We were living in Tunisia at the time and wanted a total change of scenery. In fact we fancied a change in continent and Sicily was only a relatively short ferry ride away. Perfect, we thought.
I suppose the fact that it had taken us 4 months to get the papers together to legally drive our car in Tunisia didn’t augur well for actually trying to take it out of the country. I was right. Mind you it was my fault. The day before departure I’d forgotten to get exit stamps and then I was reminded we needed a Carte Verte. A green card? We had a Carte Grise (the main car document), a Carte Bleu (from customs) and a Carte Rouge (MOT). We also had numerous other cartes of various colours but no Carte Verte. This was for special country-leaving insurance. So we trotted off to Star Insurance for the green card. The man there was very helpful and actually filled in most of the forms for us. Then he said, ‘you now have to go to another of our offices on the other side of Tunis. Go to the second floor and ask Mrs Fatma for a green paper. Pay her 20 Dinars and then bring it back here.’ We knew not to ask any questions.
On our return the man filled in another few forms and although we were only going on holiday for a week provided us with a month’s worth of foreign insurance. We were ready. Or so we thought.
Next morning we were up bright and early, packed and soon off to the port. Jackie asks me – “Are you sure it’s Rides port?” “Of course I reply confidently. After all that’s the address on the ticket”. Wrong. After looking in vain for the Sicily ferry we found the company offices only to be told – “Oh yes, the ferry offices are here but the ferry is from La Goulette”. Fortunately it is not so far away and we arrived just in time – we got through the gates to the ferry terminal to be then told I must exchange my tickets for other tickets before getting access to the customs sheds. From here we passed customs, police and various other agencies inspecting the car, its contents, us and our documents. It is at this point Jackie admitted that she had left the vital Green card at home. As it happened it didn’t matter as no one asked for it. It also didn’t seem to matter that our number plate was not the same as on our registration documents.
It was with some relief that we got onboard and slumped into the bar. The crossing was fine. We were a bit perturbed that it seemed to be running an hour late but by 10.30pm we were docked. However we then had to wait for the Italian police to come on board and set up a little desk to go through everyone’s passports. We left the ship at midnight.
At this time of night Palermo is pretty dead, so we weren’t expecting too many problems finding our hotel. Wrong. Having booked over the internet, the rooms looked rather nice. What we didn’t realise was that the room was one of three and our room wasn’t in a hotel, it was in someone’s apartment. Hence the fact that there wasn’t any advertising of any sort – like a sign saying ’hotel’. And the apartment block didn’t even have a number. It took some finding. But we did. By 1am. But it was actually 2am as we found out a couple of days later. It was summer time in Italy.
In the morning, refreshed by strong Italian coffee and pain au chocolat we found our way out of Palermo under an overcast sky and were soon heading along the autostrada which cuts across the island. We only had a week’s holiday and so had decided to just pootle around the South East corner and then return to Palermo for a few days before catching the ferry home.
I knew it was quite mountainous in the centre of Sicily but I wasn’t prepared for the isolation. This isolation was exacerbated by the fact the aurostrada was actually a huge 20th century viaduct crossing the country fifty feet above the earth and with few exits enabling us to explore the countryside. It also managed to avoid any pockets of habitation at all. We did skirt the small hilltop town of Enna with its buildings perched precariously on the side of a cliff. Near here we had lunch at a Motorway service station. No greasy fry up or Happy Eater, but Palma ham on the freshest and crustiest bread.
The weather cleared as we approached the east coast which was heralded by the huge bulk of Mt Etna, small plumes of smoke issuing from its summit and patches of snow clinging to its sides. From here we turned right and followed the coast south until we found a campsite by a pretty beach. This was done surprisingly easily.
By 2.45 we were pitching our tent under the shade of an olive grove at ‘Paradiso del Mare’ and by 3.30 easing our bones into the pristine clear waters of the Med. Ahhhhhh.
After resting the bones it was time to fill the stomachs. Revived, we headed in to the nearest town – Avola and experienced our first passegiatta – the traditional wandering about of all the inhabitants in the early evening. The only problem with Avola seemed to be it didn’t have a single restaurant! Plan B was go to the next small town – Noto. After the evening’s false start we were soon tucking into bowls of seafood spaghetti at the Trattoria Giglio which looked onto some marvellous baroque churches, their heavy limestone walls bathed in the glow of the evening light.
Back at base camp, despite the hard ground and my dodgy back I was soon fast asleep. So fast asleep I didn’t even notice the hordes of mossies until the morning. By this time about twenty of them were struggling to fly so loaded they were with my blood.
The next few idyllic days were spent driving around and exploring the local towns – Noto again, Ragusa and most notably Syracuse. All three towns exhibiting a style of architecture known as Sicilian Baroque. They were all completely rebuilt in this style following the devastating earthquake of 1693. Despite having no real must-see tourist traps, they are all fantastic places to just wander around, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the food.
One thing did surprise us and that was how quiet these towns were. There were relatively few restaurants and even fewer bars. Even the beaches were free of the hussle and bustle we were expecting. This was especially true considering we went during the European Football Championships. Perhaps the locals knew the Italian team were to disappoint.
Soon our holiday was due to end and we made our way back to the north coast for a few days in Palermo. Despite its historic past many of its notable buildings had been left to decay and only recently have signs of restoration become apparent. Having said that it was still quite interesting to wander around the downtown area and explore some interesting old churches – and on a Sunday it was extremely quiet.
A gem however is to be found just 8km from the city. One of Europe’s most beautiful churches – Monreale. It is considered one of the finest Norman cathedrals in existence but it also incorporates Arabic, Byzantine and classical elements. In addition, the small town around it was quite unlike most places we had been to in Sicily – with plenty of hustle and bustle and life. We made the most of this by loading up with goodies from the market – cheeses, hams and sundried tomatoes. We knew that the best way to remember our Italian holiday once we were home was not through photographs but by enjoying its culinary treasures.