Whether it’s the ball at the end of Italy’s foot, the home of the Mafia, or as the resultingly idyllic setting for parts of the Godfather films, the very mention of Sicily conjures up plenty of iconic imagery, reinforced time and again by popular media and culture. But what of the true Sicily, found beyond all the stereotypes? I had the far from arduous task of going there and finding out.

The first thing to strike me was how messy, dishevelled and backward it appeared to be. From piles of rubbish left by the side of every street, to the absence of any real infrastructure, it felt as if I had stepped back in time.

Civilisation did exist – it just didn’t look very well maintained. With the exception of a few elevated motorways cutting across the island, everything – including towns – appeared untouched for years, as if left to rot. The landscape was the redeeming factor. Miles of sloping mountains, patchwork farms and finely preserved vineyards made each long car ride quite easy – which was just as well, as our route through Sicily would be a lengthy one.

The journey began with a drive south from Palermo through the rugged centre of the island. On the way, we made our first stop at the Segesta Archeological Site – the main feature of which is the Segesta Doric Temple (seen above).

Also in the area was the Greek Theatre, which sits on top of Monte Bàrbaro.

Continuing with the theme of ancient archeological wonders, we came in the afternoon to the Greek ruins at Selinunte. Although there are five temples spread over the vast complex, the most impressive is definitely the Temple of Hera, found close to the entrance. I know because I trekked to the others!

By the evening of our first full day in Sicily, we had made it to the south coast town of San Leone. This gave us our first opportunity to relax and indulge in two of the culinary delights Sicily (and Italy) is rightly acclaimed for: Pizza…

…and gelato (ice cream).

Nourished and refreshed, we got up the next morning and navigated through some of Sicily’s shambolic traffic to the neighbouring city of Agrigento.

Not far outside of it we pulled up at the Valley of the Temples – a UN World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most valued archeological complexes to boot. Pictured above is the 450 BC Temple of Juno, which as you can see still stands proud and resolute in the rich Sicilian sun.

Further out is the Temple of Concord, which comes with a ceiling and a view.

Historically it’s an invaluable area, but scenically it’s not bad either. Of course, there are even more remains spread out around the nearby countryside, but with time moving on and Mt. Etna awaiting, we made do with the main ones.

Unfortunately, though, our rush to the foot of Mt. Etna was largely in vain. By the time we arrived, thick clouds blanketed its distinctive outline, and we were left wondering whether we’d see it at all during our scheduled two night stay.

As we woke the next day, the scene had actually worsened. Not only was Mt. Etna still obscured, but torrents of rain were now turning already bad roads into mini rivers. Driving up Mt. Etna had become impossible, so we decided instead to abscond southwards to the hopefully clearer skies of Syracuse.

Our weather gamble paid off. Better yet, Syracuse was really rather interesting. Starting at the ancient city of Neapolis, we toured the amply sized Greek Theatre, where Plato is known to have spoken.

Elsewhere in Neapolis, we came upon the Ear of Dionysius, which is a large cave carved for optimum acoustics. While inside, we were even lucky enough to have the unique sound of the cave demonstrated to us, through the medium of some impromptu and quite beautiful Sicilian singing.

Moving towards the urban centre, we parked our car and strolled over to Ortygia Island – by far the oldest area in Syracuse.

For me this was a highlight and definitely somewhere I’d recommend exploring.

Essentially it is a dense network of thin lanes running between hundreds of antiquated townhouses – each a different colour and age.

Visually it’s very photogenic – but Ortygia isn’t just a bunch of old streets.

To the south there is also a pleasant (if heavily graffitied) coastal area.

Other sights along the southern shore include Maniace Castle and the Spirito Santo Church (with the latter visible in the above photograph).

Back near the centre, the streets open up a bit and turn into the Piazza del Duomo – a square that is particularly striking thanks to the lavishly designed Church of Santa Lucia, which towers over all the nearby cafe’s and pizzerias.

Leaving Syracuse behind, we returned to Mt. Etna and opted for a last ditch attempt at driving up it. We did eventually have to turn back due to visibility, but not before getting sufficiently high enough to collect some hardened lava.

So, it was now our last day in Sicily and we still had many miles ahead of us if we were to catch our overnight ferry from Palermo to Naples. Despite this pressure of time, however, there was plenty of scenery yet to admire.

This was even more evident as we travelled through the north coast town of Cefalù – a truly lovely sight to behold, if even for a short while.

Come early afternoon, we were back in Palermo, getting lost amid a few unsavoury neighbourhoods before settling down at the port, from where we’d embark on the next phase of our Italian odyssey.

It would be difficult to summarize my time in Sicily, because while I saw a lot, it did leave me with the impression that there was still much to uncover. It is a big place, after all, and four days were never going to be enough. Even so, I’m glad to have experienced what I did.  The history of the island is undeniably rich, the landscapes colossal and the towns generally attractive, if occasionally hideous. It all left me with the desire to return someday and tie up loose ends, hopefully once more without encountering any shady Mafia folk.