Sun and snow ~ yes, snow! ~ in Sicily
Plus great food, Sicilian wine and sunshine.
A mid-May day on Mt. Etna, 2900 meters above sea level. The strong, freezing wind had an upside: it provided good visibility by keeping the peak clear of clouds. During our week-long visit, Mt. Etna was frequently obscured by clouds.
The driving wind made my hands so cold I couldn’t use the camera.
We woke up that mid-May morning to a sunny, warm day. There was only a whisper of a breeze. We met our tour guide at Taormina’s Porta Catania, hopped into his ever-so-comfortable Mercedes sedan and began our tour. Four hours later, we were on Mt. Etna, 2900 meters above sea level. Shivering in the freezing wind, we wondered if the people in shorts were crazy or just numb.
This was the best day of a very, very good vacation.
The entire trip was filled with Italian fabulousness: sun, warmth, red Sicilian wine with every dinner, delicious food, beautiful surroundings and just a smattering of history. Just our idea of a great vacation. Keep reading for photos and a few details.
Going back to the beginning: Catania
This trip began in Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, located at the foot of Mt. Etna on the eastern coast. Our flight arrived in the evening, so we rented our car and went straight to our hotel.
After a quick tour of Catania’s old town and lunch (pizza) in the Duomo square, we drove south to Syracuse.
We rented an apartment in Ortygia, the original part of Syracuse.
Ortygia is a small island barely separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. Therefore, it was easily defensible and was a natural choice to begin the city in the 8th c. BC. Today, it is known as the Old City and is filled with shops and restaurants. It was a perfect place to book an apartment.
Arethusa, Alpheus and the founding of Ortygia
Our guide told us this story:
Once upon a time in ancient Greece, the nymph Arethusa (the female figure at the foot of the standing female figure) took a bath in a river. She didn’t realize that the river she chose was actually the river god Alpheus (male figure lurking behind the standing female figure). Alpheus became smitten by Arethusa and wanted her, but Arethusa wanted to remain chaste to serve the goddess Artemis (the standing female figure). Long story short, Artemis helps Arethusa become a stream, breaks the ground open so Arethusa can escape Alpheus by flowing under the sea and reappearing in Ortygia.
Our guide finished this story by saying, “The Greeks who founded Ortygia were from Corinth (near the river that was supposedly Alpheus). So this is just a magical story invented to tie this Greek colony back to mainland Greece.”
The (real) Fountain of Arethusa
There is a real Fountain of Arethusa and it’s probably what inspired the myth.
It’s a natural, freshwater spring mere yards from the sea. It’s also one of only two places in Europe where papyrus grows naturally.
A street of flowers: Infiorata in Noto
A short, 25-mile drive to the southwest took us to the town of Noto. For 40 years, Noto has held an Infiorata, a festival of flowers, where for one weekend one of the main streets is covered with floral mosaics. We were lucky that our trip coincided with that weekend.
The last stop of our trip was hillside town of Taormina, just north of Mt. Etna.
Taormina is even older than Catania or Ortygia. The Sicels (the people who inhabited eastern Sicily during the Iron Age, roughly around 1000 BC) lived here long before the Greeks arrived in the 8th c. BC.
We rented an apartment less than a half block from the main tourist pedestrian zone, Corso Umberto. And we even had onsite parking. Score!
Legends and food from Moorish Sicily
The Moors ruled Sicily for over 250 years and their influence can still be seen.
Testa di Moro (Moor’s Head)
The legend of the Moor’s Head (Testa di Moro) is from the 11th century when the Moors ruled Sicily:
“One day, a beautiful young woman was taking care of plants and flowers on her balcony. A Moorish merchant walked by, saw her, and immediately fell in love with her. She immediately returned his feelings.
They started seeing each other and all went well until she discovered he already had a wife and children in his native land.
Angered at his betrayal, she cut off his head and decided to use it as a vase to grow basil. When people saw how her basil flourished in the head-pot, they made colorful, ceramic pots shaped like heads, hoping that their plants would flourish, too.”
Our guide in Ortygia told us this legend. When he finished he said, “That woman taught that cheating man a lesson. She was the first feminist!”
Arancini, food from the time of the Moors
Arancini are rice balls that are coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried. The most common type has meat in tomato sauce, rice, and some kind of cheese. There are many other varieties available.
Arancini are thought to date from the 10th c. when the Moors ruled Sicily. Rice was used by the Moors but not by the locals.
Lessons learned / reevaluating our travel techniques
As we travel, we try to adjust and hone our techniques so that we will be better organized for future trips.
Fewer places, more enjoyment
One lesson we are taking to heart is to not do so much. For this trip, we only visited four cities (and one volcano), instead of trying to see the entire island. By spending less time traveling between places, we can spend more time enjoying the places we visit. For this trip, that meant forgoing the western part of Sicily. That just means we’ll have to go back someday!
Rent an apartment or stay in a hotel?
On this trip, we spent one night in a hotel and the rest of the time in rented apartments. Which way is better?
We’re not sure yet which is better ~ hotel or rental apartment ~ because they both have their advantages. For now, our answer is “it depends.” A hotel is turnkey, which makes it very convenient for a short stay: the check-in process is quicker, we don’t have to buy food immediately, etc. An apartment, on the other hand, is usually in a location that provides a “truer” experience, one closer to where the locals live. An apartment also has more space, which is nice for longer stays.
We’re still undecided about this. For now, we’ll go with “it depends.”
Rental cars or public transportation?
We are coming to a firmer conclusion about whether to rent a car or use public transportation: if possible, use public transportation. Public transportation eliminates parking hassles, toll roads and trying to navigate small, byzantine Old Towns in the driving rain.
We do realize that public transportation is not always an option. For example, our trip to Reims, Champagne and Verdun would have been a lot more inconvenient if we hadn’t rented a car. So again, the answer is probably, “it depends.”
Sicily is only 60 miles from Malta. How do they compare?
We went to Malta in the spring of 2018. Since it is only 60 miles away from Sicily, we were curious how they would compare.
The short answer is that they are both fabulous!
They both have been influenced by a long line of mostly-the-same rulers and it shows. However today, Sicily’s Italian influence is clearly dominant and in Malta, the centuries of English rule are most evident.
Sicily is bigger, so more room to explore, and it has a volcano! But Malta has a distinctly Italian vibe mixed with the English and the rest. So, if you can, visit them both; you won’t be disappointed. We certainly weren’t.