Trip to Sicily
10 days in Palermo, Taormina and Day trips to Cefalu,
Background: The idea for this trip started two years ago when daughter #2 married a third-generation Sicilian, and my husband, referred to in this report as PL (Precious Love) mentioned that we’d always wanted to go to Sicily. The in-laws said “great – let’s go” and we decided to make the trip this year. Our #1 goal was to eat and drink well and, of course, meet our son-in-law’s Pater Familias and other family members (for the record, we didn’t connect). PL is a history buff and going to Agrigento to see the Greek temple ruins was a must (I tease him and refer to ruins as “dead rocks…why do I need to see them”?... thoughts of us in Paestum two years ago…yawn) but I really wanted to see them, too, so we knew that was a definite stop. Others had mentioned Taormina as a great place to base from, so we did. I had also read so much about the town of Ortygia and the ceramics (a weakness of mine) in Caltagirone and just had to go.
We decided to spend 3 days in Palermo, then rent a car to drive and base out of Taormina for 7 days for day trips to Syracuse/Ortygia, Caltagirone and Agrigento. It turned out to be a great idea, except for tiny, long-winding roads from the Autostrade up to Taormina in a minivan with manual transmission (thank God PL can drive one).
PL did all of the heavy lifting of researching places to go, hotels to stay in and private guides. NOTE: We have found that hiring private guides to give us the history of a city and discussing the current geo-political situation and cultural DNA (usually over an espresso) is extremely helpful for us to really get to “know” a city. I did the easy stuff; I booked the flights and did my normal printing of 500+ pages from forums and sites on Google, Fodors, Frommers and Trip Advisor (special thanks to Vagabonda…you rock!). Yes, it’s strange, but I put these pages in a 3-ring binder and then go through each page on the plane ride over. It’s a lot of weight in my carry on…at first, but it pays off in the end. I read and highlight the pertinent mention, rip out pages I don’t need and divide the pages by cities we plan to visit and write the city at the top of the page. Once I have those “piles”, I separate in to three categories; shopping, eating and special things to do. Then I put them in a smaller portfolio and pull out the pages I need per day. Others may find it strange that I wait until the last minute; but it works for me; the info is fresh. We do, however, research certain restaurants and go ahead and make reservations via email. PL and I are foodies (he is the cook) and we have traveled throughout Europe, enjoying different cities and cuisines. This was going to be a culinary treat.
We worked with a local travel agency who coordinated with IC Bellagio in-country. I will give day-by-day and city-by-city, then will end with some parting thoughts (read: mistakes I made which I hope you do not OR little golden nuggets which were helpful).
Day 1 (DC to Palermo): We left Washington, Dulles airport on United Airlines and had wonderful “pods” in business class. What a great idea to put USB ports to charge IPad and IPhones and the seats reclined all the way to make a bed It was great to have a good nap. We connected in Munich, then to Palermo on Air Dolomiti airlines. WOW…wild BRIGHT turquoise blue colored logo, which included their napkins and plates…VERY bright at 7 am! Lovely ham on croissant for breakfast. It was in one of those plastic containers you peel back to open; didn’t matter, I was famished.
When we arrived, it was raining and they had neither jet way nor umbrellas - we got soaked deplaning. Our luggage didn’t appear on the carousel, but since about half of the other passengers didn’t have their bags either, so we weren’t too worried. PL then looked out a back glass door and saw other luggage on a carousel. He followed another passenger out a door which seemed to say “cannot re-enter”, found our luggage and made it back through the door held open by another passenger; strange.
We took a taxi to the Grand Hotel Igiea, about 30 minutes from the airport. By the way, this was the first time that I would see the flora of Sicily…the cactus, oleander and bougainvillea on the Autostrade (everywhere, actually). What a beautiful sight of light pink, fuchsia and white. The Igiea is a lovely hotel overlooking the Bay of Palermo. The hotel, a former villa, was restored by Art Nouveau architect Ernesto Basile at the end of the 19th century for the Florio family and still has its original frescoes, decoration and furniture, including a very large painting of Mrs. Florio which rivals Sargent’s Madame X. We were upgraded to a deluxe suite with a balcony and view of the bay. The room was very spacious with tub/shower, mini bar and in-room safe. The king size bed was very comfortable and the air conditioning worked (thank you Lord!) and the hotel provided mosquito discs, as their mosquitoes are the size of American Hummingbirds. We paid extra to have in-room Wi-Fi, but the hotel offered it for free in certain common areas. The view was a little hazy, due to the rain, but the mountains were visible and the water beautiful.
It was still drizzling when we decided to drop the luggage and eat outside under umbrellas at their outdoor café. I was so sleepy, my eyes were crossing. I ordered a caprese salad with shrimp on the side and PL ordered spaghetti with clams. Both dishes were delicious and we retired to our room to nap for 3 hours, then wake on “Italy time” to meet our son-in-law’s parents who were arriving later. I have found that if I sleep on the plane ride over, then crash for at least 3 hours, my body clock adjusts by the following day.
After our nap, we went out to the hotel terrace and were thrilled to see a gentleman playing torch songs on a piano (which turned out to be a nightly treat), a wedding party and a double rainbow. It was no longer raining and seeing the joy on the bride’s face when she saw the double rainbow was priceless; I could understand the language (and hand signals) to understand that she felt it was a sign from God. As we’ve found in earlier trips to Italy; these “special” things happen all the time. We took photos and ordered champagne to take in our first evening in Sicily.
Our friends arrived and we enjoyed an hour on the terrace. The staff brought out complimentary olives, almonds, two different canapés with smoked fish and, strangely enough, potato chips.
Then off to dinner at Osteria dei Vespri – Piazza Croce’ dei Vespri, 6. The hotel has a free shuttle which runs to the city center; it takes 5-7 minutes. We grabbed a taxi to the restaurant, but could have easily walked from city center if we had had more time. We spent every last second on the hotel terrace!
