The winter was long and tiring, the spring was cold and even longer, and the summer holiday was months away. I decided to take a week off to cover for the extra hours spent at work, and to reconnect with my boyfriend. There was only a few requirements about the destination: 1/ warm place with a beach nearby, 2/ not overwhelmingly big, nor full of must-visit sights that would keep us busy. Between Sicily, the Greek islands and Menorca we finally decided on Sicily. But we really didn’t know what we are getting ourselves into.
Our journey was in the end of May. We jumped in the car for an overnight drive to the airport straight after work, so there wasn’t much time for preparation. I remember I got a message from Finnair reminding me to get my passport because of extra passport checks in Sicily, but I didn’t pay much attention to it.
Surprise upon arrival
We found ourselves deadly tired and hungry on a sunny morning sitting in the tourist bus of Aurinkomatkat, when we first heard from our travel agency that our vacation is going to be majorly affected by an event taking place nearby – the G7 summit! The bus was full with Finnish tourists going to Giardini Naxos (our destination) and Letojanni, and for both places more restrictions than opportunities were in offer.
As much as this trip was an escape from work, I actually wanted to see and try for myself how another rural destination has developed its tourism products. To a wide extent I insisted on Giardini Naxos, because I read in advance about all the daily excursion possibilities, including wineries, Godfather stories, volcano adventures ect.
Forget about it – all excursions were cancelled because of the important guests. We had one and only chance to visit Etna. Taormina was going on an one-week lockdown the next day. At once all my plans were canceled and I couldn’t do anything about it, because nobody told me about this situation in advance.
As much as the guide was trying to convince us that this is once-in-a-lifetime vacation, for me it was more of a trap. I would have expected from a large travel agent like Aurinkomatkat not to withhold this kind of crucial information at least in order to maintain a good image. But they decided it is more important to just get their money. No ethics involved. By the way, one of the reasons why I write this blog post so late is the fact I gave it the chance to set the record straight by replying to my reclamation, but the company never did – since the beginning of June. But let’s move forward.
First impressions and Taormina
It was about 11 a.m. when we had dropped the luggage in the room, changed clothes and were ready for adventures. Well, not really adventures, but we needed at least to eat. As tired as we were, a beer, the stunning view of Taormina for the first time and some pasta covered for it. And why exactly pasta – well, in Sicily the pizza oven is not yet hot for lunch, because it would be too hot for those working in the kitchen during the day. Or so we heard… but pizza was really not an option for lunch at many places.
In the afternoon we headed to Taormina, remembering that it is our only chance to see it before the lockdown. I was a little confused about the bus schedules and tickets, and we almost got a sun stroke waiting for the bus under the sun. Luckily we got the right one – it was equipped with air conditioning and it took us through the curvy road of the mountain to Taormina.
The small historical town was full of police, army, special forces of different origin – all armed! Military helicopters were circling over us in the sky. We decided to make a pit stop at the first cafe or bar we see, and have a break of all this. We saw one at the side of the road next to the cableway station.
Bella Blu was a place that looked like a granny’s garden from the outside, but inside on the steep terrain there was a spacious restaurant with a great view towards Letojanni. But surprise, surprise – it was also full of military staff!
We drank our beers and continued. The main point of interest for me was the Greek Amphitheater, so we went there first. Old Greeks have chosen their places wisely. I mean, they have reserved it already thousands of years ago, so none of the contemporary global hotel chains can have it even in exchange for all the money in the world. The place was pure magic – on the top of the mountain with a view of the Naxos coast and Etna as a wallpaper of every scene played in the theater. And one can’t help but wonder how this all has been built with ancient know-how and technical effort.
The center of Taormina had the genuine spirit of Italy (although for me Sicily is not Italy in general). Happy people enjoying life. Cafeterias and design accessories shops at every corner. Only the security details were spoiling the atmosphere.
