It’s hard to describe Sicily with just words. Sicily is scents – lemons and cigarette smoke – and sounds – church bells and bellowing fishermen at the market; it’s tastes – chilli and salty sea-spray, and of course sights – almost impossible to describe, but usually bathed in various hues of dripping, golden-yellow sunshine.
Our trip through the South-East started in Siracuse, briefly the capital of that most eclectic of Empires – the Byzantine Empire. Ortigia, the oldest and most beautiful part of the city, is actually an island that has to be reached by a small bridge. Here we strolled through narrow cafe’-strewn lanes that all seem to lead directly to piazza Duomo, a strangely oblong-shaped and dazzlingly bright piazza flanked by OTT aristocratic palaces and baroque churches. The Cathedral sits in the middle, and is a perfect microcosm of Sicilian history and architecture. With ancient Doric columns, a Norman roof in the nave, at one time a Mosque, and finally, (coming neatly full-circle) Corinthian columns on the facade, it is a perfect example of the dizzyingly complicated history and culture of Sicily. You wouldn’t know it just to look at it though, the end result of the whole piazza is a stunning and very aesthetically uniform example of high Sicilian Baroque.
As if to reinforce its identity crisis, Siracuse sits prettily by the sea, at the intersection of the Ionic and Mediterranean. We bought a seafood fry at the unassumingly-named but delicious Sicily Fish and Chips and ate by the water.
Things to do in Siracuse:
- Ortigia Food market – Blood-red oranges, dried chilli peppers, glistening black olives and giant, silver swordfish heads; all accompanied by a lot of shouting and gesturing. Every morning except Sunday.
- Piazza Duomo at Sunset – Watch the entire piazza transition from a bright, pearly white to deep orange.
- Go to the beach – There are two swimmable spots with small pebbly slips right in Ortigia itself. We went in November so we didn’t really fancy it but the water was a beautifully clear blue-green.
We weren’t meant to go Noto. Our actual destination was Modica, near Ragusa, but our naive assumption that we could make the short 2 hour journey to our intended destination in Sicily on a SUNDAY ended us up in the much nearer Noto. I am so unbelievably glad that I underestimated southern Italian Catholic fervour as Noto ended up being, as it so often happens, my favourite stop on the trip. Once a town of varying architectural cultures and styles, a massive earthquake in 1693 shook the town into a dazzling and unique uniformity of Sicilian baroque. Churches, Piazzas and Palazzos were reconstructed; streets were widened – a practical anticipation of future disaster with beautiful, airy and ironically calming results. Noto is small and quiet, and there isn’t a whole lot to do in the town itself apart from eat almond granitas or explore flamboyant palazzos, but just walking through the streets of Noto, when all the ubiquitous churches are lit up golden-orange at sunset, is an incredible experience.
Things to do in Noto:
- Visit the Palazzos, especially Nicolaci Palace – possibly the most striking example of typical Baroque style. Elaborate, iron-wrought balconies and mermaids, hippogryphs, and sphinxes decorate the outside, while the interior is a no-less elaborate display of Empire-style chandeliers and frescoed walls and ceilings.
- Walk the centro storico at sunset
- Get a granita and brioche at Caffe’ Sicilia – the granita’s are made with fresh, seasonal ingredients like Sicilian blood-orange, but the most traditional is almond flavour.
As beautiful as historic Ragusa is, with it’s tiny, private lemon orchards, stunning palm-fringed piazza and tangled alleys leading ever-up to the peak of Duomo S. Giorgio, the city is at its most breathtaking from afar, especially at night. From Ragusa superiore, the historic centre (Ibla) rises magnificently from the surrounding hills like an ambitious nativity scene. When it’s misty, Ibla becomes quite literally a city in the clouds. We had our best meal of our trip (and one of the best meals full stop) by far in Ragusa superiore at Trattoria da Luigi. It’s not what you’d normally expect from a trattoria – tiny, quiet and modern, options included pistachio carbonara and chilli and caper Sicilian pesto, all at pretty ridiculously cheap prices.
Things to do in Ragusa:
- Relatively unassuming from the outside, this neo-classical palazzo stuns from the moment you walk into the courtyard and on into the beautiful interior with hand-tiled floors and frescoed ceilings. The view of the Cathedral from the balconies is stunning, and it’s all topped off with with a Sicilian aperitif at the end. Book an appointment for a tour through their FB page.
- Get a wine-flavoured ice cream at Gelati divini, or another unusual flavour like prickly pear or chocolate and chilli.
If Ragusa is beautifully situated on a hilltop, Taormina on the North coast gives it some serious competition. Perched strikingly on the side of a cliff, it also has spectacular sea and Mount Etna views to boot. Having not suffered from the serious earthquakes in the south, the architecture is more varied, and there are some amazingly restored medieval buildings. Corvaja palace, from the 10th century, is Arabic with Gothic and Norman additions. It’s unique beauty also means that Taormina is very touristy, so I wouldn’t recommend it if what you’re after is the genuine Sicilian experience, or if you’re simply not in the mood for being ripped off.
If you want to escape the crowds and being 200 metres above sea level isn’t enough, then you can hike (or get a bus) like we did to Castelmola, a tiny medieval town above Taormina with magnificent views of Etna and the Tyrrhenian from its ruined castle. If you’re here visit Bar Turrisi – a cafe’/bar with beautiful views and some interesting decor. By interesting I mean that it is covered by pictures and sculptures of penises..everywhere..over four whole floors. It’s very random, especially for a bar in the middle of nowhere! It’s also apparently the birthplace of red almond wine, which you can of course buy in a penis-shaped bottle as a souvenir.
Things to do in Taormina:
Visit Isola Bella – We first glimpsed it on our train-ride to Siracuse, and thought it was some sort of mirage – too pretty to actually be real. Only a short bus drive from town, Isola Bella is like something out of a fairytale. A tiny, castle-topped island that juts out of the crystal-blue water and is separated from the main beach by a narrow sandbar.
Hike Etna – We’d looked into doing a tour with Viator but sadly didn’t have time. There are plenty of tours to choose from though, especially in the summer months, though I wouldn’t recommend the intense temperatures in July and August!
Hike to Castelmola – If you want a breather from the crowds this hike offers beautiful scenery of the coast and Mount Etna. It took us about an hour and a half. I’ve heard from some that the views from here are actually more impressive than hiking Etna.