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Trip Report 9 Nights in Sicily -- November 2011

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We just returned from a 9 day trip around Western/Southern Sicily.

When we originally booked this trip, I did not know that this was going to be our honeymoon, but with some tight planning, I managed to fit a wedding into the time between booking and arriving so this became a very special trip! Sicily was intriguing, beautiful, challenging, varied, and an amazing place to spend time. We took it easier than I had originally planned since we were both rather exhausted after our whirlwind wedding, but we had a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Every aspect of our trip was better than I had expected based on my reading – a very pleasant surprise!

Background
We are a couple in our mid-40s who live in the NYC tri-state area, so are used to busy driving and high prices. We have done similar driving trips in mainland Italy and Spain and have traveled around quite a bit of Europe, so are fairly comfortable with this type of trip. We unfortunately speak no Italian; it would have been helpful as Sicilians speak the least English of anywhere we’ve visited; however, we were able to function in restaurants, hotels, shops, etc.

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    Day 1 – Arrival and Palermo
    We arrived in Palermo via Rome around noon and jumped into a cab, making the mistake of not asking the cab driver first what the fare would be. So of course, we learned later that we were overcharged by about 20E. Note that it is not a joke about the crazy Palermo driving…we were in a permit only lane with vehicles driving face on in the opposite direction and swerving over to avoid us at the very last moment, traffic signals and signs are only suggestions, and parallel parking is 3 deep in places. The scenery from the airport was breathtaking, and it was sunny and about 70 degrees outside, delightful! The ride was scary, but it sure did perk us up after the long flight.

    We checked into the Grand Hotel Wagner; it was a very nice room with an excellent bathroom although quite small; standard European balcony overlooking semi-busy street. We took off walking and saw the opera house, the “four corners,” the primary food market and the cathedral. We stopped at the Tour Café for a tasty arrancini and prosecco – nice café near the four corners. After a couple of hours watching the street scene from the balcony (we’re still slightly mystified by the gentleman “working” the corner street parking), we enjoyed a leisurely, delicious dinner at Lo Scudiero – our most expensive meal in Sicily (we splurged on the wine) but fabulous and a nice, local place. The lemon cake was superb and service impeccable.

    Day 2 – Palermo Tour
    We hired Michele (“Michael”) Gallo of thinksicily.net for a full day driving tour of Palermo since we didn’t have much time and wanted to pack all of the sites into one day. Michele was prompt and thorough, and very informative about life in Palermo. A truly charming host and although not cheap, we felt it was money well spent. He took us to Monreale, which was more beautiful than we expected; we followed this with the catacombs Capuchin (macabre but really interesting to see); the Norman Palace (Roger’s chapel with its exquisite murals and ceiling was I think my favorite site of the trip); lunch a local seafood restaurant by the harbor, on to the shrine to St. Rosalia on Mount Pellegrino with fabulous views of the city along the way, and on to Mondello beach to see this very nice resort town. We really covered a lot of ground. We ate dinner at a restaurant near (about a block away) from the hotel that Michele recommended that was delicious. We enjoyed a walk around the theater square after dinner which was thronged with young people out on a Saturday night – great people watching.

    General Impressions of Palermo
    This city is probably awful in the heat of summer, but in early November we found it fascinating and charming. The approach and surrounding topography is dramatic, it was not as dirty as I thought it would be based on other reports, nor as loud, or as chaotic (walking or driving), and we never felt the least bit afraid walking around even some narrow back streets in residential areas. The sites here were impressive and unique (one does not see much Norman art in other large European cities outside of museums) and the city has an interesting multi-cultural flavor and architecture. Mondello beach was white sand and beautiful, clear blue water. We also did some of our best eating in Palermo. I kept thinking while we were there “what is all the fuss about?” since I had been quite apprehensive about this leg of our trip based on safety and pleasantness issues. Palermo was a big and pleasant surprise.

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    Day 3 – Car Pick up and Agrigento
    We slept in (kind of…there was quite a lot of street noise from our room), had breakfast, and headed by taxi to the airport. We had contemplated taking the bus, which sounded easy and cheap, but we had quite a lot of luggage and were feeling lazy. Anyway, now we knew from Michele and the hotel folks that the taxi should be 38E from the hotel…so although the meter read 60E when we got there, we handed the driver 38E and he drove away without a fuss. Car rental was easy – had booked from the states through Auto Europe; a small Lancer was awaiting and off we went. This was Sunday so there was little traffic. More on driving later…no issues on this leg.

    We checked into the Villa Athena around 3:00 and raced to the Valley of the Temples (a short walk to the entrance from the hotel; the hotel is fenced off so you do need to use the official entrance to the site), afraid we were going to miss this site due to our lazy start on the day. We needn’t have worried, as there was ample time to see the site, enjoy a leisurely glass of wine at a café on the grounds, and enjoy the sunset and after dark spectacular views of the temples (the property is open until 8 pm). We had a delicious pizza dinner at the top of the road where the hotel was situated – dirt cheap pizza and wine and very friendly service and totally enjoyable. We had a temple view room and it was spectacular at night. (Separate hotel reviews to follow).

    Day 4 – Oops!
    Well, we are on our honeymoon so slept in again today. Our original plan had been to drive to the Villa Roman Casale, have lunch, and then continue on to Caltigirone, making a loop back to Agrigento. Which plan we thought we had time to do despite our rather late start, until we headed merrily out of town and the SS640 simply ended for construction with no signs that we could make out re: detour. So, we wound our way through small towns and countryside to try to locate a town further up the route where we could pick it back up…this cost us 90 minutes (although we were proud to be successful) and meant that we basically spent the whole day driving, without lunch, visiting only Caltigirone in the end. This was a charming town, we climbed the steps and checked out some pottery studios, and we encountered some fabulous scenery along the way, but we rather wasted this day. Oh, well.

    Anyway, later had one of our better meals of the trip at the Trattoria dei Templei in Agrigento (it was warm enough to eat outside this evening) with very friendly service and ate too much to make up for missed lunch. The ink squid pasta was some of the best stuff I ever ate, followed by the freshest fried shrimp ever and ended with a scrumptious warm chocolate cake. Yum!

    Agrigento Impressions:
    The Valley of the Temples is not to be missed; it is beautiful, mysterious, historical, and unique. We also adored the Villa Athena. However, in retrospect we could have spent one night here and moved on to Siracusa and seen a Baroque town or two instead of staying a second night here. If it had been warm enough to use the pool I might rethink this…

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    Day 5 – On to Siracusa
    We had planned to take the SS640 today to Siracusa but after yesterday’s debacle, we decided to take the SS115 through Gela, etc., not a terribly lovely drive (at least from Siracusa through Gela) but some nice farmland and interesting scenery beyond. Much of this stretch reminded me of Napa/Sonoma, with a lot of grapes and olives. The large scale agriculture was interesting as well, with fields of citrus trees, olive trees, and grapes under cultivation as well as various vegetables. The area around Ragusa was also lovely with white stone fences everywhere breaking up the hills. We had considered stopping at a Baroque town or two on the way but decided to move on to Siracusa and depending on how we felt, back tracking to Noto in the next day or two if we had the inclination.

    We checked into the Hotel Cavalieri in Siracusa mid-afternoon, where with the assistance of the owners we were able to find legal, free parking on the street, and took the short walk into Ortygia (this hotel is about 4 blocks from the Ortygia bridges). We loved Ortygia…it is atmospheric, with windy little alleyways and a couple of beautiful squares, including the Duomo plaza which was a top site on my list of Sicily – Baroque, freshly cleaned, and absolutely stunning. The Duomo itself was very interesting as well, with the obvious integration with the old Greek temple with the “newer” structure. There was charming shopping in Ortygia as well. Dinner that night was at a “gourmet” pizzeria/trattoria next to the hotel filled with locals recommended by the hotel owners that was excellent. Not a word of English spoken here so ordering was a little tricky, but a delicious meal.

