Driving in Sicily?

You’re nuts! Suicidal! Sicilian drivers are crazy, the worst in Europe! The roads are awful! The cities are a nightmare! You’re taking your life in your hands….

We heard it all prior to our trip to Sicily. Despite the dire warnings, we chose to rent a car because many of the big tourist attractions, including the best archeological sites, are in remote areas. And we wanted to spend some time in rural Sicily. You can’t do that very easily on public transportation.

Like most stereotypes, Sicilian drivers included, there is a kernel of truth. Yes, Sicilian drivers are more aggressive than their American counterparts (maybe New Yorkers excluded), but certainly no worse than drivers in the rest of Italy. And we never experienced the terror of a big Mercedes or BMW barreling down on you at 120 mph, lights flashing telling you to move over fast, like we did every few minutes on the German autobahns.

We noticed, however, there seem to be some “unwritten” rules of the road in Sicily.  They can unsettle the non-Sicilian driver, but they are mostly harmless…

–stopping the car in the middle of a road in traffic to talk to a friend is fine…

–parking on the sidewalk or curb, nose in, is ok as long as cars and pedestrians can sort of get around you

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–pulling out from side street into a main street in fine as long as the cars on the main street can get around the nose of your car

–it’s all right to make one lane into two or even three if you think there’s room

–it’s okay to pull to the side of the freeway for a quick picnic, or to stop on the shoulder to snap a picture

–motorcycles and scooters always have the right of way, and can create their own lanes, including on sidewalks and in pedestrian only zones

Still, using a little caution and common sense, driving in Sicily is not a problem. And it got us to some truly beautiful and remote places, far off the tourist routes. Here are some of the lessons we learned on our two week drive around Sicily that helped us reduce the anxiety about driving.

–Consider taking the full collision/damage coverage when renting the car.  I know it’s much more expensive (I never do in the US), but knowing that any damage to the car is covered really helps put your mind at ease.  If you don’t, certainly be very aware of what your policies or credit cards will cover.

–Get a small car. Really, the smaller the better. In the towns and villages the roads are narrow and parking is often very hard to find.  And squeezing past parked cars and dodging motorcycles is easier in a small car.

–Get a good map or GPS system.  We took a picture of a very good road map on the IPad of the day’s trip. You could enlarge it if necessary, you weren’t struggling with a large paper map in a small car, and you never needed a phone or Internet connection to view it. But know that once you get into the warren of small streets and one way alleys that make up most Sicilian towns, any map is useless. You are much better off following the roads signs that tell you the way through the town to the next village, and knowing almost any mistake can be corrected.

–Be sure your hotel, B and B, or Airbnb has parking, preferably secure parking.  Finding on street parking is very difficult in most towns and often limited to residents with permits.

–Recognize that you can never leave anything of value or that even remotely looks like a bag or purse in a parked car. Car prowling and break-ins are common in Sicily, in fact, everywhere in Europe. Better not to tempt fate.

–Expect rural roads to be in worse condition than at home or in northern Italy. Lots of potholes, roads under repair. Particularly in the mountains, roads have unexpected dips of alarming size from erosion, or earthquakes or bad construction. This is a poorer part of the country and the roads show it. Be aware that the island is largely agricultural, so the occasional herd of sheep or cows may block your way. Also, Sicily is very hilly, even mountainous. Great views, but narrow, steep roads with dramatic drop offs.

–Avoid driving in the largest cities, like Catania and Palermo, and leave the driving to professionals—bus drivers, taxi drivers. I would never drive in Manhattan, central London, or Rome if I had a choice. The same applies here.

–Pick up and drop off the rental car at major airports. They are easily reached by well-signed highways. Also, within Italy, typically there is no drop-off charge so you can pick up a car at the Palermo airport and drop it off in Catania at no extra cost. That means not having to double back, giving you more time to tour.

Finally, take a deep breath. You are on vacation and getting lost or making a wrong turn is part of the adventure.  At least that’s what the navigator says when we get lost.

The Road to Ruins

We really weren’t prepared for what we found in Sicily. Yes, we knew that Sicily had been conquered many times–Greeks, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish–and we knew there were plenty of ancient archeological sites to visit, but the size, beauty, and the incredible state of preservation of the sites was truly amazing. A caveat: while we have an amateur’s interest in archeology, neither of us is really very knowledgeable about the ancient world. We leave that to people smarter and more serious than us.  


