I love a shoulder-season holiday. In the height of summer, I tend to find places too hot, too crowded and too expensive – give me a May bank holiday weekend away or an end of September bargain break any day. I’ll pick a southern European destination, where the weather will be perfect for lounging by the pool (but not so sweltering I’ll have suncream melting down my face if I head out sightseeing), and where there’ll be enough tourists to give the place a bit of a buzz (but not so many I’ll be fighting my way through selfie sticks at every corner).
This year, Mr ST and I opted for a springtime trip to Sicily, jetting off at the end of April and returning relaxed, slightly suntanned and about half a stone heavier (damn those cannoli pastries) a week later.
Our base for the week was Taormina, a lovely little town up on the clifftops in north-eastern Sicily. Our hotel (Grand Hotel Miramare) was trad-Italian in style and built into the side of the cliff, with steep stairways and terraces of orange trees snaking down to the sea-view pool.
Two minutes’ walk down the street was one of the best viewpoints in Taormina. In one direction, there’s Isola Bella and a necklace of sparkling bays and coves. In the other, you’ll see Mount Etna, its crater puffing smoke into the cornflower-blue skies.
Two minutes’ walk up the street from the hotel was the bus station (very handy for day trips, which I’ll talk about later); a further five minutes and we were at the start of the Corso Umberto, Taormina’s main street. Fully embracing the Italian spirit, we enjoyed daily passeggiatas along here, peeking in the windows of traditional lace-makers and ceramics shops (I had to give the designer boutiques a wide berth, for my bank balance’s sake).
Every evening, the street was teeming with people, most of them locals (it was easy to spot the tourists – we were the only ones not wrapped up in puffa jackets). We would amble up and down the cobblestones, stopping at the stunning Piazza IX Aprile for another gawp at Mount Etna, then duck off the main street down one of the little alleyways in search of a wine bar for aperitivo.
Our favourite was Al Grappolo d’Uva. There’s not much of a pavement outside, but that hasn’t stopped them setting out tiny tables and stools, which we would perch on almost every night for a glass of Sicilian wine and little bowls of nuts, pretzels and crisps. If you haven’t tried Sicilian wine, do – I was really pleasantly surprised, especially with the volcanic wines that are grown on the slopes of Mount Etna.
Il Vicoletto was another nice spot for a glass of wine and some arancini (baked rice balls filled with melted cheese – the perfect late afternoon snack). You’ll find it down a little lane on your left as you enter the Corso Umberto at the Porta Messina end.
We ate dinner at a different restaurant almost every night, and with the exception of one venue (which served me a plate of grey, half-baked fish fritters with not even so much as a salad garnish to go with it), they were all fantastic. Most were recommended by Luisa, our concierge (a 24/7 service we got by booking with Citalia), so we were very glad we took advantage of her local knowledge!
Ristorante L’Incontro was the restaurant we ended up eating at twice. It has a cliff-edge location, but as it was dark both times we went I couldn’t tell you how the view was! The staff there were so friendly and welcoming, and the food was honestly some of the best I’ve ever had (the seafood ravioli in particular – I still drool when I think about the sauce!). Pizzeria Sanicolo and Pizzeria Villa Zuccaro were our favourite pizza places. Sanicolo has a lovely location on Piazza Duomo (looking across to the cathedral), while Pizzeria Villa Zuccaro is hidden away down a backstreet off the Corso Umberto, with tables set up on a leafy terrace with glimpses of the Ionian Sea. I’d also recommend Trattoria Tutti Ccà, also just off the Corso Umberto by the Chiesa di Santa Caterina, for the delicious risottos and cosy atmosphere.
Possibly the biggest attraction in Taormina is its Greek theatre, which is set on the cliff-side (of course) with Etna views. Unfortunately, despite several attempts, we didn’t make it in – a lot of roads were being resurfaced in preparation for the G8 summit, so we either couldn’t get to the entrance, or spent so long following the detour that we missed the cut-off point for buying tickets!
But we did make it to the Villa Comunale gardens, which were one of the main places I’d wanted to go. It’s essentially a local park, but it’s absolutely beautiful – very green and lush, with gorgeous rose bushes and spectacular views over the bay.
The first was for a trip to Mount Etna, something that everyone we’d spoken to had made us promise to do. After a winding 90-minute coach journey through the volcano’s foothills, we arrived at the 1,900-metre mark. There are a couple of small craters to climb here, but we were headed even further up, so it was straight onto the cable car and up to 2,900 metres. From there, we piled into 4×4 minibuses for a bumpy ride along a lava road to the highest point you’re allowed to go to. The landscape up there was very otherworldly – black sand and fields of jagged lava rocks as far as you can see. A guide took us on a walk along a recent lava trail, which was still warm to the touch.
After heading back to the cable car station, we bought ourselves a glass of Etna red wine and sat out on the terrace to enjoy it, all bundled up in our coats and scarves (not only is it cold up there, it’s very windy too!).
Our second day out was a trip south to Syracuse and Noto. We started off at the archaeological area just outside Syracuse, exploring the Greek theatre and ancient amphitheatre, before moving on to the city’s old quarter, Ortigia.
Mr ST and I both fell completely in love with Ortigia and are already thinking about going back to spend a bit more time there. It’s set on an island, so every few minutes you’ll catch a glimpse of the turquoise waters at the end of an alleyway or cobbled street. Elegant townhouses line the streets, with cute cafes and trattorias pretty much everywhere.
Noto is one of the region’s UNESCO-listed baroque towns, completely rebuilt in late baroque style after being levelled by a massive earthquake centuries ago. Because we’d been stuck in huge traffic jams to get down to Syracuse at the start of the day, we had barely any time in Noto at all – 45 minutes after getting off the coach, we were all getting back on again.
I did manage to get a couple of snaps of the golden buildings, though…
I’d definitely recommend visiting Sicily in the spring – it wasn’t tourist-free by any stretch, but I can’t imagine it was anywhere near as busy as it would be in July and August. The weather was sunny and in the early to mid-20s, and the only time we needed jumpers was at night. The gardens were all in full bloom, as were the wildflowers which line the roads and motorways.
I’m on the lookout for somewhere to visit this October – if you’ve got any recommendations for autumn destinations, please do let me know in the comments!
This summer, I’m partnering with GPSmyCity to give away a full year’s membership of their city walk app to one reader, worth more than $8,000. The app holds over 6,500 self-guided walking tours and travel guides from travel experts all over the world (there are even walks in Taormina, Syracuse and Noto!) and the winner will be able to access every single one for free. Perfect if, like me, you love to explore on foot. To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment on this post before 15 September, 2017 – nice and simple! Good luck 🙂 [Please note, this competition is now closed]