Grazie mille to everyone who helped me shape this wonderful trip which took place the last two weeks of June.
Here is the link to the planning thread:
All those who said “you’ll love it” were right. Particular thanks to bobthenavigator and Ian whose trip reports convinced me that a driving vacation was indeed
Background: We’re a family of four. I recently hit the 60-year mark, my husband is in his late 70s, and our two sons are late 20s. This trip was a delayed birthday celebration. We’ve always enjoyed the thrill of the open road and have done lots of car trips, both in the U.S. and Europe, but, for the last several years, we’ve typically rented a house and used it as a base. It quickly became clear that to see as much of Sicily as we wanted would require circling the island and that would be easiest by car. The car had to be large enough to carry the four of us and our luggage comfortably, and we wanted an automatic. Many thanks also to Vagabonda on Tripadvisor’s Sicily forum, who suggested, among her many helpful comments, to rent through Autoeurope UK which saved us a lot of money. After much deliberation, we’d opted to fly non-stop on Alitalia from LA to Rome connecting on to Catania and then Palermo-Rome-LA on the return. I booked all the hotel rooms over the web. I’d taken a semester’s worth of Italian at the local community college which became increasingly useful as we moved west. We had excellent weather throughout the trip; the days were mostly sunny and warm. We also had good fortune with the euro; the exchange rate was between 1.22 and 1.24 while we were there.
Itinerary and hotels:
Taormina 3 nights Villa Carlotta
Ortigia 2 nights Algilà Charme
Modica 4 nights Casa Talía
Selinunte 3 nights Villa Sogno
Palermo 2 nights Grand Hotel Wagner
Rome 1 night Airport Hilton
On the way to LAX the limo broke down within a mile of the airport. Our resourceful driver walked back to the traffic light, flagged down a Super Shuttle, and gave the guy a 20 to take us to the airport. Whew! All this excitement, and we weren’t even on the plane yet. We had a little less than a 2-hour window between our arrival in Rome and our departure to Catania. I asked the ticket agent how likely it was that our luggage would meet us in Catania, and he asked me if we were flying through Paris. When I said “no”, he said we had a good chance of meeting up with our luggage on arrival. We were as happy with our Alitalia flight as one could be flying 12+ hours in coach and that was just leg one. The flight attendants were courteous and professional and the food was tasty. And, best of all, we didn’t need those extra clothes in our carry-ons. Everyone’s luggage was on the carousel in baggage claim.
I’d priced the cost of limousine services from the Catania airport to Taormina, and the four bids I received were all over the map. The least expensive was Sicily Life at € 75 so they got the nod. Our driver was waiting for us outside baggage claim and off we went!
Hotel: The Villa Carlotta (€299/room/night for a deluxe double with sea view) was tasteful, well-appointed, and just felt very comfortable. The small pool and garden added to the sense of ease. When we were shown to our rooms, we learned that the hotel had thoughtfully upgraded our sons' room at no extra charge so that they could be next to us. Off to a good start here. Breakfast, served until 10:30 a.m., set the standard for the rest of the trip—separate tables for cheeses, cured meats, dolci, scrambled eggs and bacon, cooked dishes that included eggplant and peppers, cereals, fresh juices, yogurt—and more. The wait staff were particularly warm and helpful. The weather was, we were told, uncharacteristically humid and hazy, and everyone apologized that our view of Etna from the breakfast terrace was not crystal clear. We thought the weather in Taormina was warm and a bit humid but still comfortable. The hotel was about a 10-minute walk from the Corso Umberto in the center of Taormina.
Food: We were very happy with both of our dinner choices, the Osteria Nero d’Avola and Le Naumachie. Memorable items: The blood orange salad and the dessert at Nero d’Avola. Blood orange slices, thin slices of fennel and sweet red onion, halved green olives, a sprinkle of coarse Trapani salt, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Every bite went pop in your mouth. Dessert was cultivated and wild fresh strawberries from Mt. Etna covered with lemon granita. My husband thought that the spaghetti with clams (a favorite dish) at Le Naumachie was quite good.
