Forget everything you know about Sicily. Yes, the economy is in shambles and the mafia is still alive and well there. But for you, the auto-tourist, these things don't matter. Somehow, this Mediterranean island emerged from centuries of outside domination and feudal rule into the automobile age, whereupon it became a driver's paradise.
Here's how to drive in and enjoy Sicily.
(Full disclosure: My mother's side of the family is from Agrigento, Sicily, and I visit as often as I can. If I sound a little biased about how awesome it is, it's because — regardless of those crass insults Dennis Hopper lobbed at Christopher Walken in True Romance — I am. Sicily is an amazing place with an intriguing culture.)
From the very dawn of motorsports, racing enthusiasts flocked to Sicily to test new automotive technology on the island's varied and challenging roads. First came the Targa Florio, which ran — interrupted by the two World Wars — from 1906 until 1977 (it exists now in name only as part of a rally circuit and as a classic car race). The 1000 Miglia, which ran 24 times from 1927 to 1947, was another legendary race that put Gran Tourismo cars like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia on the map.
All that's left of the famous races are a collection of faded black and white photographs and the memories of a few old timers. But the rich culture and landscape those historic races threaded through are immutable. Both are bathed in generous sunshine, but are also shriveling slowly beneath its harsh glare. But they will never actually die, so grab a car, hit the road, and experience living history amongst the decaying ruins of various conquerors' success.
Sicilian roads run the gamut from medieval alleyways to the most treacherously curvy mountain roads you've ever seen (in the developed world). If it's wide enough to fit a car (and sometimes even if it isn't) Sicilians will drive on it.
The autostradas — the ones that don't languish, unfinished, for decades as corrupt politicians pad their salaries with highway money — are a thing of beauty. True engineering masterpieces, they swoop gracefully through the rugged interior, across graceful arch bridges and long, curving causeways. You can safely drive 200 kph on some stretches, but the speed limit is typically around 100.
As far as roads go, the problem areas tend to be one-way streets in small towns that were built during the Middle Ages — when donkey carts full of citrus and semolina were the norm — and traffic-choked thoroughfares in the island's major cities. Rush hour traffic in Palermo, Catania, Messina, or any of the other more populated areas can be a brutally slow schlep that takes all the joy out of the novel scenery.
One of my Sicilian friends once told me, as we sat in a hopeless clog of tiny, ceaselessly honking cars, "We love our cars. We take them everywhere!" Clearly. Even when the only way to get somewhere is down a street that's so narrow, you have to pull in the mirrors for the car to fit.
Drivers in Sicily are less about observing traffic laws and courtesy than they are about getting where they want to go as quickly and directly as possible, regardless of obstacles. Excessive horn honking is commonplace, as is shouting out the window and gesturing wildly with arms and dramatic facial expressions. But more often than not, the guy yelling "Stronzo!" out the window of his car is driving like a stronzo himself.
Don't be surprised if, when you're driving down a narrow one-way street, the car in front of you stops, and its driver jumps out and scurries into the nearest bread shop for a few minutes. You may be a bit peeved that your progress has been slowed by this apparent insensitivity to your needs, but there's only one thing you can do: depress your car's horn button without letting go until the car deserter returns, and then yell obscenities involving that person and the Madonna out the window until he drives off. When in Sicily...
As a rule of thumb, tiny cars fare better in Sicilian towns and cities than do large ones. Navigating narrow streets is easier, and there are a lot more little spots you can find for parking. Another really good reason to go with a small car on this beautiful Mediterranean island is that gasoline goes for more than $9 per U.S. gallon right now. That's a lot of moneta. Think Fiat 500, Renault Twingo, Toyota Yaris, or Volkswagen Lupo. Anything bigger is truly massive by Italian standards.
But on the other hand, if there's one thing Sicilians respect (as do other Italians, and Americans, too for that matter), it's wealth. If you have a big, fast, expensive car, not only will people get out of your way on the autostrada, you can also park wherever you want without any regard for actual available space or traffic flow. Pull up in a Maserati Quattroporte saloon and most people will assume that you're a big muckety muck who should be treated with deference. On the open road, all you have to do to rid the left lane of that awful Fiat Panda in your way is approach them at twice the legal speed with your lights flashing and your horn blaring. Works like a charm. Most of the time.
But if you have the money, forget all that other stuff and get yourself a classic GT car — something like a Ferrari 250 GTO, Alfa Romeo 8C, Lancia Aurelia, a Mercedes 300 SL, or even a Maserati A6GCS. They're made for these roads, and you'll enjoy yourself immensely if you pick something classic and sporty. You can also grab a modern-day Ferrari or Alfa, but there's a reason why the Targa Florio ended in the late '70s — the cars had become too powerful for Sicily's tight roads, and more fatal crashes were the unfortunate result.
