Seven Days in Sicily
From Syracuse to Noto to Mt. Etna — How Sicily stole my heart.
*This trip was taken in August 2016. All photos taken by author
Sicily stole my heart. For a small island, there is so much to do and beauty to see. As we tend to avoid the tourist destinations, we headed for Syracuse, an old town and island on the east coast. It did not disappoint. A whole new world to explore and incredible food to eat! Read on for how to make the most of Sicily in seven days.
Day 1 / Ortygia
We land bleary eyed and dopey at 10am local time in Comiso airport. We flew with Ryanair from Dublin which took a cool 3hrs and 10min. Our car hire was with Hertz which was based about a km down the road so we took a shuttle bus from the airport to the pick up centre. After we got our car sorted (Fiat 500 naturally), we set off for Syracuse which was a 1hr 30 drive through the countryside.
After checking into our stunningly old style Italian hotel, we went to the pool to grab a bite to eat and relax for a few hours in the Sicilian sun (by relax I mean acclimatise). There wasn’t much on offer foodwise poolside, and it’s expensive. We took a nap to recharge before getting changed to head out for dinner.
We walked from our hotel, just north of the town, down into Ortygia island which is the main hub of Syracuse city. The views were stunning. I love the old unassuming rustic feel of this place. It’s as if she doesn’t know she’s beautiful.
First word of advice for Syracuse: book! Every restaurant I had researched and selected to visit was booked up for the night. If there is a place you want to visit, I strongly recommend making a reservation. Mind you it was middle August for us. We walked to Ortygia to see if we could find better luck and once again were turned away. It worked out in our favour in the end as finally we approached a small restaurant by the bridge that was divine. The Dock Cafe served local Syracuse dishes and specialised in seafood. Everything we ordered on the menu was delicious. We shared a meat and cheese platter and I had seafood gnocchi for main. The wine they recommended was a white Sicilian Gurco Grillo. It was dry, slightly sweet and very refreshing. The service was low key and wonderful. It appears to be a family run business with long standing customers who conversed with the owner (and us) throughout the evening.
Day 2 / Syracuse & Ortygia
We headed of the hotel around 11am to walk to Ortygia where the town centre is. FYI August in Sicily is fecking hot and we now know there is a reason that most places close around lunch and reopen again at 5pm. We are still on Ireland time and walk around like lobsters during the hottest hours. We pottered along the marina and rested up at a cafe along the boardwalk. Here we enjoyed Syracuse’s famous ‘Granite’, a sorbet made from fruit juice. When made fresh it’s delicious, otherwise it’s like a slushie. We continued out trot around the west to south coast of the island and found two bathing areas. Small, but accessible. We then walked up Via Capodieci to explore the tiny quaint streets which hid local art and souvenir shops.
We venture into Cattedrale Di Siracusa. Built in the 7th century on the grounds of the Greek Temple of Athena (in the 5th century BC), it was converted into a mosque in 878 then back to a Catholic church in 1085 and then rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake. Entrance fee is €2. Staff offer disposable jackets to cover shoulders and knees. Clothing and items of jewellery belonging to St. Lucia (the patroness of the city) are on display here since 2015.
We had lunch nearby at Trattoria Kalliope on Corte Degli Aviola. Service was ok, the food was lovely. I think the challenge of Sicily is to find a bad meal.
We took a taxi back to our hotel in the evening (try walking 2.5km uphill after a day in the heat). And changed to go out for dinner at Ristorante Jonico-a Rutta e Ciauli just down the road from our hotel, on the cliff face. We had our usual cocktail on the terrace of the hotel which were always delicious. Our hotel is so typically old Italian style, I love it.
Day 3 / Noto
Noto is an enchanting town south of the city, famous for granite and gelato.