Favorite spots: the Naumachie with its Roman walls and garden; the sculpture garden at the Palazzo di Santo Stefano
Summing up: Taormina is pretty and charming with a sunny disposition. It was the perfect place to recover from the journey.
The Car: We learned that for an extra € 30 Europcar would deliver the car to the Villa Carlotta saving us the taxi ride to Giardini Naxos. A pleasant British woman brought our Audi A6 which came with a very spiffy navigator. She had no tips for the navigator, saying that the last couple never could figure out how to get it to work. The boys mastered it in about half a minute. I took the wheel for this leg, and after a couple of heart-stopping turns on the road where we seemed suspended in mid-air, we made it down to the autostrada. Perhaps it’s because our home turf is Southern California where freeways come 5 lanes across and you are given no quarter, but we found most of the driving (on the flat parts, that is) in Sicily to be easy.
I could feel myself coming down with a cold as we were leaving Taormina. That, together with a problem leg, slowed my pace to what my sons considered an acceptable level.
Hotel: We got into Ortigia around 2. Check-in was at 3 so we ordered some fresh-squeezed orange juice from the bar and relaxed in the little sitting area until the rooms were ready. The Algilà (€219/room/night for a classic double with a sea view) is a recently renovated palazzo with a view of the sea, albeit over a parking lot. The rooms were furnished in restful shades of cadet blue, aqua, and fawn; everything tied together. Our two rooms, while the same price, were quite different in size. We had a corner room of a good size with windows on two sides opening to Juliet balconies. In our sons’ room, there was just enough space to walk around the beds. There was not a single drawer for clothing to be had in either room. Breakfast was served until 10 and was ample—the marmalades and jams were particularly good. The white tea Bulgari bath products were a plus. This hotel turned out to be a good but not great choice.
Food: One hit and one miss for dinner. The hit our first night’s choice, Ancora. I had the shellfish soup which was chock full of mussels and different types of clams in a delicious broth. The second night in Ortigia was a Saturday night and our first choice, the Don Camillo, was completely booked. Perhaps because the Green Guide was at the ready and a couple of our other guide books also recommended it, we wound up at the Darsena. My older son came out best with the grilled fish. The meal wasn’t terrible but we can’t recommend the Darsena.
Best experiences: I found the many layers of the many civilizations to be one of the most captivating aspects of Sicily and few places embody that as concretely as Ortigia’s Duomo which incorporates the columns of the ancient Temple to Athena. We had the good fortune that Caravaggio’s Madonna dell’Itria was temporarily housed in the little Chiesa di Santa Lucia just next to the Duomo. Enjoyed exploring Ortigia’s atmospheric alleyways. My favorite item from the Archeological Park and the Museum was the 6th century B.C. sculpture of the mother-goddess with the Platonically ideal lap nursing the twins.
A find: In the hunt for some additional reading material, I found The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest in paperback at the Libreria Gabo.
Unexpected treat: As we were leaving the Duomo, I saw a woman all dressed up and asked her if something special was happening. She told me that there was to be a wedding at 5 o’clock. That was just an hour away so we spent some time wandering the warren of little streets near the Fonte Aretusa and returned to have a drink at the Gran Caffè del Duomo at quarter til 5 to await the arrival of the wedding party. While we weren’t sure what the protocol was, here’s what appeared to happen: The parents of the bride and groom and perhaps other members of the wedding party waited at the top of the Duomo’s stairs for the bride and groom to arrive. The bride and groom appeared in a vintage white convertible (one of those with a very long hood, as carriage-like as a car could be). The parents acknowledged the arrival of the couple and then entered the cathedral. The bride and groom then alighted from the car, walked up the steps together, and entered the Duomo.
On the way to Modica: Villa Romana del Tellaro and Noto’s Caffè Sicilia:
On the fence before the trip began, I now knew that I wasn’t going to make the 4-hour roundtrip journey from Modica to Piazza Armerina to see the relatively few rooms that were open at the Villa del Casale. There was another option available, however: the Villa Romana del Tellaro just a few miles from Noto. The Villa del Tellaro has four large mosaics; the hunting scene and the depiction of the weighing of Hector’s body were particularly dramatic. This site is easy to get to and well worth a stop. Its intimate scale and the sense that it’s a little off the beaten path make finding it feel like an adventure.
