Winding roads and mountain views - discover the very best of this Mediterranean island on a road trip around the classic race route.
It was May 1930. In the closing stages of the Targa Florio road race in Sicily’s northern mountains, Alfa Romeo driver Achille Varzi was running low on fuel. Rather than waste time refilling at the roadside, Varzi’s ride-on mechanic poured petrol into the rear-mounted tank as they roared around the bends. Hitting a bump in the road, he spilled a few drops onto the red-hot exhaust. Flames shot up around them but Varzi simply floored the accelerator, while his mechanic frantically beat them out with a seat cushion. Eventually they crossed the line in first place, almost literally in a blaze of glory.
The historic Targa Florio race
The Targa Florio was first held in 1906, making it one of the oldest races in the world. The route used various courses over the years, including one that lassoed the whole island, but the most common was called the Circuit Piccolo – a 45-mile loop around the western half of the Madonie, which cars lapped about ten times. With hundreds of corners, curves and bends, it had more more braking zones, more gear changes and – thanks to a long straight – higher speeds than any other race, hence why manufacturers used it to test their latest inventions. In many ways, the Targa Florio accelerated the development of the newfangled motor car.
In those early days, villagers were warned of the race’s arrival by a man banging a drum. “Lock up your dogs, chickens and children,” he would shout. “The Targa Florio is coming!” Many of the locals had never seen a car before. The fastest they had ever travelled was on a runaway donkey cart. All of a sudden they had thunderous racing cars skimming their doorsteps, leaving comet tails of dust behind. They went wild for the racing.
We leave the cobbled, trench-like streets of Caltavuturo and head into the countryside, which looks surprisingly refreshed after spring rains. The road loops around the rolling hills like an untied shoelace, through bottle-green fields bursting with yellow wildflowers and bright poppies. High peaks appear like ghosts through an ethereal perma-haze, and the temperature outside the car nudges 30°C. In just a few months from now the landscape will return to its more familiar sun-dried look, as golden and crispy as an oven-roasted chicken.
A rough and crumble road trip
At Floriopoli the road passes by the old pit complex and grandstands, where racers would be released at 30-second intervals to start their laps. Today it’s completely abandoned; the only signs of life a few pigeons flapping around the crumbling structure. And it’s not just the buildings that are falling apart...
In some places the road surface resembles a ploughed field. In others, tree roots have burrowed under the tarmac and ruptured the surface. Around one corner the road subsides completely, leaving a crater large enough to consume an entire four-door saloon. It almost does. The Targa was famous for its lumps and bumps, but even back in the day it wasn’t this bad. The problem is that when the race ended, so did the investment, so roads once maintained for the benefit of the event now lack a little TLC.
Some smooth stretches remain – especially to the east of the Madonie on the old Grande Circuit – but elsewhere you’re wary of building up too much speed in case the surface disintegrates around the next corner. In someone else’s £60k car with expensive wheels and all sorts of ground-skimming carbon fibre adornments, it’s a bit nerve-racking. A knockabout hire car; something with plump tyres, soft suspension and a complimentary damage waiver, would be ideal.
A matter of life and death
Then again, the Targa was never supposed to be a leisurely Sunday drive. The risk versus reward was one of the attractions for the big-name drivers who came here. Sadly, some of them never made it back home. So to ward off bad luck, superstitious Alfa Romeo drivers – among them a young Enzo Ferrari – would paint a four-leaf clover on their cars. To this day, the quadrifoglio remains the symbol of a performance Alfa.
It worked. Between 1930 and 1935 Alfa won the Targa six times in a row. Over the next few decades the cars became faster and faster and the competition ever fiercer, while Ferrari and Porsche became the ones to beat. Alfa’s final victory came in 1975, by which time average speeds had reached 65mph. Driving it now, threading between olive groves and through hilltop villages with their Game of Thrones castles and ancient bell towers, it’s impossible to fathom how they went so fast. Didn’t they want to look at the view?
Sure enough, after the 1977 event – which was forcibly stopped by the police on lap four after yet more fatalities – the race was cancelled for good. The roads were finally deemed too dangerous for modern, mega-horsepower racing cars. As one historian put it, “the Targa became a prisoner of its own geography.”
While those high speeds might be long gone, the geography – and those views – remain.
Discover more of our favourite road trips
- Floriopoli – Site of the old pit straight and grandstand (now fenced off)
- Caltavuturo – A 16th-century town clinging to the mountainside. The original route passed through it on what’s now the SS120; the later piccolo circuit turned left just before it, along the SP24.
