Ten quick tips to saving money in Spain without even trying

As soon as I’d bought a house, my friends began making plans to travel to Spain. How could you beat a personal, bilingual tour guide who had crisscrossed the Iberian peninsula, a free place to stay and one of Europe’s best budget destinations?

You can’t: I pride myself on being a great tour guide, especially to Seville.

The Bridge in Ronda

Every so often, I get an influx of emails about how to travel Spain on a shoestring, or how to make euros stretch further, or even hidden gems that won’t break the bank. Long passed are my days of cheap hostels (looking at you, Santiago de Compostela) and overnight bus rides for the sake of saving 15 euros. Even keeping in mind a few quick tips can save you loads.

Saving on food

The mere fact that the Spanish mealtime is slightly later than a US or UK, with a heavy lunch eaten any time between 1.00 and 4.00 pm, means saving money on evening meals. Dinner tends to be lighter fare, in that sense, and it’s easy to grab a tapa than actually sit down to a meal.

If you happen to be visiting the south, they’re particularly generous with the tapas (well, in most places outside of Sevilla – though you can find free munchies if you look). These little dishes are cheaper to begin with, and if you order a beer or drink you’ll get a sizable plate of food with each one. Even when the Novio and I head out for a few beers before dinner, I find that I snack on enough free aperitivos – typically canned seafood, potato chips or banderillas at our favorite bar – to skip dinner and head straight to a yoghurt or piece of fruit.

tapas at casa Lucio Barcelona

Look for a menú del día if you’re out exploring. These three-course, choose-your-own meals were pioneered when Spain experienced a touristic boom in the 1970’s and resorts fed their works as part of their salaries. Nowadays, you can get a full meal and dessert (plus bread and a drink!) for a reasonable price of 7-12€.

And there’s nothing that beats a crunchy bocadillo. This sandwich as long as your forearm will only cost you a few euros and is perhaps the most Spanish lunch ever. They’re also great for long bus or train rides.

Saving on monuments and touristic sites

sagrada familia barcelona 6
Culture is a serious thing in Spain, and large concessions are made to offer it to the masses. Street festivals abound, there’s often live music in bars and plazas, and there is no shortage of cultural offerings by way of casa-palacios, museums or monuments, no matter where you travel.

If you’re under 31 and residing in Europe, you can grab a carnet joven or European Youth Card for under 10€ , allowing you savings on more than just museums – included is transportation, hostels and even courses.

In a country chock-full of museums, there is often free entry to many – including some of the most famous. Take Madrid, for instance: Entry to the Prado is free between 6.00 pm and 8.00 pm Mondays to Saturdays; on Mondays, and Wednesdays to Saturdays, admission into the Reina Sofía is free between 7.00 pm and 9.00 pm, and on Sundays from 1.30 pm to 7.00 pm. The Sorolla is free on Saturday mornings.

In Alicante, you can enjoy free entry to the Museum of the City of Alicante, housed in a 17th century baroque house and home to more than 800 pieces to art. And in Seville, each museum has a free day, often Tuesdays. It’s worth stopping by the tourism office to find out or ask about discount tickets.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

Parks and seafronts are a stellar way to see open air art and Spanish culture, and definitely merit a stroll. Madrid’s most well-known park is the Buen Retiro. It costs nothing to stroll around the park’s elegant gardens, where you’ll see patrons rowing on the Retiro Park lake, a favored activity in the park, and are also likely to see a musician or two strumming away on a guitar, providing some free entertainment. You’ve also got traces of the 1929 Iberoamerican Expo in Seville’s María Luisa park, crowned by the Plaza de España, and Santiago’s Alameda park is a lush green lung amongst the sandstone buildings.

And don’t skimp on a free walking tour just because you’re that off-the-beaten-track kind of traveler. I often take a free tour to get some cultural and historical context and a lay of the land, spending only a tip for a guide. I’m usually available for the price of a menú del día, by the way.

Saving on transportation

One of the biggest benefits of Spain travel is how easy it can be to get from punto a punto: Spain’s public transportation infrastructure works, is relatively on time and is not expensive. Given that I now travel for work, I’ve been shocked at how much a high-speed, less comfortable train costs between Paris and Brussels, and how a short taxi ride in Switzerland can break my budget (bonjour, sandwiches for a week!).

