There was so much to cover in our last blog post that it seemed best to break it up into multiple segments – so here’s Part II! The Euro Travel Coach Team had the chance to discover Sicily for the first time this fall and it was absolutely fantastic. We enjoyed everything about our wine and food tour of southern Italy. The island is enchanting, even when the weather is wet and the roads are treacherous. In addition to tasting spectacular wines and indulging on beautiful seafood and tantalizing pastries, our southern Italy itinerary also included ancient Greek ruins and several spectacular beaches. Please continue reading and discover some of our favorite moments, insider tips and memorable places we explored along the way.
Hiking In Taormina, Sicily
In the last Euro Travel Coach blog, I talked about hiking Mount Etna, which was extraordinary. That experience was a highlight, but climbing the volcano is one of many places you can hike in Sicily! Another great hike for us was from the incredible ancient city of Taormina to Castelmola. Taormina is an amazing location, in and of itself. One of the major attractions is the Greek Theater, which was built in the 3rd century BC. It is perched on top of a cliff, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea with a view of Mount Etna in the background. What a place for a theater! It was amazing just walking around the site - it was originally a Greek Theater, then Roman, then a Coliseum, then ruins – now it’s just astonishing to visit and imagine performances of all kinds in this venue. There are still concerts and shows here -- Sting played here in September!
We hiked up to the tiny city of Castelmola, which hangs on another cliff, high above Taormina. It’s a long steep climb but it was SO worth it! And there is quite a bit more to explore at the top than I imagined there would be!
As we wandered around the streets of this tiny city, we saw some balconies with spectacular views. It looked like you could get a drink there, which sounded like a terrific idea – a spritz and a view after a good hike makes for a great day! We found our way to the balconies at Turrisi and it was quickly evident that there was a theme there. Apparently, the penis symbolized fertility, luck, fortune, and prosperity in Greek mythology. The Turrisi bar has capitalized on that idea to the extreme! There were penises everywhere – in the menus and in ALL the decorations – even the faucet in the bathroom was a penis and the knobs were balls. I was a little uncomfortable turning on the hot water to wash my hands! It was pretty funny realizing there was an adults only theme – we were there for a drink and the view, and got even more than we bargained for!
Hidden Gems in Taormina
We looked for a place for lunch in Taormina and there were lots of places but some were more touristy or expensive than what we wanted. We were getting a big frustrated – and hungry, when we happened on a place that had Sicilian “street food.” The line was out the door at Da Cristina and we could easily see why -- it was awesome! We got an arancini tasting plate (6 arancini!) and 2 glasses of wine for €18!! It was delicious! These cheesy fried rice balls were hand rolled and freshly made, right before serving. Every other arancini paled in comparison after going to Da Cristina
On another day we went back to Taormina and got canoli from Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto. These were traditional canoli, with ricotta cheese filling. I wasn’t very hungry at the time and ended up only having 2 bites – but they were absolutely delicious tidbits! I am still thinking about them! Next time I’m in Sicily, I will go back for more.
Pistachio Cream in Bronte and more!
Later in our trip, we drove around to the western side of the volcano, and visited Bronte. The Bronte sisters actually have a connection to this village. It’s a funny place, known for its pistachios. There didn’t seem to be a town square. We sort of wandered around looking for a place to eat lunch quickly so we could make our wine tasting appointment at 2:30. We settled on a place called Conti Gallenti. It’s really just a bar. We got some savory calzone kinds of things that were warm and delicious, stuffed with ham, cheese, pistachios, eggplant, peppers, etc – depending on what you ordered. We didn’t know what we were ordering, which was fun – and they were all really good!
There was a sign on the wall for pistachio coffee, so we ordered some. This was SO surprising! It was STRONG espresso – with pistachio cream, in a little shooter cup. It was DELICIOUS! Then we got the pistachio gelato and it was absolutely fantastic. We asked about the pistachio “Nutella” – which was the “pistachio cream” in the coffee, and the guy pulled out a jar of the homemade mixture from behind the counter and gave us a HUGE spoonful of pistachio cream – it was fantastic. I think it’s just pistachios and sugar. Delicious. Super creamy. So unexpected and so fun.
