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Trip Report Sicily--Three Weeks in October--Winging It is Doable

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Rather on the spur of the moment we turned in some Delta miles for tickets on Alitalia from the US to Sicily from Oct. 6 to Oct. 26. Since this was very last minute decision with only a couple weeks to plan our trip (I know many of you super planners are throwing up you hands and shaking your heads with incomprehension hearing this), I searched out help here and at TA. Both places I found a lot of gracious people who were willing to share their time and expertise with me. So, I am hoping to give back in this report.

BACKGROUND: We are well-traveled, moderate budget, and in our 60s. The past eight to ten years we’ve moved into the slow travel mode, preferring quality over quantity. As a part of this mindset, we prefer to stay in apartments when possible since we like the room to spread out, and we like the availability of a kitchen for breakfasts, snacks and heating things up (no real cooking for us).

Whenever possible, we like to have some flexibility rather than being stuck with a rigid schedule and itinerary. And, we are not ones to jump right out of bed each morning with a long list of sight-seeing to-dos. Instead we prefer to savor our time with leisurely mornings and evenings, and time to just stroll and enjoy local ambience. Since we’ve been to both Greece and Turkey, ruins were not at the top of our list of places to make sure to visit. Finally, we often choose some of the lesser visited places rather than trying to tick off all of the top-ten to-visit lists.

LOCALES TO VISIT AND HOW LONG TO STAY IN EACH PLACE: This was a quandary as I was doing my planning. We wanted to minimize the number of places we stayed. Yet, we also did not want to make day trips that were two hours each way. I also wanted flexibility so we could wing it and stay longer in a place if we liked it, or skip a place if it turned out not to be so great as we had hoped. My compromise was to book our first and last four nights in Sicily, and we’d fill in the rest on the go. In October this worked out quite well for us, and other than maybe one place I might have liked to stay that was full, we had no difficulty operating this way.

Our FINAL ITINERARY ended up this way:

5 nights Ortygia Oct. 7-11 http://www.dicasainsicilia.com/riva-levante---veranda/
3 nights Modica Oct. 12-14 Casa della Zodiaco B&B apartment
2 nights Piazza Armerina Oct. 15-16 Dimora del Conte B&B
3 nights Mazara del Vallo Oct. 17-19 Homeaway 6640692
1 night Erice Oct. 20 Erice Pietre Antiche B&B apartment
5 nights Palermo Oct. 21-25 http://www.vrbo.com/1133463a

FLIGHTS:
On the way there we flew MSP to JFK to Catania. On the way back we flew Palermo to JFK to MSP.

Despite the fact that they are code share partners, there is no real sharing of information between the Alitalia and Delta. On the way out from MSP we were told at the very last second (while at the gate boarding) that there was a problem and we were listed as “do not allow to board”. Earlier Delta agents hadn’t noticed this or said a thing but checked us right through. Apparently there was some glitch with Alitalia’s flight times having changed by 15 minutes, and we were listed twice or some such nonsense. After the agent made urgent calls to the help desk to try to clear this message and allow us to board, we got it cleared up and were the last people to board the flight. On the way back Alitalia would not allow us to do online check-in since the last leg of our journey was on a Delta flight; we had to go to the airport to check in.

Coordination at JFK between the two airlines’ terminals was also interesting. Passengers have to go outside between the Delta terminal and the terminal that Alitalia leaves from. From there you walk down a roadway to get to the other terminal. We were lucky that it was nice weather because I can see that this might not be too pleasant in rainy, snowy or extremely cold weather. And, of course, since you are now out of the secure area, you will need to go through security again.

Nervous flyers beware. The flight from Rome to Catania was one of the most turbulent I have ever been on, and I’ve done a lot of flying. In fact, it was one where I started to wonder if this was it and if this is how planes go down. The captain announced that the winds from Etna can often be very strong, and apparently this was the situation when we flew that route.

PHONE/COMMUNICATIONS: We have T Mobile Simple Choice which offers free texting and free data while traveling out of the US. In the past we’ve always bought local SIM cards, but this time around we just relied on our T Mobile plan, and it worked out fine. Data was adequate when we needed it. Phone calls are .20 a minute, and we are guessing we probably spent less than $10.00 on these since we only used the phone to make lodging arrangements and a few other random calls within Italy. We didn’t call home at all though, so people who plan to do a lot of calling may want to look at different possibilities.

RENTAL CAR AND DRIVING: We’ve driven all over Europe (including in several places many people probably wouldn’t ever consider driving), so we knew we’d be fine with having a car for part of our trip. AutoEurope was the broker we used, and we ended up with a very reasonably priced stick shift rental that we picked up towards the end of our stay in Ortygia and dropped off before our stay in Palermo.

Knowing that we would want as small of a car as possible in order to maneuver around some of the very narrow streets, we reserved an economy car-- supposedly like a Fiat 500L. But, as we all know, car rental companies only promise a car in the same class, not the same model. The car we got—a Lancia Epsilon--was a real dog as far as engine capabilities, and we joked a couple times that perhaps the manufacturer should have included some pedals so the passenger could add some extra oomph by pedaling. It needed to be in first or second gear to be able to take those more steep gradients, and sometimes it would kill. One of our cars is a stick shift, so it was not unfamiliarity with driving a manual transmission car.

The Lancia Epsilon also only had trunk space for one of our two standard-size suitcases. Having seen the Fiat 500L, we think we could have gotten both of our suitcases in the trunk of that car. Our dilemma in selecting a rental car class was that, while we wanted a car with a real trunk so our luggage would be more secure, none of the cars that were offered had anything other than a hatchback unless we went way, way up to a much larger size car. Then, the car would be too large to maneuver around the tight and teeny streets. In fact, we know that we could not have managed driving through some of the places we drove with a car that was any larger than what we rented.

The main problem we had with driving on this trip, and one we have never had before, was that we had read all of the cautions over at TA about never leaving anything in your car in Sicily because of the potential of luggage theft. So, if you heed this caution (as we did), it eliminates all possibilities for spontaneity and just stopping at a place of interest while you are in transit between lodgings. In fact, after reading all of the warnings, we became a bit paranoid. We brought along a long bicycle chain lock and used that to secure our suitcase that had to sit in the backseat. We had another smaller, cable luggage lock we also used. I’d say this issue of not being able to ever leave luggage in the car was the least enjoyable aspect of our trip.

Navigating our way through Sicily was a question we had before leaving home. Our usual pattern on European trips is for my husband to drive and for me to navigate; that was the pattern here also. I’d bought the most detailed Michelin map available, and that helped, but we also knew from our last trip to Italy a couple years ago that we’d said never again in Italy without a GPS. At home we just use our phones as a GPS and tried to figure out how we could do the same in Sicily, so before we left home we researched using a GPS in Sicily without actually renting one from the car rental company.

We ended up using two different phone-based GPS systems. Before we left home, my husband researched and found a well-recommended, free product called HERE that does not need an active data connection. So, he downloaded their Sicily maps. We used this for about the first half of our driving time but became quite frustrated with it and eventually switched to Google Maps which needs a data connection. (We’d brought a car charger for our phone so with our T Mobile plan it was no problem.) What we discovered while using a GPS function in Sicily is that about 90% of the time it is very helpful, but you also need to use this in tandem with come common sense observations and a good map.

Using HERE we certainly saw some “interesting” roads and places that most likely other tourists have never seen before. It always got us to where we wanted to go, but apparently the product has no algorithm to prioritize options (or we couldn’t figure out how to set it), so it always sent us on the shortest possible route even if it was not a desirable route at all. A couple times we were almost in someone’s backyard on the smallest of local roads. Once in a very hilly small town it had us going around a series of very tight 90 degree turns with immediate grade inclines of at least 20 degrees as soon as we turned the corners. In Modica it sent us down the narrowest street imaginable, and the guy who lived on this internal corner actually came out to direct us how to make the sharp turn with lots of inching forward and backing up.

The concerns my driver (AKA my husband) had about driving at night and finding parking places also dictated some aspects of our trip. In many locales we stayed parking was horrifically difficult to find, especially in the peak hours of 6:00 to 7:00. So, my driver wanted to try to be back earlier so we could find a place to park. In retrospect, I think finding a lodging that offered parking might tip us towards that lodging over another. The other issue my driver had was that he wanted to be able to walk to restaurants for dinner so that we could share a bottle of wine without having to worry about Italy’s drinking and driving laws. This concern, in combination with the fact that we much prefer to have the variety of options a town offers (rather than the isolation of an agrituriso) also dictated our choices about where to stay.

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    The other issue my driver had was that he wanted to be able to walk to restaurants for dinner so that we could share a bottle of wine without having to worry about Italy’s drinking and driving laws.>>

    I'm with him there! we like staying in towns too - we find it's nice to be able to walk around in the evening and enjoy the atmosphere, pick a restaurant and go to a bar afterwards.

    looking forward to reading the rest of your TR - Sicily is very much on my wish list for next year.

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    It's hard to believe you are back already! its very interesting reading your comments about the driving -- I can foresee much the same issues when we go next May. I'm needing your comments about the size of the car especially!

    I am so looking forward to reading the rest of your trip report!

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    Thanks for such a prompt TR! Very interesting about the car issue, I've rented from AutoEurope for next May and chose the size one level up from the Fiat 500 expressly because I wanted to be sure to have enough luggage space; we'll likely have one standard and one carry-on but you never know. Now I hope we don't have problems getting through the streets!

    And we're with your driver on staying in towns so as to avoid driving at night and with annhig on the pleasures of simply wandering around in the evening without having that late night drive on dark country roads in the back of your mind. Particularly because this will be the first time I'll be driving and my husband can't navigate worth beans (he admits this, no worries about being rude).

    Looking forward to reading more about your trip, very useful info.

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    Welcome back! Glad the winging it worked. Its my favorite way to travel, but alsa not one we do very often these days.

    We had some crazy drives on our trip too. We used a Michelin map, local maps that we picked up along the way and the GPS on our ipad. Sometimes I think we had too much info. Like you, we drove on some roads that would barely be considered roads and also had some absolutely gorgeous drives following routes on the GPS. I had to give my driver major kudos for his ability to navigate us out of some unbelievably tight jams and driving endlessly on steep, curvy, narrow mountain roads. But it all made our trip just more enjoyable.

