visiting Sicily

Old World Charm in Sicily

During our second two weeks in Sicily, we checked out some nearby cities that friends had suggested: Piazza Armerina, Modica, and Ragusa. Each city has an old world charm, which made our visits extra special. The architecture, artwork, and cuisine in each place created a unique and wonderful experience.

Piazza Armerina

This city is famous mainly for its Roman mosaics in the Villa Romana del Casale. This Roman villa was built in the first part of the 4th century and contains the richest, most complex collections of Roman mosaics in the world. The villa appeared to have several purposes: personal residences, business spaces, a basilica, a gym, and bathhouses. Plus, there were many other rooms with an unknown purpose.

We were amazed by how intact these mosaics are. Even the passage of time hasn’t disturbed them much. From afar, they look like huge frescoes, or even gigantic rugs, but up close you can see every single small tile meticulously put into place. I’m sure this was a long and painstaking process. The images in the mosaics depict everyday life, as well as stories, legends, and mythology.

Unfortunately, quite a bit of the area wasn’t open to the public, because of renovations. As a result, we didn’t see one of the most famous mosaics, also known as the “bikini girls”. It shows girls in bikinis playing sports, weightlifting, and horsing around. Jon was disappointed.

We didn’t go into the actual town, but we took some pictures of the Baroque Cathedral and the city.


A couple of days later, we went to the towns of Modica and Ragusa, Sicily. Both of these are very old cities, dating back to 1,000 – 2,000 BC.

Modica has ancient medieval buildings climbing up each side of a deep gorge. The city has two parts: Modica Alta (High Modica) and Modica Basso (Low Modica). Modica is known for its chocolate, which can be flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, mint, coffee, peppers, and orange. We stepped into a chocolate shop to sample some sweet crunchiness.

Aside from having lunch at a panini shop (they actually have a sister shop in NY), we wandered the streets and absorbed the atmosphere of this city, which quickly shut down at 1pm.


When we arrived in Ragusa, nothing was open since it was 2pm on a Sunday (when will we learn?). Still, we had a good time driving through both parts of the city, Ragusa Ilba and Ragusa Superiore. Simply observing the architecture was really enjoyable.

The churches and palazzi lined every route, and the Duomo was the centerpiece of Ragusa Superiore. We felt disappointed that we couldn’t enjoy more of this city, but we’re happy that we had the opportunity to see it!

We’re fortunate that we experienced more old world charm in Sicily! The old cities of Piazza Armerina, Modica, & Ragusa did not disappoint. Each one is unique in their own way, and they were so well preserved that we felt like we were stepping back into time…

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hiking in lipari

Relaxing in the Aeolian Islands

Vulcano Island with a steaming crater

For this trip we had just one plan: Relax in the Aeolian Islands. It’s the main reason people come here! The Aeolian Islands are a cluster of volcanic islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just north of Sicily. In total, there are seven inhabited islands: Lipari (the largest), Vulcano, Stromboli, Salina, Panarea, Filicudi, and Alicudi. Two of these islands (Vulcano and Stromboli) are active volcanoes! Stromboli is in a permanent state of eruption, and Vulcano steams continuously from its main crater.

To begin our trek to the islands, we drove 1.5 hours from Catania to Milazzo, parked the car, and hopped a ferry to Lipari. We were told that when we go the Aeolian islands, we should expect a relaxing vacation. So, we were obviously going to try that! Tourists flock to the islands in the summer to bathe on the sandy beaches, take in the stunning views, swim in the sea, hike the mountains and coastlines, and eat mouthwatering cuisine. Each island has its own uniqueness, but we decided to take the advice of everyone else and just relax.

“When in Rome”… or in this case, Lipari.

Hiking in Lipari

The next day, we went on a hike that took us high up the mountain, to see the island of Vulcano. Our walk started in Lipari center, inside the perimeter walls of a 16th century castle. Now, it has ancient ruins and an archeological museum.

We were looking forward to this hike, because we knew we’d be able to see some breathtaking views of the town of Lipari and the crystal clear water. The ultimate goal was to get to the observatory at the top, and make it back down for the afternoon. We were looking forward to relaxing by the pool later!

After leaving the walls, we followed the waterfront and walked away from Lipari center. The walk had us stroll past locals’ houses with their laundry hanging from their balconies, past the archipelago’s only hospital, down small alleyways, under bridges, and eventually away from civilization completely.

