Spontaneous adventures in Sicily

Spontaneous adventures in Sicily

by Anna Leigh Bagiackas
Stripes Europe

Before the outbreak of COVID–19, my husband and I spent five days traveling across the island of Sicily. While we typically like to plan each day of any trip, the small geographic size, low costs and many sights allowed us to drive across the whole island without a concrete plan in mind. We started in Palermo, then drove east to visit the volcano Mount Etna and coastal city of Catania. Then, we went down to the west coast city of Agrigento to see the Valley of the Temples and Turkish Steps before making our way back to Palermo, where we experienced a soccer game, a surprisingly growing craft beer scene and, of course, amazing food.

We rented a car at the airport to get us into Palermo and while we needed the car to get around the rest of the island, parking was a real challenge in the capital city. Do some research ahead of time on where you can park overnight. We ended up moving to different underground ramps because we couldn’t find safe parking options on the street.

A word on driving—in Palermo, it was hectic and a rather stressful experience, but if you commit to your driving decisions, you’ll be fine. Sicilian drivers didn’t necessarily follow the rules (so much double parking!), but in our experience they weren’t overly aggressive.

We booked a low-cost Airbnb in Palermo near the harbor and could walk anywhere we wanted from there. We spent two days wandering around the city, eating pizzas and fresh seafood, visiting street markets and walking along the coast. We were pleasantly surprised to find the craft beer scene was buzzing. We stumbled upon a few different craft beer bars within walking distance of our apartment.

Mount Etna | Photo by Anna Leigh Bagiackas

On day three we jumped in the car and drove to Mt. Etna, the highest volcano in Europe, in the western part of Sicily. This three-hour drive from Palermo was accompanied by fields of lemon, lime and olive trees and gorgeous, rocky landscapes. We drove around lava formations as we wound our way up the mountain and parked at the base of the peak, where you could take a cable car or hired bus closer to the summit. There were also lots of opportunities for hiking around and up to the peak. Before we rode to the top, we had a pizza and an antipasto platter for lunch, accompanied by local wine of grapes grown in the area’s lava-rich soil.

The mountain was covered in ice and snow and a chalet greeted us at the top, selling various souvenirs and goods, like local limoncello and almond and pistachio liqueurs. Once outside, we could walk around the mountain on our own, watching the steam pour out of the volcano and the clouds hover around us. One moment it was blue sky and we could look down and see the beaches of the Ionian Sea, and the next moment we couldn’t see ten feet in front of us because of clouds and fog moving through.

After our volcano adventure, we drove down towards the coast and booked a room in Catania, Sicily’s second largest city. We spent the following day walking along the coast and touring the Norman Castle (Castello Normanno), which overlooks the sea and was only connected to the coast after Mt. Etna erupted in 1169. Compared to the snowy, cold mountain the day before, we were in summer clothes, eating gelato and wandering through charming fishing villages.

From there we drove a few hours across the island to visit a couple of sights: the Valley of the Temples and the Turkish Steps. For this, we used the HotelTonight app to find a hotel in Agrigento, a beachy town on the coast.

Turkish Steps | Photo by Anna Leigh Bagiackas

We arrived at the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) late afternoon and this was one of the best spontaneous decisions we could have made because we got to watch the sun set over the sea, high up on the hill surrounded by gorgeous ruins. This UNESCO site is the most well-preserved collection of Ancient Greek temples surrounded by gardens and almond trees. It could not have been more picturesque and walking through the monuments was another reminder of the layered history of Sicily.

The next morning, we drove to the Turkish Steps (Scala dei Turchi), only about fifteen minutes away from our hotel, where we walked along the beach and climbed up the stairs for beautiful views of the coast. This rock formation was unique because of its characteristic white layers; the name is said to have come from frequent raids by the Turkish Moors.

While there were a number of other places on the island we would have liked to visit, we also wanted to spend a little more time exploring Palermo, so we drove the two hours back to the city for a pasta-and-wine-filled lunch, followed by a visit to the Palermo Cathedral.

Our last stop was a Palermo–Messina soccer match, where we were surrounded by passionate and loyal Sicilians. Between rainy downpours and timeouts, the chanting and cheering never ceased and fellow spectators brought us right into their impassioned celebrations even though we didn’t speak a lick of Italian.

We found Sicily to have lots of character and a unique culture from the other cities we have visited in Italy. While spontaneity may not be possible on every trip, Sicily was a great place to take on each day as an unexpected adventure, letting each city and place reveal itself to us.

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