Onwards on our journey we go, seeing what bellissima Sicila has to offer! I’ve already been through a few places in Part I – Ragusa Ibla (<3), Modica, Scicli, Noto and Syracuse (so that covers the south east part of the island). Now onto a few other must see destinations!
- Agrigento – I haven’t visited the city of Agrigento itself, although I have heard good things about the historic centre of the city. I have seen the outer ring of modern Agrigento from the motorway, it does not look pretty – it’s a busy city – motorways, ugly and tall tower blocks and such. Even so, most who visit say that once you get past the modern town and into the core of the city towards Via Atenea, you’re in for a medieval treat! If I do visit in the near future, I’ll be sure to let you know my take on it.
What I can describe to you, my dear readers, is the Valley of the Temples. What a beauty. This place is pure bliss. The mesmerising archeological site encompasses the now ruined city of Agrakas. It is a 1300 – hectare park (so it’s BIG), about 3 km away from Agrigento city, and is split into two zones, the eastern and western zone. The eastern zone has the most well preserved temples, so if you’re short on time, visit this part. I would recommend seeing both because this place is absolutely AMAZING! It’s like walking through history! The most important temples to look out for are the Temple of Hera (5th century BC), which is perched at the top of a hill, at a cliff edge (it was partially destroyed by an earthquake but most of the colonnades remain intact, as does a large altar within the temple), the Temple of Concordia (approx. 340 BC. and nearly fully intact – just breath-taking <3<3<3), the Temple of Hercules (the oldie here – 6BC!!!! Only 8 columns are left standing but the fact that this building has been here so long is just a mind trip).
There’s also a small temple known as the Temple of Theron – it dates to about 75BC. The western part of the park features the Temple of Giove (it would have been the largest Doric temple ever built if it’s construction hadn’t been interrupted by sacking of Agrakas), the Temple of the Dioscuri and a complex of altars and other small buildings as well as the Giardino della Kolymbetra – an luxurious orchard of olive and citrus trees, as well as other species of shrubs and plants.
If I have to insist on anyone visiting a particular site in Sicily (especially if you love history) it’s this place. A little piece of advice though, if you’re going to visit in late spring/summer, wear light clothing and a hat and sunglasses. Also, use sunblock – you’re on a hill within a valley, you WILL get scorched. There are a couple of bars around the park so if you’re not carrying water with you it’s OK, you can buy beverages on site. You can also buy delicious citrusy Sicilian granita which is not only sweet and very, very tasty, but also extremely refreshing! 😉
- Catania – choas, grit, weathered buildings, smoggy facades – sweeping piazzas, gorgeous palazzos, rich and abundant history – a city of contrasts, but oh, what a beautiful city she is. Catania is pure Sicily – an ancient and weathered place full of vibrant, lively, intense energy, with a temperamental giant, the glorious and still very active Mt. Etna, overlooking her. The historic core is a marvel!
Full of UNESCO listed sites, walking through Catania’s streets is an absolute joy. The Piazza del Duomo is the city’s central piazza, being baroque in nature (as is most of Sicily as you can tell by now), showcasing the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata as its masterpiece, along with many other palazzi flanking the square. At its centre stands the Fontana dell’Elefante, with a sweet-looking, smiling, little, black elephant (dating from Roman times) standing atop a large Egyptian obelisk. The obelisk is said to have magical properties that help ease the Etna’s volatile nature, protecting the city from the volcano’s fiery wrath. There are so many places to visit in this lovely city (visit the tourist office and get yourself a map – be ready to walk around, it’s easily managed!) and if you’re not into history and culture but prefer to do some shopping, walk towards Via Etnea – it’s Catania’s main shopping street and basically lined with department stores, bars and cafes. If you’re into the theatre or opera (or architecture!) be sure to take a look at the Teatro Massimo Bellini, which is a just few blocks away from the piazza. With a lavish interior and an beautiful painted ceiling, this place is impressive to say the least! I was also drawn to another ancient structure in Catania – the Teatro Romano e Odeon. Walking westwards from the Piazza Duomo, you will enter the area of the ancient Catania (Katane). It is difficult to see from the outside as baroque structures were later built surrounding the teatro, and you might get confused about where the entrance is (yes, I had a few difficulties finding the way in). The entrance is at Via Emanuele 266, that should make it easier for you ;).
Now if you’re a foodie, you have to try Sicily’s famous Pasticcini di Mandorla (almond sweets), and what better place to try them than here! There are ample shops and cafes around the city selling these tasty pastry/biscuit like sweets, and what’s even better is that they’re gluten free! A happy discovery for coeliac me! 😀 You have to try them out; they are absolutely divine! If you are not a coeliac, also taste the famous Cannoli Siciliani! These tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough are filled with a sweet, creamy ricotta mixture and as the name implies, a traditional sweet of Sicily. I you’re a seafood/fish lover, head over to the famous Pescheria – Catania’s fish market which is set up in the streets behind Piazza del Duomo every workday morning. It’s not the sweetest smelling of areas, that much is true, but it definitely is a shock to the senses! Pink prawns and trays of mussels, clams and sea urchins are displayed along with several other freshly caught species of seafood and fish. It’s an experience within itself!
When visiting Catania, make sure to venture outside the city, especially if you’re a beach lover! There are some fantastic beaches around the area, both sandy and rocky but I think the most popular with travellers as well as locals are the beach of AciCastello. There’s a gorgeous little castle overlooking the lava beach which makes the whole thing look like a fairytale waiting to happen! The crystal clear water and rocky coast makes the spot ideal for snorkelling. There are bunch of beach clubs around AciCastello so you’d be spoilt for choices should you decide to have a look.