The central street seemed to be never-ending. We were going again and again through stone gates and I wanted to take a picture of each and every of them, although I wasn’t even sure where we are. We stopped at a cafe and tasted the local cannoli with some hot strong espresso. So much we learned during our visit in Naples, that we did it as locals do – drink your coffee standing at the bar, don’t hang out in the cafe for hours.
The day was only getting hotter and we were searching for the scarce spots of shadow. Everything was beautiful but we were not in the mood for shopping, nor we had the power to thoroughly explore the place. We were so tired that everything was blurry like in a dream. We returned back to Naxos, knowing that we won’t come back to this fairy town of Taormina – at least not during this holiday!
We had a two-star accommodation, which was not really a hotel, but a boarding house. Its name was Pensione Villa Sant’Antonio and it was situated close to the archaeological sight of Giardini Naxos just between the center with the promenade and the Recanati area with the bus station. The area was really nice and peaceful. We were surrounded by real lemon gardens.
The view from the balcony covered three directions – in front was the sea, on the left were the hills of Taormina, and on the right – mighty Ethna.
The villa was equipped with just the basics, but as usual we didn’t need anything more. A little bit annoying was the fact that we didn’t have any tv channels in English, only Italian ones. During our brief visit in Sicily there were some important events going on – like the Manchester terror attack and a mafia boss assassination in Palermo, not to mention the G7 summit itself, so we would have liked to know more about them.
One other disadvantage was that there was no fridge in the room. In such a hot place in my opinion it is a must!
The breakfast was really nice – croissants and pastries, fresh fruits and cappuccino!! Only, someone had given the owners the idea that they should also serve salty breakfast – and they sucked at it! The fried eggs, and, note, fried salad, looked awful and I usually skipped them.
I felt really privileged to be able to travel as much as I do during this year – and there was a place that awakened these feelings in me time and time again – our balcony. The serenity of the scene – the sea, palms and exotic pine trees in front of us, while in Finland was literally still snowing… aaahhhhh, I would have stayed on this balcony longer if I could.
Etna was the other sight we had to hurry for, since we’d been offered only one excursion, after which the place would have been accessible only for the special guests of the G7 summit. After Vesuvius, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit a second volcano in just half a year. We took a look from out balcony and we thought: “There are the main craters, there we are going to go!” Well, unfortunately not. Obviously the hike to there takes time, and we were explained that the main craters are far away, the way to there is not suitable to everybody’s condition, and that they are not a very safe place in general. I didn’t understand what all the fuss is about, and thought that the place has all the infrastructure, the same way like Vesuvius.
They took us to Silvestri craters, which are at about 2000m height (compared to the 3300m of the main craters). My boyfriend is the hiking type and was totally disappointed to just visit a place reachable by bus and “where everybody goes”.
We drove through the villages of Santa Venerina and Zafferana Etnea, which are so close to Mount Etna, that even the thought makes you feel uncomfortable. After all, Etna erupts multiple times a year, putting all the lives and homes of the locals in danger. But they think in another way – the land in these villages is extremely fertile aiding agriculture. There are little farms like the bee farm we visited in Zafferana. The products varied from honey and olives to pistachios and wine. In addition to that locals are so used to living next to this giant, that they seem to enjoy the eruptions as a show.
Getting from 0m altitude to 2000m was a dramatic change of weather. When we got out of the bus at Silvestri, it was like a return to Finland – cold and windy as hell. On the left side of the road there was the so-called “easy” crater, the southern one, which didn’t need a lot of climbing – you just go for a walk. On the right side of the road there was a much higher one, the northern crater. We were warned that it’s not for everyone and we should be careful. Of course, we headed straight to that one.
The way up was hard. Only a few steps up and I realized how steep the path was, and that there was no going back. There were no balusters dividing the path from the flank of the crater (like on Vesuvius). The path was extremely slippery and little stones were rolling under my feet every time I tried to find a solid ground. We had to take a lot of breaks so I can catch my breath, but during them I couldn’t look down or around, because I fear being at high places. My boyfriend said that on the other side there is a path not so steep, and we can use it on the way down. But guess what – when we reached the top, we noticed we have to go about 30-50m down an even steeper path in order to join the easier one.
