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Trip Report Free Lemons and Fat Ladies in Sicily and Malta

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First off, I want to thank the Fodor's Forum folks for helping me plan this trip (and also the invaluable Vagabonda on Trip Advisor). Sicily is now one of our favorite destinations, and Malta was even more fascinating than I expected. Here is a quick overview of the trip (with hotels):

Naples (2 nights) - Neapolis Hotel (http://neapolis.hotelsinnapoli.com)
Ferry from Naples to Palermo (1 night)
Palermo (6 nights) -- Amelie B & B (www.bb-amelie.it)
Trapani (4 nights) -- Abita Appartamenti (www.abita-appartamenti.com)
Catania (3 nights) -- Globetrotter B&B (www.globetrottercatania.com)
Ortigia (4 nights) -- Aretusa Vacanze (www.aretusavacanze.com)
Ragusa (2 nights) -- Risvegilo Ibleo (www.risveglioibleo.com)
Valletta (2 nights) -- Valletta Studios (www.vallettastudios.com)
Gozo (2 nights) -- Hotel San Andrea (www.hotelsanandrea.com)
Sliema (2 nights) -- Rocco Nettuna Suites (www.heartofmalta.com/hotel/malta/mt/sliema/il-merill-aparthotel.aspx)
Milan (1 night) -- Hotel Kennedy (www.kennedyhotel.it)

As you will see, we did this trip via public transportation which worked out quite well. If you would like to see the trip reports with pictures, take a look at our blog: http://supsictravelssicily.blogspot.com

Here are our trip reports:

Naples

Ciao from Napoli home of some of the world’s best pizza! We had an uneventful and unexciting flight from Newark to Naples. Unfortunately, flying to Europe has become as miserable as any domestic flight at home. The food was lousy, and the inflight entertainment was poor – just the usual. The bright spot of the journey was the long layover in Munich that gave us a chance to drink some German beer.

Naples is pretty much what we expected: dirty and loud with towering, crumbling buildings strung with laundry, and narrow lanes infested with fast-moving motorcycles. But it is vibrant, authentic Italy, and we love it!

We are staying in a great central location right in the middle of the Citta Antica (Old City) at Hotel Neapolis. The street called Via Tribunali, which is pretty much pizzeria central here, is just around the corner. Speaking of corners, Naples has a church on almost every one of them, and we visited several including the impressive Duomo.

The highlight of our first day was a tour of Napoli Sotteranea (Underground Naples). A whole ancient world lies beneath the city streets. We started our tour in what was until recently a typical, extremely narrow Naples townhouse. Our guide pushed back what would have been the owner’s bed to reveal a trap door leading to the basement.
The basement is actually part of a Greek/Roman theater built 5,000 years ago. The stonework is gorgeous. In fact, the stones comprising the walls were laid in a diagonal pattern to prevent cracking during earthquakes, one of the first anti-earthquake building techniques.

Nero himself famously performed his own operas in this theater (apparently he considered himself quite a musician – and who was going to argue?). Legend has it that Nero once performed during an earthquake and even that couldn’t stop him from singing!

The second part of the tour took us down 121 steps (about 50 vertical feet below the surface) to a 260-mile series of tunnels and cisterns that were once part of a Roman aqueduct. The aqueduct was shut down after a cholera outbreak in 1884, but the tunnels were reopened during WWII to be used as a refuge from the Allied bombing of Naples. 2,000 people found shelter in just this one section of the tunnels for weeks at a time during the bombing. Displays of artifacts of that time included rusty toy cars plus army helmets and weapons left here by German and Italian deserters who ditched their Army duds and escaped into the tunnels.

The cisterns are linked by the narrowest tunnels you can imagine. The cleaners of the aqueduct moved around the complex by balancing themselves above the water. Using footholds carved into the walls of the narrow passageways, they moved like circus performers placing one foot into footholds on the left side of the passageway and the other foot into footholds on the right side. To get a feel for the passageways, we were each given a candle and inched our way through part of a tunnel. At times, we had to slide along sideways against the walls. Not an experience for the claustrophobic!

Back at ground level, we headed for a nearby “Limone” store where the friendly owner showed us his vats of homemade Limoncello. He even gave us a tasting of regular and cream-style. The Crema Limone was a revelation – creamy and less harsh but still very lemony. Yum! At night, we dined on delightful thin-crusted pizza trying various toppings including artichokes, basil and ham.

Almost all the people we met were very friendly and gregarious. In fact, once we got them started, they talked non-stop. One woman joked around with us and pointing to the veins in her arms said, “I am Neapolitan, I have humor in my DNA!”

Our favorite sight of all was the Capella di San Severo. This ornate baroque chapel was designed by a mysterious character named Prince Raimondo de Sangro who was an inventor, an alchemist, and a Mason. The 200-year old chapel ceiling was painted with a special concoction invented by Raimondo, and the amazingly vibrant colors have never been retouched in any way. On display in the basement are two bizarre skeletons with complete circulatory systems also designed by Raimondo that show an understanding of human anatomy that was highly unusual for the time.

Raimondo had a thing for intricate sculpture, and the chapel was filled with remarkable works. One piece showed a figure untangling himself from a rope net – very detailed right down to what looked like actual knots in the rope. But the star of the chapel was a sculpture called “The Veiled Christ,” a masterpiece created by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753. We have never seen a sculpture like this one. Somehow Giuseppe created a translucent marble veil that drapes over the features of the Christ figure beneath it. This is a phenomenal engineering and artistic feat, but gazing at the statue is also extraordinarily moving – almost a religious experience. As you move from the feet of the statue to the head, Christ’s expression changes from painful agony to peace.

We enjoyed Naples more than we thought we would and were sorry to leave. Last night, we boarded a ferry operated by the Tirrenia Line and made the overnight journey to Palermo, Sicily. This is no Celebrity or Holland America cruise ship, but our very basic ferry cabin was bearable, and it was fun to be out to sea, even if it was just for one night.

