Itinerary: Catania – Taormina – Syracuse – Mount Etna – Stromboli – Cefalú – Palermo
Catania and Taormina
Buona sera! It is 11 p.m. on a Saturday evening when I check in at my hotel in the center of Catania, on the east coast of Sicily. Because I myself sometimes confuse Sicily and Sardinia: Sicily is the island that sits south of the ‘Italian boot’. It is 26,000 square kilometers in size and has five million inhabitants. Sicily has a traditional society, especially outside the cities: very Catholic, patriarchal and family life is central. Loyalty to the family is paramount here and Sicilians are first and foremost Sicilians and then Italians. The island also suffers from a number of persistent problems: the interdependence between politics and organized crime due to the still very present mafia, high unemployment and – a more recent problem – the influx of asylum seekers who cross the Mediterranean in boats and end up in Sicily.
I don’t spend my first day in Sicily in Catania, but in Taormina. I didn’t plan to do that until later this week, but next Friday the G7 summit will take place in Taormina and therefore the whole town will be closed from the outside world starting from Monday. And so on Sunday morning I walk to the bus station to go to Taormina. This ancient town is an hour’s drive north of Catania, against a mountain slope, overlooking the Ionian Sea. Although Taormina is still accessible today, there are already a lot of military and police officers on the streets. Literally every street, every square and every alley is guarded by heavily armed soldiers. While the G7 summit is not until Friday…
I first visit the Teatro Greco, as the name implies an ancient Greek theater, built in the third century of our era. It is the second largest Greek theater in Italy after the theater in Syracuse. Not much is left of the old theater, only part of the grandstand and part of the wall that forms the backdrop. Although the real decor is behind it: the theater is built on a beautiful spot on the coast, with a view over the sea and the volcano Etna. This beautiful location attracts many visitors to Taormina, which is very touristy. You can see the most important sights of the town in a few hours: Corso Umberto I, the main street with mainly (souvenir) shops and restaurants, Piazza IX Aprile, with a panoramic view of the sea, the bell tower from the end of the twelfth century and Piazza del Duomo , with a modest 13th-century cathedral and a fountain built four centuries later.
I take the bus back to Catania and walk from the bus station to the old town. Catania was founded more than 2,700 years ago and was then called Katáne. As a result of an eruption of the volcano Etna, the city was destroyed in 1669 and a major earthquake followed in 1693. After that, Catania was rebuilt and the historic buildings that you now find in the center of Catania date from the late seventeenth century. I have lunch on the terrace of a restaurant in Via Coppola and order the local specialty: Pasta alla Norma. Then I walk via Via Etna, the main shopping street of Catania, to the Giardino Bellini. In this park you are away from the busy traffic and you can relax. At the end of the afternoon I look for a spot on the terrace of wine bar Razmataz, under the trees at a crawling distance from my hotel, a perfect place to spend a few hours with a book and a good glass of wine. Or two…
I spend the next morning in Catania. I walk down the Via Crociferi, a quiet street full of city palaces and churches, via the Arco de San Benedetto to the Piazza dell’Universita, a square lined with monumental city palaces: Palazzo dell’Universita and Palazzo Sangiulano. Catania is a busy, vibrant city. In many places you are surrounded by honking cars, scooters roaming the narrow streets and the noise of construction work. It is therefore nice to occasionally walk into a quiet side street.
The most famous and most visited square in Catania is Piazza del Duomo, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The cathedral on one side, city palaces on the other three sides and the Fontana dell’Elefanti (an eighteenth century fountain depicting an elephant with an obelisk on its back) in the middle. A corner of the square leads to La Pescheria, where a fish market takes place every weekday morning. If you go by the smell, you can’t miss the market. Finally, I walk past the Castello Ursino. The fortress was built on the coast in the thirteenth century to protect Sicily from attacks from the sea, but the lava flows that buried Catania after an eruption of Mount Etna now surrounds Castello Ursino by land.
After a pizza for lunch, I take the bus to Syracuse, arriving there just before four o’clock. Syracuse consists of two parts: the new part of the city on the ‘mainland’ (a bit strange designation since Sicily is an island…) and Ortyga, the old city, which is located on a peninsula. I’m going to see Ortyga tomorrow, but at the end of the afternoon I’ll walk over the bridge to the northern part of the old town to have a glass of wine on a terrace.
The Greeks settled in Ortyga around 700 BCE, but present-day Ortyga dates back to the Middle Ages. It is a maze of narrow streets with old facades with balconies and city palaces and squares with terraces. I walk along the boulevard on the west side of the peninsula, overlooking the Ionian Sea, and where it is still wonderfully quiet in the morning. The Fontana Aretusa is also located here, which has been a source of water for the city since ancient times. At the southern tip of Ortyga stands Castello Maniace, a fortification from the thirteenth century. I walk about the abandoned vaults and over the meters thick fortress walls.