Another magical looking location for a refreshing swim is the beach of Acitrezza. Over here you can find the Protected Marine Riserva dei Ciclopi, so it’s another great place to do some snorkelling. The landscape, or should I say, seascape, is characterised by large, black rocky formations known as the Faraglioni, jutting out from the sea. The famous literary masterpiece, the Odyssey actually mentions Acitrezza, stating that this is where the cyclops Polyphemus hurled the afore mentioned massive rock structures at Ulysses’ craft! It’s a very pretty location with a quaint fishing village right up the road, so you’re sure to get some freshly caught seafood and fish dishes from the waterfront restaurants! These are just two of the many amazing beach options around the Ionian coast. So if you’re looking for some lounging time by the sea, Sicily is definitely the place to be. 😉
Another place which should be on everyone’s to do list when going to Sicily, and which I have yet to do, is actually climb Mount Etna aka. Mongibello (beautiful mountain to locals). The still highly active volcano is also the largest and highest one in Europe. There are two ways to get on top of the mount, either by foot, or by cable car. Most tourists decide to actually walk up as the climb is an experience within itself. Walking up from Rifugio Sapienza would take around four hours so ideally, one would arrive on an early-morning bus to have enough time to make it to the top and get back for the return bus to Catania by late afternoon.
- Trapani – Moving towards the North-Western part of the island we find Trapani. An important fishing hub of Sicily (you know what that means!!! FISH AND SEAFOOD!!!) as well as a gateway to the nearby Egadi islands. I did not have enough time to visit this town well as I only had two days there, but it is a lovely place to be. With great restaurants and cheap, fresh and delicious seafood and fish dishes, what’s not to love! Traditionally, the village thrived on coral and tuna fishing, although it was also very well known for its salt and wine production. You can still visit the salt pans which are only a few kilometres away from the city, and very interesting to see! I did not manage to get to see much of the historic town centre, and I was very disappointed that I did not have time to visit the Egadi Islands and Pantelleria by ferry, but that just gives me an excuse to revisit the place soon! 😉 Right next to Trapani is another gorgeous ancient city one MUST visit if in the area, and that is Erice!
- Erice – Erice sits atop the legendary mount Eryx (about 750m above sea level), watching over the port of Trapani and the Egadi Islands. This pretty, medieval, walled town boasts amazing, sweeping views of the sea and the valley below, and is home to what is reputed to be Sicily’s most famous pastry shop, Maria Grammatico (once again, look out for those mind blowing almond biscuits and the mouth watering cannoli!!!). Known through history to be a centre for the cult of the goddess Venus, this spectacular little mountaintop town is easily reached through Trapani via cable car. You can also drive up the mountain through a series of winding roads if you have a car.
The beautiful Norman Castle, also known as the Venus Castle, is the main defining symbol of this lovely town and it is said that there used to be a temple dedicated to Potnia (aka. Venus), the goddess of fertility worshipped by the Elymians (an ancient population that inhabited this part of Sicily), where the fortress is now. According to legend, this is also where Erix (the son of an Argonaut and of Venus) was buried after dying in a boxing match against Hercules, thus the mountain being names Eryx, and the town Erice. Wandering the narrow, cobblestone paved streets of this ancient town is a delight, although be warned, the weather up there can be a bit unpredictable with swirls of mist and cloud regularly occluding the sweeping vistas. The locals call this phenomenon the “kisses of Venus”, a romantic notion, which partly makes up for the nuisance of missing out of some fantastic views because of the unexpected mists.
Having a map of Erice would be ideal as the layout of the ancient town might be disorienting to some; saying that, it’s not a very large place, so you wouldn’t remain lost too long if that does happen. If you have a car, Erice can be combined in a day trip with the temple site at Segesta – a remarkable place I only minutely remember visiting with my extended family (who are just the best, “funnest” bunch ever ❤ ) when I was still very, very young. I would love to revisit one day, it looks like an impressive complex! I remember one huge, roofless temple, the size of which had me in awe! I was only about 9 or 10 at the time, but Segesta was my first experience of a Greek era ruin, and I think it is what got me hooked!! I also remember my family being attacked by a swarm of wasps on our visit. It was quite distressing at the time, although I think it’s absolutely hilarious now. 😀 Visit if you have the chance!! I’m sure the wasps are gone by now!!!
That’s about it for the places I have visited in Sicily. There are so many places I haven’t yet seen, which I am sure are absolutely amazing! These include Taormina (I visited the place for a day, safe to say it wasn’t enough), Palermo (Sicily’s capital city), the Egadi and Aeolian Islands, Cefalu, Moreale, Enna (looks like a fairytale city on top of a mountain) and the Nebrodi Mountains, just to mention a few! This island is just theming with amazing spots to visit, and even though it’s so close to my home island, Malta, I find it has such a wonderful variety of different scenes and sights to offer. Travelling around is relatively easy if you’re using public transport. You can choose to drive through, although beware, driving through Sicily is not for the faint hearted (although I still think this is the best way to get around the island, as you get to see so much more this way).
It is truly a gorgeous, beautiful, fertile place to be, with a vast array of sweeping vistas, rich and ornate architecture and delicious foods. Take it from me, Sicily is the place to be, so go, Go, GO as soon as you can. I keep returning… And now you know why!!
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