As we climbed, we passed white-washed holiday houses perched on top of cliffs. Even though they were situated so close to the town, the serenity, sea, and calmness of their surroundings made them seem so far away.

Eventually, we reached a lookout over Punta della Crapazza, where we could see a number of rock pinnacles rising out of the sea.

On a nearly hidden path, we hiked straight up the crest of the mountain, where we discovered even better views of the rocks. After a few more turns, we were led back onto a concrete road, and we walked toward the observatory on the top of the mountain. Here, a marvelous spread of islands came into view, including mainland Sicily.

Another Hike Surprises Us

Now it was time for us to start our descent and head back to Lipari… or so we thought.

We assumed we’d be continuing downwards. Instead, the hike took us through a very narrow path, massively overgrown with prickly bushes, and weeds… and we were climbing!

Evidently, this is becoming the norm for us! Had it not been for the random red dots telling us we were on the right path or the guidebook telling us we’d pass some quarries (which we did), we would have thought this was a joke!

After bushwhacking our way out of the woods, we followed a small path for about 10 minutes to a church. We were almost there! A walk down a dreadfully steep lane led us to yet another long set of stairs and eventually weaved us downhill through the old part of town.

Relaxing in Lipari

Once we hit the center of Lipari, we picked up some cannolis, paninis, and wine, and headed back to the hotel to have lunch on our balcony. The sparkling pool was calling out to us, so we quickly changed and headed down to get a much-needed dip. Time to relax! We spent the rest of the afternoon (and weekend) lounging poolside and drinking wine.

All in all, we walked/hiked around 6.5 miles, so I’d say we earned it!

We can see why so many people flock to the Aeolian Islands during the summer season. With the beauty and uniqueness of each island, there’s something for everyone to enjoy!

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mount etna

Hike Mount Etna

Mt Etna

Located on the island of Sicily, Mount Etna is the tallest active volcano in all of Europe. It stands at almost 11,000 feet (3,330 meters) high. With nearly constant activity, it erupts multiple times a year, sometimes spewing ash all over the streets and enough smoke to close Catania airport. Even so, it’s not unheard of for tourists and travelers to hike Mount Etna. Naturally, Jon and I decided to check out this beast for ourselves.

Know Before You Go

Before we hiked Mount Etna, we researched the volcano’s activity and learned how eruptions have impacted the area around it. Recent eruptions had been limited to the Summit craters on the north side of the volcano. Since the volcano has a base circumference of 140km (~87 miles), there are many different safe hiking paths that we could take. It’s illegal to go past a certain point on the volcano, so we were confident that all would be okay.

We enlisted the help of Etna Experience to take us on a hike through some parts of the volcano, give us some history and information about Etna, and help us experience other cool parts of the volcano, such as lava caves and rivers.

Experiencing the Volcano’s Environment

We started with a nice two-hour hike from the viewpoint of Bove Valley. It was almost as if we were hiking on sand with the ash under our feet. Our guide told us about the different plant life that exists because of the volcanic soil on Mount Etna. We also learned about different rocks and boulders that have been spit out by Etna. Plus, we came to understand the difference between the many types of ash and pumice that have fallen like rain onto the mountain and towns.

Next, the guide took us to a cave grooved out by flowing lava. We fastened our helmets and held tightly onto our flashlights as we descended the steep entrance to the cave.

Lunch was next and we were in for a treat! We had lunch at Gambino winery, a winery that we visited in December. We were more than thrilled to hear that we would be sampling their delicious tomatoes, mushrooms, cheeses, meats, and of course wine. It was great to get to know the other members that were on our excursion (one couple from Germany, one from Holland, and one from France) as we talked about our lives over delicious cuisine.

View from lunch

Alcantara Gorges

The last stop of our program included a visit to the Alcantara Gorges. Lava flow had flooded the frozen river. Once it cooled, it created the high walls on either side. It then crystallized in the form of columns. Later, an earthquake caused a gash in the lava, which allowed the river to form in the gorge.

After some fresh squeezed orange juice it was time for our trip to end. We’re glad that we were able to hike Mount Etna and learn so much about it. More importantly, we’re thankful that it didn’t erupt on our watch!

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The Most Beautiful Part of Sicily: Taormina and Castelmola

For our last weekend on the island, we stayed in what everyone told us was the most beautiful part of Sicily: Taormina and Castelmola. We’re so glad we did! At one point, we could look out to the Ionian Sea, snow-capped Mt. Etna, rolling mountains, and old towns built into steep mountains. The whole scene was reminiscent of Jurassic Park!

