Ciao SICILIA! My trip to the Northwest

I never really knew much about Sicily. I was aware that it is an Italian island located in the Mediterranean Sea with the mysterious capital city Palermo known for once being a home of the “Godfather” mafia and that Sicily’s most iconic landmark may be the active volcano Mt. Etna. So it was about time to delve into what real Sicily hides in its corners.

THE UNSPOILT NORTHWEST

I didn’t have enough time to explore all of the island’s treasures so I decided to devote my travels to one particular area instead of chasing the main sights all around Sicily. Ryanair took me directly (and cheaply) from Prague to Trapani, a port town situated in northwestern part of Sicily. The region is priding itself as one of the most marvellous yet still unspoilt areas on the island which is always music to my ears.

I booked a lovely bed and breakfast apartment in the centre of Trapani right next to famous Frida’s bar (how convenient). Every night I was falling asleep to a sound of music coming from the bar and every morning it was a smell of coffee and freshly baked pastries wafting from a restaurant downstairs that made me jump right up to and head to local markets. I spent my days exploring the main landmarks of the province and in the evenings I took myself on a perfect date nights including delicious Italian food and unbeatable sunsets. Basically, la dolce vita!

LA VITA SICILIANA

I feel like I learnt a lot just in couple of days. I had my eyes very open and took every chance to gain a new piece of information about the area. Sicily is actually the largest island in the entire Mediterranean Sea, therefore had always played a big strategic role in the Italian history and often changed hands. While most visitors, including me, think that Sicily simply belongs to Italy, it became part of the Italian Kingdom in the second half of 19th century and almost 100 years later the island was given its own autonomy. So although Sicily does not have a complete sovereignty, it is governed by a regional “president” and many services, such as tourism, are administrated locally.

One of the main things I noticed was that Sicilians are proud to be Sicilians much more than they are proud to be Italians and if you ask them, they consider themselves to be Sicilians first, Europeans second and Italians third. For me that was interesting because I always saw Sicilians as Italians living in the island of Sicily. Many of the locals told me I was wrong. Beyond a handful of similarities, the cultural differences between Sicilians and their mainland neighbours are pretty noticeable. Sicilians view northerners as a little too cold, formal, boring or confident, whereas Italians apparently call Sicilians overly excitable, hilly-billy and untrustworthy.

I can’t say much about these stereotypes but from my point of view Sicilians seemed very warm and friendly. Everywhere I went I was welcomed with open arms and everybody always tried to be helpful. Nowadays there are about 5 million people living on the island and speaking their own Italian dialect.

It was not a big struggle to speak English in more touristy areas but as soon as you move a bit further, don’t bother speaking anything else than a roman language. I don’t know how, but combining my gestures and basic Spanish with their broken English enabled me to communicate just fine.

The fastest way to piss of a Sicilian is to joke about the mafia. Hollywood may have glorified the terrible criminal organization that once took over Palermo but in reality Sicilians are tired of foreigners talking about the gangsters as if it was something cool and memorable. The fact that their island is characterized as a birthplace of this organized crime does not make them happy. The mafia still causes trouble and became a messy reality that broke many local hearts. Don’t be scared to mention the m-word, just restrain from making silly comments without knowing much about it.

Nowadays the island is full of enchanting places and destinations that attract thousands of tourists every year. The typical landscape consists of surprisingly high mountains, pristine coast and cute towns kicking the goals for being both cultural and entertaining.

In the Sicilian northwest I found plenty of archaeological remains and small villages where the most authentic traditions are still part of daily life. To me the region seemed underestimated, which played in my favor as my trip ended up not only being a great wandering but also very peaceful experience.

ON THE WHEELS

It is possible to travel around Sicily using just public transportation but if you want to do so, take in account that its efficiency, frequency and quality is not very high. The connections are poor, especially on the weekends, and some places further from the cities are pretty much unreachable by buses. So it is feasible to tour the island by a bus but don’t expect to see nearly as much of Sicily as you could with a car.

CAR

Hence I decided that renting a car for most parts of my trip would be the best option giving me enough freedom to see whatever hidden gems caught my eyes on the way. Overall I am very happy with my decision but I must admit that at first the idea of driving a car in Sicily made me a but nervous. Italians have earned quite a reputation for being crazy drivers and from what I heard the driving in Italy gets crazier the further south you go. Plus I am not the most experienced driver that should hit the local roads by themselves.:)

I can confirm that the traffic in cities was very chaotic. People do not really seem to care if they drive on the main or side road and I met plenty of kamikaze drivers who appear out of sudden and found their way in front of me without really respecting the rules. At first it wasn’t easy to stay afloat in a sea of commuters who seem eager to get to wherever it is they’re going as fast as possible. Moreover the infrastructure in the countryside can be a bit underdeveloped. Some streets were very narrow so driving a regular sedan felt like driving a tank. But once I got used to it and left the busy areas, the driving was a piece of cake…I tuned in radio, cruised the winding roads and soaked up the views of Sicilian villages or pretty coast.

