Vespa parked on one of Ortigia’s picturesque streets…
Vespa parked on one of Ortigia’s picturesque streets…
Overlooking the sea in the historical town of Ortigia in Syracuse…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
What to do and see on a long weekend jaunt along the Eastern Coast of Sicily
A quick overview of the highlights of eastern Sicily:
Taormina is a cascading hill town resort of two parts. The elegant town at the top nests nobly with streets to stroll on, sidewalk cafes and charming shops. Much what you would expect of a resort town once part of the Grand Tour it has sweeping views, an elegant promenade, and first class hotels. The Greek Theater which has impressive ancient ruins overlooking the sea is a spectacular photo op with the volcano Etna in the background remains timeless. Separate from the main town, Taormina Mare is located below at the foot of the hill and as the name suggest on the sea itself. This is all full on beach resort with a more casual vibe, including cheerful petite Isola Bella, a small island beach peninsula perched ideally for swimming. Whether mountain or seaside, Taormina is enchanting with two holiday experiences for the price of one.
Forgive the cliche, but for an offer you can’t refuse, Godfather fans will be thrilled to know they are in Corleone country. Parts of the film were filmed in the nearby towns of Forza d’Agró and Savoca, the later containing the iconic and charming Bar Vitelli. The house specialty is their lemon granitta, best enjoyed on the terrace so familiar from the film. While ‘The Godfather’ tour might seem like a silly thing to do, Savoca itself is a charming Sicilian village and worth a visit on its own merits. The fact that it has a place in popular culture and film history is a bonus.
Down south, down the coast, is probably the jewel of Eastern Sicily. Syracuse, or Siracusa, which was once the most important Greek city outside of mainland Greece. The main historical attraction is the Greek Theater with its large amphitheater, and grounds is an obligatory stop. But truly the most enjoyable part of Siracusa is Ortigia. Right by the sea this small slice of town is delightful with its baroque architecture and narrow streets which give out to pretty piazzas. The main piazza of the Duomo being quite majestic with its expansive almost ice rink smooth surface and grand buildings and churches crowning the surface. There are a couple of caffes to stop and sit to really take in the view all while listening to the music playing before once again exploring the wandering streets of town.
For some exceptional examples of Baroque architecture, the towns of Ragusa, Modica, and Noto in the Noto valley outside of Siracusa are simply regal. Ragusa being the biggest of the three and the most lively with its open promenade and ornate church sitting like a crown on the top of the hill town. Ragusa is inviting and cozy with its winding back streets and soothing southern Italian town life. While for a hill town really built on the vertical, Modica is astonishing. With its own spectacular baroque church hovering above the town it is somehow only in the middle of the vertical landscape and almost lost if not for its sheer imposing structure. Modica is also known for its chocolate so walking all those steps up to the church will get rid of those extra chocolate calories you had at the bottom! Last but not least is Noto and it is a shining gem with its formal and ornate baroque buildings. The town is not that big yet the grandness of the structures makes it seem so, at once still and musical at the same time, a honey hued stage.