Jane's Delicious Garden Blog

Love Triangle

Posted in Travels by Jane Griffiths on the March 16th, 2015

The Mafia, ancient ruins and an active volcano make exploring the triangular isle of Sicily an adventurous road trip

The overnight ferry from Naples docked at the port in Palermo at dawn.

Our first Sicilian meal was a strong cappuccino and croissant at a hole-in-the-wall café in the port, surrounded by swarthy dockworkers coming off overnight shifts. It kick started our day and we were ready to negotiate with a taxi driver. As we wound through Byzantine one-way streets, narrowly missing cars wedged in snarling morning traffic, I wondered how wise we were to hire a car for our Sicilian sojourn.
Palermo's horrific traffic

For a relatively small island, Sicily’s had a huge impact on the world around it. Fertile and strategically placed on the Mediterranean trade routes, it has repeatedly been fought over, conquered and colonised as a much-desired possession through the ages. The resulting legacy provides a smorgasbord of choices for the traveller – from Greek temples, Roman aqueducts and villas, to Baroque cathedrals and Arab Norman architecture. Throw in an active volcano, sinister mafia, alluringly azure sea and a cuisine making the most of fresh Mediterranean ingredients and you have all the elements for a stimulating trip.
Sicily's symbol Trinacria (meaning triangle)

The heart of Palermo is Quattro Canti, the four-corner intersection marking the city’s center. The traffic was still having a seizure so we stayed on foot to take in some of the city’s offerings nearby: The grand Duomo, a Norman Cathedral with hundreds of uniquely sculpted gargoyles peering down on visitors and supplicants and the Chiesa di San Cataldo church with red Islamic domes. Next door is the La Martorana, a medieval church with a beautifully preserved Byzantine mosaic interior. This brilliantly illuminated walk-in jewel box is no stuffy museum but a living entity, as we discovered when we wandered into the tail end of a wedding.
Monreale Cathedral (4)

Mosaics, Palatine Chapel, Norman Palace, Palermo (01)

Mosaics, Palatine Chapel, Norman Palace, Palermo (9)

Palermo's Duomo  gargoyles

Palermo's Duomo (1)

Palermo's Duomo (5)

Palermo's Duomo (6)

Palermo's Duomo (14)

Palermo's Duomo (17)

Palermo's La Martorana (2)

Palermo's La Martorana (4)

Palermo's La Martorana (7)

Palermo Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo, Arab Norman architecture

We rambled through the Capo, a maze of streets and alleys, bustling with shoppers looking for the freshest catch of the day or selecting from a rainbow variety of vegetables, fruit, oils and dates.
Palermo street vendor

Palermo's Capo street market (4)

Palermo's Capo street market (6)

Palermo's Capo street market (12)

Palermo's Capo street market (13)

Palermo's Capo street market (16)

Palermo's Capo street market (19)

Palermo's Capo street market (21)

We picked up our compact Panda and its rate doubled, as we were scare-mongered into taking full insurance. Having seen the ubiquitous dents and dings on Italian cars, we thought it a wise move. Leaving Palermo, we drove into the hills above, to the Cathedral of Monreale. The exterior is a well-preserved Norman cathedral but when we entered we realised why this was one of the wonders of the medieval world. The interior is covered with glittering mosaic tableaus on a background of more than 2,200 kilograms of gold tiles. We timed our visit well, as another wedding was happening. The Italian habit of breaking into loud applause after the “I pronounce you man and wife” seemed inappropriate in this magnificent place of worship.
Monreale Cathedral (3)

Monreale Cathedral (4)

Sicily lived up to its tempestuous reputation by lashing us with an intense storm as we left Monreale. Roads turned to rivers and the hand written map to our next destination was drenched. Without the map we missed the freeway entirely and drove across the island on back roads, whipped by rain and wind. We arrived in Selinunte well after dark. But the next day was clear and we could explore the magnificent ruins.
Selinunte ruins (20)

Selinunte ruins (17)

Selinunte ruins (7)

We zigzagged across the island, through dramatic Sicilain countryside,exploring a succession of ancient sites.
Sicilian countryside (6)

Sicilian countryside (5)

Sicilian countryside (4)

Sicilian countryside (1)

The 2,500-year-old temple of Segesta is one of the best-preserved and most beautiful Greek ruins in the Mediterranean. The Greeks chose temple sites well, with commanding views of the countryside echoing the Olympian heights of the Gods they celebrated. Another storm swept in, with a relentless wind whipping our umbrellas into useless floppy spikes. In five minutes it cleared, leaving glistening reflections on the ancient rock of the semi-circular amphitheatre. We gazed from the mountaintop to the Doric temple on the opposite hill, its soaring columns dramatic against dark clouds and a wild sky.
Segesta amphitheatre (10)

