Sicily was not what I expected. Intellectually, I know that Europe is not all cobblestone streets and old-world charm — I know that off the tourist path there are suburbs, industrial zones, and boring stretches of featureless or unattractive landscapes, just like anywhere else. But still, Sicily was not what I imagined. We visited a number of picturesque, charming towns along the eastern coast, as well as a string of lovely clear-water beaches, but overall, Sicily (or at least the parts of Sicily we visited) was not a place that knocked me over with its charms, or with its natural or urban beauty.


Catania is Sicily’s second largest city, and we spent a couple of hours here on our first day in Sicily. Walking around Catania in summer, you will be greeted by the wafting smells of fish and urine (in all states of freshness), and your eyes will be dazzled by ancient, peeling buildings that look like they might crumble if you poke them. You will also be drowning in your own sweat because the Mediterranean sun is relentless in July, and because there are very few shade trees in the city. We didn’t spend too much time here, (and there was a particularly brutal heat wave) so it’s entirely possible there was another side to Catania I didn’t see.

Old folks on a bench.jpg

My dad, uncle, aunt and mom on a bench in a park in the town of Riposto after our Sicilian breakfast. In summer, Sicilians eat something called “granita” for breakfast, which is basically a better-tasting, well-presented version of Italian Ice. Or more accurately, it’s the original Italian Ice. Granita is accompanied by a brioche, and proper etiquette is to dunk your brioche in your granita. There are a lot of unspoken Sicilian rules around food. For example, you can only have granita in summer, and mixing chicken and pasta is a serious faux-pas.

While I was going through the photographs of Sicily that I posted on Facebook, I realized how complicit I am in showcasing only the white-washed, buttered-up, photo-shopped version of reality that social media tends to portray at the expense of actual reality. In my photographs of volcanic-rock clear-water beaches, you don’t see the piles of litter piled up unattractively on the periphery of the beach. My cousin’s Sicilian husband told us that unfortunately, many Sicilians have the mentality that while their houses should be pristine and well-cared for, public areas are don’t matter. This was evident throughout Sicily. I was surprised by the amount of trash and litter everywhere, and by the lack of attention given to public spaces. (In all fairness, I think a visitor to New York City could say the same thing — when I was there last month, I noticed the mountainous piles of trash bags in front of restaurants and commercial lots for the first time).

But back to Sicily: In my photographs of seafood, pasta dishes, cappuccinos and pizzas, you can’t possibly know this is the only kind of food you can get in Sicily. Want Thai? Mexican? Indian? It’s hard to get, as far as I could tell. And while the food is superb — fresh, preservative free, beautifully presented — once in a while you crave something a little more…international, or diverse. And those beautiful, ancient mountain towns? They don’t capture the poorly maintained, narrow roads you need to take to get there, or the complete lack of side-walks in the parts of Sicily we visited. While you might be able to walk around your 10-block town (which mostly look like warm-weather Colombian pueblos, but less developed) you can’t really walk beyond your  town unless you want to risk getting hit by a car.

Pebble beach.jpg

One of those lovely pebble-rock beaches where I cropped out the piles of trash on the periphery of the picture. I am not much of a beach person and my sister and I had real problems with the pebbles…our feet couldn’t handle them. It as a real struggle to get out of the water.

I might have loved Sicily ten years ago. It’s undeveloped — or at least underdeveloped — and it’s ancient, hodgepodge, mountainous, abandoned, mysterious, bewildering, enigmatic and cloudless, with an 11,000 foot active volcano looming over and anchoring the island to its fateful position somewhere between Europe and Africa. And I think I could grow to love it if I spent real time there, but after a one week vacation, I left Sicily feeling unsettled and confused, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Baroque Church Taorima

Taormina is a beautiful little town about an hour away from the villa we stayed in. It was full of tourists and color, and quite posh compared to the other small towns we drove through.

Greek Theater Taorima

Ruins from the Greek theater in Taormina.

Baroque of Noto

Noto is another small town we visited. The entire town is beige, sun-drenched and ancient feeling. I also think it had more of a North-African or Arab vibe than the other towns we saw, maybe due to its location at the southern tip of eastern Sicily. This town wasn’t quite as touristy as Taormina.

Group travel 2

The family crew in Ragussa, a beautiful, well-preserved Baroque town with surprisingly few tourists.

Group Travel

Large group travel.

Non-beach people

My parents and two aunts enjoying the ocean view.

Old town ragusa 1

The empty, immaculate streets of Ragusa, probably the best cared for, cleanest town we saw.

Old town Ragussa

Ragusa from above.

Ragussa Old Town

Ragusa again.

Random guy in Ragusa

Photobomb in Ragussa.

Walking Syracuse

Syracuse street at dusk. The city is divided into the new (above) section and the old section, which is on the water (below).

Syracuse was probably my favorite place in Sicily.  The old section, Ortygia, has a hunted, dark quality to it. Maybe it was the low, ominous clouds (clouds being a rare site during our trip) or the slowly crumbling buildings, but Syracuse felt secretive, and maybe a little bit sinister, to me. Of course, this could have been because my sister told me about, Siracusa, a murder mystery she read before the trip, which takes place in Syracuse (and which I read on the flight back home), but here I felt tethered to the past in a complex and meaningful way, and where I would have wanted to spend more time.

Old part of Syracuse

The beach in Ortygia.


Categories: International Travel

1 reply

  1. Cool commentary, thanks for this post!

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