Buses are without a doubt the cheapest way to travel between cities, but you can also try the popular rideshare, Bla Bla Car. You can search routes and find a driver that suits your timetable, and you pay a fraction of the cost. I’ve hitched rides to Valladolid or Madrid and have also driven in my own car.

Touristic Train Minas de Riotinto

If you choose to go by Spain’s phenomenal train system, book round-trip where possible, as this can save you 30%, and purchasing at least 60 days before means cheaper fare. You can also book a four-person table on the high-speed trains or find a group looking for extra travelers and save hugely. Search Tarifa Mesa AVE on Facebook or Movelia for secondhand tickets.

Within a city, walking is definitely the best (and cheapest!) way to get around in most cases, but check out 10-ride passes or unlimited travel cards for 1, 3 or 5 days – the local tourism office can help orient you on your options and how to purchase tickets or passes.

When my parents last came to visit, my sister remarked that it was their cheapest Eurotrip ever. Apart from having my house, my kitchen and my car at their disposition, we took saving seriously but also kept these simple trips in mind and planned our excursions to Mérida and Lisbon around them. Saving money on travel in Spain is intrinsic when you follow a few tips – save those euros for a great meal or show instead!

saving-money

Have you had any great travel discounts while in Spain? This list is in no way exhaustive, so please share below!

How to Look for a Spanish Villa for the Fall

Think of booking a villa in Spain and a lot of people will automatically start looking for availability in June, July or August. However, if you’re not following the crowds and would prefer to grab your Spanish sunshine in the fall, here are a few things to consider when you start browsing the Spanish villas for your break in the leafy season.

Think about heading south

The south of Spain tends to be a little hotter than the north, even in the autumn when temperatures are cooling down after the scorching summer. This makes it a good time to book some days away in the Spanish villas on the Costa del Sol, which British expats are so fond of. During the fall, the Costa del Sol enjoys approximately seven hours of daylight, which is a little more than some of the regions of the country.

One of the good things about the fall is that the crowds have started to clear away, so if you’re staying in the Costa del Sol you can visit attractions like the caves of Nerja without having to queue for as long.

Image by Psicobyte, used under Creative Commons license 2.0

Consider the scenery

The Costa Blanca may see its fair share of tourism and cater for that, but it also has some quaint towns and villages for those who want to explore as well as sit out in the sun. These include the fishing villages of Jávea, which has a gorgeously sandy beach, and Altea, which is a curious blend of traditional and cosmopolitan with houses that are whitewashed, streets that are winding and cobbled, but shops that are designer and therefore for more expensive tastes.

While in the Costa Blanca, you can visit the Girona river in the Orba Valley or head to Dènia and visit the castle. The temperature in the Costa Blanca during the fall is pleasant at a warm yet still mild 23°C. There are normally about six hours of daylight.

Image by schermpeter42, used under Creative Commons licence 2.0

Gauge opportunities to travel

When choosing your location, you might want to think about opportunities to travel a little further afield. For instance, if you decide to stay mainland you could book a villa in Portugal somewhere near the Spanish border, then cross the border and do a day trip in Spain. Alternatively, you can stay at a villa on an island and hop on a ferry over to a nearby island and do some exploring.

Flexibility is often the key in travel to getting the most out of your experiences. If you’re feeling a little undecided about when and where you can book a villa, why not consult the Villa Plus website and see how they can help you. They offer accommodation in Spain, Portugal and other popular destinations.

villas-in-spain

And remember: you don’t always have to hit Spain in the summer to get the most out of your Spanish villa. The fall is a fantastic time to visit. In fact, what better time (and excuse!) is there than a milder season to dip some churros in chocolate!

Where are you traveling this autumn?

On Pessoa, Portuguese Cuisine and Hidden Tastes: a Food Tour with Taste of Lisboa

The prolific Portuguese philosopher and writer Fernando Pessoa had no less than 80 heteronyms, facets of his personality re-imagined as thinkers and poets in his most notable works. And from his home in Campo de Ourique, where he lived on the last decade-and-a-half of his life, he explored the many sides of human life.

lisbon poets

And for someone who knew very little of Portuguese food outside of pasteis de Belem and mil manheras of serving cod, a historical food tour with Taste of Lisboa introduced me not only to Pessoa and his neighborhood, but of the multi-faceted nature of Portuguese cuisine from the very district where food trends are born.

Warning: no bachalau or custard tarts were consumed on this tour.

