Trip to Sicily: March 3-22, 2014
My husband and I had originally planned a trip to Sicily for last September but, due to family issues, we had to postpone the trip until this March. I have to admit that I was hesitant about taking this trip. I wasn’t sure there would be enough to interest us, I was worried about crime issues and I was worried that we would not be able to find out way and get lost over and over leading to arguments and an unpleasant trip. Well, I am happy to report that we had a wonderful time, there was more than enough to interest us on this beautiful and fascinating island, we never had to deal with any crime and, although we did get lost a few times, we just dealt with it as part of the fun of being in Sicily. The people we met in Sicily were warm and friendly. Thanks to everyone here who wrote trip reports or answered questions which helped with my preparation and, as many have mentioned, thanks to Vagabonda at the Trip Advisor Sicily Forum who is so generous with her time and knowledge.
A few hints: Always have 50 cent coins available for the bathrooms which often have an attendant and be prepared for no toilet seats (we couldn’t figure out whether they install the toilets without the seats or whether they just don’t replace them if they break but most public toilets had no seats), no toilet paper and/or no water or water but no soap. I’ve mentioned places where we found public toilets because they were few and far between. We also found that most tourist sites do not take credit cards and often will not be able to or want to change even a 20 euro bill so keep smaller bills available to pay for entrance fees.
Palermo: We flew Alitalia from NY to Rome and then Rome to Palermo. Alitalia does not get the best reviews but we had a very good experience despite a long boarding process in Rome. The airline does not call groups to board but everyone just lines up and waits to go on the plane. As we waited in Palermo at the baggage claim, an airport employee came up to everyone asking where they had flown from and, if they answered any place other than Italy, they were directed to the International Baggage area in the rear of the baggage claim to pick up their luggage. We had to put the bags which came off the plane through some sort of scanner which was unusual (seemed a bit late to be doing this) but then we were free to go since we went through passport control in Rome. We wanted to take the Prestia & Comande bus to Palermo,and it was easy to find once we walked out of the arrivals building, turned right and followed the clear signs. There was a kiosk where we could buy the tickets and even pay by credit card. The bus driver called out the stops as we reached them and we got off at Politeama. We walked about 1 ½ blocks to our B&B, Palazzo Pantaleo, off Via Ruggero Settimo through a private alley. I had found this B&B on Trip Advisor and the wonderful reviews were right on the money. Because the B&B is located in a building set back off the street, the rooms were very quiet. We were greeted by the owner, Giuseppe, and were taken to the suite (room 5) which was very spacious and well-appointed. The wifi worked perfectly here and in every hotel we stayed in on our trip. We asked Giuseppe for a recommendation for dinner and we walked just a few blocks to Il Mirto e la Rosa which was empty when we first arrived but people were waiting for tables by the time we finished our meal. Service was slow and leisurely (which we got more used to as the trip went on). For appetizers we ordered eggplant balls and sticks made from chickpeas. The spaghetti with clam sauce was delicious as was my pasta con sarde, a local specialty. We picked up the first of many dishes of gelato on our way back to the B&B and slept very well.
The next morning, we went down for breakfast and Giuseppe put out a very nice spread and, each morning, offered to make us eggs in addition to the buffet items. It was a rainy day so we put on our rain jackets, I put my bag across my chest and tucked it under my arm and, as we walked, I tried to remember to walk closer to the buildings and not to the street. A right turn out of the B&B and a 5-10 minute walk took us to the Quattro Canti and then to the Piazza Pretoria. We did not enter Chiesa San Cataldo but right next door was one of the highlights of our time in Palermo, Chiesa della Martorana. An entrance fee of 2 euros gave us an audioguide in English and discounts at other churches in Palermo. The mosaics in this church were stunning and are not to be missed. We then came back out onto the Corso, continued to Via Alessandro Patemostro, a very narrow street, and walked to Chiesa San Francesco d’Assisi in the Kalsa district. This church had a beautiful façade but the interior was dark and stark. Turning right after this church we reached the glorious Oratorio di San Lorenzo where we used the discount from our entrance to La Martorana. This Oratorio was tiny but the stucco work was spectacular. The woman working there said no photos but I have to admit that my husband snuck a few when she went back to the office. We took a narrow unmarked street on the right of San Francesco and walked about 1 ½ blocks to the Palazzo Mirto. This was a perfect time for us to be somewhere inside as the skies opened up and the rain came pouring down. Visiting the Palazzo was our opportunity to see the inside of one of these homes. It was undergoing a lot of restoration so one or two rooms were not available although we could peek into them. They lent us the English guide. The first floor with the public rooms was the most interesting and lavish while the second floor was relatively dull. No photos were allowed. The rain turned into a slight drizzle and we walked to Piazza Marina (basically a parking area), Giardino Garibaldi with the banyan trees and past the Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri which seemed to be under reconstruction. A walk back up the Corso took us to the Duomo. We were not able to find the little alley with the Sicilian carts which someone reported on but perhaps they weren’t out because of all the rain. The outside of the Duomo was very interesting but the inside relatively dull. Up the street, the Villa Bonnano was a nice garden with tropical plants. The remains of the Roman houses were locked behind gates and looked as if they had been so for quite a while. We knew we wouldn’t be able to see the Royal Apartments at the Palazzo dei Normanni since they are only open Friday through Sunday but, of course, we wanted to see the Cappella Palatina. The entrance was on the side of the building facing Piazza Indipendenza and about half-way along the building. The ticket office was set off the street and there was also a nice public restroom near the ticket office. We paid for the video guide for the Cappella but found it wasn’t necessary if you have a good guide book (such as the Michelin). The Cappella was exquisite and, one of the huge benefits of traveling off season, was the lack of crowds. Despite rows of chairs filling the Cappella, there was no place to sit since those chairs were off limits and the constant looking up at the upper walls and the ceiling did put a strain on our backs. But it was well worth it. Binoculars were helpful to see the details on the ceiling. When we could finally tear ourselves away, we walked back down the Corso in the rain and headed back to our B&B since the two churches we still wanted to see, Chiesa Gesu and Chiesa San Guiseppe dei Teatini, were closed and wouldn’t open for at least 1-2 hours. When we reached the Teatro Massimo, we turned down Via Bara dell Olivella but either the crafts shops I read about were all closed and hidden or they were no longer there. Back in the dryness of our B&B, we changed out of our wet clothes and let everything dry. Dinner was a few blocks away at Ristorante Cin-Cin. They were not offering their a la carte menu but only two four-course tasting menus one with a meat main and one with fish. The restaurant was lovely and Vincenzo, the owner-chef, greeted us warmly and we talked about his years of living in Louisiana. We ordered one of each menu and the food was fabulous and so reasonable at 30 euro/person. It was a wonderful evening. That night we were woken up by a very violent thunderstorm and some of the loudest thunder I had ever heard.