The meal was wonderful. For starters they served smoked mackerel with goat cheese and other nibbles. Our group ordered beef cheeks with potatoes, cod with eggplant potato chips and tomatoes, pasta rolled like cigarettes with pork cheek meat around mashed potatoes. We had a great white and red from Nero D’Avola. We ended with Apple tart with ice cream as well as ricotta ravioli. Ordering was easy; our in-law is 2nd generation Sicilian and is fluent in Italian. Yeah! We headed back to the hotel for a nightcap outside and to bed. Long day!
Day 2 – Palermo:
Our hotel room cost included a buffet breakfast which was lovely. The spread reminded me of one you’d get at a Ritz Carlton Sunday Brunch. Food everywhere…pastries, homemade ricotta, cannoli, meats, cheeses, American cereals, runny scrambled eggs (I have yet to have firm scrambled eggs on an Italian buffet), cold sausages, warm milk, yogurt (my mainstay) and fresh juices. The view on the terrace was hard to leave, but we were meeting our guide and were scheduled to see the city center of Palermo and Monreale. Our guide, Ouigia (sp?) (pronounced Wee-ja) met us at our hotel. Just as cute as she could be in her Holly Hobby shirt and perky nature. She mentioned that she had difficulty getting in to the hotel as there was a massive amount of security and a ginormous bus parked out front. Apparently the Palermo soccer team was staying at our hotel; we had no sightings.
Ouigia said we would have a full day and could ride in her car instead of taking taxis, which was great. She apologized for the dog hair, but the four of us are animal lovers and didn’t care…we proceeded to talk about all of our dogs and cats. She took us around and showed the sights and gave a good history of the city. She gave the first introduction to the island itself, informing us of the huge melting pot of Arabs, Africans, Normans, Romans, Greeks, etc. which make up this wonderful country.
Driving up to Monreale, she showed us the reason William II decided on the location to build the town and church in 1174. The mountain is situated so one can see the valley below, but more importantly, can see the only available pass from the sea between the surrounding mountains; a great vantage point. We parked at the base of the church and had a 100 stair walk to the top. I needed a restroom and notice there was one at the base of the stairs…however, a young man was charging €.50 to enter. I bought a fresh pomegranate drink (watered-down) to break a €20. The line was so long and the smell so bad, I asked for my money back and would take my chances at the top of the stairs. At the top, in front of the church, Ouigia simply asked a gentleman standing in a nice, clean restaurant if I could use the toilet; he said “sure”. We found that the toilets in establishments were very clean and the proprietors were happy to let us use the facilities, even without being patrons. Don’t know if we were lucky, or if that’s just the Sicilian way; I choose to believe it’s the latter.
The church is a must-see. To be honest, it’s the one thing we would recommend to anyone visiting Palermo with little time to spend. The mosaics are gorgeous and the story behind the church is remarkable. The stories of the Old and New Testament are pictured via mosaics, in chronological order, for the illiterate and to win souls to Christ. I won’t go into detail about the walls; there’s Google for that. Suffice it to say we were overwhelmed and it was breathtaking. Knowing were going to Cefalu the following day, Ouigia directed us to take a good look at the very large mosaic of Jesus Christ in the altar area. She pointed out that the Monreale Jesus had “sad” eyes and the one we would see in Cefalu was similar and Jesus had more “kind, sweet” eyes. Just a beautiful! We left Monreale to have lunch downtown at a Mom and Pop restaurant and I apologize that I did note the name (the only one I missed of the trip), but I remember the caponata – a traditional Sicilian dish made of chopped fried eggplant and celery seasoned with sweetened vinegar tomatoes and capers in a sweet and sour sauce, and pasta Norma (also made with tomatoes, onions and eggplant). I had both of those dishes at every opportunity.
We left lunch to view the Royal Palace and actually saw a few members of their Regional Assembly come out of a “private bar” in the building. Ouigia said they have their own coffee bar so that they don’t have to mingle with the constituents and crowds. The building still showed a great deal of damage from the earthquake in 2002. There seemed to be A LOT of 4” wide tape covering the cracks in the walls, going from floor to ceiling. The Palace reminded me of several rooms in our White House; blue room, red room, etc. The Palentine chapel is also attached to the Royal Palace. We then toured the Piazza Pretoria, two other churches (and another wedding) and the Four Corners (Quattro Canti) area of the city. Photos don’t do it justice; really neat. It had been a LONG day and we cancelled dinner in town and had dinner at the hotel restaurant which is very fancy but the food was good and service excellent.
Day 3 – Palermo to Taormina with lunch in Cefalu:
We had breakfast on the beautiful terrace, packed and took a cab to the airport where PL had arranged for a EuroCar minivan with portable GPS. We would suggest giving yourself a least an 45 minutes to an hour at the rental car facility. When PL received the car keys and walked to get the car, he found a MINI BUS!!!! He had to walk back in and get a smaller vehicle…a Fiat Scudo Minivan. Cute, cute. One thing we didn’t do…we didn’t check to see if the GPS worked prior to leaving the facility. Long story short…it did not work, there were no instructions and when we plugged in to the cigarette lighter, the light came on to show it had current but it never charged. I used my IPhone Google Maps the entire time and GiGi (as I call the voice) never let us down. I think it will end up being about $150 in data charges for the whole trip; fortunately I had contacted Verizon prior to our trip and they made the change to include Italy region for one month. Not our intention, but we will ALWAYS use the IPhone Google Maps in the future.