    We also had a car from Auto Europe - a Fiat Panda and could fit our 2 carryon's in the hatchback which was covered. Despite the cautions on TA and here we did take chances and quite a few times stopped along the way with luggage in our car though not visible and did some sightseeing. Fortunately we didn't have any break-ins.

    Looking forward to hearing about your journey.

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    Correction__

    I just realized we reserved the "Compact Class Fiat 500L or similar" (not economy class) when we booked through AutoEurope. Europcar was the vendor we ended up with.

    Since we each had a standard size suitcase, when we were moving from place to place we were always traveling with a visible suitcase in the backseat. If I had it to do over again, I might try to make sure that two regular suitcases could fit in the back and at least be covered up. (We really think the Fiat 500L would have worked for that.) We always say we are going to travel lighter, but for three weeks in a time of changing weather we just do not seem to be able to cut it back to just a carry-on each.

    By the end of our trip we were starting to feel a bit more comfortable about the idea of possibly leaving luggage in the car for a short stop if the back shelf would have concealed what we had in the trunk. Plus, by that time we'd been reassured by a number of our hosts that all of the luggage theft stuff we all hear about is an issue in Palermo and Catania rather than throughout Sicily.

    When we were leaving Siracusa or Modica (can't remember which), our GPS got us all turned around, and we ended up on the outskirts of the city up on a hill at the absolutely fascinating looking large cemetery complex. Normally, this is the type of place we would have pulled into and looked around for a half an hour or so. But, not this time. Afterwards we said to each other that we probably could have given the woman who was running the flower shop there some money to keep an eye on the car. On the way to Palermo, Castellammare del Golfo also looked interesting enough that we'd have at least liked to pulled in for an hour walk just to check the town out. Once again, not possible because we had a suitcase in the backseat.

    Sometimes I think all of the warnings over at TA are overkill, but then I remember the trip report I read here where someone did have the luggage stolen out of their trunk while visiting a major tourist attraction.

    As far as the agritourismos they do not seem to be a match for us in what we are looking for. Every time we would drive one stuck way out in the countryside, we'd comment on how glad we were that we were not staying in a place that isolated. We like the opportunities and choices we have when in a more urban area.

    Kathy--Catania got eliminated because I was trying to cut down on the number of stops we would make.

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    I think one has to take all the warnings on TA and elsewhere with a grain of salt. There are dire warnings about driving in Palermo and we had no trouble at all. Same deal with driving to Monreale and parking. Easy peasy and parking in a manned lot pretty much behind the cathedral for a few euros.

    Once you adapt to packing only carry on in any circumstance, you will never go back. We do multi week/month trips in a variety of climates almost every year and have managed just fine. Shoes are always my biggest challenge.

    I enjoy mixing it up with staying in cities/towns and out in the country. Living in a big city, sometimes it's nice to be out in the quiet countryside when we travel.

    Anyway looking forward to hearing the details of your trip.

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    Well, you could always have left one person with the car while the other visited the cemetery... Wouldn't work for a town, though. But I agree with yestravel, packing light makes travel so much easier. I'm just wrapping up a three and a half month trip with a 22 inch carry on I check for flights and a day bag I carry on with pharma and electronics. It is true I cheated on this trip - I mailed the clothes for my niece's wedding, and a few winter things for the Hurtigruten Norwegian cruise to my sister before I left. Needed the wedding clothes, could have managed without the winter clothes (which I mailed home). I wear my boots on travel days and pack a pair of Ecco sandals and a pair of black flats.

    Since I travel solo on public transport agriturismos aren't on the radar. And I do like having choices for meals.

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    I'll be honest. It isn't the clothes that seem to cause so much of a problem for us. It seems we have a bunch of other "stuff". I'm trying, once again, to assess all of that and why it seems to take up so much space.

    We also know the wear your heaviest boots when in transit trick.

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    Geez, yes, "the other stuff." Electronics are a nightmare and as I age it seems I need more & more "stuff" for a variety of reasons. I have started taking prescrip meds and affixing the label onto a small plastic snack bag and not taking any plastic bottles which does save room. Same with vitamins, I put them in a plastic snack bag. I constantly read articles on packing light hoping to pick up a tip here & there.

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    Back to my report! I really wanted to finish this off quite quickly, but now that we are back home, and the fall-weather seasonal yuck illnesses have arrived, we are already providing back-up, emergency daycare for a sick grandchild.

    GUIDEBOOKS

    I’m one of those who like to check them all out and research guidebooks intensively. Since there is an excellent library system where we live, I probably looked at nearly every guidebook on Sicily published in English. They all have their different strengths and weaknesses.

    I ended up buying and taking hard copies of the “Michelin Green Guide to Sicily”, “Sunflower Sicily: Car Tours and Walks”, a 2008 edition (the latest one published) of “Cadogan Sicily”, and “Insight Guides Explore Sicily”. On our e-readers we took borrowed copies from the library of “The Rough Guide to Sicily” and “Lonely Planet Sicily”. (Sorry about the quotation marks. I’ve never been able to figure out how to italicize book titles on the Fodors site.)

    The Michelin book had some interesting driving tours and itineraries, and in-depth coverage of the major places of interest (and some more minor ones). However, often it had way more info than we really needed or wanted about a landmark, and it is a bit large to carry around on a daily basis while sightseeing.

    I’d bought the small-sized Sunflower book since we intended to do some day hikes and were not planning on just the typical run around to see all of the various major tourists sites type of vacation. We used the book’s hikes some, but it really is more for people who intend to take a walking-intensive vacation; driving tours are also featured.

    As always with the series, the Cadogan guide offers in-depth and unique coverage of an area.

    The Insight book ended up being used quite a bit since it had some itineraries, was compact enough to carry around during sightseeing, and also included a removable, nice-sized map with Sicily on one side and a map of Palermo on the other.

    Of the two books we loaded on our e-readers, I’d recommend Rough Guide over Lonely Planet since its coverage is more in–depth and more extensive.

    I also took a copy of “Eat Smart in Sicily”, and this often proved invaluable in restaurants.

    WEATHER AND CLOTHING

    October is a transitional month as far as Sicilian weather. For those interested in swimming in the sea (we weren’t interested), people were swimming. At the beginning of our trip we had days that were definitely so hot we sought out the shade and were very glad we’d brought sun hats. For the first two thirds of our trip I mostly wore capris or skirts, and my husband wore manpris. I even wore shorts while hiking a couple days towards the beginning of our trip. At the end of the trip I felt a bit cool in my long skirts and switched to long pants.

    By the end of our trip (in Palermo) it was definitely cooling down and we had lots of rain. Long trousers with a long-sleeve shirt felt comfortable during the day, and a light jacket or sweater was definitely needed once evening arrived. Palermo residents had moved into their fall/winter sweaters and jackets wardrobe, and sandal season was definitely over. By the time we reached Palermo there were also many days of rain, so umbrellas and jackets were definitely needed.

    As far as clothing goes, Sicily is quite casual, and most tourists were also dressed comfortably and casually. Whatever casual clothing you normally wear would be fine. People tended to dress up just a little bit for evenings out but nothing over the top or too dressy. Throw in a couple of scarves to dress things up a bit, and you’ll be fine.

    We had mid-weight hiking boots with us, and in many places were glad we had them. Many streets are cobblestones, and ruins etc. are also unpaved with a lot of climbing around possible. So, good sturdy shoes are a must. And, when it is raining and muddy, you’ll be glad your feet are dry. There is a lot of mud too when it rains, both on paths and on roads. In fact, several places we were after heavy rains, the mudslides on the roads were so bad that it made driving really treacherous. We live in an awful climate, so we are very used to driving on snow and ice. My husband, who was driving, said the mud was like driving on grease and as bad or worse than glare ice.

    A final note: Before returning home we had one day in Sicily after daylight savings time ended. We were so glad we’d scheduled our trip prior to this since that loss of a hour of daylight at the end of the day really seems to shorten possibilities for being out and about sightseeing.

    LODGING WHILE WINGING IT

    This was not true winging it (as we used to do) where we’d drive into a town, scope it out, and then go up to places asking about a room. Instead, we’d plan a day ahead and e-mail (most of the Sicilian hosts we dealt with had smart phones because our inquiries were answered very promptly) and confirm either with e-mail or a phone call. We also used booking.com at times. I’ve used AirB&B at other times but am not such a huge fan of that site, so while I sometimes checked out what was on offer through them, I didn’t make any bookings through the site. I also reached the point where I’d sometimes book a room just for one night, knowing that in this off season it would be easy to extend if we liked the place.

    Our interest is in smaller, more personalized, non-hotel lodgings (the kind a tour group would never, ever stay at). We found lodging prices in Sicily to be very reasonable, and we stayed in what we feel are very nice places. The most expensive--our apartment in Ortygia-- charged a premium price of 110 euros per night solely due to its location and view. In reality this wasn’t an apartment with kitchen in anything more than name since, for various reasons, it would have been impossible to actually cook in it. All other places we paid between 55 and 70 euros a night for a room for two.

    As people who’ve done a lot of traveling and are into more slow travel, we are past the point of being in the mindset of thinking of a room as just a place we’ll sleep at night, and that anything will do since we’ll only be there to sleep. In fact, I’ve gotten quite picky about rooms. We also are at the point in our lives where we will pay a bit (not a ton) more to have a more spacious room, and in certain places a view is worth a bit of a premium price too. A couch and/or a couple of comfy chairs for sitting and relaxing are high on our list of desires as is a balcony for sitting. We do not want to be stuck with the only options for seating to be the bed or a hard desk chair. So, quite frequently we opted for the premium room that cost 10 to 15 euros more per night. Well worth it to us!

    For this trip one of our desires was that we have a fridge or access to a fridge in our lodging. With apartments that was no problem at all, and it turned out that we were easily able to make B&B choices where this was a possibility. In Ortygia, Mazara del Vallo and Palermo we had what were marketed as regular apartments. In Modica and Erice our B&Bs actually had a small kitchenette feature. In Piazza Armerina our B&B allowed us to store some food in the adjacent, breakfast room’s fridge.

