Visit the London neighborhoods of Chelsea and Hampstead Heath and then take a train ride to be...
Me, My Car & Sicily
I’ll be honest: I’m not much of a “car guy.” I’ve never changed a flat tire or leafed through a car magazine. So when I’m asked if I’d fancy driving an Audi A6 across Sicily, my first thought is that I am the last person in the world to do this. Of course I say I’d love to.
Exploring Sicily in an Audi gives you a new spin on the island.
I land at Palermo’s Punta Raisi airport, greeted by a beautiful German woman holding an Audi sign. Along with a handful of international journalists, I’m ushered into a small room where we’re treated to a short video presentation on the new A6, a “sporty executive sedan” that “seems to leap forward like a fencer.” I glance at the name badges on my peers, and it dawns on me that I am a complete imposter: Everyone seems to write for publications with names like Wheels and Spokes. Only days ago, I made a desperate phone call to my high-school driving instructor asking for a crash course in driving stick. He was out of town, so I turned to YouTube where every video I watched seemed to drive home the connection between cars and manliness. “On your way to manhood,” one video advised, “you’re going to have to learn to drive a stick shift.” Another clip promised that once I mastered manual, “No longer will you have beautiful women berating you. No, beautiful women will love you.”
After the presentation, we’re brought to a parking lot packed with Audis and told to choose a car to test drive to our hotel, roughly 70 miles away. I scan the impressive, shimmering machines, take a deep breath and mutter, “Do you have anything with an automatic transmission?”
In his classic 1960 novel The Leopard, Sicilian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa describes the Italian island’s hilly landscape as “a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung waves into frenzy.” But armed with the new A6′s Google-powered navigation system, my first drive through the green, undulating countryside is surprisingly smooth. In an hour and half, I arrive at Hotel Verdura, a breathtaking golf resort on Sicily’s southern coast. I rejoin my peers for another press presentation and then head to the Verdura restaurant for my first authentic Sicilian meal. The kitchen starts us off with green beans, topped with oranges and shrimp, followed by a plate of meccheroncini alla normal – mini macaroni served with tomato, eggplant and ricotta. For the main course, we’re presented with a very manly beef fillet, garnished with lentils and almonds from Villalba, a central Sicilian comune. Throughout the meal, we’re treated to – in order of appearance – the Verdura cocktail (gin with basil and apple liqueur), three local wines and, finally, the house grappa, which collectively propel me back to my room and its giant canopy-covered bed. I tell myself that I can resume being manly tomorrow.
Seafood plays a starring role in Sicilian cuisine.
The next morning, I wake early for more demonstrations (quick: what does “multitronic front-air suspension” mean?) and a final test-drive back to the airport. This time, my Audi’s navigation system is programmed to take me on a scenic tour through the notorious town of Corleone and the breathtaking cliff-top village of Altofonte, 1,150 feet above sea level.
I part with my A6 at the airport and grab a shuttle into Palermo, Sicily’s capital. Palermo is a ruggedly handsome city of blood-orange buildings and the bustling energy of Sicilian life. It’s also a true car city: traffic is horrendous; the smell of gasoline fills the air; and every open space or square is packed with cars. Relieved to be on foot for the afternoon, I wander into the Piazza Pretoria, whose centerpiece is a 450-year-old Florentine fountain made up of 48 cavorting nude statues. I settle down on the steps of the impressive Church of Santa Caterina to eat a late afternoon pizza while four young boys kick around a soccer ball in the square below, hogging the ball and showing off to each other the way boys do.
I only have three full days in Sicily, but I’m determined to make it to Mount Etna, the giant, menacing volcano at the other end of the island. So after spending the night in Palermo, I buy a map, rent a car and hit the 186-mile toll road that stretches across Sicily’s northern coast. At the pretty resort town of Cefalù, I stop to snap a few photos and enjoy a spot of sand beneath my feet. I get back in my car and continue down the highway. With the reassuring Tyrrhenian Sea to my left, I tunnel through di Lampedusa’s beloved Sicilian hills, “comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation.”
Eventually the highway ends and the island curves southward. I continue down to Taormina, where I spend the night. Built into the side of a cliff, gorgeous Taormina is Sicily’s flagship tourist destination, but it feels like I have the place to myself. I roam the winding stone streets, peek into the spectacular Greek amphitheatre and settle down for a plate of Spaghetti al Sardinia – a regional specialty – at the delightful Trattoria Da Nino. The pasta is perfect, and I cap off the night with a limencello, which the grandfatherly owner, Antonino Nicita, tops off twice to steel me against the “cold” outside. Good thing I’m not driving home tonight.
Taormina is one of the most popular destinations in Sicily.
As I wind my way up Mount Etna’s petrified road the next morning, the ground becomes darker and darker, then suddenly white when the road’s blackened rocks meet the snow line. I park my car at the visitor’s center and catch a cable car to the summit. But when I get to the top, I discover that almost everyone else is in full snow gear, dressed for a day of skiing. I ride the cable car back down without thinking twice, rent skis and spend the rest of the afternoon blissfully surfing the snowy volcano. I’ll be sore tomorrow morning, but I’ve come all this way, and I’m hitting the road again in a few hours.
Popular culture has saturated us with images of men on the road, from John Wayne on horseback to Tom Cruise zooming down the highway in Jerry McGuire. But if driving a car means being a man, it turns out it has nothing to do with the speed of the engine or the type of transmission. It’s about the time spent alone on the open road with nothing but your thoughts and the radio to keep you company. It’s about finding yourself in the “immemorial silence of pastoral Sicily,” as di Lempadusa observes, “far from everything in space and still more so in time.”
Daily flights to Madrid from Santiago, Guayaquil, Lima and Frankfurt. From there, connections to Sicily via oneworld. For more information visit lan.com
WHERE TO SLEEP
$$$ CENTRALE PALACE HOTEL: Steps from the Piazza Pretoria and Quattro Canti – a magnificent crossroads that neatly divides Palermo in four – this hotel is a convenient and elegant option. The deep, opulent lobby is decorated with tile mosaics and Renaissance art, giving the recently restored, aristocratic, 18th-century residence an authentic air.
$$$ VILLA CARLOTTA: The sunny, seashell-themed rooms are hard to leave in the morning, but breakfast on the rooftop terrace will reward you with fresh fare and breathtaking views of Mount Etna and the sea.
WHERE TO EAT
Bye Bye Blues: This surprising site in Palermo’s historic downtown boasts a neon sign and ultra-trendy décor, but the menu is built around traditional Sicilian staples like eggplant, orange and lemon.
Trattoria da nino: Incredibly popular and surprisingly affordable, this may just be the best restaurant in Taormina. For your main course, try the tender roast chicken thigh with a green salad drizzled with Mount Etna olive oil.
$$$ Moderately Priced