- Petralia Soprana – One of the highest towns in the Madonie range and the prettiest places on the whole island. On a clear day the views stretch as far as Mount Etna in the south-east.
- Castelbuono – On the old grande circuit, this takes its name from the cube-shaped castle around which the town was built in the 1300s.
- Collesano – An iconic Targa town, through which all race routes passed. Birthplace of local hero Nino Vaccarella, it’s now home to the little Museo Targa Florio, worth a visit for a few euros per person.
Highs and lows of the Targa Florio
- 1906 – Vicenzo Florio, the son of a Sicilian industrialist, founds the Targa Florio. Targa means ‘licence plate’, and refers to the decorative, art nouveau-style plate presented to the winner.
- 1922 – Enzo Ferrari (right) swaps his defective carburettor for one from a teammate’s car. Upon discovering this, his teammate – Baroness Maria Antonietta d’Avanzo – arranges for him to be trapped in a lift for ten hours on race day. From then on, Enzo always takes the stairs…
- 1926 – Count Giulio Masetti dies when his number 13 Delage overturns on a sharp bend near Sclafani Bagni. The number 13 has since been retired from top-level racing (with the odd exception).
- 1932 – After heavy rains and landslips damage much of the Grande circuit, Vicenzo Florio persuades Benito Mussolini to invest in a new link road between the mountain villages of Caltavuturo and Collesano. He agrees and the Circuit Piccolo is born.
- 1970 – Leo Kinnunen, driving a Porsche 908/3, laps the 45-mile Piccolo circuit in 33 minutes and 36 seconds flat, at an average speed of 79.89mph. It was, and still is, the fastest lap in the Targa’s history.
- 1977 – The last ever ‘real’ Targa Florio is prematurely halted by police after a crash kills two spectators and injures another five. The event soon returns as a rally – rather than a sports car race – and is now part of the Italian Rally Championship.
Plan your trip: Sicily and the Targa Florio
Getting around Sicily
Flights – Palermo and Catania airports are both served by the likes of EasyJet and BA from several UK cities, with more frequent flights in the summer. Palermo is the closest to the Madonie Mountains and the Targa route, but it’s only a 90-minute drive to Catania.
Hire cars – The major rental companies operate from both airports. If you can, pack light and choose a small hatchback – a Fiat Panda would be ideal if you really want to blend in.
It’ll make life much easier in the tight towns, on the corners, and on the Targa’s weathered surfaces.
Routes – All of the Targa routes are clearly marked and signposted. We’d recommend doing the pre-war, 91-mile Grande loop, which includes more of the stunning mountain-top villages on the eastern side of the Madonie. Allow two or three days to explore it properly.
The Piccolo route, which we drove, is half that distance at roughly 45 miles.
Where to stay
Collesano – The rustic town through which every iteration of the Targa passed – the Collesano Curve was one of the most famous vantage points. It’s a little more geared up for tourists than some of the smaller mountain settlements, but it would still be best to brush-up on your basic phrases.
Petralia Soprana – Twinned with the adjacent Petralia Sottana, pretty Soprana is a little glimpse of heaven on a hillside: stone churches, medieval squares, sloping streets and long views. There are good eateries and lots of lovely B&Bs from £50/night.
Cefalu – A seaside resort – not far off the route of the Targa – where the northern mountains meet the Mediterranean. Famous for its 12th-century, fortress-like cathedral, cobbled walkways and long sandy beach with countless restaurants along the promenade – and film buffs may like to know that it was used as a location in Cinema Paradiso.
What to do
Museums – There are three museums devoted to all things Targa Florio: the Museo Targa Florio in Collesano, the Museo Vincenzo Florio in Cerda, and the more substantial Museo del Motorismo Siciliano in Termini Imerese, back towards Palermo.
Explore on foot – After a glimpse of what the Madonie national park has to offer from the Targa Florio route, you may be tempted to get off the road and explore on foot. It’s to be recommended – there are many walks and treks, including guided ones, of varying length and difficulty.
Mount Etna – While the Madonie mountains dominate the north, it’s hard to escape their more explosive neighbour to the east – Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. Despite constant eruptions and fiery lava flows, you can take guided treks to the crater’s edge.
Soak up history – From the city of Syracuse in the south-east – birthplace of Archimedes and home to the 16,000-seater Teatro Greco – to the Temple of Segesta in the north-west, Sicily has some of Europe’s most diverse and well-preserved archaeological sites.
Photographs by Thomas Salt