Italy was a trip I’d wanted to do with my mom since forever…different from Japan (Part I) which was an extension of the Australia Ironman ….and we did both in a backpacker fashion (more or less). For both I had invited my mom and dad (for Italy though it was specifically my mom, and then dad was trying to join but confused dates… really everyone did 🤦🏽♀️ and he wasn’t able to join us…😢). We had a semi plan this time…hometown and we thought Sicily or Sardinia or both…we decided on Sicily and I thought hey, Malta too because it is right there!
We met in Rome, our flights only a few hours apart with Italy being almost an exact halfway point for us. I was flying from Sri Lanka and my mom from Seattle. In the end I think her flight was just 3 hours more than mine and both had a layover. From there we headed South to our destination, Mirabela Eclano. It was literally a pilgrimage to our hometown. It´s 3-4 hours from Rome…3 by car, 4 and some by bus (2-3 buses) or bus to train to bus. We chose one of the many buses at the airport that go to various destinations from there (in our case, Napoli) instead of a 1 hour bus (or train) to the city (changing terminals) to a train and finally a bus. We only had a general idea how to even arrive there so we figured it out on the way lol….luckily the bus connections were nearly perfect…maybe 30 minute wait between the 3 we took. …by the way we opted against the car because they are very expensive plus Italian drivers…oh man, another world entirely! We stayed four days in Mirabela, meeting relatives, enjoying festivities and reminiscing the past, the traditions and meeting new/old family members before heading to Naples to catch a flight. For details about the hometown visit click here meanwhile I will focus on the rest of the trip in Italy.
Sicily….quite the gorgeous and fun affair…
We decided to fly but ended up taking the overnight bus…because some frequent, worldly traveler left their bag… with all valuables on the first bus of two into Naples…Yep, that would be me…and it´s the first time I have ever done that…plus I usually have my valuables in my personal bag! Whaaat was I thinking!!! 😱🤦🏽♀️ I was Righteously pissed (fuming) at myself for the stupidest travel error ever, worried that my passport was with it and all other important things were now gone or stolen but motivated to find my bag and very glad I was AT LEAST in Europe…OMG! Sorry to my mom who had to hear me curse my life away until I calmed down, while gladly helped find where it was, and went along as if it was all part of the trip (no complaints or added worries from her).
We located the bag after going back by bus to communicate with driver via phone, missed our flight (obviously), tried to intercept the bag from a bus driver that same day (failing) and in the end had to wait until the morning to get it…sooo 2 unexpected days in Naples (one wasted looking for the bag, again obvious). Luckily, even overnight, all was safe and accounted for once I picked it up. The extra day we wandered around Pozzouli, outside of Naples and accessible by train (fail as most things were closed), grabbing some good Napoli pizza (origins of pizza is Naples) and showing my mom some touristy Naples stuff she either never saw as a kid.
The overnight bus (8-9 hours) took us to Palermo, it wasn’t full so mom took the whole back row and slept like a champ…I took a few seats and slept ok. We arrived and stayed in an Airbnb, another one of the best ones, we were given fruit, water bottles, coffee, lots of information and kindness. Since we took the bus we could have easily gotten off on the other side of the island and started there but we decided to keep our reservation in Palermo after they extended the days due to us missing our flight (so very nice of them).
A couple of days were spent just wandering around getting to know the city and then we rented a car to explore more of island life. As usual we found no automatic transmission cars and I don’t drive manual transmission yet so like always my mom offered. I think many times she just jumps at simple opportunities presented such as this one without analyzing the actual decision; even though she is a very analytical person, because I must say driving in Sicily isn’t for the faint of heart. You must always be paying attention here, among the crazy drivers, narrow streets and packed roads. She is more of an autopilot driver so now she was having to pay attention the whoooole time and be a very aggressive driver as that is the only way to go here.
We noticed quickly how crazy drivers were when we tried to leave town. We got to an intersection where literally cars were turning in all directions in front of us….like a circus…some turned left, crossing before us to turn left and a U-turn all on a small two-way road where all you could do was watch, laugh and wait. Then on the highway fast cars would tail you hardcore until you moved over…no honking, nothing they just wait on you butt…Add this to the jam packed streets with cars and little wiggle room…one time the street just ended and we had to back all the way out….my mom wasn’t too excited about that as it was me who directed her that way..oops
As you can see our trip was mainly done by car and I do believe (and highly recommend) it is the best use of time on the island (buses are an option if you have the time) should the driving I mentioned not scare you lol. We only had 5 nights and saw only a chunk of this beautiful astonishing island. We drove to plenty of places but our main stops were Corleone, Ortigia, Mt. Etna, Taormina and Cefalú.