We drove about an hour to the beach town of Cefalu and had a very difficult time parking. Fortunately, our friend was able to steer us away from “towing” zones and found a place on the street. We had picked a place for lunch, but Ouigia suggested that Lo Scoglio Ubraico - Via Bordonaro, 24 would be a great place and boy was she right. The food was amazing and the view breathtaking. The hotel had called ahead and made reservations and the restaurant had a “reserved” sign on a table right on the outside wall, next to the water. It was a gorgeous afternoon and we took our time eating and enjoying the food and view. We left with full bellies and walked up to the cathedral and saw yet another wedding (I’m amazed that the Italians have weddings during the week…not like the weekend weddings we do here in the States) and the “soft kind” eyes of Christ in the cathedral. Just beautiful. We visited several little ceramic shops, but didn’t see what I was looking for (distinctive combinations of blue/yellow as well as red/gold). We grabbed a gelato and espresso and made our way to the Scudo for the drive to Taormina.
PL navigated very well through the Gallerias (tunnels) - - there were LOTS of tunnels and we were soothed by the view of the coast; just beautiful. Once we passed Messina, we knew we were about 30 minutes from Taormina. I kept asking our friends, who’d visited Taormina years ago, “where’s Mt. Etna?” They said, “it’s coming up; you’ll see it.” But I couldn’t see it because of the OTHER mountains in the way and the winding coast line. We were 2 miles from Taormina and I asked again…”come on…where is it?...how can you hide a volcano?” I get it now…it’s all about the right vantage point – the view from the Greek Theater was stunning; more on that later.
Now GETTING to the top of the mountain to Taormina was a challenge for PL…he drives our American car with two feet (weird), so it’s not a stretch for him to drive a manual transmission, BUT trying to drive a large mini-van on steep hills with hairpin turns, pedestrians who jay walk EVERYWHERE and cars behind who pull RIGHT up to our bumper was tough for him. There were several times he was stuck in traffic on the middle of a hill with inches between him and the car behind him and I just KNEW we were going to roll back into another car…but he didn’t. After the first day there was no problem; he’s my hero. None of us could have done what he did.
We made it to our hotel, the San Dominico Hotel, an ancient Dominican monastery built in the 15th century (converted in 1896) with views over Mount Etna and Taormina Bay. We were upgraded to a Deluxe room with sea view and terrace; it was beautiful. It reminded us of the Amalfi Coast…craggily hills and view of boats in the water; gorgeous. The room was large with a small bistro-style table and two chairs inside with vanity/desk and chair, large armoire, dresser and king-size bed. We paid extra for Wi-Fi, but like the hotel in Palermo, they offered free Wi-Fi in areas of the hotel. The terrace was spacious and had a table with two chairs. As I’ll mention throughout the trip report, IT WAS HOT for the rest of the trip and sitting out on the balcony, even in the early morning or evening was uncomfortable. We have no plans to travel in August/September in the future. I’m just now drying out from the horrible heat and humidity. I’m a girl from Dixie…I can take heat… but this was REAL heat. We over-packed, as usual, but glad we did; we had to change clothes for dinner each night, our “day clothes” were a little on the smelly side.
Sorry, I digress….the Crown Jewel of this hotel is the cloister. As mentioned, it was a monastery and the cloister area is enclosed with solid glass walls. The walled off area allows for air conditioning in the hotel, but the cloister to have no roof, just a gorgeous blue sky in the day and indigo blue sky at night. A pianist plays torch songs every evening for happy hour through 11 pm; Just awesome. They set up a bar in front of the cistern which is covered with bougainvillea. Together with the white gravel, palm trees, lavender and citrus trees, you’d swear you were outside. Looking up and seeing the stars turned out to be the daily visual toddy we needed to close out our day.
Our friends decided to go to 7 pm mass at the Duomo and we met the kids for a drink at the famous Wunderbar - Piazza IX Aprile with beautiful views of Mt. Etna, and the bay. As I mentioned before….just stunning, even with cloud cover and a haze…just stunning. There’s a little alcove area for pictures and we got some great ones for our Christmas cards. And yes, we saw another wedding.
We ate at Al Duomo - Vico Ebrei (Piazza Duomo). Fabulous meal with caponata, stuffed sardines, pasta Norma, etc. Great terrace overlooking the Duomo and just a short walk from the hotel.
A quick note on Taormina. It is a lovely city with lots of shops, churches and restaurants. I would highly recommend basing in this town for day trips, although it is a nail biter to get to our hotel from the Autostrade , but I could have done it in a car with automatic transmission. It may be easier to get in and out of Syracuse or another town, but we loved Taormina. The kids (still newlyweds) wanted their own place away from the older folks and access to the beach. They found a 3-bedroom house located in Mazzaro, for $700 a week (booked online). They had an amazing view of the bay on one side and Isola Bella on the other. They were very near the cable car which brought them straight up the mountain and then a 10 minute walk to city center (Duomo) and another 5 minutes to our hotel. The city is very walkable and delightful.
The kids and in-laws left dinner for a nightcap and saw the end of a concert at the Greek Theater. PL and I had a drink in the hotel cloister and on to bed. Around 11 pm we were awakened by loud explosions and booms. I swear I thought Mt. Etna had erupted! It was a huge fireworks show, most likely for a wedding. It went on for 20 minutes! What a great day.
Day 4 – Syracuse and Ortygia
We left early and drove to Syracuse to the archeological park where we met our guide, Lucia. It was a hot, hot, hot day and absolutely no shade at the park. We parked near the entrance and had to pay a guy a few euros to watch our car. I wasn’t comfortable with this at first, but Lucia said it was fine and we came to expect it when we drove to certain cities. He didn’t look shady…it was just unexpected to see someone who wasn’t with the city or in a uniform, being paid to watch our car. Smelled Mafioso to me…but that’s another story.
