Southeastern Sicily is an area of unspoilt natural beauty overflowing with history, art and culinary traditions. There you can explore long sandy beaches, nature reserves, UNESCO World Heritage Sites
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In March 2020 I found myself in Catania, Sicily with a group of about 50 other travel bloggers for TBEX Europe 2020. We were the few who still made the trip there despite the cancellation of TBEX due to COVID-19, resulting in regions beginning to lockdown. We were immediately dubbed the “TBEX Survivors”.
Initially, there were very few COVID-19 cases in Sicily. A few local organisers and sponsors of TBEX were still keen to host activities and trips for “TBEX Survivors”. They wanted to show us the best of Catania and Sicily. I was fortunate enough to be invited Etna Bike Tours and Sicily by Nature to join them on a 2-day Sicily hike and bike tour from Catania.
Etna Bike Tours and Sicily by Nature
Etna Bike Tours and Sicily by Nature are two of the best (if not the best) small group tour agencies in Sicily. As the name suggests Etna Bike Tours offers cycling tours around Sicily and Sicily by Nature offers hiking tours.
These agencies formed a partnership enabling them to offer a range of multi-day tours combining hiking and biking. Tours that outdoor adventure enthusiasts, and anyone looking for a bit of a challenge, will love. With a perfect balance of nature, history, culture and delicious food, these small group (4 – 12 people) tours give the opportunity to experience the very best of Sicily.
Our 2-Day Southeastern Sicily Hike and Bike Tour
I, along with my TBEX Survivor pals, and fun, knowledgable, experienced guides (Maurizio, Úna and Jo from Etna Bike Tours and Vincenzo from Sicily by Nature) took part in a 2-day version of the 6-day ‘South Sicily Hike and Bike Tour‘.
Together we explored Catania and it’s surroundings by foot and by bike. We experienced both parts of the usual tour, which alternates days between the two activities.
Day 1 Hiking in Sicily
Day one of our Sicily Hike and Bike Tour was dedicated to hiking in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Pantalica Nature Reserve and along the Val d’Anapo (Anapo Valley).
I met our guides and the rest of the group at Le Ciminiere near Catania Central Train Station. Despite being a mix of nationalities, ages and backgrounds, it soon became clear we’d all get on well. Especially as most of us all had similar levels of inexperience when it came to mountain biking.
After quick introductions and a briefing, we all excitedly jumped into two vans one of them towing our bikes in a trailer. Off we set off along windy roads into the Sicilian countryside. We took a quick photo stop for the views of Augusta town, then drove through Sortino. An hour and a half later we arrived at Pantalica Nature Reserve and Anapo Valley to start our hike, led by Vincenzo and Úna.
The ‘City of Death’
We headed into Pantalica Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, from the Fusco entrance. Vincenzo gave us a rundown of the route we were going to take, then we continued on.
‘Pantalica’ means ‘city of death’, very fitting due to the prehistoric cemetery, the Necropoli di Pantalica, that’s hidden there. In the late Bronze Age between the 13th and 7th century BC, over 5000 tombs were excavated into the limestone rock of the valley walls.
We hiked for a while along a path admiring the beautiful views into Anapo Valley and of the Anapo River. The river is also known as the ‘Invisible River’, due to it disappearing underground at many points. Along its course is a huge variety of vegetation where many species of fauna can be found.
Then we saw our first of the prehistoric tombs which dot the rocky north face of the valley and resemble a beehive. All that’s left of the tombs now are the empty chambers, each big enough for just one person.
If interested, you can view the items that were excavated from the tombs in the Archaeological Museum in Syracuse. The collection is mainly pottery, weapons and bronze.
After standing taking in the view of the tombs for a while, we continued our hike. We took a brief break to look in the Chapel of the Crucifix which survives from the Byzantine period. At least 1,200 years old, inside there are still the faint remains of a fresco of the crucifixion.
Valle dell’Anapo (Anapo Valley)
As we pressed on with our hike, Vincenzo stopped us from time to time to show us different plants and herbs: calendula, fennel, wild sage, wild asparagus and more.
Created by the Anapo and Calcinara rivers Valle dell’Anapo (Anapo Valley) is a deep, steep, limestone gorge. Running along the bottom is a disused railway line. The track, once connecting the cities of Catania and Ragusa, was dismantled in 1956 and turned into a cycle and hiking path. We had to scramble down the steep uneven slope to get to the path.
