Catania - Taormina - Etna
We recently returned from a lovely week in (mostly Eastern) Sicily. Unfortunately due to work schedules we were limited to 7 full days, but we were very happy with our itinerary and the places we stayed, so I thought I would pass this info on.
We took a late night departure (10:45 pm) on Alitalia to Rome and then on to Catania. We were pleasantly surprised with the Alitalia flight - hadn't had great memories of the airline. The plane was new and a decent amount of space. The late night departure made it easier both to sleep and to deal with the jet lag. The two hour layover in Rome was a little tight. Our flight was about 30 min late arriving and we had to take a bus to the terminal and pass through security. We had to run through Fiumicino, but in the end had 10 minutes to spare for a quick coffee before boarding the flight to Catania. After collecting bags we walked out the terminal and found the Europcar office to pick up our rental car. (Luckily they had sent us info about the location since there was no Europcar terminal in the airport even though other rental car companies did have desks)
We got a Fiat 500 which I had booked on purpose - feeling like a small car would be more maneuverable on the small streets. I belatedly realized that our luggage would not fit in the trunk out of sight, and due to this and warnings on this forum, I rearranged our schedule so we would not have to leave our car with luggage in it at some of the places we'd planned to visit.
We left the airport about 5 and drove to Taormina. It took about an hour and we weren't overly tired. I had downloaded the Navmii Italy maps and we used that as a GPS. It worked fine. Luckily the hotel had sent explicit directions to the hotel which were very useful once we got to Taormina.
We stayed at the Hotel Villa Schuler and we loved the hotel. We had prebooked parking, which was helpful. As soon as we arrived at the hotel, Eduardo offered us fresh orange juice and we checked in. The setting was lovely and we had booked a room with sea view. There was a small, tight balcony with a beautiful view. The room was not that big, but it was very comfortable, especially the bed. The hotel itself was very tranquil and had its own garden, which was lush and had a fountain with turtles in it. It was a five minute walk through the garden to the main street, which was crowded with throngs of people. I got a little claustrophobic, but it was lively. Taormina was beautiful with its pretty architecture and lots of upscale shops. It was fun to meander off the main drag and wander down the little alleys. We had dinner the first night at l'arco dei cappuccini which was beyond the Porta Messina. A friend had recommended it. Dinner was okay - I just had a salad and pasta alla norma. I can't even remember what my husband got. The salad was fresh and the pasta was fine - nothing spectacular, but nice to have a destination and not have to make a choice between all the restaurants. The waiter was a bit friendlier after I mentioned that a friend had sent me there.
We got a good night's sleep and the next morning had breakfast outdoors on the hotel terrace. There was no buffet - you just ordered from the menu, but it was all included in the room rate. There was a huge selection including eggs, cherry tomatoes, and plenty of other tempting things. It was lovely sitting out in the fresh air with Etna in the distance. As soon as breakfast was finished we got our car (don't look at how tightly they park them - but we got it back without a scratch) and set off for Etna.
It was about an hour's drive to the Rifugio di sapienza - the starting point for the Etna funivia. There were a few craters you could get out and walk to from the level of the Rifugio. Also lots of touristy shops, a few bars and restaurants, and of course the parking area. Payment for parking was very unclear. We parked in front of the shops and there were blue lines, which usually indicate pay parking. But we couldn't see a payment machine. The people in the shops told us to go down a few doors, and in one of the shops they were selling parking tickets. We bought four hourly tickets for about a euro each, or you could buy a whole day for 6 euros. Some cars had the tickets displayed on the dashboard, others did not, so it was a little unclear whether anyone policed.