Back to the hot, miserable weather…I would advise investing in an umbrella with SPF capability (Lucia had one). PL and I are both fair-skinned and burn easily….should have thought ahead. We had sunscreen and PL had a hat, but we really needed more in the harsh sun. I’ll describe my wardrobe and packing list/technique in more detail at the end of this report, but suffice it to say I wore the coolest/thinnest thing possible and made out better than most in our crowd.
We really enjoyed seeing the park and hearing the history of Syracuse. The park is made up of the Greek theater, a quarry, and Roman ruins. We enjoyed the "Ear of Dionysius” - a narrow cavern 76 feet high, 214 feet deep and only about 25 feet wide. The name was given by the artist Caravaggio either due to its pointy shape, like the ear on a satyr, or its acoustics, where legend has it the ruler of Syracuse put prisoners there so that he could hear them as they plotted against him.
We did not think to bring enough water to carry with us and had to take a break after the park to grab water at the park café’ before we went to Ortygia. We followed Lucia on her little Vespa over the bridge to the small island of Ortygia. The island is only 1 km long by 600 meters wide but Lucia said it has 57 churches. This is a must do. The Duomo was once the Greek Temple of Athena, with a giant gold statue of the goddess on its roof. The huge Doric columns of the temple are still visible. The Baroque facade was a replacement after the 1693 earthquake. We’ve never seen anything like it. The fact that the columns are still visible allows you to actually visualize what it looked like in the beginning. There was no shade on the piazza so we needed to find lunch soon. Lucia suggested Osteria Mariano Antica Cucina deil Monti Iblei and it was a huge hit. We loved it! No one in the restaurant spoke English (except us) and thank goodness for the in-law who could interpret. This was one of our best meals of the trip. Delicious orange, onion and olive oil salad, yes, caponata, great bruschetta, linguini with clams, spaghetti with sea urchin. True, authentic and delicious food.
Thanks to one of the many travel forums, someone turned me on to Helen Moreau, a French artist on Ortygia who uses silk as a canvass. Wonderful idea and easy gifts to pack. Helene is very talented and I would have purchased some of her square pieces, framed them and put in my home as gorgeous art. I bought several scarves, one long cobalt blue with two white sword fish, one black on white with scroll pattern which Helen got the idea from a Sicilian mansion floor, another which the idea was taken from traditional Sicilian ceramics in the blue and gold motif and yet another which was jewel-toned, reminiscent of a Miro’ painting. Well worth the visit. I even emailed her and asked her to bring long scarves, specifically red or other jewel toned and she did! Helene Moreau - Via Roma 27 - E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sweet lady.
Our son-in-law’s mother, also on the trip, loves the Ortigia brand of soaps and lotions….lucky for us the original store is on the island and she (we) could stock up on products. We bought lotions, bath salts (great gifts – easy to pack, light, smell good), perfumes, etc. I believe it was on Via Roma, actually near Helene’s shop.
We drove back to the hotel and had dinner at Osteria Nero D’Avola which happened to be across from our hotel. This restaurant was recommended by a friend. She mentioned that it was fabulous food, slow service, but worth it; she was right. We had a lot of time in between courses for chatting and the food did not disappoint. I had a wonderful appetizer special made of local orange mushrooms, shaved with olive oil, salt and pepper; it was divine. The waitress couldn’t tell me what TYPE of mushrooms – just that they were orange. PL had fettuccini with porcini mushrooms for his entrée and I had a delicious steak. The wine was, of course, Nero D’Avola wines. One problem I had on the trip, which couldn’t be helped, was the smoking at outside tables. Unfortunately, I am highly allergic to cigarette smoke….but I can’t blame the smokers for smoking outside. We noticed that Sicilians smoke like trains…it is what it is. Can’t change it, but it did put a damper on a few of our meals. We tried to sit inside if there wasn’t a bella vista. On a funny note, there was a lovely white cat prowling around. PL and I left 2 kittens at home and were thrilled to spot a feline. I did not, however, expect the nip on the butt she gave me half way through dinner. I screamed and jumped out of my seat. Our family thought I was choking or having a heart attack…didn’t expect the little love nip (or scratch) from the White Tiger! Didn’t break the skin, but would have if she’d chosen exposed skin…funny! Fireworks again….this time at Midnight. I was prepared this time and didn’t freak out.
Day 5 – Uhhhh..was supposed to be Agrigento:
Ok. I have to even have to print this, but it will cause some to laugh, some to cringe and hopefully, some to take heed.
We left out in our minivan for Agrigento. We had plans to leave at 9:30 am, drive 2 ½ hours, eat lunch at Villa Athena and meet our guide at 2 for a tour of the Valley of the Temples. We pulled into the Q8 Gas Station at the base of the mountain, just 15 minutes from our hotel (with an Illy espresso bar) while PL filled up. Unfortunately, he filled the DIESEL minivan with UNLEADED gasoline…€140 worth of unleaded. Yep. Bad news. How did he manage that, you ask? Well, I wondered as well as I saw a commotion and walked toward the minivan and saw that the fuel door was open and had a very large “Diesel Only” sign on the inside. PL opened from the front of the car (left of the tank opening), pulled the gas pump nozzle and filled in ALL WITHOUT STEPPING TO THE OTHER SIDE (right of the tank opening at the rear of the car) and thus missed seeing the sign. There is NO sign indicating diesel fuel on the inside of the car. Uh Oh. We were in trouble. Thank God, again, for the Italian-speaking-in-law. He was able to convey all of this to Luigi (okay, not his name, but he reminded me of the cartoon character in the Pixar movie “Cars”) and he indicated that we couldn’t drive the car. Luigi called a friend who came and tried to syphon the gas out of the tank to no avail. He then called another friend who said he had to tow the minivan to his garage, take off the tank and drain it. PL saw massive Euro signs. After paying €120 to tow it, we knew it was going to be a BIG bill. All I could think of was EuroCar was going to make us pay for the whole car, as we’d broken it. My visions of buying sets of ceramics were drowned. We tried to call the EuroCar roadside #, but there was no answer.