Down narrow streets I arrive at Piazza del Duomo, the central square of Syracuse. It is a beautiful, elongated square, surrounded by large city palaces and of course the cathedral. A Greek acropolis was located on this site in ancient times and the cathedral is built on the remains of an ancient Greek temple. The only thing that still reminds of this are a number of old Doric columns that are now incorporated into the side wall of the cathedral. I continue on Via Cavour, a lively street with many shops and restaurants, past Piazza Archimede, with the Fontana di Artemide, and Via della Maestranza to the east side of Ortyga. The water is never far away here – always nice. Although Syracuse is also touristy, I think it is a more beautiful and more relaxed city than Catania.
After lunch, in the courtyard of one of the many restaurants, I look for a bench under the trees on the boulevard that I walked on this morning. Here I relax for a while, with a book and the lounge music from the bar next door in the background. At the end of the afternoon I pick up the rental car that I have rented for the next three days. The smallest rental car I’ve ever had: a Smart.
Etna and Stromboli
The next morning I drive north on the autostrada in that Smart. The speed limit here is 130 km/h, which I find quite fast for a two-lane highway in not-so-great condition. At Catania I leave the highway and drive – aided by the navigation on my smartphone, otherwise I would absolutely get lost – through small villages with narrow streets to the volcano Etna. In those villages I am glad that my rental car is so small… The last twelve kilometers there are no villages and virtually no traffic, only the slope of the volcano, with its ground blackened by the lava. I zigzag upwards and arrive at exactly 9 a.m. at the cable car, which takes you up the first part of Etna.
Mount Etna is 3,329 meters high, making it the largest active volcano in Europe. The volcano erupts regularly – the last time a few months ago. The cable car starts at 1,923 meters and takes you to 2,500 meters in a few minutes. From there you can continue with a kind of 4×4 minibuses, but I choose to walk. It is quite a tough hike (and keep in mind that it is a lot colder at this altitude). On paper it is only two kilometers, but they are uphill and some parts are quite steep. It takes me an hour. The people who took the minibus get there a lot faster, but by walking you experience the volcano much more.
Mount Etna covers an area of more than 1,500 square kilometers and has several peaks and craters. The highest two peaks are the South East Crater and the Bocca Nuova. In total there are four large craters and several smaller ones. And all that in the midst of a vast black, moon-like landscape. Here and there steam comes out of little holes in the ground and when you put your hand on the ground you can feel it’s warm. It makes you realize that deep beneath your feet, red-hot lava is swirling and the pressure is slowly rising, until a new eruption of not to be underestimated natural violence follows. The lunar-like environment, but especially that realization makes Etna an impressive place to be.
After walking around, I start the walk back down. I drive down the east side of Etna, towards the coast and then via the autostrada towards Messina. Here, on the north side of Sicily, you can see the mainland of Italy. Then I drive a short distance along the north coast of the island to Milazzo. Here I spend one night to take the boat to Stromboli in the morning. The car can stay next to the hotel until I get back. After checking in and showering off the sweat and dust, I walk into town. Milazzo is a port town and the base for the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily. The town is not very special, but I think it is very nice, with a beautiful boulevard on the west side, a beach on the east side and a number of fine restaurants. At one of them I eat an excellent pizza, the glass of wine I order with it is so big that it’s actually two.
On Thursday morning I get up early. After having breakfast on the roof terrace (the day couldn’t start any better), I leave at 7:30 am with the hydrofoil to Stromboli. A hydrofoil is a kind of boat on skis, which is faster than a classic ferry. We visit almost all the Aeolian Islands on the way: Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Panarea, and after 3.5 hours we arrive at Stromboli. The Volcano Island looks like you would draw a volcano: an almost perfect conical mountain rising 924 meters high from the Thyrene Sea. I check in at my hotel for tonight and then have lunch at the pizzeria on the square near the church. From the terrace you have a panoramic view over the Thyrene Sea. The village of Stromboli, on the north side of the island of the same name, consists mainly of white plastered houses on narrow streets. There are no cars on the island, just a kind of golf carts that are used as taxis and a vehicle that is a kind of mix between a moped and a pickup. On the north side of the village I come to a small beach, which consists of black lava sand. There is a dilapidated pier and a little offshore is a small rock island with a lighthouse.
Stromboli is an active volcano – a small eruption occurs approximately every twenty minutes. There are two ways to see this natural spectacle up close: by walking in 2.5 hours via the southeastern flank of the volcano to a viewpoint at 924 meters, or by walking in over an hour via the northwest flank to a viewpoint called Sciara del Fuoco, at 400 meters altitude. I choose the latter. Halfway through the walk you will pass a restaurant with a large terrace overlooking the volcano. After eating something here, I’m ready for the climb. The hiking trail zigzags upwards. The first part goes up slightly, then the path gets steeper and narrower. Ultimately, the path only consists of lava sand and loose stones and especially the last part goes up quite steeply. Once at the top, the view is breathtaking. On the right, a view of the sea, where the sun slowly sets, right in front of you a huge lava field, from the top of the slope of the volcano to the sea, and on the left the top of the Stromboli, where an eruption occurs about every twenty minutes. Red-hot lava and rocks are flung into the air, accompanied by an ominous growl. Very impressive!