Anyway, then we went for a coffee and headed for the ticket office. The tickets to go to the summit via funivia and bus were about 65 euros each. This included a guided tour, which is obligatory at the top. The cablecar ride is about 20 minutes, then you go out and line up for the moon bus (there wasn't long to wait) and the bus held about 20 people or so. The buses just keep circulating. The bus ride takes about 15 more minutes. Once on top a guide rounded us up and escorted us on a little walk around the craters. We stopped in several places and he would explain. His English was passable, his French was very good and then he would speak in Italian. So he repeated everything three times, but he usually started wandering again after the French and just recapped for the Italians as he was walking. We probably spent about 45 minutes on top. It was a beautiful day. The trips to the top depend a lot on weather conditions. It was amazing to see the craters which have just been formed in the last two years, and hear how there have been some spectacular displays as recently as a few months ago. I really loved how the mountain dominates everything on the northeast side. We also had some lovely views of Etna from the airplane, which seemed to pass it about three times going in. We are very glad we paid to go to the top.
There was a tourist shop, bar and toilets at the level where you caught the bus. We went back down to the car level and decided to eat then, since it was probably about 1 by that time. We wound up choosing the restaurant the the Rifugio itself (a hotel). It was a nice choice. There were good views out the window and it was calm despite being half full. I had an antipasto plate with different Sicilian specialties which was perfect. My husband got the pasta with pistachio-cream sauce which was not his favorite. I think he just chose the wrong thing, but he shared some of mine. As usual, he wanted to hear about the desserts, but nothing was exciting enough to order. Turns out when the waiter brought the check it came with four mini cannolis - two ricotta and two chocolate, which were a perfect ending.
On the way back in the car we stopped at Zafferana Etnea, a town just below Etna that is known for honey. There was a little fair set up with stalls and we wandered around and found some honey to taste and then bought a few jars to take home. Then it was back to the hotel.
After a brief rest we set off to hike up to Castelmola, a town above Taormina with nice views. We set off by the restaurant the night before up Via dei Cappuccini and then found the salita Branco - the footpath up. There were lots of steps and then a path. It took about 30 minutes to climb up and we worked up a bit of a sweat. Castelmola was very pretty and there was a very old church and a castle. On a more leisurely day it might have been fun to have a drink or eat a meal up there, but after a wander round we hiked back down to Taormina to shower before dinner.
Dinner that night was at Casa Niclodi, another place recommended by my friend who spent a few weeks in Taormina. The restaurant has a pretty courtyard after you pass through the inside. This was our most expensive meal - totaling 105 euros. We had two starters, two main dishes and one dessert plus water and a bottle of wine. I had a kind of vegetable sformato for a starter and my husband had some starter with seafood he really liked. He had branzino (sea bass) for his main dish that was lightly breaded and delicious. I am not a big fish eater so I got lamb chops, which were a little more cooked than I like them, but the roast potatoes and vegetables were good. Again, we looked at the dessert menu for fun, but did not find something we wanted. At that point we asked the waiter why there was never zabaglione on the dessert menus, since we had thought it was a Sicilian dessert. He knew exactly what we were talking about and he disappeared and came back with one for my husband. All in all a pleasant experience.
One of the things I will always remember about the Villa Schuler hotel is the birds singing in the morning. We had lovely weather in mid April and slept with the windows open. It was very quiet at night.
Monday was our final half day, and finally we were able to go and see the Greek theatre. It was a spectacular setting and very impressive. It worked out well arriving at about 9:15, since there were not too many people there yet. It felt very relaxing to just sit there in the nice weather. After our visit we went for an almond granita at Licchio's Bar, one of the prime people watching spots. It seemed to be the place to be for the pre-dinner drink, when we had passed. Then we wandered around some more, did a little shopping in the "outlet" store (just another boutique but in a better price range for us) and then had a salad before departing Taormina to head for Ortigia. All in all Taormina was a lovely way to start the holiday for us.
One last note: if we'd had more time in Taormina, I would have liked to take the cable car down to the beach and see that area.
Next: Ortigia (Siracusa), Villa Romana del Casale and Bee eaters!
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One week in Sicily - Taormina, Ortigia, Agrigento & Palermo
Catania - Taormina - Etna