On to Noto and a pilgrimage stop, the Caffè Sicilia: After wending our way up to the town, we found a parking space in a small lot just a couple of blocks away from the Cathedral. It was a Sunday, undoubtedly a huge help. The granite at Caffè Sicilia lived up to their billing. Our order was two lemon, one coffee, and one coffee and almond. The woman who was helping us recommended that we eat it with a brioche. Perfetto. Granite polished off, we walked the few steps to take in the Cathedral which made a lovely picture against the blue sky and white clouds. We liked the feel of Noto and could have spent more time there.
Hotel: The navigator was essential to get to the Casa Talía. Otherwise, Marco will guide you in by phone. The Casa Talía is a collection of little stone houses brought back to life as very special bed and breakfast by Marco and Viviana, a pair of talented architects from Milan. Once there we were greeted by Viviana. Our rooms were Mediterraneo and Agave (€150/room/night). We had some initial concern about the number of stairs required to get to breakfast and the garden, but we quickly adapted. My husband’s comment: “A creative architect with a real aesthetic sense designed this.” Sitting up in bed, the San Giorgio Cathedral was perfectly framed in the glass doorway leading to our terrace. Our room had no drawer space but did have a wrought iron clothes rack with a long low shelf and the suitcases became drawers. Somehow that felt like a workable solution. Breakfast in the garden with the panorama of Modica before us was delightful. The marmalades and preserves were homemade as were the baked sweet items. The bread from a local bakery was the best we had in Sicily.
Food: Viviana recommended Sapori Perduti for dinner, and we ate there twice on our first and last nights. The guys particularly liked this osteria which offers substantial soups and pastas and meat stews rather than fish dishes. The dish with meatballs and pasta was a big hit. The lentil soup I had the first night was excellent. Our second dinner was at I Baccanti. Don’t ask me how we wound up here. Worst meal of the trip and it was cash only. The third night we had high expectations for Torre d’Oriente, recommended by Viviana and many places on the web. The location and the room were lovely, but, alas, our dinner items were mostly misses. My husband did best with his roast lamb dish and my older son next best with fried seafood. I asked the waitress which dishes they were most famous for and ordered those. The first was the caponessa which turned out to be diced raw fish and fruit (an attempt at creativity gone awry) followed by ravioli with zucchini and little tomatoes (bland). Younger son had a seafood risotto flavored with vanilla, another miss.
We did better with food on the fly. Casa del Formaggio was recommended in one of our guidebooks. We bought salami and cheeses there and a souvenir jar of blood orange jam. We found excellent rolls for sandwiches at the panificio across the street from Rizza’s near Sapori Perduti. My granita from Caffè dell’Arte was very good and others enjoyed their gelati.
What we did: Modica was both a real working town and a destination, the perfect place to attend to items like the laundry. Viviana gave us a recommendation for a lavanderia in Modica Bassa and that became the first morning’s fun task. First, we had to find parking and figure out how to pay for it. Then we had to find the lavanderia and communicate what we needed. Very enjoyable and satisfying to engage with others and learn the ins-and-outs of a new environment. On another day we went in search of the Chiesa San Nicola Inferiore, the rock church behind San Pietro with its frescoes and later wandered through the area near Casa Talía. We got to know Modica in an easy sort of way, in between errands and sightseeing.
Our third full day in Modica we set out for Ragusa. We followed the signs for Ragusa Ibla which led us on the picturesque windy road right to the old town and, by far, to the best parking lot we encountered on the trip. Ragusa Ibla is a photographer’s delight. The architecture and architectural details like those fabulous brackets below the balconies of the Palazzo Cosentini and the maiolica panels decorating the campanile of Chiesa Santa Maria dell’Itria—it’s all a feast for the eyes. There was pretty needlework to be had and many stores with foodstuff. Ragusa Ibla was a perfect place to spend the day and an interesting counterpoint to Modica because, while lovely, it didn’t feel completely alive and real. We hope it continues to flourish because it is beautiful.
To be continued …
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Grazie mille to everyone who helped me shape this wonderful trip which took place the last two weeks of June.