3 Weeks in Sicily, Malta & Rome -Trip Report Nov. 2005
This is my 4th trip to Europe and my 2nd that did not involve skiing. This groups boards (and bobthenavigator)have been invaluable for information & ideas. This fall my wife and I were compelled to travel to Malta as our son (a Marine at the US Embassy) invited us to the Embassy ball suggesting that it was likely the only time we would get such an invitation. As Malta is only 60 miles from Sicily the trip grew. I would like to share my experience as everyone elses postings helped me so much.
I’ve been to Italy once but never Sicily. I only knew of Malta from the movies.
The flight: We flew from Oregon via Seattle to Heathrow, spent the night near Gatwick then flew to malta the next day. We traded Alaska Air Miles for British Air Business Class seats and they were worth it. The space, the drinks, the food, the bed and the use of the BA lounge in Seattle, Rome and London were worth it. In London they even have free showers and it was nicer one than I had at home.
I will try to give the weather report but we lucked out and had 70-76 degree sunny weather every day of our 22 day trip. It was amazing.
Day 1 (10/26/05)- Long flight day. Left Portland with rain on the horizon. Arrived in Seattle and made our first use of the British Air club rooms. Nice little sandwiches, drinks, free interenet etc. Very relaxing way to wait for the trip.
Day 2 (10/27/05)- arrived in London to 70+ degrees. Shirt sleeve weather til late.
Took the advice from tripAdvisor.com and stayed at the GATWICK GABLE END GUEST HOUSE, a B & B near Gatwick. www.gable-end.com. $107 (less if you pay cash.
The best bed of the whole trip. Nice room. Friendly people who pick you up at the gatwick airport for free.
We then walked to the Horley train station and headed into London to meet some friends from Jordan for dinner at a Lebanese place called ISHBILIA in Knightsbridge opposite the Sheraton Park Tower Hotel. This was great food and since the only patrons were muslims breaking the Ramadan fast we felt it was the "real thing.
Day 3 (10/28/05)- 75 and sunny in Malta. Got up early and took at cab to the airport ( 5 min. away). After 700am they will take you there but before then they arrange a cab. We weren;t sure who the cab was for til they said room 23. Once again we were in the British Air Club rooms enjoyng the restful atmosephere. We flew to Valetta Malta with plans to drop our "dress clothes for the ball" with our son and catch an Air Malta flight to Palermo. It was a roundabout way to go but the ball date had changed three times since we got our overseas tickets so we chose to keep those tickets and just change our internal timetables. This meant discovering that is was sometimes cheaper to but a one way ticket from Catania to Malta than it was to pay all the change fees. Today was our first problem day. As we tried to check in early the gal at the counter looked at us quizzingly? They stopped flying to Palermo 2 months ago!!! I guess there were so few passengers they stopped til spring. So now we are rebooked to Catania and need a bus to Palermo which means a long day of travel and arriving about 9:00 pm instead of 330pm in the afternoon. The Air Malta people were great. They bought us lunch and paid for our bus and even kept our bags for us.
We arrived in Catania and discovered that catching a bus is not like home. It is a madhouse out in the parking lot. There is no one to talk to , no one to help, no office. Just a bunch of signs none of which are reassuring. I found a sign that looked Like Palermo was one of the 22 towns listed but evry time a bus came by that said "Catania-Palermo" it did not stop. After 3 of these in 1 hour I was frustrated and could find no one who spoke enough english to even say I was in the right spot or why they did not stop. Finally we found Francesco who teached english and we all but put our hands in his back pocket to not lose him. Bus #4 finally stopped, we stuffed our bags underneath and got aboard. Upon arriving in Palermo he walked us to a taxi stand a few blocks away, found out the cost to our hotel and told them where we were going. Our first of many new friends. We arrived safely, checked in to the PRINCIPE DI VILLAFRANCA at www.principedivillafranca.it. This was a recommendation of BobtheNavigator. Rooms were good sized, nice bathrooms and helpful staff. Nice location as we felt safe wanderingt the streets at night. An easy walk to the Palermo sights. Cost was about $200 per night and worth it. We ate at the restaurant connected to the hotel and forgot the name. It was very good.
Day 4 (10/29/05) Sunny and about 77 today. So here we are in Palermo and what are people wearing? Very casual. Mostly jeans. Lots of scarves (so of course my wife bought 3 before the trip was done). I am not going to list all the places we walked to today as any good tour book can describe them much better than I can. I would say that the Norman Palace is a must see and you would be remiss to not wander over a few blocks to the south to see the San Giovanni degli Eremiti where there are 5 red domes dating back 900 years and also this wonderful walled garden. One trick to walking which is most sights are either north, south, east or west of the interersection of via maqueda and via vittorio emanuelle. But as we all know, reading street names in europe leaves a lot to be desired. When people give directions they fail to say that the interesection cannot be missed as each of the 4 building corners (known as Quattro Canti) have a niche in 3 tiers which are identical. When you get there you know where you are. Head south and you get to the fountain. Head west and the Norman Palace. Head East and you head to the national galleery. Head north to the old opera housem the Teatro Massimo. We were so tires that we slept through breakfast and headed out about 10:30am. We walked and walked and did not get back until 7:30pm+ in the dark. Tired but very satisfied.