Climbing the historic Tram 28’s route that snakes through Graça, Alfama, Chaido and Estrela, we left Tourist Lisbon on six of the city’s seven hills and climbed higher on Colina Saõ Roque towards Campo de Ourique and the Prazeres Cemetery. Aptly named the Cemetery of Pleasures, our three-hour tour would begin here and wind us around to taste some of Lisbon’s most pleasurable treats.

Historic Tram 28 Lisbon

Lisbon and I have had a complicated relationship since 2007, when I struggled to understand the city’s vibe, its colorful history and why everyone seemed to love it so much. My country list then could be counted on two hands, and I had yet to learn how to be a savvy traveler. This meant far too many pastries and far too much money spent at mediocre touristic restaurants near Baixa. A second trip in 2011 was plagued by rain and that too-long-to-look-up-its-name volcanic eruption. Tiled homes, an empty hillside castle and Sagres imperiales were my biggest takeaways from Spain’s westernly neighbor.

Campo de Ourique was sleepy on a Tuesday morning as shops opened a few minutes past the hour and locals crowded into cafes for an espresso to accompany their flaky pastries. We got off a stop too early, giving us time to wander the parish’s main thoroughfares before meeting Filipa, a Lisboner and lifelong foodie who began Taste of Lisboa two years ago.

portuguese tiles

Like all food tours, there is an exchange of pleasantries. Where are you from? How did you hear about the tour? Oh, you blog and we have friends in common? I’d been told of the friendliness of the Portuguese, and with a wink and a few jabs at Spanish cuisine and culture, Filipa became a foodie friend.

The location for a food tour was no accident, though we’d picked it for its minimal walking – Campo de Ourique, a historically upper-middle class district considered a city within a city, bustles with concept restaurants, budding chefs and a part-market, part-international food haven sat squarely in the middle. From the start, I was surprised to find that cod had been left (mostly) off of the menu, anda sweet treat was up first.

“Unlike the Spaniards, we are quite humble when it comes to our cuisine,” Filipa stated, looking squarely at me. “But this is not something we claim for our sweets. Our chocolate cake is the best in the world.”

Where to find the best chocolate cake in Lisbon

The small pastry shop, imaginatively named O Melhor Bolo de Chocolate do Mundo, had just two round tables and eight chairs for our group of 11. I am one of those foodie anomalies – gasp! I don’t like chocolate! – but as the creator of the world’s best chocolate cake, Carlos Braz Lopes, turned up in the shop, I eagerly shoveled it into my mouth.

With a espresso cup of port wine on the house, we toasted what could be the best slice of cake I’ve ever had, layered with bitter chocolate and meringue. Portuguese custard and egg sweets may be known worldwide, but I was astonished at the complexity of a simple cake made from six ingredients that had been created by a former businessman with a killer sweet tooth (psst! There’s a shop in Madrid!).

Enjoying a food tour in Lisbon

Just across the street is the newly remodeled Mercado de Campo de Ourique, a fusion of traditional Portuguese cookery and fare with a fish and vegetable market. Tile-lined food stalls ring the perimeter, with high tables and stools occupying the center, much like Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel. For someone who shops in a market regularly, I was drawn to the food more than the googly-eyed fish near the entrance.

Filipa brought us right to the salads stand. As Catholics and a people whose history is rich with seafaring explorers and far-flung colonies, Portuguese food combines ingredients from all over the world, making Spanish stews and legumes seem rudimentary and almost convoluted. Even the octopus salad I ordered brought out new flavors from one of my go-to summer dishes, flavored with a touch of cilantro and sweet red pepper instead of tomatoes.

marinated octopus salad

We ordered several dishes, all with a legume and fish base, like black eyed peas with flaky cod and tuna. As the food cooked, we sampled fried pork skin laced with black pepper, leitão à bairrada, and learned the origin of convent sweets – an abundance of eggs and flour plus sugar-hungry, bored nuns.

Perhaps the biggest surprise were the peixinhos da horta, or the small fish of the garden, green beans fried in tempura, another Portuguese invention born out of the Lenten tradition to abstain from meat. Tempura itself was created here, though perfected in Asia.

Portuguese craft beer

Mussels were next on the list, and Filipa led us to a concept bar where there’s little else on the menu but the clams and craft beer. Like Spain’s recent craft beer explosion, small batch breweries are elbowing into Sagres’s cornered market while producing not only great flavors but sexy marketing and names that poke fun at gluttony and excess.

