1st June through 11th June, 2018
Thanks to a work-related conference, I had an opportunity to visit one of the pearls of Italy. Sicily is the largest of the Italian islands and being there was like experiencing a fantasy world! Its well-kept architecture, history, tradition and scenery are sure to put you in a state of reverie. Here are my impressions visiting the east coast of this enchanting island that included the gorgeous town of Taormina, Mt Etna and the island of Ortygia.
Sicily is located at the southern tip of Italy separated from the mainland by Straits of Messina and surrounded by the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea. We stayed in Taormina, a picture-perfect tourist town situated at the top of the hill overlooking the Ionian Sea on the east coast of Sicily. The town offers well-preserved Greek and Roman ruins, eclectic shops and restaurants, fantastic views of the coastal landscape and the Mt. Etna Volcano.
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Optimum times to travel to Sicily are the months of May, June, September or October. Temperatures are generally mild with the highs ranging in the 70s to low 80s with plenty of sunshine and the lows dipping down into the 60s and 70s. July and August can get pretty hot and very crowded, however the fall months can have heavy rainfall.
MODES OF TRANSPORT: The closest airport to Taormina is Catania Fontanarossa (CTA) and I have to admit that flying into CTA from the US, is not the most convenient. Itineraries can be as long as 18-24 hours, depending on your starting city with two or more layovers. Depending on the time of the year, flight fares also tend to be pricey. From San Antonio, Texas, the cheapest way to fly was to take a direct flight to Baltimore, MD, drive to Dulles International Airport, (IAD, Washington DC) and then fly to CTA via Frankfurt on Lufthanza Airline. Fastest itinerary from IAD to CTA was about 11-13 hours including the layover. We also had to stay overnight in Washington DC before we took our flights back to San Antonio on the way back, as we got in too late in the night to be able to catch flights home the same night. In total, our flights cost about $1300 USD. Flight deals are best obtained if booked about 6 months in advance.
CTA airport is small, organized and easy to navigate, although it can get very crowded and therefore it is recommended to keep good time before your departure during peak seasons. Upon arrival, immigration and customs is not done at this airport. You will go through immigration at the first port of entry in the Schengen area, in our case Frankfurt.
Taormina is under an hour drive from CTA airport if you rent a private taxi or a car and about hour and half if you opt for the regular bus service. Bus tickets for 8.5 euros one way can be purchased in advance online (www.interbus.it) or at the ticket office outside the airport or even on the bus. One downside of taking the bus is that the Taormina bus terminal is on via Luigi Pirandello, a short walk downhill from the town center and will require you to lug your bags. Private taxis will cost approximately 100-125 euros depending on the number of people sharing it. Bus travel is also available between most towns of Sicily even to places where trains aren’t available.
Small local buses are available to commute within Taormina and nearby districts, however, my recommendation is to discover this picturesque and electic town on foot. Taormina is small enough to be explored entirely by walking. The town allows for easy strolls through the markets, restaurants and attractions as well as for moderately difficult hikes through the alleys and stairs that are beautifully maintained or even decorated against the magnificent oceanic scenery.
Sicily is well connected by a Ferry-Train to commute easily from mainland Italy. It runs on an unusual but a fascinating mechanism where the train is transported on a ferry across the Straits of Messina before being split into two routes; one heading west and the other to the east. More details about this Ferry-train can be found at https://blog.eurail.com/sicily-train-ferry/. Taormina has a train station (Taormina Giardini) situated below the town by the sea and is around 15 mins drive to the town center. It directly connects Messina, Catania and Siracusa as well as several towns in Italy ending in Rome. Travel time from Rome to Taormina is approximately 9 hours and tickets are reasonably priced at 66 euros for second class and 91 euros for first class. Tickets can be bought at www.trainline.eu or http://www.trenitalia.com/. Trains are also available to travel from Taormina to cities and town in the west coast via a change of train in Catania.
