Mobile phones
Getting around

Part 1: Introduction

22.12: Munich -> Catania
23.12: Acireale - Mt Etna - Acireale
24.12: Acireale -> Taormina -> Acireale
25.12: Acireale -> Aci Castello -> Catania -> Acireale
26.12: Acireale -> Villa Romana del Casale -> Palermo
27.12: Daytrip to Cefalu
28.12: Palermo
29.12: Palermo -> Monreale -> Palermo

30.12: Palermo -> Riserva naturale dello Zingaro -> Trapani
31.12: Trapani -> Erice -> Trapani
1.1: Trapani -> Marsala -> Trapani
2.1: Trapani -> Marsala -> Selinunte -> Agrigento
3.1: Agrigento -> Ragusa
4.1: Ragusa -> Modica -> Siracusa
5.1: Siracusa
6.1: Siracusa -> Catania -> Munich

Overview and overall impression
I had some concerns before this trip, mainly regarding the security (see below) and also because of the weather (I was afraid it might be too rainy or cold). Both concerns turned to be unfounded, as we didn't run into security issues and found good weather.
The big problem with this trip turned out to be the food. We were surprised at the high cost of eating out and the lack of cheaper alternatives. After the trip Shirley told she doesn't want to return to Italy because of the food issues.
There were also challenges in driving in a car on Sicily's roads, especially in the cities. The road network and the driving style of Sicilians do not make it easy to drive around in a car.
Overall however the trip was not bad, because the weather was fine most of the time and there is a lot to see in Sicily. Sicily has a rich cultural and historical heritage, with plenty of sites to visit. Also the natural environment is interesting, with Mt Etna being an absolute highlight. It's cool being at 2600m of altitude, having the tip of the volcano on the left and the Mediterranean sea on the right side. I would imagine that in spring Sicily is even more attractive, as the days are longer and the islands are accessible again.
The Sicilians themselves most of the time are friendly and helpful.

Except for the restaurants the cost level in Sicily is in line with other European countries (i.e. not too expensive). Restaurants instead are expensive (see below). It probably is so that in Sicily eating out is considered a luxury, something to do on special occasions.

The biggest problem of this trip was the food, because most restaurants in Sicily are just too expensive and there is a dearth of inexpensive places where to eat. With a family of four to feed, the bill for a decent restaurant meal would have totaled 80-100 Euro, i.e. 160-200 Euro for two daily meals. We were not willing to spend that much.
The problem is that in a typical Sicilian restaurant a simple noodle dish starts at 7-10 Euro. A dish with meat costs between 10 and 20 Euro, to which you have to add 3 Euro for potatoes or rice because this meat dish comes with nothing (just plain meat).
Suppose then that you add a soup, or a salad or a dessert for 5-7 Euro. Then there is a fixed cost of 2-3 Euro per person for the "coperto", i.e. the right to sit down at a table. So, if you eat normally in a Sicilian restaurant without worrying too much about the cost, you end up in this 80-100 Euro range for a meal for a family with two kids.
On the other hand you can't eat pizza or sandwiches every day, and especially the kids will need some hot meal, e.g. noodles or something similar and some meat at least once or twice a week.
In all countries in which we have previously travelled it was normal to go to a restaurant for lunch and/or dinner, to have hot meals and we were having meat every day.
In Sicily instead it seems that eating in a restaurant is considered a luxury (compare that to SE Asia where eating out is cheaper than cooking on your own).
So we had to limit our restaurant visits as much as possible and when we went to restaurants we had to be very careful about what we were ordering.
Thanks to the high prices of meat (really strange because meat costs nothing these days) we have almost had a vegetarian diet for these two weeks.
We only found two affordable restaurants towards the end of the trip: the U Saracinu restaurant in Ragusa and the Conte di Cavour one in Siracusa.
Despite being told that the food in Sicily is fantastic, we didn't find great food, not even when we went to better restaurants, spending for instance 12 Euro for a dish of noodles. After a while I started asking myself if Sicilians knew how to cook.