Wind was blowing hard up on the crater. I wanted to take a few photos, but even that wasn’t a pleasure in this situation. I was standing there – between the path I came from on the left, the steeper one in front of me, and the path circling the crater behind me.
Definitely I didn’t want to go around the crater. At this point I was just thinking of a rescue strategy. Both paths down seemed impossible, although people were continuously coming up and going down. I was in total panic, my mind was blocked, I was shivering, I even started crying. I realized this is not a regular fear of heights – this is an acrophobia! Eventually I went down the steeper but shorter path, keeping the hand of my boyfriend at all times and walking with baby steps.
He wasn’t satisfied with just going up and down. He returned back to the top of the crater and walked the circle around it, enjoying the view. And I took photos of him, while enjoying my safety.
After this terrifying experience the second, easier crater was a piece of cake.
Naxos (as the tourists call it) or Giardini (according to the locals) was the place we stayed for the whole week. Half-way between Messina and Catania it is the oldest Greek colony on the island of Sicily. Of course, with my Greek roots, I prefer to call it Naxos. The more Italian name, Giardini, means “gardens” referring to the citrus fruit gardens surrounding the town. I should admit though, I didn’t know anything about this place prior to our visit.
In Naxos there is a long street along the beach, the promenade, where all the restaurants and bars are situated. During the day it is full of tourists, but in the evening the locals walk or drive back and forth, showing off with their new clothes, new cars, new accessories… or new girlfriends… It reminded me of Varna so much. Same kind of place, same kind of beach, same evening-walk culture!
Naxos has some of the best sand beaches – not only in Sicily but in Italy as well. And everybody knows I don’t like anything but sand beaches! The beach is divided on parts called lido, and each lido includes different services. You pay for the sunbeds and also for the umbrella – but only if you open it!
The thing is, in May there is nobody else on the beach but foreign tourists, who really want to suffer! Out of the 7 days in Naxos we went four times to the beach. The weather was usually quite ok in the morning, but about midday every day a terrible wind was appearing – hard and cold. It was a wonder that I got any tan at all from this trip, because I stayed on the beach with my clothes on for most of the time.
The water was freezing, only about 17-18 C, but I decided, I really need to go swimming, since I planned the whole vacation around the beach and sea as main factors. Swimming was quite an extreme experience, I should say!
The last day even the umbrellas were off because of the G7 summit and the following protests. And the beach was full of journalists. They tried to interview me too, but I didn’t really want to comment.
At least we enjoyed the view of the tricolore flight in honor of the opening of the G7 summit.
The food, the drinks
Since we didn’t have excursion possibilities and it was cold on the beach, we concentrated on eating and drinking. For me tasting the local dishes is part of getting to know the local culture – even when the “local dishes” is what they serve to tourists in the restaurants.
After Naples, I should admit, no food could impress me. We ate every time in a different restaurant, and it was never good enough, just edible, just tourist food. Pizza was nothing you should concentrate on. Pasta was better. I liked in particular the local pasta alla norma, made with baked ricotta and eggplant. Actually, you shouldn’t miss baked ricotta in general. I just bought some from the supermarket – and since then I wonder why we don’t have it in Finland??!!
Since I am in love with street food and fast food, there was no way I wouldn’t try arancini – fried ball of cone with rice and filling. As good as it was in the version of alla norma, I couldn’t eat the ragu (meat) version at all. And still, the fried pasta balls from Naples beat it 100 times!
We ate a lot of gelato ice cream, the best of which I tasted in Syracuse – ricotta taste!!! It was so good, that I have to give you the tip where to get it. The gelateria I bought it from is on the corner of Corso Umberto I and Via Luigi Greco Cassia between the Anatolia Kebab and Osteria Del Veccio Ponte. However, I regret not tasting the Sicilian granita, which is supposed to be the local breakfast or snack.