Another means of transport that I would highly recommend for experiencing Sicily is simple driving yourself. Renting a car and driving around the island is easy, organized and fun. Roads are well kept and traffic is not difficult to manage at all. If you plan on travelling around Sicily, driving yourself can allow for realizing this rugged and pastoral island in its true sense. Most of the known rental car companies like Alamo, Budget, Hertz and Enterprise are available and you have the option of renting from the airport or within the town. Keep in mind though, that it may take some time to obtain a car once you are at the store and therefore planning ahead becomes important.
STAY: Our conference and stay was at Hotel Villa Diodoro ,steps away from all the action in Taormina. The hotel is optimally situated a few minutes inland of the town right next to the communal gardens to where it maintains the peace and quiet but also is minutes away by foot from the town center. The hotel offers a luxurious and exquisite experience in the resort town of Taormina with sufficiently spacious guestrooms, a meeting room, a swimming pool for adults and kids, couple of bars, a restaurant and a big terrace with patio seating, all looking out to the volcanic Mt Etna and the spectacular Bay of Naxos. Amenities in the rooms were adequate, except that we had to buy our own iron box. A minibar with a refrigerator is available for guests in each room. Wifi in the rooms, though complimentary was quite spotty, but worked well in the lobby and other areas of the hotel. I considered the complimentary breakfast provided, of mediocre quality despite a good spread . It included a spread of assorted cheeses and pastries, scrambled and hard-boiled eggs, some meat, breads, flavored yogurt, cereal, coffee, tea and juices. Car parking was complimentary with our reservation. Customer service was friendly and knowledgeable and mostly spoke English and readily accommodated any guest requests. The hotel also offers a free shuttle service to one of its sister hotels that allows for access to a private beach situated below the town.
We travelled back to Catania for our flight home the following day. We stayed at the Airone City Hotel, located at a 10 min drive from the town center and at 20 min drive from the CTA airport. The hotel offers very comfortable and spacious rooms and bathrooms including the option of a massive two-bedroom two-bathroom apartment, which is the one we rented. The contemporary styled apartment could easily sleep 5 people with one sleeper sofa, one bedroom with two twin beds and the master bedroom with a king bed. It also included a dining table and a free minibar with nonalcoholic drinks. Amenities were adequate in the room including two pairs of slippers and bathrobes but lacked the iron box. Wifi worked well in the room, although AC didn’t work as efficiently. The hotel also offered a pool and complimentary breakfast, which was pretty good. Customer Service was very friendly and spoke English.
- Teatro Greco : The theatre is also called a Greco Roman Theatre as it was first built by the Greeks and eventually adapted by the Romans. The theatre is the most visited attraction of Taormina due to its unique architecture as well as the stunning backdrop it offers. It is located on the edge of the hill overlooking the Ionian Sea as well as the smoking Mt Etna. Hanging out on its curved stairs in an open historic construction while taking in the views definitely cant be missed. The theatre is still being used for performances in the summer and you may want to look into attending a show while you are there.
- Corso Umberto: This street that runs through the town center from Porta Catania on the south-west to Porta Messina on the north-east. It is the liveliest and a vibrant street yet can be very romantic and cannot be missed while in Taormina. It is lined with restaurants, bars, and shops and all of it is open until late night. Halfway along the street, you will reach Piazza IX Aprile, which is an open square with benches to sit and absorb the gorgeous views of the sea. The entire street is lit up in the night and comes alive with music and entertainment by your side. One can easily spend a couple of hours by just strolling through this street without being weary. Charming and attractive alleys and staircases above and below the Corso will leave you amazed and starring, representing for the exceptional arrangement and orderliness of the town.
- Trevelyan Gardens : Also known as Villa Communale, the public garden is located on via Bagnoli Corce, right next to the hotel Villa Diodoro. Because of its location, the garden features panoramic walkway with the views of the sea and Mt Etna as well as a very well kept, dense landscape of flowers, lawns, bushes and trees. It also contains some cottages and towers, caged birds and a children’s play area. It is a very beautiful, quaint place to get away from the hustle-bustle and sit for a while to admire, relax and contemplate.
