When I first decided to go on my travels, things were pretty spontaneous. I didn’t have any firm, long-term plans.
After my initial plans in Tuscany didn’t quite work out as I expected, I decided to take to the road again and see where things took me.
I had always wanted to visit Sicily: the history, countryside and culture always intrigued me. So the decision was made. We would travel from Tuscany, down to the boot of Italy to get the Ferry to Messina, and then head off on a Sicily Road Trip.
We spent over two weeks exploring various parts of the Island. It wasn’t nearly long enough for us to visit all the areas we wanted to, but it certainly gave us a feel for things.
For anyone else that likes to get a bit off the beaten track and wants a warts and all account, I hope this post will be useful. I don’t have as many photos as usual as, at this point, I wasn’t planning on producing a blog.
Getting the Ferry to Messina in Sicily from Villa San Giovanni on the Mainland
There are multiple ferry options to get over to the Island from the mainland. We decided to go from Villa San Giovanni to Messina. It is the shortest crossing, around 40 minutes, and great for Annie as most of the ferries only allow dogs in kennels or in the car. Travelling in July meant it was the hottest time of year, and I didn’t want her cooped up for any prolonged length of time.
Safe to say, this was one of the scariest driving experiences of my life. Up to this point, I hadn’t subscribed to the old stereotype of Italians being crazy drivers ….
To be fair, it was peak summer season, so it is likely less frantic in low season, but it certainly is not for the faint-hearted.
There is no organised queuing system, and you know how us Brits like an orderly queue! So it is every person from themselves when trying to get in line. You have to roll with it and not get too worried if you get beeped at. I even dared to push in myself on the return journey.
Make sure you have plenty of water and, ideally, air conditioning in the car. It could be a long wait in line, in 30+ degrees celsius temperatures. Annie had her cooling coat on too, so she was nice and comfortable.
We were travelling on a Caronte & Tourist ferry line, and you can book your tickets in advance on their website if you have a car. I would recommend booking in high season. Foot passengers just have to get them at the ticket office at the port.
Even though I booked, I was advised on arriving in line that I still needed to pick up physical tickets at the billing office. That caused a bit of stress too. I had to come out of the line and park up for a minute, although a kind member of staff helped me get back in line afterwards!
The price travelling by car was €36 one way.
A Night in the Traditional Village of Gaggi
After the long journey down, I wanted to select somewhere close to Messina to save me even more driving on arrival on the Island. I also wanted a chance to just relax for the evening before the proper exploring began.
So, we headed to the village of Gaggi, less than an hours drive from Messina. It is off the tourist trail, so if you are looking for a bustling hive with lots of activities, it may not be for you. If you want to visit an authentic, quiet, working Sicilian village with lots of history attached to it, then I can recommend it.
We choose to stay in Torre Di Sebastiano, a hidden gem. Tucked away in the back streets of the village, you enter through an ordinary-looking entrance into a wonderful green oasis.
It is more of a B & B set up, so the amazing garden space with a lovely little pool and the kitchen and living areas are shared.
The house is so thoughtfully decorated, and it was super comfortable We paid €80 for the nights stay.
They were very welcoming with Annie, and she was allowed the run of the garden, as long as we were considerate to other guests, of course.
There is no parking attached to the property, but our host kindly met us and directed us to close by spaces, just a minutes walk from the property.
The only thing that wasn’t so great was that the property did have air conditioning in the living space but not in the room I was staying in. It was a pretty hot night!
Apart from a short walk around the village, given the heat and our tiredness, we didn’t explore much. We just enjoyed lounging around the poolside for most of the evening. We even got a takeaway pizza from a recommend local pizzeria. Yum!
Cefalu and the Madonie National Park
Our next stop was a three-night stay at Cuore Della Valle, on the edge of the Madonie National Park. It was also just ten minutes drive from the popular historic beach town Cefalu (pronounced Chef-a-loo).
For this part of our Sicily Road Trip, we had a 2.5-hour drive across some lovely countryside. We even saw the smoke rising from the active volcano Mount Etna on our route.