We were at the mercy of Luigi’s friends. After 3 hours of being stranded and waiting for the guys to figure things out, daughter, son-in-law and I called for a cab and went back to the hotel for lunch and PL and in-law rode to the garage. This was bad. The day was blown but we were lucky to contact Hotel Athena as well as our guide for the day and secure both for the following day. We were lucky; they were both available. We enjoyed pizza and pasta at Restaurant Vecchia Taormina, near our hotel, right off the main drag. It has both inside and outside dining – no view, but still outside in the fresh air is nice. The staff was very nice and we saved two spots for PL and In-Law. They arrived 30 minutes later and didn’t have any news on the sick vehicle.
We left lunch and shopped. I search for 3 things in EVERY city; hand-made table linens, ceramics and jewelry; Taormina didn’t fail me! There were several shops with vintage pieces of jewelry – a lot of coral and lava rock. I bought a turquoise ring at Kiseki – Corso Umberto, 55 and looked for linens at Daneu - Corso Umberto, 126 and found exactly what I was looking for; a linen runner with purple lavender sprigs sewn in. However, the lady in the store told me it was €100 - - no way, Jose’ - - that was just too much. I think I could have found a version cheaper somewhere else, however, she said she made herself and I appreciate the artisan nature but not willing to pay that price. PL bought my Christmas presents at Grazia – Via G. di Giovanni, 7 (on the right as you turn on the street to visit the Greek Theater). They carry beautiful, large showy pieces. They had great turquoise, lapis, coral, etc. Pricey, but gorgeous. (on a good note: this is the first place in Europe where we’ve experienced a CA$H refund in the city and not have to get it at the airport or pray that they actually put it on your credit card. You get the cash and all you need is to get the custom stamp at the airport and put in the mailbox. Easiest transaction on Tax Free EVER!) Near there, also on the way to the Greek Theater, was Ferano Ceramiche, Via Teatro Greco, 34, a wonderful mom and pop ceramic store. I saw THE piece for me; a beautiful red and gold swirled plate. They were very busy and rather than wait, PL said, “don’t buy it here, we’re going to Caltagirone; you’ll find it there.” Sure enough, I turned it over and saw the signature of the artist and “Caltagirone”. I didn’t take time to write down the artist’s name. No big deal, I was going to the MECCA of ceramics in two days. No problem, right? Wrong…more on that later.
Since we were so close to the entrance of the Greek Theater, we decided to scratch it off the list and take a look. It was a short climb, but seemed longer after a day of walking and it was worth the trek! The view was breathtaking. The “back curtain” of the stage is missing pieces through which you have views of the water, South Taormina and Mt. Etna. If you walk up to the “nose bleed” section at the very top of the theater, the view is even more spectacular. We were there at sunset and I’d recommend a visit at that time of day to anyone visiting Taormina. It was really something special.
We went back to the hotel to freshen up (did I mention it was sweaty, hot here?), go to see the house where the kids were staying in Mazzaro (down the hill from Taormina) and go to a place they’d found for dinner. By the time we walked to the cable car, entered the un-air-conditioned cable car and walked to their place (which was next to the Villa Sant’Andrea), we were soaked. They had a cute little place with great views and a small kitchen and open living room. It was just perfect for them. Then we walked down the street to a fish restaurant, only to find it was closed. We then turned the corner and dined at Il Delfino – Via Nazionale, Mazzaro (http://www.lidoildelfino.it/lido-il-delfino-en.htm, instead. Outside dining with the lapping water against the boats just feet away….lovely.
We rode the cable car back up to the hotel and received word that the car was fixed and had been delivered to the hotel. We were waiting to hear the damage. We were expecting at least 1000 American dollars; we were at their mercy. They could have charged anything….but the bill came to €148. Whew! We were so grateful.
Day 6 – Agrigento…finally:
We went BACK to the Q8 gas station to fill up with DEISEL gasoline. At first Luigi didn’t recognize us, but as we approached the pump, he saw us all waving and he broke into a huge smile. PL asked him to do the pumping of fuel and we took a lot of pictures. We owe a lot to those guys and PL gave them generous tips the day before as well as for their services today. Throughout our trip, we witnessed many acts kindness by the Sicilian people. I’d read about their sweet nature in many blogs and forums, but am proud to say we experienced it first-hand.
So, on the road for an hour and half and pulled up at Villa Athena - Via Passeggiata archeologica, 33, 92100 Agrigento at noon and saw the most amazing site. The Temple Concordina, the most in-tact of the temples at Agrigento, was right in front of us. We ate outside and the Temple was on the hill in plain site; it was eerie, over-the-top and just plain awesome. The tables and chairs were white and they had nets underneath the lemon trees to keep the leaves off the tables. Umbrellas were large and covered the entire area and the swimming pool was to the right. This was the most unbelievable dining experience of our trip. The menu was short, but good. Our table saw a variety of “next of spaghetti with tomato and basil”, pasta with sea urchins, ravioli, etc. PL and I ordered Caesar salads….mistake…it was the worst dish of our trip. Just romaine lettuce, some grated cheese, but hardly any dressing. Just a disappointment, but NOTHING could ruin the moment. Our guide, Lorenzo, showed up in time for an espresso. He was right out of Sicilian central casting, wearing white pants, a lightweight printed shirt with the sleeves rolled up, aviator glasses and “Jesus sandals” - - he was our favorite guide of all. Passionate about his country, knowledgeable about his subject matter and eager for us to understand. He was with us from 2 pm until 6 pm and was worth every penny.
