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Trip Report Crumbling Palazzos and Creamy Cannoli - Savoring Sicily

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This trip started with three nights on Capri and six in Sorrento (see www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=35123298) but Sicily was always the main attraction. I had done a lot of reading about the island, and was looking forward to beautiful scenery, interesting food, and layers and layers of history and culture from all those invaders.

After a lot of thought I decided to join a tour group for part of the trip, because I was traveling alone and public transport in the middle of the island seemed a little problematic, plus this would get me a guide to the main sights, but I would have three nights at the beginning, and nine at the end, on my own. First, though, I had to get there.

April 18 - Riding the Rails Over Water

I arranged for a special early shuttle from Hotel Il Nido to Sorrento station. I wanted to make sure that the Circumvesuviana train would get me to Naples in plenty of time to find my train to Siracusa. Arriving (late) for the second time at the underground Napoli Piazza Garibaldi station, I fought my way upstairs through the commuter crowds to buy a panini. (I have borderline hypoglycaemia, and I like to board long distance trains already supplied with food and water.)

Then, fortunately, I asked a railway employee for directions. While I had read (multiple times!) that my train left from Napoli Piazza Garibaldi, platform 2, for some reason it hadn't registered with me that that meant the same dark and grimy station used by the Circumvesuviana commuter trains, and not the relatively clean and bright Napoli Centrale up above. After all, this was a long distance Intercity from Rome to Sicily. Good thing I still had time to get back downstairs, but not the best start to the day.

When the train pulled in I saw no sign of a restaurant car, but I did solve one mystery. The bahn.de site insisted I needed to change trains in Messina, trenitalia.it was equally sure I did not. Turned out, the front four carriages would go to Palermo and the back three to Siracusa. No problem.

I enjoyed a last look at the Bay of Naples on one side, and Vesuvius on the other, before we turned temporarily inland. After Salerno the train filled up, and when I found myself surrounded by a family with a crying baby and a hyper-active toddler I abandoned my reserved seat for a quieter location. The scenery, mostly sea to the right and currently green hills to the left, became monotonous, and I was glad of my new iPod. I had loaded three books (borrowed from the library), plenty of podcasts and some music, but it was the podcasts I mostly listened to - less disruptive to stop and start them than a book.

Still, I wasn't riding this train for the scenery. Over the last few years I've ridden quite a lot of trains (see wilhelmswords.com/rtw2004) including the one that goes under the English Channel and the one that gets its bogies changed at the Chinese border, but this would be the first time I had crossed water on a train that was itself on a boat. At Villa San Giovanni we waited a while, then were shunted backwards and forwards, and finally found ourselves rolling onto - maybe into would be a better word - the ferry.

We were below deck, with a view of the inside of the boat and not the water, but I found that the carriage doors were open, and that boxes had been thoughtfully placed to make it easier to get off the train. Signs indicating the way up to the bar and back down to the train made it doubly clear that we weren't expected to stay in our seats. Up on the car deck I checked out the view - not especially exciting - and enjoyed the breeze.

After we were unloaded from the ferry at Messina what I thought at first was a bomb-sniffing dog was led through the carriages. On further consideration it seems more likely it was looking for drugs. Or maybe both? At this point the train gave up any pretence of being an Intercity - a designation already belied by shabby rolling stock and dubious toilets - and became a very slow local.

Most people got off at Catania or Taormina, after which we took a detour through the countryside. While the views along the coast were spectacular, and the inland fields were sprinkled with brilliant wildflowers, I did feel that three hours for the journey from Messina to Siracusa was overdoing it. I would not be sorry to fly from Palermo to Naples on the way back.

Leaving Siracusa station I again had to ask for directions, this time to find the bus stop, which was round the corner. I had followed the advice in the guidebooks, and from posters here, and booked a B&B in the old town on the island of Ortigia, instead of staying in the new town. Small, free, shuttle buses run round the island and to the train station, so I had no trouble getting to the island, but some difficulty finding my B&B, as it turned out that I taken the wrong shuttle.

I knew I was in the right area, but the google map I had consulted online had been a little off. Finally, I sat down near the very ruinous ruins of the Temple of Apollo and pulled out my new cell phone. Modern technology to the rescue - my landlady headed me in the right direction, then stood waving from her balcony.

I stayed at the Ortigia Sea View B&B (www.ortigiaseaview.it/home_eng.htm), and while the best view is only available at breakfast, the rooms do have a sea view, and a terrace. I had a good-sized double room with a separate big bathroom, closed off at the end of a corridor. I can definitely recommend this place - my landlady was helpful (she spoke English), breakfast included fresh-squeezed orange juice, cereal, fruit and yoghurt, although no cheese or meat, and the location was great.

The train trip had taken the whole day (09:42 to 18:25), and by the time I had found the B&B, chatted with my landlady and gotten sorted out I was more than ready for dinner. The lungomare was cold, dark and deserted, but then I found the Osteria da Mariano (www.osteriadamariano.it), which had been recommended by a poster here (I think it was here, maybe slowtrav). The Osteria felt more touristy than I had expected, and the food quality was uneven. The amouse bouche (ricotta?) - delicate and delicious. The orange salad with onion and chili - excellent. But the antipasto and the sausage main course were just OK. Still, crystallized ginger appeared for dessert and the 25 euro cost included a half liter of red wine.

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