I have added a second route page on the blog covering details of our trip around Sicily. You will need to visit the blog to read the detail if you’re interested.For non-bloggers, click here and then on the Route page in the top right hand corner. Then click on underlined links (Round Sicily) for the detail.
The roads in Sicily may be shocking, the many tunnels dimly light if at all, the speed limits bizarre, the parking atrocious, the attitude to litter bewildering but I challenge you to visit and not find it a wonderful and exhilarating experience … and in between they’re many options to chill out in beautiful scenery.
Lovely Salvo had mended our puncture first thing in the morning, hadn’t he? That’s how I left the last Diary blog. So we set off northwards, to a campsite on the coast near Acireale (in the shadow of Etna, as if we hadn’t had enough of that mountain!) The campsite was tucked into the steep cliffs, beside a village called San Maria de Scala. The weather was overcast and there were a few spots of rain (what’s that? Water from the sky? We’ve had none of that since Cinque Terre weeks ago!) so we spent a quiet afternoon getting the sheets washed and dried and chatting to some British campervanning neighbours. Then in the evening we walked into the village, found a good fish restaurant and treated ourselves to a good meal out.
Better weather though very hot. We walked to the village then up some steep zig-zags and into the town of Acireale which is yet another Baroque glory but has relatively few tourists.
Unfortunately we managed to arrive about 5 minutes after all the churches and museums etc closed for their 3 1/2 hour lunch break. So we explored parks, had a leisurely lunch and hung around till 4pm when the cathedral and churches reopened. It was worth the wait – the cathedral for some obscure reason has a line of longitude marked out in its floor, as well as a set of standard measures – a metre, 3 Parisian feet, 3 English feet, and others, all laid down in 1843. Bizarre thing to find!
We had a plan, which was to visit Taormina (a hill top town) and then spend our last night in Sicily in a campsite between there and Messina. But the parking curse got the better of us. Our plan to park at the foot of the cable car taking you up to the town failed as it did not allow campervans in. So we headed to one of the two official Taormina car parks mentioned in the guidebook – which said no campervans and directed you to the other car park. Which was closed. Found some dodgy chap a little way down the hill but he wanted an extortionate amount so in the end we decided we’d probably seen enough hill top towns and Baroque churches anyway, so we left the area. We ended up in Messina, on the ferry, back in mainland Italy, all by lunch time.
After a quick replan we decided to head over towards Puglia, and get the driving out of the way. Arrived at a small seaside town called Metaponto, which is in Italy’s ‘instep’. The campsite has a lovely sandy beach. Just up the road was a restaurant named the Blue Iris at which we had our best meal out yet. The seafood starter that we shared was amazing – 3 plates of food arrived with 3 or 4 different mini-dishes on each. All for 10 euro.
After the long drive yesterday we’d decided to spend two nights here. Very hot today. We took the bikes off and cycled around the area. It’s lovely flat country, with no traffic, plenty of cycle lanes and decent road surfaces, so very pleasant for cycling. We came across an archaeological museum and then the remains of some Greek temples and other buildings, so had a look at those, then ended up back at the Blue Iris for lunch.
Had our first dip in the sea this afternoon – about time! Very pleasant after a hot day out. And then an hour or two sitting in the sunshine reading, followed by a barbecue outside the van. Bliss.
Things we miss about Sicily:
Lovely helpful people in campsites, Baroque architecture, Mount Etna
Things we don’t miss about Sicily:
Horrendous road surfaces, litter everywhere, lack of parking skills in Sicilians
Last diary blog left us parked in San Leone in a delightful free car park, on May 4th. How can it be May 11th already? I am definitely beginning to lose track of the days.
More sightseeing! Certainly making up for lost time when we had the battery problem. We drove to Ragusa, a hill-top town, parked Gertie in a great free car-park which had an area reserved for campervans, and climbed a load of steps up to the old town. We had a happy day wandering through the mostly Baroque streets. This town was flattened in a 1693 earthquake, and then rebuilt in two parts. The Baroque rebuilding on the original Medieval town plan was the most interesting area. One church was closed as they were filming an episode of Inspector Montelbano there. Ate an extremely pleasant lunch out.
