Living in Sicily Without a Car
Updated: Jan 16
Gli Americani Senza Macchina
Though the village of Melilli is near to Siracusa and Catania—and has some incredible sights (more to come in future posts)—it is currently off the beaten track for most tourists. The majority of Americans who visit Melilli hail from its sister city of Middletown, Connecticut, where many residents immigrated over the last century.
All to say, that Marco and I are new enough that folks have taken notice. Picture this: A winding, narrow stone street, filled with the sounds of chirping birds and clucking chickens. Neighbors chat in Italian or Sicilian, exchanging greetings of "giornu"—meaning good morning. The sun is shining. A breeze blows up the hillside from the Ionian Sea. Then, out of nowhere, two voices speaking English.
It would be natural to wonder: Who are these people?
When we first arrived, we overheard our next door neighbor's daughter describing us to someone as "gli inglese"—the english speakers. When a cousin of Marco's heard us speaking English on her street the first time, she stepped onto her balcony to warmly welcome us to Melilli. We met another cousin the same way. She recognized Marco from Facebook and heard us speaking English, so she called out, "Ciao, Americani!" and then Marco's father's nickname, "Ianuzzu."
So, it was intriguing to learn recently that we aren't just known as the Americans here, but also as "gli Americani senza macchina"—the Americans without a car!
Is It Possible to Live in Sicily Without a Car?
Living in NYC, Marco and I never needed a car, especially since we seldom left the city. We got everywhere by foot or by public transit. When necessary, we used a car service. But when we decided to buy our house in Melilli, we knew we would have to revisit the question: Car or No Car?
There were several factors to consider:
Proximity to train station: Melilli is not on a train line. The village is perched on a steep hillside, and the nearest train station (Priolo-Melilli) is several kilometers away downhill (or up if you're walking back). We used Google street view to virtually travel the road from Melilli to the station. It did not look promising: narrow roads with little to no shoulder for walking or biking.
Bus service: We heard there was bus service to Melilli, but couldn't find any more information than that. Where did the bus go? How often? We found no bus maps online but decided to assume that yes, there would be at least one bus per day to either Catania, Augusta, or Siracusa. Would it be enough?
Local advice: Everyone we connected with encouraged us to get a car. I checked out car rental prices...and quickly vetoed that option, at least to start.
Personal preference: Marco and I both love walking, trains, and ferries. Neither of us love buses. In fact, I have been known to refuse to take buses because I get so motion sick in traffic.
We're not the only people going to Sicily who have faced this conundrum. When I searched online about public transit in Sicily, I found plenty of information for travelers (though little from the local perspective).
Lonely Planet suggested traveling by train and bus could be done, but that cars also had a benefit. Bloggers, such as Fearless Female Travels and Pauline Travels shared their itineraries for exploring Sicily without a car.
The New York Times even ran a story recently about getting around Sicily by train. The author's tales of scenic routes and old rail lines sounded wonderful and romantic for traveling, not so much for day-to-day functioning.
And that was the crux of the question: We knew we could travel in Sicily by public transit, but what about living? Would we be able to accomplish the boring stuff like grocery shopping and doctor's appointments.
Marco and I had no idea what the answer would be. But we decided to take a gamble on public transit for our first extended stay in Sicily.
Challenge One: Getting to the Osteopath in Siracusa
I live with chronic migraines, which include a lot of neck pain, so I usually see a chiropractor once a week. Long before we left NYC, I began researching chiropractors in the cities near Melilli. I learned there were few chiropractors, but many osteopaths. I read a million reviews online before selecting one to try: Doctor Amato in Siracusa.
I scheduled my first appointment for the Saturday after we arrived in Melilli, which left us little time to figure out the mysterious buses.
Here's what we discovered:
The bus company that serves Melilli is called Azienda Siciliana Trasporti.
There were no bus route maps that we could find online.
There were what looked like bus stop shelters in various places around the edges of Melilli, but no signs indicating "bus stop."