Mussels (Moules) in Lisbon

And then there were the mussels themselves, cooked in butter and full cloves of garlic and seasoned with cilantro and a bit of lemon. Normally one to pass up the mollusks in favor of altramuces or boiled shrimp at a cervecería, I bravely took the first two bites to remind my family that half the fun of traveling is trying new foods.

The buttery flavor against the salty squish of the orange flesh added a different dimension to the mejillones I’d tried and quickly dismissed in my early days in Spain. I dug in to the brimming buckets, happy as a clam (pun intended) to have some time to visit with the other two American families who had joined us. The three young girls between them – no older than 12 – were pulling apart the had, shiny shells and slurping the mollusks down between sips of water.

Pessoa was a man of fine wine and ginjha, a cherry liquor served in nondescript, closet-sized bars. A Brasileira, the Cafe Irún to Pessoa’s Hemingway, is one of Lisbon’s oldest and most beloved cafes, and Pessoa is rumored to have sipped bica, espresso with sugar, and absinthe here with the occasional wine.

“Life is good, but wine is better,” he said of his love of the drink.

Foodie Experiences in Lisbon

I’ve long enjoyed port wine and the vinhos verdes, or young wines, cultivated in the Minho province. Filipa took us next to taste different wines from the country’s 2700 hectares of vineyards. In true neighborhood shop fashion, locals can bring their own bottles or wine glasses, try a few varieties, and then bottle up and take home their favorites.

Paired with a strong cheese and quince paste, even my mother enjoyed them.

cod fritter and naughty rice in Lisbon

The next stop had us in front of Pessoa’s last residence, right in the heart of Campo de Ourique. Crumbling buildings covered in tiles sandwiched the small museum, housed in an apartment complex, and its award-winning restaurant, which served us cod fritters (they were, sadly, forgettable, so excuse the claim that I ate no cod on the tour) and a creamy rice with another glass of wine.

Having consumed several dishes by this point and being in the very place where Pessoa’s landmark book, Disquiet, was found after his death, I had a completely different perception of Portuguese food and its intricacies. Like a human being, its relationships as much as its evolution and environment make it what it is, and different situations call for a multitude of adaptations.

Portugal’s tangled history is perhaps the cuisine’s biggest element, but there is much more than meets the eye – and stomach, for that matter.

spongecake Lisboa style

Campo de Ourique had one more dish for us to try, this time in the city’s hospitality school and concept restaurant. Just as we’d started the day with sweets, we’d end with a spongecake, pão de lo, made with nothing more than yolks, flour and sugar.

Proving once more that I knew absolutely nothing about Portuguese food, my spoon sliced into the toasty top of the cake, cutting into a creamy, spongy substance that in no way resembled the sponge cake I’d made as a kid for summer picnics. I scraped the waxy paper holding it all together, eager for the last few sticky crumbs.

Fernando Pessoa once said, “I have no philosophy: I have senses.” And I think I just found mine when it comes to tastes and food prejudices. The tour was more than just a way to spend a few hours with my family and share my travel style with them (and making Christmas shopping a one-gift production).

Lisbon and I had finally found a common ground: good food.

Taste of Lisboa Food Tours

I paid my own way on the Taste of Lisboa Food Tour; all opinions are my own and do not reflect a collaboration between SandS and Taste of Lisboa or any of its affiliates. You can find out more about Filipa’s food tours and courses on Taste of Lisboa’s website.

How to Eat Like a Dane at Christmas

“There is no word in any other language for hygge,” Maria says quite matter-of-factly. “The closest we can do is ‘cozy.'” The rain was coming down outside Copenhagen’s new Torvehallern food hall, and hygge, pronounced hyu-guh, was definitely not what I was feeling.

In the 24 hours I’d been in the Danish capital, I had become convinced at once that the Danes do everything better, from architecture to mulled wine. And, hell, they even did coziness the correct way (because the sun sets at 3:30pm and they have little choice but to hole up at home). I looked longingly at a gløgg stand just a few paces away.

Typical foods from Copenhagen Food Tour

For the first weekend in December, the lack of snow on the ground didn’t detract from my heart swelling for Christmas time. Everything seemed to have an extra sheen, from the glossy windows of Scandinavian design shops to the pop-up Yule markets. And there were evergreens. Real, prickly evergreens for purchase. Enough to make this Grinch’s heart grow three sizes in one day.