We had read about Silician street food in the Lonely Planet guide and were eager to give it a try, but struggled to find it in Palermo. I wonder if the winter season played a role.
We were imagining that there would be stalls on streets selling this take-away street food, as is the case with street food everywhere else on the planet. We didn't find any such stalls.
But I gave a try to a cannolo in a cafe. Very sweet and greasy thing (a "caloric bomb"), very heavy to digest.
We found panelle in a bakery/pizzeria in Monreale. I immediately skipped it, seeing how greasy this thing was, but Shirley ate one with bread.
Later in a rosticceria in Cefalů Shirley gave a try to an arancino (fried rice-ball) and complained that it was very salty. Essentially an arancino is a rice ball, filled with for instance mozzarella and meat and fried in oil. It's supposed to be delicious from what I have been told. Personally however I wouldn't be able to eat a ball of rice filled with cheese and meat and fried in oil.
Pane cunzatu was recommended to us as a speciality to try by the warden of the Zingaro NP, who suggested that we visit a bakery in Scopello. We ordered one of these sandwiches, but it was quite disgusting. A rough bread with a thick burnt crust, full of olive oil, cheese and tomatoes, prepared by staff with dirty hands not wearing gloves.

We stayed in a number of mid-range places paying on average around 80 Euro/night. All accomodation was prebooked via the Internet.

Money  / Exchange rate (December 2012)
1 Euro = 1.30 USD
For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.

ATMs are everywhere, so that you can easily get cash with a Cirrus/Maestro ATM card. 

Mobile phones and prepaid cards
We bought SIM cards from Vodafone (15 Euro with 7.50 Euro of airtime, 23 cents/minute for calls and a 250MB Internet package valid for one week, 3G network) in a mall. These worked fine and gave us voice and mobile Internet. The only problem was that these SIM cards charged you additionally if you used the mobile phone as a PC modem (WLAN tethering mode).

Internet access
I used the Internet access of the hotels (WLAN) and the 3G one of the smartphone (using a local SIM card).

I'm not sure if we have been particularly lucky with the weather or if this is the typical weather at the end of the year in Sicily, because supposedly winter is the rainy season in Sicily. In any case we found mostly good weather, with often sunny days and little rain. It was warm enough (during the day above 10°C) to spend the whole day outdoors.

Health / Vaccinations
None needed for Sicily.

VISA / Entry requirements
No passport controls if you arrive from the a Schengen area country.

I was actually a bit nervous before this trip because Sicily is the homeland of the mafia and because of my brother, who frequently travels to southern Italy, tells me he wouldn't bring there his expensive DSLR camera equipment fearing it will get stolen.

In the end, in these two weeks nothing happened. We followed simple safety procedures, such as leaving no valuables visible in the car (we took great car of putting everything in the boots, leaving the car seats empty). We also didn't walk in cities late at night, and always walked together as a group.

Recommended things
  • Mt Etna was the absolute highlight of the trip. Cool view at 2600m of altitude, with the tip of the volcano on one side and the Mediterranean sea on the other.
  • The historic core of Palermo
  • The mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale
  • The temples in Agrigento and Selinunte
  • The historic city of Ragusa Ibla

Things to avoid
  • Unless budget is not an issue, the Sicilian restaurants are to be avoided, because food there is way overpriced.

Getting around
We rented a car, and the car we got was a bit bigger than originally planned. It was a Peugot 5008 minivan with plenty of space inside for us and the baggage. The drawback was that the streets in Sicily often are very narrow, so a big car is more difficult to drive.
Driving across Sicily with a car is tough. The problems come from the road network which frequently is in a bad shape, narrow streets in cities, inadequate and confusing street signs. In addition, lots of people in Sicily drive like shit. People stop their cars in the middle of the street for a chat with somebody, not caring about the traffic jam they cause, form additional lanes where there are none, and drive into streets without caring about the traffic. When a street is narrow at one point, cars from opposite directions will try to get into the narrow section at the same time, blocking each other. Drivers have a habit of crossing red traffic lights. A large number of cars in Sicily have scratches and dents on their bodies, only few cars are immaculate.

Copyright 2013 Alfred Molon