Sicily On a Shoestring
With Euro now at an unfavorable exchange rate against the Dollar, and the worldwide economic crisis raging on, you could think you better not travel to Europe until the worst is over. This could be seen as a wise idea, but actually you can still travel like a boss, just paying more attention to your wallet! When traveling, “on a budget” does not always mean “crappy holidays”. Quite the contrary – if you can be a just a little more flexible and avoid high season.
If you’re on a budget and want to visit Italy, Sicilia is one of your best bets – it is more affordable than the classic Italian hot touristic spots, and nonetheless it is a spectacular island that encloses Italy’s best: gentle weather, mouthwatering treats, musical language, friendly people, the sea, the mountains, the countryside. Not to mention how the place is rich in history and culture, resulting from the mix of all the people who conquered or influenced the island in the past. Sicily was indeed a melting pot, and it still shows!
High Season VS Low Season
The time of the year in which you are traveling makes a great difference for both your wallet and your Italian experience. Keep in mind that summer months (especially July-August) are usually quite hot and crowded (as in, people all over the place), and prices are definitely higher than in autumn or spring, when the weather is sweeter, visiting is easier and there are less tourists around.
When browsing flight companies for a USA-Sicily flight, you could notice that flights to Italy are not the cheapest ones to Europe. Consider about using a two-step approach, that basically involves booking the cheapest ticket for a city in Europe, and another one (with a no-frills, low-fares company, or with the less expensive one you can find) from there to Sicily. You best plan it properly and with great attention to avoid disappointment, taking in account where and when you need to arrive, time expense, distances, layovers and so on.
It can look like a big hassle, but give it a try, because sometimes the savings make all this worth it.
Instead of a hotel, you could consider to book in a B&B, a family-run guesthouse or a hostel with kitchen – why should you pay hundreds of Euros per night when you can have the same service for much less? You need a bed and some breakfast, that’s it. Don’t forget to shop around to find a good combination price/quality.
If you are going to stay on the island for a while, think about renting a small apartment. If you choose wisely, this should not leave as deep a dent in your wallet as staying in a hotel for a long time, especially if you’re traveling with some friends. In fact, you’ll be living like at home, just…in Sicily. How does this sound? If you like the idea, take a look at sites like vacationrentals.bootsnall.com, sicilyrentals.com or vrbo.com, where owners rent their apartments.
And what about Couchsurfing.com? If you already know about this website, where you can find people willing to host you for a night, then you and your wallet are safe, plus you’ll get to know amazing people. Don’t forget to bring some gifts or to cook a nice dinner for your host!
Eating in a restaurant is of course very nice, but remember to walk away from touristic areas – just a couple of blocks away is sometimes enough to escape rip-offs. When getting a coffee, drink it like a local – standing at the counter. It’s way cheaper.
Above all, self-catering is the option that really helps saving some money. Supermarkets where you can get whatever you need and open-air markets are a cheap and healthy choice, plus you get to try the freshest products of the land – be it fish, meat or vegetables. Street food is nourishing and inexpensive – arancine, pani ca meusa, sfincione, panelle, crocché, couscous and brioche con gelato will fill your stomach, help you keep your wallet filled too, and on top of that, make you happy.
The most famous and suggestive markets of Sicily are perhaps in Palermo, and they are named respectively Ballarò, Capo and Vuccirìa. Such markets are usually open from around 8-9 am (or earlier) to 7pm; on Wednesdays they close around 2pm and they are closed on Sundays. Needless to say, the earlier you go, the fresher the food. Catania also hosts some fine markets – visit the Pescheria off Piazza Duomo for delicious fresh swordfish.
If you rented a house, or if your hostel has a kitchen, cooking with such ingredients will be a lovely, rewarding and cheap experience, especially if you’ll meet some Sicilian friends who will teach you how to cook Sicilian-style. You may want to take a look at www.slowtrav.com/italy/recipes/index.htm for some handy recipes.
