Holidays in Sicily: part 1 – the south east World Heritage sites

View on Old Ragusa, or Ragusa Ibla
View on Old Ragusa, or Ragusa Ibla

Karen and I prefer to go on holidays outside the high season. Why not when nothing ties you to the school holidays? Our preferred month is April, when Ottawa tends to be pretty dreadful, with temperatures around the freezing point, rainy, windy, some wet snow and this year even flooding. But the choices are limited. Yes we could go to Chili or South Africa, but the less we can fly, the better. Plus, I’d like to see my family in the Netherlands once a year, so the options (I am not complaining) are limited to Southern Europe, particularly Southern Spain, Southern Italy and Greece.

We have been to many European areas already and the north is still too unreliable weatherwise. After sitting in cool weather since October, we are longing for some moderate heat. This year we decided to go to Sicily. We had been contemplating the island for a number of years, but somehow I have always been hesitant. I associate Sicily with mafia. Especially after they started to blow up judges, I felt like it is not a place where I want to walk around.

Cheese

Dutch cheese store: can I buy your entire store please
Dutch cheese store: can I buy your entire store please

But eventually, the weather and the cultural heritage won us over. So off we went, first five days in rainy Netherlands (6 hours from Montreal), visiting the family, doing a bike ride through the tulip fields, paying a surprise visit to my friend Koos who turned 60, celebrating my parents 54th wedding anniversary and some shopping for real Dutch cheese in Haarlem. Man, do they have great cheese in the Netherlands. I could buy the whole store, but you can only bring a few kg back into Canada. Plus, by default you are singled out at Canadian customs if you bring meat, dairy or a fire arm into the country.  A scanner takes in the form and spits out a copy for you, and two customs officials usually interrogate us. The last one writes with a marker “FROMAGE’ on the customs form. A third one takes the form in again, without looking to the ‘FROMAGE’ note on the back. Bureaucracy at its best.

Hard to find info

Sicily is a fantastic island but it is surprisingly hard to find good information on it. Yes there are the surfacy Insight Guide and Eyewitness travel. There is Wikipedia and Wikivoyage. But it is the usual standard tourism language. There are a few blogs from people who ended up in Sicily through marriage who write about the Sicilian culture. But finding a proper hiking map for the Madonie was impossible (this is not new, others mentioned that too). Eventually I found a Google map layer by a German person who bothered tracking his hike. We also tend to look if there is a bit of an alternative scene in a city, but Sicily doesn’t appear too concerned with change.

Rental car

So eventually we decided to book a ticket (just under a 3 hour flight from Amsterdam), book our first few nights in the southeast of the island and than just take it from there, based on our first experiences. We arrived in Catania on the east coast at the foot of Mount Etna and rented a car. This already was a challenge because if you read Tripadvisor comments, you don’t even want to rent a car anymore. We rarely rent a car in Europe, but from reading up on Sicily we soon got the feeling we would either miss too much, or it would take very long to get to where we wanted to go by public transport. I still like to travel by public transport though in other countries as you enter a very local world where as a car kind of keeps you in a cocoon.

The Smartcar worked fine for us. Including mountainous areas we drove 16 km on a liter.
The Smartcar (Smartfor4) worked fine for us. Even including mountainous areas we drove 16 km on a liter.

I booked a Smartfor4 with Europcar for 12 days for just over $400 without any problems. The brand new car was waiting for us with only 1200 km on the odometer and when we returned it, they hardly even bothered checking the car. Picking up the car is a bit of a slow process and you might be waiting in line for 45 minutes, so be prepared. I did take photos of every side of the car when I returned it, one of the many pieces of advice was to do that, so they can’t surprise you with claims about scratches and dents.

Small island

For starters, Sicily is not very big. Draw a line from Ottawa to Montreal, down to say the Adirondacks from Montreal and another line back via Cornwall to Ottawa and Gatineau. See the overlays below. It is mostly hilly, somewhat less on the south coast, where you find some pretty ugly places like the plastic green houses and an oil refinery or two.

Sicily is not very big, but the roads are often narrow and curve over mountain passes and through town centres.
Sicily compared to Eastern Ontario. Sicily is not very big, but the roads are often narrow and curve over mountain passes and through town centres.
Sicily over Vancouver Island
Sicily over Vancouver Island
For my American friends: Sicily over LA
For my American friends: Sicily over LA

Long ago we decided already you can never see everything you want. If you do try, you will spend half your time packing, travelling and unpacking. The other time waster is that every time you move, you have to figure out the lay of the land, where the local grocery store is and which restaurants to go. So we tend to choose a few bases and operate from there. It is nice when the coffee bar folks start to recognise you, the baker recommends a special ‘pane’ and you start to understand the local street pattern.

Ragusa

Ragusa Ibla's cathedral. I think I counted at least 30 churches in the older parts of Ragusa.
Ragusa Ibla’s cathedral. I think I counted at least 30 churches in the older parts of Ragusa. Church buffs will love the place.