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    Your descriptions are wonderful! Please write more. Am planning a trip for June 2012 with part of the same itinerary.
    Please give hotel reviews and prices in euro if you can.

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    Thanks so much for the encouragement.

    bartsmom -- I will try to remember to add some comments on our hotels. In general, we are 2 to 3-star type travelers; I would say on average we paid 70 - 75 euros/night.

    yestravel -- Yes, if I were doing the trip over again, I would spend at least 1 more night in Naples, maybe 2.

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    We spent 6 nights in Palermo experiencing the city, the people, and making some side trips. But visiting Palermo is really all about the people and the Sicilian way of life. Not that we didn’t see and do things (we’ll tell you all about that in a minute), but the best thing about Palermo are the friendly and fascinating people – the “Palermitani”.

    A few short human interest stories about the Palermitani will help tell what we mean. For example, my DH tried twice to buy a lemon from fruit vendors on the street (we use it to flavor our bottled water). Both times, the vendors refused any money saying, “A gift -- a gift!” So now we think of Palermo as the city of “free lemons”.

    One day, we asked a little old lady (she was 4 feet tall tops) for directions to the bus stop, using our shoddy Italian. She didn’t speak a word of English, but somehow understood what we were asking; she not only led us in the right direction, but walked us across a busy Palermo intersection. Crossing the street is a bigger deal than you may think -- no doubt she was afraid we would be killed if we crossed by ourselves. The traffic is horrendous – there seem to be no rules, and the speeding cars just keep on coming.

    But this little old lady walked right out into the frenetic traffic, patting the air with her hand to halt the cars. And the cars made way for her (and for us hanging by her side). Traffic just flowed around her – it was like Moses parting the Red Sea! We have the hang of it now – it’s all about the flow, and the one thing you never want to do is stop as you cross a street, or even worse, back-up! If you do, you could end up as Palermo road kill.

    One more Palermitani story. We met a man who looked just like the guy on the Birra Moretti beer bottle (a real gangster type). Our “Signore Moretti” spoke some English, and we managed a conversation of broken English (his) and fractured Italian (ours). When we told him we were from America, he got all excited and started yelling, “Dio benedica America!” (God bless America!)

    Soon after this, we had a brief chat with two men who turned out to be bus inspectors – these guys are notorious for imposing big fines on anyone who fails to validate their bus tickets properly. Well, they got on the bus with us and started checking everybody’s tickets. My DH started pulling our tickets out of his pocket to show them, and they just laughed and waved him off. It was like they were saying, “Forget about it!” Maybe the inspectors saw us talking to “Signore Moretti” and thought we were “connected!”

    Palermo is a hodgepodge of architecture reflecting all the different conquerors over the years ranging from Medieval to Baroque to a Norman/Arab combo. (Plus too many ugly fascist-type cement block buildings). The city is filled with old churches often decorated with colorful mosaics. The most famous mosaics are found just outside of town in a hillside village called Monreale. Every inch of the upper walls and ceiling are covered with mosaic “pictures.” I had a ball wandering the church identifying all the Bible stories like “Jacob’s Ladder,” Noah’s Ark,” and one we never heard of (but that sounded promising), “Drunken Noah in the Vineyard.” (Note: We did not make this up!)

    Our favorite mosaics were in the Cappella Palatina, a chapel located within the Royal Palace. Smaller and better lit than Monreale, the mosaics sparkled in the intimate space like a little jewel box! And there too, high on an archway, was another mosaic of a drunken Noah lying out in the grape vineyards; I guess his task of loading animals finally got to him.

    Our favorite sight of all was the Catacombs at Convento dei Cappuccini, the best skeleton collection we have ever seen. We love this gruesome stuff, and this place really lived up to its reputation. Some 8,000 bodies are on display, tied and propped up vertically in niches along the walls. Some are preserved, but most are in skeletal form. The dead are all decked out in their funerary finery. The best ones are men all dressed up in hats, ties, vests, jackets, gloves, and even shoes, with just the skull bones showing. Very studly dudes!

    Really, this is a creepy place, and the best part is that people used to come visit their deceased loved ones here. Wouldn’t it be better to remember them when they were alive? It was a big deal to “pick your niche,” and people would stand in their niche for hours just to be sure it was a good fit and a good choice. One of the saddest bodies is a little girl who looks like she is asleep. Supposedly, a doctor came up with a special preservation method but died before he could share it.

    Okay, on to a happier topic. How about food? As you would expect, the pasta is fantastic – I especially like Pasta Norma, made with eggplant and named for the heroine of our favorite Bellini opera, “Norma.” “Arancini” are also a favorite snack, -- yummy fried rice balls about the size of a baseball filled with meat or vegetables. Eggplant, pistachios, and capers are a big deal here, and they are prepared in so many remarkable ways. We have discovered the joys of Sicilian antipasti: carponata (eggplant, capers, olives and tomatoes), lots of grilled veggies like squash and eggplant, roasted red peppers, and tomatoes topped with cheese. All steeped in the best Sicilian olive oil. What a feast (and this is just a starter!).

    The sweets are simply out of this world (Thank God we are doing a lot of walking!). Saturday was San Giuseppe’s Day (St. Joseph), and it is quite the holiday here on Sicilia. We had to eat the special pastry made in San Giuseppe’s honor: the “sfinci.” This concoction is a cream puff filled with ricotta cheese cream, dotted with dark chocolate chips, and topped with even more ricotta cream and candied fruit. All I could do was moan and say, “Oh my God” with every bite.

    The cannoli are the best anywhere. My favorite (so far) comes from a specialty shop called Spinnato’s. These cannoli have a super crusty pastry tube that is lined with chocolate. Plus, if you want it “to go,” the Spinnato boys place it on a little colored cardboard tray, wrap it all up, and tie it with a bow like a present. At least this is what they do when I do the ordering LOL! Italian men really know how to treat a lady, and I am lovin’ every minute of it!

