Sicily -part 3: Siracusa and overview

My post on Sicily – part 2 ended with us leaving our beloved agriturismo on 2 January. We settled our bill (for 3 nights in a 4.5 star B&B, 3 gourmet 4-course suppers for 3, plus breakfasts, only €600!) and hit the road for one last trek to another locale.

This time our destination was Siracusa, or Syracuse in English. Now, I grew up only an hour or so from Syracuse, New York and have always had a poor opinion of the city, so even though I clearly knew this was a very different city, my expectations were not high. It also didn’t help that the last city we had visited was the scummy Palermo.

Well we arrived to Siracusa early, due to Sicily’s excellent major highway system (if you’re on a secondary or tertiary road, I don’t have many good things to say for it, but the major highways are top notch). We had an AirBnB booked and weren’t scheduled to meet the host for another 2 hours, so we parked the car and decided to walk around the neighbourhood then grab lunch.

We gravitated toward the dominating and odd church spire a block away from us that Google maps told us was the Basilica of Madonna Della Lacrime. We had no idea what this meant, just another church name to us.

The entire building is made of concrete. It’s very 1960s and such an odd aesthetic, we couldn’t understand why this would be here in an ancient town. When we entered the building it felt like a bomb shelter or bunker. We learned there’s one part of the church downstairs (they call it the crypt but it’s a full church) and then the basilica upstairs (under that weird spire). Both feel weird and you’re still very aware you’re encased in concrete the whole time.

However, we finally learned the meaning and purpose of the church. Siracusa was the location of a Vatican-confirmed miracle in 1953 of the weeping Madonna. There have been reports the world-over of weeping Madonna pictures and statues but this is the only one that was inspected by scientists and clergy and confirmed to be valid.

This church was built with the sole purpose of housing the pieces related to this miracle. There is a reliquary holding some of the tears that were collected from her along with a handkerchief used to dry the face. The statue itself is still there too, just a small bust maybe 18 inches tall. Then there is a small museum dedicated to the miracle and in it is everything that people came and left at the statue while it was happening (it cried for a few days). There was everything from silver candlesticks (families wanted to leave their most valued belongings) to the canes and crutches of the healed.

Altogether it was just the coolest find, to stumble upon this odd church and this miracle story. This sort of surprise is one of my favourite parts of travelling.

It is said she healed many people and still does, so we lit some candles; but I walked away still needing my cane and Sophie still needs insulin so…. I guess we weren’t worthy.

After we had lunch we checked into our cute AirBnB. It was great- large, 2 bedrooms, and so clean. But they clearly hadn’t had the heat on in days or even weeks and it was maybe only 5° inside so it took quite a while to warm (we never turned the heaters off in our 48 hours there- even when it was 18° outside, because the houses are built to stay cool and really didn’t retain any heat well).

We stayed in an area where we knew we could park and was close to a couple ancient ruins but it wasn’t close to the historical centre of town, the island of Ortigia. We had read that you can’t drive on to Ortigia, it is blocked to traffic, but once we got there we learned that there are plenty of cars there (you just wouldn’t want to drive the middle, narrow streets unless you were a local). We wonder if they open it up to traffic in the off season and it is more closed in summer?

Either way, we didn’t want to drive it so took a taxi in to Ortigia for dinner and a walk around the area.

Large fountain with statue of Athena in the central square in Ortigia
Narrow roads in the centre of Ortigia
In front of the Piazza del Duomo (main cathedral square)
Sicilian towns really know how to do Christmas lights well!



The next day, our full day in Siracusa, we walked from our BnB over to the Greek Theatre and ancient ruins park.

The Teatro Greco from above with the sea in the distance

Sophie at the bottom of the amphitheatre. Seeing the 2 angles (above and below) helps you realise how massive it is.
There is this pond grotto at the very top of the theatre that the ancient Greeks managed to engineer to flow down through the rocks and below the theater, rather than flooding the theater.

