Follow me on the picturesque roads of Sicily for a ten days road trip from Palermo (Northwest of the island) to Taormina (eastern side) and let me discover stunning cities and antic places (check out the map at the end of the story for a complete overview of my journey).
The journey begins at the north of the island in its capital: Palermo.
Palermo with its old town, its narrow and crowded streets and its decrepit buildings has also kept some hidden gems you will discover while strolling around.
Nestled in the heart of old Palermo the "Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele" is the Opera House of the city. It is simply the largest theater building in Italy and the third largest in Europe, after those of Paris and Vienna.
While visiting it, I had the opportunity to discover its sumptuous concert hall and also had the chance to steal some images of rehearsing dancers.
Heading towards west of Sicily at about sixty kilometers from Palermo. Here are Castelmarre del Golfo and Scopello two charming cities marking the entrance to the Riserva Naturale Dello Zingaro. Do not miss, between these two villages, the paradisal beach of Guidaloca with its turquoise waters. Just missing some palm trees and it's like being in the West Indies.
One overlooking the other as if Erice was watching over Trapani. We are now in the extreme west of Sicily. Further west, it is Tunisia.
Erice is an unforgettable medieval hilltown with ancient origins in Sicily. The sober historic town is surrounded by defensive town walls, crowned by a castle, and dominates the surrounding area from its mountainous height of approximately 800 metres above sea level.
Down the hill, Trapani is a fishing and ferry port with a long history. Nowadays the town is renowned for its fine seafood and Sicilian cuisine, and makes a good base for tourists exploring this part of the island.
The old town, extending westwards with sea on either side, is worth a visit. Old palazzi, some crumbling and some grand, cluster along the promontory around the central Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Out at the tip of Trapani's headland is the Torre del Ligny, a tower which was part of the 17th-century Spanish defences and now hosts a Prehistoric Museum. A stroll around the largely-pedestrianised old town gives travellers a chance to admire the town's old buildings and landmarks such as the offshore fortress called the Torre della Colombaia or Castello del Mare
High up in a mountainous area towards the west of Sicily stands a beautiful and frankly magical archaeological complex.
It is impossible to leave the Western Sicily without a detour in Segesta. With its temple and its ancient theater it is one of the best preserved and most dazzling Greek sites in the Mediterranean.
A short, albeit steep, walk from the temple takes you to the Greek (and later Roman) theater, an open amphitheatre where in the summer Greek plays are staged.
There is a shuttle bus up the hill, but the views are so stunning that if you can manage it, walk! It is set on top of a stunning mountain plateau and you can see for miles over the valleys below.
Another monumental archaeological site is the valley of temples (Valle dei Templi) on the outskirts of Agrigento in southern Sicily. The site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, includes several Doric temples and remains of the walls of the ancient Greek city of Akragas, an important city of Great Greece.
The Valley of the Temples is in fact a hill, a long ridge between the higher modern hilltop town of Agrigento and the distant sea. Between the town centre and the temples lies a real valley, a peaceful green vale where agriculture is interspersed with ruins and excavations. This is where a large part of the ancient city stood: one of the first surprising facts about Agrigento is that the ancient town was more extensive than the modern one.
From spring onwards, the site is open quite late in the afternoon. So if you have the opportunity to get there around sunset time do not miss it. You will enjoy an incredible light on these old stones.
Back to the center of Sicily in Caltagironne and its impressive staircase of Santa Maria del Monte. 130 meters long and 142 steps, it connects the upper city of the seventeenth century to the modern city below. It has the particularity of having all the risers decorated by ceramic tiles representing traditional patterns.
On the occasion of the feast of San Giacomo, patron Saint of the city, during the nights of 24 and 25 July, the staircase is illuminated by thousands of colorful lanterns placed on its steps.
Definitely, Noto is my crush during that road trip. I literally felt in love with this charming city.
Surprise! During one of our evenings in Noto, we came across a typical street show. A procession of men and ladies in baroque costume, accompanied by musicians, and led by their "capitano" in velvet costume took possession of the esplanade. Two troops of flag jugglers (Sbandieratori) clashed. this was "Il Gran Galà degli Sbandieratori di Noto"
Suddenly, it's all the atmosphere of the Renaissance celebrations. Whether symbolizing the city or a neighborhood (the "contado"), the flag was a precious symbol. In battle, it should not be lost or left in the hands of the enemy. In peacetime, during celebrations, it must not fall!
Ragusa, one of the (other) most beautiful cities of Sicily is also my second favorite. The city is divided into two parts: the upper town Ragusa Nuova and a lower town, older, Ragusa Ibla.
Essentially baroque, the city you see today dates almost entirely from 1693. Indeed, it is in this year that Ragusa, like its neighbors, Noto, Modica, Scicli and Catania, was razed by a terrible earthquake that struck most of the eastern coast of Sicily.
The island of Ortygia is a small island on which lies the historic center of Siracusa. It is separated from the rest of the city by a narrow canal. The buildings show the different dominations the city has experienced through its history: Greek, Norman, Arabic, ...
The city was destroyed by an the 1963 earthquake and rebuilt in Baroque style, like its neighbors Noto and Ragusa.
This village served as a location for the filming of some scenes of Godfather from Francis Ford Coppola. A small monument was erected in his honor in the village.
On the square, the bar Vitelli remained in its juice. It has not changed since the time of the filming (first part), almost 30 years ago! This is where the scenes of Michael Corleone's wedding with the beautiful Apollonia are shot.
But the interest of this small village, sat on a rocky spur overlooking the Mediterranean sea, does not stop there. It has a special charm with its old churches and hilltop houses, and also because of the magnificent view over the snowy Etna you can enjoy from there.
Going to Sicily and not taking the opportunity to climb the biggest active volcano in Europe would have been a shame.
The landscapes are incredible. At the same time lunar, desert and high mountain (The Etna culminates at 3,350 m). By the way, did you know that in winter, you can ski on the snowy slopes? Crazy, isn't it? Especially when you are aware that the volcano is still active!
For sure, this was an expedition like no other.
Last stage of our Sicilian journey, Taormina is a charming gentrified village of the seaside on the east coast of Sicily.
All the interest of Taormina does not lie in its shops and luxury hotels worthy of Saint Tropez and the French Riviera. No, the highlight of the visit is its ancient theater. Just like Segesta, our Greek ancestors had selected a prime location for this beautifully preserved enclosure. Indeed, from the top of the stands you can have a spectacular view over the sea, the village and in the background the summit of Etna. It's even more beautiful in the late afternoon, just before the sun hides behind the promontory overlooking Taormina.