The countryside is absolutely stunning and so varied, and part of the reason why a Sicily Road Trip is so worth it. The coastal areas have rugged, cliff-edged seas; beautiful sandy beaches, and kill your feet pebble options too. The inner parts of the Island are much less populated with lots of mountainous views. It is pretty arid generally, due to the extreme heat they get. So if you are looking for lush greenery, it is probably not the place for you.
Cuore Della Valle was a peaceful, unassuming place. I stayed in a self-contained, self-catering bungalow. It had outside eating space and amazing open views of the mountains in the Madonie National Park. Close to Cefalu, but away from the hustle and bustle. The perfect place to unwind, but a car is a must.
Sandro, the owner, was one of the most helpful people I met on my trip. He took the time to talk me through, in detail, areas and places worth a visit. He has even set up a little Facebook Group to share his recommendations with guests.
Our bungalow was air-conditioned (thankfully) and well kitted out. There is a supermarket around ten minutes down the hill on the outskirts of Cefalu, so it is easy to stock up on supplies.
We had planned to spend the three days hiking and exploring the Madonie National Park. Unfortunately, it was just so, so hot it made it difficult for us to enjoy our time in such a beautiful area. It was way too hot for Annie, even in the evenings. I learned a massive lesson on our travels to Sicily. Given we love to spend most of our time hiking and taking long walks, we really can’t come to a Mediterranean climate in the Summer.
If you like just to soak up the sun on the beach and have a very lazy and relaxing holiday, then it will be completely different. If like us, you want to explore more, then I would recommend coming outwith July and August to avoid the hottest temperatures and also the crowds too.
We did take some lovely drives up into the mountains (thank goodness for air conditioning). But Annie wasn’t able to spend too much time outside during the day; otherwise, she would have risked getting heat exhaustion.
I also enjoyed a day spent exploring Cefalu. It is a beautiful, historic coastal town which is hard to miss on the drive towards it because of the imposing rock formation that looms over the town.
Visit the beautiful old Cathedral; it also provides blessed cool relief from the heat! Take the time to wander along the small alleyways and catch glimpses of the sea as you go.
If you are a beach lover, then you will no doubt want to take a walk along the promenade, and find a space to place your towel to soak up some rays. It is jam-packed in July and August, but it does make for some great photos, with the sea of colours from all the umbrellas and beach towels.
Ragusa, Part of Southern Sicilies UNESCO World Heritage Sites
From Cefalu, we made the drive down to the South of the Island. It was around 3 hours to Ragusa.
While still busy, the South is much less visited by the tourist throngs than the top half. For me, it is also the more beautiful part of the Island, and it is steeped in history too. If you are a history buff, you won’t be disappointed.
Ragusa is one of a group of towns and cities that have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We had hoped to explore a lot of the towns in the area, but unfortunately, I was starting to feel unwell by this time. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was developing a nasty systemic infection as a result of mosquito bites. Unfortunately, we only got to spend proper time in one town. What a beautiful place it is though!
Separated into two areas, the old and the new. This happened as a result of a devastating earthquake that occured at the end of the 17th century.
We stayed in the newer part of the town, at the Hotel Montreal. It is a simple and clean hotel that is very well situated. Just five minutes from the massive baroque Cathedral, Duomo di San Giorgio, and close to a wide selection of bars and restaurants.
Parking is no easy in Ragusa. The hotel does have a small underground parking lot (very tight spaces), and I choose to pay to park there to save any stress.
The Piazza beside the Cathedral comes alive at night, and there are lots of bars serving delicious Sicilian style tapas. This area is filled with grand baroque buildings but, like any large city, once you wander out further, some parts are a less picturesque sprawl.
Less than half an hours walk down the hill takes you to the famous Ragusa Ibla. This historic section of the town is perched on a promontory, and you get stunning views of it as you approach from Ragusa Superiore. It is a delight for fans of architecture and history.
You could spend hours wandering all the little lanes and peaking into lane alcoves in the old part of the town. There are flower-laden, uniquely sculptured balconies, lots of street cats that lap up your attention and it has a very traditional and untouched feel to it. It is also where many scenes from the famed and acclaimed Inspector Montalbano tv series are filmed. It is even possible to take an Inspector Montalbano tour around the old part of the City.