We drove on to Noto, and arrived at a campsite 1km from the town centre. Met our first fellow Brits since France. The campsite was set amongst lemon trees and mosquitoes.
Spent the morning wandering around Noto – another Baroque glory, also rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake (along with the rest of south-east Sicily from what I can gather). I have seen more Baroque churches in the last few days than in the rest of my life put together.
Moved on to a campsite near Avola on the coast. This one was down a very narrow lane. When we arrived I said to the Dutch woman who ran the site, stating the bleeding obvious, ‘that lane’s very narrow’. ‘Is it?’ she said, horrified, and called her Sicilian husband over, ‘Honey! Our lane’s very narrow!’ I guess everyone arrives and says the same thing in whatever language they speak… This campsite was full of cats.
The plan was to check out a possible overnight car-park in Syracuse before heading back up to Etna to allow Ignatius to cycle up it the day before the Giro, but the car park was stuffed full, and traffic was horrible, so we ended up going straight back to Etna. We were parked in a layby half way up in enough time for Ignatius to do his bike ride the same day. So the road bike came off the back of Gertie for the first time (we are carrying 3 bikes), and he kitted up, cycled down to Nicolosi then turned round and cycled up to the top, then back down to Gertie. I spent the time cleaning the van (oh I know how to live, me!) He had a few problems – his electronic gear shifter seems to be out of charge and guess what, he’s forgotten to bring the charger; and he couldn’t get the bike into lowest gear so had to do the entire ride (up and down) in 2nd lowest gear… So at some stage we will need to find a bike repair shop to get this looked at and buy a new charger. All Ignatius’s cycling buddies will be reading this and laughing, muttering ‘serves him right for having poncey electronic gear shift’.
We spent the night in that layby. Pretty cold but not as cold as the night a couple of weeks back when we camped at the top. There were a few stray dogs lurking around. Friendly, but you don’t want to trust Sicilian strays. They freaked me out when I went outside in the dark and two of them were nosing around the van.
Took a morning walk up through the woods to a mountain refuge (which conveniently was open and had a toilet!) then drove back down to Nicolosi where we had lunch and went to the Volcanology museum, which was very interesting – free and we had a personal guided tour around. It also shows a 30-minute video of the 2001-2 eruption of Mt Etna. I feel we know this mountain quite well now.
Spent the night back in ‘our’ layby on Etna.
The day of the Giro! As soon as we were organised in the morning we drove 4km up the road to the last layby before the main car park which is where the stage finish was. There were already a couple of campers there. This was about 1.5km before the finish line. We walked up to the finish for a look around, then spent most of the day waiting. Road cycling is an odd spectator sport – you spend all day waiting for a few minutes activity! It’s all about the atmosphere. The layby filled up, and we chatted with a Slovakian family parked next to us, and several Italians. All day there were people cycling up, ahead of the race. About an hour before the race arrives, the ‘caravan’ of sponsors drove through. When we’ve seen stages of the Tour de France in the UK or Ireland the sponsors have been chucking free stuff out as they pass but that didn’t happen today.
Ignatius watched part of the earlier Giro coverage on his laptop, sitting outside. He made a lot of friends as people crowded round to see what was happening. Finally the cyclists arrived – we could see them pass the 5km banner down the mountain. The leaders passed us pretty quickly but the stragglers and ‘autobus’ took 30 minutes or more to arrive. One of the lads who’d been watching Ignatius’s laptop stripped off to his undies and chased the leader up the road a bit. All good fun to watch!
When it was all over we drove further down the mountain to camp overnight (too darn cold up the top when the sun’s gone down!) So that’s a total of 4 nights spent camping on Etna.
The next stage of the Giro was due to start from Pedara, the next town to Nicolosi. We hadn’t planned to see the start, but decided why not? So we parked on the edge of Pedara and walked in. Huge crowds everywhere. The main town park was taken up by the sponsors’ stalls. A central square was cordoned off for the stage on which the cyclists sign in for the stage. There was a lively atmosphere. We watched most of the cyclists arrive and sign in, then moved to another spot to see the race start. So another several hours watching and waiting for a few minutes activity!
