I had been intrigued by the idea of going to Sicily for some time, so when it came time to plan this month-long trip, and we parsed out our preferences week by week, one of those weeks was devoted to Sicily. I did not want to spend the entire week traveling, so we settled on one city, Siracusa, and agreed that we would see the highlights of Eastern Sicily and not worry about Palermo or Cefalu. (There has been some consternation about not getting to Agrigento, but more about that later.) Sicily has two main airports – Palermo on the west and Catania on the East. We flew into Catania on a flight from Brindisi – changing planes in Rome – and wondering whether Alitalia would go into default while we were waiting at baggage claim. Fortunately, the government has decided to keep them flying for a while longer and our remaining flights are on other airlines.
The second bit of apprehension was car rental. I am always a little concerned about rental cars in countries where I don’t know the rules or speak the language, but renting a car at the Catania Airport was quick and easy – a lot easier than finding our way out of town and to the freeway to Siracusa, about an hour away.
The Italian autostradi are great roads, well-engineered. And part of their secret is that they don’t actually go anywhere near the towns. The exit from the A45 to Siracusa is a good 20 minutes from the city center, on awful streets. And they love roundabouts. I have only found a couple of stoplights in Siracusa, but many, many roundabouts getting from the autostrada to the city center. They are perfect for the Italian style of driving, which has no time for stopping but lots of energy for aggressive driving through roundabouts.
The other dilemma is parking. The Italians have a system, which was explained to me, about how to know where to park. If a parking space is outlined in orange, you should not park there or you will be towed. If it is blue, it is OK to park but you have to pay at one of the hard-to-find machines, some of which are still working. If it is white, you can park for free. As a practical matter, all of these spots are filled all of the time, regardless of color, and I have yet to see a tow truck. Obviously someone understands this system better than I do. I am always stewing about whether the car is going to be OK or not.
But Siracusa, itself, was a great choice, in my opinion. We are staying in the oldest part of town, Ortygia – an island connected to the main city by two bridges.
Ortygia was first settled by Corinth in the 7th Century B.C. There were wars with Athens in the 4th Century B.C., and Siracusa (and Ortygia) have been conquered by one or the other people for centuries. They managed to make peace with Rome, but later were taken by Vandals, Goths, Normans, Arabs, etc. You certainly can see the Greek influence in the architecture, and a highlight of the city is visiting a beautiful Greek theatre and Roman amphitheatre. Most of what is left in the Greek theatre actually dates from Rome.
And a lot of the city was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693, and a lot of the buildings are on Greek, Roman or Norman ruins or foundations.
We took a side trip to Taormina, which has a famous Greek theatre as well that is not as old and not as well-preserved, but is in a magnificent setting overlooking the sea. Taormina is also well-known as a place for the jet set and is a popular cruise port. As we saw it, in October, it was touristy but manageable. I think August would be very different. Pat and I joined the jet set – at least in spirit – by having a cup of coffee on the terrace the five-star “Grand Hotel Timeo” overlooking the sea. (Today when I walked down to the Port area in Siracusa I noticed a giant cruise ship tied up here – we will see what the crowds do to this calm little island today.)
It is an advantage to have a car here – as we were able to add Taormina, Ragusa and Noto to our list of cities visited. There are amazing baroque buildings in Noto, and a remarkable medieval old town –Ragusa Ibla – in Ragusa. It is a tradeoff with the hassle of car rental and parking but clearly worth it on this trip. I wussed out of driving across Sicily to Agrigento, which has a famous Greek temple. I hope we can come back. You just can’t get to every UNESCO world-heritage site on one trip.
A couple of other thoughts about this part of Sicily:
I had the strangest pizza – of course I don’t eat those California kitchen monstrosities back home with barbequed chicken and pineapple. Here, I ordered a pizza with mushrooms and salami – normal, huh? But what came, while good, included not only meat and mushrooms, but also a couple of entire hard-boiled eggs, peas and whole olives. Peas do not belong on pizza.
Also, please consider this consumer warning:
The Italians are justifiably proud of their great olives and wonderful olive oil, but they are indiscriminate about their use. Just because an olive has been baked into a bread, or put on top of a pizza, is no indication of whether the pit has been removed. I don’t know whether they are just in a hurry or being paid off by the dental lobby, but it pays to be careful.
So, with those few reservations, we heartily recommend Sicily and Siracusa. The weather is great, the setting is very beautiful and we are going for walks every night in the moonlight. I have yet to wear a jacket and it is Oct 21. The natives are friendly and helpful. It is very different from other parts of Italy we have visited. We sat next to an Australian couple at dinner last night who were back for their third trip here. It made perfect sense.