Stopping briefly at an abandoned train station, we then followed the trail as it snaked through the valley. We walked through woods, over bridges and through long dark tunnels carved right through the limestone rock. By the end of the day, we’d walked through seven tunnels. They were all pitch black inside and most of us hadn’t thought to bring a torch along. Luckily we were able to make do with the torches on our mobile phones.
Around lunchtime it started to rain, so we sheltered under a rocky overhang whilst we demolished our packed lunches. As we ate we chatted and learnt more from Vincenzo about this area of Sicily and it’s history and nature.
The rain eased off after lunch and we continued our walk. We passing through more disused tunnels until we reached a gorgeous renovated 19th-century farmhouse. This is where the offices for the valley maintenance team are located. We stopped to take some group photos and then noticed something very bizarre indeed.
We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw a fully grown cat suckling from a dog. Of course, we couldn’t miss that photo/ video opportunity and it kept us amused for quite some time.
Finally, we dragged ourselves away to say a quick hello to the resident donkey. Then it was time to continue on our way to meet the other guides Maurizio and Jo, at the end of the trail. Tired out we climbed into the vans and set off to where we would be spending the night.
Overnight Stay at Agriturismo Giannavi
We were lucky enough to spend the night at the fantastic Agriturismo Giannavì. This family-run farm-stay and restaurant is in the Palazzolo Acreide region in the Iblei (Hyblean) Mountains. Surrounded by picturesque views of the Sicilian countryside, it’s the ideal place to recover from a busy day’s outdoor activities.
By the time we arrived at Giannavi’s, it was nearly dark, so after a quick freshen up we headed straight to the restaurant for dinner. Most of the traditional Sicilian dishes served in the restaurant are produced on-site. The meat comes from the livestock farm and the cheeses come from the dairy. Wild vegetables and herbs are collected from the hills around the farm, and the fruit and olives grown between the fields are transformed into preserves, jams and olive oil.
As soon as we were seated around a big dinner table, plate after plate of typical Sicilian food started to appear in front of us. There were breads, meats, cheeses, panatella, roasted vegetables, steak, dessert and. Every dish we tried was absolutely delicious. Our wonderful hosts also kept our glasses topped up with superb home-made red wine.
Towards the end of the meal there was some live music and a shot of limoncello – a perfect end to the evening. Full to bursting we all retired back to our comfortable rooms to get a good nights sleep.
You can stay at Agriturismo Giannavi even if you’re not on a hike and bike or similar tour. In fact, if you’re in this part of Sicily I’d recommend at least a one-night stay to get a taste of their incredible Sicilian food and hospitality. You won’t regret it.
Day 2 Cycling in Sicily
Day two of our Sicily Hike and Bike Tour was dedicated to a scenic 69 km bike ride along a route that would take us through Palazzolo Acreide and Noto (two UNESCO World Heritage towns), to end up at Vendicare Nature Reserve to for some wild flamingo spotting
Following our reasonably early (yet slightly inebriated) night, we woke earlyish next day to admire the early morning views. Then it was back over to the restaurant to fill ourselves up with more tasty food for breakfast in preparation for the long bike ride ahead of us.
After breakfast Maurizio, Úna and Jo from Etna Bike tours helped us get geared up with helmets and gloves, then gave us a quick demo on how the electric bikes that we’d be using worked. I’d used e-bikes to explore Šumava National Park in the Czech Republic and loved it, so was excited to give it another try. Once, we were all reasonably happy with how to handle the bikes, it was time to get going.
It was a beautiful, sunny morning when we set off at a comfortable pace along the country roads in the foothills of the Iblei Mountains. After a while cycling on relatively flat roads and getting used to the e-bikes we reached the first incline and it was time to put the e-bikes to the test.
As I’d used e-bikes before I knew what to expect. The others who hadn’t tried them before were pleasantly surprised at how much difference the battery power made. We still had to put some effort in, and the pain of the steep hills weren’t completely eliminated, but it certainly helped make it all more enjoyable.
At the top of the hill was the archaeological site of Akrai Greek Theatre. Sadly, it was closed due to Sicily beginning to lockdown due to COVID-19. So, despite our best attempts, we couldn’t explore it and set off back the way we’d come, downhill on our bikes.
