Sorry to disappoint. There are no trains in this travel tale. Italy is notorious for the trains not running on time, anyway, and Sicily even more so, so we decided to skip that mode of transportation on this trip. Makes a catchy title, though, doesn’t it? Maybe they should make a movie with that title…
When we told people we were going to Sicily in January, they would get this odd look on their face and ask why. The simple answer is that I have always wanted to take Brian to Italy, and our timeshare had availability in Sicily around his birthday and Republic Day, which is a holiday for him. So, we booked it. At the time, we thought Italy would be closer than the US. We can fly to Frankfurt in about 9 hours directly from Mumbai. Surely, there are nonstop flights to Rome, right? Wrong. Evidently, there is no good way to get to Italy from India. All possible flights route you through Dubai or Doha. So, as the airplane flies, the trip to Rome is about 16 hours. The flight to Catania in Sicily takes about an hour. With the layover, total trip time was about 20 hours. Fortunately, the time difference is only about 4 hours, so the jet lag is minimal.
When we reached Rome, we had to check in to Alitalia for our flight to Catania because we had flown Qatar Airways to Rome. Unbeknownst to us, Alitalia has an 8-kg (17 lb) carry-on bag restriction. When we checked in, the woman at the counter did not mention it. But, when we went through security, a woman stood at the entrance next to a giant scale. She asked us to weigh our luggage. We both failed the scale test by about two kilos. We had come off an international flight where the baggage restrictions were more about size than weight. We had already checked our bags. What could we do? We returned to the baggage counter where the nice lady allowed us to weigh our bags to ensure they were under the weight limit. We achieved the limit by removing a couple of heavy sweaters and wearing them. We went back to the not-so-nice lady with the scale, passed the test, and continued through security. After security, we returned our sweaters to our carry-on luggage. Now I remember why I never flew Alitalia when I was in college. Service otherwise was fine, and we did not have any issues on the return trip.
While we were in the Rome airport, we decided to buy Italian SIM cards. Best money we spent during the whole trip. They allowed us to have an Italian number with data, which meant we could use Google Maps to navigate around Sicily. Without Google Maps, we would never have found our hotel in Catania, let alone anything else in Sicily. While the traffic in Sicily has nothing on Mumbai, like Mumbai, the street signs are just about as difficult to find or completely nonexistent. Add to that the frequent use of roundabouts, and a visitor with a regular map can quickly become lost. Google Maps does a fantastic job of negotiating the narrow, one-way streets of Sicily easily. The app provides incredibly accurate directions to specific locations.
That is not to say that Google Maps is perfect. Although it is far superior to that other Map app, it still managed to get us lost in the hills above Agrigento. I had entered Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) into the Google search. Google found the alleged location, guided us there, and then proudly proclaimed, “You have arrived,” as we were pulling into a random driveway to turn around. I tried my search again (this time using Parco Archeologico), selected the route, and finally arrived at the correct location about 15 minutes later. Google Maps also sent us the wrong way down a one-way street (alley is more accurate). We realized the error only when a nice man rolled down his window and shouted, “senso unico.” Fortunately, I remembered that phrase from my rusted-out Italian vocabulary.
But, mostly, Google Maps just worked—and worked well. We motored all over the southern coast of Sicily. After not driving for 10 months, Brian loved being able to just hop in the car and go—wherever, whenever. Fortunately, Sicily is a sensible country that drives on the right side of the road, making the driving a bit easier for him. We rented a Fiat Panda, which we learned later is the most stolen car in Sicily. It is a compact car with a small cargo area, perfect for those narrow roads and our luggage. We were given a manual transmission. It had not occurred to us to specify an automatic. Fortunately, Brian knows how to drive a manual, which I don’t, so Brian did all the driving.
The car gave us the freedom to explore the countryside. After months in the teeming metropolis that is Mumbai, it was great to see green, rolling hills and nearly deserted freeways. I highly recommend Sicily in January, although we both thought February might be a slightly better time to go. If you want to go to Sicily for its beaches, then January is not a good time. It was cold. Not brutally cold, but cold enough to keep us off the beach. If you want almost private access to amazing Greek temples and spectacular views of Mount Etna without all the crowds, then January or February are perfect months to visit.
Here are a few tips for your stay:
- If you are staying in the big cities like Catania, Agrigento, or Siracusa, you can probably get away with just English, but when exploring the countryside, Italian is necessary. If you don’t know Italian but know Spanish, you might be able to slide by. If you at least make the attempt, people will work with you to get the idea across.
- When renting a car, if you cannot drive a stick, be sure to specify that when you book it. Honestly, finding an automatic in Sicily might be like trying to find a left-hand drive car in Mumbai, so I would not hold your breath on availability. With the rugged hills in Sicily, a manual transmission is preferred anyway. If you can drive one, rent one.
- Buy a SIM card before you leave the Rome airport with plenty of minutes and data time. Many carriers are available. We used 3 (Tre.it). We were not impressed by the data coverage and had to add money to the cards several times throughout the trip. However, the one advantage of this carrier is that the signs are easy to spot, especially if you don’t read Italian. When it came to adding money in Modica, near where we stayed, my Italian came in handy. I would not recommend trying to navigate the complex conversation required to add money without some basic Italian. Buying the card was a breeze; updating it not so much.
- Winter is the slow season in Sicily, so many people go on holiday or use the time to make repairs or upgrades to buildings. You should expect some things to be closed. For example, when we went to Castelmola, a hill town above Taormina, the only restaurant open was Turrisi. Certainly, a memorable experience. We met an English lady who lived in Castelmola, chatted about the town, and advised us on the menu.
- Sicilians still take an afternoon break from about 1 to 4 pm. Although this practice is observed less in other parts of Italy, in Sicily, it is still common for shops and restaurants to shutter for a siesta. If you want to eat during that time, your best bet is a bar. Bars in Italy are not like bars in the US. They mostly sell coffee and snacks, although many also sell alcohol. If you find an open bar during this time, don’t expect much more than a gelato or basic sandwich. I also recommend stashing granola bars in your purse just in case you can’t find a bar.
- Google Maps is great, but you will still get lost. Just go with it. You will find amazing things when you take a wrong turn. The app is quite good at getting you back on track without that annoying female voice saying, “recalculating.”
- Cell and data service in Sicily can be spotty. When using Google Maps, be sure you have a 3G signal when you search and start the trip. After Maps has started routing you, if you lose service, the GPS in your phone can still find you and will continue to navigate you. However, Maps cannot reroute you until you are back in a 3G location.
- If you are staying on the southern side, as we did, plan a two-day trip to Malta. We spent only a day in Malta, and we wish we had spent more time. Virtu Ferries runs a daily ferry to and from Pozzallo, which is about 15 minutes from Modica. During the winter, the ferry schedule is not always daily, so check online first. I would recommend leaving on the morning ferry and returning the next day on the evening ferry.
- The great thing about Sicily in winter is that we could walk into Villa Athena in Agrigento without a reservation and get a great room with a balcony. Villa Athena was a highlight of our trip. The room we stayed in cost about $125, but during high season would have cost around $350. We would never have been able to get a room without a reservation during high season. During that time, rooms are booked at least one month in advance.
- Skiing Mount Etna might not be possible during your stay. The weather around Mount Etna is complicated. It is an active volcano after all. When we were there, the ski season was just starting, and high winds were keeping the slopes closed. Skiing would be better a little later in the winter, but is not guaranteed. Make time to visit the mountain though during your stay. It is spectacular to see volcanic rock coexist with snow. It reminded me of Craters of the Moon in Idaho.