    We were very pleasantly surprised to find out that an apartment rental in Sicily also generally means finding a supplied cupboard for breakfasts during your stay. At various places we found bread and jam and butter, packaged sweets, yogurt, eggs, tea and coffee, milk etc. Each place was different in what they provided. Our B&B in Modica had an arrangement with a nearby bar where every morning we would turn our voucher for a juice, tea or coffee, and a pastry. In Piazza Amerina our B&B served a breakfast of pastries, juice, fruit, beverage, cheese and meat.

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    FOOD

    We are not foodies, and we do not tend to spend big bucks on eating out but we can discern really good meals from the mediocre. We had some really excellent meals during our trip, but we also had a few that were not so great. Unfortunately, the not so great meals were usually in those places that had gotten a lot of press in guidebooks. Since most of our stays were three nights or longer, when I had the time, I tried to carefully read through restaurant reviews over at TA before going to a restaurant.

    Although we had a couple nice leisurely lunches with wine, there were fewer of these than we’d thought we’d have when discussing how we wanted our trip to go. When out and about at some of the ruins or sites in the countryside, we nearly always took a simple picnic lunch with us. Also, with the later starts we tended to get in the mornings and the fact that we often had apartments so we could prepare a more filling breakfast, we often just weren’t that hungry for a big meal at the standard lunch time. So, despite the fact that we had told ourselves we’d try to fall in line with the local custom of having a larger lunch and a smaller dinner, we most often ended up with the large meal in the evening.

    Timing does seem to be everything when looking to eat. We soon learned that if we wanted some fresh bread and some cheese for our picnic we needed to buy it early in the day because by early afternoon none of these shops were open. In the really touristy areas you can always find something to eat, but in the smaller places it is either lunch at the standard times or nothing. Not only no restaurants/cafes were open during off hours but also no food shops were open. Twice we ended up with bar snack food because that was all we could find, and we were hungry. These were also two of the least appetizing meals/snacks we had.

    Another timing issue is that we haven’t quite figured out is how Italians manage to eat dinner so late at night and then get up and out the door the first thing in the morning. The half a dozen times or so that we went out at the standard Italian dinner hour of 9:00 we would end up returning to our room about 11:00 or a bit later. By the time we’d decompress, sit around and digest it was nearly 1:00 before we got to bed. An early start the next morning wasn’t going to happen.

    There were only a couple times when we made reservations, and we couldn’t figure out the pattern of whether they were indeed necessary. When we did have a reservation, we’d sometimes arrive to discover that the place was nearly empty and the reservation was unnecessary. Other times, because they were already booked, we were told we could get a reservation a half an hour to hour later than we’d wanted. Unless you absolutely have your heart set on a place and do not want to spend a lot of time walking round looking for an alternative, I do not know if reservations are all that necessary. Only one time when just walking in were we told that they could not accommodate us. This was on a Sunday night (often a notoriously difficult night to find a good, open restaurant) in Palermo and at an excellent and relatively inexpensive restaurant we’d previously eaten at. When we arrived half of the tables were empty, but they all must have been reserved for a bit later.

    Pizza! We had this more often than we’d thought we would, and we bought it from cheaper take-out stands where they just reheated it to restaurants where we ordered fancier fresh baked. The quality varied, and we were surprised to find that some of the best pizza we had was from a cheap, garish-looking, fast-food type place in Palermo that also offered, of all things, chicken wings and onion rings. Seeing the menu, obviously our expectations were not too high, so it was a pleasant surprise. Speaking of pizza, some of the best we had was the variety with the fresh arugula (rucola) on it. There was one variation that had fresh mozzarella, thin sliced prosciutto and arugula—delicious!

    SATURDAY NIGHTS AND SUNDAYS

    Saturday night is definitely when you will want to be out and about just walking. This is people watching at its best, and you’ll see everyone from new born babies to the very elderly out for an evening stroll. Streets are so crowded you will often have to wend your way through the people. Squares are packed with people. The contrast between the mass of humanity on a Saturday night and a different day of the week (say a Sunday early afternoon) is absolutely incredible.

    Sundays can be difficult, so think carefully about where you will be and what you will be doing on your Sundays. If you are relying on public transportation, schedules are sharply curtailed on Sundays making your planning more difficult. We had three Sundays, and they were all very different, with some places more challenging in terms of finding things for the tourist than others.

    Our first Sunday was in Ortygia. It was extremely crowded because, in addition to the regular tourists, there were also a lot of local day-trippers and local people looking to enjoy their Sunday of freedom. If you want a nice restaurant for a leisurely lunch, I think a reservation would be a must.

    Our second Sunday was in Mazara del Vallo. Other than locals out enjoying a stroll and then a large lunch, the place was absolutely dead with nothing of interest for the tourist. When we went for an early afternoon walk thinking we’d just enjoy the ambience, neighborhoods were shut up tight, no shops were open, no people were around, and it was eerily quiet. We finally decided to just go back and relax around our apartment and venture out again in the late afternoon when people had reappeared. In retrospect, we should have gone to the museum there in the morning (rather than sitting around and relaxing like we did) while it was open. So, this is an example of what your Sunday will be like if you are not in a tourist-oriented place.

    Our last Sunday was in Palermo. I’d read quite a bit beforehand about Sundays in Palermo and how the afternoons can be dead but that some of the streets are also closed to vehicular traffic on Sundays. We enjoyed joining the throngs strolling about on the traffic-free Via Maqueda late Sunday morning. While making our way along the street, we happened to glance off and saw a long street full of market stalls. It was the Ballaro market that we had not thought was open on Sundays. Since we were on our way to the train station to catch a train, we only had time for a quick stroll through the market. Then, we took the train to Cefalu for the afternoon. Because it was Sunday, trains did not run very frequently so we had to get our timing right. As a more touristy place, Cefalu was also full of strolling tourists on Sunday afternoon and lots of places open for dining of varying sorts.

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    very interesting and helpful, julies. one thing one learns from travel, I think, is that you can never predict the patterns of life in other places. just when you think you understand, it changes!

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    Many thanks for sharing your travels, julies. This will be very helpful for our May trip.

    While we will be going to most of the "usual suspects" and seeing more of the architectural sites, it's very useful to read your comments about day-to-day life, such as finding places to eat.

    Looking forward to comments about the specific places you visited, too. I'd love to know your thoughts about Modica - we have 2 nights planned there next May.

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    My feelings on Mazara del Vallo are in a way mixed. It is certainly worth a visit, but I think our three nights there was max. I'll let you know more later on.

    Modica was a place where we had three nights and could probably easily filled a fourth. I'll get back with more on that too.

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    Julies, would love to have your opinion about time spent in the Modica area. I see you felt 3 nights were not quite enough in Modica, but do you mean Modica itself or did you use it as a base to visit other towns in the area e.g. Ragusa, Scicli, Noto. We will be staying in Noto for 3 nights and driving out during the day. Does that seem practical? (We chose Noto for the hotel frankly, since I fell in love with it on line, the 7Rooms Villadorata).

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    shellio--Modica was our base for our three night stay.

    ORTYGIA

    We flew into Catania, via Rome, from the US and at the airport quickly found the bus for the hour-long trip to Siracusa. The contact person from our apartment picked us up at the bus station in Siracusa and drove us to our apartment, so that worked out well for us. Otherwise, I am sure we would have just taken a cab from the bus station to the apartment.

    Our apartment on Rive Levant, on the southeast side of the peninsula, was in a great location that was easily walkable to everywhere but not in the midst of the most concentrated tourist area. We chose the apartment because of the large terrace and the expansive sea views from the entire apartment, and we really enjoyed this aspect of the apartment. However, if you are really serious about doing any real cooking or even any reheating, this is not the apartment for it. In fact, we felt that their photos and descriptions of the apartment’s cooking possibilities are quite deceptive. Ever tried reheating leftover pizza in a frying pan on top of a stove? Doesn’t work out too well. The apartment does have a toaster and some sort of toaster over, but we could not figure out how to use them since there was no place to plug them in. Both were located on a console table on a wall without any outlets. The only place we could figure out that might have worked to use them was sitting them on top of the gas-burner stove, not exactly a safe spot to plug in an electric appliance. So we never used these appliances. http://www.dicasainsicilia.com/riva-levante---veranda/

    We had wondered whether we’d like Ortygia or not, whether it would be too touristy for us, and when making our apartment reservations we debated how many days to stay. It turned out we liked it a lot, so much so that we extended our original four night stay for a fifth night. Part of the reason we liked Ortygia, we know, was because we had an apartment in a lovely setting, with great views out over the sea so we were often happy just sitting on our terrace. Since we were also recovering from jetlag, we found this a relaxing place to be. Others in different situations might not feel a need for as much time here.

    Ortygia can be touristy, but it is quite easy to avoid those main tourist areas by just taking alternate streets. Sundays in particular were very busy with local area tourists who came in for the day. This is a great town for just walking and wandering without having any significant destination in mind. Unless you have mobility impairments, you can probably stay anywhere on the peninsula and be within easy walking distance of everything. Plus, there is a circulator bus for only .50 euros.

    Our original plan called for us to leave Ortygia on a Sunday, so this meant we had to pick up our rental car on Saturday since Europcar’s office is closed for car pickup between noon on Saturday and Monday morning. It was an easy walk up into Siracusa to Europcar’s rental office, and we did it twice because the first time my husband wanted to make sure we could actually easily find the office since we’d be picking up on a day when the office closed at noon.

    We hadn’t really wanted a car at all while we were in Ortygia, but there was no other choice because of Europcar’s hours. Then, when we decided to add an additional day stay in Ortygia (we were lucky in that the apartment didn’t have anyone else coming in until two days later), it meant we had our car for two days there. Forget the idea of trying to find free parking near your lodging, and just resign yourself to using the Talente parking. It is easy to find, and there were lots and lots of spaces available on both weekends and during the week. Since we'd already walked around for a couple days and observed the parking scenario before we picked up the rental car, my husband absolutely refused to even contemplate driving in far enough on the peninsula to get close to our apartment. In fact, when it was time to leave and move on, he insisted on us taking our luggage on the circulator bus and getting off at the Talente parking lot so he wouldn’t have to attempt getting close to our apartment with the car. This way of leaving wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it worked out fine.

