You have to ask yourself why anyone might be interested in reading about our experiences in Sicily and, there is actually an easy answer, which is that if you intend to go it is always good to get some idea from someone who is a normal person and not a guide book. Guide books by their nature have to be all encompassing and unbiased whereas what follows is deeply prejudiced and biased.
Sicily is great, the Italians are amazingly (and misleadingly) helpful. However Sicily by and large does not do tourists, or holiday makers. The Island is amazingly beautiful with stunning views everywhere, the Mediterranean sea is a deep azure blue and there are beaches everywhere. However, you can't get to the beaches because it would mean risking life and limb to cross the railtrack and roads.
So for the basic trip. The only affordable way to get to Sicily in a reasonable time from the UK is to fly from Stansted by Ryanair. This means getting to Stansted which is easy (A14, M11). Once in the airport though the queues are amazing. We had the Italian group from hell in front of us in the queue. They were intent in taking suitcases and hand luggage onto the plane which were a) too big and b) filled with lead. They decided that they didn't understand that this was not allowed and argued in loud and (probably colourful) Italian that in their country this behaviour was not only tolerated but definitely encouraged.
With time now almost gone, we went through passport control and on to find that security thought I had a gun barrel in my hand luggage.It turned out to be a spare battery for my laptop. Eventually without a body search we were let loose.
By this point the tension was unbearable and the time for boarding was 30 seconds away. We almost ran to departure, where as usual with Ryanair the flight was late (sorry Ryanair but your statistics for on time departure must have a very liberal definition). However of course the one time when you rely on it being late it won't be.
Once on the plane we could decide how to approach the holiday. We had booked 3 hotels for the 4 nights we were to be in Sicily, basically because if you want to see Etna (which we did), it requires you to get to the north of the Island and Palermo (where the plane lands). So this means moving about. We knew about Italian traffic and didn't fancy it much, so we decided to take a taxi from the airport to the hotel. Now you should know (and we didn't) that Palermo airport is so called because it is the same vague area as Palermo. Sort of like Luton is somewhere near London. So in a taxi ride from hell, (the taxi driver was doing a 140K an hour in a Fiat Multipla with distances between him and the cars in front varying from the worrying to the totally suicidal, to the zero air gap. We got to the hotel (paid the 51 Euro fee) around 10.00pm on the Sunday, went for a short wander and sat down on some plastic chairs in a side street and I drank some red wine.
The hotel was clean and serviceable. Sicilians do not do breakfast substantially. It seems the national breakfast consists of sugary something, coffee and a cigarette. Talking of which the cigarette seems omnipresent. Workmen have them in their mouths whilst they weld, repair motors, run strimmers and anything else they do. That also included when they are on the back of motorbikes and scooters. I've seen people in flip flops on scooters driving through heavy traffic, not only smoking but texting on a mobile phone as well.
We called for a taxi to the station and found the train was to leave in 1.5 hours time. We wandered down to the harbour and some strange insect took delight in extracting blood from my arm. Now I swell like a balloon at insect bites, but this one obviously was more in the business of drinking my blood as opposed to injecting venom, because as I write, I haven't gone down with a dread disease.
Palermo has a lot of medieval streets where the traffic is mad. So we caught the train to Messina, a three hour ride on the best train I have ever been on. The carriages were clean and divided into compartments. There was hardly anyone on the train so we had a compartment to ourselves. It was air-conditioned, the train was quiet and it was on time. It follows the coast almost all the way so the sea views were fantastic most of the way. The weather (at the end of October) was very warm also 26C so the air con was great. It cost about 20 Euro each.
We got to Messina at lunch time and leaving the station we saw a sign for Mcdonalds (sad isn't it). We never got to find it though. Having wandered around for a bit we walked back to the station and hired another taxi to take us to the Hotel Europa (a Best Western, upmarket hotel). We got there, found it was nowhere near the centre and them made the fateful decision to hire a car. This proved very easy and by 4.15 we were being driven back to the Station to drop the hire company dude back.
So we set off to Milazzo from the centre of Messina. The guide book had said we could get night trips out to Stromboli, the receptionist at the hotel said we could, the hire company dude said we could. The 1st boat company we found said we could on Thursday but another one could help. All of the companies said another company could help. Eventually we were convinced that no one could help. So I drove back to Messina. So if you are ever planning a trip out to the outer Islands please note that there appear to be no night cruises, and any cruise takes all day and start off very early. As I said earlier they don't do tourists.
Tuesday dawned another brilliant day, warm with sunshine. Today we would attack Etna. It is a long drive from Messina (an impossible one from Palermo). We set off around 9.00am and didn't get lost too much. Once you are outside the main towns the driving is easy. We wound our way up and up until eventually you reach a terminus. You can park free or pay a man 2 Euro. Free seemed better but we paid anyway.