Thursday was a warmer day and we actually saw some sun. We started at the Oratorios del Rosario di Santa Cita because the churches in this area are only open until 1PM and do not reopen later in the afternoon. The entrance was on a back street and we walked around for a while until we found it because, even when you are on the correct street, it was easy to miss. This was our favorite of the Oratorios and was absolutely gorgeous. We bought the combo ticket with the Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico. Both places included a helpful audio guide in the entrance fee. San Domenico was nice but our least favorite of the three. Each time we checked, Chiesa Santa Maria di Valverde was closed so we moved on and stopped at the church of San Domenico. The exterior of this church was beautiful but the interior was dull. A walk along the Via Roma with all its shopping and traffic brought us back to the Corso and then to the Quattrro Conti where there was a demonstration going on demanding jobs. We found the Church of Gesu open and inside every inch was covered with marble inlays and stucco. We then followed the signs on the buildings and found our way to the Ballaro market. Listening to suggestions on this board, we held our possessions close while we enjoyed looking at the various vendors and their offerings. The beautiful fish, meats, fruits and vegetables made me wish I had a kitchen to cook dinner for us. A leisurely walk brought us back to our B&B to meet the taxi Guiseppe had arranged for us to go to Monreale. The driver was named Massimo and, although he didn’t speak much English and we didn’t speak much Italian, we managed to make ourselves understood to each other and had a very enjoyable time. We were paying 40 euros for transportation there and back plus one hour waiting time which we had to increase when we arrived and found that the Duomo wasn’t opening until 3:30 rather than the 2:30 opening time we all thought. We told Massimo we would pay him extra and he was fine with that. We first went into the cloisters which opened earlier and we had this beautiful spot to ourselves. The joy of traveling in the off season. This was a beautiful place and we were able to take the time to examine all the columns and capitals. We then joined the small line to enter the Duomo when it opened at 3:30. Binoculars were helpful because the inside of the Duomo was not well lit and the mosaics were high up. But what mosaics! It was glorious and we walked all around the building seeing the mosaics from all different angles. Massimo drove us back to the B&B and it became very clear why all the recommendations are to avoid driving in the city of Palermo. Everywhere we went in Sicily, if you commented on the difficulty and craziness of driving, they all retort with “But did you drive in Palermo?” Massimo asked for 45 euros and we gave him 50 since he was so nice about waiting for us so we could stay longer in Monreale. The weather had turned sunny by the time we returned to the B&B and took a short rest before dinner. I had made dinner reservations for Lo Scudiero just two blocks from our B&B. We got excellent and friendly service, very pleasant surroundings and the food was very good except for the side of asparagus we ordered which was too mushy.
After breakfast on Friday, we were met by Jacqueline Alio, a guide who was mentioned in guidebooks and online. In the morning, we were doing a Jewish Palermo tour with Jacqueline who was so knowledgeable and so warm and friendly. Francesca, her driver, took us to the area near La Martorana and then we walked up and down streets and alleys learning about the Jews in Palermo and the history of the city. It was so interesting and really added to our understanding of Palermo and Sicily. Then Francesca drove us to the lovely town of Cefalu leaving the three of us off in the center of town. Seeing Cefalu with Jacqueline really made our visit so much more enjoyable. We walked the main street, visited the Duomo to see the mosaics which are only on parts of the walls while the rest of the interior was bare, visited the cloisters where Jacqueline was able to explain the carvings on the capitals. We walked around the small streets and alleys of this charming town with great views of La Rocca and of the sea. We walked on the seawall for wonderful views back to the town and the beach. We visited the washhouse which was in use until the 1950s. We picked up a square slice of pizza at a bakery which was delicious with a light crust and tasty topping and then on to a pasticceria on Piazza del Duomo for one of the best cannoli we’ve ever tasted. We didn’t enter the museum in town but, through the glass, we could see the basement with the jugs used to store olive oil. Since we still had time left, Jacqueline suggested we visit La Zisa back in Palermo which, thanks to her explanations, was very interesting. I’m not sure how much we would have gotten out of a visit here without a guide. Francesca then drove us to the Capuchin catacombs. Although I had a lot of information in my notes about this creepy, one-of-a-kind place, Jacqueline was able to add things I didn’t know. Now our day was over and we were sorry to say goodbye to Jacqueline. She really made the day a highlight of our trip to Sicily and I hoped that the two guides I reserved for later in the trip would be as good. For dinner, my husband really wanted pizza and the place we wanted to go to seemed to be out of business so we went into Ristorante al 59 which was in the same neighborhood. The restaurant was huge, the service fair and the pizza ok but needed more flavor although the crust was good. We stopped off for almond gelato on the way back to the room. Our time in Palermo was over.