    The favorite nightly entertainment here is the folkloric puppet show. My DH was not a huge fan, but it was fun (really). The highlight of the show was the big fight scene when the hero puppet killed at least half a dozen enemies, each one in a different way. He lobbed off heads, sliced off a face, and even cut one poor puppet in two from head to toe. Gory, but clever puppetry.

    Palermo is a perfect base for day tripping, and we made two side trips: Agrigento and Cefalu. Agrigento was a large Greek settlement that once rivaled Athens. The Greek temples here are some of the best preserved in the world. We spent a wonderful day wandering the ruins and feeling as if we were touching history. Note that it's a 2-hr. bus ride (each way) from Palermo to Agrigento, and once you arrive, we had to take a local bus out to the site. Really not as bad as it sounds. We had some trouble figuring out where to get the local bus, but people on the street were happy to help.

    Cefalu is the most popular resort on the north coast of Sicily and an easy train ride from Palermo. This is a sweet little town of narrow, winding streets sitting between the sea and a huge rock looming over head called La Rocco. We ate lunch in this incredibly scenic square in front of the stunning stone cathedral with La Rocco in the background. After lunch, we browsed in the shops and walked along the rocky coastline. A perfect day in Sicilia.

    I could not write up Palermo without singing the praises of our wonderful stay at the B & B Amelie. This B & B was perfectly located near transportation and important sights, and we had a large, sunny, quiet room, colorfully decorated with a big comfortable bed. But the best part of staying here was the owner, Angela. Angela is one of those special people who are born to be in the hospitality business. She speaks English very well and has a great sense of humor.

    Every morning, we would talk and laugh together over breakfast, and Angela would spend time helping us plan our day. On our last morning, my DH asked Angela to translate something he had seen written in Italian. What Angela didn’t know was that my DH had copied it from a bathroom wall. (My DH never misses an opportunity to learn some “street Italian” no matter where he finds it!)

    The look on Angela’s face as she read his handwritten version of what he saw was priceless. Apparently, some “Italian stallion” was advertising his well-endowed “wares.” The guy promised to be discreet and even left a phone number for the ladies to call him! Angela was a good sport, and she made our stay in Palermo unforgettable as well as fun.

    More to come as we move to the western tip of Sicily for our next adventure in the city of Trapani.

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    LOVE this report. We want to do Southern Italy one day...we're headed back to see the Northern bits we missed on our last big trip. You travel like we do (now) a month at a time. Seems to make sense, and you feel like you've made a dent in understanding where you've been. (although you say you could have done more time in Naples...we'll have to remember that!)

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    Trapani

    The bus ride that took us from Palermo to Trapani was just over two hours long. We thoroughly enjoyed the ride along the north coast and thru some of rural Sicily where sheep graze on the mountainsides and peasants prepare their gardens for a summer filled with fresh fruits and veggies.

    Upon stepping off the bus in the city of Trapani, an older gent approached us and gently said “Bienvenutu a Trapani” (welcome to Trapani). We were astounded that a total stranger would just approach us with such a warm, unsolicited welcome. In America, when someone approaches you this abruptly, the red flags of suspicion immediately go up. Well, he wanted nothing but to provide a sincere welcome, and disappeared as quickly as he appeared; his simple words gave us a warm feeling about our new “home.”

    Our apartment is near the fishing port and markets, and the locals in this fishing town set out every morning in search of swordfish, tuna, triglia (red mullet), and calamari. Our apartment is large with a terrific private terrace, but the people who operate the rooms are nothing like our favorite Palermitani, Angela.

    Trapani is a transportation center, and therefore a perfect home base for “day trips”. Our first day trip (an easy bus ride) was to the ancient Greek site of Segesta. Although Segesta had a close alliance with Athens, the temple was never completed; it was OBE (overcome by events), such as the invasion of the Carthaginians.

    The location was as beautiful as we have ever seen, set on a mountainside in front of another mountain and among fields of colorful yellow and purple wildflowers. We spent a half day there, starting with the ruins of a medieval castle and a Roman theater located high above the temple, and then hiking down through the wildflowers to the magnificent Parthenon-like Greek temple. All we can say is how lucky we are that places like this still exist -- and that we get to see them!

    An easy day trip (via train) to the town of Marsala just south of Trapani offered the chance to discover the wines of this famous region. Cantine Florio gave us a good look at a traditional Marsala winery, the first one to be Italian-owned. Back in the 1700’s, the Brits started the Marsala wine industry when shipments of port and sherry were disrupted by war between England and Spain. Marsala is a specially fortified wine, meaning that hard alcohol is added to make the wine stronger than usual (about 20 % alcohol) giving the wine a longer shelf-life.

    Cantine Florio’s first business was as a pharmacy, so they always advertised their Marsala wine as “good for your health”. During prohibition (1920’s and 30’s}, they exported LOTS of Marsala wine to the U.S. marketed under the name Marsala “tonic” – in the small museum at the winery, we saw an actual bottle of the 18% alcohol “tonic” with a label that read “Approved by the U.S. Treasury. Dosage: A small glassful twice a day!”

    One benefit of travelling in the off-season is that our “group tour” was just the two of us with our guide Sara. She did an excellent job of describing the Marsala winemaking process, and of course, gave us a tasting of the delicious stuff!

    Our second winery, Donnafugata, offered an interesting contrast. Donnafugata is also an old winery, but about 15 years ago the owners decided to stop making Marsala wine and switch to more popular unfortified reds and whites. This is definitely a forward-thinking winery with state-of-the-art equipment and brilliant marketing. Once again, we had the guide all to ourselves -- Zane (a young woman from Latvia fluent in 5 languages) gave us a terrific tour through the impressive facility.

