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First Week Exploring Sicily

March 21st, 2023

As we had not spent the  night too far from Villa San Giovanna (where you catch the ferry to Sicily),  by 10:30 we were there; we paid €91 for a round trip ticket to Sicily valid for 60 days.  Kinda pricey we thought, but no other way to get over there!  The ferry took about 50 minutes and docked about 8km / 5 mi further south than we expected so we had less to drive as we were heading south anyway.

Sicily is the largest and most populous island in the Mediterranean Sea and one of the 20 regions of Italy. The Strait of Messina divides it from the region of Calabria in Southern Italy. Sicily is south of the Italian Peninsula in continental Europe. Its most prominent landmark is Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, and one of the most active in the world, currently 3,357 m (11,014 ft) high. The island has a typical Mediterranean climate. The region has 5 million inhabitants. Its capital city is Palermo.

The earliest archaeological evidence of human activity on the island dates from as early as 12,000 BC. By around 750 BC, Sicily had three Phoenician and a dozen Greek colonies and it was later the site of the Sicilian Wars and the Punic Wars. After the end of the Roman province of Sicilia with the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, Sicily was ruled during the Early Middle Ages by the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantine Empire, and the Emirate of Sicily. The Norman conquest of southern Italy led to the creation of the County of Sicily in 1071, that was succeeded by Kingdom of Sicily, a state that existed from 1130 until 1816. Later, it was unified under the House of Bourbon with the Kingdom of Naples as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The island became part of Italy in 1860 following the Expedition of the Thousand, a revolt led by Giuseppe Garibaldi during the Italian unification, and a plebiscite. Sicily was given special status as an autonomous region on 15 May 1946, 18 days before the Italian institutional referendum of 1946.

Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature, cuisine, and architecture.

This is the flag of Sicily:

The flag is characterized by the presence of the triskeles in its middle, the (winged) head of Medusa and three wheat ears, representing the extreme fertility of the land of Sicily.  The triskelion symbol is said to represent the three capes which form three points of a triangle of the island.

The flag is bisected diagonally into regions colored red, the color of Palermo, and yellow, the color of Corleone. These are the two cities that started the revolution of the Sicilian Vespers. The flag was used during the medieval revolution of the Vespers. 

Our destination today was the village of Taormina – the most visited city in Sicily and famous for being atop a mountain. We had been lead to believe that no way should we try and take our motorhome into town.  (For anyone who watches White Lotus – this is where the most recent season took place.) Not wanting to take the toll highway, we took the coastal road and it was not fast but it was a nice drive – a little hair raising when we had to drive through a town especially when it was a two way street with cars parked on one side or the other!

We had found two options for parking on park4night: one above the town and walk in about 1.5 km or one below the town and walk uphill over 200m in elevation to get into the village.  We tried the upper one first and it didn’t pan out at all.  Doug tried to parallel park but the last spot was not quite big enough.  A parking area for campervans looking promising but when Fran opened the gate a little wider, someone came and told us it was closed!  He told us to go back into the village and on the other side of the tunnel park at Porto Catania parking.  We could see the first level was tall enough and there was a bus entrance but when we tried to enter, our credit card wouldn’t take and when Doug pushed the button for help, we got a rude “you cannot park here” when we tried to speak English.  So we turned around and went back to check that parking area again with no luck so our only option was to drive down 3 km / 1.2 mi to the lower parking area.  That was practically empty so we got situated and decided it would do.  It had a lot of trees surrounding and we got the one spot where the sun could get through for our panels.

We locked up after parking and found the trailhead to hike up.  It didn’t take more than 20 minutes with a couple of catch your breath stops for Fran and then we were in town. There were many nice spots to take photos too.

It’s a charming but touristy town.  We first walked to check out two city gates:

Porto di Mezzo

And Porto Messina

Then we walked through the cute streets to the Greek Theatre.  This was a UNESCO site as was the whole town actually, and we had to pay €10 each to enter.

The ancient theatre of Taormina is built for the most part of brick, and is therefore probably of Roman date, though the plan and arrangement are in accordance with those of Greek, rather than Roman, theatres; whence it is supposed that the present structure was rebuilt upon the foundations of an older theatre of the Greek period. With a diameter of 109 metres (358 ft) (after an expansion in the 2nd century), this theatre is the second largest of its kind in Sicily (after that of Syracuse); it is frequently used for operatic and theatrical performances and for concerts. The greater part of the original seats have disappeared, but the wall which surrounded the whole cavea is preserved. From the fragments of architectural decorations still extant it has been determined that these were of the Corinthian order, and richly ornamented.