Erice: Saturday was a beautiful, warm and sunny day. We went back to Piazza Politeamma and, right in front of the Prada store, we picked up the bus to the airport. We paid the driver and sat near the rear of the almost full bus. Once at the airport, we had to go downstairs to get the shuttle to the rental car area and we picked up the car we had rented through Auto Europe at Hertz. We took a video of the outside of the car since there were many more scratches and dents than they had indicated and they were very willing to put all that information on the rental papers. We also checked with them to make sure we knew what type of fuel the car would take. It was very easy to find our way to Erice. We followed A29 dir towards Trapani and then followed the signs towards Erice going through Valderice. We parked in one of the spots outside Porta Trapani and paid the guy there 2 euros for safety sake. He was there every day except for Sunday. We wheeled our luggage up the cobblestoned Corso (since I had forgotten that we could call the hotel and they would come to get us) a short way to the Hotel Elimo where we received a very warm welcome from Antonio. The hotel has a warm and cozy lobby with a fireplace which was very welcome in windy and very chilly Erice. We were given a suite with a large bedroom upstairs and a bathroom, desk area and a separate sitting room with a tv downstairs. In Erice, we wore the long underwear, hats and gloves we had brought on the trip to use on Mt Etna later in the month. These items were very useful in Erice. We bought the 5 euro pass for the various churches in town but, since we didn’t get into very many of the buildings, it probably wasn’t a good buy for us. We started at Chiesa Matrice with its lovely portico and lace like ceiling. We climbed the bell tower for the views over the town. We wandered the town taking various streets here and there and sort of following a walking tour I had worked out in my notes. We stopped at the Pasticceria Maria Grammatico and bought an assortment of their famous almond pastries. Heaven! Needless to say, we stopped here each day we were in Erice to work our way through their offerings. We continued to walk (after all, we had to work off some of those calories) and then it was getting colder and windier and the fog was coming in so we went back to the hotel. We had made a reservation at Monte San Giuliano. What a wonderful experience walking to and from this restaurant (close to our hotel) through the foggy and empty medieval cobblestone streets of the town. The restaurant was lovely. The service was very good and the food was delicious and reasonable. We started with the fish couscous this area of Sicily is famous for and that one dish could have been a whole meal but we also had ordered a delicious pasta with eggplant, cheese and sausage, steak with bacon and mushroom sauce and lamb chops with pistachios. The cassata cake was a delicious dessert. The portions were so substantial that it was hard to finish everything. When we returned to the hotel, Antonio took a lot of time to work out on a map directions for us to get to various places and also suggested some additional places we might like to visit.
Sunday was a sunny day. The breakfast at the hotel was ok but the service was very warm and friendly and the cappuccinos were very good. We were heading to Segesta today. We followed the signs to A29 dir towards Palermo and exited at the signs for Segesta which was very easy to find. We parked in the large parking lot and bought tickets for the park (6 euros) at the ticket office and then bought the tickets for the bus to the theater which were sold in the café. There were clean bathrooms near the ticket office. We walked up the steep path to the temple. Again, we realized the benefit of traveling off season because there was only one other couple at the temple. The wildflowers were out making the setting that much more beautiful. We walked all around the outside of the temple enjoying this beautiful site from every side. I can’t even begin to count the number of photos my husband took of this temple. We walked back to the road to the side of the café and took the bus up to the theater because otherwise it would have been a steep hike up. At the top, we first saw the newer excavations of the agora and then the remains of various other buildings on the hill. You can walk all over in the theater and the acoustics are amazing. We slowly walked down the road back to the parking lot enjoying the wonderful views of the temple sitting alone on its hill in a magnificent setting. There were beautiful photo ops all along this road. Since the weather was cooperating, we decided to drive to Scopello and visit Riserva Zingaro. Our GPS did a great job getting us there. We stopped at an overlook for Castelemmare del Golfo which gave a beautiful view over this town and the turquoise water. Another beautiful spot was at Torre Scopello. We parked in the lot for Zingaro and paid our entrance fee of 3 euros/person and they gave us a map which was not easy to follow. We walked along the coastal path past the museum (which had very nice restrooms) enjoying the scenery. We walked until the path seemed to head down to a beach and, realizing we had limited time before the reserve closed, we headed back enjoying all the beautiful scenery along the way. Once back in Erice, we picked up some more pastries to take back to the room. We put on our warmer clothing and walked to the Villa Bailo gardens. The Castello Pepoli had been opened as a hotel/restaurant but that was closed now. We stayed for the sunset over the islands off the coast and watched as the Castello di Venere turned a beautiful shade of gold in the setting sun. We returned to Monte San Giuliano for dinner. Having seen how large the portions were last night, tonight we ordered a salad and a tuna appetizer similar to a carpaccio and two pastas. When we returned to our hotel, Antonio offered us a suggestion for dinner for the next evening since the restaurant in the hotel was not open for the season yet and Monte San Giuliano would be closed on Monday..
Monday’s weather was ok and we headed to Selinunte. Our GPS got us right there without any problem. My research had said that the ticket for Segesta was also good at Selinunte but that was not true at least when we were there. It was 6 euros/person at each site. The sky was a bit threatening when we arrived but my husband said that made the photos even better. One disturbing aspect of this place was the number of stray dogs in the parking lot and in the ruins. As a dog lover, that bothered me. First we walked to the East Hill temples. Temple E was beautiful and you can walk around inside much of the temple. It looked particularly beautiful with the spring wildflowers. We walked around and over the ruins of the other two temples on the East Hill and we left when school buses filled with teenagers arrived. We got back in our car and followed the yellow signs to the acropolis where we parked and walked up the road. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the temples and the ruins of the other buildings and the roads. We were the only people here and it was fascinating to see and touch these ancient stones. The weather was getting more threatening and we could hear thunder in the distance so we decided it would be better to skip Cave di Cusa and to head back to the hotel. Along the road the skies opened up and there was heavy rain but suddenly we realized that was was no longer raining but hailing/snowing. Cars on our side of the road were still moving but the other side of the highway was backed up with accidents and trucks which couldn’t negotiate the suddenly slippery road. There were emergency vehicles and workers out. I had to remind my husband to slow down and be careful because he wasn’t at home in his 4-wheel drive car but was driving a tiny Ford Fiesta! My husband noted that the outside temperature had rapidly dropped from 13 to 6 degrees centigrade. Luckily, we drove out of the storm area relatively quickly and safely. We tried to find the salt marshes and, although we could see some of the windmills, we weren’t able to find the museum, gave up and headed back to the hotel. If the weather had been good, we had planned a trip to San Vito lo Capo but the weather didn’t cooperate. We walked through the streets of Erice and ended up having dinner at San Rocco restaurant. We were the only customers that evening. It was a warm and inviting space and the service was very friendly. We ordered grilled vegetables for an appetizer and we continued to do that at restaurants during the rest of the trip because it was often the main way to eat vegetables and they were always delicious. The assorted appetizers gave us a variety of the local specialties and were very good as were the pasta dishes we ordered. The dessert was pastries from one of the pastry shops in town but they weren’t as good as the ones from Maria Grammatico. We walked back through the empty streets to our hotel and packed to leave the next morning.