Besides the local food, we also tasted some kebab, which was quite decent, but not even close to the one served in Bulgaria. From the kebab shop I also surprisingly got some juice made in Bulgaria. Why would the country of citrus fruits import juice from Bulgaria??
Except of the food, we also tasted local drinks. We tried to fit into the local lifestyle and a few times we took aperitif before dinner. Aperol Spritz is nowadays quite trendy, but I am a Campari girl. Campari Spritz for me, please! The aperitif was always served with some bite – nuts, olives or other snacks.
Last but not least I have to mention the local wine. On several occasions we ordered white wine, and despite the fact I am not much of a wine drinker, I liked it every time. Especially impressed I was with the Maria Costanza wine made in Agrigento region.
When we got tired of the tranquility and restrictions of Taormina-Naxos region, we got off on a day trip to Syracuse. Not that I knew anything specific about the place, but it sounded comfortably familiar – I have heard of it in my childhood, and in the same time awfully exotic. In other words – one of those places you’ve heard about and you’ve watched all the documentaries, but didn’t expect to visit in your lifetime.
And of course, the best about Syracuse for me is its Greek background – it has been a powerful Greek colony back in the day.
We took a train from Naxos to Syracuse, which was actually pretty easy, since the man at the ticket point at the railway station was the only person I met in Naxos, who actually speaks English. The hard part was actually getting to the railway station, which took us about 50 min from the hotel by feet. Even so, I was amused by the scenery and our conversation at all times. The most interesting part was when my boyfriend said: “Oh no, godfather has called me and I’ve missed the call!” Haha! “Godfather” – got it? We were in Sicily!! You wouldn’t like a call from the godfather. Luckily he just meant HIS godfather.
The train trip was picturesque – going through citrus gardens, small towns and villages, as well as the very center of Catania. And doesn’t matter how far we got from our starting point, Mighty Etna was always in the background.
There was one place along the way, maybe about half-way between Naxos and Syracuse, which was totally different from every other landscape we saw – Augusta. The town of Augusta stood out as a shocking change with its oil refineries from all the unspoiled nature and beautiful architecture of all the other places.
In Syracuse we only had a few hours, so we needed to concentrate on the most important sites. We basically visited two places – the archeological park and the old town on the island of Ortigia. Everything everywhere was blinding white, and the heat was hard to remain unnoticed. The places outside the touristic path looked kinda fallen into disrepair.
In the archaeological park there was much to see, and of course most was of ancient Greek descent. There was a large Greek amphitheater and a rather small Roman stadium, an interesting cave called the Ear of Dionysius and a inexplicable pile of stones called Alter of Hiero II.
Down in the old town my disappointment was with the fact that almost all the architecture was baroque, while I am much more interested in ancient and medieval sites. But after all Syracuse has went through many phases and rules – Greek, Imprerial Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Italian etc. In addition the city has been destroyed by two major earthquakes, in 1542 and 1693, struck by the plague 1729 and bombed in 1943 during WWII.
We visited the Temple of Apollo, which is situated right at the end of the bridges on Ortigia’s side, then got lost in the small streets of the old town, but finally found the Fountain of Diana, the Cathedral of Syracuse and the Fountain of Arethusa. Then we just walked along the eastern coast of the island back to the bridge through Forte Vigliena and Parco Letterario Elio Vittorini.
The downside of Syracuse – I didn’t notice any sand beaches. People were just taking sun on the shore rocks like geckos.
As you might have noticed already, I am a desperate romanticist, and what could be more romantic than a totally white town on a summer day under the sun?! I liked Syracuse for that, even though our trip was so short that we couldn’t really concentrate on the romantics. Syracuse, watch out and be prepared, I’ll be back!
Good place, bad timing
Usually I write more positive posts. This one has been extremely long and full of criticism so far. After visiting Sicily I have started following many social media channels telling about the island. I think there are definitely many amazing hidden places on the island waiting to be discovered. And with a better timing and more time Naxos, Taormina and Syracuse might offer a different experience as well. So, looking forward to returning to Sicily one day.