    We did take the car out one day for an excursion to the necropolis at Pantalica, a place that does not seem to get as much publicity as other locales around Ortygia. Getting in and out of the city with the car wasn’t too bad at all, but maybe it was because it was a Sunday. We found Pantalica quite fascinating and a great place for a longish hike. Apparently we screwed up when we arrived and took the much longer and much more challenging, more wild route. While we hiked it was very interesting looking all around and trying to figure out how, in the days, before any mechanization, people were able to access these high, vertical cliff structures and then transport bodies up into them. We’d brought a picnic with us and found a large rock to picnic on next to the lovely and secluded small stream at the bottom of the ravine.

    We spent a lot of our time in Ortygia just walking around, without doing any of the major tourist destinations or real sight seeing. This mode of operation fit us well, and this is a city we would return to for another four or five day stay. Since we live in a really rotten winter climate, we are always keeping our eyes open for locations we’d be happy settling into for a month or so in the ickiest winter months. For a while at the start of our visit to Ortygia we had though to ourselves that this is such a desirable location that we might consider it for a month-long vacation sometime in February or March when we want to get away from our crummy climate. However, after a few days we decided that, while it seems to have a great climate, for our needs it is just too small of a city for a month-long stay.

    Although we are kind of churched-out in Europe, having seen hundreds and hundreds, the Cathedral is quite interesting since it is built around and incorporates the former Greek temple.

    When we were there (in shoulder season in October) boat trip plans could basically be made on the spot with departures within a half hour or less. If you plan to do a trip by boat during your stay, do it earlier on if the weather is nice. The weather suddenly changed for us for the worse, with the seas becoming very rough with high winds and we were only able to fit in the ride on our last morning. In fact, we delayed our departure that day specifically so we could do the boat trip.

    Although the boat trip seems like it would be quite lovely late in the day with the setting sun, our boatman told us that the seas are generally calmer in the mornings, so you’ll have a better guarantee of being able to go out in the mornings. We did the longer boat tour that goes around both the historic area and into the caves (our captain actually went into the caves, and we saw some who did not). We felt the cave part was the most interesting, so definitely pick the tour that does both.

    We visited the market several times and found it an enjoyable place although not nearly as large or as exotic as many we’ve been to. Although the market is supposed to only be open M to Sat., there were a few places open (including the sandwich guy) on Sunday too. The market was definitely busier on Saturday than it had been during the week.

    We found a mix of eating experiences from extremely casual and cheap to more quality dining; we would recommend them all except one. In somewhat of an order from cheaper to more expensive—

    *the sandwich guy at the market (you’ll know who I mean when you get there). Five euros gets you a huge, high quality sandwich that feeds two.

    *the market stall that sells octopus salad

    *Fratelli Burgio on the corner in the market (buy some of their sun-dried tomato jam too as a souvenir)

    *la Pizzoleria (ate here twice, once for regular pizza and once for their specialty pizzolo which also has a very thin and crispy top crust and is more filling)

    *La Tavernetta da Piero—recommended by our apartment, and it was really good food. Go to the original not the Due site.

    *Sicilia in Tavola—This is the one place we were very disappointed in the food and would not return.

    *Il Veliero—really great pasta with some unique flavors

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    Kathy--Ortygia we liked a lot. One of your other favorites--Erice--was okay but not nearly as appealing to us.

    To anyone reading this, I want to clarify when I talk about parking issues. We are not from suburbia or rural USA; we live in the city and many places we regularly visit entail driving around the block(s) and looking for a small spot in which to parallel park. But, the parking challenges we encountered in Sicily often really put things in a completely different perspective. I think the additional challenge is that in your own country you usually have a much better grasp of what the real guidelines are. For example, several places we sere trying to figure out if white painted over blue (but not completely) meant the white or blue rules were in effect.

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    great tips about apartment rental, julies - but otherwise it seems that you were pleased with your apartment. it's going on my "possible" list, especially as we would be likely to eat out most of the time. [we once spent a week in Rome with a full kitchen and only ever used it to make coffee!]

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    Really enjoying reliving our Spring trip thru yours. Glad you enjoyed Ortygia and so lucky you could extend your stay there. We went to Pantalica on holiday and the area was packed with locals hiking and picnicking.

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    <<We brought along a long bicycle chain lock and used that to secure our suitcase that had to sit in the backseat. We had another smaller, cable luggage lock we also used.>>
    You must be joking!

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    Very much enjoying your report - I'm so looking forward to our trip next May. I'm saving your notes on Ortygia as we will be starting our trip there, too.

    Looking forward to the rest - especially Modica. We are booked in Palazzo Il Cavaliere on Corso Umberto. After looking at streetview in Google, the street looks a bit dull. Yet taking a place up the hill seems like it will be a problem for both parking and going out to eat. I have some difficulty with steps, though am able to manage slowly, so I'm a little concerned about staying in Modica at all, yet it also seems like a place we'd enjoy. I'm curious what you think the "ideal" location is in this city. I look forward to your take -- your descriptions have been very detailed and give a good sense of place.

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    progol,

    I think the location of that hotel will reduce quite a bit of stress about driving in the city, since it right at the "gateway". Once you've parked you car and checked in, you are also less than a 15 minute flat walk to the social heart of Modica around the area of the commune. If your problem is with steps, you can avoid them. (Regarding San Giorgio church, its exterior is its most strking aspect, visible from many parts of town, and it is not worth climbing the front steps to see the interior.) However, Modica sits in something of a bowl, so if you walk 15 minutes to the area of the commune from that hotel, you will need to walk 15 minutes at an uphill grade to get back.

    ]

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    annhig--Our apartment was fine, not perfect, but fine. As in many such rental places, things were done to make it appealing on the surface and in photos but these are fixes we'd never do in our own homes. For example, there were some extremely shoddy repairs done in the bathroom with duct tape (they didn't hold). But, we would probably rent it again because if all of its pluses.

    yestravel--We had the same experience as you with lots of locals, especially since we went there on a Sunday afternoon. Lovely place, so I can see why so many people go there.

    Myriam--I am not kidding about the lock. We have done a lot of traveling all over the world and in Europe but have never been as paranoid about theft from the car as on this trip. Warnings about never, ever leaving anything anywhere in the car are rife over at TA (and there is a trip report on this site from someone who did have luggage stolen out of the trunk). By the end of the trip we were feeling more comfortable about the idea of short stops, but we had the car that was not large enough to hold two standard size suitcases so one was always visible in the back seat.

    progol--Modica is next of my list of places to report on, but I really don't know how helpful I'll be.

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    <<but we had the car that was not large enough to hold two standard size suitcases so one was always visible in the back seat.>>
    Same with ours. We always rent a small car and have one suitcase in the back seat. I also read those warnings on TA and other travel sites but I've never been really worried. If it were at night, yes. But we don't leave our luggage in the car during the night (unless it is in the trunk and we leave the car in a parking garage).

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    Paule, the Palazzo Il Cavaliere looks charming and, on the map I saw, just off the main drag which is definitely not dull. I really enjoyed Modica, a living, breathing real town that also happens to be lovely and a tourist attraction.

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    Many thanks, sandralist and bon_voyage for the reassurance about Modica and staying on Corso Umberto. I think we'll be fine with Palazzo Il Cavaliere. I'm very taken by Palazzo Faillo, but think it will be more difficult to navigate the car and manage the ups and downs.

    julies, your descriptions are very helpful and give a good sense of place. I appreciate your take on places and find it invaluable in my own planning.

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    We are already missing some of the fabulous food we had during our visit. For some reason we both agree that we had the best meals during our stay in eastern Sicily. Maybe it was our restaurant selections, but all over I read reviews before we ate out so theoretically we should have had the same quality food all over. Perhaps it was just luck.

    MODICA

    After our morning boat tour, we left Ortygia around 12:30 or 1:00 and drove straight to Modica, arriving mid afternoon after having been turned around a bit once or twice on our driving instructions. We had a three night stay in Modica but could have very easily added a fourth night. However, we are not people who need to be on the go and sightseeing every second; we are more in the mode of settling in and enjoying the more leisurely culture we are visiting.

    We stayed in Modica alta in a B&B (Le Case dello Zodiaco) that is set in dispersed individual houses in the regular residential section. The women who run this B&B (actually these are apartments with small kitchens) are extremely helpful and responsive, quickly replying to any inquiries. This private apartment in a regular, residential neighborhood was a good match for us since it was not at all touristy, but others might find a set-up like this too isolating. Modica bassa, lower down, is the real main shopping area and center of the city, but for a number of different reasons we didn’t see too much of it.

    When we booked we also said we would pay the extra 5 euro per night fee for a parking place. However, when we arrived in mid-afternoon, the woman who helped check us in told us (mistakenly as it turned out) that parking really is not too much of a hassle. She helped us find a place to park within a block of our rental and also showed us where the extra-fee parking spot is. That extra-fee spot seemed quite tiny and quite difficult to maneuver into, so we told her we would just take our chances with street parking. Bad decision on our part since we had quite a bit of difficulty finding a place to park in ensuing days. Driving through and parking in the old sections of Modica (and other similar towns) can be quite challenging to say the least!

    When we had set up our booking (only a day previously), I had asked about their various rooms pictured online and requested the one (Cancer) that has a small outside sitting area. When we arrived at our rental, we were a bit disappointed. Instead of the spacious, brilliantly lit, wall-of-windows apartment overlooking the sea that we had just left in Ortygia, we were in a smallish, ground-floor space with not only no views but also hardly any natural light. (Of course, here we were also only paying a little more than half of the price of the Ortygia rental.) This is what the reality of living in an old building in the center of the old part of the city is. The saving grace that worked out for us since we were lucky with the weather was that there was a very small outside seating area in the courtyard. Since it was decent weather with no rain until our last day, this lodging worked out for us. If we had had bad weather and been stuck inside for our stay we probably wouldn’t have been too satisfied.

