If you’re Europe based and looking for a budget break, then I’m recommending you check out Northern Sicily. I’ve just come back from a four-day trip and was pleasantly surprised. Here’s what I did, what it costs and why you should go too.
The train ferry
To get to Sicily there are a number of airports served by low-cost carrier Ryanair. However, I didn’t choose to fly into any of them. Instead, I hopped on a flight to Lamezia, which is on the mainland in south western Italy. Why would you do that, you ask? Well, it was cheaper (the flight cost me £21.99 one way just three days ahead of departure) but also it gave me the opportunity to tick something off my bucket list: Europe’s last train ferry.
This is not only unusual, but a lot of fun and inexpensive to boot. My single ticket from Lamezia Terme to Milazzo cost about 14 euros in second class for a 3.5 hour journey. Passengers stay on this Intercity train as the ferry tracks are lined up with those at the port. Then you trundle on. If you’re lucky to be on the first half of the train, you can disembark and stand around to watch as the second set of carriages are shunted on. Throughout the short crossing of the Straits of Messina, you are free to come and go as you please.
Up on deck, you can grab a coffee, watch the scenery or peer down onto the train below. Down on the train, some of your fellow passengers opt to stay in their seats – including in our case one travelling with her pet canary – though be warned, there’s no lights or air-conditioning as the power’s off. On arrival in Messina, the unloading process begins, and you are free to watch the tracks being aligned once more. The train continues on to Palermo, but I chose to stop at Milazzo. The train station is two miles out of town but a bus to the centre costs less than 2 euros.
Before I started researching this trip, I knew very little about Milazzo other than it was the jumping off point for ferries to the Aeolian Islands. I love a good volcano, especially if it’s active, so it was too good to resist. I found a stylish waterfront B&B, L’Ancora, overlooking the marina which had ensuite rooms from 45 euros, very reasonable if there are two of you sharing. Milazzo had a surprise up its sleeve – a hilltop castle and cathedral. My press pass got me in for free but if you pay your way it’s only 5 euros for a ticket. The views from up there are extraordinary: Milazzo is on a promontory so of course from up there you get to see sea on both sides.
I could have stayed up there all afternoon but I had a boat to catch. If you’re keen to see a couple of the Aeolian Islands independently Liberty Lines operate regular hydrofoils from the centre of town. The two hour journey to pretty Panarea, for instance, takes two hours and costs 19,30 euros; Stromboli a few euros more. Play around with the schedules as the routes vary and you can hop on and hop off to make up a bespoke itinerary.
Instead, I opted for a tour, departing from the port a five minute walk from my hotel, which was a little extravagant at 70 euros. The reason was that at this time of year (early autumn) there are no late ferries back from Stromboli and I was keen to see the volcano after dark. So I donned a pink wristband and joined a boatload of Europeans to see first Panarea and then Stromboli. A couple of hours on pretty Panarea was enough for me to have lunch at the Bar del Porto and a stroll past some of the whitewashed houses and the quayside.
From there, a different boat took us to Stromboli, passing some magnificent volcanic scenery along the way. We docked in Stromboli for the passeggiata. A cold beer and the usual snacks went down a treat while I passed the time people watching. The third and final boat took us to the other side of the island to a scar on the landscape called the Sciarra del Fuoco. Old lava flows had scoured away any vegetation. The volcano wasn’t exceptionally active; we saw a few clouds of ash and some small lava fountains – enough to say we’d seen it in action. While you can arrange a boat trip on Stromboli itself, doing a tour meant I could return to Milazzo the same evening.
An early start got me to Palermo Centrale station (a ticket bought online through Trenitalia’s website cost 12,40 euros) in time for a No Mafia tour. Valeria, our guide, was passionate about her cause and told us how the city was fighting back against the actions of the Mafia. Though there’s still a long way to go, the percentage of businesses paying money for fake “protection” has halved. The city is a far safer place than it was in the early 1990s when two of the key prosecutors were murdered in twin bomb attacks a few months apart. The tour cost 29 euros, which included a donation to the grassroots organisation Addiopizzo, which campaigns, educates and fights against the Mafia in Palermo.
For lunch I ordered a veal spleen sandwich called pani ca’ meusa (which was utterly vile) so filled up on arancine – you can taste three different flavours if you order the mini selection at one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Antica Focacceria San Francesco, though be prepared for surly service. Afterwards, I checked in at another great value B&B, A Casa di Josephine, which cost about £59. I thought it was excellent value for a spacious, modern double just around the corner from the railway station. I spent part of the afternoon visiting the small No Mafia museum on the main shopping street Via Vittorio Emanuele and paid my respects at the Piazza della Memoria. Palermo’s a gritty but interesting city with a fabulous UNESCO-listed cathedral. There’s an entrance charge if you want to see the Royal Tombs inside it, but the rest is free.
In the evening, I joined a street food tour with Streaty. This was quite a bit cheaper than many food tours I’ve done, costing 49 euros including all food on the stops and a couple of alcoholic drinks. It was a good opportunity to try some of the carb-rich local favourites, including sweet-sour caponata, bruschetta laden with swordfish roe, delicious fried lentil discs called panelle, the local twist on potato croquettes and that veal spleen sandwich again. Unusually, we didn’t have Palermo’s famous ice cream in a brioche, but that was easily remedied.
Last stop was Erice, reached by cable car from Trapani. I caught a bus from Palermo as it took less than half the time of the train. The bus ticket cost less than 8 euros with Segesta, though I was almost denied boarding as I was wearing a cloth mask instead of the required FFP2 version. Luckily a local lady passed me her spare. The cable car up to Erice took about fifteen minutes, offering some splendid views over Trapani and the local salt works on the way up. This hilltop village is very quaint, with plenty of cobbled streets and a castle to explore. My round trip ticket cost 9,50 euros which was more than worth it. Back at sea level, it was time to hop on the airport bus (4,95 euros) and fly home from Trapani’s airport with Ryanair at a cost of £25.21.
Take out the cost of the tours – much of which you can do yourself on a far smaller budget – and this is a seriously cheap place to visit by European standards. Typically a cappucino and a croissant at a cafe cost about 3 euros and dinner at a reasonable restaurant anything from 15 to 20 euros including a beer. I could have stayed in simpler B&Bs that would have cost me about £25-30 for a single room, but I opted for better quality in a better location. Temperatures in mid September were around 24-26 degrees so it’s definitely a place you can go to slightly off peak and still get decent weather. But most importantly, this was a great place with lots of different things to do and I’m really keen to go back and see more.