There is a great deal of building work going on and to get to the souvenir shops you had to cross a building site. I didn't get the idea of the souvenir shops. There were about 10 all of which sold the same souvenirs. Some differentiation I would have thought would have helped. But what do I know?
At the terminus you can take a cable car higher up the mountain, then a mountain bus can take you higher before a guide takes you for a quick circuit of a crater. Take a coat! The cost was 42 Euro per person which most people seemed to pay willingly. After all if you spent days getting this far then you will only do it once. The views are stunning.
When you get down to the terminus, you would be well advised to eat the sandwiches you brought, because although there are signs everywhere announcing fast food - they don't understand the concept. Tea comes with frothy hot milk. But this is Italy and they don't do tea, and why should they?
The drive back was long with winding roads. We passed through some villages that looked very pleasant places to live. Unfortunately all of the shops seemed to be closed ( siesta does seem to be alive and well from 13:00 to 16:00) and the only sign of life (just) was old men sitting outside or inside bars. We decided to take in Taormina. The guide book said park your car outside. We did and it was very sensible advice.
The free bus is quick and fast. Taormina unlike everywhere else does do tourists. The shops are modern, fashionable and expensive. The whole place is full of beautiful people. There are medieval churches and squares round every corner. It is the dream of a modern medieval city with stunning views over the med. Go visit! We had a pizza there and jolly nice it was too. However beware the service charges. The basic charge for three pizzas was around 17 Euro. When we paid the bill was 38 Euro. A reasonable bill to be sure - but these guys do do tourists.
We drove back to the Hotel Europa, crashed out and got up again on Wednesday. The guidebooks said it was a three hour drive Messina - Palermo. Don't believe it !. The Autostrada doesn't go all the way. There is a long (50K) drive on a winding road through small villages. Just before the Autostrada starts again there is the town of Cefalu. Another medieval gem but actually on the coast, it rises steeply up to the Norman cathedral and then steeply again up to a vertiginous rock which dominates the place. We went for a paddle in the sea, but it didn't seem very clean. We wanted to get on by this point and we drove out around 3.00pm.
After a brief stop we headed back to Palermo. We had booked a hotel from Best Western and it was jolly posh, judging by the price. We had directions but expletive, expletive, expletive Palermo is difficult to drive round. We stopped, we asked, the people were unfailingly delighted to help and gave us directions. They wrote directions. We drove round one way systems. We drove through posh shopping areas. We drove through slums. We stopped, we asked. We got more directions. All of this was in the traffic chaos with mad motorbikes, stupid scooters and crazy cars. All weaving in and out, stopping at will, blowing horns and gesticulating.
Eventually I gave up and said I am never going to get to this place. I'll park and then taxi or something. Parking was a problem but after a bit I saw a space and parked in it. A man appeared selling lottery tickets we thought. But it turned out the lottery tickets were parking ticket. I paid the 1.5 Euros to park for 30 minutes and we set out to find the hotel. Someone said "Hang on, this is the square where the hotel is!". By some miracle we had found it!
It couldn't be difficult now could it? We walked around the square - no hotel. We asked - no one knew. In desperation I phoned the hotel and said "I'm in the square- where are you". "Behind the church " Came the answer. I walked back to the car and there lo! 3 doors away was the hotel. I walked toward it and just as I recognised it I almost yelled "Jesus God Almighty we've found it ", with a mixture of relief and pent up emotion.
The door was open and the dead posh doorman did not look impressed. I asked where we could park and he said, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, "Here" and pointed to the space 3 spaces away from where I'd already parked. And so it was that we parked for the night. I asked the doorman how long it would take to get to the airport and he said 1.5 hrs. We had to catch the plane the next day at 11.00am. That meant boarding at 10:30. In order to allow time to check in the hire car we reckoned on being there at 9:30, which meant leaving the hotel at 8:00am. Rush hour!. Oh no, we couldn't do that.
We set the alarm for 6.00am , (5:00am UK) got up and got into the car. The route looked easy on the map, the concierge said it was easy, and it was hell. The adrenaline got us through and by 8.15 am despite the worst that Palermo traffic could throw at us (and it could throw some awful stuff at us) we had made the airport. The traffic in Rome is legendarily bad, London is interesting, but Palermo is hell.
Don't get a hotel in central Palermo and then decide to get to the airport. Better do not drive at all. We did and survived, you may not be as lucky. I highly recommend Sicily at large, Cefalu, Taormina and Etna are all wonderful. If you want tourist services anywhere else you will be disappointed. But go it's good.