A driving tour of the Mediterranean's biggest island is a challenging but rewarding way to get under the skin of Sicily's stunning scenery. Grab a map and get on the road
How did I find myself in Sicily? Well, after several recommendations to seek out the autumn sun in Sardinia my boyfriend excitedly promised to organise everything. And so three weeks later, we touched down on another Italian island beginning with 'S'. With little more than a car hire booking and a pocket guide, we cautiously pulled out on to the roads of Palermo.
We spent the first five minutes of our holiday debating why the insurance excess on the car was so excessive. Within ten minutes, it became painfully apparent. Indeed, for the duration of the holiday, I don't think I saw another car that didn't bear the scars of Sicilian driving. We managed to get our car hire very cheaply through searching on the internet beforehand. Booking online beforehand, the cheapest deal came in at around £160 for the week. Although that did include insurance and taxes, our car hire company warned us at collection that the excess was €1000 - to upgrade would have cost us around €20 extra a day. We opted out and blindly hoped for the best.
Our guide advised us not to dwell in Palermo and so we drove on south towards Agrigento. Other people we met during our trip agreed that the capital wasn't the best use of time, although the old town had its charm.
The motorways and roads of Sicily are pleasantly easy to negotiate and so well signposted that we managed five whole days without a map. After consulting some reviews on the internet, we made our way to an agriturismo just north of Agrigento between the tiny towns of Santa Elisabetta and Aragona. Ciuci's Manor has developed a fantastic name for itself in a short number of years, becoming a leading light in Italy's trend towards farm home stays. Upon arrival, our host met us with hugs showed us straight to our room. More like a small apartment, we had a huge bedroom leading off a corridor with a separate bathroom and stunning views out across the vast expanse of the farm. Staying here for three days, we walked through the olive groves, fed the donkeys and lounged around in the hammocks and open living areas. We were made to feel part of an Italian family, sharing five course meals around a huge table in the evening and sharing plans for the day over toast and pistachio paste in the morning. The food was fantastic - all lovingly homemade by the family. I wanted to take it all home with me.
If the weather had been hotter - it was cooler than usual for October - we would have stayed for longer, sunbathing by the outdoor pool. We spent the hottest morning of the week touring the famous Valley of the Temples (http://www.valleyofthetemples.com/English.htm). A short drive away, this historic site was truly breathtaking in its scale and grandeur. It looks even better lit up at night time. Hotels in Agrigento such as the 4-star Dioscuri Bay Palace command stunning views over the valley and out across the sea.
Travelling onwards, our guidebook begged us to stop at Noto in the south eastern corner of the island. Especially appealing to architecture and design buffs, this walled city is crammed full of Baroque palazzos, churches and monuments. Although overrun with tourists, this is a worthwhile stop for half a day. We ate off all the walking at the very pleasant Trattoria del Carmine (http://www.trattoriadelcarmine.it/modello2.html) where we feasted on the local pasta served with fresh ricotta.
Further up the Eastern coast, Syracuse beckoned. It's a very dignified spot, surrounded by crashing waves held back by huge chunks of dried lava. The city is over 2,700 years old and crossing a main road at the top of town, you find yourself suddenly transported to those times as you are engulfed by the ruins of the original settlement. The so-called Archaeological Park with its Roman amphitheatre is a great place to explore, with a fair entry fee of a few euros. We found a perfect spot to spend the night down a tiny alley in the Old Town. B&B Magnolia set us back only 50 euro for the room, the owners were very friendly and the whole place seemed to be recently decorated – we had a huge room with two beds.
We spent our last few days in Taormina. This most famous of Sicily's tourist destinations had a very different feel and in the height of summer I imagine the coming and going of the many cruise ships might become a nuisance. Perched high above the sea, it reminded me more of a Greek village but its qualities are unique.
Its Greek theatre on the cliff edge, for example, sets it apart, and the beautiful, English-inspired gardens along the bottom of the main street are truly picturesque. We stayed in Bed & Breakfast Villa Sara for a few days – a great place with each room's balcony looking out directly over the sea and smoking Mount Etna. There's plenty to do here, from walking up to the mountaintop village of Castelmola, to getting the cable car down to the Isola Bella island just off the main beach. Here we relaxed and ate, the pizza at Da Lorenzo (on the main street) being a particular highlight. It was the perfect ending to our week in Sicily and, yes, we got the car back without a single scratch.