    Donnafugata experiments with all kinds of grapes including the Sicilian Nero d’Avolo, French grapes like cabernet sauvignon, and many grapes we had never heard of before, like damaschia, insola, catarratio, and zibibbo. Zane gave us quite a tasting experience too: 4 whites, 3 reds, and a dessert wine. All were excellent and intriguing (and you can look for them in the U.S.!). Boy, that winery didn’t make any money on us with all those very generous pourings; glad we were on foot when we left for the train station.

    The medieval town of Erice (pronounced: air-EE-cha) sits high on a rock-like mountain that protrudes 750 meters above sea level. We took the local bus up there (funicilar wasn't running), holding our breath as the bus negotiated treacherous hairpin switchbacks and steep dropoffs. It was raining slightly, and that exacerbated the treachery, making those switchbacks more slippery than usual. Luckily, we had a young “cool-as-a-cucumber” bus driver who must be the calmest bus driver in all of Sicily. None of these situations bothered him a bit -- he was the ideal guy to take us up the mountain.

    Erice dates back to ancient times with the usual host of local conquerors (Normans, Greeks, Romans, etc.). The best viewpoint is a medieval castle situated on the outermost tip of this mountain perch. A Temple to Athena once stood here, and much of the castle’s stone comes from the original temple. The views were as sublime as the guidebooks promised. The green valley, the craggy mountains, the busy peninsula that is our town of Trapani, and the blue Med were all magnificently displayed beneath us.

    Until we reached the main souvenir street, the town appeared to be unpopulated – just us strolling the windy streets admiring the medieval stone architecture. Eventually, we located Caffe Maria, a pretty tea shop owned by Maria Grammatico, the most famous pastry chef in Sicily. We ate a light lunch (in order to save room for a sweet). I selected a “Cassatine Siciliano” – a gorgeous little green dish topped with ricotta cream and candied fruit. Inside, this candy-like dessert had a thin layer of cake, chopped almonds, and more ricotta cream (Sicilians must go thru tons of ricotta cream!). Totally decadent.

    We have some more human interest stories for you, too. The Trapanese are also quite a fascinating bunch. In Marsala, a young English-speaking avvocato introduced himself to us on the streets. No, not a piece of fruit that you pick from a tree, i.e., the avocado but a lawyer (as in advocate). Francesco, the avvocato, volunteered his help in locating our destination, after he saw us pass by him twice on a backstreet in Marsala. These unexpected offerings are so commonplace here in Sicily.

    Later, a young wine shop owner named Allessandro engaged us in conversation as we passed by. After a short period of learning a little bit about each other, he locked up his wine shop to walk us to a recommended restaurant. When we protested and told him not to leave his shop for us, he said, “It is not good to work too much.” Along the way to the restaurant, Allessandro took us on a walking tour of the town, pointing out important sights that we never would have known about. We wondered if we were going to be a threesome for lunch, but Allessandro delivered us to a wonderful restaurant - no strings attached.

    And the day we took the bus to Erice, a man at a nearby snack shop helped direct us to the Biglietteria (the place to buy bus tickets). Ten minutes later, after getting tickets, as we were waiting for the bus, the man left his shop to walk over and make sure that we had our tickets and were okay, and that we understood the departure time for the bus. We shouldn’t be so amazed anymore, but It is remarkable how well the people of Sicily continue to look out for us strangers.

    On our last day here in Trapani, we took a vacation from our vacation -- just taking it easy, strolling the streets of sunny Trapani for a last time, watching the kite flying event down at the port, reflecting on our stay here, and prepping for our exodus and new adventures tomorrow.

    Additional comments: I made appointments at both wineries via email. These are the websites: www.cantineflorio.it
    www.donnafugata.it

    Regarding our stay at Abita Appartamenti: we had mixed feelings about this place. On the one hand, our room was spacious with a basic kitchen AND a beautiful private terrace (that we really enjoyed). I also liked the simple breakfast in the pretty courtyard. Things we didn't like: no Wifi in the room (only in Reception where it was like sitting in the hotel's office), musty smell in the bathroom, and door locks that my DH was not happy with (not that we felt unsafe, but not the securest arrangement).

    Note that the issue of no Wifi in the room is something we ran into a lot in Sicily. If having Wifi in your room is important to you, be sure to request lower level rooms near Reception where you will have a better chance of getting access.

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    Continuing to enjoy your report. Thanks for your response re Naples. We may fly into Naples and were figuring a day or 2 to get over jet lag and then 3-4 days enjoying Naples. (This would be part of a 6-7 week trip.)

    We had the wifi issue on our trip to Chile. U get spoiled when u have wifi in your room and then have a place where its only in the reception area, but glad to hear its readily available in Sicily. Good suggestion to request rooms closer to reception.

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    Such a super report. Know how you felt about being Moses in traffic! I missed the drunken Noah but often wondered if pagan gods were renamed by the Christians. So many Neptunes became Moses, IMHO. Perhaps a renamed Bacchus?!

    But there ARE rules to traffic:

    Don't waste gas by stopping for a pedestrian if you can go around her/im

    If you are in the left-most lane and must go right, just do it. Just don't stop.

    After everyone has run the red light, pedestrians have the absolute right of way. Just keep the laws of physics in minds.

    Be prepared to die, but don't stop if you can help it.

    Loving your report!

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    Catania

    Our first impression of Catania was that it was not the garden spot of Sicily. However as it turned out, the town was special for us. We are staying in a quiet alley at a B&B called The Globetrotter, a cute little place off the main roads where we felt as if we were staying with friends.

    Catania is a city of faded glory with beautiful baroque buildings, many sporting a good coating of graffiti, and a place to keep a good eye on your belongings. But Catania is also quite atmospheric, and having survived earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as one guidebook puts it, “The most amazing thing about Catania is that it is still here.”

