What do a myriad choices of desserts, ancient Greece, Baroque architechture and the sea have in common?
If you love sweets, history and the Mediterranean, you have arrived.
Two first weeks in May visiting this amazing island left lots of great memories – here are some snippets.
What to eat
Pastries, cakes, biscuits, gateaux, jams … and all this is just for breakfast in the hotel and then continuing on throughout the day in numerous pasticceria’s with amazing selection of sweets and gelato. It really is a sweet tooth’s paradise, with some sweets being a bit over the top sugary for my taste, but I saw many people very happily eating them… so it all really depends on your taste buds.
Coffee – hands down the best coffee I have EVER had. I would go back just to have another cup, I really would!! I usually went for ‘café macchiato’/’café con latte’ (coffee with milk), which means an espresso with a small dash of milk. If you want what we call in UK ‘a latte’, you have to ask for ‘latte con café’ (milk with coffee). BUT the absolute favourite discovery was ‘café granitta con panna’ (above on the left) – coffee slush with a generous dollop of sweet cream….. ah well, what can I say….. divine….. on a warm summer’s day with a brioche – a perfect Sicilian breakfast. Well worth those extra hours in the gym!
Fish and seafood – all restaurants I went to served pesce spada (swordfish), it seems to be a specialty in Sicily and is served in a variety of different ways, I particularly enjoyed involtini di pesce spada (swordfish rolls). Most restaurants serve seafood, but since I cannot eat it, I really don’t know how good it is in Sicily, however, people around me seemed to enjoy it a lot.
Nuts – and especially pistacchio nuts are ubiquitous, used not only in cakes, but also on pasta, fish dishes and in ice-cream. Pistacchio pesto sauce I bought transforms humble pasta dishes at home into great Sicilian dining experience.
Fruit and vegetables are seasonal and fresh, best bought in a local market or a specialised shop. There are sometimes stalls on the side of a road, but my experience at this kind of a stall was not great – I had to throw out half of my cherries… after that I chose vendors carefully. As anywhere in the world, the best places to shop are where the locals do – all goods in touristy places, such as Taormina, are at least twice as expensive.
What to do
If you love nature, you’ll love a lunch on the beech – anywhere you go in Sicily you’ll find a beech, since most of the cities and towns are on the seaside. On the east coast Capo Peloro in Messina, has a nice beech, but it can be really windy as it’s the north-eastern tip of the island overlooking the coast of Calabria, which is so close, you could almost swim to the other side it seems.
If you’ve got time, take a ship to Aeolian islands, scattered off the coast of Sicily or visit Calabria – there seem to be many ships coming and going all day long, especially from Messina.
Fans of architecture and especially Baroque style, will enjoy visiting Noto, Syracuse, Taormina, Ragusa and other towns on the east coast – all full of wonderful examples of undulating Baroque style. I really enjoyed Noto – the old town is built of sandy coloured stone, which looks amazing against the backdrop of blue Mediterranean sky, coloured here and there by blooming flowers.
Visit the archeological sites of ancient Greek temples, Sicily has a few, witnessing the island’s long history. We travelled to Agrigento Vale dei Tempi with an impressive site with well preserved ancient Greek temples. Segesta was another ancient Greek site with very well preserved temple and amphitheatre as well as remnants of a Norman castle and settlement with stunningly beautiful views around. But of course, the most impressive ancient ruins lie in Taormina – an ancient Greek theatre with Mount Etna as a backdrop. Unfortunately, the day we went there it was really hazy, so Mount Etna was barely visible.
Visit Erice – a small medieval town on the top of the mountain with a hugely important history. About an hour’s drive from Palermo or a cable car from Trapani will bring you to this little town with impressive views of the surrounding area, that is if you happen to visit on a really clear day. The day we visited, we arrived into a cloud…. we could not see further than 2 metres ahead, while the rest of Sicily enjoyed a really sunny day. The whole experience of wondering in the cloud was eerie, mysterious and really cool since we had no idea where we were going, we could not see a building or a wall unless we came close enough to almost touch it…
As many European medieval towns, Erice has narrow, winding cobble streets, leading towards churches (around 60 of them in this tiny place), piazzas and its two castles – Pepoli and Venus. On a sunny day, the views from the castles are supposed to be breathtaking, if you can see them, that is….
What to buy
Most places, and especially touristy towns on the Eastern side of the island, have nice artisan shops selling colourful souvenirs, handmade clothes and beautiful accessories, so if you are looking for that special gift or a souvenir that will remind you of your trip, you’ll definitely find one.
I had no big plans to go shopping, but was definitely going some typical local food, so here it is:
Parmiggiano-reggiano – although it’s not a specialty from Sicily, but it is an Italian one so I just had to get it there, tastes and feels much more special!
The real local specialty is pesto di pistacchio – pasta sauce made of pistacchio nuts. It’s a great souvenir or present for those who are into Italian food.
Palermo is filled with bead shops, selling a huge variety of simple colourful necklaces. If you want to get a specifically Sicilian type of bead, go for the orange/red coral one, I was told it is specific to Sicily. More upmarket jewellery shops have some truly beautiful necklaces featuring this local coral bead.
On a final note, here are some things to be careful about…..
If you are a nervous driver, and find driving in the UK a daunting task, don’t try and drive in Sicily… the traffic in cities is really chaotic, drivers don’t indicate turns and overtake in all sorts of dangerous places; traffic light often seems to be there for display purposes only….I was on the edge of my seat for the whole two weeks….
On the other hand, if you drive up the wrong side of the street by mistake or park in the wrong place, there are no cameras to film you doing that and nobody’s going to be bothered to call the police.
If you are on a budget
If you are having a coffee in a coffee shop, it will cost you more if you sit down and are served. Watch the locals – most of them have their coffee and cake/snack ‘al banco’ , i.e. standing at the counter, and end up paying less.
Do pay attention to the ‘coperta’ charge, a sort of service charge, in restaurants. It is usually indicated at the bottom of the menu, charged per person and seems to range between 1 and 3 euro in average restaurants.
In restaurants most main courses come without any side dishes, so while at a first glance the main course might not seem to be expensive, by the time you pay for a salad and some veg, and don’t forget ‘la coperta’ charged per person, your meal ends up costing more than you might have originally planned.
Touristy places, especially Taormina, are really much more expensive than anywhere else, so if you are buying anything at all, do shop around or at least haggle.
Hotels charge additional city tax per person per night, which might not be indicated on the website when you are booking.