Agrigento: Tuesday we bade farewell to Erice and drove on the Autostrade to Castelvetrano and then followed SS115 to Agrigento and the Villa Athena using our GPS and the directions the hotel gave us. We had a very good experience at this hotel. The service was warm and friendly, we had a very nice room (#105) with a large terrace overlooking the temples. Although the room and the bathroom were not very large, they were both well designed and, in any event, we were basically paying the premium for the terrace with the view of the temples. The weather was gorgeous. We got directions from the hotel and, together with our GPS and some signs in the town, we found Vulcanetti di Macalube which sounded very interesting as described in the various guidebooks I read. When all was said and done, we didn’t think this was worth the trip and the difficulties of cleaning the mud off of our shoes afterwards. When we reached the park, we parked in the lot and then walked along a road which was very muddy in spots to the entrance. You had to be careful because there were places in the reserve where clearly people before us had sunk down into the mud. There were some areas where the mud bubbled and there were tiny hills of dried mud. Then we had to walk all through it again to get back to our car. We sat on the curb near the parking lot to use a stick to try to get some of the mud out of the ridges on the soles of our hiking shoes. I think we probably spent more time trying to clean our shoes than we did in the reserve itself. Because the curb had stones imbedded in it, I sat down on my Michelin map while cleaning my shoes and, unfortunately, left the map there by the side of the road. Luckily, a friend had lent us her Touring Club map of Sicily which we used for the rest of the trip. Our GPS led us back to our hotel but, when we tried to turn onto the street where the hotel was located, the police had it blocked off and they waved us away. Using a local map of Agrigento in the Michelin Guide and my husband’s great sense of direction, we drove around and came at the hotel from the opposite side. The road there was also blocked off but there was a police officer standing there and, in my most pathetic voice, I said “Villa Athena” and he let us go through the barrier and we came to the hotel in just a few minutes. The hotel desk staff told us that tonight was the Almond Festival in the Valley of the Temples and the road was blocked because there was going to be a torchlight parade up to the temple. Before we had left home, I had made an e-mail reservation for Il Re di Girgenti for dinner that evening but we decided to stay at our hotel and not deal with road closures. The desk staff contacted the restaurant to change our reservation to the next evening and discovered that, despite my having a confirmed reservation for that evening, the restaurant was closed on Tuesdays! Villa Athena’s dining room was very pretty and service was very elegant but extremely friendly. The food was expensive but very good and that was a pleasant surprise because of the mixed reviews I had read about the restaurant.
Wednesday was sunny again and we went to breakfast early since I had arranged for a 9am tour of the Valley of the Temples. The breakfast buffet was served in the dining room and it was a really good, large and varied buffet including “fill them yourself” little cannoli which my husband enjoyed for breakfast. We met up with our tour guide, Michele Gallo, at 9am for our tour which lasted for at least two hours. Michele was very nice and very knowledgeable and interesting and we learned so much from him while visiting these temples. We drove the three of us over to the area of the temples, parked and then we all walked going from one end of the valley to the other ending at the Temple of Zeus. After leaving Michele, my husband and I walked back through the valley taking more photos and ending up back at our parked car. Since we had bought the combined ticket for the valley and the archeological museum, we drove to the museum parking in the lot just uphill from the building. The museum was well done and interesting. We found the coin collection and the room about the Temple of Zeus to be the most interesting areas of the collection. We returned to the hotel and relaxed on our terrace enjoying the beautiful weather. We ate dinner at a restaurant not far from the hotel called Kokalos which was recommended by Michele this morning. The restaurant was very popular with groups and families. We started with salads which were very good and then ordered two pizzas which were excellent and very reasonable costing only 6 euros each. Our drive back to the hotel convinced my husband that he was not going to drive at night in Sicily again. We couldn’t get the windshield of the car clean enough to prevent the glare of oncoming headlights and we found it difficult enough to find our way in the daylight and that difficulty was really increased in the dark. Luckily there was no place we had to drive to at night for the rest of the trip.
Ragusa: Thursday was sunny and, after another very good breakfast, we drove to Ragusa. Driving through the city of Gela was like a constant game of chicken and, after a while, all we could do was laugh and hope to get through that area without an accident. Luckily, we did. The entire trip took about 2 ½ hours. We had reserved a room at the Antica Badia Relais Hotel in Ragusa Superiore right across from the Duomo. Because there was no sign outside the building, we drove past the hotel twice. On the third go round, my husband pulled into a spot just past the entrance to the courtyard where the door to the hotel was located, and I went in to the lobby and asked the person manning the desk to come and get the car because my husband refused to drive around again. Michele laughed and took the keys and drove our car into the courtyard and parked it in the spot we had reserved and paid for. The hotel was a former palazzo and had been a hotel for about 8 years. We received a very warm and friendly welcome and were shown to our room, the Magnolia (all the rooms at least on our floor had flower names). The room was large with a very high ceiling, a small balcony and an interesting bathroom. First of all, the sink had a very pretty waterfall faucet. The problem was that, when you leaned over the sink to wash your face or brush your teeth, it was hard to avoid hitting the top of your head on the shelf that contained the waterfall faucet. The room also did not have a shower. It had a very large and very deep tub with no enclosure or curtain and a hand-held shower wand and a faucet coming out of the wall to fill the tub. My husband hates baths but we figured we would work it out somehow the next morning. The weather was overcast and our plan was to walk to Ragusa Ibla just a few blocks from the hotel. Michele armed us with a map, and we walked down the Corso Italia to Via XXIV Maggio to Santa Maria delle Scale with wonderful views of Ibla except for the scaffolding on the church. We walked down the stairs to Ibla (not quite as easy as it sounds because there were different staircases but we figured they probably all ended up in the same place) enjoying the views as we descended. We wandered through the old town following notes I had taken and typed up before we left home. We followed Via del Mercato and then Via XI Febbraio, Via Sant’Agnese passing Palazzo La Rocca with its delightful balconies. We ended up at Piazza del Duomo which is the center of the town. The cathedral was beautiful from the outside and rather dull on the inside. We continued down the Corso XXV Aprile and visited the Chiesa di San Giuseppe with its beautiful façade and altars made with shiny painted glass which looked like marble. We continued down the hill to the public gardens at the foot of the town. I imagine, on a lovely spring day, these gardens would be wonderful but on a grey, dreary afternoon in March, they didn’t enchant and the views weren’t special. The old convent of the Cappuccini was now a beautiful hotel, restaurant and cooking school which had just opened in the last few weeks. (They very nicely let us use their restroom.) We wandered through streets and alleys of Ibla and then headed back to our hotel climbing back up the stairs. The climb up was not as bad as I thought it would be especially if you take frequent rests to look back at where you have been and forward to where you are going. We had dinner at the hotel where we were the only guests. The dining room, like all the public spaces in the hotel, was beautiful and elegant and made you feel like you were royalty in a palazzo. The food was very good.
