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Secret Sicily... a self-drive discovery

Star of film and TV, Sicily is never far from the spotlight. And rightly so says travel writer Alex Johnson, who finds this historic, cosmopolitan, southernmost Italian island ripe for self-drive discovery.

The bright young things of the 18th century who whizzed around Europe on the Grand Tour tended not to reach Sicily, stopping at Naples and blaming rotten roads and a lack of decent hotels for not pushing on. It was very much their loss – it is hard to imagine a more multicultural, multifaceted destination. And for those considering a self-drive option, the good news is that the roads have improved quite a bit since 1783.  

What hasn’t changed is the cosmopolitan feel of the island. Over the centuries it has developed a multinational and multifaith culture, smoothly assimilating Muslim, Christian, Greek, Roman, African, Arab and Norman civilisations. One of the greatest examples of this blending is the remarkable Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo Reale in Palermo. Not only does it contain breathtaking mosaics, it also has Norman and Arabic architecture, which sit side by side beneath a Byzantine dome, while typically Muslim designs are used to form Christian cross symbols.

Indeed, it’s hard to fathom why the Grand Tourists didn’t venture further south. They would certainly have been fascinated by the Valle dei Templi in Agrigento, a collection of seven magnificent Doric temples dating back to the fifth century BC – though on a ridge rather than in a valley – and recognised by Unesco as a major heritage site. For temples in a wilder landscape and with fewer tourists, try the equally impressive Selinunte, an hour’s drive north along the coast.

Any list of ‘must sees’ will naturally include Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano. A cable car takes you up to around the 2,500-metre mark and then it’s a two-hour walk to the crater. Nice view from the top, though nippy even in summer. And if you’re looking for souvenirs of your visit to take home, the local Etna Rosso wine has become very popular. Oenophiles might also want to join a course or take a tour at the Etna Wine School.

In fact, Sicily’s wine and cuisine are two of its major attractions – the olive oil is especially delicious (chef Giorgio Locatelli owns some groves in Agrigento) and while there are Michelin-starred restaurants dotted around the island, the street food is absolutely scrumptious. You’ll find fried food stalls (friggitorie) everywhere – especially in Palermo’s Vucciria, Ballarò and Il Capo markets, which have rather a souk-like feel to them – selling a huge range of favourites including panelle (chickpea fritters, served in a bun), arancini (rice balls stuffed with a range of fillings) and sfincione (an oily pizza with a very thick, spongy base, often with anchovies and caciocavallo cheese on top). For the strong of stomach, there is pani ca meusa – beef spleen deep fried in lard, then turned into a sandwich. Giuseppe ‘Pippo’ Basile in the Vucciria market is said to be one of its finest purveyors but, hand on heart, I can’t offer a first-hand report. A bit less worrying are babbaluci – snails that are eaten straight from their shell.

At less on-the-hoof eateries, Sicily’s many-stranded traditions are reflected in the immense variety of dishes available. Naturally, seafood here is a perennial menu favourite: one of the ever-present dishes introduced by Arab incomers is pasta con le sarde (sardines with wild fennel, raisins, saffron and pine nuts). They are also responsible for the introduction of marzipan, often now shaped to look like fruit and used in pastries such as minni di vergini (virgins’ breasts).

Other dishes to tick off are caponata (aubergine and celery, often flavoured with olives, raisins and pine nuts) and cassata (sponge cake with ricotta and marzipan, then topped with candied fruit), whose name is thought to derive from the Arabic word qas'ah – the container in which it was made. As well as nuts, citrus fruits are a common ingredient; Sicily is the chief producer of Europe’s blood oranges. And do try Sicilian pesto, which is made from almonds and tomatoes instead of basil.

Another way to see Italy is to theme your road trip. Fans of The Godfather films can hunt down key locations easily, including the village of Corleone itself, although the towns of Forza d’Agro and Savoca stood in for it during filming. The Bar Vitelli in the latter, where Michael first speaks to Apollonia’s father, is still very much a going concern and entirely unspoilt. This is also your chance to buy an authentic Coppola flat cap, which are becoming rather trendy.

Alternatively, try an Inspector Montalbano trail. Andrea Camilleri’s novels and subsequent television series are set in fictional Vigata, though this is based closely on the author’s home town of Porto Empedocle near Agrigento. Montalbano’s home is in Punta Secca, Ragusa (it features in the opening television credit sequence). Following a Montalbano location hunt is also a good excuse to visit Modica, which sells delicious chocolate based on an Aztec recipe brought to Sicily via Spanish settlers.

One of the obvious advantages of self-drive is that you can plan your movements to beat the tourist bus schedules. This is particularly useful when visiting Taormina. It’s a genuinely delightful hill town that has attracted the great and the good for many years – Daphne Phelps’ intriguing book A House in Sicily name drops plenty of familiar folk – but it can get a bit… busy. However, even though the beach here in front of Isola Bella can be very popular, it is lovely and well worth a lounge (definitely get there early).

Generally beaches tend to be sandier (and busier) towards the north, quieter and wilder further south, and rockier to the east. In the north-west, San Vito lo Capo has arguably the island’s loveliest beach and the impressive Monte Monaco as a backrop. Cefalù not only has a popular sandy beach but is a charming village to wander around and, if you’re in the Palermo area, Mondello and its white sands are just a 20-minute drive away. Harder to reach – and consequently less populated – are the much more unspoilt Calamosche in the Vendicari Nature Reserve in the southeast, and numerous spots in the peaceful Vendicari Nature Reserve to the north, a 7-km strip more visited by migrating flamingoes than sunseekers. Another way to enjoy the seashore is to try out Da Vittorio Ristorante, a fish restaurant on the beach in Porto Palo di Menfi that simply serves whatever is fresh that day.

Even if you don’t head for the beach, Sicily’s climate is very acceptable, with long spring and autumn seasons and sea breezes to temper the hot summers in coastal areas. This means you can make the most of exploring the lovely landscapes, vineyards and citrus groves around the island.

I remember my tutor at Oxford University – an expert on the Grand Tour – explaining how only the most adventurous and imaginative of those travellers centuries ago would make it to Sicily. There’s no excuse for 21st-century Grand Tourists to miss out. Although nobody would blame you for not trying the spleen sandwich.

Join our 8-day Classic Sicily group tour, taking you to see the best that this Mediterranean island has to offer: superb Norman architecture, intricate Roman floor mosaics, Arab-inspired gardens, fine Greek temples, smoking Mount Etna and picturesque seaside villages. This tour can also be taken as a private journey.

Alternatively, if you are interested in tailor-made travel to Sicily, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.