So my advice to every newbie to driving in Sicily would be – always stay super caution, remember that many people ignore lights and stop sights and triple check before you enter an intersections. Also, before you rent, take in account that most of the rental cars are manual.

BIKE

On one of the days I took a ferry to Egadadian archipelago and visited a lovely Mediterranean island called Favignana. I found it to be relatively big to be explored by foot but quite tiny to drive around it in a car or on a motorbike. That left me with perfect conditions for cycling.

I couldn’t recommend this options enough. For only 5 euros I was able to rent a cute little bike with a basket in the front and ended up cruising all around the island twice. I biked at my own pace, took in all the beautiful countryside and wasn’t disturbed by a traffic. I made a stop wherever I wanted to lay down, take a picture or get an ice cream. So if the circumstances are right, do not hesitate to get yourself a two-wheeler as well, just be aware that some of the bikes are pretty old and not ideal for hilly terrains.

SCOOTER

Driving a scooter in Italy is something very iconic and belongs to one of the main means of transport. I’d been wanting to try it since I was little and drove a tiny motorcycle with my grandad around a Bibione amusement park.

So on the very last day of my stay in I decided to enter the Sicilian world of traffic in a saddle of a motorbike. And it was incredible! I absolutely realize that it is only driving a scooter I’m talking about, something that many people do on every day basis, but for me it was special. I had only ridden a motorbike as a passenger and the fact that my first-time driving it was also supposed to happen in infamously crazy roads of Italy made me so nervous that I even thought about calling it off. But then I chose to practise what I preach and stepped outside of my comfort zone. I strapped on my helmet, gunned the engine, took a deep breath and took off to embrace my inner Lizzie McGuire 😊

Don’t judge me but I felt like the coolest person ever and couldn’t stopped giggling the entire time. The feeling in my stomach when I was flying along at what felt like 120 km/h (but was probably around 80 km/h),  sea breeze against my face while being surrounded by incredible scenery turned out to be one of my favourite memories. Sicily is definitely a place where I could imagine hanging out on two wheels much longer.

EAT YOUR WAY THROUGH SICILY

Just like Liz in the movie Eat Pray Love, I can’t imagine a better way to immerse myself in Italy than eating my way through it. Local cuisine belongs to one of the world’s most renowned thanks to its simplicity, rich flavours and fresh ingrediencies and luckily, Sicily isn’t an exception.

Usually when I travel I try to save money on food, I don’t need to eat out every night and I buy basic food in convenient stores. Well, not this time. And that would be my advice to anyone going to Sicily – forget your diet plans and please your taste buds as much as you can.

Besides traditional Italian food that can be found in the entire country, Sicily owns several unique dishes that make it even more of a heaven. These are the staples of local cuisine I had a chance to try:

Let me start with cannoli because…omg! Meaning “little tubes”, these Sicilian sweets are made of fried pastry dough and filled with creamy ricotta or vanilla custard.  You don’t quite have to be sweet tooth to love cannoli.

One of the main culinary prides of the northwest is Trapanese cous cous that came to the area thanks to Arab influences. Classic couscous alla trapanese contains sea food such as cod, mussels or shrimps. Another characteristic dish of the region is co called Pasta alla Trapanese – a homemade tagliate poured over with a special pesto made of almonds, tomatoes and garlic sauce.

I noticed that the major culinary feature of the island are pistachios that can be added basically to anything…ice cream, pesto, justices, coffee, pizza. Bronte pistachios grow around Mt. Etna where they acquire that peculiar emerald colour and intense aromatic sweetness. Locals call them green gold which reflects their importance to Sicilian economy. There rarely is a coffee bar in Sicily that would not have a pistachio pastry or coffee on their menu.

Could anyone go to Italy without constantly eating unhealthy amount of ice cream? I hope not because that would be a big mistake! Italian gelato followed me on my every stop and I certainly didn’t mind. Straciatella, pistachio, tutti frutti, neapolitan, fragola, vanilla…those are just few of the flavours I had and I can say that Sicilian ice cream lived up to its reputation. For those trying to stay in shape there is a lighter version to ice cream called granita. This frozen sorbet-like dessert has unique texture thanks to the freezing techniques, is made of various natural flavours … perfect way to cool off under the Sicilian sun.