I also enjoyed spending some time relaxing and people watching, with a cooling iced Granita in the Giardino Ibleo. The gardens also have lovely sweeping views over the surrounding countryside.
Appreciate the Delicious Food and Wine in Sicily
Sicilian food is famous worldwide, and, I am no wine connoisseur, but I certainly enjoyed a good glass or two of vino too. Their quality wines are attributed to the fertile soils around Volcanic Mount Etna.
In Ragusa I enjoyed some super yummy Arrancine (deep-fried rice balls). In Cefalu I had a delicious bowl of Pasta alla Norma (made with aubergines) in a restaurant with a cliff-side terrace overlooking the sea. It was perfect!
While wandering the hot streets of Ragusa, I also enjoyed a refreshing Granita. This drink originated in Sicily, but you can get it in pretty much any of the major towns in Italy now. So simple but delicious, it is made up of just crushed ice, a little sugar and different fresh fruits.
I Fell in Love with the Sicilian People
When I told people I was visiting Sicily, a lot of people commented that it was perhaps not the safest place for a solo female traveller. Yes, there is no denying the Mafia connections, and I didn’t visit the bigger cities like Palermo or Catania, where crime rates can be higher. I also didn’t venture out too much after dark, but I found the people to be so charming, friendly and welcoming.
I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Sicilian men have a reputation for being sexist, but, again, I never had any negative experiences.
When to Visit Sicily
I would love to revisit Sicily but, if I were to go back, I would choose to go at a different time of year.
Some parts of the Island are so, so busy in July but, mainly, it was the oppressive heat I found difficult. It was just too hot to get out and properly explore, and that is what I like to do most.
Annie found the heat incredibly difficult too. We were constrained to dawn and dusk walks for her, and even then, she still found it uncomfortable.
Visiting in May or June or September, even into October would be a more sensible choice.
Rubbish is a Big Problem
If you are looking for pristine streets and countryside throughout, you are unlikely to find that in Sicily. There is a big fly-tipping problem, and you often see vast mounds of rotten rubbish at the sides of the road. Watch out for dog poop on the streets too. It is a shame as it does spoil the beautiful towns and scenery a bit.
Don’t forget the Mozzy Repellent
Make sure you come prepared with some hard-core repellents, stay covered as much as possible, and avoid being out at their peak times (dawn and dusk). In the summer months, they are relentless. I have written about the most challenging experience on my trip so far, and it all stemmed from those bitey little blighters.
Driving In Sicily – Not as Bad as It’s Made Out
Okay, so there are a few crazy drivers but, to be honest, you get that anywhere. Apart from my experience waiting to get the Ferry to Messina, I didn’t generally feel stressed by the driving in Sicily. That is even in peak tourist season when I imagine the roads are busier than usual.
A lot of people talk about it being a white knuckle experience, but I didn’t get that feeling. In fairness, I never drove into Palermo or Catania, or any of the other big cities, but still.
Yes, a lot of Italian drivers do drive fast, and yes, they don’t tend to use their indicators much and their horns too much. But, other than that, I didn’t find anything too bothersome. The slow drivers often drive super slow; I mean like 25 kmph in a 90 kmph zone. Again, just allow plenty of space in case someone is trying a slightly dodgy multiple cars overtake on a bend. It saves you stressing when they try to squeeze back in again!
There are a lot of people driving on mopeds and in the cute little Ape, three-wheel, trucks. You just need to take care if you want to overtake, a lot of the roads are windy.
There are only two toll roads across the whole of the Island. This means you can enjoy beautiful routes without the toll costs you sometimes have when road tripping in mainland Italy.
I think the trick is just to take it easy. Don’t let any risky manoeuvres from other drivers freak you out too much, and allow plenty of space between you and the vehicle in front. Then just enjoy the gorgeous scenery around you.
Oh, and I would recommend having sat nav or use google maps, I can’t imagine going on any road trip without this now.
Have you visited Sicily? I would love to hear what you thought of the Island and if you have any recommendations, should I go back.