We started at the museum and I’m so glad we did. Lorenzo asked us to sit outside, underneath a tree with shade, and explained to us the “melting pot” of Sicily, to make sure we understood the country. He was very enthusiastic and emotional about “who” Sicilians were and are. Great guide. The biggest thing we took away from the museum talk was the explanation of the Temple of Zeus, which would be the last stop on our tour. I won’t go into the entire history, but it was so large that it had 60 foot “Giant Statues” which were made to look as if they were holding the roof of the Temple. There were five three-foot high steps which comprised the base of the Temple, then the giants, then the roof. This place was HUGE. I wish someone would fund the building of a replica; it would be amazing. The footprint of the Temple, all ruins now, is mammoth…I’d love to see a replica. Back to the story…we NEEDED this time in the museum to hear the history and explanation of what we were going to see. Lorenzo was really able to set the stage. We then toured all of the temples and got great shots of us in front of the Temple Concordia, which we viewed during lunch. It is gorgeous. We were there in the late afternoon and it was H_O_T, but with a little breeze. There were cacti there with graffiti carved on their leaves. Since they are a succulent, the “scars” stay. There was graffiti from the 1950’s there…it was horrible to see, but amazing as well. So many people have seen these sights. We finished about 6:30 pm and headed to the highway for our 2 ½ hour drive back to Taormina. We were tired, but so thrilled to have seen the Valley of the Temples. We arrived late and ate, again, at Restaurant Vecchia Taormina near our hotel. Consistently good. I had Pasta Norma (surprised?) and loved it. We wanted to hit the hay early, as the In-Laws were leaving early the next morning to fly back to the US.
Day 7 - Mt. Etna – the volcano:
We hired a guide and driver for our tour of Mt. Etna. Marcello met us at 9:30 am and whisked us off toward the volcano. His command of English wasn’t as good as the other guides, but was acceptable. We stopped at Pasticceria RUSSO SNC – Via Vitt. Emanuele, 105, Santa Venerina, where since 1880 the family has been using the original recipes for pastries, cookies and creams. They’re famous for making marzipan (almond paste) confections and decorating them to appear life-like. They had trays and trays of fruits, vegetables, shells, etc. All looked “real” but were “fake” - - the art work is amazing. I bought a medium-sized box of strawberries, cherries, lemons, limes, tangerine (1/2 peeled; there are no words for how awesome this is), apples, kumquat, pear, peach…so real looking. I plan to make a centerpiece for a party. See who can tell that they’re not real fruit. After an espresso, we headed to Oro D Etna Apicoltura, Zafferana, Etna, a shop which had honey, soap, wines, capers, olive oil, olives, etc. I don’t have the card right now, but can post if there’s interest. We saw a live bee hive on the way in and were able to sample honey and other items listed above until a tour bus unloaded and I had to get out. We bought a ½ bottle of wine called “Etna” and the outside of the body is covered in what appears to be “black lava” – cute and cheesy purchase. We bought several bags of artichokes and small jars of honey for gifts; the orange honey is my favorite. We left there and went straight up towards the Silverstri Crater, 2000 meters up on Mt. Etna. On the way up, Marcello pointed out the many chestnut and broom trees as well as the tick seed plants and lichens. Seeing the crater and viewing the top of the volcano was a great experience, but we were not prepared for the wind. We dressed for cool weather (thank you, Lord, it wasn’t HOT!), but were surprised by the whipping wind. I was actually lost my footing several times due to wind. Also surprising were the number of ladybugs (or lady birds as Marcello called them). They were EVERYWHERE. I’m used to ladybugs, I buy 3000 a year on Amazon to eat my aphids….but never realized they’d be in such a barren area. I mean, the crater and surrounding are looked like desert…very little green vegetation, but ladybugs were all over. We were able to tell where the lava flow was from the last few eruptions and heard a lot of history of the volcano. The last eruption was listed as April of THIS YEAR. Obviously not much of an eruption; more of a burp. The volcano was actually smoking while we were there. It’s still an active volcano. I was ready to leave. We did not go to the very top of the volcano; I was fine with that. Nice restrooms at basecamp and noticed a sign saying “no foot washing permitted” – I understand, my sandal-clad feet were dirty from the volcano dust…but I didn’t think I needed to wash them – some people obviously do.
We then drove to the southern side of the mountain to the Gambino Winery – C. da. Petto Dragone. S. n Linguagessa (new building) and had a wonderful lunch with a great view. They served their wines and huge platters of meats, cheeses, caponata, mushrooms and fresh bread with olive oil. Delicious! Lovely afternoon. After we finished here, we headed back to the hotel. It was a long day and we were ready for a nap then dinner with the kids at the restaurant which was closed the previous night. We picked up capers in salt and artichokes at a wine store near the hotel and then got the grandsons (from daughter #1) soccer jerseys and t-shirts at a local store. We took a taxi (instead of the cable car) to the restaurant, Il Barcaiolo – V Castelluccio, 43 for a delicious dinner, again in Mezzara on the beach. Lovely staff, great dinner and we took the cable cars up to our hotel. While walking back to the hotel, down the main thoroughfare, we saw a crowd gathering at O’Seven Bar – Largo La Farina, 6 on the main drag. Then we heard Buddy Holly singing “That’ll Be The Day”. The closer we got, we saw a 3 piece band in bright blue suits, singing fabulous songs into 1950-ish microphones. People were dancing in the street to this band – “Marilu’” - - crazy and fun! We found a seat inside, ordered a drink and stayed about 30 minutes. Loved hearing them talk to the crowd in Italian, but sang every song in English. Fun, fun, fun. Great night.