So, knowing nothing about Danish cuisine but pickled herring and a thing for open-faced sandwiches, I hopped onto a Christmas cuisine market tour with Food Tours Copenhagen

Torrehallerne Food Market in Denmark

Inside Torvehallern, the marketing wasn’t just humming; shoppers popped between shops selling everything from Scandanavia’s one fresh winter crop, kale, to organic wine and exotic spices. One of the glass and steel buildings held a full-on food hall; the other promoted products in small shops. Maria led us to a corner shop peddling food from the island of Bornholmer, a far-flung island south of Sweden.

“These are the inventors of our hygge,” Maria says, passing out paper plates with several small treats on them. “They had no choice but to become self-sufficient and make most of their goods at home, many of which we eat at Christmastime. Don’t be shy; grab a plate or the food will be nabbed by someone else in the market!” Starting at the top, we tried ground mustard spread over a flaky rye cracker, a sweet toffee and black licorice, followed by a lingonberry jam and a berry liquor. 

Typical food from Bornholmer Island

All this in under 90 seconds, lest a market-goer get a free sample. Maria followed up with a 40-proof grain liquor called Acqua Vit and a shout of skål! Oh, so that’s how the Danes stay warm in winter, I thought to myself as I shuddered from the taste.

Gløgg, an even more potent version of mulled wine, was ladled out for us at a nearby stand that faced a courtyard between the market’s two main buildings. The Scandi sort also includes vodka-infused raisins and almonds at the bottom of the glass, and I could feel four liquid ounces of hygge give me a boost of warmth as we tackled an outdoor stand.

traditional gløgg mulled wine in Copenhagen

Kanuts Kitchen, a free-standing food truck bridging the food hall and market by way of Viking-insprised dishes. The owners use only ingredients that existed in the first millennia – think pork sandwiches and root vegetables. We sampled aebleskiver, an apple dumpling made over a naked flame. Lingonberry jam and powdered sugar brought them into the 21st Century (and the food truck, which is a thing of its own on Copenhagen’s Paper Island).

Apple turnovers at Torrehalvern Copenhagen

aebleskiver Danish pastry

At this point in time, I’d figured savory treats would not be included on the tour, so I let my sweet tooth have a field day. Back inside the market, Maria led us to Grød, the Danish word for porridge. Smells of leeks and carrots wafted in our direction every time a frazzled shopper opened the heavy glass doors behind us, bringing in a gust of chilled air.

Rice porridge typical Danish food

She handed us a cardboard cup of rice laden with cinnamon, sugar and a hunk of butter. Legend has it that Danish children once believed that gnomes helped clean the house and look after the livestock, and grateful parents asked their children to leave them a small bowl of rice porridge, risengrød. It was probably my favorite dish of the day, even though my blood sugar was through the roof!

It seemed that everything I’d heard about the new Scandi food movement was wrong – we’d eaten porridges, enough butter to put a cow into retirement and had heaps of grain liquor. What happened to the fresh, inventive cuisine I’d been expecting?

Scandanavian food is having its moment of glory, thanks to the NoMa revelation in the early 2000s. What was once known as a butter-heavy, bleak gastronomic landscape was transformed thanks to local products, a focus on what’s fresh (again, just kale in December, often paired with – what else – herring) and the mastermind of René Redzepi. A restaurant of the same name – the hybrid of Nordic Food, or Nordisk Mad – is consistently among the world’s best.

Nørrebro Bryghus Brewery in central Copenhagen

After a quick stop for more chocolate and a spicy chai tea at an exotic spice market, we braved the cold once more to head to the Nørrebro brewery. As it turns out, the Danes begin their Christmas season a month earlier than Spaniards with the annual J-Day, or Julebryg beer day. 

Only on the market for 10 weeks, the special Christmas brew kicks off the first Friday in November with bars offering the first few rounds on the house. Nørrebro treated us to their version.

Dios, these daneses even have the Christmas spirits market cornered.

After two more rounds, I left the brewery and started back for the market, determined to find some food souvenirs and maybe another snack. Unlike most food tours, I wasn’t ready to roll home but had snacked enough to be comfortable. I did as Maria suggested – a hot dog on the street, mustard and fried onions dripping all over my hands.