The hotel sent us to a local place for dinner called LaVolte. So here were were at 8:30pm on this deck on the sidewalk surrounded by parents having pizza with their kids feeling we got a bum steer. I never looked inside to see the seating for 100 which was packed. As it was we had the prime seating and it was still warm and shirtsleeves weather. We ordered beef dishes and they were very very good. Then Ellen noted that the guy at the next table was smiling at our attempts to teach ourselves an Italian phrase. I turned and he spoke no english but his wife did. Next thing you know, Salvatore and Lilliana are our new best friends. We eat, we drink, we laugh and Salvatore and I try to finds words we both know other than beer and scotch. They invite us to a private club where a friends band is playing. We were out until 230am and returned to our hotel with our new 10 best friends. The band was called the Ed Sullivan Show and they specialized in the Beatles. A great night with great pictures. This is why I love to travel.
Day 6 (10/30/05). Another hot and sunny day in Palermo. All of a sudden my jeans seem to heavy for November. Today we visited the parks, some churches, the waterfront and the National Musuem. We stumbled down an alley at lunch time to discover the Osteria Dei Cavalieri di malta near the Chiesa San Domnenico. No one was there except the waitress but it looked nice and how could we not go to a place with Malta in the name? I asked in Italian if they took credit card and they said yes so we got fat and happy on wine, melon and prosciutto, pasta etc. Then the bill came and nope - they only take cash. So off I went in serach of an ATM which turned into a 40 minute exercise. I paid the bill and retireved my collateral (ellen) and we headed off in search of Gelato. Then shopping. Dinner was at the Hotel Excellsior which is near the Principe. An elegant dining room and terriffice food and service.
Day 7 (10/31/05) 74 degrees and sunny. yay. I am liking this weather.
Today we rent the car and begin driving like Sicilians. We chose to rent for AutoEurope as all the posters say they have had no problems and that is what we wanted. They delivered. the car was ready. All the damage was in the computer and no price surprises. The price was arranged in advance over the internet and pre-paid. The ticket counter was slow but that worked to our advantage as we were headed west to Monreale and further posts west and needed instructions out of town. Before I forget, the AutoEurope office is not at the main railway station but rather at the north railway station called Stazioine Ferroviarra near Piazza Notarbartolo (not the central station). Be sure to read your paperwork so you go the right place. We did NOT make a mistake only because other posters had warned us of this fact.
The directions out of Palermo mnade us think we could be driving in circles for hours then a man at the counter who spoke no english (have I mentioned that there is far less english spoken in Sicily than Northern Italy) said he would lead us to MOnreale.
So we followed him and learned how to drive "Sicilian" style right out the shoot. After we swerved, roundabouted, swept over lanes, ignored lanes, shot through intersections and basically learned to treat driving as "speed dancing" we were there and confident on both my stick shift abilities and my ability to drive like a local.
MONREALE - We orinally were going to stay in Monreale and day trip into Palermo. The bus goes from the Indepenze stop (right in front of the Norman Palace) to Monreale and if I had it to do over again I would might in MOnreale and take the bus to Palermo now that I know where the bus goes. MOnreale just seemed like a beautiful hill town with a great view. Lots of restaurants and easy access to Palermo. The MOnreale Duomo and Cathedral is something that should not be missed. It is so intact, so beautiful and so overwhelming. Read up on it and see it.
SEGESTA - next we drove to Segesta to see the Temple of Segesta which is free standing, intact and al by itself in a field. As it turned out we will go from here to the temples in Selinunte and then in Agrigento but you cannot have a better start that Segesta. It's a 5th centurt Temple with 36 Doric columns.
ERICE - now many of you said don't go. Other's said "don't stay". Other's said to watch the weather. I agree that staying there would be a pain as the drive up and down is quite a chore even in sunny weather. There is a Gondola that comes up from Trapini at the base and seems like a nice way to get up to the hill town but we drove. This is a 300 year old midieval town that is set at about 2500 feet above see level. Great views and sites. If the weather is good go there. It takes little time thought the signage for the drive up could be better. We made it wihtout any mishaps so can you.