The first stop was Corleone (1-1.5 hours out of Palermo) to get into the mafia stuff although you could do this in Palermo itself (nothing locals are proud of but will point you in the right direction or tell you some history – as our Airbnb host pointed the ’mafia’ prison seen from our window). My mom really wanted to go somewhere rural where ”The Godfather”, the movie, took place and well Corleone was one such town plus it has a mafia museum….just closed on Monday…which of course was when we visited but the ride over was absolutely stunning and the town itself was quaint so it made up for it…to a degree. On the way back to Palermo we decided to get off the main road….maybe onto the worst road on the island (lots of potholes) as it goes through a forest and some towns apparently no one cares about… all to see a Norman castle I saw on the map lol…again beautiful drive, mom wasn´t a fan of the road chosen but as usual went with the flow and enjoyed the drive and stops.
We left Palermo the next day in the afternoon after getting in some early am site seeing…Having learned that the airbnb had one bike we decided it best for my mom to take that and I walk/bus so we could get farther and see the cathedral and not to miss palace. A great plan as last time my mom got tired and grumpy from too much walking…biking is always the cure! We were so glad we got up early to do this as the palace was a great mix of architecture with an amazingly detailed chapel (Cappella Palatina)..then finally to the main cathedral (also nice). Once we were finally driving out of town we headed to a guesthouse near Cefalú…a popular tourist and beach destination. Most stops where we stayed we actually saw very little of because they were just to sleep and then see other stuff the next day. In the morning we headed into Cefalú to the beautiful and calm beach there. We saw little of the town which is actually really cute except for walking the main thoroughfare only to get to the other end where I planned to go swimming. There was a race going on which I was bummed I didn’t know about as I would have ran…but the swim was A-mazing! A joyous swim indeed! Water was warm and soooo clear the whole swim, there were other swimmers here and there and it was just wow! Can you tell I loved this swim. Our plan was to meet at the other side which we did but after a very long time of me not finding my mom because I couldn´t go on the boardwalk with just my swimsuit and her not finding me either….we left much later then we hoped but I will always remember this amazing stop.
The island is small enough that nothing is really that far. From Palermo to Catanía, for example, it is 4 hours along the coast….because there are plenty of highways…it is once you get off these and explore do things take longer. We traveled as I did my whole trip, with nothing planned not even where to stay until nearly the same day which was good and bad. Good because we could research as we went and could decide what we really were interested in seeing or doing and even change our plans if we changed our minds and well, bad because there was always uncertainty, for instance what city to stay in or what places were more important for us to see. For hotels we usually booked before leaving our hotel/guesthouse because we had no internet or local cell number so it was easiest to reserve and communicate early…though a few times we reserved later in the day which caused problems in communication for us.
Once in Catania we stayed 2 nights but not in the same location (bummer, had we just planned lol) and made it a point to visit Mt. Etna one day and Ortigia (or Ortygia near Siracusa – Syracuse) the other. Ortigia came first because for Etna, being a volcano, it was best to go as early as possible and pick the better weather day (it is a mountain after all…aka unpredictable…so if you have a few days checking the weather forecast before might help to decide best day – plenty of other stuff in area to see). For us both days had decent forecasts but since we were usually out the door by 10 am or so we scratched Etna on the first day as we were already too late.
Ortigia is a small island village that merges with Siracusa, the city. Ortigia has more history, is more charming, more touristy and smaller so we spent the day wandering around the cute place….oh and there are some Greek ruins here that were important (Temple of Apollo) – also some you need to drive to that we skipped – and well Archimedes was born/died here…whoever he is…just kidding (he is more than a mathematician…something known as PI…compound lever…a physics principal…and Eureka!). Also we went on a boat ride…because, well mom wanted to on such a beautiful day and I guess record breaking temperature out probably pushed her over the edge some…so sure why not? A breezy ride not only cooled us down, in addition we got to see the town from a different perspective (showing its fortress side fully), a heart shaped cave and some beautiful red coral….had it not been so windy I would have jumped in to see them even closer as the boat navigated a bit into the choppy cave water…no one jumped in.