    Day 6 – Siracusa
    We had breakfast at the hotel and walked to the archaeological park to see the Greek theater and surrounding sites. This is a beautiful, intact theater, the Ear of Dionysis was cool to see, and we wandered around for a while. I was a little surprised, having looked at maps before our trip, at how relatively small this site is compared to what I had expected, but it was certainly worthwhile; however, the entire site could be seen in about an hour, while I had thought it would take most of the day. I was also surprised based on the maps that it was only about a 20 minutes walk from Ortygia – it looked further. We skipped the museum as I knew my husband didn’t have it in him, so the entire park took a little more than two hours to visit, including walking time to and from the site.

    After the theater, etc., we moved on to the Duomo Plaza for an hour or two for a snack, drinks, and just watched the people go by…then back to the hotel for a siesta and then back into Ortygia for a little shopping, Internet café time, and dinner. We decided to skip the Baroque towns as the Duomo plaza was charmingly Baroque, we are lazy, and husband is not that interested in the Baroque architecture. There was a spectacular, hours long lighting storm that evening and we sat in the Archimedes plaza and watched the “fireworks.” Dinner was at Ristoronte Porta Marina and was very good…tried my first sea urchin pasta which was delicious. We got rained on returning the hotel and ducked into the uber-cool “CityLife” restaurant/bar around the corner from the hotel for an after dinner libation and some lively local company.

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    Day 7 – Taormina
    Our car was still where we left it on the street, unscathed (phew) and we were off the Taormina. The lighting storm of yesterday evening had morphed into a full blown rain storm today, so we were driving in a full downpour. Fortunately, the route from Siracusa to Taormina is made up of a series of many tunnels so we could get out of the rain for stretches. Also, it stopped raining as we approached Catania with a spectacular rainbow spanning Etna to the city – a beautiful site.

    This leg took us onto our first toll road, and a word of caution…at the toll booth was a man sitting on a chair who handed us our ticket – of course when we looked more closely, we realized he had handed us an advertisement to “get out of debt cheaply” and we did not have our toll ticket! We felt like fools, but fortunately, the woman who took the toll at Taormina was very understanding and since our Via Michelin directions had indicated the toll was 1.7E, we had some credibility with her. After a treacherous and lost wandering through the streets of Taormina in the rain, we pulled over to an empty parking space to try to figure out the map, and when I looked up out of the corner of my eye I saw the sign “Carlotta” right in front of our faces. Kismet! We checked into the Villa Carlotta, enjoyed a welcome drink in their upstairs lounge, and headed up into Taormina. It was still raining lightly but the town was still charming and atmospheric – we spent the afternoon window shopping, stopping in cafes, and then enjoying a couple of hours on our patio overlooking the sea view before dinner.

    We had some problems with restaurant closures in Siracusa due to the off season, but this really became a problem in Taormina. The town was plenty busy during the day but must have been full of day trippers, because it was dead at night. We walked the town end to end at around 9:00 p.m. to find dinner and everything was either closed or quite empty except for La Griglia. We had an acceptable meal here but it wasn’t the best.

    Day 8 – Taormina
    We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel – they really put out a lavish spread, it was a beautiful day, and the view from the restaurant was great – then headed to the Greek Amphitheater. This is a wonderful site – although architecturally not as beautiful or intact as the theater in Siracusa, it is sited with remarkable views of the sea in most directions and Mt. Etna where the sea is not. Also took a stroll through the English gardens, which are also lovely and were quite empty, again with stunning views up the coast. Wandered around the town, got my pottery shopping done, and picked up souvenirs for friends at home. We spent the rest of the day just “chilling” on our patio, enjoying the warmth and views. Dinner was at Trattoria Botte in town, recommended by the hotel owner and very delicious; however, sadly, we were almost the only people there.

    Day 9 – Taormina to Catania
    We enjoyed the fabulous breakfast again today but the weather was not great…we packed up our things, checked out of the hotel, and wandered around Taormina some more. It would have been great to have another full day to simply “chill” in Taormina but our flight to Rome was out of Catania at 6 p.m. We returned the rental car with no problem and proceeded to the terminal, which was surprisingly modern, clean, and with good shopping and eating facilities.

    Taormina Impressions
    Taormina was much larger than I had expected, more crowded, even in November, and more “up and down.” It also is quite touristy, although beautiful and charming so you kind of don’t mind. I can’t imagine this place in high season. Except for the difficulty in finding restaurants open in the evening, we really enjoyed our time here, which was very relaxing with unparalleled views.

