Sicily Touring Holiday – Mt Etna and East Coast

Travelling down the East Coast from Messina towards Mt Etna (after my exploration of Palermo and North Coast), I came to Taormina, considered by many to be Sicily’s most picturesque town and hence a tourist hotspot.

Taormina on a ridge overlooking the Ionian Sea
Taormina on a ridge overlooking the Ionian Sea

In my case arriving by car, I first had to negotiate, without any clear instructions, the system of parking a good way from town followed by a shuttle bus into town.

Unfortunately, by the time I arrived in the town centre, the Greek Theatre site had closed for the day (an hour before dusk), and even if I had been allowed in, thick cloud meant there would be no classic view of Mt Etna from the theatre.

The streets are quaint enough and the piazza at the far end of town is certainly attractive, but I was not over-impressed with Taormina. Maybe I will return one day when it is bright and sunny and the Greek Theatre is still open.

Next stop down the East Coast is Catania, Sicily’s second largest city and a good place from which to explore Mt Etna.  The city was destroyed in the 17th Century by Etna’s eruptions. Like Palermo, driving can be difficult in Catania, so again I left my hire car in the hotel car park for a couple of nights.

Mt Etna looking down a lava flow towards Catania
From Mt Etna looking down a lava flow towards Catania

I stayed at the centrally placed Best Western Hotel Mediterraneo, with of course a Senior discount on the hotel rates – see: Hotel Deals for Seniors. I found the staff to be very friendly and helpful and was not put off by the bright blue and yellow decor in the rooms.

My highlights in Catania were the spacious Piazza del Duomo square with its impressive Baroque Cathedral, the Castello Ursino and the extensive Villa Bellini gardens with views of Mt Etna. At night from our hotel roof red flares could be seen shooting from Etna.

Catania is one of eight towns in SE Sicily that have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is known as the city of ‘black and white’ because of the use of black lava stone in the city’s construction. I can also personally vouch for the hardness of the stone having tripped up on one of the very uneven pavements!

Ice crystals forming on lava near Etna summit
Ice crystals forming on lava near Etna summit

Mt Etna can be approached by a 50 minute drive from Catania to Rifugio Sapienza at 1,900 metres. The cable car takes you up a further 600 metres – about 800 metres below the summit – where you get great panoramic views. In February, there was thick snow at this level and we couldn’t continue much higher, but could see the extensive lava flows and houses almost submerged by previous eruptions.

Mt Etna is a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the Natural Site classification..

The next city down the coast was Siracusa (Syracuse), considered to be the most attractive city in Sicily, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Again I stayed at a Best Western Hotel, about 5 miles north of the city. Although externally not the most attractive of hotels, it was new, well-organised and conveniently placed.

Archimede Piazza with the Fountain of Artemis
Fountain of Artemis in Piazza Archimede, Ortygia

Siracusa has much to offer in its centre, the island of Ortygia, and in the Neapolis Archaeological Park.

I strolled around Ortygia in about 3 hours, stopping for refreshment along the way at one of the seafront cafés. Archimedes was born in Siracusa, commemorated in Piazza Archimede. In Piazza del Duomo, I was impressed by the magnificent cathedral which dates back to a Greek temple built on the site in the 5th Century BC, but with a frontage built in the 18th Century in Baroque style.

The Ear of Dionysius
The Ear of Dionysius

My highlights in the Neapolis Archaeological Park were the Greek Theatre hewn from the mountain rock in the 5th Century BC, the Roman Amphitheatre (although largely destroyed by the Spaniards) and the Paradise Quarry with a massive gash in its side known as the Ear of Dionysius.

For Seniors 65 and over from EU countries, entry to the Neapolis Archaeological Park is totally free of charge.

I found Siracusa to be much more attractive than Palermo and Catania and it doesn’t have the shabbiness of those two cities, certainly not in the central part.

From there, I travelled inland to Piazza Armerina in the Central Region and then on to the Marsala area, as described in my next post, Central Region and Agrigento.