Part of the reason that the ancient sites are so well preserved is that many are in remote corners of Sicily. That means a rental car or a bus tour. There are a few sites, such as Ortygia in Syracuse, the Greek theater in Taormina that can be easily reached, but most are a drive from the major cities of Catania and Palermo. The good news: a “drive” in Sicily usually means two hours at most. Another option is to join a group and take an excursion by bus, and we saw plenty of those in the parking lots adjoining the sites. The upside to a tour is that you usually get a knowledgeable guide–but not always. We did run into an Italian guide leading a group of thirty in the Villa Romana del Casale site reading verbatim from a guide book. Another Italian guide turned to us, very frustrated and angry, and said in English, “I don’t know why they let him in here! He knows nothing about this place.” The downside of a bus tour is that you are often in a crowd and herded at the guide’s pace, leaving little time to linger at what interests you.   


We opted for the rental car and a good guide book. That gave us the flexibility to set our own itinerary and pacing. The visits almost always involved a full day–most sites are enormous. Leave for the site in the morning, tour until early afternoon, eat lunch at a country restaurant, tour a little more, and home for dinner.

We visited five major archeological sites: the Greek theater in Taormina, Villa Romana del Casale, Morgantina, Valle dei Templi, and Segesta. Each was unique and world class. There were many more that we didn’t have time to explore. 

Easily the most accessible site was the Greek theater in Taormina, literally in Taormina itself. No car necessary–in fact, no cars allowed in the center of town. The theater is actually a Roman theater built on top of a Greek theater. The enormous size, and brick and cement construction techniques do scream Roman, not Greek. The setting is otherworldly, perched on a cliff, the open end of the theater framing a view of Mt. Aetna. Even in ancient times, if the performance was a bust, you had the view to console you. The theater is so well preserved, it is still used for concerts today. 

Villa Romana del Casale in remote central Sicily is famous for its absolutely stunning Roman floor mosaics with dramatic hunting scenes, bikini clad women athletes, scenes from the Odyssey, and lots and lots of exotic animals. The site itself is the ruins of a very large Roman villa, now covered and crisscrossed with elevated walkways for visitors. The walkways are extremely narrow and often very crowded. Get there early when the doors are first opened or, as a Dutch couple we met suggested, tour during the afternoon lunch break when every Italian & tour bus group is eating a very big meal.

The other archeological sites were large and open air, and with room for all the tourists and tour groups, so you never felt mobbed.

Close to Villa Romano is Morgantina, the remains of a substantial Greek city perched on two hills. Morgantina is more of a working archeological site, enormous, with only small parts completely excavated. No crowds, in fact, barely anyone at all, even though we were there on the once monthly free admission day. You definitely got sense of a real city — two commercial market places or agoras (the original shopping malls),  administrative offices, religious buildings, a theater, public meeting places and grid street pattern with very modern sounding names like West 7th Street. It was a very leisurely stroll in a beautiful setting. Unfortunately, unlike the other sites, there were no amenities (café, water fountain, gift shops) and most of the signs explaining the excavations had faded to a bleached white and were unreadable.

The Valle dei Templi is probably the most famous and visited ancient site in Sicily. And with good reason. Near the town of Agrigento, the Valle dei Templi stretches along a sloping ridge for a mile and has the remains of seven Greek temples, several almost perfectly preserved. The setting, overlooking the sea, is breathtaking. The star is the Temple of Concordia. The size of the Parthenon, it is everything you want in a Greek temple–perfection of proportions, fully intact, and a stunning location. In addition to the temples, the Valle also has a remarkable “garden” in a gorge below the ridge full of citrus trees, palms, and other exotic plants. Here since ancient times, it offers a cool respite from the heat. There is also a moving modern addition, a memorial to heroes who lost their lives fighting violence and corruption around the world, including the two Sicilian judges, Borsellino and Falcone, who were murdered by the Mafia in 1992.

Perhaps the most evocative and picturesque of all the ancient sites we visited was Segesta. It is about and hour and a half west of Palermo in the hilly, remote Sicilian countryside. The good news is that the main east-west freeway goes right by the site so it easily reached by car or bus. The magnificent temple of Segesta sits by itself below the ancient city of Segesta. When you climb up the steep hill (or take the shuttle bus) to the main archeological site, you get a truly breathtaking view of the temple below. Be prepared to fill up your camera’s memory card. The ancient city of Segesta has it all–a theater, an agora, fortified walls, kilns, ancient public baths and toilets. And the views! The temple below, across the rolling hills with olive trees, and out to the Gulf of Castellammare. And while we were touring, the view included a huge flock of sheep being herded by three dogs and shepherd, bells clanging. If you could visit only one ancient site in Sicily, Segesta would be our recommendation.

Sicily truly does offer the amateur archeologist or just curious tourist a lot to choose from–the only downside is which of the many world class ancient sites to visit.