At a quarter past eight the sun has set and it gets dark quickly. In the twilight I start the descent. Some parts are overgrown and I quickly need my flashlight to see where I’m putting my feet. It will soon be completely dark and then a flashlight is indispensable. After about one and a half hour walk I am back in the village. The next morning I have to get up early again to catch the 7:15 a.m. boat. The village is still asleep, but a coffee bar is already open at the harbor. Just like elsewhere in Italy, you will also find small coffee bars everywhere in Sicily, where you can have breakfast the Italian way: with a (double) espresso and a croissant filled with jam, chocolate or pudding. I order a croissant and a double espresso to wake up. The boat back is slightly faster than the one on the way out, I’m back in Milazzo at ten. My car is still neatly parked next to the hotel.
Cefalú and Palermo
Via the autostrada I drive to Cefalú and park the car along a street just outside the center. A road sign warns that parked cars will be towed, but an old lady sitting outside on the patio of her apartment tells me it’s fine if I park my car there (“Si, bene!”). I trust her… Cefalú is a beautiful, old town, with narrow streets, squares with churches and a beautiful beach, but also very touristy. The beach is full of people and the terraces are also full. I have lunch on the terrace of a restaurant, overlooking the beach and then I walk about the old town.
After my short visit to Cefalú, I drive in a little over an hour to Palermo, my last destination during this week in Sicily. The autostrada in Sicily could also have been called ‘The road of a thousand tunnels’, I feel like I’m driving through tunnels half the time… Once in Palermo I return the car and walk to the bed & breakfast that I have booked. Once there, it turns out that something went wrong with the reservation. Eventually I am offered a room in another bed & breakfast of the same owner, near Piazza Marina. Fine by me. Piazza Marina is also an excellent place to spend the rest of the afternoon on a terrace, with a glass of wine, a book, nice weather and relaxing music in the background.
I use my last day to see Palermo. It is a bright day, the sun is shining in a clear blue sky. Palermo is the largest city in Sicily and has about 800,000 inhabitants. The city looks like it has stumbled into the present from a distant past. The old center is home to numerous city palaces from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, narrow cobbled streets dating back to the Middle Ages and squares with churches and palm trees. Some old buildings are in poor condition, due to years of lack of maintenance or lack of maintenance, but that’s part of Palermo’s charm. Modern life with cars and smartphones and tourists, restaurants, coffee bars and ice cream parlors, takes place here with this medieval decor as a backdrop.
It is best to just walk around and admire the beautiful architecture. The main sights, but also the small quiet streets are worth a visit. In the morning it is still quiet on the street, later in the day it gets a lot busier (it is Saturday, everyone is free and there are many tourists). I walk past Piazza Pretoria, a square surrounded by city palaces with a huge fountain in the middle: the richly decorated Fontana Pretoria from the sixteenth century. Next to Piazza Pretoria is Piazza Bellini, with La Martorana, a church with Byzantine mosaics once intended as a mosque. Piazza Vigliena is nicknamed Cuatro Canti and is perhaps one of the most beautiful intersections in the world. At the four corners of the intersection, the high, circumferential facades of the seventeenth-century palazzi, with statues and fountains, give the intersection the shape of a circle. Very nice.
The canolo (a typical Italian snack) that I have is so powerful that I don’t need lunch for a while. And so I walk on and down narrow streets and the Ballaro market I arrive at Piazza Independenza with the Palazzo dei Normanni. This building was originally built in the ninth century, but later extensively renovated and is now the seat of the Sicilian parliament. I walk down Corso Vittorio Emanuele through the Arab-style city gate Porta Nuova. This is one of the major streets in central Palermo that is closed to car traffic on Saturdays, leaving the road clear for pedestrians. I pass the Cattedrale di Palermo, a strange mix of architectural styles because the cathedral has been expanded over the centuries. Construction started in 1184, but the arched gates date from the fifteenth century and the dome from the eighteenth century. Via via I eventually arrive at Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, where the Teatro Massimo is located, the largest theater in Italy and the second largest in Europe.
After relaxing for a while in Piazza Politeama, in what is called the ‘new town’, the district north of the old town, in the early evening it is time to take the bus to the airport for the flight back to the Netherlands. I haven’t seen all of Sicily by far, but a week on this Italian island is already very worthwhile! Historic cities, impressive volcanoes, wine and delicious food make it a relaxed destination, less than a three-hour flight from the Netherlands.