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    Driving Impressions
    Michele had warned us of various scams that Sicily drivers will use to against tourists, i.e. jumping into your moving car and demanding money, staged accidents, etc. We had no experience with anything like that fortunately…perhaps it’s off season for the scammers, too? The roads were in good condition, especially the highways, and highway signage was wonderful, even through the towns. However, we had a hard time locating street signs (versus highway signs) which made in city navigating a challenge, but I had printed point to point Via Michelin maps that were excellent and we did just fine.

    Drivers are aggressive (a lot of tailgating, especially on two lane roads) but it was not as bad as we expected. A note of caution – when I read about “mountainous” roads I was thinking switch backs, up and down, kind of like Tuscany. No. What “mountainous” is in Sicily is that you are driving along and all of a sudden you are on a bridge that spans two mountains that is suspended about 500 feet or 50 stories in the air. It is stunning, but I pity the driver who is not expecting this and is afraid of heights! The “hill towns” are perched on these mountaintops like something from Mordor out of “Lord of the Rings.” It’s gorgeous, jaw dropping, and vertigo inducing. Be warned.

    Also, we had some difficulty with getting gas…gas stations were frequently closed, and we found out the hard way that the automatic stations will take your money even though the pump is out of gas. My advice is to use an attended station. The happy ending to this story of the 20E in the out of gas pump is that a young Sicilian man assisted us (despite a complete language gap) and generously offered to purchase our receipt which he could use on a later date. This represented the kindness of strangers, which we saw in the friendliness of the Sicilian people again and again. Even restaurant and hotel workers, who I find tend to be jaded against tourists in other places, were unfailingly friendly, helpful and warm.

    Other Miscellaneous Impressions
    I was worried that we would experience cold rain the entire trip and packed accordingly; however, the weather was wonderful, with very little rain and highs in the mid 70s every day. We ate almost all of our meals outdoors and enjoyed outdoor cafes. I can’t imagine doing this trip in the summer months, but it was delightful in early November. Funnily, though, I now see what folks meant when they said that the Italians “dress for the season, not for the weather.” The locals were walking around in puffy coats, scarves, and boots although it was almost 80 degrees, and they seemed to think that we were nuts to want to eat outside on 65 degree evenings!

    The food was as good as everyone said, and even though we live in a great Italian food area in the US, we are now ruined. Everything was so fresh, so vibrant, and for the most part, so reasonable, we ate like kings. Also, we ordered house wines throughout the trip at restaurants and cafes and they were all terrific and very reasonably priced (about 2-3E a glass) and always served in nice stemware. Snacks were often brought with drinks at cafes. The coffee was terrific everywhere (even the airport). Pastries and chocolate were divine. Good eats!

    We really enjoyed our time in Sicily. It is a big, complex island (and we only saw half of it!) and not the easiest place to travel – perhaps “advanced intermediate” European traveler territory. However, I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in history, food, architecture, art, scenery, culture, and friendly people. Thanks again to everyone on this board for your advice and great suggestions!

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    I'm enjoying your report since we were there at the same time. We enjoyed our dinner at Trattoria dei Templei but we walked there from the Villa Athena. Not the brightest move. Agree that one night is all you need in Agrigento.

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    Iregula, we had a similar experience on the toll road from Catania to Taormina. Actually, we were transitioning from the road roughly from points west to the toll road that heads north to Taormina, so we did not enter at Catania. That being the case, we were not given a toll ticket. When we got to the Taormina exit, the toll taker asked for our ticket, but, when we said we had none, just charged us what I took to be a standard toll.

    I think the bottom line is that, by entering at some entry points, you get a ticket, which entitles you to a smaller toll. If you have no ticket, you are charged the larger amount. But in any case it was not very high!

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    Thanks for your trip report. I find it very helpful since we are planning a trip to Eastern Sicily(Taormina, Siracusa/Ortigia and Noto) for 8 days in March. Did you like your stay at Hotel Cavalieri in Siracura? We are looking into booking a 3 night stay there. Thanks again.