Palermo

Palermo is a hard city to categorize. Our first impressions of the city on a Sunday afternoon were very positive. If a million plus people live in Palermo, at least half of them were out doing the passiegetta, the long, slow stroll Italians everywhere do to see and be seen. Palermo closes one of its main streets, Via Marqueda,  to traffic for a kilometer or more. Just pedestrians, and a random bike or Vespa or two.  


Groups of teenagers, elderly couples, families with strollers.  Folks walking their dogs.  About every block or so a street musician, including a skinny blond singing Elvis’s greatest hits. Lively and crowded, it reminded me of a carnival or street fair.   

 
Monday morning showed a more subdued town and much more of the dust and grit Palermo is famed for. The old historic part of town is relatively small and imminently walkable. But Palermo is not a provincial Rome, despite the Roman, Norman, and Arab history. There doesn’t seem to be separate sections of town — either a “good” or tourist, or run down neighborhoods. All are mingled together. We wandered from one street corner to another, never knowing what we would find around the bend — derelict buildings, a street of cafes, or a magnificent palazzo or church, or kids playing.

 

We had heard Palermo described as the litter capital of Europe. And while we saw a few informal garbage dumps in the countryside, and some dried up fountains were used as garbage receptacles, the capital didn’t strike us as any more littered than any other densely packed city.  In fact, better than some we’d seen. More graffiti perhaps.   

The piazza around the opera house seemed to be the center of the city and a hotbed of activity. Prince Albert of Monaco arrived one afternoon with an entourage and a long motorcade. The next day, protestors assembled, complete with Sicilian flags, banners and a sound system on a shopping cart. We took a lot of pictures. Speculated about the issue. Sicilian independence? Anti mafia? Political party march? 


Finally, we asked a young woman and she explained it was an environmental protest — objecting to the burning of garbage by the local provincial government. Okay. Would never have guessed that. There were almost more police than protesters. And plenty of police cars and paddy wagons for hauling away unruly enviros. Never saw anything to justify the concern. 

This city was heavily bombed during World War II. Signs marking how historic buildings were damaged & repaired only referred to the war by date, “heavily damaged by bombs in 1943….”.  As a result baroque era churches or seventeenth century buildings stand next to modern boxy apartment complexes.  We saw several signs posted in storefront windows, saying “No Mafia” plus there are a couple shops that only sell local goods & foods produced by folks who won’t pay protection money.


Of course, aside from what we’ve read, and most of that says the mafia has been marginalized, we’ve seen no indication of any criminal activity. Except as we snapped pictures in front of a grand local municipal building, an old guy walked past us and said very clearly to us,  “Palazzo di Mafia”.

The streets markets in Palermo are pure Sicilian. Hawkers shouting they offer the best fish in Sicily or the freshest produce in Palermo.  Swordfish, squid, lobster, eels, beef sides, pigs’ heads, every kind of sausage and cheese, tomatoes, summer squash and green cauliflower, olives, spices, and much more.  The air smelled of the fish, but also curry, citrus and spices.


Messy, crowded and loud. But filled with more locals than tourists, the markets clearly are part of life here in Palermo and the other bigger cities of Sicily.  Of course, there are grocery stores, mini-marts, too.  But in small towns like Trapani, we saw residents buying their produce & fresh fish off trucks stationed around the city.  Or the fish was sold out of a wooden box on the back of a bike as we saw in Cefalu.  


Outside the historic district, Palermo may be a very different place, just as the suburbs differ from the hearts of Rome and Paris.  Old Palermo is a mixed bag, but definitely worth a visit.

Saturday night in Trapani

 

Since we arrived in Trapani, we’ve seen signs for Villa Martinez, but could never see the restaurant. Signs, like many in Sicily, measure the distance to the advertised place in minutes, not kilometers or yards. From all indications the place was within a hundred or so yards of our home base. Finally on our last day, we explored the side roads around our airbnb and found the restaurant, in a development of new homes, the kind of encroachment on the farmland our host vowed to resist. So tonight we returned to Villa Martinez for dinner.  And so glad we did.


Villa Martinez is clearly a neighborhood, but an upscale neighborhood, joint. And it is kind of strange. The restaurant sort of wraps around an outdoor swimming pool, which became  the hangout for smokers as the evening progressed. We were among the first three or four couples to arrive, quickly followed over the next hour by parties of young parents, kids in tow, and dozens of people of all ages heading to a banquet hall on the opposite of the pool from where we sat. Pretty sure we were the only non-Italians speakers there, and more strongly suspect we were the only tourists of any nationalities this place has seen.