    One of the reasons we came to Catania was to visit the home town of a favorite operatic composer of ours, Vincenzo Bellini. Located in the house where Bellini was born, the Bellini Museum is small but powerful with Bellini’s death mask on display along with various old-style pianos and memorabilia including the original poster for the first performance of the opera “Norma” at La Scala in Milan.

    I told the woman at the Bellini museum, “Mi piace Bellini.” (I love Bellini.) And the woman showered me with gifts of informational booklets on Bellini and the city of Catania (which, after we digested, we left at the B&B for future tourists). The Sicilian people love to give presents! (You almost hesitate to be too nice because you know if you are, a present will be coming your way!)

    Catania is renowned for its fish, and La Pescheria (fish market) is one of the wildest markets we have visited yet. The fish market has a real theatrical ambience – the fish vendors shout things out in Italian at a 100+ decibel level throughout the marketplace as they chop up fresh fish for their clients, or delicately fillet small fish with that very same machete.

    They wield these foot and a half long machetes, performing butcher work one moment, then surgery the next. A tiered upper street overlooks a busy section of the market, almost like a balcony – and the old men (old fishermen?) gather there leaning over a railing to observe and assess the daily performance below.

    We took a day trip by bus to Taormina, a lovely hill town beautifully perched on a mountain top between Mt. Etna and the sea. The highlight here was the Teatro Greco (which is actually mostly Roman), an ancient amphitheater with incomparable views of Mt. Etna, the sea, and the old buildings of Taormina.

    The acoustics here are quite remarkable. In an extemporaneous moment of craziness, my DH belted out a verse of opera from center stage, and the folks high up in the seating area applauded him! Now he fancies himself a budding opera star, and you can’t shut the man up LOL!

    Another reason for coming to Catania was to hike on Mt. Etna whose snow-covered, ever-visible presence looms over the town like an evil god. This is one impressive volcano. We took a day tour with Etna Experience called “The Volcano and Wine Tour” (how could we resist that combination?) Of course, we had to earn our wine, so our well-spoken 42-year old Italian tour guide, Vincenzo Romeo, drove us to the volcano first. He was a tall dude with a slender build made for climbing mountains – a nice guy and VERY knowledgeable.

    Vincenzo took us up on Etna (a mile high) where unusual yellow birch trees gleamed among patches of remaining snow. We hiked around the lateral craters – Mt. Etna has 4 active craters up at the top, but these are closed to visitors. The locals refer to Mt. Etna as the “good volcano” because, unlike Mt. Vesuvius that tends to explode without warning, Mt. Etna has regular eruptions to relieve internal pressures. And, when the lava flows, it moves very slowly giving people plenty of time to evacuate, or just sit on the sidelines with a cup of wine in hand and watch the lava dribble down the mountain side toward the ocean.

    This is no joke. Vincenzo told us about a villager who lost the middle portion of his orchard to the lava flow. This man brought a lawn chair, a bowl of pasta, and a glass of wine out to his orchard where he sat to watch the lava flow on by.

    This was a strenuous hike up and down parts of Etna, visiting several of the craters. We definitely earned our wine. The nearby Gambino Winery offered a beautiful tasting room overlooking vineyards on the fertile volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna. Six wines were accompanied by a great selection of antipasti, cheese, salami, and bread.

    Afterwards, we hiked into a lava cave, a perfectly shaped tube with a resident bat and lots of crumbly volcanic rock underfoot. With the low ceilings, we were glad for the hard hats provided by our tour guide – and the large LED flashlights to find our way in the dank cold cave.

    Naturally, we have eaten a lot of fish here in Catania. After seeing the fish market, we knew we had to try some red tuna, and the ubiquitous Sicilian favorite, swordfish. Fish in Sicily is some of the most juicy and tasty fish we have ever had. Plus, we needed to try some Pasta Bellini here in Bellini’s home town – love this dish made with eggplant which is remarkably good here. Of course, I continued my sweets kick (although I am trying to cut back – seriously!). Casserta is a Sicilan delicacy not to be missed – icing on top and ricotta cream with chocolate chips in the center, it is another highly caloric sweet worth moaning over.

    And, the human interest stories continue. The best part of our stay in Catania was the wonderful people that we met on the streets and at the B &B Globetrotter. One day, we were standing at a bus stop wondering why no buses were coming by. An older gent, 80-year old Salvatore, came to our rescue helping us to understand (eventually) that the buses were not stopping here, but running just a few blocks away. Salvatore spoke Italian, French, and German (but almost no English). We ended up communicating in a polyglot of those three languages. Really quite entertaining – Salvatore got a good laugh out of it, that’s for sure!

    At the Globetrotter B&B, we enjoyed hotel staff members Sofia, Sylvia, and Daniele, and a fellow guest named Gaetana from Connecticut. Gaetana was on her own in Catania studying Italian – it was great fun sharing the joys of Sicily with a fellow American.

    When we left this morning, we took a lot of group photos. In one of them, my DH was pleased to pose with 26-year old Sofia and me. He said to Daniele who was standing nearby and watching carefully, “Every man needs two women.” Without skipping a beat, Daniele, the young Italian proprietor of the B & B responded, “Why stop at just two???” We all had a good laugh; there was definitely special camaraderie at the B&B Globtrotter in Catania.

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    Thanks, annhig. I found most of the B&Bs using Trip Advisor. Information on Sicily is fairly scanty. I used two guidebooks, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, for sightseeing info, but I found Trip Advisor to be best for accomodations.

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    Magster, just read your blog with great pics. Really enjoyed it. You folks must have done sooo much planning and you saw so much without a car! Thank you for sharing. Just wondering - do you travel "light" because you stayed at so many different lodgings? Also harder to schlep a great deal of luggage on public transportation.

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    latedaytraveler -- I really have Vagabonda on Trip Advisor to thank for helping me sort out all the public transportation options.