Sicilian Chocolate: A Unique Treat
We visited the absolutely beautiful town of Modica. The drive was fabulous and the city is amazing It is known for making chocolate. We visited the oldest chocolate maker in Modica, L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. The young woman in the shop did a great job explaining the chocolate making process to us. The chocolate here is heated to only 40 degrees Celcius so the grains don’t melt all the way, leaving a great texture and crunch to the chocolate. Yum. We walked up the hill and went into the big church and walked up the bell tower. Fantastic views – absolutely beautiful and a great way to walk off the tasters in the chocolate shop.
Outstanding Sicilian Pastries
In Erice, we went to Maria Grammatico for pastries multiple times and they were DELICIOUS! They definitely live up to all the hype. Crazy good. The best was the Genovia – like a fried pie but not fried…a cookie cake like exterior dusted in powdered sugar, filled with delicious cream…. not too sweet. Amazing.
In Noto, we stopped at the Caffe Sicilia and had amazing delicious sweets for lunch. Yes, we had only desserts for lunch – a granite sampler (almond, lemon, and coffee), a sponge cake with many delicious layers, a fantastic ricotta canolo, a brioche, hot out of the oven, and spectacular gelato – ricotta with pistachio chunks and basil flavored scoops. The ricotta with pistachio may be my favorite gelato so far.
Greek History in Sicily
We drove to the Valley of the Temples and spent about 3 hours wandering through Greek temples from 400-500 BC. It rained on and off but it was still amazing. We bought umbrellas so that helped. It’s an enormous area. We read the signs and the descriptions in Lonely Planet, listened to other tour guides, Googled questions we had, and walked through the entire area. I think we got a really good sense of this incredible place.
On the drive from Marsala to Palermo we stopped in Segesta to see the temple and the ancient theater. You had to park in one location and take a bus to the site. The temple was amazing – it’s out in the middle of nowhere. We could see and hear a storm coming and as it turned out, it started to rain – HARD – while we were there. We wanted to go see the ancient theater but it’s a good thing we didn’t – it poured down rain. We got soaking wet on our way to the car and were wet most of the rest of the day.
Greg gets a Flat in Noto
Noto is super busy and has incredibly narrow streets. Approaching the city center to try to find parking, Greg hit a curb and blew a tire on the rent car. It was immediate. We were in a crazy place to change a tire. A local Italian man named Massimo happened to be standing on the narrow sidewalk and heard the tire pop. He directed Greg to wait a minute until the parked cars ahead of him moved out of the way – then he directed Greg to move forward and park so they could change the tire.
Greg was not too happy about any of this. He was ticked that he blew the tire and although he appreciated Massimo’s help, he felt that he could have changed the tire much faster without his assistance. Chelsea and I stood by the side of the road and watched the expressions of all the people passing on the tight little road, basically complaining about people changing a tire there; but where else were we supposed to go? It was quite amusing to observe the culture on the street unfolding in front of our eyes.
The tire ended up costing $361, which was reimbursed from our credit card insurance benefit. For the rest of the day, I tried to call the rental car company and send emails that would help us figure out how to exchange our car. The Catania office said to call Siracusa. Siracusa said they had no cars, so I should call the airport near Modica. That office never answered their phone or my email. We carried on with the spare tire and hoped we’d be able to exchange cars in Palermo, which we did, several days later. What an experience!
Aperitivo in Ragusa
We visited Ragusa, which is another amazing city, with golden buildings hugging the sides of cliffs. We parked in Ragusa Alta and walked to the piazza near St. Giovanni Batista cathedral, which is absolutely spectacular. Then Chelsea figured out that the pretty part of the town was actually Ragusa Ibla, the lower town, and there was a stairway that led to the main piazza down the steep hill. It was such an amazing walk that we almost didn’t do – we couldn’t decide whether or not to go to the lower town and I’m so glad we did! It was amazing! We had a terrific aperitivo in the piazza by the beautiful cathedral in Ragusa Ibla. It was such a lovely evening.