The next morning we decided to fill the tub part-way and then use the hand-held shower to rinse off. The only problem was that we couldn’t figure out how to make the water come out of the faucet into the tub. Finally, in desperation, we called down to the desk and the person on duty came up and he couldn’t figure it out either. Finally, we asked whether it would be possible to switch to a different room with a normal shower. They very graciously moved us to the Bougainvillea room which was actually a bit larger. It didn’t have a balcony but it did have a steam shower. While we went down to breakfast, they arranged to move our luggage and we took our showers after breakfast. (We couldn’t offend anyone since we were still the only guests in the hotel.) The hotel staff marked the map with the preferred method of driving to Villa Romana del Casale and we set off with maps and the GPS. We found that the GPS was best for getting us around in the cities. For example, in Ragusa we would never have been able to find our way to the highway to the Villa without the GPS or find our way back to the hotel later in the day. Following the hotel’s directions, we did not take the coast route to Gela and then north to the Villa. The weather was a bit threatening all day. Like others have reported, once we were in Piazza Armerina, the signs led us to the Villa but we also missed the hairpin left turn in the town. We managed to get to the Villa without getting lost too often and we parked in the small lot we came to first. There was no payment required for this lot and no one standing there asking for money to watch our car. There were restrooms by the ticket booth. We paid for our entrance which was 14 euros and included entrance to Morgantina and the Museum at Aidone but we never got to either of these. It was very easy to follow the paths and walkways around the Villa and to see all the rooms and all the magnificent mosaics. There were signs for each room (sometimes multiple signs) which are in Italian and English and they told you all you needed to know. We must have spent about 2 ½ hours at the Villa. This was a place where the lack of other tourists was a definite benefit. We didn’t have to wait our turn to get to the front of the viewing platforms and my husband was able to take all the photos he wanted. When we finished at the Villa, it was getting late in the afternoon and the weather was very threatening so we skipped Morgantina and the Museum and drove back to Ragusa. You would have thought we would have learned our lesson yesterday but we again missed the entrance to the hotel and had to circle around. We stopped in Ragusa’s Duomo just across the street which was lovely on the outside but not very special on the inside. Based on the hotel’s recommendation, we went to a local restaurant about two blocks away called Taberna dei Cinque. We were the only customers and the chef/owner also served us. Each course was made fresh as we ordered and the food was delicious especially my husband’s pasta made with almonds and grated tuna eggs. Alan said he would be happy to eat that dish every night. The portions were substantial and the prices very reasonable. Here, unlike in most of the other restaurants, the bread was wonderful and we dipped it in local olive oil. This was one of the best dinners of the trip which is saying a lot since we thought the food in Sicily was fabulous.
Since it was clear that you shouldn’t stop somewhere in Sicily and leave your car with your luggage in the trunk, we stayed in Ragusa one more night to spend a day in Noto. Following our map, our GPS and the signs on the road (which often didn’t point in the correct direction but you don’t realize that until you follow them and end up going in the totally wrong direction), it was still a bit difficult to find the Porta Reale in Noto which is where my research had told me we should park. We finally happened on that area accidentally and then started looking for a place to park. We drove up a hill and noticed an empty lot on our right with signs painted on the stone walls which said “parking.” We pulled in and I got out to look at the other cars in the area to see if they had any sort of indication that they had paid for parking but I couldn’t find any. A very nice man asked me if we needed help and he said that, not only could we park where we were, it was free and, even if someone came and asked for money, we shouldn’t pay them. It was getting closer to the midday closure so we quickly walked down the main street which was filled with people. We went inside the Duomo which was beautiful from the outside and under construction inside. We went across the street to the Town Hall or Palazzo Ducezio and paid 2 euros for the tour of the Hall of Mirrors. They also offered a combo ticket with the theater and the museum but the latter had already closed for the day and we weren’t sure we would get to see the former before it closed (we, unfortunately, didn’t). The Hall of Mirrors was very beautiful and the information from the tour guide interesting. After this, we continued up the Corso and turned uphill on Via C. Nicolaci to the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata which was now the library. For 4 euros each, we toured the Palazzo using the English guidebook the ticket seller lent to us. The Palazzo was beautiful from the outside with wonderful balconies but we didn’t feel that the inside was worth the entrance fee since the only really interesting room was the Salone delle Feste which was covered in frescoes. We then continued up the Via C. Nicolaci to the Monte Vergine church with its majolica tile floor and a very narrow spiral staircase which you could take up to see the view. We declined to do that especially since the weather wasn’t conducive to beautiful views. We continued our walk up the Corso and discovered that the theater had closed for the day. The church of San Carlo on the Corso also offers an opportunity to climb to the top to see the view. Things started closing for the midday siesta and people were disappearing from the streets. We wanted to have some gelato and/or a pastry, and I had a few names of places in my notes. Unfortunately, the first few we tried to visit, including the highly recommended Caffe Sicilia, were all closed. However, around the corner behind the Town Hall, we found that Corrado Costanzo was still open, and we ordered pistachio and almond gelato and a cassata which lived up to the descriptions of this being among the best cassatas in Sicily. We sat at an outside table enjoying our delicious “lunch.” We then wandered down the Corso towards the Porta Reale. There were almost no people out and about and we had the street to ourselves. The public gardens at this end of town were not particularly appealing and were filled with vendors selling phone cases and sunglasses and other stuff. We got back to our car which was safe and sound and drove back our hotel without much trouble. That evening we walked two blocks to a restaurant called Konza which the hotel recommended for its pizza. We were a little concerned because some of the reviews online were pretty negative but we needed some place within walking distance from our hotel so we decided to try Konza. We had a very positive experience. The service was friendly, the food was served promptly and the salad, grilled vegetables and pizzas were very tasty and not too oily as some had complained.