After a while cycling, we rolled into Palazzolo Acreide, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 40 km west of Syracuse, in the Iblei Mountains. One of the most beautiful villages in Italy, Palazzolo Acreide is known for its fascinating Baroque architecture.
We stopped in the Piazza del Popolo (main town square), next to the town hall. Overlooking and dominating the square is the Basilica di San Sebastian (San Sebastian Church), a perfect photo opportunity.
Soon, we were back on the e-bikes. We continued along both smooth roads and rough, uneven off-road countryside trails. Occasionally we cycled past little farms and through quaint villages and hamlets.
Lunch at Testa dell Aqua
Just as we began to feel a little hungry we stopped in the little hamlet of Testa dell’Acqua. We were just in time for lunch in the small streetside restaurant Antico Forno Carnemolla.
Lunch was Sicilian scaccia, a folded flatbread stuffed with various fillings made with locally sourced ingredients. It was delicious, and unsurprisingly, washed down with local red wine – just a little though, we needed to keep our balance for more cycling.
Dessert at Paola’s Place
Despite being full of scaccia, we weren’t quite done with lunch. Another 5-minute cycle ride out of Testa dell’Acqua we arrived at ‘Paola’s Place’, a little farm in a cave, where ricotta cheese is made.
We had a brief tour of the farm and discovered that alongside ricotta cheese, Paola also specialises in making cannoli. Cannoli is the plural of cannolo, a typical Sicilian dessert. It consists of a tubular deep-fried pastry dough filled with a creamy, sweet ricotta filling and sprinkled with icing sugar.
Paola had prepared a tray of the pastry tubes and a bowl of the ricotta filling. She gave us a demonstration of filling the tubes ready for us to try.
I was dubious about the cannoli, even though everyone else was raving about how good they were. I have an issue with any type of soft or cream cheese although I have no idea why – maybe the texture. But, after plenty of persuasion, I caved in and tried one. I was so glad I did, it was delicious, and I promptly polished off several more, along with a cup of strong coffee.
After we’d filled our faces with Cannoli – it was time to work of all that food with some more cycling. This proved to be the most gruelling part of our days as we navigated uphill, rocky off-road terrain towards Noto valley!
I must admit I walked a lot of the rocky uphill parts. Although the electric bikes made the incline easier, I had the fear of falling off and damaging myself, so I (and some of the others) just didn’t want to risk it. We were impressed by some of the more experienced members of the group who cycled all the way.
Finally, we found ourselves at the archaeological site of Noto Antica, the original city of Noto, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1963. All that’s now left is overgrown ruins, the remains of the walls, forts, churches and caves of the ancient city.
We just passed through Noto Antica, but you could easily spend more time wandering around the atmospheric ruins. It’s green, peaceful, quiet and full of birds and butterflies.
The path out of Noto Antica soon turned into quite a steep, winding trail. Some of it was also shingle which resulted in a pretty treacherous route for those of us that weren’t used to off-road cycling. Stopping and starting to walk the more tricky sections we soon lost the more confident people as they sped off downhill.
A couple of minor incidents had people skidding off their bikes. Eventually though, everyone regrouped at the bottom, with only the odd scrape and bruise between us.
Next stop, about 8 km from Noto Antico, via a route full of orange and lemon groves, was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Noto. The city was rebuilt from scratch in this new location after old Noto was destroyed by the earthquake. It’s now known as the capital of Sicilian Baroque and is famous for its 18th-century cathedral and other Baroque architecture.
We slowly cycled into Noto and came to a halt at Porta Reale, a huge 19th-century archway which serves as a gateway to the historic centre. We stopped here briefly to regroup and take some photos. Several of us also sampled a rum baba from Caffè Sicilia near the arch. If you don’t know a rum baba is, it’s a small sponge cake drenched in syrup and rum, it was delicious!
We cycled through the arch and along Corso Vittoro Emanuele, the cobbled main road, until we reached Piazza Municipio, Noto’s main square. This spectacular square features the impressive and beautiful Noto Cathedral and the town hall, Palazzo Ducezio.
We balanced our bikes up along the curb for a photo then went for a quick nosy around the inside of the cathedral. There are lots of steps leading up to the cathedral which was almost too much for our cycled out legs, but it was worth it. From the top, there’s a great view of the town hall opposite.