    I actually wish we could travel lighter (we had to buy extra weight when we flew EasyJet). We each had one medium-size wheeled bag. Luggage really isn't that big a deal on a bus (gets loaded down below) or even on a train. I just happen to love public transportation -- not as isolating as being in a rental car.

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    Siracusa and Ragusa

    Siracusa has always been a glorious city, from ancient times till now, located here in the southeastern corner of Sicily. The city was once the most important in the Western world eclipsing Corinth and even Athens. We are staying in the old part of town that is actually a tiny island (5 football fields wide and under a mile long), called Ortigia (pronounced: oar-TEE-jee-a). This is the city that Anne has always dreamed of seeing. Of all the places we have visited in Sicily, Ortigia is the most magical.

    When we left Catania, we had a perfect plan to take the bus to Siracusa and arrived at the bus station with time to spare. However, when we tried to buy our bus tickets, the abrupt clerk said, “No bus today; strike.” A man of few words, but his message was loud and crystal clear: no bus was going to take us to Siracusa today! Now what? Fortunately, I had read in my travel research that the trains also run to Siracusa, and the station was only a few blocks away. Only one lingering question: are the trains also on strike today? When we hustled over there, we got lucky; the bus strike was not connected to the trains. We had transportation!!

    We lost a few hours since the trains do not run as frequently – but we made good use of our time, working on our trip reports (love that Netbook!) as we sat in the station awaiting the train arrival. Strikes are infamous in Italy, so it was inevitable that one would catch up with us.
    Back to the dreamy ambience of Ortigia. The buildings on this island are totally made of an old world style stonework that exudes grace and elegance and reminds us of Venice sans the canals. Many of these structures are former palaces with elaborate stone carvings decorating the windows and hundreds of different styles of wrought iron balconies. This is a place I may never want to leave.

    The Piazza di Duomo may be the most beautiful plaza in all of Sicily – a huge open expanse with a Duomo (domed church,) covered with statues, that turns a brilliant sparkly cream color in the glow of the late afternoon sun. This area was once the acropolis of the Greek town, and the Duomo (with some Greek columns still visible) was once the Temple of Minerva. Other Greek remains include the Temple to Apollo with its Norman arched window reminding us that Christian churches often incorporated the earlier temples into their own walled structures (which is why so many of the ancient buildings have survived).

    One of the most unusual sights was the Bagno Ebraico, the Hebrew ritual baths. The ritual baths were sacred places fed by natural spring waters where Jewish men would bathe before entering the Synagogue, and Jewish women would bathe before their weddings, after childbirth, and after each menstrual period. These baths date back to 75 AD, and were used until 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Sicily. At that time, the stairs to the baths were blocked with rubble by fleeing Jews to hide and protect them. No one knew the baths even existed until 1991 when renovations at the hotel next door revealed the old subterranean stairway.

    The baths themselves are not terribly attractive, but are a fascinating place to visit with the undeniable mystique of a finding a secret place that had been hidden for over 500 years. The outer room contains three baths for the women, and private baths on each side, hewn out of solid rock for the men. Each bath was entered by climbing down several steps, and a special prayer was associated with each step.

    We spent a day in the larger and newer part of the city of Siracusa to see the 60-acre Archaeological Park and the nearby Museum. The Greek theater was quite large and impressive and very well preserved; in its heyday, the bleachers held nearly 20,000 Greek theatergoers. The Roman Arena at the other corner of the archeological digs was also quite interesting. The arena was mostly in ruins (because many of the stone blocks were used to build Ortigia), but we could still easily see the elliptical shape of the arena, and the deep rectangular dugout in the arena’s center that was used to clean up the blood and gore after gladiatorial combat.

    That brings up an interesting dichotomy between the Romans and the Greeks – they both built arenas to put on “shows” for the entertainment of their people. The Romans put on shows of death and destruction, one gladiator killing another; while the Greeks put on stage shows and theatrical performances with only fake murders and killings. Yet each faction could be equally vicious in battle.

    We also saw the ruins of the altar “Ara di Ierone II” which was the largest altar of its kind in the world. The Greeks once slaughtered 450 bulls on this altar during an annual feast and celebration.

    But our favorite sight was an ear-shaped cavern some 75 feet high, 30 feet wide, and 200 feet deep down in the quarries, called “Orrechio di Dionisio” (the ear of Dionysius). The huge cavern was a remarkable echo chamber, and once inside, my DH was inspired to vocalize a few bars of the Verdi aria, “La donne è mobile”. A woman further inside the cavern (and out of our sight) responded with the next few bars of the same aria! Over the next 15 minutes or so, we heard several tourists going into and out of the cave singing the same tune; they must have heard my DH and picked up the same idea. There is no living with him now –he is convinced that he is the next Pavarotti!

    The nearby Archaeology Museum was a bit much for us with over 18,000 artifacts on display, most of them chards of pottery. However, the excellent Roman sculptures (copies of the Greek) exquisitely carved in the sparkling local limestone gave us an idea of how the people who used to walk these streets would have looked.

    On the human interest front, we met a delightful family with two little boys named Raimondo and Raul (9 and 6 year’s old) in a little café. My DH got them going with some high fives and some picture-taking fun, but it was clear that neither boy could figure out why we didn’t understand what they were saying. After we left the restaurant, Raimondo came running after us – with my DH’s sunglasses in his hand!

    On our last day, we took a boat ride around the island and along the craggy cave-ridden coastline. We enjoyed splendid views from the water, and our boat captain Roberto steered us slowly into some grottos where newly formed orange coral contrasted with the emerald green water.

    We are staying at Arethusa Vacanze in an ancient building with a gorgeous rooftop terrace where we eat breakfast every morning, overlooking the blue-green Ionian Sea amidst an expanse of terra cotta rooftops. We have a comfortable, roomy apartment (Sicily has some of the largest hotel rooms we have ever come across in Europe) with a romantic canopy bed and a small kitchen.