After walking in the hot sun around the amphitheatre, there is this beautiful shaded and oasis-like area below the limestone cliff in the archeological park. We walked around and explored the same caves and sites that the Greeks called home 2500 years ago.



The next day was our last day in Sicily. Our flight wasn’t until 7pm but we had to check out of our AirBnb by 10am. Luckily, by then we’d learned that you can, in fact, drive to Ortigia, so we did. We drove right to the tip of the island in hopes of visiting Castello Maniace. We had seen on previous days that it had short hours but we made sure to fit it into our schedule because it sounded like it had quite the history; over centuries occupied by Romans, Arabs, and Normans. It said it opened at 0830 and we arrived at 1030 to a locked gate. Eventually a man arrived and said he was the ticket agent and hadn’t started work yet, it will open at 1130. The Sicilians don’t seem to have an overwhelmingly robust work ethic.

So we ambled through Ortigia, our first time seeing it in the daylight. We wanted to make our way to the market, as our taxi driver (who we’d had 3 times and liked very much) suggested it was the best place to lunch.

The lunch we ended up getting… Wow!



After lunch we made our way back to the castle and it was finally open. However, it was a bit of a let down. We could tell they’d tried to restore it. According to them, they’d been doing various restoration phases since the 1970s, but we still felt like there wasn’t a lot of information, there was no staff (only the one ticket-man who showed up late) and not a lot of access to most parts of the castle. There sure were beautiful views of the water and town, though. And seeing as it was only 4€ to get in, I guess we got what we paid for.



When we were done at the castle we packed into the car and hit the road. We had about a 40-minute drive to the airport in Catania, had to return our rental car then brave airport security in a language we didn’t speak. We had to beg for a security agent who knew enough English for us to explain that these 2 clear bags are medical equipment and cannot go through x-ray. They still wanted to put it through! I had about 5 words written out in Italian – diabetic, insulin, medical equipment, no x-ray, and medicine. Eventually they relented and hand-inspected our diabetic gear. For this reason though, is why I always keep it in clear Ziploc bags, separate from all other luggage/gear, and have the choice words translated ahead of time– also why we always give ourselves even more extra time to get through security (though in reality, I think we’re always through faster because we don’t have to wait in the general line).


Now we’re home safe and sound. Sicily was an awesome trip but we also learned some things to take forward in future trips:

-They don’t need to be so long. In Canada where flights cost so much and are usually the biggest chunk of your travel budget, we often think we need to prolong the trip to ‘make it worth it’. We’ve realised we need to get out of this mindspace here in Europe where flights are much cheaper and we’re travelling more. Three of us together 24/7 gets exhausting and we get on each others’ nerves. Maybe a city or trip can be more enjoyed in 4 days rather than extended to multiple cities and weeks, and we won’t come home so exhausted and ‘over it’ all.

-Don’t be shy with the insulin. When travelling and unsure of the carb counts, we’re learning to be a bit more vigorous and gutsy with the insulin dosing. In Paris we were conservative with counts and dosing like we were at home and she was almost always very high. In Sicily, we gave large doses and it worked. She started out the trip sick with a cold and on very high doses just because of that, and we realised it was working. We won’t be so shy next time that we’re dealing with unknown or foreign foods.

-Unless we have to, don’t take the evening flight home. We took the 8pm flight home from Paris because we thought this would give us an extra day in Paris without having to pay for a hotel. This time the only flight to Bristol was at 7pm. We got home around 11pm, exhausted. I decided that if we can swing it, we’re taking earlier flights from now on. I just hate the feeling of coming home all groggy and falling asleep immediately. When I wake up there’s no food in the house and still so much work to do and bags to unpack, etc.



Overall, Sicily is an amazing place to visit. There is so much to see an do. It is steeped in history and culture. The food is out of this world. Things I would suggest are must-dos in any trip to Sicily:

-Go off the beaten path and enjoy an agriturismo. Eat the food!!! Live like a local (a very well-taken-care-of local).