“If you can, get there on foot”. That’s right – check the distances on a detailed map, get a bottle of water, and you’re good to go! Avoiding public transportation and taxis whenever you can is always, of course, the cheapest choice. But if it’s not possible, bear in mind that the slower you travel, the less you spend.
You could take a train for traveling along the coast (just as many locals would suggest you to do) or even rent a car with GPS (the smaller the car, the cheaper it is) – this would let you move in complete freedom on the island and even give you shelter for a night or two if needed.
Beware though! Petrol is definitely not cheap. So you gain in freedom and time, but spend a bit of money in the process. The choice is yours! Autoeurope.com is useful to check out for prices and best deals. Some people like to rent scooters, but if Italian car drivers are known for being quite undisciplined, it is widely acknowledged that scooter drivers are even worse…!
Within Sicily, it is also common to take one of the blue buses (city buses are usually orange) that usually stop in different zones and provide service among the cities. Usually you will find those blue buses near the city main train station. Speaking of which, Trenitalia.com is known for being messy and always late, but taking a train is actually a good idea. Tickets can be purchased online (hint-look for special offers, they could be well hidden).
Always stamp your ticket to avoid fines. For trains, do it before boarding using one of the small orange machines on the platform; for blue buses, ask the driver before departure; on the orange buses, do it immediately upon boarding using the machine. Keep the ticket and show it to the inspector if requested.
You can also move to/from the island using a ferry boat. Tirrenia is the most important ship operator servicing Sicily, with daily departures to Lipari, Naples, Genoa, and Sardinia. The bilingual site provides schedules and useful ticket information. Snav has faster ships and a fleet of hydrofoils (service is only seasonal and their site is in Italian only). Get a look at ferriesonline.com as well.
Being on an island, you’ll never be that far away from the coast, wherever you are.
Visiting Sicilian beaches will cost you nothing if you decide to go to a public one. Beaches are either public or private. To enter the private ones, that are usually equipped with sun-beds, umbrellas and so on, you must pay a fee. Public or “free” beaches usually have no such services. In 2011, six Sicilian beaches have been awarded with the Blue Flag, that signals the cleanest waters of Europe – such places are Porto Paolo (Menfi), Pozzallo (Ragusa), Ispica (Ragusa), Fiumefreddo and Cottone (Catania), and Marina di Ragusa (Ragusa). If you want to visit the Aeolian Islands, you can’t miss the Spiaggia di Sabbia Nera (black sand beach) on Vulcano, and its counterpart, the Spiaggia Bianca (white beach) of Lipari. Don’t miss Alcamo Marina, San Vito Lo Capo and Balestrate beaches near Trapani, and take time to visit the magnificent Scala dei Turchi near Agrigento. Vendicari, Scicli and Pachino near Ragusa are also worth a visit.
Fairs and Festivals
Many festivals take place in the whole island, especially in Easter time and during summer. Visiting them is interesting and above all, free. As they usually include religious processions, food, sport matches, music, dances, street games and folklore, they are definitely a good choice to spend a day or a night with locals. You may want to be in Sicily for festivals like Saint Rosalia in Palermo (July 15th), for the Caper Festival on Salina island (where the famous movie The Postman was shot. First week of June), or for the Festa del Mandorlo in Fiore (Almond Blossom Festival. First weeks of February) in Agrigento, just to name three famous ones.
Cheaper that the coastal zones, inner Sicily is somewhat more rustic but extremely fascinating, and you may notice that there’s less people around. This doesn’t mean it is any less pleasant to visit, though –its hills, its valleys and its mountains are definitely a nice break from the waves; plus, the weather may be a bit less hot in the summer months. Enna, also known as “Sicily’s bellybutton”, is a city of ancient castles and stone streets, filled with worshipers on July 2nd for the Madonna Festival, when processions with huge statues parade through the city. Piazza Armerina is also a nice place to see, with his famous ruins and mosaics. Consider Ragusa and Modica as well, they’re worth a visit. Modica is home to one of the best Italian chocolates.
So if you’re on a budget, do not drop the idea of traveling to Italy – set your mind on Sicily!
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