Surprising Sicily: Part One – East Sicily and the Ionian Coast

Eleanor Foa Dienstag recently spent two weeks touring Sicily. This is the first part of her  series, this time covering East Sicily and the Ionian Coast. 

For decades, what have we thought of when we thought about Sicily? Barren earth; old women dressed in black; Mafiosi; unemployment; an impenetrable Italian dialect, and an almost medieval village way of life.  (Top photo: Mt. Etna – Viewed from Fiumefreddo)

Recently, we’ve been hearing about another Sicily, a land of villas and vineyards, with UNESCO-designated archeological sites, Baroque churches; sandy beaches, a unique cuisine, agriturism resorts,  attracting everyone from back packers to sophisticated travelers.

I wanted to go.

Preferring not to join a large group or drive myself, my friend Anne and I hired a car/driver/guide via Handy Sicily, on the Internet, and set out on a journey of 11 days and 10 nights, enough time to almost circle the Island, with important detours to its interior.

2-3Paolo Mortellaro

A girl could get used to a car and driver. It was the best decision we made. We were in good hands with Paolo Mortellaro, who took us on a stress-free journey whose highlights we are still happily recollecting.

Almost everything I’d imagined about Sicily was wrong, starting with its rich and varied landscape. From the dizzying heights of Taormina to the salt flats near Trapani, it’s a lush mix of forests, farms, terraced hills, vineyards, orchards  – olives, lemons, quince, almonds – ringed on the coast by charming cities, beautiful beaches and fishing villages. It reminded me a bit of southern France, with medieval towns perched atop craggy hills, breathtaking vistas and, as the Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans and Spanish Bourbons – among other invaders — well knew, a network of rivers and safe harbors along the Ionian and Mediterranean coasts.

3-2Catania Fish Market

4-2Market Vendor 

5-2Catania Duomo

6-2Catania Park 

We landed in the port city of Catania, with its famous fish market, cathedral and manicured city park. We indulged in our first lemon ice and pistachio ice cream. (In Sicily, I fell in love with the local Bronte pistachio, and all its wondrous uses, from pistachio cream to a ricotta-pistachio torte. Heaven!)

Once out of the city heading north toward a country hotel in Fiumefreddo, we quickly realized that the looming presence of Mt. Etna (almost 11,000 feet and Europe’s most active volcano), dominated the landscape. Three of its four active craters were spouting during most of our trip, creating dramatic cloud formations from sunrise to sunset.

7-2Driving to the Etna Crater

8-2Lunar Landscape

9-2Etna’s Silvestri Crater

Etna’s periodic eruptions and lava flows also account for the region’s mineral-rich soil in which many of Sicily’s finest wine grapes and fruit orchards flourish. It’s worth driving up to Etna’s southern rim. In late September, as we spiraled upward, green foothills turned into deep pine forests then abruptly into a lunar lava landscape as we approached old and new craters. In winter, Etna’s peak is snow covered and open to skiers.

The medieval hill town of Taormina, perched high above two sweeping bays, is probably Sicily’s best-known and most elegant resort, with unmatched panoramic vistas and high-end shops. Mobbed by tourists, we darted up and down in a day, strolling its car-free main street, enjoying some of its folk treasures and views.

10-2First Glimpse of Taormina

11-2Overlooking one of Taormina’s Bays

12Approaching Taormina

13Taormina’s Greek Theater

14Church in the Rock

15Taormina’s Main Street

16A Taormina Side Street

17Wedding Procession

18Main Piazza in Taormina

19Window Detail

20Sicily’s Famous Puppets

We then headed South towards the historic city of Siracusa, once the most important city in the Western world.

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

See Part Two: Siracusa in Eleanor’s series, Surprising Sicily.

About Eleanor Foa Dienstag (108 Articles)
Eleanor Foa Dienstag is a journalist and photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Observer, Ms., McCall's,Travel & Leisure, Frequent Flyer, and many other websites and publications. Eleanor is the author of two nonfiction books: a memoir, "Whither Thou Goest: The Story of An Uprooted Wife," acclaimed by Business Week for its insights into corporate life; and "In Good Company: 125 Years At The Heinz Table," a unique view of a quintessential American company. Both books were promoted with national radio and television appearances. Eleanor served as staff speechwriter to the Chairman and CEO of American Express. In 1983, she founded Eleanor Foa Associates (www.eleanorfoa.com). It provides a wide variety of corporate services, including annual reports, executive speeches, corporate histories and marketing materials for profit and not-for-profit organizations. Eleanor is past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), received speechwriting awards from IABC, and was awarded literary residencies at Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She resides in Manhattan.