-It’s very touristy but there’s a reason for it, go to Taormina! It’s the prettiest place in the world. It’s the only place in Sicily I saw regular street janitorial staff keeping the town clean, and the restaurants were some of the best we encountered. It’s not the cheapest in Sicily, it’s not the quietest, but it is the prettiest.

-Make sure to catch the Greek ruins at Agrigento. Especially if you’ve never been to Greece/won’t make it any time soon. Sometimes just seeing an ancient city around you reduced to bricks, the people all long gone, helps put your own life into perspective.


Most importantly, enjoy!! Safe travels!

Sicily- part 2

To pick up where I left off in part 1, we were just leaving Taormina (the world’s prettiest town).

We had a long drive from Taormina right across Sicily to our next stop in Palermo (3+ hours), so we decided to break it up with a small side trip to the Canadian War Cemetery in Agira.

While back in Catania, we had a visit to the Sicilian WWII museum. It concentrated on the Allies’ Operation Husky (the invasion and taking of Sicily) and the bombing of Sicilian towns. It was a great museum but less than one-third of the exhibits and displays had English translations. We got the gist and it was very humbling to see it from the Sicilians’ point-of-view: they appreciated the Allies helping them break their ties with Hitler, but they took heavy bombing and casualties, too. For a few weeks, we Canadians were ‘the bad guys’.




However, once the Allies won the island, the Sicilians were then glad to see the Nazis gone and didn’t mind having the Allies around for the next couple years of the war.

So now while we were driving across the island, we took the bumpy and windy 15km detour to the beautifully situated Agira War Cemetery. Agira was the Canadians’ largest battle and where they took the heaviest casualties. There are 490 men buried here, on a hill overlooking valleys, a lake, and with the mountain town of Agira on the horizon. We took our time to pay our respects.

We then continued on to Palermo but now sort of wish we hadn’t. Every trip has a low point, and Palermo was ours. Palermo is Sicily’s largest city and the one that tour guides like Rick Steves say not to miss… But there were little redeeming qualities in the city for us. It didn’t help that it was raining and cold; a Sunday, so a lot was closed or inaccessible; and we had just come from the world’s prettiest town, so our standards were set high.

Palermo was full of garbage, everywhere in the streets, litter. And shit, literally. Excuse my language, but there’s no way to delicately describe the heaps of smelly dog shit on the side of the road. I’m not talking about the little piles here and there like you encounter in Paris and most other European cities; but we passed one unpaved part of the sidewalk where a tree was growing, about 2m x 1m of no pavement (dirt, or ‘grassy’ area) and it was overflowing with dog poop. If someone tried to scoop it all, it would be 3 big black Hefty bags full, and the stench was utterly overwhelming.

We were down to our last pairs of socks and underwear but couldn’t get our clothes washed because laundromats don’t open on Sundays and our hotel didn’t accept laundry on a Sunday. We were going to do a bus tour but they barely ran on Sundays (only 2 times, not all day) and wouldn’t be worth the cost, we took cabs instead (and one cabbie ripped us off). Restaurants were hard to find that served food, not just drinks; and in the end when we got in the car to leave, our gas seemed awfully low- we think it was siphoned off!

So we didn’t love Palermo, but we got around and saw some of the bigger sites, even if just from the outside. The one place that was open and we could actually go in was the Capuchin Catacombs that Sophie read about in her kids’ Atlas Obscura (a great book for any kid interested in geography and/or seeing the world!) and wanted to see. It certainly was interesting to see but of course we couldn’t take any photos inside and we respected this rule (though again, it seems like we’re the only tourists who know how to respect things like religion and the dead).

However, please enjoy some other photos of Palermo landmarks from the outside.