Hotels and Hot Spots

Since we were there in the off-season we were able to stay at a very luxurious hotel! The rooms were decorated with Arabic patterns, and colors and the view from our windows looked out to the endless sea and Mt. Etna.

We went to the Teatro Greco (Greek Theater), which is the site to see while in Taormina. It was built in 7th century B.C. and is the second largest in Sicily (with Siracusa’s being first). It is the most celebrated ruins in Sicily, not only because it is so well preserved, but because of the remarkable scene it looks out to.

Etna Wine Tour

We designated Saturday as our wine tasting day. We hired Gaetano from a tour company to drive us to three different Etna wineries. While we could have done this ourselves, we wanted to enjoy ourselves completely without worrying about driving. These wineries had some amazing Sicilian wine grown with the soil from the volcanic site.

Wine tasting is just a little different here than in the States.

First, instead of standing at a bar, you sit down at a table while someone pours you tastings. Second, the tastings are not a little sip each. They fill your glass halfway! Third, many places will leave the bottles on the table and tell you to take as much as you want. All of this was true when we went wine tasting in Tuscany, too.

So needless to say, we had a very good time with the wine (maybe too much??), although the following pictures were taken before we had even one sip of wine.

Unusual Things to See in Castelmola

Warning: the following pictures are not suitable for work!

The next day, we went to a town called Castelmola. Castelmola is perched way above the area below, and consists of narrow, winding roads to get to the top. It has an old-world charm to it with panoramic views of Taormina, the sea, and Mt. Etna.

One of the biggest and most unusual places to see in this town is Bar Turrisi. Tourists have named this bar “Dicks Bar,” “Fertility Bar,” or “The Penis Bar.” The inside of the bar is decorated with… hmm, how do I say this? A lot of penises!

They are present in different shapes, lengths, and materials like wood, ceramics, terracotta, worked iron, and pasta. There were penises everywhere… even the faucet in the bathroom was a long and curved penis with the knobs representing… well you get where I’m going with it.

The reason behind this was that the penis is not a vulgar symbol, but instead represents fertility, freedom, fortune, life, and beauty. The bar has been passed down from three generations and the owners also used the penis to symbolize the happiness of their era.

Everyone reading this knows that we behaved like the mature 31 year olds that we are.

Afterwards, we took a walk and climbed up to the Norman Castle where again spectacular views awaited us.

This was a fantastic weekend in Taormina and Castelmola, Sicily!

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mt etna sicily

Ancient Ruins in Sicily

When Jon had to do a rotation in Sigonella, Sicily, I decided to go with him! We took an overnight ferry and had our own cabin, much like a cabin one would see on a cruise ship. It was a surprisingly comfortable trip, and we both wound up getting a great night’s sleep. We were excited to explore a different part of Italy. The ancient ruins of Sicily were especially intriguing to us, so we looked forward to visiting popular towns of Agrigento and Siracusa.

We couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay in Sicily. Right outside of the base were gorgeous views of Mt. Etna. Jon took these beautiful pictures:

Exploring Ruins and Temples in Agrigento

Since Jon’s schedule wasn’t too busy, we had plenty of time to explore. Agrigento sits on the southern side of Sicily, about 1.5-2 hours from where we were staying. It is best known for its ancient Greek ruins, and more specifically Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples). At this site, seven monumental temples were built around 500 B.C.

There were some pretty interesting statues around…

We also visited the museum, which contains artifacts taken from the site.

The temples sit below the city of Agrigento, which looks out to the Mediterranean Sea. The city has small shops, a large cathedral, and small churches.

More Ancient Ruins (and pizza!) in Siracusa

A few days later, we visited the city of Siracusa. This is another city that is notable for its rich Greek history, culture, amphitheaters, and architecture. Before going to the city center, we visited the area’s ancient ruins. We saw the Greek theater, which was spectacular! They continue to use the theater to hold plays. We also saw the Roman amphitheater, which is considered the 5th most important Roman theater in Italy.

While in the ancient “park,” we discovered many caves and nature walks.

The city center of Siracusa has many churches, piazzas, and fountains scattered around the city. For lunch we had some Sicilian pizza, and we found that we very much prefer the pizza from Naples, the world’s pizza capital.  It was still very good and we had it a few times while we were in Sicily, but nothing beats the pizza in Naples!

What a treat it was to visit the towns of Agrigento and Siracusa!

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