With the lack of signs, there were obviously no bus schedules posted.
However, we could find bus schedules online.
To ensure we got to the appointment on time, we took a taxi to Siracusa and asked the driver where we might get the bus home. He told us the bus station was near the train station.
That evening, we arrived at the "bus station" at 4:30pm to catch the 5pm bus to Melilli. I put station in quotes because it is basically a parking lot where the buses congregate, kind of like teenagers in small towns.
While waiting for the bus, we befriended an elderly woman from Sortino who also seemed to be catching the bus home from Siracusa for the first time. Together, we asked the drivers of all the parked buses, and each new one that arrived, whether they were going to either Sortino or Melilli. Finally, we found our bus, paid our fare, and hopped on.
That's where the magic began.
The Magic Sicilian Bus
The buses we've taken so far in Sicily have been universally clean, quiet, not-crowded, air conditioned, and on time. The biggest delay we've experienced so far was 5 minutes. Sometimes, the buses actually arrive early. We even have a favorite bus driver on our regular route.
Never in my life have I enjoyed riding a bus. Usually, I dread it. Until now.
Only once have I gotten motion sickness on a bus here, and that was because I was texting during the trip.
The bus has become my friend. I've memorized the schedule going to and from Melilli. I'm confident that we can figure out a way to use buses and trains to get almost everywhere we need to go. So confident in fact, that this past week we took on our first big travel-by-public-transit challenge.
Challenge Two: Getting to the Language Exam in Milazzo
As part of applying for citizenship by marriage, it's now required to pass a B1-level Italian language test. There are two different official tests, each offered on set dates 4-5 times per year at designated exam centers.
I'd spent the pandemic not just buying a house in Sicily on the internet, but also learning Italian on the internet. So, confident that I would be ready to try the B1 exam this summer, I set out to find a test center.
I contacted a dozen language schools in Siracusa, Catania, and Taormina. I slowly expanded my search until I found the Laboling school in Milazzo, which offered the exam for the July 21, 2022 date. Bingo. I signed up, found us a place to stay, and figured we'd take the bus and the train.
Again, some people advised we might want to drive, especially since we might need to make multiple train transfers. Others warned us the trains might not be as nice or modern as in the U.S.
But we were stubborn. We would take the train! Though, we did gratefully accept a ride to the train station from our friend Rosanna.
At the station in Siracusa Marco was ill due to a gluten incident (he has a bad allergy), so we were dubious about getting on the train. I convinced him to give it a go with the promise of air conditioning.
Like the buses, the trains were marvelous. There was air conditioning. The ride was smooth. The view was lovely. Even though our train was delayed, meaning we missed our connection in Messina, we used our same ticket to simply hop on the next train to Milazzo.
On our way home, we ended up catching an earlier train from Milazzo to Messina, leaving us with an extra hour to kill. At the spur of the moment, we decided to take the train to Taormina and hang out at the station there for an hour, because it looked pretty in pictures online. It more than lived up to our expectations.
Yes, It Is Possible to Live in Sicily Without a Car
In our case, because Melilli has a bus that goes to and from Siracusa 5-6 times per day, it is 100% possible to live here without a car—and still get where we need to go. One big reason is because Siracusa is a regional transit hub.
From Siracusa, we can catch a train all the way to Milan. Yes, the train actually goes on a ferry over the Strait of Messina. It is as cool as it sounds.
Of course, it's wonderful when friends, family, and neighbors give us rides to places—such as the big grocery and furniture stores outside of town—where we can stock up on heavy items or explore new villages. And someday, we might want to rent a car to travel places that are completely off the bus and train routes.
But overall, we give the buses and trains on the east coast of Sicily five stars. If you're here in Sicily, or planning a trip in the future, definitely consider embracing public transit. We have!
Bonus: Three Main Bus Lines in Sicily
In addition to train service provided by Trenitalia, three main bus companies serve Sicily: