Sicily’s Ionian Coast
The Ionian Coast is awash with some of Sicily’s most magnificent sights; breath-taking Mount Etna, the stunning resort of Taormina rests upon a sun-drenched clifftop and Catania at the region’s centre, is Sicily’s second-largest city. A wonderfully tattered yet vibrant and bustling city with an abundance of baroque architecture and unforgettable fish market, La Pescheria. Heading northbound up the undulating mountainside, sits Taormina, elegant, sophisticated and exclusive by contrast, it is one of the most popular holiday spots for VIPs and day-trippers.
Sicily’s Ionian Coast has three main centres, Messina, Taormina and Catania and is regarded as an important economic trade and business hub as well as a widely visited tourist destination.
Just a few kilometres from the mainland, Messina sits at the most northern point of the Ionian coast. Although very busy as a major transport base, there are still wonderful sights to experience here. Its impressive centre is graced with boulevards and elegantly designed buildings and the cathedral is one of Sicily’s finest. Over the centuries it has been populated by Armenians, Arabs, Jews and other communities from the large maritime cities of Europe, but was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1908 and then was heavily bombed during WWII. Although historical monuments are scare here, Messina is revered for its strait, the incredibly narrow stretch of water that divides Sicily from the Italian peninsular, featuring heavily in Greek mythology.
The lakeside town of Ganzirri, can be found around Messina’s north-easterly point, where you will see this is a popular summer hang out with locals and tourists alike who appreciate an exquisite fresh fish supper. Mussels are a local speciality as well as clams, swordfish and stockfish. As you hug the coastline and head south towards Toarmina, you will discover Savoca. Surrounded by lush green peaks, this time trapped village appears unchanged since medieval times; gated walls, rustic cottages and chilling churches can be found here as well as catacombs beneath the Cappuccino Monastery.
The town of Taormina offers the most splendid views of Mount Etna’s summit and overlooks the Ionian coastline, luxuriant vegetation and the Peloritan Mountains. Today, this is a Sicily’s most chic and popular summer destination, visited by celebs and high-rolling tourists. Designer shops line the streets but the town remains historically beautiful with its medieval churches, famous Greek theatre and sweeping views over the Gulf of Naxos. Historically dominated by Siculans, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, Taormina was an important and powerful city and trade centre as well as a favourite summer residence for the upper-classes, including many famous writers, artists and aristocrats.
This city is considered a symbol of revival after having its fair share of rotten luck; it has been destroyed by conquerors, flooded with lava and shaken by earthquakes. It was razed to the ground in 1693 but has always been courageously rebuilt with renewed vigour. The last rebuild saw architects, Giovanni Vaccarini and Stefano Ittar, create a street grid incorporating spacious squares and wider roads for easier escape should another tragedy occur.
Amidst the chaos and noise of its historic centre, grandiose black and white palazzi tower over baroque piazzas, the multitude of bars, restaurants and clubs are frequented by its fun-loving population as Etna smoulders and broods in the background. Palazzi and churches have been built baroque style out of the black volcanic rock that Etna once spewed on the city.
More than any other city, Syracuse encapsulates Sicily’s timeless beauty. Its ancient Greek ruins rise out of lush, fragrant orchards, restaurant and café tables spill onto dazzling baroque piazzas, and medieval narrow streets lead down to the cooling blue sea. It’s difficult to imagine now, but in its prime, Syracuse was the largest city in the ancient world. Now with its historic classical ruins, baroque towns and sandy beaches, this city is one of the hot favourites for tourists. It’s a great place to relax at the beach or chill out in one of the many bars and eateries in the piazzas and watch the world go by.
As hard as it may be to drag yourself away from this little slice of heaven, you will be spoilt further by the beauty of neighbouring towns, Noto, Modica and Ragusa, all of which offer gastronomic delights; Noto is famed for its ice-cream, Modica for its chocolate and Ragusa is home to some of Sicily’s finest restaurants. The countryside is worth exploring too where you will uncover prehistoric tombs and rocky ravines and nature lovers will enjoy the birds in their natural habitat and the peace and tranquillity of the beaches at the Riserva Naturale Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari.
Although the coastline of Sicily is simply breath-taking, no visit to Sicily is complete without venturing into the serene heart of the island and exploring its hilltop towns which overlook the rolling lush and fertile terrain and deep valleys. Sicily’s wild interior is a beautiful, timeless landscape of peaceful, sun-drenched peaks and grey stone villages. Here, life is lived at a gentle pace and deep rooted traditions live on. This rural area encourages the simple pleasures in life by meandering through hilltop towns, enjoying the scenery and experiencing long lunches of fresh, traditional country food.
Central Sicily’s biggest attraction and one of the island’s most impressive archaeological treasures, is the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina which houses the largest and most preserved collection of Roman mosaics anywhere in the world. Neighbouring hilltop Caltagirone boasts a wonderful display of stunning ceramics where production has run for over 1,000 years and has an impressive staircase which is definitely worth a visit. Enna, is the busy provincial capital and stands above the hills and valleys of central Sicily; a dramatic sight aloft a precipitous mountain, it’s the perfect place to get off of the tourist trail. There is an extraordinary medieval centre to visit and the surrounding mountainous region makes for excellent hiking and touring.