The newest “must have” of the island is surprisingly popular ice cream hamburger. I was pretty skeptical about the odd combination of fro-yo in a bun but found it unexpectedly delicious. It definitely tasted better than it looked. 🙂

Apparently Sicily is the third largest wine producing region of Italy and the prestige of its wine is on the rise which goes in hand with so called Vinitourism. The most popular traditional wineries lie in the northwest around the city of Marsala where you can visit local vineyards, learn more about production of wine and taste the local liquid wealth.

Last but not least I have to mention another Sicilian signature dish –arancini. These Sicilian risotto balls are usually filled with mozzarella, meat or vegetables and served with pepper sauce which makes it a popular Italian afternoon snack.

Note that except for Trapanese cous cous all of the dishes are vegetarian friendly. 😊

SOLA PERSONA?

While travelling solo in Sicily was no problem and something I absolutely loved and enjoyed, dining alone turned out to be a little strange. Unless I was eating in a simple bistro, it felt odd to go for a dinner by myself and restaurants in Trapani were not the best at responding to it. It wasn’t necessarily weird, just quite abnormal, and from what I searched online I gathered that dining solo in other parts of Italy can often promise awkward or hilarious situations.

I took myself on a date night several times. The restaurants were usually beautifully decorated with romantic lighting and slow music was playing in the background. Every time I asked for a table for one, waiters would look at me very pitifully and spent ages whispering to each other trying to decide where to sit this poor lonely girl. I got quite used to it and it always made me smile.

The last night in Trapani I decided to treat myself and went to a very fancy restaurant with a view over the Ligny Tower. The sun was going down; live music was playing to serenade the evening and the couples were eagerly staring at each other’s eyes. Needless to say, the staff was surprised to see a solitaire.

“Sola persona”, the waiter shouted to his colleague across the restaurant.  Thanks, mate, I’m sure even the fishermen on the nearby beach heard that there is a person about to eat by themselves. They started cleaning the cutlery for the second person and blew out the candles on my table (how rude😃). After asking me one more time if anybody was joining me I finally ordered the famous Pasta alla Trapansese (which was phenomenal btw). I acted like this is a standard situation for me and as a proper grown up I placed white tablecloth on my lap, sipped red wine from my glass, nodded at the sommelier giving him permission to pour me more (pretending that I wasn’t drinking cheap wine out of box during my collage years) and faced the same problem as Julia Roberts did in Pretty Woman – which fork to use? Half an hour later the waiters probably felt sorry for me and poured me more wine “on the house” which I certainly wasn’t going to turn down. I was also served Tiramisu as a dessert for free so overall, dining solo in Trapani, even in an upscale restaurant, was an extraordinary experience. 😊

THE BEST OF THE NORTHWEST

TRAPANI

Once a small fishing village, nowadays a busy town of Trapani also happens to be an important port connecting the Tyrrhenian Sea with the Canal of Sicily, and due to having an international airport, it became my starting point for travelling around the region.

I didn’t expect much from Trapani so I was pleasantly surprised by its lively historic centre. It had everything I needed – delicious food options, nice beachfront and delightful architecture.

During the day Trapani seems a bit sleepy but that changes as soon as the sun goes down and bustling bars and restaurants become full of socializing Italians. Trapani also gets busier during Easter Holidays thanks to the famous procession, Mystery di Trapani, which takes 24 hours and prides itself on being the oldest one in Italy.

Its north side is framed by a walled fort, the south side of the town is locating the port and on the tip of Trapani’s peninsula lies Ligny, a watchtower featuring an archaeological museum. Heart of the city is crossed by several main boulevards where “everything is happening”. There are plenty of churches, piazzas and historical remains but my favourite thing to do in Trapani was aimless wandering through its marvellous streets.

Trapani province became particularly famous for its ancient salt flats that are situated south towards city of Marsala. The so-called Saline nature reserve belongs to one of the oldest in the world and consists of medieval wind mills that have been producing natural salt in traditional way for centuries.

ERICE

This little historic town named after Greek god is located on the top of Mount Eryx, just a short drive from Trapani. It overlooks the area and, on a clear day, promises spectacular views all the way to Egadian islands and Marsala.

But most of the time, Erice wears necklace of fleecy clouds which was the case during my stay so I was postponing the visit for as long as possible. On the very last day I finally took a scooter and drove up to the clouds which turned out to be one of my favourite experiences thanks to empty scenic roads winding up the mountain. Besides on your own wheels, Erice can also be reached by a bus or a cable car called funivia, both running regularly from Trapani’s outskirts.

Erice truly lives up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. Its cobble stone streets are protected by Phoenician walls and hide plenty of extraordinary sights such as Temple of Venus. Except for many gelatarias inviting everyone for their homemade ice cream, the village also has its own yummy pastry called genovesi.