    One day, we shopped at the outdoor market and created our very own Sicilian feast. We weren’t always sure what we were buying, but the shopping experience was priceless. We ended up with Spigola (sea bass), Tenerumi (white zucchini), a baked ricotta cheese still warm from the oven, sundried tomatoes in olive oil, a baggie of spices con pesce (spices especially blended for fish) that included the freshest smelling rosemary and oregano, an onion, and Finocchio (fennel).

    We weren’t sure what to expect from the finocchio, but it was a great fresh additive with a slight licorice flavor when we chopped it up like an onion and added it to the mix. We had a blast buying, cooking, and trying new flavors – and with all those super fresh ingredients, the end result was fantastico!!

    After 5 days here, Ortigia had captured my heart. My DH had to carry me out of Ortigia kicking and screaming, but we managed to move on to the hill town of “Ragusa Ibla” (old Ragusa). The entire town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, but it was completely rebuilt in the latest style of the time: Baroque.

    The town’s most beautiful square surrounds the Duomo, and we are staying in an elegant townhouse right around the corner. Our room (a suite actually) at the Risveglia Ibleo B&B was immense with three rooms plus an enormous bathroom. We have a separate bedroom plus two living areas furnished with a TV, two more beds, and even a large upright piano! We can really spread out here – the big rooms are perfect for me to practice some Tai Chi!

    Ragusa is actually divided into 2 towns: Ragusa the “modern” town, and Ragusa Ibla, the old town. Each is its own hill town, separated by a valley between. We took a bus to the upper “modern” town of Ragusa and followed a series of stone staircases back down here to the old town, where we are staying.

    A young woman named Mona kindly helped us locate the staircase. She was taking her little boy for a ride in his stroller when she found us two “lost” Americans. She even asked me to watch her little boy for a few minutes while she ran into a shop. Once Mona walked us across town (or so it seemed) to the stairs we were searching for, we had a great hike past stunning Baroque churches and fantastic viewpoints of the old town of Ragusa Ibla.

    Tomorrow, we say a sad arrivederci to Sicily and take an early ferry to the nearby island of Malta – a new place and an all new adventure. We will miss Sicilia; it has been our friendly home for the past 3 weeks!

    A few more comments on Risveglia Ibleo B&B. This is a very elegant, old world kind of place. Our hosts here were the sweetest older couple -- she spoke some English, he very little. Breakfast was an amazing affair with bread baked in their ancient bread oven and many other homemade items like a yogurt (I think) made with grapes and delicious jams. Our host even drove us to Pozzallo for the ferry to Malta which was more than kind.

    A word about public transportation. We really enjoyed traveling all over Sicily by bus and train and had no problems doing it. People were always more than helpful directing us to the right bus etc. As all Sicilians will tell you, the buses are very comfortable and go just about anywhere. The trains are more like old clunkers with new seats, but I love trains of all varieties, and the Sicilian ones were just fine. I love public transportation, and it was fun to relax and enjoy the scenery.

    Closing thoughts on Sicily. I had wanted to visit Sicily for many years, so my expectations were pretty high, but Sicily went so far beyond what I expected. The ancient Greek sites, the ambience, the food -- all incredible. But the people are what make Sicily a must-visit place. We have visited alot of friendly places (Ireland and Thailand come to mind), but Sicily has a special genuine hospitality that you have to experience for yourself.

    Malta coming up next!

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    I recently returned from my first visit to Sicily, lthough unfortunately my trip was far too brief. I couldn't agree with you more about the friendliness of the people--yet sometimes it's a gruff-friendliness, and I am sure you know what I mean. I had such a good time. We just fell in love with Sicily.

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    I just finished reading and have to say this is one very enjoyable trip report. I've known for a while that I want to visit Sicily, but reading your account is really making me yearn to visit there even more! Thanks so much for posting a terrific report!

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    Malta, Gozo, and Milan

    We took a hydrofoil from Sicily to Malta, arriving in the capital city of Valletta in about three hours. Valletta is considered to have one of Europe’s finest cityscapes, and entering the Grand Harbor by boat offered an impressive view of this city of stone that is surrounded by massive fortifications.

    Since you probably know as much about Malta as we did a few months ago (i.e. next to nothing), here is a mini-Malta history lesson. Much like Sicily, Malta was conquered by every bully on the block including the Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, French, and British. In 1530, Malta was given to the Knights of St. John (aka Knights of Malta). These Knights came from all over Europe and were originally charged with protecting pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.

    In 1565, the Knights became the heroes of Europe when their outnumbered force of less than 9,000 held off a Turkish invasion force of over 30,000. In fact, the stone fortifications that we admire so much were built out of fear that the Turks would return.

    The Maltese people were put to the test once again during WWII when they suffered 154 days of continuous bombing (even London during the Blitz numbered only 57 days of continuous bombing). As a result of their bravery, the people of Malta were awarded the George Cross, Great Britain’s highest civilian honor. Surprisingly, the Knights still exist with about 12,000 Knights and Dames providing medical care and disaster relief around the world.

    In Valletta, we stayed in a studio apartment carved right out of the fortifications. We even had a view of the Grand Harbor from our balcony! The city layout of Valletta was a bit challenging with steep streets that reminded us of San Francisco. Valletta sits on a hill, and cross streets go up one side of the hill and down the other with lots of steps along the way. The architecture is also unusual with bright red, blue, or green wooden balconies hanging on the stone facades of the buildings.

    English is the second language of Malta, so everyone speaks it, making Malta a very user friendly place for us English speakers. And because of the British influence, all street signs and storefronts are in English too.