Danish hot dogs typical lunch in Copenhagen

It would still be another few days before I got an open faced sandwich, called smorbrød, and I justified more than one pastry a day on account that a snegl was cheaper than a burger. After four days in Copenhagen, I’ve got little idea what the Danes eat but have pulled out Christmas cookie recipes for my family’s upcoming visit for a very Spanish navidad.

My Christmas memories as a kid tasted decidedly more Scandinavian than Spanish – gingerbread, warm drinks and a few sips of schnapps when I reached my teenaged years. Two hours and probably more alcohol than I needed at that time of the day, I was ready to hole up for hygge and feel nostalgic for my homeland, where snow falls for Christmas and it’s dark before dinner on a stark winter night.

Food Tours Copenhagen kindly offered me a discounted tour, though I was under no obligation to write a review for them. That said, I learned that Danes ALSO do Christmas better than we do, and that is an opinion Maria shares. Find out more about their tours in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo on their website.

How to

Torvehallern is located at Frederiksborggade 21, close to the Norreport transportation depot and only steps from Rosenborg Castle. You can find the Nørrebor Brewery at Ryesgade 3 across the canal, and buy candy in bulk at Somods Bolcher at Norregade 36, just around the corner from the market.

Have you ever been on a food tour on your travels? Do you eat any typically Danish Christmas foods n your family?

Photo Post: Colorful Copenhagen

My knowledge of Denmark was relatively small: the Danes created my favorite childhood toy and eat their fair share of pastries, and that they and the Swedes enjoy a hot-cold relationship. And that traveling to Copenhagen in December would mean thermal underwear.

Over four days, the Danish capital quickly became a city I’d love to live in – even with the sun setting at the same time I eat lunch in Spain. I found that what I expected out of my trip didn’t prepare me for the beauty and the colors of Copenhagen. And it went further than postcard-esque Nyhavn:

Nyhavn harbor colorful houses

Between twinkling Christmas markets and two rare days of sunshine – not to mention pristine old buildings juxtaposed between modernist architecture – Copenhagen’s colors won me over. And with the cost of street food being more expensive than two beers and a montadito in Seville, I spent a lot of time outdoors (and ate a lot of hot dogs!).

Little Mermaid statue Copenhagen

Nyhavn harbor

Rosenborg Palace Copenhagen

Danish crown jewels Rosenborg Castle

Amalienborg Palace guards

Christiania Free Town Denmark

Christianshavn Copenhagen canals

ferris wheel in Copehagen

Copenhagen sunset over Christianshavn

Tivoli gardens at night

Christmas time in Copenhagen

The trip was expensive, despite a free plane ticket and a favorable euro, but all of the feels and sites and smells of baking cinnamon snegl were free.

12 Images

Have you ever been to Scandinavia? Which picture is your favorite?

The Truth About Traveling in Sicily

“This is the part of Catania I wanted you to see,” the Novio cooed as we passed a fifth consecutive butcher windows displaying carne di equino. To be fair, I’d seen little else than the local airport, a roadside bar and enough near-traffic accidents to turn me off from getting into a car in Sicily. And now, before we’d hit the beautiful Piazza del Duomo or even had a slice of pizza, my husband had brought me to the back streets of the immigrant section of Siciliy’s second city. It was not what I had anticipated on a weekend I let him have complete control over.

Italy has never been to foreign a concept to me – my mom studied in Rome in the late 70s and brought her love for the Eternal City back to Chicago by way of spaghetti and meatballs and an addiction to ice cream. But traveling in Sicily is not for the novice traveler or faint of heart. I felt exhilarated as many times as frustrated and that it was equally the most beautiful place on earth and a dump. But overall that I’d barely scratched the surface (and one cannoli in three days is simply not acceptable).

The Truth AboutTraveling in Sicily

Sicily is like every place you’ve been, and nowhere you’ve ever been

I was unimpressed with Sicily at first glance. The chevron shaped island didn’t have any destinations I could recall outside of Palermo, and the little research I’d done online left me with only a few places jotted down on the inside of a book cover. I was willing to let the Novio recreate Driving Miss Wifey and usher me around.

After a harrowing ride into the heart of Catania, we parked nearly two kilometers from the attractions. The Novio led me down darkened alleyways that reeked of garbage and urine until we’d reached Via Plebiscito. Catania was shabby, with lopsided houses teetering amongst overgrown bushes and converted car parks. We saw no one until we’d reached the main drag, which, at nearly 8pm on a Friday night, was buzzing with commercial activity. 

