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Sicily: The Ionian Riviera

Probably one of the most delightful and surprising trips I have been on…

I realise most people don’t want to leave when their holiday ends, but after spending 4 enchanting days on the east coast of Sicily I really, truly meant it. I knew Sicily had much to show but I had no idea how much I really wanted to see until I felt the warmth of the people and listen to the stories told that I truly understood how much.

I planned an easy, ‘dip my toe in the water’ quick getaway. Four days and if I liked it I would plan a more in depth trip at a later date. Now I wish I had planned at least a week for my ‘starter’ package and come back later for a few weeks! I used Taormina as my base as it was the original place I wanted to go, and figured I would perhaps go to Syracuse and since I love Baroque architecture so much, Noto was a must on my list as well. Perhaps Ragusa and Modica if there was time…

There are many moods and tones to Sicily. There is the rustic and quaint, the grand baroque architecture, and Greek antiquities all scattered about this island, popping up here and there as if grown there. Much like the orange tress which seem to grow like welcomed weeds. I went at the end of April when there was still a briskness in the air, but sunny and warm by day. But most delightfully, the orange trees were in bloom and everything smelled of the sweet scented orange blossoms. That was just the beginning of what turned out to be a perfect trip…

Here’s the Hit List:

Taormina is elegant in a sleepy laid back sort of way. It is for all intents and purposes a resort town and more of a seasonal place. Even though crowds were already arriving in spring, by mid summer they would be feeling the crush of tourism. This was a stop on the Grand Tour so there are some luxury hotels and sweeping vistas. Nowadays there are the expected tourist shops and lots of ceramics, candy shops selling colourful marzipan, and wine shops showcasing famous local wines from the Etna valley. Gorgeous ceramics, some really worth checking out, and playful traditional Sicilian puppets are seen everywhere. Taormina is easy going, accessible, and just generally very pretty. Open piazzas with impressive architecture, little churches, and picturesque side streets, there is much to explore at a light pace as all is very close to each other. The main attraction is the Greek Amphitheater which is fairly well preserved and offers great views as well. It is best to go early is possible as it does fill up, especially with tours and school children. Good restaurants, pastry shops and cafes can be found all around not to mention the famous granita of Bam Bar make for a tasty trip.

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Ortigia is the jewel and heart of Syracuse. So pretty, it is the historical center and the original part of Syracuse, once the biggest  and most important Greek city outside of mainland Ancient Greece. Begin your exploration of Syracuse with a stop at the must see ancient Greek Theater and its grounds. A vast and impressive sight, so allow for some time to see the famous Ear of Dionysius, a massive cave opening where it is said Dionysus could spy and listen in on his prisoners held captive inside the cave. The huge limestone cave was said to have gotten its name from the painter Caravaggio as it does indeed look a bit like an ear and with the legend of Dionysius makes the name very apropos. The theater itself is expansive and retains details such as a water spring fountain and even nooks where candles for lighting once went. Saving the best for last, shift gears in Ortigia, a Baroque paradise paired with charming streets and shops. The massive main piazza is polished and grand with lots of activity and cafe life. The surrounding streets offer many choices for places to eat and drink along with quaint views. Linger and stay a while.

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For Baroque architecture at its absolute best head to Noto. So grand, elegant, and regal yet at the same time a very small town filled with local life. Walking the streets is paramount to walking through a museum of Baroque art so decorative are the buildings. Honey coloured with decorative iron balconies and ornate worked stone Noto is a masterpiece. One of Sicily’s other masterpieces, ice cream can be found at Caffe Sicilia in the center of Noto. A small, artisan pastry and candy shop, they have among other things gorgeous marzipan, but their claim to fame, and rightly so is their ice cream. They offer a concentrated small selection of some of the most intense flavours, from Aztec chocolate to Torrone a nougat flavour which is one of their best. My personal favourite was the almond which is both creamy yet refreshing. Noto really is a gem!

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Ragusa is a tale of two cities. On the one side is the everyday town of Ragusa, a town bustling with everyday life. On the other side is Ragusa Ibla the historic center with its winding streets and dramatic Baroque architecture. Ragusa Ibla is charming, pleasing and representative of a traditional Sicilian town. One of the favourite towns in Sicily it is a delight to just meander and explore. After a leisurely walk through and around the side streets, admiring times gone by of houses with lace curtains and painted shutters, convene on the main piazza del duomo outside the church of San Giorgio, a decorative delight that looks like it should top a wedding cake or at the very least be a design for a tiara. It is stunning and fanciful like the town itself. The piazza offers relaxing refreshment and a place to take in the Sicilian sun. 

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Modica is quite literally a town built on the vertical. Clusters of homes and buildings create a honeycomb village with the cathedral a crowning glory smack in the middle as its queen bee. The cathedral of San Giorgio is an imposing building with its sides stretched out like arms protecting its children. With hundreds of steps to get to the top, it tests the dedication of its faithful but is worth the effort once inside. For those faint of heart, you can drive part of the way up to the church so as not to be faced with the daunting task. Though it might be a good idea to do the exercise as Modica is also known for its incredible chocolate and after working out on the architectural stair master you can happily indulge in some rich chocolate at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. The workshop at Bonjuto make chocolate in the original way as done by the Aztecs. Sicily being part of Spain in the 1600s brought back chocolate from Mexico and here in Modica they have retained that true tradition of making it.

