Sicily is one of my favourite parts of Italy, it has all the important elements for a great holiday: amazing food, welcoming people, an epic history, plus, most importantly for families, some fantastic beaches. My husband and I love exploring on holiday and I’m keen to instil a sense of adventure in our two sons, aged five and three. So I decided a family trip through Sicily, where the concentration of attractions means that distances between places of interest are never too great, would be the perfect introduction to the “road trip” holiday.
We spent 12 days exploring eastern and central Sicily. The island is huge, the largest in the Mediterranean, and roads can be slow so it’s wise to concentrate on a particular area, especially if you’re travelling with young children. Sicily offers year-round mild weather so springtime is ideal for both sightseeing and trips to the seaside.
I had assumed we would have a few mishaps on this trip as I’d planned quite a packed itinerary with four stops, a variety of accommodation, lots of visits to towns and historical sites but also plenty of opportunities for ice cream and the seaside. However, aside from our children’s stubborn body clocks (which refused to yield to the later Mediterranean dinner time), the trip was a great success.
Italy is a fantastic place to travel with your children; at the airport we were prioritised because we were a family; at the car hire depot our children were given colouring books and crayons while we queued; simple meals of pasta with pesto or tomato sauce were produced on request even when they weren’t on the menu; locals stopped to ask the children their names and ages. Visit Italy while your children are small and adorable: it’s as indulgent and enjoyable for parents as it is for children.
On arrival, we bought balance bikes for our boys from the sports chain Decathlon, handily located just five minutes’ drive from Catania airport. I’d say this was our wisest decision of the trip as it meant we could wander around lots of towns and historical sites without the boys getting tired or bored. The bikes cost 40 Euros each and the boys used them every single day. At the end of the holiday we left them with the housekeeper of the property we were staying in so she could take them to a children’s charity.
We started our trip in Syracuse, an easy hour’s drive south of Catania. We spent two nights in this delightful waterfront city, wandering the medieval streets, enjoying coffee and ice cream in the piazzas and marvelling at the sea views which encircle the diminutive isle of Ortigia, the oldest part of the city. We stayed at the lovely Approdo delle Sirene, a beautiful bed and breakfast offering standards more akin to a hotel, where we enjoyed delicious homemade cakes and fresh orange juice for breakfast on the sunny rooftop terrace overlooking the harbour.
One of the highlights of Syracuse was a puppet show at the Picolo Teatro dei Pupi. The convoluted plot, detailing the tale of Orlando the knight along with the very detailed dialogue were impressive but a little difficult to follow with my rusty Italian. However, the cast of twelve, the sword fights and the various monsters were so impressive that it really didn’t matter, the audience was enthralled. My favourite character was Indovino, a winged monster with a head like a slightly crazed Pamela Anderson, and what looked like a lion’s front legs and the rear end of a fish. She came to a sticky end at the hands of brave Orlando but our hero also met an unfortunate demise involving a sorceress, a pretty girl, some poison and an enchanted garden full of “idle men” (according to the rather loose English translation in our programme).I thought perhaps we were being ambitious taking the kids on their bikes to the archaeological park at Syracuse: would the officials want our boys cycling over two thousand years of history? Absolutely! Although the children didn’t exactly marvel at the Greek and Roman amphitheatres, they loved Diocletian’s Ear, a giant man-made cave where legend has it the emperor imprisoned his enemies and listened to their echoing wails. The acoustics were indeed impressive and we could still see the chisel marks on the cave’s walls where the slaves had carved into the rocks.
Our second stop was the Baroque south east of Sicily, an area completely demolished by an earthquake at the end of the 17th century. The towns were all rebuilt in a lavish Baroque style, most notable in the splendid honey-coloured city of Noto where we stopped for a particularly enjoyable lunch on route to our agriturismo near Modica.
We were warmly welcomed at Masseria Nacalino where we were fed what they described as a “light meal”, however, I’d say “light banquet” would have been more accurate. The farmhouse was surrounded by olive groves, filled with wildflowers and separated by dry stone walls. The wider scenery in this part of Sicily isn’t exactly bucolic, many of the farms grow tomatoes on a epic scale, so much of the countryside is filled with poly tunnels. However, there are also deep rocky gorges and some pretty impressive engineering in the form of soaring bridges reaching from one side of valleys to the other.
Modica was my favourite Baroque town on a previous trip to Sicily several years ago as it has such a fantastic setting climbing the sides of a deep gorge with the spectacular Church of San Giorgio creating a formidable sight up a steep flight of steps. However, I quickly realised on this visit that the town wasn’t ideal for small children on bikes or foot as there are many steps and steep paths to negotiate. We did manage a visit to Antica Dolceria Bonajuto: the town’s oldest chocolate shop where we were taken on a brief tour and given a history of its Aztec origins along with some delicious tastings of its unusual gritty textured chocolate.