The architecture is visually stunning. You spend most of your time looking up. We were told that Cafe Sicilia in Noto is famous for granite and gelato, so we strolled down Corso Vittorio Emanuele in our search for the edible treasure. I had a lemon granite and in the afternoon sampled a montezuma (pieces of chocolate, orange in vanilla ice cream with something else but I can’t remember!) and foccacia gelato (recommended by the staff) which was delightful, a surprise to the tastebuds and very filling.
“Only mad dogs and Englishman go out in the midday sun” certainly rang true for us today. About 20 minutes into our excursion we had lost half our body weight in sweat. Four educated women decided it was a good idea to wander the streets between 11.30 and 3pm, acting surprised when businesses closed between 1 and 5pm. My recommendation to you is to adapt to the routine of the locals as soon as you can. Surprisingly it’s harder thank you think, especially when you’re the type of person to make the most of a day. We were recommended to visit Noto in the evening time, as that’s when it shines. I pass this recommendation on to you.
Thankfully it began to rain when we sat down for food, yet we weren’t expecting it. It’s actually one thing to watch out for if you’re driving in Sicily. When it rains, it pours and flash flooding is common.
After lunch we left Noto and headed towards Avola for a swim in the sea. I was preparing for the worst – pay for parking, pay for entrance, crowded etc, however we were pleasantly surprised. Avola was accessible, easy free on-street parking right next to the beach, and there was a space on the beach directly below. The water was clear and clean with lifeguards on duty. There even was a snack bar nearby playing music.
We drove north back towards Syracuse and, in search for dinner, veered off course towards the tip of the peninsula south of Ortygia and discovered the perfectly located L’Asteria Blu. Nothing could beat the view, the food and the company. The staff were friendly and accommodating, suggesting fresh seafood options from the menu and wine to suit. Another wonderful day in Sicily.
Day 4 / Mt Etna
On Monday we had prearranged a Mt. Etna Experience tour with of which the nearest availability was three days later. My recommendation is to book any tours you wish to take early on or even before your holiday. The tour began from Catania, however as we were driving from Syracuse, we were offered to meet the tour guide at a service station on the motorway near Catania. We met our guide at the allocated time of 09.30 and it was around an hour drive to our first stop on Mt. Etna. Etna itself is a vast area, larger than I thought. It’s a world of opposites; one moment you’re in a barren landscape altered by lava flow and then suddenly you delve into a silver forest of birch trees. It’s something i’ve never seen before. Our guide, Salvatore, was friendly, funny and incredible knowledgable about everything we saw and experienced. We learned more about Sicily in one day with him that we could have learned on our entire trip.
We were first taken to a lava flow from 1974. Here he told us about the stages of change a ‘lava flow’ goes through and what begins to grow on it after a number of years. From there he took us to Monti Sartorius, craters from an 1865 eruption. He told us how the craters formed and described the vegetation and animals that lived in this area. Many plants that grow here are used for medicinal purposes, such as the Astralago dell’Etna, of which the root was used to treat virus infections.
This first part of our excursion took 2 hours and as you’re pretty high up, it’s windy and cool (thankfully for all the uphill walking we did). Wear walking shoes or trainers that you don’t mind getting covered in dust/ash. You will feel cool but not cold but ensure you wear sunscreen or cover your shoulders as we all got burnt that day! You don’t notice the sun when you feel the wind.
After our crater trip, were taken to see lava tubes before been whisked away to a restaurant in what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a simply beautiful al fresco dining experience. We were already pretty tired and welcomed the break. Ai Vecchi Crateri, a small family run hotel tucked away in the mountain served us simple homemade dishes of bruschetta and pasta accompanied by Nero d’Avola Sicilian wine from nearby Syracuse. It was divine. One of my favourite things about Sicilians is the attention they give in selecting only the finest ingredients for their dishes, transforming something so simple into a culinary delight.
