Porta Carbone to get another Pani câ Meusa. It was that good.
Sights of Palermo
There are lots of different historic buildings to see in Palermo. We didn’t try to do everything, instead we chose to see the Cappella Palatina and Chiesa di Santa Caterina.
Palazzo Reale e Cappella Palatina
The Palazzo dei Normani (Royal Palace) was built by the Normans in 1072 and was the seat of the Kings of Sicily. Today, it still functions as the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly however you are able to visit some parts, and we think it’s the must see if you ever find yourself in Palermo
The Cappella Palatine within the palace is a private chapel built in the Sicilian-Norman style and was completed in 1143 and dedicated to Saint Peter. Its most noteworthy feature are the mosaics which cover its walls and archways. There are pictorial depictions of saints and scenes from the bible which are remarkable due to the scale, vibrancy of the colours and the artistic depiction of elements such as people’s expressions or waves in the sea.
Despite being a catholic chapel, there are sections of patterned mosaic where the influence of the Arab craftsman is clear. The ceiling is also decorated with muqarnas, the stalactite or honeycomb-like structure we first saw at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
It is also possible to visit some of the rooms of the Norman Palace. These aren’t as stunning in the same way as the Cappella, but there is an interesting mix of decoration. Some rooms are painted with depictions of greek gods, nymphs, etc co-mingled with some baroque decorations not to our taste. There’s also a Chinese room. The most interesting room of the Palace is the Ruggero room, whose walls and ceiling are covered in mosaics, but with animals like grinning tigers and grumpy leopards rather than religious themes.
Chiesa e Monastero di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria
This is an interesting venue with 4 very different experiences: An extremely opulent church, an expectedtly austere monastery, rooftop views across Palermo and a cake shop.
The church is decorated with lots and lots of different types of marble and must have been very very expensive to construct. Some of the marble is functional e.g. the floor, some is in decorative pattern, but some is used to make reliefs that depict scenes from the Testaments, for example Jonah and the whale. There is a painted ceiling, statues and other decorations too. Take a look at the 360 view on their website. It gives a good impression of the grandeur.
The monastery is a welcome relief after the sensory overload of the church. You’re able to see a few of the nuns’ personal rooms that are preserved since they left the site in 2014. The rooms are very simple in the way you might expect.
The roof terraces of the church grant views across the city in every direction and let us appreciate how Palermo is nestled into the hillsides (you can’t see that at street level). It was also a better vantage point for us to appreciate the Fontana Pretoria. The fountain and statues sit next to the church, but it is hard to take in its form at ground level.
The cake shop held 98% of the site’s visitors. The cake was tasty.
Palermo’s markets and a search for a rare whole chicken
Palermo is an easy city to walk around. It is quite compact and bisected by 2 pedestrianised streets. Via Maqueda runs north-south and Via Vittorio Emanuele runs east-west.
We took a walk through 2 markets – Mercato do Ballaro and Mercato del Capo. It was good to see people hawking local produce and food. But the noise of people trying to attract attention, the slow moving tourist crowds, and the ever present risk of a scooter weaving through the crowds and running over Zeus didn’t make for a relaxing time.
Mercato di Ballarò is slightly more touristy / oriented to “street food”. Mercato del Capo had a wider selection of fresh produce.
Neither market had what we wanted though, which was a whole chicken for roasting. So we did a walk further north outside the historic centre to find one. It transpires a whole chicken isn’t something most Sicilian butchers stock. We found one at the fourth attempt, and got to see some more residential parts of the city along the way, before having another spleen sandwich and taking a train back to the campsite to reunite with the campervan.
Villa Romana del Casala
We wanted to see the Roman villa famous for its mosaics. So on leaving Palermo, rather than heading directly east along the coast on our circumnavigation, we headed south east and back inland. The drive was very picturesque as we passed the impressive mountains of Parco delle Madonie and numerous hilltop towns (rather like chateaus in the Loire, hilltop towns are common in Sicily, but they are always visually arresting). The terrain levelled out the further south we went with sections of rolling green hillsides.
We spent a couple of nights at an Agriturismo before visiting the Roman Villa. Villa Gerace Azienda Bio farms organic olive oil, almonds and pistachios. It was a very relaxing stay in a quiet valley, camped underneath olive trees. We had a very nice meal at the agriturismo – it started with a plateful of antipasti which included local meats, cheeses, caponata and omelettes made with local wild asparagus and other veggies. The pasta dish that followed was delicious with grilled artichokes we’d seen wood roasting earlier in the day. Porchetta with local greens and roasted potatoes concluded the feast.
Villa Romana del Casale is a well-preserved Roman villa and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has more than three thousand square metres of mosaic flooring (!) a lot of which is in a very good state of preservation. Sections of elevated walkway have been built suspended above the floor. Some sections of the original walls with murals and pillars remain, but have been supplemented with a wooden building following the original floor plan. It works very well. You get great views of the mosaics. There are also lots of notice boards explaining the stylistic elements or scenes depicted (🤓). And, you can understand the mosaics in the context of the building architecture and the functions of the different rooms.
We’d find picking our favourite mosaics silly as there were so many amazing and interesting ones, but the “Big Hunt” hallway has to be most impressive for its enormous scale and the breadth of the content. It depicts the hunting and transport of exotic animals such as tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos etc. to Rome for entertainment purposes. In one scene a lion attacks a fallen Roman soldier, whilst a row of soldiers carry ostriches up a ramp onto a boat. In another, an elephant is loaded onto a boat, whilst a leopard munches on an antelope. It’s all going on. It’s a marvellous mosaic.
We enjoyed seeing Sicily’s Greek temples, and this was a stunning way to conclude our archaeological tour of Sicily.
We headed back to Messina to catch a ferry to the mainland. We plan to visit Pompeii before heading east to catch another ferry to Croatia.
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