    We began our tour of the city at the Knight’s church, the Co-Cathedral of St. John. The original Knights may have taken a vow of poverty, but their cathedral must have been exempt! The interior was a stunner: a kaleidoscope of rich colors with an altar worthy of Bernini and a marble inlaid floor that marked the tombs of the Knights buried below.

    We also visited Valletta’s Archaeology Museum where we first learned about the remarkable prehistoric sites on Malta. Believe it or not, the megalithic temples of Malta, built between 3600 and 2500 B.C., are the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world (much older than the Pyramids).

    We visited several of them including the prehistoric sites at Hagar Qim & Mnajdra (you can really see the Arab influence in the Maltese language), and the even more impressive Tarxien Temples. All the temples were built with great craftsmanship: standing stones weighing as much as 20 tons, marvelous swirly stone carvings, and unusual stone portals with holes in the stone doorways believed to have been used to hang animal skin “doors.”

    Statues found at the sites were equally fascinating: the famous “Fat Ladies” who may have been fertility goddesses, the tiny, but detailed “Venus of Malta, and a sinuous “Sleeping Lady” who looks just like a Picasso sculpture. Plus, several of these ingenious temples are aligned with the sun so that the inner “altar” is illuminated during the summer and winter solstices.

    Our favorite ancient site was the Hypogeum, a strange underground burial site. I had bought tickets months ago, and with only 60 people permitted to enter each day, we felt privileged to climb down into the elaborate chambers carved from the rock. The builders actually replicated the style of the aboveground temples by carving pillars and portals out of the solid rock. The most special room of all was the “Holy of Holies,” so beautifully carved that you would swear you were looking at a Greek masterwork (even though the Hypogeum appeared several thousand years earlier).

    No one knows who these people were, or more importantly, why they abruptly stopped building temples and seemed to disappear. Honestly, the more of these mysterious sites that we visit, the more we start to believe in aliens!

    We also visited the village of Marsaxlokk, home to about 70% of the fishing boats on Malta with a colorful harbor filled with distinctive boats painted in primary shades of red, blue, and yellow. The bow of each boat is decorated with the “Eyes of Osiris” to ward off evil spirits. Not being a big fan of evil spirits ourselves, we bought a ceramic version of an “eye” to bring back home with us.

    As promised, we checked out the island of Gozo, spending two nights on this laidback little island that is only 8.5 miles long and 4.5 miles wide. Gozo is like a mini-Malta but much more rural and with more of an Arab look. Everybody knows each other here, and we really enjoyed the small town ambience.

    We spent a real “Gozo Day” with a taxi cab driver we happened to meet when we first arrived. Franky, who lived for many years in Manhattan, gave us a complete tour or the island. We enjoyed lovely sea views, and the Miracle Church (the Maltese are some of the most devout Roman Catholics in the world) where the faithful come hoping for cures. We bought some handmade Gozo lace in a craft village from a woman who showed us how she flips these bobbins around to make the lace. This is really an “almost lost” art. Most fun of all was the Folklore Museum that contains one man’s collection of all kinds of memorabilia. Later, we stopped at the super friendly Ta ‘Mena winery for a taste Gozo wine!

    We flew Easy Jet from Valletta to Milan where we spent just one night before flying home. But this stop gave us time to pay our respects to Leonardo de Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The painting is in much better shape than we expected with surprisingly vibrant colors.

    Final Thoughts: Of the two islands, I prefer Sicily (can't beat the combination of people, sights, and food). Malta lacks a really distinctive culture (too many invaders, I guess), and the people are not quite as welcoming as in
    Sicily (but they are very friendly). However, Malta has such a unique history that makes it a fascinating place to visit - especially if you enjoy prehistory!

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    Malta is very popular with Brits, probably because of the climate and the widely spoken english. also family-friendly resorts - we took our kids when they were quite small and had a lovely time staying in a very nice hotel with lots to see during the day, and in the evening entertainment for them and us. who could forget the dulcet tones of the "Joyboys" who serenaded us every night?

    thanks for sharing your trip with us, Magster.

    here's to your next one!

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    Magster, I have never enjoyed reading a trip report so much.. I can see why you are the recipient of the kindness of strangers. Just the way this was written demonstrates your own generosity of spirit. Thanks for posting. I will be using this as a template for my own trip to Sicily this spring.

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    Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed this, my husband and I spent 6 weeks visiting Malta, then Sicily, then back to Malta and Gozo, about 8 years ago. We loved Malta, I remember being amazed it wasn't better known and more popular.

    We enjoyed Sicily (stayed in Ortigia, Taormina and Lipari) but felt the opposite to you - we liked Malta and the Maltese more. We found the Sicilians a bit shifty, deliberately short changing us etc but there are lots of Maltese in Australia, where we are from, and as soon as the Maltese knew that, they would beam from ear to ear and say something like, do you know my brother from St Albans? Which cracked us up, I guess it's like saying do you know Joe from Brooklyn?

    So glad you enjoyed it all.
    Kay

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    I just read the first bit of your report again and we stayed at Valletta Studios too! We had apartment 2, we had booked apartment 1 but there was some sort of mix up. It was fairly basic but we were very happy there and much preferred it to a hotel. Did you have the local cats come in through the doorway and prowl around? This is making me want to go back!!

    Kay

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    Hi KayF -- Now that you mention it, I do remember the cats! We loved Valletta Studios, and if we ever get the opportunity to go back would definitely stay there again.

    You know, I reread my report, and I may have been a bit hard on Malta. I fell totally in love with Sicily, but I certainly think of Malta often and the many historic sites continue to resonate with me. I would happily go back, and you are right, it is very surprising that more people don't realize how special it is. It's one of those lesser known gems!

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    Are you sure you flew easy jet from malta to Milan? We can't get a flight from Milan to malta on easy jet, but we can on Ryanair. We're trying to book a VERY last minute impromptu trip leaving in two days! We've never been and have limited knowledge, but it looks sunny and beautiful so we say.....why not?!

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