It was quite large, you could see restoration work and there were some great views out over the sea.  We checked out the small “antiquarium” with a few marble pieces and mosaics then went to see the views at the restaurant.  We could see the cable car which was what we planned to do next but there did not seem to be any movement on it.  We watched for a while and it seemed like it wasn’t running although the internet said it ran year round.  It runs from the village down to the nearby beach far below so it would have been an interesting ride.  Oh well.

We took our time wandering back to the hike down and then returned to Minou.  By now the sun had, of course, shifted, and we decided to pull more into the middle of the parking area but still around the edges (not under any trees) and the solar panels continue to charge the battery.  The lot receives little traffic (a few cars and motorbikes came around dusk but not stayed long) and two other campers arrived while we made dinner.  It was a very quiet night there.

Today we only passed through two tunnels in mainland Italy and another three in Sicily.

We awoke Wednesday to partly sunny skies there were improving but supposed to get worse by early afternoon although no precipitation was promised.  We were happy about this because today our plan was to visit Mount Etna.

Mount Etna is an active volcano on the east coast of Sicily near the city of Catania. It lies above the convergent plate margin between the African Plate and the Eurasian Plate. It is one of the tallest active volcanoes in Europe, and the tallest peak in Italy south of the Alps with a current height of 3,357 m / 11,014’ though this varies with summit eruptions.

Etna covers an area of 1,190 km2 / 459 sq mi with a basal circumference of 140 km (87 miles). This makes it by far the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy, being about two and a half times the height of the next largest, Mount Vesuvius.

In Greek mythology, the deadly monster Typhon was trapped under this mountain by Zeus, the god of the sky and thunder and king of gods, and the forges of Hephaests were said also to be underneath it.

Mount Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and is in an almost constant state of activity. Etna’s first recorded eruption was in 1500 B.C. However, in 396 BCE, an eruption of Etna reportedly thwarted the Carthaginians in their attempt to advance on Syracuse during the Second Sicilian War. Since the 16th century, Etna has erupted at least 190 times. Most of these eruptions have a small volcanic explosivity rating and consist of gently effusion of lava or Strombolian explosions. The most destructive eruption was in 1669 when Catania was destroyed and the last most destructive was in 1928 when the town of Mascali was destroyed.

The fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread across the lower slopes of the mountain and the broad Plain of Catania to the south.  In June 2013, it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

You can take a cable car from 1900 m / 6233 ‘ at what they call the base camp up to 2700 m / 8858‘ .  There if you choose you can take a tour that takes you up to over 2800 m / 9168’ as close to the crater as you allowed these days (used to be 2900 m).  As there have been 63 small eruptions in the past two years, they don’t want you too close!   We were glad we wore our big jackets as it was cold up there!

This was not a cheap excursion but one we definitely wanted to do.  We had read the cable car starts at 9 and when we got there around 8:30 saw that the opening hours started then.

WTH? Anyway, we bought tickets and took the gondola up only to have to wait until ten for the first tour to begin – did they tell us that at the ticket booth? No! Oh well.  We met a nice woman from the Czech Republic and a couple from Toronto (Larry and Paula) and we chatted with them until boarding time.

Here is the vehicle you are taken up in:

It seats about 20 and when you reach a certain point, you disembark and a guide walks you as far as you are allowed to go.


There is still a fair bit of snow up here but mostly we walked on black lava bombs that sound like rice krispies when you walk on them!

We spent about 15 minutes at the “top” and then returned to the vehicle to be taken back to the gondola to return to the base.

a lava bomb

The fog began to roll up the mountain as we were heading down in the gondola and the clouds were not far below the base.  We were glad we came early as we’re not sure how long the volcano would be visible.

On the way back down to the coast, we stopped in the small town of Zafferana for lunch and to look for some honey (this town is famous for it).

We did not find the latter but did enjoy a nice lunch of bruschetta, pizza, wine and beer not far from the above cathedral. We had enough pizza to bring “home” for dinner too.  Each pizza was only €6.50 too – so a great deal for two meals!

We then continued toward the coast and got parked at a small port town called Santa Tecla for the night.  We tried to fill our water tank from the fountain here but are not sure we got all that much as the connection was quite loose but we managed to have showers and figure we’ll get water elsewhere down the road.

No tunnels today, just a lot of altitude!

We had a very quiet and comfortable sleep last night and awoke to clear skies.  Temps since we arrived in Sicily have been in the high teens C / high 60’s F so quite pleasant.