- Isola Bella : Located below the town is this nice little rocky beach that can be accessed by foot, cable car or bus. Isola Bella itself is an islet protruding out of the beach shore with a villa built by Florence Trevelyan that is now converted into a museum with artefacts. The museum closes early evening, however, if you visit the beach past 5pm, it is very peaceful and quiet with only the sea waves making pleasant noise. During the day it can by a busy place as there are many restaurants lining the shore and the area being quite small. The cable car (funiva) is available between Taormina and beach resort of Mazzaro and it is runs until 1am. If you decide to walk down to the beach, (recommended), you can take the many many steps from Belvedere all the way down. It took us about 30 minutes downhill, which was a fun and a scenic walk against backdrop of the ocean.
- Medieval Castle and Madonna Della Rocca : For lovers of a good hike, I would definitely recommend going up Monte Tauro, 398 meters above sea level. It’s a stepped hike with approximately 758 steps from Taormina. On the way you can stop at the Madonna Della Rocca chapel. Although, the Castle (Castello di Taormina) on the top isn’t accessible anymore, the hike is worth for the mighty views it offers looking down onto the entire town of Taormina.
- Other attractions that are worth considering are a visit to a village of Savoca , just north of Taormina where the Godfather Movie was shot. There are also 4-hour godfather tours available for the die-hard fans. Castlemola , which is further north of the Castello Di Taormina is another small, authentic and scenic town outside of Taormina.
- Mt Etna : We took a day trip to the smoking Mt Etna. Mt Etna is the highest and the most active volcano in all of Europe. It erupts quite frequently in the form of lava flow, ash and smoke and thus also makes it quite safe to visit. It boasts the most inimitable background with black soil, volcanic rocks and red-orange lava. It therefore makes a great venue for hiking, skiing and splendid photography. They say, if you are lucky, you can witness the red-orange lava oozing out on a dark starry night, which is an experience of a lifetime. Apparently the volcanic soil is extremely conducive for growing vineyards of apple, chestnut and hazelnut on the mountain slopes. There are many one-day tours and excursions from Taormina that will pick and drop you back to your hotel. Alternatively, you can rent a car for a day and drive up to the mountain, which for us was a very pleasant experience. The drive is slightly over an hour to Rifugio Sapienza and becomes pictorial with lush trees and bushes on both sides when you get on the mountain. From Rifugio Sapienza, you have multiple options. You can hike up small hills in the area or go up to 2900m to the summit area. To get up there, you can either hike yourself or take the cable car and jeep with a guide. The cable car and the jeep with the guide, altogether are for 64 euros which is a steep price. The guide takes you around the summit craters for approximately 40 min short trek. You can also opt for a longer trek up to 3300m which is moderately strenuous, cost 70 euros in total and for which a guide is a must. Total excursion time for the longer trek is 5-6 hours and therefore is suggested to start earlier in the morning. Make sure you wear good hiking shoes, sunglasses and perhaps a jacket to fight wind for your excursion. Hiking poles can also be helpful for some.
- Siracusa : We also took another day-trip to Siracusa and the Island of Ortygia, although one can easily spend a couple days in this city. Siracusa is about 2 hours away from Taormina by train and costs 9 euros to get there. Buses are also available to Siracusa but can take longer. Located south of Taormina and Catania on the east coast, Siracusa is well known for its Greek history and culture and is a birthplace of the famous mathematician and engineer Archimedes. The nucleus of the city lies in the Island of Ortygia with many historical landmarks and is about 20 min-walk from the train station. Popular attractions include the Archeological Park containing Greek theatre , the Ear of Dionysius and the museum. The Island of Ortygia is scenic and presents with the Temple of Apollo , The Piazza Archimedes, The Duomo of Siracusa and the Fonte Arethusa. The area of the Duomo is an open square with the magnificent cathedral and lots of street shops to explore. Fonte Arethusa is towards the very tip-end of the island with fresh water spring, where papyrus grows. There are several shops and restaurants near the fountain looking out into the sea below. You will also find several people taking a dip into the ocean water as the water is very still and calm in this area.