All of the towns we visited in the south east had a little road-based tourist train to take visitors around the centre. Pre-kids we would have run a mile from such a thing but of course with two little train enthusiasts in tow we ended up using them as a way to explore Scicli and Ragusa.
The coast south of Modica and Ragusa is wonderfully sandy and ideal for families. We spent a morning at Sampieri, a magnificent sweep of sand dotted with bars. We struggled to find anywhere selling a bucket and spade (or a cappuccino for that matter) as Sicilians are still wearing fur coats and anoraks in April and won’t set foot on a beach for several months but the off-season feel didn’t stop us all enjoying this marvellous sandy beach, even with a rather chilly wind blowing. I bet it’s amazing in summertime.
Our third stop was new territory to me and somewhere I’d been looking forward to exploring for years. The centre of Sicily is a land of vast wheat fields (much of Italy’s durum wheat is farmed in this part of the country), gloriously green in springtime; the roads are lined with vivid wild flowers and surprisingly bustling towns can be found perched high on remote hilltops. We stopped for lunch at elegant Caltagirone, a town with a ceramic industry dating back over a thousand years. I was keen to climb the famous 142 steps of the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, each rise in the steps featuring hand-painted ceramic tiles. I was not disappointed, not least by my kids’ amazing stamina; they raced up the steps at an incredible pace (very reassuring for my future travel plans). There was a very gratifyingly placed café half way down the staircase where we stopped for coffee in the sunshine.
We stayed at Baglio Pollicarini, which, in the off season is definitely farm first, hotel second. However, the delicious food we sampled in their restaurant and the enticing swimming pool (closed during our stay) suggested it would come into its own by summertime. The farmhouse was perched on the edge of a vast valley filled with olive trees and wheat fields. The views extended to a brooding Mt Etna, some 70km away, offering a gentle stream of smoke, belying the powerful eruption of the previous month.
We were staying here for easy access to Enna and its surrounding villages and it allowed me a chance to visit Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina, which houses some of the most significant Roman mosaics in the world. However, as is often the case, the highlight for the children was rather unexpected: just down the road from our agriturismo was the Autodromo di Pergusa, a motor racing track encircling Sicily’s largest natural lake. It looked rather tired and forlorn, a far cry from the likes of Monza and it was frequented by runners and cyclists rather than the Ferraris which have visited it in the past. However, it was one of the most exciting destinations for two small wannabe racing car drivers on their bikes.
Enna was a highlight for me, a fascinating town spilling (at times quite literally) down the slopes from its original ancient hilltop position. We were there during Settimana Santa, the week leading up to Easter which was a solemn affair of daily processions through the town with brass bands and locals in hooded gowns which weren’t as sinister as I had expected. I loved the blending of old and new traditions: young men dressed in their robes but riding on a scooter or talking on a mobile phone in between processions.
Enna’s castle, Castello di Lombardia, positioned at the very far end and at the very top of the town (balance bikes really came into their own on this day), was fantastic. Devoid of visitors and indeed of any officals, the 13th century castle was ours to explore. We wandered through its grassy courtyards and found steps inside Torre Pisana, one of its six remaining towers, leading us to the very top of Enna for an amazing view of nearby Calascibetta and what felt like the whole of Sicily laid out below us. If ever there was a time to shout out “I’m the king of the castle!” this was it.
I loved this part of Sicily and I was sorry to leave but the kids were itching to get to the beach; our final stop was seaside Taormina. However, something rather ominous and exciting stood in our way, something which had been visible from the car for much of our trip: Mt Etna.
I had pre-booked a half day guided tour through EtnaFinder, instead of visiting Rifugio Sapienza where the cable car is located. Our guide, Marco, was great with the kids. We visited old lava flows, clambered onto lava “bombs”, discovered houses buried by previous eruptions and explored lava caves. Although our three year old insisted on sleeping through some of the most exciting parts of the trip and had a bit of a meltdown as we didn’t time our lunch break very accurately, the excursion was a great success and our five year old came away with a good understanding of the power of the natural world. Volcanoes and earthquakes in one holiday is such a great geography lesson.
Our final stop was pretty Taormina. Holiday destination of the rich and famous for many years, this cliff top spectacle feels unlike anywhere else in Sicily such is the presence of international wealth and tourism. Our boys loved taking the cable car to the beach and playing in the rock pools and I managed a “refreshing” dip in the rather chilly sea. We were there over the Easter weekend so the town was pretty full but still gloriously enjoyable to wander through. A word of caution: don’t visit in August, I’d imagine the crowds would be unbearable by then. I hit the jackpot with an AirBnB booking: we stayed in a centrally located, elegant apartment with a view of Mt Etna from our bedroom window and a view towards the Greek amphitheatre from our rooftop terrace. Not a bad way to end our trip.
Stay tuned for more on Sicily in the coming weeks.