You know what we did the next day, right?…Mt. Etna!…..well and then much more ha ha ….longest day by far. Mt. Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is quite famous in Italy. The drive up was quite exciting as you head straight up the mountain and through small towns with it´s eminent beauty before you the whole way. Just be sure not to go up the one way street and get stopped by a cop like we did lol…they must have changed it recently because the map still said otherwise and mom decided not to read the signs or care that some cars were coming down and honking ha ha. Cop incident only took 2 seconds with us beautiful girls pointing at a map and speaking English…sorry!
Well….turns out Mt. Etna is active enough that you cannot go to the main crater anymore but you can hike up (whole way or half way taking the ski lift – most do this last one), bike up or take a martian monster truck up to the highest visit-able point. Guess which one we did? I know alone I would have picked MTB bike because well it looked sooo fun…also really tough….but we did the lift to vehicle of course to keep my mom´s knee happy and had the cutest volcanologist guide 😛 walk us around and explain.
Besides the cute guide that stayed back with us 😀 lol I was obsessed with the vehicles that they used to drive us up…they looked like something from outer space with these massive wheels and white body yet at the same time from the 80s. The whole area of Mt. Etna is mostly volcanic stone, from so many eruptions..it is of a dark grey color with random red areas, some trees and well plenty of newly created mounds here and there. My mom really enjoyed the mini walk they took us on…I think it was her first time this close to an active volcano’s crater so it was extra special for her…and having something like this so easily accessible for someone who can’t just go hike up was an amazing experience. (Cost of this option is not backpacker friendly…we splurged as you should do for some experiences as a backpacker…normally I wouldn’t splurge here but senior backpacking travel :). We got lucky and saw plumes of smoke when we were up there too…which they say is common and occurs every 2 weeks or so…!
We were off the mountain by noon and headed to Taormina next. It is known as a super touristy stop but also a don’t miss. I had debated even going just because with my mom it is usually best to do one big thing a day. This was on our way back around the island to Palermo (we would take the coast road this time) so I tacked it on. The city is on a hillside overlooking the sea and above it on the hillside are 2 other towns…quite unique, each quite tiny and each just beautiful! Taormina is in the middle, parking is difficult (there are buses and trams they recommend using from the beach), views are breathtaking and it’s known for it’s Greek amphitheater so that is where we went. My mom was tired and just sat while I went up and explored (she wasn’t interested in going up the stairs). From the top the view was something else…you could see Etna off in the distance….really cool to see like this after having gone up just a few hours before…and the sea was just gorgeous not to mention the parts of town you could see from here…It was such a great view I went back and coaxed my mom up so she wouldn’t miss it.
We didn´t explore much more of town but the place had plenty of places to eat, get gelato and wander around it´s tiny streets with hidden gems. Mom and I separated for a moment, her to find a restroom and me to get a second gelato lol…we met back at the car that we were luckily able to find a parking spot for in the only parking garage at the top. Lucky until we returned and found we had received a ticket. It was issued literally 4 minutes after we paid (it was visible on the seat not the dash) …and I was not okay with that. Mom didn´t really care but I felt it was not right and convinced my mom to join me in the fight to have it removed. I found someone at the garage who told me to go to the police station to contest it. Without any specific directions….basically a wild goose chase ensued. The station we went to was apparently not the right one and they told us to go to this other one which we found on the map to be at the very top of the hill. After driving all the way up and getting stuck down some dead end streets…having to back up and all it turns out it wasn´t here either….In fact we were in another town all together….oh man! We left feeling defeated and had given up buuut we were about to pass the parking lot again so I said wait let´s try one last time there and see if anyone is around. Turns out they were there and agreed to waive our ticket. Happy to have won the battle lol and glad we actually drove around to various parts of the 3 towns because the views were just incredible and had we not done so we would have missed a huge chunk of the beautiful Taormina (ahem it’s multiple towns).
Leaving we drove quite far to reach our last hotel but the plan was to get closer to Palermo so we could the next day just drop off the car and head to the airport. To keep my mom from being worn out from all the non-stop travel I made sure days were mixed between a busy day followed by a less intense day or a relaxing morning after an evening arrival. I think it helped but even I was feeling the effects of intense days moving around…and I was the passenger! Getting closer allowed us to enjoy our morning on the beach at this humble hotel with it’s own private beach and few people around. I got up early to run and decided to swim too. My kind of exploring…ha ha but this was the toughest swim I have ever done…here the sea was not calm but I kept at it…and really I was just happy to get out lol.
Palermo our first and last stop was a great city. We didn´t explore everything here but as I always say you don´t have to see everything on the list to see a place…just walking down a new street is tourism. What we saw gave us a good idea about the culture and included some historical main stops. We stayed near the English Gardens and our first day we walked all the way from there to the 4 corners (Quattro Canti)…this whole street was one of the main drags with stuff to visit (pedestrian friendly). We toured the opera house…almost went to see one…passed plenty of theaters and shops, ate lunch on a tiny street just off the pedestrian street then finished at the Fontana Pretoria. Had I not worn out my mom walking all the way we would have made it to the Palace area but we took our time as usual peering into the nice shops along the way and stopping at the rental car office. After the overnight bus and plenty of walking it was no wonder that concluded our day. I did get in an evening run…something I enjoy doing on my first day or two…to explore where runners run or just see the city in general. I ran to the marina and back….a decent run but my actual favorite was a few days later when I ran into the Parco della Favorita and up along the mountain trails (one other I wanted to do was to the lighthouse off Mondello..where I tried to run too but realized it was quite far…one day!).
Finally with the car we explored the Sanctuary of Rosalia (Palermo´s patron saint – which my mom loved visiting!) up on Mt. Pellegrino (you can hike up too…and many do) …be sure to go all the way to the top because the view on the other side of this mountain is just blue, blue bluetiful! (can be accessed by bus from Plaza Sturzo). Unfortunately the road was closed that continued on into Mondello beach so we had to go back down and around to get there. Mondello is worth a visit…it feels like a surfing town just without the surfers or South Beach according to my mom (I beg to differ) …the bay is very calm and beautiful. We arrived late as usual for lunch (things close around 2 pm) and in late September signs of the beach season ending were apparent as the boxes were being taken apart. We did venture out that same night to eat and check out the night life. My mom loves this part of a trip so we headed out to Vicciria market area. A lively place as the Sicilian nightlife explodes onto the streets from the bars and restaurants even in the rain (as it did that night)…my type of party…street party! We didn´t stay too long but did have a few drinks at several places then took the bus back around midnight.
Back to Naples (flying this time) it was and we had yet again a full day before separating and ending our trip. My mom suggested going to Pompeii, which I had been to before, so instead we compromised and headed to Herculaneum. This archaeological sight is lesser known then Pompeii but also suffered from the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD…is also easily accessible by train (in fact closer to Naples) and in my opinion it´s waaay better then famous Pompeii. Here things were even more well preserved…there were even wooden store fronts still visible which I thought was very interesting to see and Herculaneum being a wealthier population there is even more art found around town. Very happy we went here and glad my mom was able to see this site rather than Pompeii…highly recommended visit.
This was a highly enjoyable trip with my mom and even though slower than usual this was by far the most intense travel we did together. Sicily was amazing and I wont hesitate to go back…there is just soo much to see on the island and we barely touched the surface…plus there were not many relaxing moments in these beautiful towns. We never made it over to Malta nor would I recommend doing both together unless you have plenty of time or you don´t mind missing tons of Sicily. If you decide to do both – have a plan to see just a few places/things in Sicily and then in Malta…Both islands have a ton to see (especially Sicily) and I feel you would regret not taking your time in Sicily or relaxing in Malta (months later I visited Malta solo as I couldn´t get it out of my head and I did really love it).
Side note: Besides just this part of the trip, traveling Italy with my mom was quite fun since she speaks Italian and it was great to see her revisit places she had been as a kid and tell stories of those experiences. If you have a family member with ties to some other country or simply heritage elsewhere one of the best things you can do is go there..even more special if family is part of it in any way. I am very happy to finally have had the chance to do this with my mom, one of the most incredible experiences you can do with your family.
Read Viaggio home (visiting the hometown)