Touring Northern Sicily by Car

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A lot has been written about Sicily. Geographically it is separated from Italy and therefore from mainland Europe only by the Straits of Messina and it is sixty odd miles north of Malta. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, hosting the tallest active volcano in Europe (Mount Etna) and, due to its geo-physical qualities, it offers a spectacularly varied terrain ranging from snow-capped mountain ranges to long sandy beaches, rivers, sea-side cliffs and impressive views both inland and along the coast.

In brief, I am addicted to Sicily. I am addicted to the fusion of cultures, cuisines, traditions and constantly changing landscapes. Addicted to the long and winding roads that take you from ski slopes to beaches in the span of a couple of hours. Addicted to the Sicilian pride in all things related to food, wine and hospitality. And this addiction is far from waning. My love affair started when I was very young and my father took us to Sicily by car and then by boat. I distinctly remember my fascination for the food markets in Siracusa and Catania. The smells, the colours, the loud voices, the haggling, the fresh (seasonal) produce, the alleyways which lead from fish vendors to tomato displays, the winding roads that take you from smell of baked ricotta to that of freshly baked bread… and what fascinated me then still fascinates me now. Which is why I make it a point to visit Sicily as often as I can and whenever possible by car. My car.

My first long road trip in Sicily was on my honeymoon. We drove east when we left Pozzallo towards Taormina and travelled all round the north coast to Trapani on the far west before driving back to Pozzallo via Agrigento. Three thousand kilometers of food, sea, history and honeymooning. And on every road I drove and every village I saw I swore that I’d be back to see these places in more detail. My suggested itinerary below will take you across the less known parts of Sicily which are ideal for a road trip combining fascinating roads and landscapes, natural parks and reserves, culinary delights, picturesque villages and historic sites. I shall not include the more known cities to the south and on the east coast (Catania, Siracusa, Messina etc) since these are very common with those who visit Sicily and are therefore very well known.

Hidden Gems in the North East

The northeastern part of Sicily is conveniently sandwiched in a triangular shape between the only three autostrade in Sicily. The A18, the A19 and the A20. This triangle encloses three parks from east to west: Parco Nazionale Dell’Etna, Parco Regionale Dei Nebrodi, and the Parco Naturale Regionale Delle Madonie. These lesser-known parks are home to some of the most beautiful landscapes which I have ever come across.

To get to the parks, from Pozzallo take the A18 autostrada via Siracusa towards the Parco Dell’Etna. Take lunch in one of a number of villages close to the Etna on the coast such as Zafferana Etnea or Giarre and unless you’ve already done so previously this is a good time to take Etna Nord or Etna Sud and to venture as far up the Etna as possible (weather permitting). The views are breathtaking and the further up you go the colder it gets so a jacket or pullover is advisable most of the year.

At this point venture inland via Randazzo taking either the SS116 or the SS289 which pass directly through the Parco Dei Nebrodi. This is one of the least known and therefore purest parts of Sicily and you shall literally drive through forests, mountains, pure air, valleys and long stretches of nothing but road and nature. If you travel via the SS116, another fascinating surprise awaits you. You suddenly realize that there is a vast span of sea in front of you and from the mountains you drive onto a long stretch of golden sand lining the dramatic coast stretching to the east to Messina and to the west towards Cefalu and Palermo.

At this stage you have two options. Take the SS117 (another stunning road) back in to the Parco Dei Nebrodi towards Nicosia or else to drive to Cefalu and enjoy the stunning coast with an obligatory stop at the quaint village of Santo Stefano Di Camastra which is famous for its ceramics industry. I distinctly recall visiting the Mueseo Civico delle Ceramiche and I do suggest that you visit this museum, which is a lovely building in itself with spectacular views.

Cefalu is probably the most well-known and therefore touristic town on the north east coast and it sits right above the Parco Delle Madonie. Unless you have already visited Cefalu then you must go for a walk in the centre of this picturesque seaside town, which has a sandy beach that runs for the entire length of the town. Again, the town is set against a dramatic steep cliff/rock and the Duomo right at the heart of the town is literally framed by the rock (La Rocca).

From Cefalu head on straight to Castelbuono. This is another relatively undiscovered gem although it is very well known by the locals. Unlike most other quaint and quiet small villages in the Parco Delle Madonie, Castelbuono is known for the festivities carried out during Easter and Christmas and, more importantly, it is apparently the town where Palermitani like to come to take dolci and caffe during the weekends and in festive periods. The fact that it is a quaint picturesque town that also hosts a number of good restaurants (Nangalarruni strongly recommended!) and wine bars makes it a perfect base to visit the more remote villages in the Madonie over a couple of days. These villages include Isnello, and the unmissable Santuario di Giblimanna which can be found on the SP9 direction Cefalu from Castelbuono. Another day trip, departing from Castelbuono includes going down the SS286 towards Geraci Siculo and visiting the Petralie (Sottana and Soprana), Gangi and Polizzi Generosa and you only need to stop for a walk and a coffee in most of these places.

The road back to Pozzallo from Castelbuono involves taking the SS120 (motorbike and sports car drivers love this road) onto the SS290 towards the A19 at which point the fastest way to Pozzallo is probably to continue along the autostrada onto the Catania-Siracusa.

The whole itinerary above can be done over three to four days, but to see the three parks properly a week is recommended.

 

 

Top Tip

When planning an itinerary in Sicily keep two things in mind. The first being that Sicily is bigger than most people imagine it to be. And second that super strade can prove to be slow roads. So if time is an important factor in your holiday make sure that you plan your holiday keeping these two factors in mind. Oh and another tip – some navigators get lost in Sicily and data connections are not exactly hotspots so keeping an old fashioned map handy might not be a bad idea.

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