MARSALA - we took the long wasy to Marinella di Selinunte as we had time and knew there was nothing to do at night. So we skipped the freeway and headed down the coast. For us was the discovery of a bakery that had only been open for 3 days. Guess what? No one spoke english but they still let us use their toilette. The gelato and pastries were out of this world and we stocked up. It is on the highway and the name is GIGLIO, Via Nazionale, 284 (0923.962563) in STRASATTI DI MARSALA. We tayed along the coast winding our way SE and missed a turn. Getting farther and farther from the main highway as it got darker and darker. The coastline was beautiful but then it disappeared into the dark. Finally when no signage suggested Selinunte was on the horizon we stopped in a gas station. Guess what? no one spoke english. Between my broken italian and hand gestures (and a smile) a guy filling up his little 3 wheel truck said to wait 3 minutes til he filled up and he would lead us to the highway which he did. We arrived at the HOTEL ACESTE, another recommendation of bobthe navigator and the tour books. Only 70 Euros and we got the best room in the place. ROOM 215 is the central room with a patio that faces the ocean. Ask for it. Large with a good bathroom. Dinner was a bust. The place accross the street everyone reomended was closed for the season. We finally worked the one way street to get to the seashore restaurants and found one with lots of fresh seafood but after we sat down to order thay had no fresh seafood.
Day 8 (11/1/05) - 78 degrees and sunny.
MARINELLA DI SELINUNTE. The Archeological park is right around the corner (about 5 min. drive) and is just terriffic. A mix of standing and fallen temples and pillars. You truly get a sense of how large the sites were and how the constructions was. You can get right inside (unlike Agrigento) so you can sense the techical wizardry used 2000 years ago. This was a good solid morning and then it is off ot AGRIGENTO to see the Valley of the Temples at Dusk.
Easy drive to Agrigento
Checked into the COLLEVERDE PARK HOTEL. ($179 for room with temple view) which is at the top of the hill. Large room. Only carlet we saw on the whole trip. Best breakfast so far. Real light flaky croissants. There is also a wonderful little restaurant down the hill about 1/2 a mile called Le Promenade where we had a great seafood lunch and an Octopus Carpaccio that was to die for. The waiter would always speak english evenb when we tried Italian. Then off to the Temples. Iw will not write about them as so much has been already written. however, the audio guide is very good and late afternoon to dusk is great time to see the sites as their color changes as the sun goes down and then the lights get turned on. For you photo buffs that is the time.
DINNER AT RISTORANTE IL DEHOR AT THE FORESTERIA BAGLIO DELLA LUNA. The food was very good but I thought the restaurant was a little overrated thought the site was beautiful. The trick is finding it. All the books say it is hard so here is how we got there. Go down the hill through the valley of the temples past the entrance area where they sell tickets and have parking. Go straight through the roundabout. Then turn right onto the highway. Stay in the right lane and take the first right as soon as you see th eblue arrow which will come at you suddenly. You will not have time to read any signs. Once off the highway just head up the road and you will find it. Tomorrow we head to Ragusa for our last one night stand.
Day 9 (11/2/05). A little rain in the morning but then it became another 75 degree shirtsleeve day. We hit the Archeological musuem at Agrigento before we left town. A very very good museum though there is a limit to how many stories of ancient greek gods you can hear about pot and urn decorations. But the quality of the pieces in the museum is really something. Don;t see the temples without seeing the musuem.
Today we are going to see the MOSAICS at PIAZZA ARMERINA on our way to Ragusa. Lots of posters have voiced their opinion about the Mosaics. Personally the glass barriers and ceilings did not bother me. However its a lot of Mosaic and after a while it just becomes a lot of mosaics. The town on PIazza Armerina is worth seeing too. We stumbled into a little osteria in the main Centro square. I cannot remember the name but the sign is on a wine barrel hanging outside. For only 13 euros we got two large glasses of good wine, great crusty bread and a platter of 3 meats piled high. The best bargain of the trip. From there we drove to Ragusa. We learned that in southern and eastern Sicily "all roads lead to Ragusa" which means you never know if you are right. We foloed signs that broughtus through Comiso which became our most harrowing driving. Comiso has a cobblestone street runing through the center of town that headsd straight up to the clouds. Cars on the left and right, few signs, the skys getting darka nd threatening and I am still driving higher and higher. then as we get into the clouds the road becomse switch backs. It seemed like we climbed 3000 feet but I will never know becuase I just kept driving. Then we reached a plain only to find signs pointing 3 ways to Ragusa. We guessed and luckily were onte right road finally checking into the Eremo della Giubiliana wchih we chose based on a NY times artilce, some posters and the guide books. Very nice place and very expensive. I thought it was overrated both in terms of accomdations and food. This would be agreat place to stay if you have an unlimited buidghet and can pay the owner to fly you to Malta or Tunisia in his private plane but it is not worth the effort. Cost was about $270 fo one night. You can read up about it in the Frommers book. It reads pretty good but...
Day 10 (11-3-05) in my next post. HOwever, once again it was a 75 degree sunny day suggesting a warm afteroon drink awaiting us in Siracusa.
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3 Weeks in Sicily, Malta & Rome -Trip Report Nov. 2005