Ortigia: Sunday was a beautiful sunny day. The GPS sent us through beautiful farm countryside on our way to Siracusa. I don’t know if that was the fastest or best route but it was certainly lovely so we didn’t mind. We saw green fields separated by low stone walls, sheep, cows. The GPS even took us through the center of Modica which we hadn’t seen before and it looked lovely. A couple of times we circled around because we couldn’t always tell which way signs were pointing. We discovered that many gas stations were closed on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Some had self-serve pumps open but we couldn’t figure out how to work them and how to pay if you used them. So we were keeping a close eye on our gas gauge as we were driving all over the countryside between Ragusa and Siracusa. When we got on E45, we were happy to see that there was a service station open with full serve and we had them fill the car up. The trip to Siracusa, including all our time lost and circling around, took us 2 ½ hours rather than the estimated 1 ½ hours but we saw some areas of Sicily we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t gotten lost. Once in Siracusa, tt was very easy to follow the signs and the GPS to Ortigia which was mobbed on this beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. We pulled the car to a stop in front of our hotel, Algila Ortigia Charme Hotel, which was in a great location overlooking the water. Marcello greeted us and then took the car to the parking spot we had reserved for 20 euros/day. Our room was lovely with a tiny terrace, foyer, bathroom and bedroom. The hotel provided some complimentary water bottles each day which was very nice. Marcello gave us a very good map of Ortigia along with printed pages with information on the various sights. Before leaving home, I had reviewed the very useful pages on the hotel’s website regarding the sights of Siracusa. We decided to walk and wander on this beautiful afternoon. We headed left out of the hotel to the ramparts and then to the entrance to the island by the Temple of Apollo. We walked up the shopping street Corso Matteotti to Piazza Archimede with its grand fountain. We wandered down a short and narrow street called Via Montalto to see the Palazzo Mergulese-Montalto which had an interesting façade but you couldn’t see the shell of the building as was mentioned in some of the guidebooks. The view was blocked by fences. We wandered up and down the wonderful streets and alleys to Piazza del Duomo which was filled with young couples, families and children. We stopped at the Caffe Minerva for gelato, a coffee and a rest at one of the outdoor tables. I know that many of the reviews call this place a tourist trap but it was just what we wanted and needed and we just sat at the table enjoying our snacks and watched the world go by. The Duomo now charged 2 euros entrance fee and we decided not to go in. The other buildings on this Piazza including the Municipio, the Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco and the Palazzo Impellizzeri made this a beautiful square especially in the late afternoon light. We wandered down Via Picherali to the Fonte Arethusa and then both ways along the waterfront joining the crowds enjoying the afternoon. We wandered back away from the waterfront along Via Capodieci, a very picturesque street. Via di Maestranzo was also an interesting street and led us back to the hotel. After discussing possible restaurants for dinner with Marcello, we chose Dioniso and had one of the best dining experiences of the trip. The restaurant was a short walk from the hotel and we were greeted by the owner who reviewed the menu with us explaining the local specialties and making recommendations. He was very charming. We started with the artichoke appetizer and the grilled squid salad. Our main courses were the red tuna and a snapper stew. Everything was absolutely delicious. Our desserts were a ricotta mousse flavored with orange and cinnamon and a vanilla panna cotta. The bread was fabulous and they seasoned the olive oil with salt, oregano and red pepper. What a treat that was.
This hotel had the best breakfast of the trip. In addition to the large buffet, we were given a menu with eggs, smoked fish and many other items we could order for no additional charge. Breakfast was served in the restaurant space and the service was excellent. Unfortunately, it was too early in the year for the boat trips around Ortigia. Marcello even made some calls to see if he could arrange a private boat trip for us but the boats were still in dry dock. That was one of the drawbacks about traveling off season. We drove to visit Latomie dei Cappuccini which were quarries that had been turned into a garden by the monks. We easily parked on the street and the entrance to the Latomie is to the right of the monastery building. Entrance fee was 3 euros and the ticket seller gave us a map to follow and explained what we would be seeing. There were no English translations for the various numbered stops. This was a pleasant way to spend some time especially since it was so peaceful and quiet because we were the only people there. It was a simple drive from here to the Archeological Park. We pulled into a small free parking lot with a big P parking sign. We walked down to the entrance, crossed the road to where all the souvenir shops were and walked to the far end and slightly behind the shops to the ticket office. The charge was 10 euros. Charge toilets were at the other end of the shops. We walked across the street, entered the park and walked down to the Teatro Greco (the signage was very good within the park). It was very sunny and warm. Workmen were already putting up the stage and wooden seats for the performances that would take place in May. We climbed the path to the top of the theater and walked around at the upper level. We then walked down and followed the path to the Latomie, the quarries which supplied the limestone for building the ancient city. Much of this area was now off limits because of safety concerns. The only area open was the Ear of Dionysius, a gargantuan cavern. The sounds of the nesting birds echoed throughout the cavern. We were very lucky because at times we were in the cavern by ourselves rather than having it filled with tour groups. On the way back to the entrance to the park, we saw the Ara di Ierone which was a huge altar and which you could only view from outside. A bit farther up the path was the Roman amphitheater where you needed to show your entrance ticket again. Unfortunately, the Archeological Museum in Siracusa was closed and scheduled to reopen in April. Missing this was a real disappointment. The GPS easily got us back to our hotel. On Marcello’s suggestion, we went to belbon gelateria on the Via Cavour for the best gelato we had of the trip. It was creamy and very flavorful. The white chocolate flavor was our favorite. We wandered down various streets enjoying this wonderful town. We decided to go to 1921 Cucina and Vini near the Duomo based on the Trip Advisor reviews and the fact that my husband wanted pizza. Marcello was not familiar with the restaurant and that should have made us wary. The restaurant was large and the service was fine. Then the server told us that they only made pizza on the weekends. I don’t know if that was because we were there off season or if that was always true. My husband ordered a salad which was fine but mine had “marinated prawns” which were totally tasteless. We ordered pasta with clams which cost 16 euros each which was much more expensive than any pasta we had had elsewhere in Sicily and it was not as tasty as we would have liked. We skipped dessert at the restaurant and stopped off for another portion of gelato and bought a marzipan fruit at a pastry shop on Via Cavour right near the gelateria.
