I arrived to Sicily very late at night under the cloak of darkness and a cloud of confusion after delayed flights, lost baggage claims, extreme hunger, and other miscellaneous physiological traumas that are pretty much a given when you travel in high season. Around 2AM I managed to find a taxi driver to take me to Palermo who I immediately assumed was literally and figuratively about to take me for a ride. Usually I prefer to assume the best about people. But when the airport is named Falcone e Borsellino for the two magistrates who went after the Corleonesi Mafia and were subsequently blown up by the mob on the highway that leads to it, I think it’s safe to assume there might be some corruption lingering in a place like Sicily.
The next morning the darkness had gone but the confusion was still there when I awoke to what sounded like gun shots in the street. I bravely opened the shutters and stepped out onto the balcony to find a Sicilian funeral taking place at the church across the street. The noise was coming from fireworks, which queued in a tape of a heartbreaking ballad sung by some diva in Italian at full volume. First came the horses, then the casket, carried into the church as children stopped playing to watch with old men in plastic chairs lined up on the other side of the street. The whole thing was like a scene from The Godfather, exactly what one might expect to see in Sicily.
After one day in Palermo, most of which was spent on the phone with Alitalia trying to track down my lost luggage, I was sure I was right to doubt the infrastructure of a place the mob was still wreaking havoc on as recent as 20 years ago. I was told the bag would be brought from the airport to me within the next couple of hours. This went on for three days. The difference between Italians and the French is that they will both lie to you to get you off the phone and go back to doing nothing. An Italian will just be more agreeable about the whole thing. In the meantime the only upside of the missing luggage was that I was forced to get acquainted with Palermo’s several amazing vintage shops, the names of which I will share with you here. The simple answer was the courier just never cared to come pick it up. To be honest, I’m not sure I can blame them. The heat of Sicily in August is oppressive, and the only motivation one can seem to find is to eat piles of pasta, go for a swim, or lay around shirtless in bed staring at a wobbling ceiling fan installed sometime around the invention of electricity and wondering about the likelihood of it flying off and injuring you.
By Tuesday we realised the bag wasn’t coming, so we set out west back on the Falcone e Borsellino highway to the source of this corruption — the airport lost and found. After digging through two massive storage lockers I finally found my poor blue Magellan suitcase I purchased at the airpot in Pisa several years ago in yet another desperate luggage situation. If you come to Italy, be advised, carry on only is the way to go. Safely back in my possession, we hit the road with my suitcase to Castellammare del Golfo and then onward around the “African Coast” of Sicily before finishing back in Palermo.
I’m sure being reunited with my worldly possessions was part of what made me like this little town. The other parts would be the fact it has a beautiful view over the sea and that the owner of the small hotel we stayed at, Casa d’Anna, was the sweetest old man who offered us figs from his wife’s garden, and the next morning her homemade jams. The kind young man working at the hotel gave us a map of the beautiful beaches between this little town and San Vito Lo Capo, along with his advice for the most beautiful ones.
The beach is where you will find the crowds in summertime in Sicily. In mid afternoon during siesta the heat is so intolerable that any busy city will turn into a ghost town. Some people are inside, but most are at the beach, and by most I mean crowds that feel like the entire population of Italy. I didn’t think the wait to go to the beach could get longer than trying to make a lefthand turn northbound off Pacific Coast Highway on a Saturday into the parking lot in Malibu. Then I waited in line at Scopello in the sun for an hour in early August. The difference is that Scopello is worth it. But Malibu? I never was a fan.