Today was going to be an errand type day and after exercising and tea, we drove into the large city of Catania to do laundry and grocery shop.  We also wanted to look for parking for Minou for when we fly to Malta next week.

Laundry we found easy on park4night and dropped it off around 10:15.  Shopping was in the other direction but still walking distance from where we parked.  We got that done, had breakfast and then Doug went to fetch the laundry, most of which was dry so we had to hang up some jeans and a couple of other things.  We decided to check out a small camping aire not too far from the airport that only charges €10 a night (€5 more if you want power) to camp and we thought we’d ask about parking Minou there next week.  It’s quite a large camp near the beach:

And after parking Doug went to speak with the owner, Carlo.  He offered us FREE parking for the three nights we’ll be in Malta and we’ll pay for the night before as our flight is early on Wednesday.  Great deal – Fran had done some inquiring online and that’s hard because most parking places don’t allow you to tell them the size of your vehicle and the best price she got was €52 for four nights, so we’re lucky!   Lua Beach Camping offers power, water, dumping, cold showers and toilets and no Wi-Fi but we have a strong cell signal.  It’s quite large with lots of palm trees and considering how close to a busy road it is, it’s not that noisy.

After settling in, Fran hung out the damp clothes and went for a walk to get the rest of her steps.

Oh and no tunnels today – we really did drive that far!

We awoke Friday to clearer skies than yesterday.  We will begin our circle route of southeast Sicily today returning here to Catania by Tuesday.  After checking the route, we decided to do the circle counterclockwise and head inland.  The interior of Sicily is quite hilly and at one point we were up over 600 m / 1000’.

Sidebar:  As lovely as Italy is and as much as we love this country, we are saddened by how much garbage there is; it’s equal to or worse than some of the Latin American countries we’ve visited.  Along the highways, there are emergency pull outs quite often and they more than likely look like garbage dumps.  This is partially because there are NO garbage cans at them but really, they are supposed to be for emergencies, not hanging out in.  Along many roads, you see garbage and we often see drivers throwing things out the window while driving.  Sad. 

Our first stop was the “hidden gem” town of Ragusa about 100 km / 60 mi away.

Ragusa is an old city and has both an upper and lower section with the upper section being “old town” where the main sites are located.  Being that, the streets are narrow and we wanted to park outside that area and walk in.  There were a couple of parking lots are park4night that looked promising and from them we could walk into town.  The furthest one meant a long walk so we tried the closer one and due to another motorhome hogging two spots, we couldn’t fit. Doug knocked and the fellow was willing to move but wanted to do it in ten minutes.  We could see another lot kitty corner across the road but we weren’t sure we could overnight there.  But we thought, we could go there and at least “day park”.  We got into a spot, locked up and went into town.

This is a very cute town and we loved the vibe in it.  There are piazzas, churches, palaces and a large park.

We enjoyed strolling around in the sunshine in comfortable temperatures with a slight breeze.

The Duomo is quite magnificent and faces onto a lovely square and street that seems to be the main drag through the old town.

While none of the palaces were much to write home about the park was quite something with lots of well-spaced out trees, a couple of fountains and memorials and lots of benches.  The views from the outside looking down into the valley were quite good and there was a long walkway of columns with urns running along it.

When we got to the end of the main square, Fran saw a free Wi-Fi sign and we connected for a while.  The mapping app on our phones needed updating and we hate to waste data on 20GB downloads!  We hung around for a while admiring the views, downloading maps and a few shows.

We walked around a bit more and returned to the same spot thinking we’d sit for a while at an outdoor enjoying a cold drink but no one ever came to serve us.  We did manage to get several maps downloaded at least.   By now it was noon and we were getting hungry.  It had been recommended to us to try a few Sicilian specialties before coming here: cannoli, arancino and granita.  We knew what the first two were but not the third.  We found a restaurant outside the Duomo with outdoor seating that offered all three.  We ordered bruschetta, arancino and cannoli.

We did ask about the granita but did not order it – maybe another time as it turned out this was more than enough food.  Arancino is a ball of rice with meat sauce inside, deep fried and shaped with a pointy tip.  It was pretty good and very filling.   The cannoli is a desert: some sweetened ricotta cheese is wrapped inside cookie like shell that has had its end dipped in chocolate with some crushed pistachios on the ends and a cherry on top at each end.  It was sweeter and lighter than expected and quite good.

We enjoyed the scene around us, downloaded lots more maps and shows while doing so and were quite happy with our lunch.

Around 1:30 we walked back to Minou and checked out the first parking lot again.  That motorhome had in fact moved some but there were a couple of other open spaces.  Fran stood in one while Doug returned to get Minou and by the time he did a better spot opened up so we parked there.

