Three Tips on Driving in Sicily

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Awesome. (Read the About Awkward and Amazing page for a definition)

What’s so awesome about driving in Sicily?

Navigating Italian roads are notoriously intimidating, but by the end of our Sicilian road trip we were Kings of the Road with sufficient authority to give super helpful tips on driving in Sicily.

Our road trip started with a dream come true.

I’ve dreamed of traveling to Sicily ever since I went through my Mario Puzo phase in high school. The scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone fell in love with a young Sicilian beauty amidst the scent of orange blossoms and olive groves has haunted me for a decade before I got the chance to visit the mysterious island.

Driving bravado gained and lost.

After braving and surviving rush hour in Milan and a week of road tripping on the other side of the road in the Lakes District, we were confident that we could face any driving challenge Sicily could throw at us. A shadow was cast over our bravado when the guy from Avis advised us to take the full waiver – not in a salesman way, but in a “there’s a reason why all the cars in Palermo are bumped and bruised” kind of way.

My friend, our GPS lady Sarah and myself got into the car, convincing ourselves that it can’t be worse than Milan. But once we got onto Via Francesco Crispi, we realized that Milan was a scenic Sunday afternoon drive compared to the chaos that was the streets of Palermo.

Which lead to my Tips on Driving in Sicily No 1

There are no rules in Palermo. Everyone is crazy and the roads doesn’t make sense at all. Just try not to hit any pedestrians.

Our first stop was Cefalù, a cute little coastal town about an hour’s drive outside Palermo.

We couldn’t get accommodation in Cefalù itself, so our plan was to head out early, spend the day there and then overnight in a nearby village before carrying on to Taormina. According to Google Maps, it was supposed to be an hour’s drive inland to reach our resting place for the night – a quaint little medieval hilltop town called Petralia Sottana.

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The keywords here shouldn’t have been quaint or little or medieval. It should have been “hill” and “top”.

Which should also have been our clue to Tips on Driving in Sicily No 2

Hilltop towns are on top of hills. To get to the top you have to drive around the hill. Many times. Many, many times. And no, you can’t drive 60 km/h, the speed limit at which Google calculated the driving time if you suffer from motion sickness. You’ll throw up. Or die. Or both.

To be fair, our slow pace to Petralia Sottana did give us ample time to appreciate the lovely Sicilian countryside. All the way up and down.

Onwards to Taormina

The easiest way from Petralia Sottana to our next stop, Taormina, would have been to hit the highway, but this didn’t tie in with our envisioned plan to spend the day driving along the coast. Sarah was adamant about directing us to the highway, though. We tried to fool her by entering the name of the closest coastal town, taking the quickest route option. What happened then could only mean one of two things:

  1. Sarah was onto us and decided to be mean and stubborn by directing us away from the quickest routes to the worst possible roads ever. OR
  2. In Sicily, if it’s not a highway, it either twists and turns or it looks like this.

Sicilian road frana

We quickly learned the word Frana! which means: “Hey, look there’s a massive ditch in the road”. But we didn’t mind, we were on a road trip. I was used to driving bad dirt roads in South Africa and the Fiat Punto rental turned out to handle the Franas in it’s stride.

But Sarah wasn’t happy.

We came to a T-junction. The logical option was to turn right towards the coast, but Sarah insisted we turn left. We decided to listen to Sarah, so left it was. She took us to a village, where we looped through the narrowest, steepest streets that were obviously not designed for cars, just to get back to the T-junction where we could NOW turn right. Can GPS ladies suffer from PMS?

By the time we eventually got to the coast, we decided to just stop at the first town we come across to get something to eat. Which turned out to be Castel di Tusa. Here we were rewarded with views of beautiful azure waters, a strangely arresting pebble beach and my first authentic Sicilian cannoli.

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Pepples at Castel di Tusa

Which brings me to Tips on Driving in Sicily No 3:

 If you don’t take the highway, you’ll probably end up on some frana-ridden, hold-your-breath-and-be-thankful-it’s-a-rental road. But it doesn’t matter. Sicily is breathtaking and filled with surprises and if you stick to rules and logic you might miss out on some great cannolis

Ironically, when we left Castel di Tusa we got straight onto the highway. And that was kind of awesome too.

Life List Entry #1:  Survived driving in Palermo (and the rest of Sicily for that matter)

Life List Entry #2: Finally made visiting Sicily, a life long dream, a reality. And fell in love with it, not quite unlike Michael Corleone.

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