If it is the beach that brings you to Sicily, I would strongly advise to come in off season to avoid such scenarios. I think the beach is the best of what Sicily has to offer, but that perhaps Sicily is not the best of Italy has to offer. To be honest, I am just not sure the juice is worth the squeeze here. After that funeral on my first morning, I kept watching and waiting for novelties one could only find in Sicily, and I just rarely found them. The only other time I had that feeling again was when we took a side road somewhere between Trapani and Agrigento and saw an old man driving a scooter with his leg out and foot up pushing this other older man friend on a bicycle down a dirt road. It was great, but those moments were few and far between. Staying in small bed and breakfasts converted to hotels by old Sicilians land owners was another way to feel more in touch with authentic Sicily. But overall, Sicily is sort of all the headache of backwards and poorly organised place with only rare glimpses of the charm one might imagine. On the surface, it is far more gentrified and touristic than I expected, but the local infrastructure is still quite screwed and enraging. All in all, my favourites were the three beaches and the funeral along our western route. But I’ve been told it would take a month to see all of this place. Personally I would say two weeks might be enough. Perhaps in due time one can uncover more of what I was missing. If you have only few days, some wheels, and a bit of patience, here is our roadmap to find your way on the west side of Sicily…
We decided to take the road slightly less travelled once realizing just how busy high season was. How I came to that conclusion is less scientific than one might imagine. I simply noticed the number of Instagram influencers busy geotagging Taormina on the opposite side of the island far outweighed places in the west like Trapani and Agrigento. Even so, we weren’t able to escape the crowds, but despite it we had a nice time. I particularly enjoyed staying in old Sicilian families’ traditional apartments that they have converted into bed and breakfasts. We ate some amazing pasta and Italian pastries, and got in a few good hours at the beach where the water was really agreeable. With six days and less than a tank of diesel, we covered some ground in this order…
When visiting the west side of Sicily, it is best to fly into Palermo. Palermo is quite interesting and deserves a day of exploration. The best things to do here are have lunch or dinner at Bisso Bistro, walk around the old streets (which can be quite dirty but definitely “the real” Italy), drink local Sicilian beer and enjoy free antipasti with it at La Champagneria, visit the rooftop of the large cathedral for a spectacular view, and shop some of the spectacular vintage shops you’ll come across like Mercurio Vintage which is filled with treasures. I don’t recommend the Palazzo dei Normanni on any week days as you will find the royal apartments closed and nothing other than the cathedral to see. Palermo is also where you can rent a car to drive elsewhere.
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO & SCOPELLO
Castellammare del Golfo is a sweet little town that is only about an hour drive west out of Palermo. There are some easily accessible and nice sand beaches here to enjoy during the day, and some beautiful cafes perched high up on its ramparts over the sea to have dinner at night while the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie. We stayed at Casa d’Anna, which is really quite precious and I do recommend. The owner speaks amazing English and French, and was so sweet. It was also the young man working here that directed us to the best beachs, including Scopello which is a spectacular private beach and probably one of the most iconic images of Sicily you come across in the world. Even though we had to wait one hour to get in (maximum occupancy is 200 people) it was our best beach day and worth the small price and the wait. The summer crowds do detract from its beauty but the water was still very clean and with space for all to swim. Parking is available off the roads nearby for 5 euros so don’t forget cash.
TRAPANI & THE EGADI ISLANDS
We decided to skip Saint Vito Lo Capo because we lost a day with my luggage debacle and were advised it would be extremely crowded this time of year, and instead ended up staying two nights in Trapani. I recommend where we stayed at the Alla Marina Bed and Breakfast, which is family owned by a very kind people who have large spacious rooms in an old large Sicilian apartment with traditional decor inherited from their grandmother. Trapani itself is friendly and lively. Not far away, you can see some salt flats and very old windmills, but its main attraction might be that its the principle point of departure to reach the Egadi islands by ferry. Those ferries sell out fast, and even though we arrived by 10AM in the morning the first ferry we could get on was at 1:30PM and the only return ferry left was the very last one at 11:30PM. There are three main islands in this little chain, the most popular of which is Favignana. Of course since we were trying to get away from so many people and find some peace and quiet on the beach we went to the smaller Levanzo instead. The water here is spectacular, and if you walk far enough the beach is not too crowded. However, sand is something you won’t find, so come prepared with something cushy to lay on and an umbrella because the sun is strong to say the very least and shade is hard to come by. As we waited around for that last ferry to come get us, I thought it was quite cute they they had an open air cinema setup at the port for people to come and watch, even though it did turn out to be a documentary on the migrant crisis in the not far off island of Lampedusa further south of Sicily. It would have been a much more lighthearted option to put on Cinema Paradiso, but hey…like I said…in Sicily you can’t always get the clichés that you want.
AGRIGENTO & SCALA DEI TURCHI
Agrigento is one of the stranger places I have been to. It is almost eerie approaching it from a far by car on an elevated highway climbing up to it. Perched on a mountain set back from the sea, it offers a beautiful view and a charming and hilly historic town center disguised from a far as its surrounded by modern buildings at its exterior. On the way there, you pass some not so beautiful things, like an oil refinery but just before that is a place called the Scala dei Turchi. These turkish steps as they are referred to are actually a rocky cliff made of marl whose white color makes it look like a giant iceberg. In order to avoid the crowds, we woke up before dawn to arrive in time to watch the sunrise, with the whole place to ourselves. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better way to see this place.