Segesta amphitheatre (11)

Segesta Doric Temple (1)

Segesta Doric Temple (3)

Segesta Doric Temple (9)

Segesta Doric Temple (10)

Segesta Doric Temple (14)

On the southern coast of the triangular island is the Valley of The Temples. Despite its name, the remains of the seven magnificent temples are not in a valley. Spread out on a ridge below the city of Agrigento, these partially restored ruins are a World Heritage Site. Our umbrellas, useless in the wind, became handy sunshades as the storms gave way to scorching midday sun.
Agrigento's Valley of the Temples (1)

Agrigento's Valley of the Temples (2)

Agrigento's Valley of the Temples (3)

Agrigento's Valley of the Temples (4)

Heading inland, we passed walled medieval towns, strategically perched on hilltops to protect them from attack. The terrain is rugged and rocky above fertile valleys. Winding through the productive farmlands, with vineyards, olive groves, artichokes, tomatoes, fig and citrus trees, we realised why the food tastes so good. Sicilians seldom eat food that hasn’t been reared, grown or produced within a few miles. Added to the rich choice of homegrown products are sharp pecorino cheeses, smooth ricotta and fresh seafood – every Sicilian has their secret recipe for sardines. Sicily’s diverse cultural heritage has left a rich legacy with the Greeks bringing knowledge of olives, grapes and wine making, the Romans; their pasta and grains, the Normans their northern methods of salting, drying and cooking, the French adding an aristocratic twist and the Arabs bringing everything from almonds, apricots and artichokes to couscous, cinnamon and saffron. The Arabs also sweetened the Sicilian tooth, introducing ice cream and granitas. We fell in love with the famed cannoli: pastry encased tubes of sweet ricotta, found all over Italy but with the original and best in Sicily.
Natural spring water (1)

Natural spring water (2)

Olive groves in foothills of Mt Etna (1)

Piazza Armerina (1)

Sicily's famed delicacy cannoli

Street scene, one of the medieval villages

More recently, Sicilian history has included the blood stained stories of the Mafia, inspiring Mario Puzo’s quintessential Mafia Don; Vito Corleone. Today, if you want to “sleep with the fishes” you can. Many of the estates, once owned by powerful real life Dons like Toto Riina, have been seized by Italian authorities and turned into bed and breakfasts, or agritourism vineyards and olive estates.

We headed east and wound up steep, coastal roads to reach Taormina, an historic resort town on the slopes of Monte Tauro. Our waking view was of Mount Etna, smoking on the horizon. At 3,323 meters it is Europe’s largest active volcano and the destination for the day.
Mt Etna from Taormina (2)

First we visited the town of Castelmola, clinging incredibly to the hillside high above Taormina, with sweeping views to the sparkling sea below. The beach beckoned us down the mountain and we hopped across hot pebbles to dive in for a refreshing dip.
Ionian coastline below Taormina (1)

Ionian coastline below Taormina (2)

Ionian coastline below Taormina (3)

Ionian coastline below Taormina (4)

Ionian coastline below Taormina (6)

Mount Etna’s summit was further away than it looked and we endlessly climbed her conical slopes, tunneling through a brooding pine forest. We finally popped out into a lava lunar landscape, the remains of an eruption which destroyed a ski resort in 2002. Massive tree trunks, bony and white against the black basalt, were a stark reminder of the fierce power beneath us. It was primal, humbling and unsettling. It was surprisingly cold on the volcano, with clear views to the beaches and harbour far below. The large yacht that had pulled in while we were eating breakfast many hours earlier was now a dinky toy in a tiny bay.
Lava fields on Mt Etna, result of eruption 2002 (2)

Lava fields on Mt Etna, result of eruption 2002 accessed by rebuilt road (1)

Lava fields on Mt Etna, result of eruption 2002 accessed by rebuilt road (2)

The sun was setting and when we reached the bottom it was dark, bad timing, as we had to negotiate one of the hilliest regions to reach Cefalù, our last stop before returning to Palermo. Cefalù is a charming fishing town, nestled under a rocky promontory on Sicily’s north coast. With sheltered sandy beaches, medieval streets and excellent restaurants, it is a popular summer resort and was the perfect place to end our Sicilian sojourn.
Cefalu (1)

Cefalu (3)

Cefalu (5)

Cefalu street scenes (1)

Cefalu fishing boats (2)

Travel Tips
South African passport holders require a Schengen visa for Sicily. For information, visit www. italy.visahq.com/embassy/South-Africa/

Credit cards are widely accepted and you can access your SA account through Cirrus or Maestro ATMs for euro cash withdrawals. Remember to notify your bank of your itinerary. Traveller’s cheques are difficult to cash and attract up to 10% commission.

Hired cars save time getting to many of Sicily’s treasures, which are scattered widely across the island.