Once it was all over and we’d had lunch, we got on the motorway and headed south again, to Syracuse. This time we were able to get into that car park but decided we would not want to stay overnight there. But we had a few hours to walk around the old part of the town (Ortigia) which is another Baroque masterpiece, also largely rebuilt after that earthquake. Parts are much older, and the Duomo (cathedral) was built on the site of a Greek temple, using some original Doric columns in its construction.
We got back to Gertie to discover she had an almost flat tyre (front, passenger side, and no, not a result of my weight sitting above it thank you very much). Thankfully Ignatius had packed a compressor so we were able to re-inflate the tyre running the compressor off the engine battery, but it was obvious it was a slow puncture and would need to be fixed. So we drove a short distance to a campsite 10km from the city centre, checked in and called the AA to advise us where we would be able to source a replacement tyre. Of course motorhomes don’t use standard car tyres.
While waiting for the AA to call back (as it was evening by now and they needed to call round Sicilian garages to see who had the right tyre, and they’d be closed) we got talking to the campsite owners. I say talking, but as we had very little language in common it was mostly points, grunts and Google translate. Anyway, when I told Mrs Campsite that we had called breakdown assistance assistenza stradale she laughed, hugged Mr Campsite (whose name was Salvo) and said he’s your assistenza stradale.
And he was. He jacked up the van, whipped off the wheel, took it away, came back this morning with the puncture repaired, and replaced the wheel. Turns out we’d driven over a screw which was embedded in the tread. He took just 20 euro for his trouble. We spent the night with the van on a jack (and with a support thingy Salvo had, in case the jack failed) which was a bit unnerving. The repair seems good – we’ve driven a fair way today and it’s stayed at the right pressure.
Salvo, our saviour, alternatively known as Giorgio 2. We are collecting lovely helpful Sicilian men.
I have started a route page on the blog and added the route details down to Sicily. You will need to visit the blog to read the detail if you’re interested.
For non-bloggers, click here and then on the Route page in the top right hand corner. Then click on underlined links (Route to Sicily) for the detail.
Ignatius blogged about Palermo so I’ll cover what we’ve done since then. I quite liked Palermo when I was on foot in the pedestrianised parts but I found the cycling in and out from our camping spot (actually a car park behind a motorhome dealer on the edge of town) totally terrifying. Perhaps I’m a wimp but passing double-parked cars with scooters and cars coming at you from all directions is very scary. Well, we survived and I worked out in the end the answer is to be as assertive as the drivers are – catch their eye, signal, pull out – OWN the road. And then have a glass of wine to get the heartbeat back to normal when you’ve stopped…
From Palermo we drove along the north of Sicily and up a peninsula in the north west, to a large campsite near San Vito Lo Capo. We’d promised ourselves a couple of days just relaxing, not sight-seeing, just sitting around a good campsite. We ended up with a few more days there than planned as you’ll see! On the day we arrived there had been a wind from the Sahara bringing sand, and the weather was very murky with all the choking dust in the air. There’d been a bit of rain the previous night, so poor Gertie was filthy as the rain had rinsed some of the sand out of the air.
Much clearer weather so we went for a walk from the campsite, to the small town of San Vito Lo Capo for lunch and back via the rocky beach where there are many caves. Tested the campsite swimming pool when we got back.
Cleaned Gertie, washing all that Saharan dust off, then I think I spent the entire day sitting in the sunshine reading. Felt so relaxed at the end of the day, ready to be back on the road again…
We were all ready to set off, but when Ignatius tried to start the engine nothing happened. The engine battery had catastrophically failed. And a fast loud clicking sound was coming from the mass of electrics that is under the driver’s seat (where all wires come into the leisure battery). We investigated and realised the clicking was related to the solar panel – it has some sort of relay thingie so that it can charge both leisure and engine battery, and seemed to be flicking between the two… Yuk.