Today we passed through one tunnel.

Saturday morning it was partly sunny in the morning and we enjoyed a bit of a lie in before rising for tea.  We did not have far to go today on our “agenda” and we not in a rush to leave.  Modica is a town in southern Sicily famous for its chocolate making.  We parked outside of town (as usual) and walked about 1.7 km to a lookout called Belvedere:

Here we saw the very large church of Saint Peter:

Like Ragusa, the old town sits separate and is built on and down the side of cliffs.  There are many, many sets of staircases to get around town and if the road allows vehicles, the streets are mostly one way out of necessity.

After the lookout we visited the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto where they make dark chocolate goodies and the lovely lady inside let us taste about 10 different flavours.  They are made with at least 60% cacao (and up to 90%) and the rest sugar with different things added to spice it up. The sugar is never melted so you can actually taste the granules in each bite.

Naturally, we bought a few bars….

We also saw the Duomo, but could not enter as there seemed to be a funeral in progress.

We tried to see the castle without success and there was not much left to see and we once again passed the Duomo.

Here, outside, we met a fellow selling products from his farm and we bought almonds, capers, olives, dried tomatoes and dried oregano.

Very close by was another chocolate shop called Corso San Giorgio Sabadi (we actually saw three more) and we stopped in to check it out. At this shop they “age” their chocolate in different things like tobacco, fruit flavours and the like and they have won many awards.  This method was brought here centuries by the Spanish.  Here we tasted many pieces as well and bought a few more bars, cause, of course, you can never have too much chocolate!

We walked back to Minou and left Modica for the south coast.  This will be as far south as we get in Sicily at 36º, just a tad more south than we went in Greece.

We got to the beach of Sampieri just around noon and our first spot to spend the night didn’t pan out – the lot was closed but the second spot, a point on a spit on the other end of the beach was more like it (see pic above for our overnight spot).  Before heading to that second spot we checked out the beach:

The beach here is one of the top six in Sicily and we were more than pleased.  The only reason we wouldn’t give it a ten would be the lack of palm trees but the beach was wide, it had dunes, the sand was soft and the waves rolled in nicely – not huge waves but just enough to give you something to stare at for hours! (The beaches we encountered on the northeast coast of Sicily were grey sand; here it’s a proper sand colour – the grey sand must be due to the volcano.)

It was rather windy but that did die down in the late afternoon and by mid-afternoon, the sky was completely clear. After some brunch we both went for walks; Fran on the beach and Doug went into town to get a hair cut.  Tonight we saw our first sunset over the sea in a long time.

We had no tunnels today and actually only travelled 41 km / 25mi.

Side bar:  When we first arrived in the UK last March, we purchased a used Garmin GPS for European maps.  Lately, it’s been quite weird; luckily we confirm routes with Organic Maps.  We have the thing set to “faster” route, but for some reason it often takes us right through small towns instead of around them – how can that be faster! Maybe it needs an update but we won’t do that until we camp somewhere with free Wi-fi.  

Today, the 26th of March, we left the beach spot and drove to the small city of Noto northeast of here.  It’s famous for its Sicilian baroque architecture and we were not disappointment.  After parking less than one kilometre from downtown we began our walk through old town via the Porta Reale:

Here the buildings are made from limestone and are very impressive.  First eye candy was the Piazzetta (small square) Paolo Mirmina:

Just a little further and we were at the main square where the cathedral sits across from the Municipal Hall famous for its Hall of Mirrors.

The cathedral of Saint Nicolo was quite something:

We walked inside the church first where we saw the lovely white coloured and not overly gilded interior:

And then across to the Municipal Hall where for €2 each we could enter and see the famous Hall of Mirrors.  While we’ve not see Versailles yet, we are sure this is no competition for it.

Just a block up we turned the corner to see the well known balconies of Palazzo Nicolaci – which were worth the visit to this city.  Each had a different set of sculptures under each one – here are three of the seven (more in our galleries:

We opted not to pay to go inside but here’s the entry way and below that is the tombstone of the original owner:

There was one more piazza along this street: Secici Maggio with the city’s theatre (not so impressive on the outside) across from yet another large church but it was partially hidden from view by trees but here’s a shot of the non-working fountain from 1757 that was out front:

The temperature was more than pleasant we kept passing tempting gelato shops so we stopped at one to try the third thing in Sicily that was recommended to us:  brioche with granita.  The first place did not have any brioche so we wandered back in the direction of Minou a bit and found another place that offered not only that but gelato as well.  Fran ordered the brioche with lemon granita.

