A Guide to: Sicily

At the end of August I went away with a group of friends to Sicily. I love Italy but I’d never been to Sicily before so I was very much looking forward to experiencing its rich culture, ancient heritage and idyllic scenery. We started our holiday staying at a villa near Catania so we could explore the Eastern end of the island and the area surrounding Etna.


Taormina

On our first full day we ventured to Sicily’s most famous resort, Taormina. A quaint hill-top town surrounded by sweeping bays, it’s no surprise that Taormina is a popular tourist spot and has been for many centuries.

As you enter through a grand archway that cuts through its imposing, ancient stone walls, you’re immediately immersed into Taormina’s bustling main street, free of traffic. Flanked by a mix of souvenir and designer shops and intersected with aged alleyways and intimate piazzas, Taormina’s medieval character is still very much apparent.

Follow the steady flow of people and you’ll find yourself at Teatro Greco, a spectacular ancient amphitheatre carved out of the hillside with a panoramic view of the Sicilian coastline and Mount Etna.

As you might expect from its name, Teatro Greco was founded by the Greeks in the third century BC but the remains are almost entirely Roman, dating from the end of the first century AD. Providing a dramatic backdrop for ancient performances, it’s easy to see why Teatro Greco is one of Sicily’s most unmissable sights.

Having studied ancient history and archaeology at University my friend Helen and I were in our element wandering around the amphitheatre imagining what it was like to watch a play there in classical times when Taormina prospered under Imperial Roman rule.

Syracuse

After a taster of the amazing ruins Sicily has to offer, the next day Helen and I followed our love for all things ancient and took ourselves off on a mini excursion to Syracuse, leaving the rest of the group to relax at the villa.

A simple train journey from Catania through mountainous rural Sicily, Syracuse is another tourist hotspot due to its archaeology and historic island of Ortigia with stunning swimming spots.

Having set off early to beat the heat and the crowds, we first headed to the archaeological park that encompasses the ruins of the classical city district of Neapolis. The park is home to a Roman Amphitheatre where blood-thirsty gladiatorial games were held and a Teatro Greco, which is one of the biggest and best-preserved Greek auditoriums anywhere, so Helen and I were geeking out!

It’s also worth stepping into Orecchio di Dionisio, or Ear of Dionysus, a damp, eery cavern in the cliffside so-called because of the shape of its echoey atrium.

Cross over the narrow stretch of water which separates Ortigia from the mainland to find a diverse array of architecture and monuments spanning many eras; from a Doric Temple of Apollo to a twentieth-century fountain depicting the nymph Arethusa in the middle of the medieval Piazza Archimede.

We stopped for lunch in Piazza del Duomo, a glistening square surrounded by impressive Baroque buildings. The most jaw-dropping of which is the Duomo di Siracusa, or Cathedral of Syracuse, an ancient Catholic church built up around the Doric columns of an early Greek temple.

For the rest of the afternoon we promenaded along the seafront past fishing boats and extravagant yachts, shopped at the eclectic market and indulged in our daily dose of gelato. We then forced our tired feet to embark on the 20 minute walk back to the station where we waited for our train in a nearby bar and I revived myself with an aperol spritz.

I can safely say that Syracuse is up there with one my favourite ever days. We managed to fit everything in at our own pace without feeling rushed and were able to learn about the history of ancient Syracuse whilst soaking up the atmosphere of the modern seaside resort.

Mount Etna

On our second evening in Catania, our Sicilian Airbnb host who lived next door, came over to tell us that Mount Etna was erupting! The volcano loomed over our villa so we were perfectly positioned to watch the lava spit out from the top and trickle down its side.

Once we realised that it was only a mini explosion and happens fairly frequently, we felt reassured and lucky to have been there to witness such a sensational natural phenomenon. However, being the nervous Nancy I am, I couldn’t help but feel slightly apprehensive about trekking up it a couple of days later, which is what we did on our third day!

Opting for an organised hike, our guide Ernesto picked us up from our villa in a land rover and took us to a car park near the base where we began our trek. One of the largest volcanoes in the world, we were able to climb two thirds of the way up it to 2000m which provides breathtaking views of its many craters. The gritty black lava is hard to walk on and makes the descent a bit scary as you keep slipping and sinking into the gravel but once you gain momentum, you end up gliding down!

I’m not the most adventurous of individuals when it comes to outdoor pursuits and in different company or on my own, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to hike up Etna but it is the best way to explore its lunar landscape and I felt a great sense of achievement afterwards. If you’re not feeling very energetic or don’t want to pay for a guided tour as they are quite pricey, you can take a cable car to the summit.


Villa Romana del Casale

For the second half of our holiday we were staying a friend’s family’s villa near Trapani on the other side of the island so we decided to break up the 3.5 hour drive across Sicily by stopping at Villa Romana del Casale.

Dating to the early fourth century AD, the villa was covered by a mudslide and hidden for 700 years until it was excavated in 1950, when a collection of amazingly-preserved multicolour mosaics were unearthed.

The villa is thought to be a hunting lodge, which makes sense when you see that the majority of mosaics feature animals and birds. It was poignant to see famous mosaics that I’d studied before, including the two-tiered scene of 10 bikini-clad girls taking part in athletics and the 60m long great hunting scene of exotic animals being captured in Africa, destined for the games in Rome.

They are some of the best examples of Roman mosaics in terms of quality and quantity and I was taken aback by how detailed they are.

We were there in the middle of the day so it was very busy and a bit stressy trying to navigate the congested narrow walkways on tight timings but Villa Romana del Casale is most definitely an essential visit and I’m very glad I was able to see the mosaics, even if briefly.

Valley of the Temples

The second stop on our road trip across the island was another must-see site in Sicily, the Valley of the Temples.

Made up of the captivating remains of ancient Akragas, modern day Agrigento, it was once a powerful and wealthy Greek city. The 7 sandstone temples, each dedicated to a different deity, sit impressively along a high ridge above the coastline.

There’s something quite spooky about the way the temples lie abandoned and exposed along the cliff-top. Close-up they are very imposing and you can see how Akragas’ citizens would’ve believed in and feared the power of the gods.

You could easily spend a full day at the Valley of Temples, especially if you want to look around the museum too but we only had a couple of hours to quickly see each one in the scorching afternoon sun. Be warned, there isn’t much shade so it’s probably best to visit early in the morning or later in the day.

For the rest of our holiday we relaxed at the villa located between Marsala and Trapani where we took day trips to the sandy beach at San Vito Lo Capo and explored the island of Favignana by bike.

A great way to finish off the summer I had a wonderful time in Sicily, and I’m still in awe of its fantastically-preserved archaeology and striking landscapes.

It certainly isn’t possible to see everything that Sicily has to offer in one trip so here’s hoping I’ll be able to go back one day.