The Opera House
The large cathedral. It was Sunday so there was mass. It doesn’t look anything like we’d expect inside. All white sheetrock and paint and no stained glass and stone arches like we’re used to in France and England, even older cathedrals in Canada.
The theatre near our hotel.

Those 3 photos are about the only redeeming sights and parts of Palermo I can show. We left by 9am on our check-out day and didn’t look back. The drive south-east was perilous, hilly, and full of switch-back, winding bends; but we knew we were going in the right direction to leave Palermo in our rear-view when a rainbow came out in the Sicilian countryside.

Our next stop was the tourist destination, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. These are Greek temple ruins built in 400-200BC on a high mountain ridge with expansive views of the valley below and the sea beyond.

This showed how they made wheels with the stones and moved the even larger stones.

It’s a long walk along the ridge and you spend a few hours there. When we started it was windy but the sun was warm. About 2/3 through, it clouded over and started to rain and just became miserable. I didn’t care then how ancient or special it all was, I couldn’t feel my feet, I could hardly walk, I just wanted to get to an exit and get out!!!

After our time in Agrigento we got back on the windy road and headed to Modica, where our agriturismo B&B (farm-stay) was just outside of.

We stayed at the Nacalino Agriturismo which simply blew us away. It is a beautiful little olive oil farm, they also grow their own vegetables and fruit (there’s a lemon tree in the courtyard) organically. Our host made us a 4-course Sicilian dinner every night with fresh, local produce. Things that didn’t come from their farm came from the neighbouring farms (there were a lot of cows around, and the next farm over looked to specialise in ricotta and mozzarella). Everything was so fresh, so authentic, and so tasty.

One of our 4-course meals. Always an antipasto plate, then pasta, then meat, then sweet.

The grounds were so lovely as well. There were friendly cats and an old golden labrador that Sophie and I liked to cuddle. We liked to walk around and explore. We had full use of the common rooms with fireplace, and we could finally get our laundry done (in fact, Tina, the proprietor, did it all for us, for free!!). I’m sure the place would be really stunning to use in the summer with the outdoor pool under the palm trees. However, being there when the pool is closed also means we get the off-season pricing.

Breakfast was a buffet just as impressive as our dinners. Fresh-made cappuccinos, oodles of home-made pastries, freshly squeezed juice, local meats and cheeses, and everything else one gets at breakfast buffets.

The food is delicious, however breakfast buffets are a ridiculous amount of work for a type-1 diabetic. The breakfast she has pictured above looks great, then we calculated it to be about 120g of carbs. Her first bolus was 17 units of insulin (at home on a regular day she usually doesn’t go over 35 units for her entire daily dose!). This was only her first pass of the buffet. I think she went over 200-250g of carbs by the time she was done breakfast. And why not, she’s in Italy, enjoy! (Just bring extra insulin!)

On New Year’s Eve day, we headed in to the old town of Modica, a UNESCO world heritage site. It was full of Baroque architecture built into the cliffsides of a gorge down to a valley. The churches were like the others we’ve seen in Sicily, so beautiful from the outside then white, painted, and overdone inside.

One of the smaller churches in town, the Church of St. Peter
We were finally in a Sicilian church without a mass going on, so we grabbed a photo. They are still beautiful, but not the same beauty we’re used to.
Sophie and me on the 250-stair climb up to the next cathedral. You can see the town carved into the cliffside behind us.
We finally made it up 200+ stairs, halfway up the cliff, to this church, Church of St. Giorgio

We stayed at Nacalino Agriturismo for 3 nights, our longest stay in Sicily. We knew there wouldn’t be much open on New Year’s Day and we’d been tired, so we happily took a day to rest and stay around our room and the estate. We took walks, we read, played games, watched TV, and Sophie and I did a little photo shoot. Here’s one photo but you can see a carousel of 7 in my Instagram links below this post:

We were sad to leave the agriturismo, we so enjoyed our stay, but it was time to move on east to Siracusa, which I’ll outline in Part 3.

Happy New Year 2020 to all!