19th May 2015
I’m packed and on my way to Catania airport for my 11am flight.
A fortnight in Sicily has been overwhelming. I’ve learned that moving from place to place independently using only public transport can be incredibly rewarding yet equally frustrating and can require precision planning on a scale I’ve never encountered before. It also needs a level of discipline and concentration that ended up leaving me so tired I could have really appreciated a holiday when I got back to the UK. The kind of holiday that only involves beaches, novels and tavernas.
Sicily in particular was a good place to start this new, more adventurous style of travelling. It’s a land of sharp contrasts. You can be surrounded by decay, neglect and poverty (mainly in the main cities,) and within half an hour on a bus or train you’ll be transported to some of the most beautiful places you’ll have seen (Noto, Erice, Taormina, Valley of the Temples…)
On the whole Sicilians are friendly, helpful but speak less English than on the mainland. They’re fairly tolerant of tourists although I don’t think they do nearly enough work to welcome and encourage tourism. As a solo, female traveller there were a few moments when I felt genuinely scared, something that I’ve not encountered travelling alone elsewhere in Italy before, but there is always a Sicilian ready to put your mind at ease and show you kindness.
Whilst the power and dominance of the Mafia seem to be waning, Sicily has a long way to go to regain the beauty it was renowned for in the past. I’ll be back sometime in the future and I’ll be looking out for a positive change with interest, because Sicily has so much potential as a tourist destination. It starts with simple changes such as better, more frequent and more detailed signposts and information boards, a bloody thorough tidy up and a some TLC for the sadly neglected older buildings and an effort to keep the quality of hotels and restaurants a little more consistent. I’m of the opinion that Sicily could be on the brink of a new golden age of prosperity and beauty if someone has the courage to spearhead sensible change. A tourism boost could give Sicily the economic kick up the butt she apparently needs so desperately.
Public transport is cheap and plentiful here if you are willing to plan in advance and organise your itinerary to accommodate waiting around at stations and bus terminals in between journeys. A good book and an iPod will make travelling so much more bearable. All that you need to remember is that buses are timetabled and routed with locals in mind. Prepare to leave early each day and return at strange seeming times. Your cheap ticket often comes with a slightly longer journey than a tourist tour coach.
Public buses will often treat their timetables with a very Sicilian informality. Always plan to be at the bus stop early, particularly if your stop is half way along a route. If the bus driver is making good time and running ahead of schedule he will not wait at stops for you. That said, try to be patient when buses are late. The Sicilians don’t seem to get stressed by it, there is no point you losing your temper if no-one else is.
I made the conscious choice to sacrifice comfort for price/location on some of my hotel/B+B choices. My advice is that you can go bargain basement in the smaller towns and still be comfortable. If staying in Palermo, Syracuse or Catania try not to budget too tightly on accommodation. If you do, you will be faced with toilet brushes left in the toilet bowl, dirty fridges, thin walls that have not been painted in years and (twice, in my case,) broken air conditioning units that will inevitably drip water all over your luggage.
Sicily boasts some of the most outstanding ancient sites in the Mediterranean. Sicily also boasts the most random, numerous and frustrating attraction closures I’ve yet encountered. I estimate that I was forced to miss at least one museum or sight for each day of the trip. Don’t expect explanations, reopening times or sympathy. Try just to be grateful that hopefully the closure means that something is being restored or improved…
I prepare to leave Sicily exhausted yet with the nagging feeling that I was not as industrious as my earlier solo trips. Still, looking back at what I’ve achieved and seen, it was nevertheless a hugely rewarding trip.
At Catania airport my exhaustion has caught up with me as I haze a scary dizzy spell in the baggage drop queue, just as I did at Gatwick on the way out. Weak and dripping in cold sweat, I cheer myself up with an almond filled cornetto (don’t you dare call it a croissant in Italy…) in an attempt to boost my blood sugar and idly think about my next trip. Following my pattern of travelling at the edges of tourist season (a necessity, my crippled kidney prevents travel during the hottest months,) my next trip is due in October 2015. I can’t decide between the Croatian coast or a Turkish road trip.
Sicilian food is something I’ll miss greatly. I have devoured more aubergine in two weeks than in the rest of my existence combined. Please, please, please avoid tourist menus whilst in Sicily. I uncharacteristically wasn’t tempted by gelato at all, but when I go back I shall make up for lost opportunities. Your taste buds will be grateful even if your waistline isn’t. I should apparently know, because I’m struggling to do up my seatbelt on the plane…
One flight delay later and I am back in Blighty in the loving arms of my husband, Croatia and Turkey guidebooks already being read and annotated.
I still feel weak and nauseous, cursing the Sicilian heatwave I have endured for punishing my poor, crippled kidney. Concerned, my husband searches for an explanation and cure for my discomfort.
That’s when we discover, 48 hours later, that I wasn’t in Sicily alone after all. I had a tiny little stowaway who insisted on coming along for the adventure. Unfortunately, I have to wait until a while for a formal introduction…
Suddenly so much makes sense…
- The dizzy near-fainting spells when stood in hot, airless airport queues for long periods of time,
- the strange aversion to sweet foods and ice cream whilst in Sicily, the spiritual home of sweet things and ice cream,
- feeling so exhausted each day and having to vomit at Segesta and the morning of Villa Romana del Casale,
- Feeling frustrated a little quicker than normal,
- battling with my seatbelt on the flight home…
So now my plans have changed. In October 2015 I won’t be in Croatia. Or Turkey. I’ll be on a labour ward in Berkshire meeting my next adventure. Croatia and Turkey will simply have to wait until 2016 when I’ll be visiting, this time with my stowaway in a harness!