    After settling in a bit, we set out walking to try to orient ourselves to the area we were staying in. Several blocks away there was a block-long main shopping street with a bit of a square with benches. This was the real deal as far as a Sicilian town, not another tourist in sight and with quite a few older men just sitting around and visiting. As I’ve observed in so many other parts of the world, it always seems to be the men who are out in public visiting with their friends. Are all the women at home cleaning the house and cooking dinner? Or, are all the wives of these men sick of them being under foot all of the time and tell the guys to go hang out somewhere?

    After exploring for a while, we walked up to a nearby church and from there found one of the town’s prime overlooks—great for taking in the panoramic views with the setting sun. As we were walking around this area and others we kept seeing these nearly poster-size placards pasted on many walls, particularly in the areas around churches. Initially we thought perhaps they were election posters but then after wondering why all of the people running for office were so old, we took a closer look. It turned out that these were funeral notices or notices commemorating the first anniversary of someone’s death.

    We used Modica as a base for day trips around the area, primarily concentrating on the countryside and more rural sites. Many of the more noted Baroque towns in this area can seem very similar and can start to run together in your mind; we preferred to be out in the countryside at sites which gave us very different experiences and environments.

    Our first day we did a day trip to Cava d’Ispica which is a much smaller site than we had assumed. After reading the description of it as a miles-long gorge, we were thinking that this would be an extensive area for hiking, somewhat similar to Pantalica. While it is a large site, there is no real hiking here. But, here you can actually climb up into and access the areas that were carved out into the rock face, so this made for an interesting two hour excursion. Further back in one of the caves there were numerous coffin-shaped burial niches.

    While in this area, and for the remainder of the trip, I started to notice many wildflowers in bloom. Some I was seeing for the first time. I’d heard of autumn- blooming crocuses but had never seen them before. And, I have never before seen wild cyclamen, so it was a pretty time of year to visit. I’d sure there were not as many things blooming as in the spring, but the September rains had greened everything up, and many different flowers were in bloom.

    After leaving Cava d’Ispica we began a triangular shaped driving tour that included this site, the coast, and Scicli. We drove down to the seaside south of Modica and found it to be absolutely deserted in October, and there was nothing all that unique about it anyway. We made a brief stop in the town of Pozzollo and ate our bread and cheese picnic on a bench by the sea. This could have been a standard beachfront town anywhere, so we did not find it at all intriguing. We ended up with a brief stop in Scicli where we had intended to take the steep hike up to the Colle di San Matteo. In the end, we both said forget it and that we really were not all that interested in ending the day by making a long steep climb just to get a different view of a town that in many ways is similar to others in the area.

    The next day we once again got a later start after leisurely strolling down to the local bar where the B&B has a breakfast arrangement for guests. Our first destination for the day was Noto Antiqua. This is a large, spread-out site that reflects its status as a fairly good size town that was not rebuilt after the earthquake in the area. Parts of some of the buildings are somewhat intact so they are fairly easy to imagine as they might have been, whereas others are basically just rubble that leaves a lot to the imagination. We scrambled around some places and in others just walked the easy path through the site of the ancient city.

    Unfortunately, while climbing down to explore an out-of-the-way part of the ruins I took a rather nasty fall of about three feet. I am always careful when doing anything of this sort and had stepped on a large sturdy-looking rock. It gave way, and I went down--hard. Looking back at it after my fall, we think that this step-like stone had probably had its dirt footings eroded away by all of the rain they had in the area right before we visited.

    As he saw me tumble, my husband was panicked that I might have hit my head and had a head injury. He had visions of trying to figure out what in the world he’d do out there in the middle of nowhere in Sicily, not speaking any Italian. Luckily for me I landed flat on my side without hitting my head. I had some really bad road rash on my leg, a huge egg-sized lump on my arm, and my thigh got a deep soft tissue injury that negatively impacted my desire to do a lot of walking and climbing in the next few days. I think it must have been a bone bruise on my thigh since now, about a month later, it still hurts deep down even though the 6” bruise I had has long since faded.

    This incident pretty much ended the idea of the longer hike we had initially planned for the site. After we made our way back to the car, we decided to make a stop in Noto to see the town in the afternoon glow. As we made out way into Noto, we had been flagged down by a kid and told to park in a certain location on the outskirts. We thought the kid was just trying to make some money, so we drove on for a block or two trying to get closer in. It turns out that this is where we should have parked. There was a lot of traffic, it was starting to get towards the end of the day, and now there were no other easily identifiable options for parking without a lot of back-tracking. My leg was hurting a lot, and we decided to just head back to Modica rather than trying to loop around looking for other parking. So, we didn’t see Noto or Ragusa. I’m fine with that since I am not a huge fan of the Baroque, and I felt we had at least a dose of it.

    There is lovely scenery in this area with some fantastically engineered long bridges over very deep gorges. We also were very impressed by the scenery between Modica and Piazza Amerina (our next base).

    For dinners we limited ourselves to restaurants within easy walking distance of our B&B, so we stayed in Modica alta in the evenings. The first night we discovered Locanda del Colonnello, about three blocks from our apartment, and had a fabulous meal. This is more along the line of fine dining with artistically presented small portions of absolutely delicious food. Our fellow diners here appeared to be visitors to the town who were looking for nice night out. It was so good that we returned our last night in town (they were closed our second night in town). The first time we split an appetizer (fabulous grilled octopus), primi (homemade lemon ricotta gnocchi), secondo (mackerel with caponata) and a crispy chocolate cigar stuffed with mocha ricotta and garnished with chocolate sauce and pistachios. The second night we went back we felt the food was good, but it just didn’t compare with the first night. We had this experience a couple times in Sicily where we liked a restaurant so much that we went back a second time. The second night just never met up to the standards of the first night.

    The second night we were in Modica we went to a more down-home restaurant we’d noticed as we wandered around the town on our first afternoon. Taverna Nicastro is set on the top of some steps where apparently in nicer weather there are tables set outside on the steps. This was the antithesis of Locanda del Colonnello, instead it specialized in huge portions of home cooking and house-made meats. We think there were more locals here looking for very reasonably priced and filling food. Having just been to Locanda del Colonnello the night before whose servings are quite small we thought we would be fine with an antipasto and a pasta to split and then two secondos. It was way too much food for us, and we were so glad that they somehow screwed up and did not ever deliver the other secondo we’d ordered.

    I am a chocolate lover but did not find the Modica’s grainy chocolate at all appealing.

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    As I get older I do worry more about falls than I used to, especially after I went flying over my bike handlebars about fifteen years ago and broke my upper arm by the shoulder. Do not care to do anything of the sort again! These types of injuries do linger though. We just came back from a walk, and I can still feel the painful spot on my thigh a month later.

    My husband also had his freak accident later on in our trip, and it has really set me thinking since we had two incidents that impacted what we were able to do on some days. I wonder how those people who have an hour-by-hour plan for their trip (kind of like their own forced march tour group) handle it when something happens to throw off all of their planning.

    This point may be where all of the detailed reporting ends since this is the end of the time I made any notes while traveling. I always start out with the best of intentions to take notes consistently, and I always stop by about the halfway point on our trip.

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    Very much enjoying your continued trip report. Sorry to hear about the fall you had - how fortunate it wasn't more serious and am glad it didn't hamper the overall enjoyment of your trip.

    Interesting to hear about your take on the Modica chocolate -- I look forward to doing my own taste test now!

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    PIAZZA ARMERINA

    As I planned our trip, the one place that I absolutely felt was a must-see was Villa Casale del Romana. I love mosaic work and knew that this would definitely be a highlight and very different type of sight than anything else we would see on our trip. How to fit it in a logical itinerary was my dilemma. I finally decided that as much as we dislike one night stays, we would need to do an overnight here. With all of the warnings about not leaving luggage in cars and with all of the advice that we should try to arrive early at the villa to avoid the crowds, I just did not see any other options.

    On this trip we did not feel that we were on a rigidly scheduled, tour bus, fit in every possible sightseeing opportunity type trip, so we typically took our time and had leisurely mornings before setting out for the day. So, as is usual for us, we did not get an early start from Modica. In addition to packing up our things, we needed to stop at the headquarters of the B & B to pay our bill after we visited the bar/café for breakfast. Weather had changed overnight and a cooler, partially rainy day had set in that morning. It wasn’t raining a lot but just enough to make sitting outside impossible.

    As we were leaving Modica our GPS (we were still relying on HERE as a navigational tool) once again got us all turned around. We ended up on the outskirts of the city at the top of a hill in a very large cemetery complex with large, elaborate tombs and a several story high mausoleum area that we actually thought were some kind of apartments from the far distance. This is exactly the type of place that we would have loved to stop and explore a bit, and on any other trip we would have. But, once again, it was the luggage-in-the-car dilemma, so we had to give it a pass. Another place we might have stopped if we hadn’t had luggage in the car was Caltigirone. I’m not a shopper, and I wasn’t interested in looking at ceramics so this was not a major disappointment that we were unable to stop. However, if we had not had the luggage worries, I know we would have made at least a brief stop, probably for lunch, to see what all of the hype on visiting this place is all about.

    There was some dramatic scenery on our way to Piazza Armerina that made us in awe of the engineers who designed and built such structures. It also helped us to realize why, in the days before cars and great roads people in Sicily were so tied to their home villages. Just going anywhere by foot or donkey would be extremely difficult and time consuming.

    Frankly, I had been resenting the idea that we would need to overnight in Piazza Armerina or another interior town in order to be abler to visit the mosaics at Villa Casale de Romana. But, I couldn’t figure out any other way to make this work. So, I reluctantly booked a B&B (Dimora del Conte B&B) in Piazza Armerina for one night thinking we’d check out in the morning, leave our luggage for a return pick-up later in the day, visit the mosaics, and move on. However, I’d also heard from some sources that Piazza Armerina was interesting in its own right, so in the back of my mind I was also thinking that if we liked the town we could extend our stay a night. The beauty of not having everything completely planned out and reserved ahead of time!

    By the time we arrived here, the rain from earlier in the day had brought in a bit cooler weather so we were no longer in our lighter, summer-weight wardrobe. We had a very pleasant surprise in Piazza Armerina and did find out it was a place we wanted to stay for an additional night. There were lots of narrow, intriguing, little streets we wanted to take the time to explore. And, once again (other than the parking hassles) we were pleased that we’d booked a place in town where we could walk everywhere rather than being stuck out somewhere where we had to drive in to restaurants.

