You really need your wits about you when driving in Sicily.
Checking it wasn’t just me who had found the driving here a nerve-wracking experience I googled ‘driving in Sicily’ and I have to say, there are a few references there to the crazy antics of the locals.
Italians generally have a reputation for, shall we say, adventurous driving. I first got a taste of this while driving along the outrageously beautiful but absolutely death-defying Amalfi coast, but the Sicilians managed to bring it to a whole level!
To get around Sicily you really need to hire a rental car, but be warned, it can be a hair-raising experience.
Our adventure began in the capital Palermo where we picked up our rental car late at night at the airport. With the help of a good navigator in the form of my wife and her Google Maps app we eased our way through the quiet city streets with no major drama.
Although it was tricky navigating the narrow streets we managed to efficiently find the way to Hotel Bel 3, our boutique bolthole nestled in the hills overlooking the city.
After a quick dip in the rooftop pool with its panoramic views we dried off in the warm summer air before settling in for a nice quiet night.
The Hotel Bel 3 Palermo
The fun really began the following morning, however, when we left the cosy confines of the hotel and headed out blissfully unaware onto the by now teeming streets of a hot Palermo city.
The locals just go hell for leather and appear to regard red lights as a mere suggestion to stop rather than an instruction. Good luck obeying a red light in Palermo, where the locals behind you won’t be impressed if you hesitate for even a second. Before you know it there will be a line of traffic backed up behind you blaring you out of it.
At every moment, we seemed to be millimetres away from handing over hard cash to the rental company for a bump or a scratch that would inevitably cost more than the holiday, which just added to the trepidation.
Driving in Sicily!
To be fair the really crazy driving only feels like it’s an issue in the major towns because as soon as we navigated our way out of Palermo’s city limits and hit the road to the east coast, the traffic eased and we were able to breathe a bit easier.
And although you still have to “drive defensively” as the guidebooks advise, on the open road it’s not as bad as being back in civilisation where you’re in for a white-knuckle ride.
We gradually made our way across the sun-baked interior of the island while watching out for the occasional overtaking car that would suddenly appear out of nowhere at the rear bumper before careering past on a blind corner.
We had hoped to cross the island in one morning drive, covering the 200km distance from Palermo to Catania on the east coast in a couple of hours. But the heat and the drama of the morning necessitated a rest stop at Enna which is roughly half way, and as it turned out, it was a nice detour.
This hill-top town, located almost slap bang in the middle of the island, had the feel of a backwater village that had hardly woken up on this quiet midweek morning. But its impressive Castello di Lombardìa (Lombardy Castle) perched over the town with its views far out over the surrounding countryside made for an arresting location for lunch.
Despite the listlessness in the summer morning heat, there were a few small cafes open offering snacks of local fare and, suitably fortified for our march onwards, we drove back down the hills and once again joined the main road to Catania.
The lemon groves of Casa Mandarino
We had not driven for long when the peaks of the island’s famous Mount Etna rose up over the horizon. This glowering volcano that dominates this part of the coast of Sicily and would remain in our peripheral view for the rest of our stay in the island, a constant companion wherever we went.
On the outskirts of Catania, we managed to avoid the worst of the city centre and a potentially tense afternoon of more motor madness and instead headed due north along the coast road towards Messina.
Shortly after we stopped by the tiny village of Praiola where we found our converted farmhouse tucked away down a long, straggling dirt track. We had booked it through an owners’ website (www.vrbo.com) and as we stepped out onto the patio of the Casa Mandarino overlooking the bright, blue, sea, we finally felt the tensions of the journey fall away.
From our vantage point we could just make out the distant horizon of the toe of Italy through the sea mist and with Mount Etna smouldering away in the heights behind us we felt we had finally arrived in the quintessential Sicily.
The patio of Casa Mandarino
Around us spread thick lemon groves that gave off a luscious strong scent while just 50 meters away a rocky family friendly beach kept the kids entertained. As content as we were to hang out there for a while eventually our curiosity got the better of us and despite our reservations we once more strapped ourselves into the rental car and headed north to the fairy town of Taormina.
This popular resort town has long been on the must do lists for any visitor to Sicily and it is not hard to see why. Located on one of the most heavily visited parts of the coast it is always packed with day visitors like ourselves who clog up the town while marvelling at its exquisite delights.
Taormina is another hilltop town perched precariously on the top of a mountain and a fun way to get to the top and save the legs is by cable car (the Funivia) that brings day trippers up from the coastal part of Taormina Mare to the top.
For three euro it is a brilliant, fun experience and the kids will love it. Finally at the top you step off into the shaded streets of Taormina that is like a step back in time as the town seems barely moved on from the days when its Greek theatre entertained the Roman crowds.
From the dusty top of the ancient theatre it is possible to capture that picture postcard image of Mount Etna in the distance alongside the shimmering Mediterranean Sea. On the day we were there a distinct plume of ominous black smoke rose up into the sky over the mountain although some locals assured this was a regular feature of the still very active volcano.
There is still whiff of glamour about the place as it was once a major stop on the Grand Tour that the rich, young people of the European aristocracy considered a pilgrimage.
This is where DH Lawrence was inspired to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover and where Oscar Wilde, Goethe, Alexander Dumas, Truman Capote and Hollywood glitterati such as silver screen icon Greta Garbo, who returned every spring for 30 years, ambled along the cobbled streets and through its shaded squares.
Eventually we made our way back down the Funivia and took the scenic coast route home as the sun sank into the Mediterranean.
Mount Etna from Taormina, www.traveltosicily.eu
With Mount Etna a constant presence during our stay in Sicily it seemed amiss not to get a closer look at the great mountain. And so, on one of the rare overcast days we followed the twisting roads that brought us around the base of the massive mountain and up towards the clouds.
It is surprisingly accessible in a car but it’s a good idea to stock up with petrol as fuel stations are few and far between and with erratic opening hours it can rapidly become an issue if you haven’t come prepared.
It is possible to get close to the peak by cable car but as the clouds had closed in above we elected to stop instead to gaze back out over the sea. It occurred to me then that it was up here on the slopes of a brooding mountain high above the maddening roads far below, where we found the most enjoyable driving in Sicily.