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La Strada Siciliana

In Palermo, the driving is best left to the natives. I can only surmise that local licence holders have genetically mutated to remain placid in this perpetual game of chicken. Motorists bicker with their horns like an island of squabbling siblings. In the big city, our advice is: call a cab.

Palermo aside, I confess that I adore driving in Italy and especially across Sicily. I hired a taxi to extract me from the heart of the city to where I could rent a car near the open road. Self-driving is certainly not the only way to get around Sicily, nor even the most sensible it you’re partial to staying on course and on time. However, it became important to my relationship with this mystical island. It was a common occurrence to be the only car on a majestic two-lane highway with nothing but the odd herd of sheep to witness my euphoria at the wheel. Self-driving in Sicily is ideal for the explorative traveller who delights in the unexpected detour and the human interaction required to get back on track. You know who you are.

On the road to Caltagirone, a town at 2,000 ft known for ceramics and terra-cotta sculptures, I witnessed two semi-trucks passing one another on a narrow hairpin turn. There was but a shanty meter-high guard rail to offer the illusion of protection from the sea below. The cooperative calm of the truck drivers, as they shimmied out of this predicament, spoke to the resilience of a people who have overcome the perpetual threat of conquest, earthquake & molten lava. The halted lanes of traffic eventually shifted into first gear and carried on, as Sicilians always have. Near the summit I pulled into a lonesome gas station for a full-service fill up, pit stop and requisite caffè. The barista slipped me three coupons for a free espresso…you know, for next time. Ci passi ogni tanto, no? (You’ll pass by every now and again, no?)

The culture of southern hospitality can be downright overwhelming. It was late when I finally drove across the bridge onto the elegant island of Ortigia. Ortigia is the historical centre of Syracuse, connected to the modern city by two bridges. I pulled over to call and apologize for my late arrival, fully bracing for a landlord chiding. Instead, she graciously told me to flip on my flashers as she set out to find me. Arrivo in macchina! (I’m coming by car). At nearly 10:00pm, this mother & daughter rescue squad lead me by the bumper through the narrow labyrinth.

The warm welcome continued with Italo, a tweed-blazered archeologist who met me in advance of our visit to the archaeology site in Syracuse. He offered to drive while disclosing, ‘You can tell by the floor of my car that I am an absent-minded archeologist.’ At closer look, he was referring to the bag of clementines (and the accompanying peels), he had picked off the tree on his way over that morning. He drove, I peeled. My lesson in Sicilian archeology was gestured through sticky fingers and a veil of zest. He eventually drove 30 minutes out of his way to lead me to my next destination in the middle of an olive grove simply because, “It can be a little tricky to find.”

The final drive on Mt. Etna offered the most surprising stretch of road. Before heading out, a contadino (farmer) gruffly wedged a paper cone of freshly plucked clementines through the window with thick worker hands. And so, I set out through the rapidly evolving topography with a resident volcanologist and my very own supply of customary citrus. The landscape transformed from lush vineyards to pine forests to stretches of birch woodland. Near the top, we stopped to walk across the black handprint of hardened lava. In parallel fashion, the conversation evolved from volcanic eruptions to thermal energy projects to Italian phrases translated into Sicilian dialect including, “Mt. Etna is like a good mother who provides nourishment year after year and then once in a while, she erupts to keep you in line.”

I was warned that Sicily will unarm you. In dialect, I learned how to say, ‘You can’t hide here.’ Indeed, I’d become exponentially more alive to my senses than when I’d first taken possession of this Fiat 500 in Palermo. Those 300 kilometres served as a southern Italian exfoliation using volcanic ash, citrus zest and relentless hospitality to shluff off the top layer of inhibition. At the Catania airport, I pitched the clementine peels and relinquished the keys, leaving the car for the next fortuitous driver.

Meredith is a great trip planner partly because she’s a great traveller. Contact Meredith to start discussing your own trip to Sicily. 

The final drive on Mt. Etna offered the most surprising stretch of road. Before heading out, a contadino (farmer) gruffly wedged a paper cone of freshly plucked clementines through my window with his thick worker hands.

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