Tuesday was sunny with temperatures in the 70s. We walked up to the outdoor market which was just a few blocks from our hotel. What a joy to see all the fish, vegetables and fruit. We were given some cheese to taste. I bought a bag of sundried tomatoes and a spice mix to bring home. We walked to the Piazza Duomo to visit the Hypogeum but it never opened. We (and three other couples) waited, went off to see other areas and came back but it stayed closed. We saw the Caravaggio in the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia (which was open from 11-2). We wandered streets and alleys to the old Jewish quarter. We had hoped to see a puppet show but there were no performances while we were in Ortigia (another drawback to being there in the off season) but we were able to visit the Puppet Museum. This was a small but very interesting museum dealing with the history of the puppet theater and, in particular, puppets in Siracusa. The puppets were gorgeous and there was a lot of information in English. Later we peeked into the workshop where a man was working on the puppets. While wandering, we came upon two churches which, according to my notes, used to be synagogues. We wanted to take the tour of the Mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) which was supposed to be open for tours all day but the sign in the door said they were only doing tours in the morning. We decided to come back first thing the next day before leaving for Taormina. We came back to the hotel and the person at the desk was very surprised that the Hypogeum was not open and that the Mikvah was not on their regular hours. That’s Sicily, she said. We picked up our car to drive to the Basilica and the Catacombs of San Giovanni after having the hotel confirm that they were open that afternoon. The Basilica was roofless and looked beautiful against the bright blue sky. We went in and paid 8 euros and joined the tour which was just leaving. The guide was excellent and did the tour in Italian and English and shared her knowledge with us answering all our questions. Once you are in the catacombs, they do not allow photos. The tour took about 1 hour and was very interesting and well worth it. We returned to the hotel and tonight we received a complimentary dinner in the hotel’s dining room. The dinner came as part of our package and only beverages were extra. We had delicious sea bream and sea bass as our main courses and realized we might have seen those fish fillets in the market this morning. The service was very good, the dinner delicious and now we had to pack to go on to our last stop of the trip.
Taormina: Another beautiful day. We walked to the Mikvah which was located beneath the Residenza della Giudecca on Via Alagona. They charged 5 euros for entry and make you leave your cameras and bags up above. We walked down a long flight of uneven and slippery stairs. Once at the bottom, the woman told us about the mikvah and gave us time to walk around. It was very interesting and much different from everything else we had seen on this trip so I was very glad we made the time to visit. We picked up our car and took the autostrada towards Catania and then towards Messinia and exited a Taormina. We took a ticket from the machine as we entered the autostrada and, at the exit, gave the ticket to the collector and the amount due showed up on a little machine. We easily drove to the Villa Carlotta following their directions and the GPS. We received a very warm welcome at this lovely small hotel. This excellent service continued for the entire time. We had reserved and paid for a parking spot so we left the car and luggage to them. They escorted us up to the terrace level (where we had breakfast every day and where dinner was served in the restaurant) which was lovely with views over the sea and of Mt. Etna. They offered us welcome drinks and we chose a coffee and orange juice (delicious blood orange juice which we had all over Sicily-yummy) and they served the drinks with a plate of butter cookies. Our room was #11 downstairs from reception with a sitting area, a bedroom, a very large bathroom and a large terrace with a table and chairs and two lounge chairs overlooking the sea. Wonderful! They gave us a very good map of Taormina and we took a left out of the hotel. The center of town was no more than a 10 minute walk. Just up the block from the hotel was the lovely public garden with its many follies, plantings, fountains and views over the sea and of Mt. Etna. It was a bit hazy today. We continued to the town and started at Porta Catania. Right outside the gate was a tiny church building with a large diorama of the town, the nativity and other figures. We walked down the Corso Umberto looking at the pretty exterior of the Duchi di Santo Stefano with its decorative stone work (just off the main street). We walked down the Corso to the Duomo area and encountered several tour groups (perhaps a cruise ship was in town). The inside of the Duomo was not that interesting and we left quickly because they were starting a funeral service. There was an interesting fountain in the middle of the piazza. Uphill from the piazza, steps ascended past a small black and white Roman mosaic (behind a fence but you got a clear view if you went up the stairs a ways), the past the closed church of the Carmine, and we wandered some of the streets back in that area and circled back down to the Corso. Off the other side of the piazza, we walked down to Piazza San Domenico and a former convent which was now a hotel but they had a sign prohibiting any visitors on the property. Back to Corso Umberto, we walked past the pink town hall with the mysterious Stars of David on the façade. We continued down the Corso lined with beautiful buildings and shops and cafes. Taormina felt like the most touristy place we had been on the trip. We were lucky that it wasn’t too crowded at this time of year. We passed through Porta di Mezzo (the clock tower with a beautiful mosaic under the tower) which opened into Piazza IX Aprile (which has a clean WC which was the only public one we found in the town) which, on a clear day, had what must be a beautiful view. We entered the lovely church of San Giuseppe and, as part of a feast time, there were displays made out of bread including a view of the church entirely made of bread. We left the Corso at Via Naumachia to see the Roman brick wall which was now incorporated into more modern buildings above and had niches which formerly held statues. On the Corso again we continued to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. The courtyard of the Palazzo Corvaja had an interesting relief of Adam and Eve and we went into the tourist information bureau and saw several puppets and Sicilian carts. We did not go into the museum upstairs because it was almost closing time. The church of Santa Caterina had beautiful chandeliers and, exposed in the floor on one side, you could see parts of the Hellenistic building the church was built over. Around the back of the church building, we could see the remains of the Roman theater. For our first night, I had made a reservation for dinner at the hotel which was served on the terrace in a beautiful setting. The chef came out and introduced himself and told us about some of the dishes. The service was very good and the food was delicious especially the tuna scallops filled with cooked onions.