Catania street scenes

To me, this slice of the city felt like the roadside markets of Jaipur, with butchers and barbers sharing sidewalk space. Vespas weaved in and out of the sidewalk displays of plastic toys and ripe vegetables. Shopkeepers yelled at one another across the busy street. It was as much Jaipur as it was Istanbul, feeling familiar for a city I’d only begun to know. 

And Catania continued to surprise me – its city piazzas had me reminiscing about its northern counterparts. Its shopping streets might as well have been Madrid or Paris. The pizza we ate as good as I remember it in Naples, fifteen summers earlier.

streets of Catania, Italy

The following day, as we drove to Siracusa and Agrigento, the landscapes changed dramatically, from neat olive groves that neatly backed up to rolling hills – just like in Andalucía – to towering hills crowned with castles. Sicily could have been Tuscany or it could have been the Côte d’Azure. It could have been the Greek countryside. It could have been Northern Africa. 

Yet at the time, Sicily was unlike any of these places as far as flavor and flair. The natives we came across were jovial, and we were never scammed or overcharged. I could barely find a place to buy a postcard. Maps are unreliable, and I found one person that spoke enough English for me to ask and be answered. Sicily is a little more “off the beaten path” than you’d expect, especially once you’re out of the ports of call.

Sicily felt worlds away from the Italy I’d gotten to know in three previous trips, anchored to the boot by little else than the common language and the pizza. It’s like the underbrush, or the boonies, as far as Italy is concerned. And for as backwards as it seemed, the way Sicilians live all made sense.

Let’s just say that when boarding my plane on Sunday, I didn’t feel ready to go.

Driving is like dangling your mortality right in front of the devil

I was clued into the manic driving practices in Italy when I was 15 and was nearly taken out by a moped in Naples. Half a lifetime later, as we pulled out of the Fontanarossa Airport, I said a small prayer to Saint Christopher.

Whoa.

If you’re in a roundabout, be prepared to stop. Don’t trust stoplights. Park where you feel like. Most highways are not lit at night. And Exit ramps are perfectly acceptable places to drive up when you’re not exiting the highway. 

Our Saturday plan was to wake up early and check out the catacombs in Syracuse, the Greek temples in Agrigento and the preserved mosaics in Piazza Amerina. Syracuse was easy enough to reach, but we’d have to return to Catania to reach Agrigento. After an hour on the A-19 that snakes between Catania and Palermo, we turned off just after Enna. As it turned out, the entire section between the motorway and the city famous for its Valle di Templi is under construction – we were driving behind trucks on gravel highways, making it nearly impossible to pass. 

Three hours after leaving Syracuse and air braking until my ankles were sore, we finally arrived, though we’d have to scratch the Villa Romana del Casale off the itinerary. 

Exploring Siracusa Sicily

That said, renting a car is far more reliable than the bus system, and there are few trains that operate between the major sites. I had worked up enough courage to take the car to Piazza Amerina. I got the feeling that the car was made of cheap plastic as it rattled and hummed to life. I immediately stalled. And stalled a second time, vowing to obey speed limits and turn around if necessary.

We had looked in earnest for a gas station when driving back from Agrigento, and let me warn you – Italian highways are not the places to run out of gas. Though I had one-third of a tank when leaving Catania, within 50 kilometers, there were no bars left, only a piercing beep every ten seconds.

Syracuse Italy

Like getting stranded in Romania, I was glad to not be a novice traveler. I remembered seeing a service station the day before, just past the turn off for Piazza Amerina. I was nearly confident that I could make it the 12 kilometers, but my heart was racing. I had bought data, so I could Skype the rental car company and try to speak to them in Spanish. The Novio was working until noon, four hours from that moment. I had a credit card to pay a towing company.

I watched the miles tick down to the service station, pulling up to a self-service station. “CHIN-QWEN-TI…espera,” I spit out, cramming my hand into my pocket and looking for a scrap of paper with the word for unleaded gas, “BENZINI.”

“Benzina,” the attendant corrected as another washed my windshield. Whatever.  

fusball table

I grew more confident in the car, taking turns past Pergusa with more speed, eventually arriving to the Villa Romana del Casale, my third UNESCO World Heritage site of the weekend. I’d long given up the use of the Italian GPS and instead used my phone’s. After an hour traipsing around 2500-year-old mosaics, I jumped back in my car, set to avoid the steep climb through postcard-esque Amerina.