And the food? Great plate of grilled vegetables. Great salad of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Nicely grilled meats and fried calamari. It all arrived at once. No courses. No pretensions. But as good as the food was, it was surpassed by being part of an Italian Saturday night dinner scene. Loud, raucous, filled with good cheer and very little drinking, mainly coke and beer. We ordered the only bottle of wine we saw on any table. But babies in strollers. Kids playing hide and seek under the tables. Two young guests had brought their dolls to dinner. At the big table men sat on one end & women at the other with the kids. And almost everyone but us had pizza.

The wait staff bent over backwards to get our order right and to make sure all was well, but like most of the wait staff in Sicily, they ran most of the night, from table to kitchen and kitchen to table.  The banquet also added to the hustle as trolley loads of pasta were rolled out of the kitchen at one end to the banquet room at the far side of the pool.

Guess the moral to the story is get out of the tourist parts of town. Find the neighborhood restaurants (harder to do in Sicily than some other places) and enjoy.

Let’s talk Sicilian food

Anyone who travels to Italy should be thinking about food. Pasta, pizza, fresh tomatoes, and good wine. Sicily is a bit different. For sure, there is plenty of good food to be had; it just doesn’t all fit into what we think we know about food in Italy.

The food in Sicily reflects the history. The Spanish brought tomatoes, prickly pears and corn. Arabs brought citrus, all kinds of citrus, nuts and couscous. Greeks brought olives and grapes. Add those ingredients to the Roman cuisine and you get Sicilian food.

Of course, there is pasta. In fact, some think Sicily invented dried pasta. And given that Sicily is an island, lots of the pasta comes with seafood (for the record, I’ve been to lots of islands, however, where fish has been fished out and is hardly available). Pasta with sardines is traditional. Pasta misto mare (pasta with mixed seafood) is on most menus. Pasta with mussels or clams tempted us. Pasta Trapenese, a wonderful pesto sauce of almonds, tomatoes, garlic and eggplant, available only on the west coast, wowed us. With breadcrumbs in Erice may have been the best. But most restaurants offer only a handful of Sicilian pasta dishes, heavy on the seafood. The pasta dishes Americans know, Bolognese or traditional pesto, are rare.

Squid came grilled or fried and octopus was often offered as a salad. Couscous with fish reflects the Arab influence on Sicily. And like many of the fish dishes was dominated by the canned sardines or anchovy flavor that doesn’t appeal to every palate. Appetizers or antipasti also lean heavily on fish.

Insalata mista was a staple for us, often the only fresh vegetables we saw on the menu. Usually local lettuce & arugula, cherry tomatoes and corn. Yes, corn. Sicilians apparently put corn kernels in their green salads. And sometimes add mozzarella and/canned tuna. The other vegetable dish we saw on almost every menu was caponata, a mix of sautéed eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, garlic and olive oil. It ranged from outstanding to very good, and was usually offered as an antipasto, more rarely with meat..

We’re not big into sweets, but generally enjoyed the couple we tried. Heavy on the use pistachios or almonds and lighter on the sugar suited us just fine. And, of course, gelato. Pistachio gelato has a rather unappetizing color, but the taste is divine. Cannoli still on our list to try, but only with riccotta.

As for wines, Etna red wines were the best. We drank the Trapenese simply because we were there. Stick with Etna wines.

Sicily seems to offer fewer farmers’ or peasant markets than we saw in Tuscany, Umbria or Provence. Instead, particularly in the northeast, small trucks sell farm fresh produce. What we saw there surpassed in variety anything we saw in the restaurants. A pale green cauliflower, not romanesco, but shaped like our traditional cauliflower. Several kinds of green beans, including romano. And several kinds of summer squash. But none of these made it into the menus.

Pomegranates are big, particularly in western Sicily. A symbol of fertility and bounty, many small towns had stands set up to squeeze you a fresh glass of juice, sometimes mixed with oranges. That, too, is on our list to try.

BTW, do not miss the arincini, the deep fried rice cakes, often in a cone shape.  We met a woman in Rome going through passport control who told us the best arincini are in Taormina. So following her advice we tried them there. And in Cefalu. And in Trapani. Basically they fall into two categories, great and good. Fresher is better. Beware of the places that have them sitting out on display and then heat them up for you in a microwave. They’re just good. We learned to prefer the meat variety – a stuffing of beef, tomatoes and cheese. The other option is ham and cheese which seemed bland. One was often enough for a light lunch.

Espresso! Espresso. Don’t know how the Italians do it, but without a doubt the best coffee we’ve had anywhere. From road side gas stations to uptown restaurants, coffee rocks.

When it come to food, perhaps the best advice is a sign we saw in Marsala: