Living on a group of small, very urbanised islands can get claustrophobic. But release and escape is near at hand. Because, what many visitors to Malta, and even some locals don’t realise is just how close we are to the much larger, greener and underpopulated island of Sicily.
I’ve penned some notes here as tips and pointers following a recent trip I made to Sicily as a low-budget, one-week affair. You can of course ‘do Sicily’ far more upscale, but I’d expect most tourists to Malta to want a quick day or two’s trip to our neighbour; fitting it in as an extra while on holiday here.
Not being a fan of flying, I caught the catamaran from Valletta to Pozzallo, on the south-eastern tip of Sicily. The travel takes 90 minutes and is a very smooth affair as long as the sea is calm. Grand Habour is often deceptive as once outside its portals, the sea gets choppier almost immediately! You can take your car, which, cash allowing, is probably a good idea considering the poor public transport in Sicily.
While efficient and regular, the catamaran service does seem expensive (unless you benefit from a special offer – check the website www.virtuferries.com; a return ticket can cost over 100 Euros). It’s all the more expensive when you consider the journey from Valletta to Catania costs the same, despite being twice the distance.
Tours vs Going it alone
If time is short, and you don’t want the hassle of organisation, hop on a one-day coach tour and be back in Malta that night. You’ll see Catania, Taormina, a garden or two, and probably go up Etna – these are the likely pit-stops.
If you’re fending for yourself, doing Sicily is a bit more complicated. I was rather surprised by the lack of information the Catamaran service gives independent travellers who want to journey onward from Pozzallo; surprising since the company drops people off in the same town almost every day.
Do-it-yourself, low-budget travel in Sicily has its drawbacks, but is ultimately worth it for the sheer beauty of the many, hidden gems of Sicilian towns and villages, for the marvellous historical remains, the impressive nature (beaches, volcanoes, mountains), and of course for the glorious food!
Logistics & Accommodation
Accommodation is rather expensive by normal standards and often not of the highest quality. Public services in general are also extremely poor, especially once you get out of the bigger cities. Trains in and out of Pozzallo, for example, are few and far between and buying a train ticket is often impossible in such places (especially on Sundays). You’ll come across bad or unnecessary administration everywhere. Being fluent in Italian helps you negotiate transport and glean some useful advice from the locals. But several English-only-speaking foreigners I met claimed to be coping well.
Nevertheless, all hassles are forgotten when you find yourself in a town such as the UNESCO World Heritage City of Noto, just 40 minutes by train or bus from Pozzallo. Or the island of Ortigia (the old centre of Siracusa, connected by bridges to the mainland). And when you order a plate of fish or pasta with seafood washed down by some excellent local wine, you feel in heaven!
I ventured also to Palermo which is a mixture of urban chaos and fascinating historical buildings; and then on to the marvellous, well-connected and immaculately-kept Aeolian Islands – famous for the isle of Stromboli, an active volcano; another is the aptly-named isle Volcano! Unfortunately, trekking on the Madonie mountains (which run part of the way along the Palermo-Catania highway) proved a bit too complicated due to a lack of infrastructure and the expensive lodging options.
It’s wise to arm yourself with a good guidebook beforehand and have a clear idea of the cost of things before actually landing in Sicily if you want to minimise unpleasant surprises.
But all said and done, anyone feeling stuck on the Maltese Islands and wishing for a quick getaway, without wasting too much time and money, should consider a hop to Sicily. You’ll need a bit of patience (which will be rewarded). Oh! – and do expect to come back a few kilos heavier than when you left!