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    igpjazz,

    I cross-posted full hotel reviews on trip advisor and reviewed the Hotel Cavalieri. Sounds like you're planning a very similar trip to us...actually, I think the area you're visiting is western? Anyway, I think you will love Sicily!

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    Love your "perhaps 'advanced intermediate' European traveler territory" assessment. That sounds about right. For me the most difficult part of driving in Sicily was getting lost absolutely every time we tried to go somewhere. But it was (almost) always worth it.

    Glad to read you had a good trip--and congratulations on your marriage!

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    Iregula, grazie mille for your excellent report and congratulations on your wedding! We began with the Villa Carlotta and ended with the GH Wagner so your report brought back many good memories. And then there were the memories of those sky high viaducts...

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    Wonderful report, lregula, and congrats on your wedding.

    DH and I visited all but Taormina (nothing open in our price range on our March visit) and used busses for everything. Glad you got to Monreale (amazing, eh?) and Modella (super bath house).

    Have mentioned this on other Sicily threads--when we were there, there were 3 bus lines in Palermo and all had different ways to buy tickets and in 3 different places. Advanced intermediate is right!

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    Iregula,

    Thanks for your trip report! Good information. My next trip is to Sicily and it's long over due. I plan on driving for part of my trip, so glad to hear it's not as bad as some like to say. I learned to drive on the southern CA freeways, have driven solo in France and the Italian countryside, so I think I can handle Sicily. Am I right?

    Especially appreciate the tip on gas stations - this type of info is very good to mentally store away.

    Congratulations on your wedding!

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    Dayle, not to worry, driving on the Sicilian highways is infinitely easier than driving SoCal freeways.
    Driving in the towns is similar to driving in towns with pre-car streets anywhere else in Europe.

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    Agreed, Dayle -- honestly if we'd known where we were going I think we'd have been okay in Palermo, too...really not much worse than NYC. Just stay right on the highways, don't let the tailgating get to you, and take a somewhat aggressive stance, especially in traffic circles and intersections, and you'll be fine!

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    >take a somewhat aggressive stance, especially in traffic circles and intersections

    From my trip report:

    The cutoff for Siracusa is quite undramatic. Follow this road in with its merges & turns & you will hit the rotary in the middle of town. Depending upon the traffic volume, rotaries display the true mettle of Sicilian drivers. In other European countries, there are reasonably well-respected rules for rotaries. You know when to yield & when to enter etc – it’s all quite politely done. In Sicily (and Napoli too for that matter), the rule is: that there are no rules. You launch your car in & pick your way thru the maze of conflicting traffic whirling around you to the exit of your choice. Just think of it as a hundred cars, motorbikes, trucks & buses all engaged in some crazed choreographed dance. It’s terrifying the 1st time you experience it in a busy rotary but use kindly aggression & you will get the hang of it. Try to drive through it as straight a path as possible. I must have hit this one around the lunch time madness because it was a zoo. I missed the correct road because I wasn't aggressive enough worming my way across the 1st time so I had to re-circle the rotary - which was just awesome fun.

    Ian

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    Thanks for the detailed report, and congratulations on the wedding. Nice to see another convert to Sicily! I'm interested that the weather was so good in November, I was there in the spring, which had the advantage of wildflowers, but I'm always looking for good off-season places.

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    iregula, it's so great to hear there are so many people that appreciate Sicily.
    I describe Palermo as "shabby chic", faded glory, but with so much personality. The people there were a weird contrast between trying to rip you off, and being so friendly they would practically lead you there if you asked for directions.

    Not to mention, people on the street would just make unsolicited suggestions on the things we ought to see. Fantastic!
    At the museum in Palermo, they just happened to have a Carravaggio on display, so casual you could almost go up and touch it. (The Musicians, wonderful)
    Siracusa, the most under-rated piazza in Italy, Piazza del Duomo.
    We met 2 sisters travelling together, both in the 75 to 80 years old range. They left the husbands at home, and rented a Mercedes to drive around Sicily. We got some advice from them: Don't trust GPS! They had ended up on a literal goat trail looking for Caltigirone. What a couple of characters! Your report makes me want to go back.
    If you loved Sicily, you will also love southern Italy, especially Puglia. Must say, we got spoiled with the low hotel rates and good food cheap!

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