The old town of Ragusa was our first base, about an hour and half drive from the Catania airport on mostly secondary roads in fairly good condition. We found a clean looking place in the old town through AirBnB. AirBnB had some nice options and we usually spend hours comparing the locations; we like entire apartments, rather than just a room and we want wireless internet to plan the rest of the trip (We travel with a cellphone and an Ipad only). Why an apartment: you can make your own coffee, your own breakfast, lunch and dinner and that is we found where the real savings are.

Two locals favourites (and ours too): Arancino (left) and Canollo (right). Rice and meat in the first one, ricotta in the second one. Commonly known as ‘scacci’ (streetfood).

That doesn’t mean we never eat out or have a cappuccino in the local caffeteria, with a ‘dolce’ of course, but preparing your own food is more fun and a lot cheaper, plus you save the tax (21%!), de ‘coperto’ (fork and knife) of 2 euros each and the tip. Did I mention wine: as low as 2 euros a bottle at the grocery store.

Mozzarella as it is supposed to be. Packed in water not a yellow brick on the shelf.
Mozzarella as it is supposed to be. Packed in water, not a yellow brick on the shelf.

Southeast Sicily

Ragusa lies in an area that was hard hit by earth quakes some 350 years ago. The whole area was basically destroyed but gradually build up again. It is now part of a string of towns that are now all protected UNESCO Heritage sites. Oddly, they have apparently been overseen somewhat as most people, from what I understand from reading up on the area, go for the beaches in Sicily. To give you an example: Ragusa al Mare has about 3500 people throughout most of the year but explodes to 60,000 in August, when Southern Europe goes on holidays.

Ragusa al Mare was more or less abandoned, save for a group of tourists on bicycles and the odd Italian couple.
Ragusa al Mare was more or less abandoned, save for a group of tourists on bicycles and the odd Italian couple.

Ragusa Ibla

Ragusa’s old town Ibla is one of those densely packed hilltop villages that has similarities with the North African Arab villages: streets are barely two meters wide, snaking up to the top through a system of stairs.

A warren of stairs in the Ragusa. The best way to explore the town is just to get lost in the maze.
A warren of stairs in the Ragusa. The best way to explore the town is just to get lost in the maze.

That is not strange as the Arabs hung their hats at Sicily for some time. As did the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans, the French, the Spanish and even the German Von Hohenzollern’s. The Ragusa province is full of those old towns, with lots of Baroque churches and palazzi (I am taking some shortcuts here).

Richly decorated balcony in Ragusa.
Richly decorated balcony in Ragusa.

Ispica

Early Christian habitation near Ispica
Early Christian habitation near Ispica

We did a side trip to a lovely gorge with very early Christian grave sites, running roughly between Modica and Ispica. As I mentioned before, finding information is not that easy, but luckily we did find some background info in a book at the AirBnB. The info is in poorly translated English from Italian, but at least it gave some more background.

early Christian grave carved out in rock
Early Christian grave carved out in rock, less than a meter high
Faint Christian paintings in what is thought to be an early 'church'.
Faint Christian paintings in what is thought to be an early ‘church’.
Catacombs where early Christians left their dead
Catacombs where early Christians left their dead

Early Christian monks lived in the gorge like valley, which was somewhat easier to defend. The stone is of a soft kind, so it was not too difficult to carve out holes to live in (still a lot of chipping though) and even to build a small two story church with a very rudimentary staircase. At the other hand, because it is so soft, parts of the facades have caved in so you need a bit of imagination to understand how it looked like with all those people tending their olive and citrus trees. It does look like it was a very fertile environment though where you could basically grow everything you want. Which the locals still do.

The Ragusa area is knows for its stone walls. This is in the Ispica valley.
The Ragusa area is knows for its stone walls. This is in the Ispica valley.

Other places worth a visit are Modica and Noto and the even more unknown Scicli, with a lovely view from the abandoned church on the top of a hill.

View from the hill with the abandoned church on the square. There was a really nice breeze too.
View from the hill with the abandoned church on the square of Scicli. There was a really nice breeze too. The sea is at the horizon.

There was this little garden surrounded by roads and mid rises in Scicli. It had orange trees, lemon trees, olive trees and fig trees. Just a little pocket of green, closed off for everyone with a wall and large gates. I suspect it is probably owned by a Sicilian who left decades ago, if not a century by now, and no one can find the owner anymore. So you just build around it.

Lovely fruit garden
Lovely untended fruit garden

Of course, every self respecting town has at least a couple of gelato shops. We really loved the gelato at Tasta, made with local and organic ingredients.

Gelato from Tasta.
Gelato from Tasta in Ragusa al Mare. They also opened up a shop in Hollywood, between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida with good reviews.
Tasta's store looked really nice.
Tasta’s store looked really nice.

All in all, you can already easily spend a week in the southeast alone. The weather was fantastic with nice sunny cloudless days, pleasantly warm and dry and cooler at night.

Next post: A Roman home, a Greek theatre and a hike in the mountains. Follow me on Twitter on @Hansonthebike or Facebook at HansontheBike. Or join the email list on this page.

Hans

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Holidays in Sicily: part 3 - Castelbuono, Madonie & Cefalú | Hans on the Bike
  2. Holidays in Sicily: part 4 - Valley of the Temples & Siracusa | Hans on the Bike
  3. Holidays in Sicily: Part 5 - Catania's Treasures | Hans on the Bike

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