I said, “I’ve driven before in Italy.”
Elisabeth replied, “This isn’t Italy. This is Sicily.”
And so I was schooled in the Sicilian perspective.
I continued my education at the car rental agency. “Never leave anything visible in the car. Even when you’re driving, don’t have anything on the seats.”
Everyone thought I was a bit crazy—driving in Sicily. Successfully navigating the devil-may-care attitude of many Washington, DC area drivers and the narrow country roads of Ireland provided ample practice for the trip. The tiniest rental car possible also helped.
First stop: Taormina
Having seen the website pictures from my Taormina lodging splurge, I knew the town would be at a decent elevation. As I drove north along Sicily’s east coast and saw a town perched high above, I had a feeling I was headed there. Sure enough, I was soon exiting the highway and driving up the spiraling road alternating between the land and bolstered lanes jutting out from the mountain.
Taormina is a tourist mecca, and there’s a very good reason for it. Founded in the 4th century BC by the Greeks, its strategic location and amazing beauty have inspired many throughout history. There’s a still-in-use Greek theater built in the 3rd century BC with a view that can’t be beat. Plus, you get a front row seat to Mt. Etna, which was snowcapped during my visit. In more recent times, Taormina has also inspired writers and other artists. It also offered the best pistachio gelato I’ve ever tasted. No wonder, as some of the best pistachios grown in the world are found an hour’s drive away in the town of Bronte.
During my two-night stay in Taormina, I visited the Planeta winery along the base of Mt. Etna, treating myself to a tasting and three course lunch. If you ever get a chance to visit a Planeta winery—go! The wine is fabulous, with both native Sicilian and international varieties. The chef prepared delicacies that continue to make my mouth water, including the best artichokes I’ve ever eaten and an incredible homemade pasta with spring asparagus that is only in season for a short time.
Next stop: Marsala
Home of Marsala wine, the charming city of 80,000+ lies on the western most coast of Sicily. There’s no direct route from coast to coast, so I had quite a circuitous, and enjoyable, drive. The journey included a failed attempt to stop for lunch at the seaside tourist mecca of Cefalù. I found the town—it was just way too packed for a brief and pleasant respite. I never even tried to park.
Based on numerous recommendations by locals, I went to Marsala’s Panificio Ragona and enjoyed the best arancini I’ve ever had. The sizable fried rice balls are ubiquitous in Sicily and come in a variety of flavors, including spinach, pistachio, and chicken. The traditional flavor is ragù, which offers a pocket of beefy tomato sauce with peas in the middle of a creamy rice container. I went back for seconds after devouring the first one in about a minute.
I visited two wineries while in Marsala: Florio—the original Marsala house—and Donnafugata. The tour at Florio was fascinating—a mix of impressive history and wine. The tasting, well, let’s just say that I don’t find an actress on video leading my tasting to be particularly effective—especially when the video is in Italian with English subtitles, and I’m told to close my eyes at one point. Plus, the low lighting didn’t help me explore the beautiful color that Marsala wine can offer.
At Donnafugata, I went on a tour and then tasted four wines with four different dishes. It was a candid tour about the winery’s evolution, which I really appreciated. The tasting (which expanded to more than four wines) resulted in some surprising pairings. It was a delicious and enlightening afternoon!
Next stop: Valley of the Temples
Just outside the town of Agrigento, Valley of the Temples is an archeological wonder and UNESCO World Heritage Site established by the Greeks in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. There are five Doric temples, including the Temple of Concord, which is said to be the most impressive surviving Doric temple in the Greek world after the Parthenon in Athens. This was just a lunchtime stopover for me.
Last stop: Syracuse
Found at the southeast corner of the island, Syracuse is packed with history, including a Greek theater originally constructed in the 5th century BC and still in use today. There’s also Ortigia, the historic core of the city, which is its own island—and an extremely charming one at that. It’s also the location of the best sandwich I’ve ever had—made fresh in front of me with at least four kinds of house-made cheese, three kinds of lettuce, two kinds of tomatoes and peppers, and so much more.
With that, I returned the car to the rental agency at the Catania airport and said Ciao to Sicily—a magical place that fortified my heart, mind, body, and soul. A little bit of Sicilian perspective goes a long way.