Sicily is Fun even when it Rains
We splurged and stayed at Azienda Agricola Mandranova. It is an olive oil farm with an absolutely gorgeous home that has been turned into a lovely hotel. It was pouring down rain when we arrived. Our thoughts of walking the grounds, enjoying the view by the pool and having drinks outside among the olive trees were quickly dashed under the circumstances. We did enjoy our olive oil tasting with the owner, who is a proud and knowledgeable woman. Did you know that you should not keep olive oil longer than one year? It’s not like wine – it doesn’t get better with age.
Since outside activities would have been very wet and we had a beautiful hotel room for the night, we decided to have a slumber party! We piled onto the big bed, listed to the rain fall outside and watched The Godfather. We made it a real party by enjoying some Etna wines we had with us and gathering the supplies for spritzes. When it was time for dinner, we went to the beautiful dining room to enjoy a set menu. We had small arancini, some thick breaded pizza bites, then big loop pasta with squid on top that was delicious. Then the owner brought out an interesting dish in a big round platter that she cut into slices for each person at each table. She called it a potato cake – it was made with potatoes, peppers, and cheese. We also had broccoli and some good, mild meatballs. Dessert was delicious – some sort of pistachio gelato on top with a praline of some sort on the bottom that provided texture and sweetness and flavor. Dinner was €35 each, plus wine. Nice dinner!
Exploring Erice in the Rain
We were really excited about spending time in Erice. This city is high on a hill and is known for its spectacular views! Unfortunately, it was rainy and foggy and rather miserable the whole time we were there. We still had a fantastic time. We laughed so hard at our predicament – it’s all we could do as you can’t control the weather. At night, we walked Erice’s narrow, cobblestone streets in the foggy darkness and it looked like we were in a horror film. During the day, we did a walking tour of the major churches and sites in the town and got a feel for what it must have been like to live in the damp drizzle hundreds of years ago when there was no electricity to light and warm up homes and monasteries. We also continued our Godfather marathon. We had a blast. It wasn’t what we thought our time in Erice would be, but we had so much fun. And when blue sky peaked out from the clouds we rushed to the top of the hill to enjoy the spectacular view for 5 minutes – before it started to drizzle again. I can’t wait to return to Erice. Apparently, this weather was quite unusual. The weather was damp, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. We still had a great time.
Favorite Sicilian Beaches in the Off-Season
When we were in Taoromina, we hiked down to sea level and walked to the beach across from Isola Bella. It was gorgeous. You could walk through the water to get to the island if you wanted but it was late in the day and the sites on the small island were closed. There were kids playing in the water and the rocks made a delightful sound as they rolled back into the sea when the waves receded from the beach. It was wonderful.
On another day, I sat on the beach below Taoromina by myself for a while as everyone else finished up their meal. There was a grandfather and a granddaughter swimming in the big waves – it was fun to see. There was another man swimming in the water too. It was a cold day but here were these older men, swimming in their Speedos – it was so cool.
Cefalù is on the northern coast of Sicily and has beautiful winding streets and narrow passageways throughout the town. After visiting the church to see the gorgeous mosaics, we concentrated on the beach. We took our shoes off and waded in the water. Then we went to Deco Gourmet (a really nice grocery store!) and got items for a picnic – octopus with potatoes, sausage, focaccia with onions and tomatoes – and sparkling wine and Campari. We sat on the beach and ate our lunch and drank our drinks in little plastic cups and watched the waves crash to shore. It was awesome.
Would you like to go to Sicily? Are you planning a trip somewhere in Europe? We can help with that! Remember that we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, England and all of Europe. We also still have spots available on our small group trip to Tuscany in May and our small group trip to Piedmont in October 2019! Would you like to join us? You can always reach Betsy at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to help you make your travel dreams to Europe come true!