There are several other Baroque buildings in the city and it would definitely be worth spending some time exploring. Sadly, we were getting pushed for time so it was back on the bikes to continue our ride towards the coast.
Before long we came across a bit of a problem, our route was blocked by roadworks, with workmen busy digging up the road. To go round it would have meant about a 7 km detour which none of us was thrilled about, especially as it would mean missing the last stop of our tour.
Luckily our guide Maurizio was able to persuade the workmen to let us walk through where they were working. That involved lifting our bikes over the blockades first, an unexpected extra workout for the day!
With the roadworks behind us we set off again, only to be brought to an abrupt halt again shortly after. This time we had to wait patiently as a shepherd and his sheepdogs herded a couple of hundred sheep past us. Sicilian countryside life at it’s finest!
Vendicari Nature Reserve
At last, 69 km and many hours after we started we arrived at the final destination of our two-day Sicily hike and bike tour, Vendicari Nature Reserve.
We’d all been looking forward to this part as it’s home to pink flamingos. We’d been concerned we wouldn’t make it in time to see them and for sunset, but luckily we made it just in time. With sore bums and shaky legs, we passed our bikes back to be loaded into the waiting van and headed to the entrance of the reserve.
Vincenzo, from Sicily by Nature was our guide here. He explained that the reserve is the migrating ground for thousands of birds. In the autumn waders such as flamingos, storks, herons and cormorants fly there on their way to Africa in the Autumn. In the winter other birds such as ducks, mallards, and terns pass through.
The Vendicari nature reserve covers 1,500 hectares and boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in Sicily. There are also several hiking trails along the coast, along with marshes and saltpans. It’s a birdwatchers paradise and there are several hides dotted about – so don’t forget your binoculars.
We stopped in one of the hides to look for flamingos and were able to spot several in the distance. A better view of them was to be had a short while later from the sandy trail we took towards the Swabian tower and old tuna fishery.
This area of Sicily used to be known for tuna fishing. The Tonnara (fishing processing plant) of Vendicari is one of the most unique sites in eastern Sicily. We explored the archaeological remains of the fishery whilst Vincenzo shared some history with us, then we took photos as the sun began to set.
Return to Catania
As the sun began to set we headed back to the vans to end our Southeastern Sicily Hike and Bike Tour with a 2 hour(ish) drive back to Catania. Exhausted and saddle sore but happy and content. We all had a big sense of achievement at having completed the 2-day tour. But, it wasn’t quite over, we were in for one last surprise.
As we drove back to Catania Mount Etna decided to put on a small show for us. She started erupting in the distance and we could see the orange, red lava shooting into the clear early evening sky. What a perfect end to the most amazing two days. Most of us snoozed our way through the rest of the journey.
As I mentioned earlier the tour we did was just 2 days of the 6-day ‘The South Sicily Hike and Bike Tour’ offered by Etna Bike Tours and Sicily by Nature. But, it was ample to give us a taste of both the hike and bike aspects of their longer tour. It was a fantastic way to see the southeast of Sicily. I’d love to return one day to do the full tour.
Within the next couple of days after the tour, our group of “TBEX Survivors” quickly had to evacuate ourselves from Catania. The city and the rest of Italy went into lockdown due to COVID-19. Despite this, the Sicily Hike and Bike tour made our very short trip to Catania worth it. I highly recommend a tour with Etna Bike Tours and Sicily by Nature to anyone up for an adventure who wants to explore Sicily.
Where to Stay in Catania, Sicily
Italy Travel Resources
Planning your trip to Italy? Here are some of our recommended useful resources to help you have the best time possible:
|● DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE. If you’re travelling long-term like us and from the EU True Traveller is best. If you’re from other countries worldwide, World Nomads is good. |
A new contender for long-term travel insurance is SafetyWing, which you can pay for on a month by month basis. This is also a good option for shorter trips.
● Our go-to for self-catering accommodation is Vrbo.
● Before booking accommodation, check reviews on TripAdvisor.
● Even in the days of Google we still like to use guidebooks for ideas.
Have you visited Catania? What other great things did you find to see and do there?
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Product Review Disclosure: Etna Bike Tours and Sicily by Nature provided me with a complimentary 2-Day Sicily Hike and Bike Tour. This did not influence my post in any way and as always I’ve provided balanced and honest reviews. Read more in our full Product Review Disclosure.