We went to the campsite office to ask for help. The girl in the office (Niki) sent us a lovely bloke called Giorgio (who turned out to be her father) who was the campsite technician/odd-job man. He spoke no English and we spoke next-to-no Italian but we managed to communicate by way of Gertie’s clicking and not-starting… Anyway after some points and grunts and using Niki to translate we found out that as it was a bank holiday we could not get much done that day. We used our AA callout who sent someone who jump-started the van, but we did not want to drive it anywhere as we suspected it would not start again and we also had this problem with the solar. So anyway Giorgio covered the solar panel on the roof with our beach rug to stop the infernal clicking, took out our battery to take it home to try to get some charge into it, and left us till the next day. That night in the campsite bar we met a fellow called John who’d just arrived to work for Eurocamp in the campsite for the summer.
Giorgio arrived early in the morning with the news that the battery would not take any charge, and with the offer to drive us to a nearby garage to buy a new battery. Meanwhile we had discovered our gas had also failed – basically the on/off switch (which is electric) was not working. We assumed it was all part of the same problem. So we went with Giorgio, came back 140 euro lighter with a new battery, and lovely Giorgio then fitted it for us. But we were not out of the woods yet – solar still clicking and gas still not turning on. There followed head scratching, phone calls to the chaps in UK who’d fitted the solar and LPG gas, additional head-scratching by John who came to see if he could help, decision it must be a fuse that had failed. Ignatius checked all the fuses by eye but could not see one that had failed. Then our hero Giorgio returned with a fuse-tester, tested them all and found the one that had failed – which had both solar and gas switch wired through it. We have a bag full of spare fuses so easily replaced it.
By this time I was totally in love with Giorgio, and we were too stressed to move on that day so we decided to stay put again. When I have finished this blog I must go on to TripAdvisor and Google and leave glowing reviews of the campsite because (a) it’s lovely and (b) they could not have been more helpful. We were not charged for Giorgio’s time at all.
We moved on, after 5 nights at El Bahira. Drove to Trapani from where there is a ski-type gondola lift up to the medieval hilltop town of Erice. We’d been to a couple of towns of this type in France, and this one although beautiful seemed a bit of a tourist trap so we did not spend long. Drove down the coast a little to Marsala where we found a car park where you can stay overnight. It’s supposed to be free but some mafiosa-type chap required 3 euro from us and issued us with a post-it note as a ticket.
Marsala is an adorable little town, full of marble-cobbled streets, 17th century architecture, a very interesting church, some impressive gateways and lots of lovely spots to sit for a coffee or a beer or a meal. We enjoyed our time there.
Loads of sight-seeing today. Drove on down the coast to Mazaro del Vallo which is another lovely little town. This one has an old Arab kasbah, an impressive Baroque church, more marble-cobbled streets and a little museum dedicated to an original Greek bronze statue of a dancing satyr which was dredged up by fishermen in 1998. We paid the mafiosa here just 50c to park!
Drove on to Agrimento and the Valley of the Temples. There are a string of Greek temples here, mostly in ruins. Sicily has had all sorts of people controlling it over the years – Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Carthaginians, Normans. We spent a very hot afternoon going round the temple ruins. It’s been cool lately so I wore jeans and totally regretted it.
We are camped for the night beside a marina in San Leone which is 3km down the road from Agrimento. No one has asked for any money yet.
The general Sicilian driving behaviour is less ‘structured’ than the UK. Parking often resembles ‘vehicle abandonment’. The surfaces leave ‘a little to be desired’ on the majority of roads and expansion joints, of which there are many, seem to be more of a challenge than I remember in many other countries. But it is interesting and beautiful topography to have to build roads through. A lot of tunnels (with lighting that won’t overly trouble the Global Warming situation!), bridges and raised roadways.
If you’re not a very confident and assertive driver (or cyclist for that matter) then some of the villages and towns will be a challenge, especially Palermo which is just mad, but in a very endearing way.
Having said all that Sicily is a much less frustrating place to drive around than many parts of Britain, just a lot more chaotic.
The weather is pleasantly warm and sunny at this time of year (Apr/May) although we did have Saharan dust come visit for a day or so. The overnight rain left a much bigger mess than the occasional dump we get in the south of England.