    Our B & B was nice, and I’d paid a bit more to upgrade to a room with an additional alcove with a couch and a nice balcony with a great view over the town. After walking around a while and checking out the town, we told the owner we wanted to add a night. He, of course, was more than happy since it turned out we were the only guests the first night, and our second night there was just one more room booked.

    Seafood lovers that we are, we decided upon a restaurant for dinner that specializes in seafood (Ristorante la Tavernetta). This is also a popular place with locals, and there was a group there that night celebrating a baptism. We enjoyed the food so much that as we left we made a reservation for the next night. Unfortunately, as was our experience other places, the second time did not match the first. The second night the cook had been particularly heavy handed with the salt, and even the identical mussel dish we’d so enjoyed when we had it the night before was not so good the second time around.

    I can understand why the Romans built the villa where they did; the area approaching the villa is verdant, lush and very attractive. And, the entire experience and the quality of the mosaics is absolutely magnificent. After my disastrous fall in Noto Antiqua, we had detoured and made a brief stop to see the mosaics at Villa Romana del Tellaro. While the few mosaics there are of high quality and very nicely done, the two experiences in no way compare. This was a 10* compared to about a 2* at Tellaro. If you absolutely can’t make it to Piazza Armerina then do stop at Tellaro, but these are sites of completely different magnitudes.

    Despite our best intentions to get to Villa Romana del Casale when they opened at 9:00, we didn’t get there until 9:45. It really is a short and quick drive from town, but we just didn’t get our act together and get out the door early. The first half hour or so of our visit it was very quiet, but then the tour groups did start to arrive. However, most of them moved through quite quickly (glad I wasn’t on a tour) while we preferred to linger and take our time. At no time was it so crowded that it was unpleasant, but we prefer to have options to move around where and when we want without having to make our way through large crowds of people. As I had suspected, around lunch time the groups thinned out a bit with no more large groups. All, in all I’d say we spent about 3.5 hours at this marvelous site.

    This is a large villa, with many rooms, so these were obviously very rich or royal owners. Some rooms have more elaborate mosaics than others on the floors, and a few rooms also have traces on the walls of their original frescoes. As I understand, there had been restoration work for years, but the new building superstructure is complete for the most part. Apparently the new protective superstructure in some ways has been built to mimic the way the building may have originally been.

    There was only one time during our visit when we wished we had a guide or someone to ask questions of. I didn’t need or want a guide pointing out the different scenes in the mosaics, but I wanted to ask about the structure and restoration of the floors themselves. In the very, very long corridor where the hunting scenes are, half of the floors have been leveled out and are quite flat. The other half are undulating and very wavy. Our assumption is that the undulating condition is the condition in which the entire villa was found, but these level portions have now been completely restored and flattened out. The undulating floors either are waiting to be restored or are being left to demonstrate to visitors what their original condition was. After our visit, when trying to learn more about the undulating floors, I came across this very interesting website which gives in-depth information about the villa and its layout. http://www.villaromanadelcasale.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/guida-A4-ENG2.pdf

    We had decided to buy the combined ticket that offered admission to the Archaeological Area of Morgantina and the Archaeological Museum Aidone. When we bought our tickets, the non-English speaking ticket seller kept repeating something to us about the sequence of visits to these different places. We were quite positive that she’d said to visit the mosaics first and then Morgantina because it closed at 1:00. Our interpretation of her Italian was correct as we discovered when we drove up to Morgantina in the early afternoon. It was closed up tight, but we didn’t really care since it was not big on our list of desires and from what we could see didn’t look particularly interesting anyway. We initially wondered why in the world they’d sell a ticket that wouldn’t work out logistically but later on that day discovered that this was actually a ticket that was good for three days.

    Once again we were thwarted when looking for food. Shortly after leaving the villa and the mosaics we’d pulled in into a nearby restaurant that I’d read was supposed to be good. But, this was regular, full meals only, and we only wanted a snack. So, we thought we’d find something else on the way that would do, but we could not find a thing since it was now after 2:00. After our unsuccessful stop at Morgantina, we again decided to try to find a place for something to eat and then head on to the Museum in Aidone. Nothing open anywhere. Finally, as I suspected we might, we did find a small bar/café adjacent to the site of the museum in Aidone. We had a not particularly good snack there and then went in to visit the museum.

    The museum was a worthwhile stop but not at all a necessity. However, it did fill out our day in the Piazza Armerina area, and we were ready to relax on our balcony for a bit after we returned to our B & B and took another quick stroll around Piazza Armerina. The day before we hadn’t had time to take in the Duomo because it was closing for the day, so we did it on our second day. Its Byzantine –appearing icons were particularly striking.

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    Ah, yes, the mosaics are just fabulous and definitely a not to miss. If it makes you feel any better, we weren't impressed with Morgantina. We walked around for an hour or so, and because it was so hot, we left not feeling like it was worth the sweltering heat.

    It's a shame you felt so constrained about leaving luggage in the car. The cemetery complex sounds very interesting. Just love running into places like that traveling.

    Still enjoying following along as you make your way thru Sicily..

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    mmm - I'd not thought about Sicily as a place to see mosaics. silly me.

    another place to put on my list.

    like you, how often have I found that my stomach is out of synch with Italian and French restaurant owners; Spain is so much easier from that point of view.

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    So sorry to read of your fall but luckily it wasn't worse and you could continue your very interesting trip. Thanks for the info about Piazza Armerina as we too will be spending a night there in order to see the mosaics at Villa Romana. I was also interested to learn of Noto Antiqua, which I had not heard of before.

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    IMO the mosaics are definitely a not-miss when visiting Sicily. I believe this is the largest and best collection of Roman mosaics anywhere in the world.

    I just thought I'd put these eating-time cautions in here for others who may be visiting Sicily. I guess we learned when in doubt that you'll be able to find something you are probably better off just bringing a bread and cheese picnic.

    The luggage issue was definitely our bug-a-boo the entire trip, and I am definitely starting to think that we were overly cautious and paranoid because of Vagabonda's warnings over at TA. We've traveled in Italy before and have never been anywhere this cautious (or paranoid). The US State Department's warnings do not select out Sicily for extra cautions over and above those elsewhere in Italy. They do, however, make a mention of thefts from cars while stopped in traffic in Catania. I am not saying that people should be fool-hardy, but in retrospect we overdid it. The combo of having a husband who is naturally suspicious and my having heard Vagabonda over and over say never ever leave anything probably contributed to the problem.

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    Julie

    I'm enjoying your detailed TR as I was quite curious to see how this all turned out for you and your husband. I was concerned that your destination parameters might cause you to miss some incredible sights in Sicily. However it sounds like you enjoyed most places so far....

    I'm so very glad you enjoyed Ortigia and made the time and potential one nighter to see Villa Romana. The mosaics were the single greatest highlight of my trip!

    I too read the advice on TA, but made the judgement call to risk the luggage in the car two times. I felt pretty good about it in the places I did, but also made the decision knowing that I might suffer negative consequences. I did take everything valuable and essential with me both times. Since I am of Nordic ancestry, I would have been in trouble without my clothes and shoes. I simply do not wear the petite Sicilian sizes!

    Looking forward to the rest!

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    Thanks, Dayle.

    I too would say that, as a tourist site, the mosaics are pretty near the top of my list too. I would advise anyone visiting the eastern side of the island to do everything possible, even a longish daytrip, to make an effort to see them.

    Frankly, in a well-touristed place like this I find it pretty impossible to think that anyone be brazen enough in the middle of the day to try to break into a car's trunk.

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    The villa was being renovated when I was there, so I didn't get the full effect, but the mosaics were still a highlight. Obviously I need to go back now they've finished, lol. (Did they get rid of that horrible plastic roof?)

    ann - not only are the Roman mosaics great, so are the Arab-Norman ones at Monreale and other places in Palermo.

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    thanks, thursdaysd. I'll add them to my list.

    as for theft from cars, of course it does happen everywhere, but there was once a cautionary tale from someone here who when parking in Catania followed the standard advice to reverse the car hard up against a wall so that the tailgate could not be opened, only to come back and find that the thieves had entered the car through the rear passenger door and got into the boot that way.

    so I think that I too would be extra specially careful in Sicily.

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    Hi Julies, thanks so much for your great trip report. Love all the detail. We were just in Sicily last May and I too read all the warnings on TA not to leave luggage in the car which made me totally neurotic about it. I almost missed Villa Casale del Romana because of it which would have been a total shame as it was one of the highlights of Sicily for me.

    We didn't have the option of adding another night nearby so chanced it (and besides my husband thought I was crazy for being so paranoid). And I will say when we got there it really didn't seem like such a dangerous spot -- the site is small, the parking lot is very nearby and gated so not really a quick get away for thieves. There were definitely places in Sicily where I would not leave my car unattended with my luggage inside but I felt OK there.

    I guess I'm just saying that people going should know to be careful but travel is full of risk, stuff happens all the time everywhere and I hated that I felt so paranoid about Sicily -- once we were there I never felt unsafe. There were a few rough areas (like the Catania bus station) but like anywhere you just need to be aware and careful.

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    Just started reading but wanted to say how chagrined I was to read that Alitalia and Delta's partners in the sky program has yet to iron out those same kinks we encountered at least 8 years ago!

    Back to your TR.

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    On to MAZARA DEL VALLO

    Once again it was late morning before we were packed and on our way out of Piazza Armerina. On the advice of our B&B owner, we headed over to the 640 route which would drop us near Agrigento. Scenery on this inland route was not nearly as interesting as that we’d seen before, but it was okay.

    Once again, if we hadn’t had luggage in the car we may have stopped for a couple hours of sightseeing and taken in the Valley of the Temples, but the luggage issue stopped us. Apparently there is left luggage storage at the train station in Agrigento, but my husband nixed that idea stating that there was no way in the world he was going to drive through traffic into the center of a town to find the railway station, park there to drop off and check our luggage, and then drive back to the parking lot to access the temples just so we could feel comfortable leaving our car parked for sightseeing. We’ve been to both Greece and Turkey and have seen a lot of ruins (and a lot of Greek temples), and the Valley of the Temples hadn’t been on the top of our list anyway, so it was not that big of a deal to skip the site.