After lunch we were taken to the final leg of our trip at Alcantara Gorge. This stunning gorge forged by the collision of fire (lava from Mt. Etna) and water thousands of years ago. It’s beautiful, however I was surprised to see that it was full of tourists and had stalls and even a cafe at the river. There are 224 steps down to it. Beware! There is a lift available. One piece of advice I will give which we weren’t told was to bring shoes you can walk in the river with as the stones are sharp and uncomfortable to walk around in and the water is fre-he-eezing! If I had water shoes I could have walked further up the gorge to enjoy it.
That evening we had dinner in our hotel — Grand Hotel Villa Politi — and the food did not disappoint. I had barbecued octopus for main and summer tiramisu for dessert. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Day 5 / Ortygia
We had the morning off from our big day out the day before. In the afternoon we walked into Ortygia island, this time in search of the Museo Leonardo da Vinci Siracusa. This museum was challenging to find as we saw conflicting information around the town. Nevertheless we tracked it down and delighted we did. This small, interactive museum displays models of most of Da Vinci’s work and you can play with most of them. Flash photography is not permitted due to the fact they used wood from Da Vinci’s era in making the models. They’re stunning to behold and so much fun to play with. I will be first to admit that I did not know Leonardo da Vinci invented the life ring. Entrance fee was €6.50 and give an hour to walk around.
Dinner was in Diosino and I think I fell in love. The restaurant was tiny and tucked away down one of Syracuse’s enchanting streets. The owner greeted us as we walked in and welcomed us into his restaurant. He showed us to our seats and informed us of their menu which changes almost every day to reflect fresh catch and ingredients. This place is a must on your trip to Syracuse. Remember to book!
Day 6 / Snorkelling!
This was possibly the highlight of my trip — mainly because I discovered snorkelling (and i’m easily excited, and love the sea). We took a day trip down to Plemmirio, a stunning marine nature reserve south of Syracuse, which is well sign posted to each cove (they’re all numbered). From online research, we were recommended to visit Cove 34. This is where we started. The sea was pretty choppy and although there were people swimming in it, it was too rough for us to brave it. We found a sheltered ‘pool’ part of the coast, protected by rocks and shallow to walk around. It was the perfect space to get used to snorkelling.
The open sea was too choppy, so we drove off to the west coast which appeared more sheltered (from my assumptions looking at a map) and we weren’t wrong. We ended up at Cove 23 which was perfect for what we needed. There is a full set up of restaurant, bar, deck chairs for hire and a slipway into the sea. You can also sit on the rocks (for free) next to the facility. The water was clear, warm and calm. I could not believe how many different types of fish I could find, the colours, the variety — I could have hung out under the sea all day! (It’s the little things in life). I highly recommend a snorkelling (or diving) day (week?!) out on any trip to Sicily.
Day 7 / Parco Archeologico della Neapolis Siracusa
One cannot visit Syracuse without visiting it’s famous archaeological park. There is a car park on the west of the park and for €3 you can park for the whole day. Entrance fee is €10 per adult and you’ll be waiting at least 5–10 min in a queue. We went at maddog hour again (please wait until the sun cools! Closing time is 18.30) because we never learn :).
Here you can visit an ancient Roman theatre, which in the 2nd century depicted gladiators and animal fights; and a Grecian theatre, of less bloody tragedies. In the ancient limestone quarry, you will find the Orecchio di Dionisio (The Ear of Dionysius) , a 23m-high grotto extending 65m back into the cliffside, which was named after Dionysius. The story goes that Dionysius was said to have used the acoustics of the quarry to eavesdrop on his prisoners, hence the name.
This park is a must when visiting Syracuse, although try to time it when the sun isn’t as strong!. There are water fountains on site to fill your bottles.
Seven days in Sicily was not enough. For a tiny island, it is packed with history, incredible food and incredible people. There are so many more places I want to explore on and off this beautiful place and enjoy the Italian island way of living. Sicily is truly a unique experience and I encourage you to brush up on Italian before you go to make the most of it. I will certainly be back, Pronto!