FAVIGNANA

Ah Favignana, that island gave me all the feels. It makes me happy knowing that there still are such unspoilt places to be found in the world. Visiting Favignana ensures an absolute blissful experience simply because time seems to be running more slowly here. And I wasn’t complaining, I slowed down too.

Favignana is the largest of five Egadian islands (translated as “islands of goats”), an archipelago located in the Mediterranean Sea off the northwest coast of Sicily. The island’s coastline resembles the shape of a butterfly, hence its name La Farfalla, meaning the butterfly. It is known for its tuna fisheries and thanks to frequent hydrofoil connections to the mainland it is becoming a beloved weekend destination for few Sicilian vacationers.

The island is so small that it took me only half a day to bike all around it. The landscape is mostly flat with one major mountain dominating the landscape and there is only one town containing a cute square with few restaurants, wineries and bars selling their famous pistachio coffee. The rest of Favignana is made of flowery fields and calcareous rocky cliffs washed by spectacular azure waters. In other words: paradise.

 SAN VITO LO CAPO

When it comes to beach getaways, San Vito Lo Capo knows how to outstand its neighbours. Local gold sand beaches framed by mountain peaks on both sides are one of the most popular on the entire island and attract more vacationers than the rest of the beach towns in the region. From what I heard this place gets pretty crowded during the summer months but at least you know you won’t be bored. There are plenty of events throughout the year, among which the annual gastronomic festival called Cous Cous fest is the most popular one.

MONTE COFANO

While road tripping the province of Trapani, Monte Cofano can’t stay unnoticed. This impressive lime stone mountain stands directly at the north coast in the western part of Sicily and is kicking goals at perfect coastal hikes and picture-perfect views.

ZINGORO NATURA RESERVA

Zingaro was one of the top places in the northwest I wanted to visit. This coastal trail stretches for 7 km starting in the village of Scopello and finishing in San Vito Lo Capo. It presents itself as the oldest and one of the most beautiful coastal reserves in entire Italy. Of course, I couldn’t miss that.

Zingaro contains a number of pocket-sized beaches and pristine bays that are overlooked by rugged cliffs and windswept mountainsides. For the entrance fee of 5 euros you can hike the panoramic trail and learn more about local botanic life as Zingaro can be basically characterized as an ecological treasure. There are hundreds of plants and trees along the trail and unique species of falcons and lizards to be spotted. Its rich flora and fauna is perfectly explained in museums that are built for tourists to have a break and educate themselves. Even during relatively busy Easter break, Zingaro was felt magically calm and untouched.

SCOPELLO

After spending four hours hiking through Zingaro National Reserve I still wasn’t fed with all the coastal views so I drove a little further to visit small but relatively well known Scopello. Just few kilometres away from the tiny village lies what makes the place so attractive –  neat beach and rock formations that are majestically sticking out of crystal clear waters.

Additionally, Scopello prides itself on having one of the last Mediterranean tuna fishery that managed to keep its traditional ancient appearance, called Tonnara di Scopello.  The area is however slowly becoming victim of its own success as more and more people come here to be stunned. In defence locals charge 4 euros for visiting the beach hoping they’ll avoid having their home spoilt by influx of tourists.

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO

Initially, I was planning on visiting the coastal town of Castellammare del Golfo but thought I wouldn’t have enough time. However, plans do change themselves. After driving through the hilly roads of the west coast, my rental car needed more fuel and finding an open gas station on (Easter!) Sunday was basically a mission impossible. The gas control kept beeping and Castellammare turned out to be my only chance of stumbling upon an open gas station so, as it turned out, my road led to Castellammare anyway. I fed my car just few minutes before the last gas station closed and since I was already in the town I used the opportunity to see more of it.

Originally a small fishing village, Castellammare is getting more attention as it is conveniently located between Palermo and Trapani. Its port called Cala Marina is surrounded by hills and topped with a castle and medieval fortress which makes the location very picturesque and fairy-tale-like. Besides the port, there are several narrow streets leading to Piazza Petrolo which is full of restaurants and wineries. Translated as Sea fortress on the golf, Castellammare is also a birthplace of many important Italian mafia figures.

I came to town just in time for an Italian party. The port was packed with locals socializing to live music with a glass of wine in their hands which made my visit even more pleasant entertaining. After all I am glad my hungry car unexpectedly took me to Castellammare, it would be a shame to skip such a lovely gem.

So that was my Sicilian adventure, quite short but surprisingly fulfilling.  I was reminded that we don’t always have to take a long trip to a faraway land in order to disconnect and recharge our inner batteries. Sometimes even a short trip does the job. Safe to say that I made memories that will last a lifetime and I’ll surely be back to discover other parts of this charming Italian island.

 

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