#55 How to explore Sicilian towns
mental health break
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I apologise for being a little AWOL over the past couple of weeks; things have been complicated, and I have been overwhelmed with work, parenting and other personal preoccupations. Sometimes rather than trying to juggle everything all at once, taking a mental health break is essential rather than preparing sub standard work filled with distractions.
The comments I've had so far is that you guys would prefer me writing less often, as long as it is a longer form, more crafted and well thought out. Honestly, I like to take the time to think about my posts and research them over a few weeks. Writing and reading longer articles is more satisfying, so I will publish less often and concentrate on the details.
Here, where I live in Sicily, we are in the middle of a heatwave, which has been sapping my energy and concentration. The last thing I want to do after sweltering in the heat and tossing and turning in the humid nighttime is sit down at a computer and write. Even though I do not mind it at this precise moment as I have found a sweet spot for my fan, which is keeping me quite comfortable for now (currently 40 degrees Celcius or 100 Fahrenheit, according to your preference, either way, it's HOT!)
I was looking forward to returning home to Australia for a couple of months, but some toing, froing, and debating have kept me from booking tickets. And last week there was a fire at the Catania airport which has wreaked havoc on international travellers and has hiked up the prices for the rest of the summer. So, for now, no trip home; this has made me sad. Hopefully, I can return later in the year if my son can forgive me for going without him, as he will have school for the rest of the year!
So happy to have you reading along. I'm eternally grateful you are reading my words. Having you here gives me a reason to write. Thank you.
Speak again soon.
When people come to Sicily, they often go along the well-followed tourist road, sticking to the main cities like Palermo or Catania or visiting coastal resort towns like Taormina or Cefalù, which are all beautiful and worthwhile. Still, the island offers many more unique experiences.
My advice to visitors is to spend time in the smaller towns. On the surface, a small Sicilian village town may seem slow-paced and dull, but they are full of surprises. A smaller place will always offer a more authentic type of experience.
Whether it be tracking down the village where your long-lost Sicilian ancestors came from or visiting relatives. It is easy to hire a car for a day and go up into the mountains, along the coast or into the island's interior. There are hundreds of small towns to visit.
The province of Messina alone has 108 towns, each with its unique history, sights, sounds and tastes. Small towns aren't as bustling and vibrant as the bigger cities, but visiting them will give you a sense of the natural colour and pace of day-to-day Sicilian life, which is much more satisfying than merely crossing things off a bucket list.
You can easily hire a car from any major airport in Sicily, and with Google Maps, it is easy to get off the Autostrada and explore. Here are some things you should know that will help you have a satisfying off the beaten track adventure
1. Be willing to get lost
First of all in Sicily and Italy in general, you must give yourself time and space for the unexpected. I can guarantee things will 100% not go the way you planned. For example, there are many places where your phone or GPS will go haywire. The mobile network is generally pretty unreliable in Sicily, so don't rely on it too much. Signage and roads can also be unpredictable in some places, so the best way to be sure is to consult a map beforehand or stop and ask for directions.
Don't be alarmed because the best discoveries in Sicily often come from stumbling upon things unexpectedly. I've lost count of the number of times I've unearthed a stunning artwork in a tiny provincial town's church or the most fantastic palazzo by making a wrong turn, and the scenic routes in Sicily will always offer the best landscape. Asking the locals will always lead you to the best places to stay or eat.
2. Bring a phrasebook or make sure you know some basic Italian
Once you get out of the tourist areas and major cities, the frequency of spoken English disappears, so you will need some Italian to make yourself understood. Some guidebooks make you believe all you will hear is the Sicilian dialect. Still, everyone is well versed in Italian, although it will be spoken with a thick Sicilian accent.
Once the locals see you trying to make yourself understood in their language, I guarantee they will do everything to help and accommodate you. Sicilians are deeply proud of their home and will do anything to show it to you. There is a tremendous sense of community in smaller places, and if someone can't help you directly, rest assured they will ask around for you, whether that be finding a good place for lunch or finding the keys to a locked church.
3. Get there early
Get moving early, as most towns tend to slow down after midday, and you will have to avoid any traffic heading out of the bigger cities. I suggest arriving in time for breakfast (strictly a coffee/cappuccino or fresh orange juice and croissant or whatever pastry or biscuit the cafe/bar offers as their local speciality).
A pasticceria often has the most delectable seasonal creations, whether ricotta-filled cannoli, sfinci di San Giuseppe or pasta di mandorla. It depends on what time of year you visit. There is always something special for every religious celebration, saint day or season. Starting your day at a local bar in town is always a good idea because you can ask the waitperson or barista what you should see.
Bar owners are fonts of excellent local knowledge as they are usually located in the town centre and always in the know. Sicilians freely give information on local events and the best local places to eat, so you can't go wrong by simply asking.
4. Start with the churches
Not many people know, but Sicilian churches are the best place to see art. The Roman Catholic church once engaged the best local artists and artisans to beautify their places of worship. You will find a treasure trove of sculpture, architecture and paintings. Even the most run-down-looking church will give you the best surprises.
Most churches are open throughout the day, they don't cost you anything, and you can walk around without any problem just as long as there are no religious services. You are respectful and don't take too many photos, especially before the altar.
If you are feeling generous, you can slip in a donation into the Offertory boxes, which usually go to the upkeep of the church. If you are lucky to bump into the local parish priest, you can easily ask them about the church; most priests work tirelessly to maintain their historic churches and will be more than willing to answer any questions.