Granita, a Sicilian specialty, is a cold, sweet treat made from water, sugar, and fruit that is never completely frozen. It’s mixed continuously to obtain a texture that is simultaneously grainy and creamy (think Fat Tuesday’s slushy without the alcohol). It is often served with a roll called Brioche and can be put inside the roll or separately but the bun is usually dipped into the granite.  This is considered a breakfast food!

Both were quite yummy.  While the brioche was enough for Fran Doug was still hungry so we stopped again a little down the street and he ordered a vegetarian arancino (pistachio filling instead of meat sauce) and a ham and cheese pastry.

We had decided to spend another night by the water but the interchange to the town we wanted was closed and in order to get there a different route added quite a bit so we pushed on to Syracuse.  Our plan had been to go there tomorrow and we figured the parking would be crazy on a Sunday afternoon (the weather is the warmest we’ve had since our return to Europe and there are people everywhere out enjoying it!) so we went to the parking spot we had picked out for tomorrow night instead (on the north side of the city) and we’ll backtrack a bit tomorrow to visit the city.  Temps reached the low mid 20’s C / mid 70’s F.  Fingers crossed it lasts but seeing how this is March, who knows!?

We drove through one tunnel today.  The highway after Sampieri had toll booths set up but they were not collecting.  It seems this road will meet up with the toll road north of Catania one day and the entire road will run from Messina down.

We awoke Monday to clear skies but the wind was picking up.  We drove into the city of Syracuse and parked on the edge of Ortigia – the island that encompasses the old town.   It is connected with two bridges.  The free parking lot was full but next door was a lot for which we could pay by app (EasyPark which we used a lot in northern Europe) and we booked an hour (you can increase the time via the app if you need).

There are not a lot of sites here in Syracuse but we felt we shouldn’t miss it.  We walked along one side of the island down to the castle making only one pit stop at the Fountain of Arethusa which was “closed for extreme maintenance”.  It’s quite large and at present is overgrown with plants and a few geese!

The castle was not one we wanted to explore the inside of but we did get some shots from the viewpoint next to it:

We then wandered through the narrow car-less streets to make our way to the main plaza at the Duomo.  It was rather large and the Duomo was impressive all made of limestone and built where atop a Temple of Athena dating back to the 5th century BC.

Enroute back to Minou we stopped to see another piazza complete with a Fountain of Diana.

That alone made stopping here in Syracuse worth it!

As we finished our walk to the parking lot we came across the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, the most important ancient Greek monument here in this area.  There is a large Greek theatre in the new part of the city but having seen the one in Taormina last week, we opted to pass on this one.  This temple dates back to the 6th century BC and it underwent many transformations from a Byzantine church to an Islamic mosque to the Church of the Savior before becoming Spanish barracks in the 16th century.  The successive renovations severely damaged the building and it was uncovered in 1890.

Upon returning to Minou we thought about our next stop.  We don’t have to be in Catania until tomorrow but a day without driving sounded good so rather a stop in between, we opted to drive the 65 km / 42 mi and get settled back at the campground where we’ll leave Minou when we fly to Malta on Wednesday.

Today at the campground we opted to get power for our first night here and skip it tomorrow night.  Camping costs €10 a night with an extra €5 for electricity.

Today’s tunnel tally was nine.  Oh and we actually saw diesel as low as 1.68 today – unfortunately, we’d just filled up at 1.71 a couple of days ago!

Having a drive free day, Doug decided he’d walk a marathon and spent a good chunk of the day doing just that.  Fran stayed back, caught up on photos and blog entries and a bunch of chores she prefers to do when she has the place to herself.  It was yet another sunny day but not quite as windy or as warm as yesterday.  Can’t complain!

These are some of the shots Doug took on his long walk:

Upon Doug’s return, we did some packing, finished up perishable food for dinner and went to bed a little earlier than usual as we have to be at the airport by 6am for our flight to Malta tomorrow.

 Fun Facts about Sicily: 

  1. Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea
  2. The tallest active volcano in Europe is Mount Etna, in Sicily
  3. The sonnet was invented in Sicily
  4. There is just 3 km (2 miles) of water between Sicily and mainland Italy
  5. Sicily has coasts on 3 different seas : Mediterranean sea in the south; Tyrrhenian sea in the north; and Inonian sea in the east
  6. The famous mathematician Archimedes was from Sicily
  7. Sicily was independent for almost 750 years
  8. The first Mafia was the Sicilian Mafia in the 19th century