Day 8 – Caltagirone – (otherwise known as a “bust”):
With visions of ceramics dancing in my head, we headed out for Caltagirone. This would be a long drive for what I wanted, but it was a “free” day and I knew I would not take long to pick out the pieces I wanted. My IPhone held the picture of the pattern I wanted (from the store in Taormina) and I was excited to be on a mission. The GPS on the IPhone took us right to Caltagirone, but I realized that I had not done enough research to locate a parking lot. We drove around the city and through some pretty scruffy areas before we found a safe place to park on the street and used the Parking Ticket kiosk and bought three hours of time and stuck the receipt in the window. I took a picture of the street sign so that we could find our way back in case we wandered too far. It started drizzling and we were, once again, without an umbrella or poncho.
We passed several small boutique ceramic shops, but I was determined to find more variety in the heart of town. We found the tourist center which was housed in an old church, I think. The gentleman at the desk was not interested in helping with directions to ceramic shops AT ALL and the public toilets were a disgrace. I won’t go into detail but suffice it to say you couldn’t step anywhere on the floor without feeling that you had stepped in the toilet. No toilet paper, no soap at the sink, no paper napkins and no working hand dryer. Thank goodness I carry Kleenex and Purell. I mentioned the condition to the gentleman at the information desk, but he just shrugged.
We then went in to little shops and showed the picture of the piece/pattern I was trying to locate. No one spoke English (not that I expected it, in such a small town), and in broken English asked if I knew the artist. I did not. Each one mentioned that without that info, it was useless to find the store. We were directed to two different “large” collections, which seemed to me to be where local artists brought their wares and they were sold out of this one-stop-shop. The first was on the street to the right of the tourist center, if facing it. The second was in the piazza where the Duomo is. We found house numbers for our daughter and a soap dish, but nothing that compared to the wonderful pieces we saw in Taormina. There was a shop, Varcellona, which had gorgeous, large pieces in 2nd and 3rd story windows which could be viewed from the street, but they were closed for vacation. We were hungry and decided to go in the restaurant where, as my husband said, “a lot of elderly Italians were going in…must be good.” Non Solo Vino – on the street to the right of the Tourist Information Center provided an adequate lunch. They have a “twirling” antipasti bar which had everything I needed; grilled eggplant, roasted radicchio, meats, cheeses, and the odd dish of English peas…that was a first. My husband had spaghetti and I had pasta Norma (surprise). It was okay, but nothing spectacular.
I was so disappointed. On the way back to our car, we walked into every store we passed, but there was nothing. It’s not like I was looking for anything special…I’d found these types of designs all over the Amalfi Coast, especially in Ravello. We found them in several of the shops in Taormina…why couldn’t I find them in Caltagirone? I was devastated. What a wasted day. It started to rain. Bummer.
Our ninety minute trip back was gloomy, then the strangest thing appeared in the sky. There was a cloud formation, juxtaposed in front of Mt. Etna which was shaped exactly like an alien space ship. I am not kidding; I will post pictures. I posted them on my Facebook page and had too many comments to keep up with. It was REALLY strange. PL and I had never seen anything like it. It was weird! At least there was a good story to tell from an otherwise wasted day.
That evening, on the way to dinner, we made our way to Ferano Ceramiche, Via Teatro Greco, 34 to find my plate! How embarrassing to have to admit to them that we went all the way to Caltagirone to buy the plates and couldn’t find them. The owner and husband couldn’t speak English, but her adult daughter, Linda, was fluent and told me that the artist has a store very near the Duomo. Oh well, who knew? But she assured me that although they only had one or two of the plates I wanted, she could easily ship as many as needed. Whew! I was thrilled. We also picked up a few tea light holders which were beautifully decorated and easy to pack. There were also hand painted butterflies which I picked up for gifts and we found a water pitcher which was an exact match for our kitchen. All-in-all a wonderful find and great people to work with.
We left Linda and her folks and made our way to L’Arco dei Cappuccini, a lovely place for dinner, under a canopy and green everywhere. It was here that I ordered, and enjoyed, the strangest dish of the trip – octopus carpaccio. It wasn’t your “normal” octopus, though. It was a bed of lettuce covered with a dozen or more 5” in diameter piece of modeled/shaped/formed octopus. In other words, there were many pieces of octopus which had been placed in a mold and then sliced…like a stick of luncheon meat…like olive loaf…get the idea? Anyway, it was delicious. Just a little olive oil drizzled on it. Magnificent. My entrée’ was pasta Bolognese, but I couldn’t eat it. It had been made with cloves, which I detest (outside of Thanksgiving season) and I really couldn’t stomach it. I was happy with the octopus salad and later treated myself to panna cotta with chocolate sauce. PL had a fish with tomatoes and capers, Sicilian style. The fish was very fresh and the waiter brought it over for inspection prior to cooking. This was an excellent restaurant; reservations are recommended. We witnessed several walkups being turned away.
We left with full stomachs and sauntered back to the hotel. As we entered the front door, we hear the pianist’s rendition of Billy Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman To Me” and proceeded to find an empty vignette with couch and coffee table and relaxed with glasses of prosecco and a gorgeous Italian Indigo Sky. As I mentioned earlier, the cloister of the San Dominico has been preserved and there’s nothing but open sky and a beautiful piano music. PL asked the pianist if he knew our song, “Embraceable You” by Gershwin. He did not, but treated us to a lovely rendition of “Summertime”. What a beautiful, beautiful night.