Sicilian food is generally an interesting mix of mainly fish and vegetables. Being Italian there is plenty of pizza and pasta. Kath is addicted to caponata, a classic Aubergine sweet and sour vegetable which is extremely moreish. Street food is a great way of experiencing Sicilian cuisine. We stumbled upon ‘the Spice Man’ in the Palermo street markets. Apparently, he featured in The Times and was on Rick Stein’s programme about Palermo. We had a very agreeable lunch time experience at his establishment … a few plastic tables and chairs in the middle of a very busy food market.
Architecture, archaeology, monuments, churches and ruins are scattered everywhere you look. Sicily has had a fascinating mixture of cultural influences over the years which has left behind some great structures for us to look and ponder today. How many churches does one small island need?
After the disappointment/adventure of the Amalfi coast we decided to head down to Sicily over the next couple of days, using the autostrades and finding nice campsites by beaches if possible. We have a couple of campsite guidebooks – one is the ACSI book which lists good quality campsites at which you can get a discount out of season, using the ACSI card (which we have). They’re mostly a flat rate of 17 euro a night and have decent facilities. The other book we’re using is Camperstop europe which lists aires, sostas and campsites in all countries we are planning on visiting. Some are free, some are full price but there are loads of them, and this book has become the bible for us.
Anyway on 22nd April we ended up at a lovely site with the friendliest manager, right by a beach, somewhere near Salerno. I took the opportunity to wash the sheets and dry them on a washing line made of string held up by Gertie and a fence post. It was windy and they dried in no time but I was scared we’d lose them!
The next night (23rd) at a stop near Palmi way down in the south of Italy, we were once again by a beach and spent a very pleasant evening sipping beer outside a tabacchi and watching the sunset. I could get used to this life…
And on to Sicily! 3 weeks to the day since taking the ferry from Poole to Cherbourg we put Gertie on another ferry from Villa San Giovanni to Messina. Somehow we found ourselves on a ferry used mainly by trucks which didn’t actually dock in Messina (imagine our horror as we chugged on past the Messina port, wondering where we were going to end up and would it even be Sicily at all?) but ended up about 10km further down the coast. No problem – it was easy to hop on the motorway from here and get to where we’d planned to spend the night (another lovely little campsite beside a beach). Here’s Gertie on the ferry, from above. She has a busy roof – 2 skylights, a solar panel and a satellite dish.
We spent the evening doing a bit of planning of the next few days, then discovered the free wifi was fast enough for us to consider streaming the last episode of Broadchurch, via TunnelBear. Great to catch up on it at last!
There had been talk of an early morning swim in the sea, but it was pretty cold so I only got as far as paddling, while still wearing my PJs. It’s a hard life.
We then spent a few hours driving most of one of the stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia. The route climbed through beautiful mountainous country, amongst gorgeous beech woods, and then around a corner suddenly there was the view we’d been waiting for, of Mt Etna. That wispy cloud is steam from its crater – it is almost continuously active.
Many hairpin bends later, we arrived at the ski resort area of the mountain, on the south side. Obviously this is out of ski season (we’d have been tempted otherwise!) and this is where the Giro stage will finish. We’d eyed up several laybys where we could park the van for the night before, to cheer the cyclists on.
At the ski resort car park, we discovered you can (for 12 euro) park overnight. I’ve never spent a night on an active volcano before, so it had to be done. We explored the area, walked up a very steep ash and pumice-stone path to view a crater from the 2001 eruption, ate in the hotel restaurant, watched an episode of Game of Thrones and settled down to sleep at nearly 2000m. It was pretty cold.
Awoke to temperatures of 9 degrees in the van. The heating had to go on for a bit! Drove back down the mountain and across the interior of Sicily, all the way to Palermo. On arrival at our camperstop here the temperature was 31 degrees. Much of motorway driving in Sicily looks something like this, as there are an awful lot of tunnels. You feel like you are driving down into mines. They don’t believe in overdoing the lighting.
Driving in Palermo is very stressful. We are at a basic camperstop (a campervan dealer’s backyard!) which is fairly central and which has toilets and a shower. We cycled this evening into the city centre – cycling in Palermo is also very stressful – and had a very pleasant meal out. Tomorrow we’ll explore the city properly – on foot.