5. Castles and palaces
Every town will have one or a series of Castles/Fortresses (Castello) or historical aristocratic Palaces (Palazzo). Many have been turned into museums, and most places of interest will be opened to the public. There will always be fascinating places to visit as they are focal points for local history.
Sicilian small towns are places with many centuries of history. The island has been inhabited since prehistoric times, so there are endless fascinating historical sites to see. Once again, be sure to ask the locals for advice. There may be a little local museum that'll be worth the time to explore.
6. By foot
The best way to see a Sicilian village is to park the car and walk around the town focusing on little side streets, suggestive abandoned houses, tiny little stores and hidden courtyards.
If you visit a mountain town, this walk will mean hiking up and discovering new perspectives and picturesque views. While coastal towns will give you romantic strolls along the seaside or panoramic outlooks carved out of the landscape. Sicily is perfect for slow travel as Sicilians always take the time to savour the moment.
Several Regional Parks around the island offer opportunities for hiking. Some of the most satisfying and suggestive trials include places like the Aeolian Islands and Mt Etna. The three main parks to explore are the Parco dell Etna, the Madonie, Nebordi and numerous other natural reserves dotted around the island's variegated landscape.
7. Mercati, Fiere and Feste
If you want to see a Sicilian paese with its best face on it, you must visit a local Festa (saint day celebration) or Sagra (local food festival). Each town has its patron Saint and protector, celebrated with elaborate markets and processions during the year, so it is always great to see this celebration which is usually accompanied by other events like art exhibitions and concerts.
Sicilians are great connoisseurs of food and always love to promote their local products; throughout the year, each town celebrates their food by offering visitors a taste. For a few euros, you can often enjoy a full meal. Food festivals are dedicated to everything from ice cream to pistachios, sardines, salami, roasted pork, chestnuts, ricotta and oranges; the list is endless.
Most are advertised on posters, billboards, or flyers and, above all, by word of mouth. So if you see one, be sure to swing by. These are usually evening events, so you may have to arrange accommodation for the night.
The market day tradition is still alive in Sicily, and each town has its open-air market day during the week. You never know what you will find at the markets.
There can be anything from cheap Chinese clothing, fabrics, local fruit and vegetables, cheeses, food carts, folk art and antiques. It will always be worth the effort, even if you grab a few local products to taste for a picnic lunch.
8. Eat local
Food is never a problem in Sicily. Even if you hurriedly run into a small supermarket just before they close for the lunchtime siesta. You will be able to get a quick panino. Larger supermarkets may even have cooked meals that you can wash down with a beer or wine readily available from the store.
If you are wise enough to follow my advice and ask the local barista where you should go for lunch, you will already have a selection of recommendations for a place to enjoy a local meal. If you want to taste the fresh local fare, your best bet is to eat at a Trattoria (family-run restaurant).
Also, an Agriturismo (agricultural tourism farm stay hotel) usually grows and produces whatever they consume at their table. There are better alternatives to a Ristorante (restaurant), which will charge you more but will not give you the best experience.
A Trattoria or Agriturismo will always offer the best of local traditions, menus are seasonal, and all ingredients will be sourced from local farms and producers. The dining experience will be very casual, but the personal touch of charming hosts will make it the best meal you will ever have.
9. Tourist Information
Each small town has a local tourist information office usually associated with the town hall. If you find a place to stay and experience the town over a few days, they will be the place to go for recommendations about local bed and breakfasts and other places to stay overnight.
The Pro loco will be a great font of knowledge as each town is connected through a network of other tourist information centres in the area. So a Pro Loco can also give you in-depth information about the surrounding areas.
These local tourist information centres are run by enthusiastic volunteers who will go out of their way to help you. Often they organise small tours of the local areas for visitors. So be sure to ask for a schedule. And if you participate in a tour, be kind enough to leave a tip or donation, as they are all volunteers.
Always watch for flyers, handouts and posters pasted up around the place. Local events are often publicised by word of mouth or local ads.
10. General safety
There is no reason not to go forth and explore. Sicily has had a bad reputation, but there is no reason to be afraid if you use the same caution you usually use while travelling overseas.
Remember things like controlling your change while shopping so you don't get short-changed. Don't leave cameras or expensive equipment in your car; keep valuables at home or close to your person. Do not take too much cash, and keep your documents in a money belt under your clothes to avoid falling victim to pickpockets.
In the bigger cities, it is a good idea not to be flashy in how you dress as it will identify you as a foreigner, and you will become a target for muggers. Generally, avoid run-down neighbourhoods or isolated areas like train stations or abandoned city squares late at night. If you don't see people around, then you shouldn't be there either and be aware of any potential danger.
These are the general rules to follow if you travel worldwide. Sicily is no different to any other international travel location. But smaller towns are tranquil, safe places. There is no need to be afraid of anything; locals appreciate visitors and will always be friendly and accommodating.
Tourists need to return in this post-Corona period as Sicily's economy has suffered terribly. The island has lost an immense amount of money over the pandemic, particularly in tourism.
Many businesses have shut down, and more locals have been forced to move away from Sicily as employment opportunities have diminished. It's sad to see the whole of Sicily suffering. The crisis is being felt even more in the smaller towns, which were starting to disappear even before the pandemic.
I encourage anyone who wants to travel, as soon as it is safe and practical, to come back to Sicily and seek out these smaller towns to help them get back on their feet. Tourism is vital for the locals. This beautiful Mediterranean island needs you, so please come back and be our guest.
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here for now.
I'll keep trying to write something here as often as I can.
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With love from Sicily
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