Day 9 – Taormino to Palermo:
After breakfast, we did some last minute shopping for more capers in salt, artichokes and honey. It was too hot outside (shocker) to have breakfast on the terrace, so we ate inside. I don’t know why I didn’t see the orange honey before…it was delicious on a fresh croissant. PL had already announced that “hell or high-water, we’re having McDonalds for lunch” - - so I worked on my handy-dandy IPhone to locate the nearest one….in Messina. So…instead of going back to Palermo through the middle of the island to see different sights, we were going the ocean road again to accommodate PL’s craving for a Big Mac. We filled up at a Q8 in Messina and found the Mickey D’s about 2 miles up on the same street. It was a drive in…nowhere to park, but we pulled over the first place we could (which was in front of a garbage dumpster - - didn’t matter) and ate our Unico Anche Nel Gusto (Quarter Pounder with Cheese) and L’Unico Il Solo (Big Mac), accompanied by fries and Cokes. Yumm, yumm, yumm. We were all set to roll. We made it to Palermo around 4 pm and enjoyed the afternoon of leisure before having drinks of the beautiful terrace at 7 pm and dinner in the hotel restaurant at 8pm. It was a lovely dinner with salt-encrusted sea bass which was delicious. We turned in early, knowing we would have to be up and packed and out by 9 am to get to return the rental car and check in for our flight. The last night in Palermo was lovely.
Day 10 – Hello America!:
We had our first problem with my IPhone GPS. I put in EuroCar Rental and it showed the directions to the airport…perfect…I thought. I took us ALMOST to the airport. Actually it took us PAST the airport and around the perimeter, but we finally found our way. It took us a while at the rental counter because we had to make sure we were not charged for the faulty GPS. We then loaded our bags on the shuttle and were off to the terminal. We checked in and were at our gate an hour and a half before boarding (a first in our marriage) and had hoped to charge our IPads, but there were no plugs on the baseboards as you would find in the US airports. There were no charging stations, either, as have been recently installed in airports. The ONLY available plug was in the restroom and I wasn’t about to leave my phone charging or sit and babysit it. So…we were fine with what we had. We were economy class on the way back and it sure made me appreciate the points it took to ride over in business class. We watched several movies and read…relaxing but cramped. Home at last.
Golden Nuggets – many have asked on other forums and I have benefited, so here are mine:
Packing: Ladies, I bought every tunic I could find at Chico’s. I packed 9 (one for each day) and ALL took less room than one sweat shirt. These gauzy, lightweight, jewel adorned tops were perfect for the sweltering days in Sicily. They could be rolled or folded into a very small square and never wrinkled. These were perfect for the trip. Also in my bag were 2 pair of black capri pants, 2 pair of white capri pants, 2 ankle length (more dressy) black pants and 1 pair of ankle white. I wore tank tops (white or black) underneath each tunic. I packed, but didn’t need, pashminas which I usually wear to dinner. We used the laundry service ½ way through the stay just for pants and underwear. As I’ve mentioned, it was blasted hot and I was not expecting to have to change clothes EVERY DAY. My husband wears khakis and Orvis or Travelpro travel shirts. They have vent zippers at the sides for ventilation and have oversized zipper and button pockets at the breast in which he keeps his wallet and sunglasses. There’s a funny story I must tell. PL is fond of light blue travel shirts. He has tons of them and wears them on every trip. We try to take a memorable photo for our Christmas cards each year. Guess how many years he has had on the same outfit? Light blue shirt and khakis. I tease him that the recipients of our cards are going to think he doesn’t have any other clothes….or that we just Photoshop him in each picture. Funny, but true!
We don’t pack light. We each have a 42” Pullman and we both have a carryon. His contains reading material and mine contains my 3” binder, jewelry, change of clothes, meds, chargers and makeup. We always pack a foldup duffel bag (about the size of a large notebook) with us to pack our dirty clothes and have room for souvenirs in our big bags. What has served me well on other trips is packing bubble wrap and a roll of scotch tape. I am able to pack breakables and not worry.
Chargers: I figured out long ago that I can wrestle with the converter/adapter, or outsmart it. We bought a great converter/adapter from Brookstone and I bring an extension cord. That way, PL and I can charge our IPads and I can still plug in my curling iron or other device. We aren’t fighting for the “one” plug.
Meds: I pack a tiny (5x5) medicine kit. My doc writes prescriptions for the antibiotics I THINK I might need (would always call him from abroad to make sure the symptoms are matching the Rx). Cipro, Keflex, Z Pack, etc. We take Tylenol PM, regular Tylenol, airborne (we take on the plane at least twice and each morning at breakfast. Just put the plop-plop-fizz-fizz in a bottle of water. We like the citrus flavor), Imodium (for runs), dulcolax (for clogs), Band-Aids, blister pads, Neosporin, sunscreen (usually not in the med pack, but in makeup kit), saline nasal spray, cortisone, Preparation H pads, mucinex (the blue kind). This has served us well. There’s nothing else needed.
Shoes: My motto has been “life’s too short to wear ugly shoes”…expect on vacation. Two years in a row, I broke a toe on my right foot. The first vacation I had to wear the boot; not fun in Piedmont region of Italy trying to find truffles…the 2nd was in Rome (cobblestones anyone?). So I broke down and bought Merrills and love them – they have just enough heel height to keep my knees from aching. They stabilize my foot and aren’t too Birkenstock-looking. I took both white and black pairs with me. If you haven’t guessed, I’m extremely Southern and have been called prissy; doesn’t bother me. Also in my suitcase was a pair of SwitchFlops; great invention. Flip flops which have different colored “strips” with Velcro so you can change your look. Yes, I did. I wore the flip flops (2” heel) at night to dress up for dinner.
Travel Agent: We really enjoyed our trip and could not have done it without the wonderful help of our travel pro (and I mean a REAL pro!) who coordinated all of our hotels; Michelle Bemis of McCabe World Travel, www.mccabeworld.com who partnered with Jen at IC Bellagio in-country for guides. Michelle has assisted us on several of our past trips and is a great resource. Jen called the hotels to make sure we’d arrived and were enjoying our stay.
Exhausted, but extremely happy with our trip.
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Sicily - Palermo, Cefalu, Taormina, Syracuse, Agrigento
Trip to Sicily