Mamma in Milan

Discovering Sicily

What comes to mind when you think of Sicily? Cannolis? The Mafia? Mount Etna? To be sure all those things are part of Sicily’s identity, but as I discovered recently, Italy’s iconic island has so much more to offer.

On the road to San Vito lo Capo

Deciding where to spend our first Italian vacation was not easy. There are so many beautiful places in Italy, so many within a short drive of where we live in Milan. I knew I wanted to head south and spend some time on a sandy beach. My Southern Californian blood was aching for the ocean. In conversations with my Italian friends, one place kept being recommended…Sicily. So back in January, before the COVID chaos, I booked our flights and hotel and looked forward to discovering Sicily. 

The Sicilian countryside

As summer began and travel restrictions were lifted, it was still unclear if we could travel. Thankfully, by July travel within Europe was allowed and flights had resumed. 

On the advice of friends, we decided to explore the northwest corner of Sicily so we flew from Milan to Palermo (only an hour and fifteen minute flight). I have to admit that flying was a bit unnerving for me. I know there are many who still doubt the severity of the Coronavirus but for those of us in Northern Italy, we know it is very real. Everyone I know can name someone who has been sick or worse, who has died. Being in Malpensa airport with a crowd of people waiting to board a flight was more anxiety-inducing than I imagined. Everyone was, of course, wearing masks, but social distancing was impossible. I sanitized every surface I touched on the plane, said a prayer, and tried to relax. 

“I sanitized every surface I touched on the plane, said a prayer, and tried to relax.”

Vineyards abound in Sicily

We arrived in Palermo, got our rental car and headed to Trapani to the apartment we rented for the week. Our apartment did not disappoint. It was in the historic part of Trapani facing the harbor. We had an amazing view and a lovely terrace to enjoy. Over the course of a week we explored the island and made it our mission to try the local food. Here are some of the highlights:

Trapani

Trapani is an ancient port town, known for its fishing industry and salt fields. It’s a sprawling city with a beautiful, historic downtown that has a very Baroque feel to it. It’s amazing to me just how much this little island has been through. They have been conquered so many times throughout the ages that their culture and architecture, especially in Trapani, is a grand mix of their conquered past. 

Things to see in Trapani:

 

What to eat and drink in Trapani:

San Vito lo Capo

San Vito lo Capo has one of the island’s most famous beaches. It is a small, rustic beachside town on the northwest tip of Sicily, about an hour drive from Trapani. It has a natural half moon bay, overlooked by Mount Monaco. San Vito has a lovely pedestrian main street full of restaurants, gelaterias, and shops catering to the tourist crowd. We spent two days enjoying the beach, swimming and just relaxing on the white sand beach. The water is crystal clear and there are plenty of water sports to enjoy. In my opinion it is the perfect town to choose if you’re looking for a relaxing, beach vacation. 

Things to see in San Vito lo Capo:

Santuario di San Vito la Capo

Things to do in San Vito lo Capo:

Stunningly clear water at San Vito’s beach

What to eat in San Vito lo Capo:

Seafood Couscous

Erice

The town of Erice sits atop Mount Erice above Trapani. Founded by the Phoenicians then inhabited by the Greeks, it was a sacred place to the Greeks as many would make their way there to worship at the temple of Venus. Today, the town is an example of medieval architecture with part of the city walls still intact. It’s a beautiful town that looks like it has been frozen in time.  We strolled down the cobblestone streets and tried to imagine what it must have been like to live in one of the picturesque stone houses. 

Things to see in Erice:

To get there you can either drive, which is a hair raising experience or take the cable car. Unfortunately, for us, the cable car was closed due to COVID restrictions so we had to brave the narrow, windy road up the mountain. My cool-as-a-cucumber husband endured my sighs and gasps as we drove and in the end, I lived to see Erice. 

What to eat in Erice:

The best pastries I’ve had in Italy

Favignana Island

Favignana is the largest of three islands that make up the Aegadian Islands off the coast of Sicily. It’s 11 miles from the west coast Sicily, a short 30 minute Hydrofoil ride from Trapani. Founded by the Phoenicians as an outpost, this beautiful little island, like the rest of Sicily, has a long and complicated past. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination and famous for its tuna fish industry. There are so many beautiful coves to explore and inviting white-sand beaches. 

If you enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving, this is the place for you! In addition to the crystal clear water and abundant sea life, there are ruins and relics on the seafloor that can be explored. Getting around is easy on a rented bike or moped. There are also lots of boat tours that will take you around the island exploring the most idyllic coves. 

How to get to Favignana Island:

What to eat on Favignana Island:

Best tuna sandwich ever!

Valley of the Temples

Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) – You don’t have to travel to Greece to see Greek temples! Sicily was colonized by the Greeks in the 8th century B.C. Just outside of the city of Agrigento sits one of the best preserved examples of Greek temples built in the 5th century B.C. The remains of seven Doric style temples make up this UNESCO World Heritage site. The entrance fee is 10 euro a person. This place was a hit with my son who proclaimed, “This is the coolest place in Italy!” He seriously did not want to leave. 

Getting to the Valley of the Temples:

Unless you take a tour, you’ll have to drive there. Public transit in Sicily is not exactly convenient. It’s about a 2.5-hour car ride from Palermo or Trapani. The drive is absolutely stunning. Rolling hills of olive groves and vineyards make for a relaxing car ride. There are two parking lots on each end of the valley.

What Not to Expect in Sicily

If you read the paragraphs above, you might have noticed that I used the adjective “rustic” in various places to describe Sicily. There is a lot of poverty in Sicily and the infrastructure of the island is not up to par with the rest of Europe. There is trash on the streets, dilapidated buildings, and a lack of landscaping. Don’t expect perfection. This island has a host of complicated problems that have no easy answers. The Mafia is alive and well here and they have a lot to do with the state of affairs. If you can get past your own expectations, you’ll be able to enjoy and appreciate all the island has to offer. 

By now you might be thinking, “Yes, that all looks lovely, but what about Palermo?” We had grand plans to spend a day exploring the city but sometimes things don’t go as planned and that’s ok. I’m grateful for all that we saw (and ate!). In fact, Sicily has won my heart. Its rustic charm is so inviting, its food is so delicious, and its people are so warm and welcoming that I will be back soon to discover more. 

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