Sicily is a driving island. If I've already ruined your taste for driving there with my grim tales of Palermitan gridlock, fear not. The autostradas and country roads take motorists through some truly gorgeous scenery. Rugged, dry and rocky in the interior, the island's coastline is green and lush, and in the non-urban areas, is dotted with tiny fishing villages. In general, people from the Italian peninsula never take down ruins, but live amongst and build on top of them. It makes for a richly textured cultural landscape.
As someone who knows the island better than your average Americano, here are a few places I can recommend:
- Circuita Piccola delle Madonie: This is, more or less because it changed over the years, the course of the famed Targa Florio. The scenery is breathtaking and the roads are curvy and fun. Word of warning: watch out for cows, sheep, goats, and other farm traffic. You don't want to meet the Madonna just yet.
- The Valley of the Temples: Located just outside Agrigento, on the island's southwest coast, this huge complex of ancient Greek temples is not to be missed. Not only is the surrounding landscape some of the loveliest to be found on the Mediterranean coastline, but the temples are probably in better shape than most of the ones in Greece. Plus, it's one of Sicily's six UNESCO World Heritage sites.
- Villa Romana del Casale: This sprawl of ancient Roman baths is located in the island's interior, not far from Caltanisetta. Some Romans built a huge bathhouse decorated with vivid floor mosaics in the 4th century A.D. Somehow, the roof fell off and it was buried under a bunch of mud for more than 1,500 years. Archaeologists dug it all up and put a new roof over it in the 20th century, and now you can go check out really detailed mosaic pictures of everything from burly Roman centurions to sexy young bikini bunnies. Again, another World Heritage site.
- The entire Southeastern corner of Sicily: If you like Baroque architecture, this is the place for you. Even if you don't like it, the Baroque style is so rich and so exaggerated and sensuous to the point of being almost funereal. It's a perfect physical representation of Sicily's culture and spirit: like a bowl of just overripe fruit. It's beautiful, and sweet to the taste, but death is already upon it, as the the ever-present flies buzzing around it are aware of that.
- Taormina: The best way to enjoy this romantic seaside resort town is with a lover. From its ancient Greek ampitheater to it's stunning views of the Ionian Sea, it's the perfect backdrop for sappy eye gazing. It also has really steep, twisty roads that will make you feel like you're driving into outer space as you ascend the mountain and watch the shoreline grow tiny.
- Palermo and Monreale: You'll hate driving driving in Palermo. It's utter madness. But when you find someplace to park your car where it won't get stolen, walking around the city in any direction will reveal scores of buildings and monuments from throughout its long, tumultuous history. A drive up to Monreale, in the mountains above Palermo, is worth it both for the views of the valley from the road and for the gold mosaic-ceilinged 12th century Norman cathedral in the middle of town. It's one of the most splendid buildings you'll ever see. I promise.
But you can drive just about anywhere in Sicily, and after you escape the depressing industrial areas and poorly-maintained apartment towers of its urban areas, you'll see castles on hilltops, crumbling stone cottages, old churches and life, plodding along pretty much as it has for hundreds of years.
Eat anything and everything Sicilian cuisine has to offer. If there's anything people in this part of the world do well, it's food. Sicilians are known for frying a lot of their food, and cooking with fish more than some cultures (it is an island, after all). But you can always find something good to eat there, even if you don't like fish or fried stuff, or if you're, gasp, a vegetarian. If you're vegan, you will starve.
While you're there, scope a few different restaurants. The fancy ones are tasty, and the basic ones are satisfying. But if you can, get yourself invited to someone's house. Sicilians keep all the good stuff at home. If you like to cook, definitely cruise through an open air market. You'll find good, cheap food, and will feel like you've been transported back in time to some medieval Arab land. Here are a few of the best kinds of Sicilian food:
- Any kind of seafood: Big fish, little fish (sardines and anchovy are really good there), shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, octopus, swordfish, you name it. It's an island, so they cook every kind of fish you can think of in every way you can imagine. If you get a chance, try pesce prenatale. They look like (and are) raw fish embryos, but with olive oil and lemon juice, they're really tasty.
- Pasta: There are too many different pasta dishes to list, but aside from the standard al dente pasta with tomato sauce, Sicily is known for its anchovy-based preparations. Pasta alla sarde is a good one if you like fishy fish.
- Sausages: Again, lots of variety. Thin pork sausages are pretty standard, but a good butcher will have just about everything you can think of.