Before leaving home, I had made a reservation with David from Wild Wide Sicily for a day trip to Mt. Etna. My sister-in-law had done a tour with David and highly recommended him and she was totally correct. We had a great day. David was happy to adjust our activities to whatever we wanted. We got up early, were the first at breakfast and met David with his jeep outside the hotel at 8:30am. David was very knowledgeable about the volcano, Sicily and, in particular, this area and we also wonderful conversations about life in Sicily. We drove through many small towns on our way to Mt. Etna. He took us down a small lava tube (wearing hard hats which were very necessary as I banged my head twice on the low rock ceiling) and we did a hike though the lava area. We felt the altitude affecting us a bit as we hiked. We were also glad we had good hiking shoes for this trek because the lava was very granular. We stopped at a Refugiro for lunch and had the best salami and cheese sandwich ever. We had a nice conversation with the owner who told us about his trip to NY. David drove us to an area where we could see the road cut off at both ends by magma and also to an area where the magma stopped its forward movement in time to avoid damaging a town. We also went to Piano Provenza where the magma destroyed a hotel and other buildings. On our extended drive back to the hotel, David pointed out towns and sites used in the Godfather movie and stopped in Castiglione di Sicilia with a wonderful view over the countryside. I highly recommend a tour with David (www.wildwidesicily.com). After relaxing at the hotel (the terrace was a perfect place to read and enjoy the lovely weather), we walked up to town to check out the lava flow from Mt. Etna. We stopped at a terrace near the Villa Paradiso Hotel where, as the sun went down, we could see the red glow from the lava flow on one side of Mt. Etna. Binoculars really helped to see this. We met another couple who were from Nevada and they joined us at Vecchia Taormina where we sat out in the courtyard for salads and a pizza dinner. There was a sign and entrance to the restaurant on the Corso even though the address is Vico Ebrei which was a tiny alley off the Piazza Duomo. The food was good but not great but it was so enjoyable to eat with such a nice couple.
We had come to the final day of our trip. Despite all our concerns, it had turned out to be a wonderful trip. Sicilians are wonderful, warm and friendly, the food was excellent and we really enjoyed everywhere we went. Villa Carlotta agreed to hold our luggage and car after we checked out and we headed to the public gardens to photograph Mt. Etna since today was the clearest day we had had. We went to the Greek theater, paid our 8 euros, and spent a lot of time wandering all over this beautiful ruin. Every turn brought another beautiful vista. We then walked to find the bus terminal on Via Pirandello to ride the bus up to Castelmola. We had to walk up and down this street a few times until we finally came to the terminal because it looked a lot closer to the town than it turned out to be. We bought one-way tickets planning on walking back down and got on the bus just about to leave. Bus drivers in Sicilian towns must have one of the most difficult jobs. How this driver managed to maneuver this large bus up those tiny streets clogged with haphazardly parked cars and trucks was a mystery to us. But we arrived up in the piazza at Castelmola safe and sound. We wandered through the town enjoying the views, the church and the duomo. The path to the ruined castle was closed off. We spent about one hour and then arrived back in the piazza where we could look over the parapet at the path heading back to Taormina. We decided to wait for the bus and take that back down but we waited and waited and waited. My notes said that the buses ran hourly but no bus arrived. We thought about eating up in Castelmola but I really wanted to have lunch at Vicolo Stretto in Taormina. We thought about walking but figured that would take us too long and we would miss lunch. When I noticed a taxi letting out passengers on the piazza, I ran over and asked how much to Taormina. I thought he said 20 euros which was what I told my husband but the driver said, “No, 15 euros.” So we jumped in to his new Toyota taxi with air conditioning and he drove us back to Porta Catania in comfort. (We later learned that at this time of the year, the next bus would not have left Castelmola until after 3pm.) We headed down the Corso to Vicolo Stretto which had the narrowest entrance I’ve ever seen. We went upstairs from the wine bar and sat on the terrace with lots of flowers and a view of the tower from San Guiseppe. We were the only customers for lunch but we were never rushed. The service was excellent and very warm and friendly. They gave us an amuse buche of a four vegetable soup with a very interesting flavor. A glass of Prosecco was also offered. We ordered from the traditional Sicilian menu rather than the “modern” menu. We started with a delicious caponita. Our main dishes were spaghetti with clams and a swordfish involtini served with a potato/cheese bake and eggplant and zucchini and both dishes were delicious. For dessert we ordered a pistachio parfait which was more like a semifreddo served on a chocolate cookie and they also gave us a portion of a ricotta mousse. Both were marvelous. We hated to leave and they certainly didn’t indicate to us that they wanted us to leave so we had coffee and talked with the owner about restaurants and cooking in Sicily. They gave us small glasses of a dessert wine (muscat) to finish off this wonderful meal. We walked to the hotel and picked up our luggage and car and drove towards Catania. We filled the car up along the autostrada and followed the exact and perfect directions we were given by Santuzza of Castello D’Urso Somma B&B. She met us as we got out of the car at this beautiful property outside Catania near the airport. She explained that the property used to be her family’s orange processing business which had since moved and now her father lived in the beautiful large house on the property. The grounds were beautiful and there was a very large pool which wasn’t in use yet. The guests are all in a smaller building on the property and our room was comfortable and very nicely decorated. Santuzza offered us glasses of blood orange juice and a bowl of fresh strawberries. She was such a warm and friendly person and we were sorry we didn’t have more time to spend with her at this lovely B&B. We had read that they didn’t provide toiletries so we were prepared with shower gel, lotion and hair products. Santuzza drew us a map of the back way to the airport for when we would leave the next morning. We walked around enjoying the property until it became dark.
Saturday was overcast. We helped ourselves to the do-it-yourself breakfast which was fine for starting the day. We followed the directions to the Catania airport and arrived in about 10 minutes but then started the adventure of trying to find the rental car facilities to return our car. We drove around and around and didn’t see any signs until we stopped in the middle of the road and asked a worker who directed us to the one place we hadn’t been yet. Returning the car to Hertz was easy. I asked the clerk to sign the contract that there was no damage on the vehicle and we walked the short way to the terminal. Our flights home on Alitalia were fine.
Almost 3 weeks in Sicily in March
Trip to Sicily: March 3-22, 2014
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