The final leg of our European vacation this past summer was the whole reason we planned this trip in the first place: to visit SVV’s former stomping grounds.
A couple years back we had the idea to spend his 40th birthday in Sicily, considering he hadn’t been back since 2000 when he separated from the Navy. But then my parents decided to go, and then my sister and her fiance as well, and pretty soon our Sicilian vacation dwindled from three weeks to two to 10 days to six. But, eventually, we made it.
There wasn’t a whole lot of advanced planning on this portion of our trip, and if you know me, you also know this practically gave me hives. Well, I should revise that statement: I had done a lot of research trying to track down an Airbnb rental…and came up empty. Ditto to hotels. They were either far outside of our price range ($500 a night and up) or so low budget (and, consequently, lowly rated on Trip Advisor) that I didn’t trust them. And after the Great Flea Incident in Guatemala several years back, I’m pretty picky about where we stay. It doesn’t have to be luxury, it just has to be comfortable…and pest-free.
The one thing we did do in advance was book a car online that we picked up on the morning of our departure from the train station near our Rome apartment rental.
Driving tip #1: Don’t rent anything bigger than a Punto or a Panda—otherwise, there’s no way you’re going to fit through the narrow streets of the small Italian towns. It may feel like a clown car at first, but trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
After checking out at Enterprise, we headed south. To where? Well, the island of Sicily—we knew that much. But we didn’t have so much as a map or cell phone signal. No worries, we’d figure it out.
The first thing I noticed about our long, windy drive through varying terrain is that a signal of any kind is non-existent much of the time—buy a printed map; don’t rely on Wi-Fi or cell data—and “rest stops” are few and far between in central and southern Italy.
Driving tip #2: If you’re in need of gas—or worse, must relieve your bladder, like stat—and you seen an autostrada exit, by all means GET OFF. It might be 100 miles until your next one. But when they’re coming up, you’ll know it as they’ll be announced for miles in advance.
We wound up stopping at an autostrada for coffee mid-morning and then again for lunch. You won’t find a McDonald’s at any of the interstate exits; rather, people fill their tanks and their bellies at the autogrilles (essentially a convenience store that is at every service area). And they’re good, too.
We had melt-in-your-mouth paninis, strong espressos, charcuterie, and other delightful sundries throughout our trip and never did it taste like “gas station food.”
You’ll even find artisan cheeses and wine. I could have spent all my vacation fund at the autogrilles (and don’t ask how many individual-size packs of Nutella I purchased either!).
Driving tip #3: When you’re getting food or coffee at an autogrille, pay at the cashier before you order at the counter.
This took us a couple of stops before getting it right, as the order we’re used to is asking for food, receiving said food, paying for food at the counter. Not at Italian gas stations.
Eventually, we were back on the autostrada and on our way. Toward the southern half of the peninsula, we hit a lot of construction and many one-way tunnels that passed straight through mountains and other rock formations. It was a bit frightening at times, particularly as the drivers in Italy are not known for being, well, cautious.
Driving tip #4: Never pass on the right. This goes for all of Europe. It’s illegal, people will think you’re crazy, and you can probably die. Nuff said.
There’s very much an attitude of “you can do anything you want around here—as long as you don’t hurt anybody,” and Italians live that mantra. Lucky for me, SVV was an Italian in a former life—and lived here for three years in the 90’s, I should add—so I had a pretty well-versed guide to show me the ropes.
And I never even had to get behind the wheel either.
Driving tip #5: Headlights and the horn are your friends. It’s not rude to honk in Italy. Flashing your high beams means “get over, buddy; I’m going faster than you—you need to move NOW.” Do as the good gentleman (or woman) says and get over to the right (see tip #4).
Americans easily get offended by flashing lights and honking horns, but in Italy it’s par for the course. Don’t take it personal, bro. Here, everyone drives like an asshole.
The drive down to the toe of the boot took much longer than anticipated, but eventually we arrived in Messina just before dinner. If you’re geographically challenged—in which case, don’t worry; I won’t tell—Sicily is an autonomous island detached from mainland Italy. To reach it, you must board a car ferry and cross the Straits of Messina—after paying 18.20 euro per vehicle, that is.
Once on the ferry, it’s not even an half hour to cross, though allow an hour total to buy your ticket, get in line, load onto the ferry and back off on the other side. After we’d parked and hidden all valuables out of sight, we made our way to the top deck to watch the approach.
In the end, it wound up taking us close to 10 hours, stops included, before we pulled up to Riposto, a little town south of Taormina where we’d spend our first evening.