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For those fans of The Godfather which seems to be a popular theme in Sicily, you can visit two small towns near Taormina where they filmed parts the movies. Forza d’Argo is tiny and unassuming consisting of a few cafeteria type restaurants capitalizing on the Godfather theme which only gives the affect of if being a tour bus stop. But at the center of the town is a very provincial heart with a couple lovely quaint churches and streets which make it well worth the visit. However the real excitement is at the more charming Savoca up the road. Here you can find the famous Bar Vitelli where you can sit, just like in the film, out on the terrace a sip a glass of wine, or opt for their well regarded lemon granita. The beaded entrance is there and it remains exactly as it was in the film -on the outside. Inside is a mini museum to the film with photos from the movie and even a small tourist shop. But the authenticity is kept outside and fans will not be disappointed. Savoca is much more than Bar Vitelli, (and the church where the wedding scene was filmed), it is a village worth taking the time to explore. This traditional Sicilian town is one of the nicest on the island.

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Travel notes: Plan for at least three to four days to really take in all the sites on the east coast of Sicily. As Taormina as my base, from there getting to most of the sights listed above (except for Savoca and Forza d’Argo which were close) it took anywhere from an 1 1/2 to 2 hours to arrive. And all easy drives off the motorways. I would recommend to leave a little more time if you really want to explore. I went in spring when the orange trees were blooming and it wasn’t too hot.

5 Great Places to Eat in Taormina

You can’t go wrong when eating in Sicily. Dishes are rich in flavour and the fish and seafood comes fresh form the sea. And if you like sweets, well then Sicily may become your favourite place on earth with its vast array of treats that excite the eye as much as the palette.. Who doesn’t like a cannoli?

Taormina has some choice restaurants serving up some of the best the island has to offer. Here’s a tasting:

Ristorante Vicolo Stretto -On a slip of a street and up some steps is the cozy local favourite serving traditional flavours and dishes with just a hint of a modern twist. Like the Sicily-on-a-Plate perfect Paccheri pasta with swordfish which takes the traditional swordfish with tomatoes and combines it to coat the wide flat pasta tubes with just a sprinkling of almonds. Quite simply superb. This was followed by a regional flaky light fish encrusted with slivered potatoes a top a bed of spinach and then finished off with chocolate semi freddo and a homemade almond liqueur. I would happily go back and do it all again it was that good!

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Paccheri with swordfish

Ristorante Maffei’s -Serving traditional fare, Maffei’s ticks all the boxes. Both indoor and outdoor seating, the later being in a enchanting garden terrace, the service is friendly and has a menu with popular dishes. The marinated anchovies are especially good. A good all-rounder that makes for a very pleasant meal.

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Garden terrace at Maffei’s 

Villa Sant’Andrea – For a luxurious meal by the sea, head down to Taormina Mare and the Villa Sant’Andrea. Start with cocktails at their outdoor beach lounge before making your way to a very stylish meal in a relaxed setting by the water. On a clear day you can see mainland Italy in the distance. Wonderful fish and seafood dishes with sophisticated presentation, whatever you choose will not disappoint, but save room for dessert and the platter of Sicilian Desserts 5 Ways. Just wow!

Red&White – Part wine bar part restaurant, is a laid back little place that serves good wine and homemade food. The owner is passionate about his wine selections so this is definitely a place for wine lovers, especially if you want to try smaller and not so well known vineyards. Food is simple but delicious.

Grand Hotel Timeo – With the best views of Mount Etna, the restaurant already has a lot going for it. Add some of the best food in town and an outstanding wine selection and you know you are in for an outstanding meal. Very regal and formal, and yes, expensive too, it is however worth every euro and will not disappoint. The menu serves a classic Sicilian selection, including the most amazing Pasta a Saor, a traditional dish made with sardines, sultanas and pine nuts. Savory with just a tang of sweetness it is sea and earth combined. Obviously there is only one way to end such a perfect meal and that is with some mini cannoli and some grappa on the outdoor terrace.

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Cannoli at the Grand Hotel Timeo

Buon Appetito!

And a little Bonus…

For a real Sicilian breakfast, head to Bam Bar for the best Granita in the world! Choose from fruit flavours or have a traditional coffee. Sicilians have their granita for breakfast with a brioche pastry.

Quintessentially Sicilian: Granita the Breakfast of Champions

Sicily’s regional treat is best served cold

Hot summer days in Italy are tempered by an ice cold granita, usually lemon flavoured found at charming carts and street food stands throughout Southern Italy. But in Sicily granita is taken a bit more seriously…

You really don’t know granita until you’ve had it in Sicily. It takes this simple pleasure to a whole new, near sophisticated level, that once you taste it there is no going back as you will be spoiled for life. First of all it is important to point out that most Sicilians enjoy their granita in the morning, for breakfast, usually with a brioche pastry. While it can be savored at any time of day, breakfast is still the traditional time to consume a crisp granita, like a morning coffee, complete with an optional topping of whipped cream. Many times consumed in a cafe as one of life’s simple pleasures. It is also essential to point out that there are a plethora of flavours to choose from! Lemon or coffee are still the most popular, and there are many fruit choices, many seasonal, along with the truly Sicilian almond granita which is exceptionally refreshing. And just when you have gotten your head around the varieties, then there is the possibility of combining selections such as Sicilian Orange-Strawberry or a coffee-almond granita, -there’s a spectacular morning option!

The most unique difference in Sicilian granita though is the consistency. Instead of a watery, slushy, ice drink, Sicilian granita is compact, fluffy, and in areas such as Taormina, almost like snow. Some locals in Taormina, even claim that is comes from the snow capping Mount Etna, such is the stuff of legends.

Whatever it is that makes Sicilian granita great, it is a must have while visiting the island. It can be found everywhere, like at the charming Bam Bar in Taormina where their concoctions are legendary and a daily must for both the locals to tourists. So when in Sicily…

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Almond-Coffee Granita at Bam Bar in Taormina