- Milza: In Italian, milza means liver, and that's just what this is. A Palermitan specialty, it's basically boiled liver shavings with ricotta and shredded pecorino cheese on a bun. Sounds gnarly, but it's actually really tasty.
- Arancine: "Little oranges" are basically risotto balls with meat or cheese inside, breaded and fried. They're a great snack, and you can get them at almost any gas station or bar.
- Fruit: Like California, Sicily has a lot of locally grown fresh fruit available. They all have different names than you're used to, but the more commonly eaten fruits there are pears, loquats, persimmons, prickly pear, and, especially, citrus fruits. Nuts are also very common, and not just the human variety.
- Sweets: Where do I start? You can't go wrong with canoli — crunchy pastry shells filled with sweet ricotta cheese and little chocolate chips — and the almond and pistachio-flavored sweets are outstanding. One of the more famous Sicilian desserts is cassata, a sponge cake layered with so much stuff, you'll think it's made of concrete. It tastes good, though, and that's what counts.
As Sicily's Brooklyn counterparts would say, fuggedaboutit. The only rule is not to get caught doing anything too flagrantly illegal. As long as you can toe that line — and avoid hitting other, more expensive cars — you've got it made in the Sicilian shade.
Like in most other parts of Europe, the drive-slow-on-the-right-pass-on-the-left rule is held sacred on the Italian autostrada. That Audi/BMW/Mercedes will run you off the road if you decide you want to drive your Fiat 50 kph in the fast lane.
Then there's parking. Parking in Sicilian villages is pretty simple. Find a space that won't keep an ambulance from getting sick people to the hospital and leave your car there. Cities can be a bit more tricky. When you find spaces, you will most likely be approached by a guy asking for money. Don't worry about the fact that there doesn't seem to be a parking establishment on that block. Give the guy his money. Trying to park someplace else is futile, because the other places have other guys, and they typically all have the same boss. Capish?
Get your international driver's license before you come. It's supposedly illegal to drive without an Italian license or one of those AAA ones. I used the international license once to be on the safe side, but car rental places usually don't care, so you can get away with not having it. You really should get it, though, just to avoid problems.
Do Not Do
Don't drive like a Sicilian. Even though your attempts to rise above the fray and be the better person will be utterly futile, you owe it to yourself to preserve your own dignity. There's no reason you should be wildly gesturing and swearing out the window of your banged up car when you can breathe deeply and know, deep down, that this isn't your everyday situation. If your everyday driving situation does happen to be this bad, may god have mercy upon your soul.
You shouldn't speed, but if you do, somehow the fines are less for foreigners ... I think. A speed camera caught me blasting down the A20 at 170 kph in a rental car a few years ago, but somehow, the ticket was only 10 euro. I've heard from locals that you can lose your license for driving that far above the posted speed limit (which is somewhere around 100 kph, I think).
Best Time To Go
Sicily goes through distinct seasons, but because it's a Mediterranean Island, temperatures don't swing too widely. As in Southern California, there are two seasons, the green one and the brown one. One's cool and wet, the other hot and dry. It snows in the taller mountains, and people actually ski on Mt. Etna. Personally, I'd spend an extra 100 Euro on a plane ticket to the Alps for that.
But there isn't really a bad time to visit Sicily, because there's almost always something tasty being harvested. You might get rained on in the winter and spring, but you'll also get fresh oranges, almonds, walnuts, olives, grapes, sheep milk ... I could go on and on. Just keep in mind that the summers can be brutally hot (the wind blowing in from the Sahara Desert can feel like a blast furnace) and in August, everyone in Europe is on vacation. Flights are more expensive, and Sicily's beaches are mobbed with tourists.
If you want to do something that really digs deep into the island's culture, pick a place and find out when it celebrates its patron saint. For example, Agrigento celebrates San Calogero with a week of parades, awesome food, and fireworks (and church, too) in July. The festival of Santa Rosalia, Palermo's patron saint, is also a big one. Easter week is a pretty good bet if you want to plunge into the Catholicness of the culture, which is pretty darn Catholic.
To give you an idea of how culturally significant saint celebrations are, Sicilians are fond enough of their saints to name their children strange things like Calogero and Gerlando. True story. I had an uncle named Calogero, and my grandfather's named Gerlandino, because his grandmother told his reluctant parents that San Gerlando had visited to her in a dream and told her that they should bestow the name upon him. Being good Sicilians, they didn't argue. But they did put up a subtle rebellion by calling him Dino around the house. But that's the way things are there. People do what they're told, they just don't necessarily do things the way authority expects them to.
Photo credits: Benjamin Preston