296 nights : 10,354 miles travelled : Countries visited: 15
Okay, we know that Sicily isn’t clock shaped. It’s actually more of a triangle with a major city close to each corner. We trailed around the island in a clockwise direction so you can track our progress by the time.
‘One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock….’
We began and and ended our first week in Italy on a ferry but the crossing to Sicily is only about 30 minutes. This brings you into Messina , with busy city streets that we escaped as soon as possible. This is the north eastern angle of Sicily and we headed south. It wasn’t long before we saw the snow topped peak of Mount Etna. It is picture perfect; the one that any child would draw of a volcano, including small wisps of smoke puffing out on top. We were entranced during our first two days on the island but bizarrely the only picture we took was from a Lidl car park where we cleverly made Etna look like a pimple next to Brian!
Syracuse is the city near to the south eastern angle and it’s history reflects that of much of Sicily. It began as a Greek colony and over time has been occupied by the Romans, the Arabs and the Normans. The island of Ortygia is connected to the mainland by bridges and is a blend of narrow streets and baroque piazzas. It was one of those rare occasions we were out after dark which made us realise how old we are getting…we were quite giddy!!
Noto was completely rebuilt after the destructive earthquake of 1693 and is an elegant baroque city of golden stone. We didn’t know much about Sicily before we came, but this was not what we expected to find in the southern hills.
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock ’til broad daylight
We diverted further inland towards the centre of Sicily to pay homage to Sicilian ceramics. The methods for making the bright colours of glaces for majolica were originally brought to Sicily from North Africa in medieval times. Caltagirone is one of the most active centres left for the production of this distinctive pottery and it showcases the range of styles on 142 steps in the old town. Luckily the long climb can be broken up with a quick visit into one of the many shops lining the steps. The best fun you can have, don’t you think?!
Enna at the heart of Sicily is the highest city at 931 metres. Many people visit to enjoy the panoramic views which we glimpsed when we arrived late in the day. We nestled Brian into the walls of the Lombardy Castle and looked forward to taking spectacular photographs the next morning. Unfortunately the castle is blindingly illuminated so we had the brightest night but next morning, cloud had blanketed the city and the anticipated views were a hopeless dream.
Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock
We spent a few days catching up with laundry and admin on the southern coast at Santa Croce Camerina. We unknowingly pitched amongst various tribes of motorhomers who were camping over the winter. We were caught between between little Italy and the Austro-German contingent and felt like anthropologists observing the different habits of retired Europeans. However, Kipper loved the sandy beach and we soaked up the almost white sunlight.
To get in and out of the area we had to drive through oceans of poly tunnels as the coastal plain in the south east is given over to growing tomatoes, aubergine and courgettes. It’s like one gigantic ratatouille ready wrapped in plastic!
It seems the whole of Sicily is being used to harvest something. In one morning, we drove past lemons, almonds, cacti (Sicily is second only to Mexico for cactus fruit production) vines and acres of artichokes. The sun beat down on photosensitive panels, wind turbines lined hill tops and we even saw a small oil field with two nodding donkeys!
We loved the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. It was almost like being back in Greece and Kipper was allowed to join us as we walked the ridge lined with well preserved ruins. Almond trees in blossom throughout the archaeological park made our day unique.
Nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock….
We passed through Marsala and saw several large wineries but none of the retail outlets were open. We have found it difficult to slot into the southern European day with early starts, late evenings and quiet afternoons. We often arrive when everything is closed. The coast beyond Marsala is edged with centuries old salt pans and we arrived at the jetty for a ferry to the island of Mozia… just as the last boat had left! Luckily the car park is a free camper stop so we pitched up and watched the sun go down over the quiet lagoon and salt flats.
Graham and Kipper chose a lie in over another archaeological site so I was the first and lone visitor to the island of Mozia. Just 10 minutes away, the island was originally colonised for the Phoenician navy and is a rare example of extensive remains of Carthage culture. The archaeological research was initiated by an English wine exporter, Joseph Whitaker who bought the island to indulge his interest in ancient history and botany. His home is now a fascinating little museum but the real joy was in wandering alone with the birds enjoying the abundance of wild flowers.
We heard from fellow travellers that the north western tip of Sicily is especially beautiful and it is unlike the coastline we had seen until then. We drove through remote villages (including one called Purgatoria…there and back!) to see rocky peaks and rugged cliffs butt a cobalt blue sea.
We decided to give Sicilian hill towns another chance but once again drove into chilly cloud as we climbed to medieval Erice. After an hour admiring the well preserved streets, the sun cut through enough mist for us to see the salt flats to the south and then to walk to the other side of town to view the rugged peaks we had just left in the north.
Graham was anxious to avoid the capital Palermo. Sicilian drivers either drive in second gear only or like desperate formula one drivers. He chose a torturous mountain route to Monreale which took us to a wonderful pitch overlooking Palermo in the distance.
A bit of family competition often raises the bar and the Norman ruler, William the Good (his father was William the Bad!!) built Monreale Cathedral to rival those of his grandfather in Cefalù and Palermo in the 12th century. It is one of the wonders of the whole snail trail. The dazzling mosaics bathe you in warmth and light like no other.
Unfortunately the sat-nav insisted that we had to travel through Palermo to continue clockwise which confirmed Graham’s worst fears and had us both breathing in and straining our brake pedal foot! Somehow, Brian emerged unscathed.
Cefalú is a wonderful city by the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Cathedral and it’s stunning mosaics are old and impressive but it has to be said William outshone his grandfather.
Sometimes we arrive at planned camper stops that no longer exist or don’t feel safe but then find something much better . This happened as we travelled along the north coast of Sicily where we unexpectedly found a lovely campsite near to Tindari. There was a gate that led directly to the beach and a nature reserve with lagoons. We could also take a steep walk from the site up to the ancient site of Tyndaris and the sanctuary which houses the famous Byzantine Madonna Nera which attracts thousands of pilgrims.
There is so much more to enjoy in Sicily but having completed our clockwise tour we were starting to feel that the trail is up against the clock. Our long journey north has now begun.
M & G xx
Treat of the week: We enjoyed sunset coloured drinks with the sunset in Ortygia . Gin and aperol is officially my new tipple!