Reflections on my trip to Sicily

I reasonably enjoyed my trip to Sicily, but at the same time I think it could have been better. Using the bus to visit the larger cities worked well, but primarily dedicating the travel plan to the larger cities left something to be desired. I was jealous of other tourists I met and who described to me how they found very nice deserted beaches with their car. It was a bit frustrating that I couldn’t easily get to the beach to take a swim after a hot day.

While the large cities certainly have some interesting sights, it was unfortunate that I didn’t see more of the countryside. And some sights such as Mount Etna weren’t worth it. While I did manage to travel on a budget and spent no more than € 700 in total, I would have spend less if I had been hosted by Couch Surfers.

It would have been better to travel in company, with another person I would have paid less per person if we would have chosen rooms for two persons. Besides saving money, being hosted by Couch Surfers would have made the trip a lot more enjoyable, which is even more important.

The next time I’d visit Sicily I would hire a car and avoid these pitfalls. And there will be a next time, because there so much more places I want to see, such as Selinunte, Erice, Segesta, Gela, Taormina, Messina, Val di Noto and more.

Now, I have some more things to say on the Sicilian food, public transport and couch surfing so that other travelers might profit from my advice.

Food

As I was on a budget I decided to spend no more than € 20 for dinner. I could order two or three dishes for that in almost every cheap restaurant I’ve been to. After dinner I liked to sample some Italian ice cream, so I often spent a bit more than my budget each night.

Breakfast was included with my stay in a B&B, hostel or hotel most of the time. When it was not, I often visited a ‘panineria’ or other small fast food establishment where you can buy a panino or a pizza slice for € 2 or € 3 usually. But a much cheaper and better solution is to buy fruit at the fruit and vegetable stalls near the road.

I loved the peaches and grapes they sell. You can buy a branch of grapes and maybe a peach as well for less than € 1. Of course you would have to wash the fruit yourself if you desire so, but I ate them right away. Maybe out of a desire to test my constitution after my food poisoning disaster in Nepal. Apparently the fruit was not sufficiently contaminated or my immune system is adequately strong as nothing happened to me yet.

There are a few specific dishes I’ve tasted which I liked a lot. Spaghetti alla Siciliana and Pasta alla Norma are nice vegetarian pasta dishes, with a good tomato sauce and covered with grated cheese heavily contributing to the taste. The Insalata di Arance e Cipolle, or salad of oranges and onions, was an unusual combination for me, but tasted good. The prickly pear is the fruit of a cactus you can frequently see growing in the wild in Sicly. It’s a sweet fruit somewhat reminiscent of a pear and a plum with some large (edible) seeds.

The Sicilian cuisine is famous for its sweets. Cannoli is a delicious Sicilian sweet snack which everyone visiting Sicily should try. Granita is a very nice type of frozen dessert. Because it is water-based instead of cream-based I guess it is healthier as well, even though it still uses a lot of sugar.

There were also a few dishes which I didn’t like, possibly more due to the ingredients used for them than the quality of their preparation. The Sicilian pizza has a topping which consists of beaten egg, which tasted really strange. The Napolitan pizza (like many other kinds of pizza) is topped with anchovy, which is way too salty for my taste.

To find restaurants I had variable tactics, I followed recommendations of Lonely Planet and the hosts of the places where I slept and walked around myself to find places which had a good menu. Some of the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet were nice, such as Trattoria Manhattan in Agrigento and Toto in Piazza Armerina. However, Casa del Brodo in Palermo had a bad price to quality ratio.

The best restaurant I’ve been to is the trattoria De Fiore in Catania, which was recommended to me by the owner of the hotel where I stayed. Not only is the food great but it’s cheap as well. I’ve photographed their entire menu so I can imitate their dishes at home.

Now that I’m back home I’m curious to figure out if there are Italian restaurants close to my place which can serve the same dishes as I ate in Sicily and match the quality of the Sicilian restaurants. Judging from their menu, I should probably try La Grotta in Utrecht. I haven’t been able to discover any other restaurant in Utrecht yet which has Spaghetti alla Norma on their menu.

Public transport

After spending a lot of time and getting advice from a Sicilian I know from my master’s program I figured out how to travel through Sicily with public transport. First you have to know which bus companies operate where, and the Lonely Planet guide is not helpful at all with that. That’s why I mention the relevant bus companies here: Salvatore Lumia, SAIS Trasporti, Salemi and Interbus. I’ve travelled with all of them.

Another problem is that Italy doesn’t have the equivalent of the Dutch 9292.nl website which allows you to plan a trip from door to door with all public transport companies. All the bus companies operating in Sicily have their own website which is in Italian. Only Interbus thought it would be adequate to include a link to automatically translate their website through Google Translate, which it is not of course.

Even so, using the bus worked well for me. I only had minor problems twice, a strike during my stay in Agrigento and the bus from Palermo to Monreale which was slightly delayed. The bus tickets for the longer trips cost me € 10 on average, so I probably spent a bit more than € 100 on bus tickets. Cheaper than hiring a car and paying for petrol, but with more persons the balance would shift more in favor of the latter.

More importantly, a car would have given me more freedom to go to the remote places which are barely served by the bus companies. I would have preferred to find more beaches and see more of the countryside. Even if I had a car I would still use some public transport though, you definitely don’t want to go to Palermo with a car.

Couch Surfing

It was the first time for me to use CouchSurfing in order to get hosted by locals in Sicily. Unfortunately it was an abject failure. I didn’t expect to find a host in every place I’d visit, but I was surprised to find none at all.

Of my couch requests, 14 are still unanswered (even after more than 10 days now), 7 were declined and 3 I canceled myself because they were on very short notice. I sent everyone a personal message explaining why I’d like to meet them. I fully understand hosts who decline a request, but if you don’t bother to respond to your requests at all then why is do you still indicate you can host on the CS website?

I did meet a lot of people to chat with when I waited for or traveled with the bus, in restaurants and hotels. They included the British, Americans, Germans and Russians. That was a nice experience, but it can’t compare with meeting locals through Couch Surfing.

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