    However, we can say that we’ve seen a couple of these temples. I discovered that there is a road on the edge of town (the one that leads to the main entrance of the archaeological park) where it is easy to see some of these temples from a distance. So we did what others were doing, and parked by the side of the road for some photos of a couple of temples. Some people were even parking here and leaving for a walk to the temples thus (I assume) avoiding the parking fees. Maybe we missed a lot; maybe we didn’t. I don’t know, but this distant view was fine for us and we didn’t feel a need to actually walk amongst them.

    After we had moved on inland from Ortygia, we realized that we missed the sea and wanted another base on the water. We also were looking for a town or city that wasn’t excessively touristy, so I started researching different places on the sea. We were intrigued by what we had read about Mazara del Vallo being kind of a mixture of Sicilian and North African cultures and, after finding a very nice looking apartment online, decided to make it a base for three nights.

    As we drove on towards Mazara del Vallo from Agrigento, we decided to detour a little bit on our route to see the scenery that was highly recommended by one of my guidebooks. The area around Eraclea Minoa is stunning with its vistas and permanently sculpted rock-like dunes. We drove all of the way up into the antiquities park but didn’t visit the park itself. However, we had a picnic at a table right inside the park (actually leaving our luggage in the car while we sat about 100 feet away!), and of course, a restroom is always a plus.

    When we arrived in Mazara del Vallo, the owner met us and showed us around the apartment. Once again we had an apartment in a really nice location, and this definitely made our stay better. Our small balcony overlooked the lungomare, so it was a great place for both people watching and observing the sea across the street from us.

    As part of our getting settled in, we asked the owner where to shop for some groceries and supplies since we knew we should get those on Saturday rather than Sunday. He directed us to a grocery store that I am guessing was about ¾ of a mile away. This is one of the things that we found most strange about Mazara del Vallo. In contrast to very other place we visited in Sicily, we just could not find small local grocers (other than one small fruit and vegetable shop) or even bakeries. As I said, maybe it was our timing, but during the entire time we were in the town (and we walked through all areas that a tourist might even be remotely interested in) we never did run across any grocer other than this grocery that we had to walk quite a distance to get to. Finally, by our last morning there we did find a small bakery, but in contrast to every other place we visited where there was always a proliferation of small shops, this was really strange.

    Other than the museum of the Satyr, we didn’t go to any true tourist sites in the town. This museum itself only highlights the sculpture itself and the only other exhibit is some amphora that had been found submerged. The half hour film at the museum is a highlight and very interesting as it describes the discovery and restoration of the statue. The one other place that we stopped in briefly was very unique and something we have never seen in all of our European travels. As we were getting ready to leave the museum, a man came up to everyone in the museum and started talking about a theatre that was very nearby and was free admission. We strolled on over and admired the small Garibaldi theatre that is under renovation to make it close to its 19th century original condition. Too bad we don’t speak Italian because the people there were telling about the history of the theatre.

    On Monday we drove out to Selinunte which is not too far away, so this is a good base for a visit to that site. Selinunte turned out to be my husband’s favorite on the entire trip because of how extensive a site it is. The scale of the place is very impressive, reflecting what a large city that had been, and the setting in a rural area overlooking the sea is lovely (in our opinions much nicer than the setting of the temples in Agrigento). At Selinute we saw lots of wildflowers all over which added to the appeal of the site. Selinunte is also unique in that much of it remains just as it was after the earthquake that shook it. Columns lie crumbled just as they fell. We’d brought a picnic lunch, and we spent a long time at the site, doing a lot of walking. We even went over to the smaller, less-visited third portion of the site. Don’t bother. Other than the unique misting bridge that would be a relief on a hot day, we didn’t find this portion worth the time.

    We did a lot of walking in the city itself and along the lungomare by the sea, and Mazara del Vallo was a pleasant place to just amble around. The un-restored, roofless church of St. Ignazio, which is in the center of the city, was a place we returned to several times for more photos in different light at different times of day. There are a couple different squares which we visited both night and day. Sundays one of the main commercial streets is closed to vehicular traffic, and families were out and about enjoying a stroll. In the old part of town, streets were absolutely jam packed with people on Saturday night. By contrast, on Monday evening there were only a couple teens around this same square.

    I have mixed feelings about Mazara del Vallo but do not know if part of the reason is that our timing just seemed off a bit for the place. We probably arrived around 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon, so we had Saturday night, all day Sunday and all day Monday before we left on Tuesday morning. Maybe this truly non-touristy city was not a good choice for a weekend because so many of the everyday experiences we were hoping to have were shuttered on the weekend. In retrospect, we probably should have visited Selinute on Sunday rather than Monday so we could have been in town during the regular work-a-day Monday.

    I guess our expectations were also off base in terms of what we’d find of a North African community and feel. The area referred to as the Casbah was of a different architectural style—more unadorned cubistic with quite a bit of ceramic wall decorations. But, every time we tried walking in the area (and we tried a couple different times of day on different days) it was practically deserted. We’d also thought we’d find some shops or stalls that were of a North African feel. We didn’t find any of those either, so we don’t know if it was our expectations or the days we were in town or if there really isn’t what we had hoped to find. We don’t regret our visit, but three nights was plenty.

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    Continuing to follow along and enjoying your great detail. You've gotten me curious as to what you are looking for in your quest for a "non-touristy" town which I agree MdV is. I vaguely recall seeing stores sort of on the outskirts of thetown as we drove in & out. We got turned around (for a change) leaving one of the times in MdV and I remember seeing several I think.

    Was the scafolding down completely at Selinute? Some parts had scafolding in May. Certainly agree that it's a lovely setting.

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    We also loved Selinunte the best, of the three temple sites we visited. As we will be heading to Agrigento from Piazza Armerina, do you have a suggestion for a more picturesque route than the 640?

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    I guess what I was looking for in a non-touristy town was one with lots of everyday life and activity and non-souvenir shops. As I said, perhaps it was our timing, but other than the couple main streets we did not find much of that. In a European town I want to be able to easily walk to a neighborhood bakery and a small grocer. A lot of the time we were there everything was shuttered, but even when things weren't we still couldn't find places like this.

    The temple at Selinute had orange mesh fencing around it. We didn't know if that was to prevent people from walking up into it or what.

    There is another route that drops down from Piazza Armerina through Gela and then along the sea. We just followed our host's advice, and I had read that Gela is really ugly, so we didn't try that route out. Don't get me wrong. Scenery on the route we took wasn't bad; it just didn't compare to some of the other spectacular scenery we'd seen previously.

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    I do intend to try to finish this in the next couple days, but I just wanted to make a quick comment about eating out in Sicily and how affordable we found it.

    Last night we went out for dinner to a good-quality, bistro-like, small neighborhood Italian restaurant in Minneapolis. We split a salad, had two primis, and had a mid-week special $25 bottle of wine. Then, of course, here in the US (unlike Sicily) we need to add in tax and tip. We figured last night's dinner was double what we were paying for the equivalent meal in Sicily.

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    still following and enjoying your trip report very much; isn't the non-touristy but interesting town the holy grail of every tourist? perhaps that's why they are so difficult to find!

    BTW, we could say the same about the meal we had in Sofia [Bulgaria] on Sunday night - 2 courses and an excellent bottle of wine for less than half what it would cost here in the UK.

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    Really interesting, I had only viewed a few online photos of mazara dv, which of course, give no idea of the "feel" of a place. But the architecture and setting by the sea did appeal. It's more complicated to get to by public transport than other Sicilian towns so your reaction to it very helpful.

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    ERICE

    After our departure from Mazara del Vallo we had two unaccounted for nights prior to our four night reservation in Palermo, and I had lots of different ideas on how to spend them. Unfortunately most of the things I wanted to do were predicated on having nice weather. And, the forecasts all called for rain, and probably lots of it too. So, we had to make a decision on what to do since it sounded as though hiking in the Zingaro Reserve (one of the biggies on my list) wasn’t going to be doable.

    Finally we decided to spend one night in Erice and go into Palermo a day early, figuring a big city was a better place to be in the event of bad weather. We were lucky that our Palermo apartment had one day open between the previous guests’ departure and our arrival, so we made arrangements to arrive a day earlier than reserved. When originally making my plans I had thought about reserving a room in Scopello for a couple nights as the last location before Palermo but decided against it when I contemplated the vagaries of potential weather at this time of year. We definitely would not have been happy in Scopello for a few days of continuous rain. Another example of why we were glad to be winging it!

    Our last night in Mazara del Vallo I used booking.com to secure the last available room at Erice Pietre Antiche, a lodging (a lovely sitting room with kitchenette compartment, bedroom and bath, and outdoor seating for nice weather) I’d highly recommend. Once again, in the back of my head I’d thought that if we really liked the town we could add an additional night there, but I did not want to commit to two nights until I had a feel for the place. I know that we were not the only tourists in Sicily who were winging it and making last minute itinerary decisions. While we were checking into our apartment there, the owner had a phone call from someone looking for a room here the same night; we had taken that last one.

    Rather than taking the coastal route up from Mazara del Vallo, we cut inland thinking perhaps we’d get at least a roadside glimpse of Segeste. Unfortunately we made a wrong turn and missed it. The weather wasn’t the best so it was no big deal, and we continued on to Erice. There are apparently numerous wine domains in the lowlands around Erice, so we drove through many deserted areas full of vineyards. There had been quite a bit of rain and we found that many of the roads in these valley floors had been completely covered with mud from the fields’ erosion, making it very slippery driving in places. In fact, we had been quite concerned that perhaps the winding road up to Eriche would be treacherous due to the mud. Our fears were unfounded because on this road there was rock rather than dirt and there were plants to hold what soil there was. Actually the road we took up from Valderiche (supposedly the one with the fewest switchbacks and tricky driving) was much better than the mud-covered roads we had driven through. And, despite the warnings we had read about reaching Erice by road, it was nothing at all compared to other mountainous roads we have driven around the world.

    By this time the weather had cleared up so we had some pretty good vistas as we drove up the winding road to this hilltop town, and we pulled over several times for photo ops. It was a good thing we got these views because by the time we reached the top the clouds were starting to roll in again. And, the next morning the place was rained in so there were no walks at all on the day of our departure.