I was again taken through dirt roads to reach the highway, convinced the plastic car would fall apart around me, cartoon style. I won’t even get into the thrill ride that was the trip to Acitrezza that afternoon – my eyes were transfixed on the GPS! 

The colors are more vibrant than you’d imagine

I was still in a haze from an overnight trip and two planes when I touched down at Fontanarossa Airport, and Mount Etna was veiled in its own smoke. After a nap, I gasped at how regal the volcano was, midnight blue against a clear day with smoke curling out of the top.

Sicily and Italian flags

Sicily has some serious bragging rights when it comes to the rich colors of its landscape. My book stayed packed in my purse as we drove through low-hanging vineyards and climbed steep mountains will houses and church spires dripping down and rolling towards the Mediterranean. This place is seriously jaw-dropping. The smoky ombre of ancient buildings, the dusty green of cyprus trees, and turquoise blue of the ever-present sea.

The outskirts of Syracuse, known as Siracusa locally, are nothing exciting, but its city center is spectacular. Once the center of commerce on the Ionian Sea, the city has 2,700 years of history and was one of the few places we saw Anglo tourists. Think cobbled alleyways, massive fountains and a spotless marble Duomo. 

Duomo de Siracusa

center of Syracuse, Italy

Valle dei Templi, which we arrived at just after 4pm, shone in the waning light.

Greek temple in Sicily

Valle dei Templi Argigento

And Acitrezza, a small beach neighborhood with port side osterias and craggy black rocks, enchanting.

port of acitrezza

I only wish we could have has a panini or arancini with these views!

Sometimes, you have to make your own plan

I’d been warned that Sicily was kind of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure type of place. Reliability was not necessarily something to be expected, and that frustrations were rampant. Because I hadn’t done the planning, I was ready to roll with the punches.

mosaics at Villa Casale Romana

Food was the first – I’d been on an overnight trip, and my cheese bocadillo was a thing of the pat by the time I hit Fiumicino and chowed down a croissant and a macchiato. The Novio had been raving about a pizza place across from the first hotel he’d stayed at, but the place was shuttered for the winter season. It was either loading up on pastries, or eating at a hit-or-miss restaurant down the road.

We went with the latter, and it was a hit. Five tables were crammed into what looked like the family’s living room, and there was no menu. We had four pieces of bruschetta placed in front of us as soon as we’d sat down, plus a plate of pasta piled high with clams, shrimp and fresh parsley, followed by a plate heaped with fried fish. I fell into a coma-like nap later, and it would be the first in a series of small victories that were almost immediately followed by a travel mishap.

Typical Sicilian Fare

The most notable: when we finally made it to the Valle dei Templi after several wrong turns, dirt highways and slow-moving vehicles (and maybe a few near accidents), I was over seeing Greek temples – that’s why I’d gone to Athens. At the foot of a ridge lined with cyprus trees, the columns of the Temple of Heracles pierce the sky, so we drove up the road adjacent to them.

“No, no, you must to pay parking at the next road,” a souvenir stand attendant said. There were bus loads of cruise guests and a very exasperated Novio. Looking at his watch, he announced that we’d never make it to Piazza Amerina before it closed, but that he didn’t care to pay the entrance fee for the temples. I suggested the castle at Enna, but he flashed his teeth and grabbed my hand.

Valle dei Templi walking paths

Construction signs blocked a walking path that would have otherwise been open. I devised a “play dumb” plan should we get caught, but after around 300 metros, the path led to the Temple of Concordia. We spent over an hour walking around the seven temples and the ruins of Olympeion Field, snickering to ourselves when passing guards and other tourists. 

Sicily wanted to play hardball with us, so we threw them a curveball and did things according to our terms.

Valle dei Templi Sicily

We got the payback the following day: first with my no gasoline coasting, and then in Acitrezza when we couldn’t find a place to eat, much less have a beer with a view. We ended up at a self-service bar with overcooked pasta. You win, Sicily.

Much like the south of Spain, Southern Italy is its own place. It’s more rugged, more of a challenge. But it’s delicious and sensual and downright different to most of the other places tourists flock to. I’d love to make a trip back – if only because I didn’t get to eat nearly enough.

Have you ever been to Sicily? What did you like about it? Check out my Bobby Pin map of the places I saw (and where I ate) in Western Sicily for more!

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