FOOD: Food in Taormina was remarkably good! Taormina has an infinite number of restaurants to try out and all the ones we tried were different from the other. There were plenty of vegetarian options available at all places and included a variety of pastas, raviolis, pizzas, risotto, gnocchi, appetizers and desserts. Unique specialties of Sicily that are a must try are aroncini and granitas, not to mention gelato and giant canolos (canolis) as they call it. Aroncini is an appetizer made of rice balls stuffed with cheese, ragu (meat and tomato sauce) and peas, coated with breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Vegetarian aroncini is also available in some places. Granita is a semi-frozen dessert made of sugar, water and various flavorings and comes with the option of added cream. You can get a combination of two flavors and my favorite was the almond with coffee. Interestingly, granita is also taken with a brioche pastry for breakfast during the summers. Bam Bar in Taormina is a famous little café for scrumptious granitas. Marzipan, A European dessert made of sugar, honey, almond meal and flavorings molded into amusing objects and characters is also available in Sicily.
But then, we cannot forget pistachio! Unexpectedly, there were pistachios everywhere in Sicily. They have pistachios in desserts, pistachios in pasta sauces, pistachios as pizza toppings, pistachios in drinks, pistachios as garnish, pistachios in canolos, gelatos, granitas and more and more pistachios. It was a very unusual ingredient yet very appropriately used for all Italian food and I loved it. Another unique, refreshing and delicious dish that we tried was the orange salad. Really yummy and just perfect for the summers. Among the drinks was the very famous limoncellos (Lemon Liqueur) available at every nook and corner and is also a must-try for alcohol lovers.
An unusual but standard practice that is encountered in all Italian restaurants is the addition of Coperto in your bill. Coperto is a cover charge that is added for dining in towards tablecloths, cutlery and bread. It may range from 1 to 5 euros per person.
OTHER USEFUL INFO:
- We rented a pocket wifi from Tepwirelesss which worked really well. It cost a 100USD for 12 days including shipping. They can ship the package to you at your address in the US or at your hotel or you can even pick it up at the airport. The package includes the pocket wifi device, a USB cable for charging, a universal adapter and a stamped return envelope. The device allows connecting 5 devices at a time and the data speed is pretty good to be able to use navigation, youtube videos or stream music. We had about 2-3 people use it at a given time and the device did run out of charge after about 10-12 hours. So make sure you carry a battery pack on the go.
- People in Sicily speak fairly communicable English especially at tourist spots. However, some Italian words, phrases, sentences can come in handy. Here are links to two videos that will teach some basic and common words and sentences for travelers. They are fun and easy to learn.
- Other Places worth visiting in Sicily are: Palermo (http://palermo.com/), the Aeolian Islands (http://www.visitsicily.info/en/10cosea/the-aeolian-islands/) (this can be done in a day cruise (https://www.viator.com/tours/Taormina/Aeolian-Islands-Day-Trip-from-Taormina-Stromboli-and-Panarea/d4237-6099ISLANDS) for 80 euros from Taormina), Agrigento (http://www.visitsicily.info/en/10cosea/agrigento/), the Zingaro Reserve (http://www.visitsicily.info/en/the-zingaro-reserve/) and a scenic drive through Cefalu/Madonie Park/Polizzi Generosa/Petralia Soprana.
- Carrying Euros is suggesed as you will visit places that only take cash. My recommendation would be around 150-200 euros per person for a 10 day trip.
A big thanks to my friend Dustin Green for proof-reading this post!