Traveling Sicily - Thoughts & Tips
March 27th, 2012

Ten fantastic days in Sicily and a plethora of thoughts, impressions and photos left with. Nicky is currently back on her book schedule & pressed for time, so I’m taking over (imagine evil laughter).


There will be more detailed follow-up posts and photos of course, but suffice to say that it’s been blowing my expectations out of the ballpark. Landscape, people and food-wise it was nothing short of a wonderful and enriching experience and if it wasn’t for Fabrizia Lanza, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to begin with. Since we know of a few friends (hey, we’re looking at you Kerrin, Natalie and Kasey) that are planning on visiting the island shortly, we thought about compiling a few tidbits about Sicily.

The Food

Eat typical Sicilian fare. Pizza and Pasta Carbonara may be Italian, but you came to Sicily for a reason, so don’t miss out!

Taste oranges and smell citrus fruits whenever you can, they are ridiculously good and there is an abundance of it, both in amounts and variety. Same goes for almonds, pistachios and olives.

Try fresh ricotta (sheep’s milk), in fact have plenty of it and then have a bit more. Also, don’t forget the other side of the family, fried ricotta, Cannoli, Tricotta and the obligatory piece of Cassata.

There is a reason why Sicily is big on sardines and swordfish, whether it’s part of a pasta dish or on their own. Of course, fresh seafood in general is a can’t-go-wrong-option. But so are the fried food indulgences like Arancine (balls of saffron rice filled with meat, cheese etc.) or Panelle (delicious deep fried fritters made with chickpea flour; one of my favorites) and vegetable dishes including Maccu di Favi (soup made with dried fava beans, wild fennel and chili pepper), countless artichoke variations and the manifold sweet and sour Caponata.

A general observation on restaurants, especially in low season they may or may not be open when you choose to pay them a visit. Website information may be incorrect or non-existent and don’t expect to find opening times on the restaurant’s door either. Always have a backup plan (or be willing to look for another spot…). On a tech note, still too many restaurant websites only use Flash, solely relying on your iPhone to figure things out may prove to be difficult.

Don’t be afraid to ask the locals, especially the ones producing or selling food. People are extremely helpful and offered us great tips. You don’t have to be fluent in Italian, but knowing a handful of key words will help break the ice.

Finally, it may be a no-brainer to most, but never ever eat at places that offer a “menu turistico” or similar, just pretend you didn’t see the place and walk past it.

Getting Around

Flying into Sicily leaves you with two main options, Catania or Palermo. Depending on your timeline you may want to focus on either the NW’ern or S/SE’ern side of Sicily. Up to you. Our recommendation, start with the East and South: Catania/Etna region, cross country to Case Vecchie/Regaleali or Agrigento (or, down to Ragusa, Modica, Scicli, Noto, Siracusa/Ortigia and back to Catania. Lots, LOTS to see on that route.

If you rent a car, which is highly recommended, rent a small one. You’ll be happy about it as soon as you enter one of the narrow roads of Ortigia or the winding hills nearby. We loved our Cinquecento to pieces.

Only rent a car, if you are a confident driver or quickly become one. Otherwise you might get a heart-attack on buzzing city roads, other drivers fooling you by either not using turn indicators or using them unexpectedly, cutting in and out not based on what’s allowed, but on what works. In other countries, two solid lines means no overtaking in either direction, here its a challenge to see if you can fit two small cars side by side without touching the lines. Our friend Theo (based in Rome…) once told us, “in terms of traffic lights, there’s always a bit of green in a red light“, just something to keep in the back of your head. Finally, check your speed at times , especially when on smaller country roads, not because you might get trapped, but because of the occasional massive hole in the street that appears out of nowhere and has the potential of surgically separating your chassis from the car body.

Gas prices these days run around €1.90/l,  having a mileage friendly car benefits both your wallet and the environment. Did I mention that we loved our 500er.

Parking in busy city centers can be challenging at times. Blue lines are always an option (pay!), ask the nearest shop where to get your ticket (some tickets look a bit like bingo cards).

If you apply common sense and it’s not your first trip to an Italian spot, there’s no reason to worry about safety. Quoting Fabrizia Lanza: “The Godfather (the movies) was the worst Hollywood could do to Sicily’s reputation.”. Again, a pinch of common sense is key, don’t stress yourself, no need to be afraid to bring your camera equipment, for instance.

Don’t expect people to speak English, especially in smaller villages. Better have some Italian phrases at hand and don’t be afraid to talk with your hands either (watch out for inappropriate gestures though). A smile always helps!

Photography wise there is an opulence of options, landscapes, shores, mountain villages, including the locals going after their daily routines. It goes without saying that, out of courtesy, you should always ask the locals before intrusively taking a picture of them. Compared to other places we’ve been to, people always responded very nice, we never heard a No!

Not bound to a specific traveling time? Check the annual event calendar and definitely travel during low season, March through April. You’ll find the nature transformed into a green & lush landscape and temperatures are just perfect (18-23°C during the day, but nights can be chilly!). If you want to take a splash wait for maybe another 4 weeks.

Google Maps is awesome and will help heaps, even though it’s not perfect and will miss the occasional back road, or blocked street. Make sure to get a good data roaming deal with your telco.

Buy an iPhone car adapter or check with the rental place if their cars are equipped with one already. Ours was. Did I mention how much we loved this little pipsqueak.

Depending on your schedule, try not to cover too much. While we conveniently drove hundreds of miles a day in the US, I’d recommend only a fraction of that and rather spend the time discovering Sicily and getting to know the people there. And the food!

[Oliver]

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