    The owner of Erice Pietre Antiche had been extremely responsive and had been in contact as soon as I made my reservation. He told us to give him a call about 15 minutes prior to our arrival (once again we were happy to have our T-Mobile plan for overseas) so he could help us find a free place to park. Sure enough, when we arrived in early afternoon he met us in the main parking lot, transferred our luggage to his car, had us follow him around to an area where we could park for free, and then drove us and our luggage right to the door of our lodging. We never would have found this free parking area on our own (and he told us that parking rules are strictly enforced in the pay lots with tickets being issued all of the time). Of all of the places we visited in Sicily, Erice had the narrowest streets of all, so narrow that even with side mirrors folded in, there was perhaps only an inch to spare on either side of the car. If we would have been on our own, we would have walked with our luggage the blocks (maybe six) to our room, so it was fabulous that the owner met us and delivered us. Our car remained parked until our departure the next day when he drove us and our luggage to our car.

    As soon as we saw the cute town and our lovely rooms, I though perhaps I erred and should have booked for two nights. However, after a couple hours walking around, we realized that we had scheduled the perfect amount of time for us. For us, a good three or four hours walking around was sufficient. Being kind of churched out, we did not go inside any churches. There is one main street with many tourist shops on it, but we aren’t shoppers, so that did not take any time from our visit. We were intrigued by the fact that there was a filming going on for an Italian movie set in WWII, and some places had been staged to what they would have been like in the 1940s, so that made for an interesting extra aspect to our visit.

    The town itself had tourists but wasn’t by any means packed, and it was easy to just wander around through areas that were quite deserted. The fact that we were there on a Tuesday night, not in peak season, also meant that we ended up having the worst meal of our entire trip. The owner of our apartment had given us the names of three or four different possibilities for dinner. We spent around half hour wandering around checking them out. The one we had been most interested in was closed that day. The place we had thought about just getting a pizza wasn’t making pizza that night. So, it was a toss up between the two others, and we finally chose the one that had the best reviews on TA. Wrong choice! The meal we had at Monte San Guiliano was the worst we had in our entire trip, and it was the only meal we had anywhere in Sicily where we did not eat every morsel on our plates.

    When we awakened the next morning, as predicted we were socked in with rain and clouds, so we were really glad we had only decided on a one night stay in Erice.

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    julies,

    Glad you did end up in Erice at least for 1 nt at the Erice Pietre Antiche apts. Charming and very comfortable place. Erice was one of my favorites from my own trip. I too had a first night and day of absolutely pouring rain (April). Great excuse to sleep in since that was my arrival day.

    I never understand why people freak out over a few tight turns on a mountain road. It's not a bad road at all!

    Did you get to try the fabulous almond pastries at Maria Grammatica's? Best i found on Sicily!

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    We liked Palermo, and I will try to wrap this trip report up soon.

    We were lucky that we did get some views while in Erice. While it was not crystal clear and had some cloud cover, we did get some nice vistas on our first day there. Morning number two we didn't even try walking around in the cool, rainy, cloudy weather but that is okay since we really felt that we had seen and done it all the previous afternoon. Yes, I had a nice little treat at Maria Grammatica's that I brought back to our apartment. Our only regret about the apartment is that it was not nice enough to sit outside while we were at there.

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    Julies, thanks for your continuing detailed and very useful report. Sorry about the rain at Erice though. Looking back, do you feel you would have missed something unique by not going to Erice? I'm still debating whether to arrange our trip to include a stop there.

    Looking forward to reading about Palermo.

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    Am also enjoying this report. Thank you for keeping it going! Erice may make our final cut after all. I was worried about the road, but like you, we have been on several doozies. It is nice to hear a few more voices in the wilderness saying it isn't a biggie. Thanks again, Julies!

    -Annie

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    shellio--I am of mixed feelings about Erice and whether it is a must-do, and I think part of it depends on your previous travel experiences. We've done a lot of European travel and have seen many cute villages/towns from this era. The setting is unique with the views, but as I said a couple hours seemed sufficient for us.

    yestravel--I am curious as to where you walked around Erice since that is normally something we would do too.

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    I do have Erice as a planned stop, although we'll be there toward the end of May, when the weather should be good. I'd love to know more about the walks/hikes, too!

    julies, looking forward to your time in Palermo. I find your report fascinating and the details very helpful in planning my own upcoming trip.

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    I hope to get back to this and finish it off this weekend.

    If anyone is interested, someone over at TA sent me these links to photos of Sicily on SlowTravel. You can find sections dedicated to Erice, Zingaro, Segesta, Selinute etc.

    http://www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?ppuser=383&username=dragonpat

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    PALERMO I—the “not your typical tourist experience” part

    As we drove down out of Erice the weather cleared up a bit, but it still wasn’t clear. Since it wasn’t raining, and we had no real time constraints we decided to head over to the coast and the Scopello/Zingaro area to see what we would be missing. This is a lovely area, and I can see why it is so popular with people. We would have loved to have the time and weather to spend some time here exploring and walking.

    Rather than taking the fastest inland route, we drove along the coast a ways towards the airport. There was a great overlook on the road by Castellammare del Golfo, and from above this looked like a town we would have definitely enjoyed exploring or staying in as a base. And, it is the same old mantra again here: If we hadn’t had luggage in the car……

    Approaching the airport as we did from the west, we discovered there were no gas stations close to the airport. So after arriving at the airport, we ended up driving back west on the road about fifteen minutes in order to find a gas station to top off our tank. Car drop off was easy, and it was easy to find the bus into town.

    The bus was a fine way to get into town from the airport, and our only little bit of confusion came as we kept getting deeper and deeper into the heart of the city and hadn’t heard our Politeama stop announced yet. But, we trusted that we hadn’t missed it since we knew ours was a central city stop.

    Unfortunately, but as predicted, about five or ten minute before our stop the clouds let loose and the rain started pouring down. The owner of our apartment had asked us to call her just as we were leaving on the bus from the airport so she could arrange to meet us and walk us the few blocks from the airport bus stop to our apartment. We got off the bus, raised our umbrellas, got our suitcases out of the luggage compartment, and in the downpour started following the owner down the street dragging our wheeled suitcases behind.

    It was during this rainy walk to our apartment that we had an incident that changed our visit to Palermo, not allowing us to do some of the sightseeing we had planned to do and adding an unexpected full afternoon spent at a place we never expected to be—the University of Palermo Pronto Soccorso (emergency room).

    In the middle of the concrete jungle (no plants or bushes or shrubs) that is Palermo, my husband was stung multiple times through his sock by the largest hornet either of us has ever seen. It had to be close to two inches long. The first day the pain shooting all up his leg from the sting was so bad that he had to resort to a powerful painkiller. While not deathly allergic to insect stings, he is very definitely more sensitive than most people.

    Despite all of the attention we were giving to his leg (and the cream that the local pharmacist had prescribed), by 48 hours after the bite it became apparent that he needed to see a doctor. He’d had a fever, the leg was swollen nearly to his knee, it was red and hot to the touch, and the main bite site looked as though it perhaps might be infected.

    After I asked her for the name of an English-speaking doctor, the owner of our apartment had called a friend in the medical professions. The friend suggested that the University of Palermo was where we should go, and the owner went way beyond what is expected and was gracious enough to drive us there to the Pronto Soccorso .

    We’d said from the start of our visit to the Pronto Soccorso that we needed care from English speakers, and the facility did their best to accomodate us. After asking for only his passport for ID at the triage center, my husband was taken back in to the treatment area to be evaluated. He came out saying he needed to see two different specialists in two diferent buildings on the medical campus, and we would be driven there. Soon enough a driver of a small medical van came and called our name, drove us over to another building, walked us up to the waiting area outside of a clinic, and told us to sit down to wait (all in Italian). Eventually a doctor who spoke a little English found us and took us into a room where he did a leg ultrasound that he pronounced normal. They were apparently looking for a possible thrombosis, something we had never thought of and the reason why Dr. Google is not always the best way to diagnosis.

    After hand-writing an extensive note in Italian, he handed us the note, and told us to sit and wait again so a van could come get us. Soon a different driver came and escorted us back to the triage center. Since the ultrasound had been normal, the next specialist was supposed to be a dermatologist, but it turned out that all of them were now off duty for the weekend (this was Friday afternoon). Sounds like home! So, back to the triage center we went. This time I was allowed to go back in to the treatment area with my husband. Here he saw an English-speaking doctor, and they also had a translator on the phone for us.

    After reading the report from the ultrasound and examining the leg, this doctor gave us scripts for three different prescriptions and told us to return on Monday for follow-up with the dermatologist. Since we were flying home on Monday we did not return to the medical center. (Obviously the typed dischare papers were all in Italian, but since they were typed I could at least read them in contrast to the lengthy hand-written note in not the best hand-writing. That evening at our apartment, I very carefully copied the Italian text into Google translate. Diagnosis—Attack by aggressive invertebrate.)

    Then we were sent on our way. For those of us from the US, with our convoluted and screwed up medical system (okay, I’ve betrayed my bias here) this was amazing. No one asking for our insurance information. No one escorting us to the office to figure our payment plan. Italy believes that all people are entitled to free urgent medical care, whether they are citizens or not. So, we had our unplanned sightseeing observing the Italian medical system and were impressed.

    As we waited for the ultrasound and the doctor we also had the chance to observe what was going on for other patients. Others were also being driven around from appointment to appointment in different buildings. But, quite a few were in their own pajamas and not the typical hospital gown one sees inthe US. At first I wondered if they had come to the emergency room in the middle of the night and that is why they were in their pajamas. But, I have since read that in Italy in many hospitals patients are expected to bring their own pajamas rather than being issued the standard gown. Seems a lot more practical to me too unless one is extremely ill and bed-ridden.

    Maybe we were not able to see all of the usual tourist sights we had planned to see in Palermo, but we got some very interesting insights into the city and culture we were visiting. To me, this is a valuable and enlightening trade-off.

    In addition, we have now figured out the mystery of why in the world previous occupants would have left nothing more than a bag of frozen peas in the freezer of one of our apartment in Modica. And, the next occupants of our Palermo apartment arrived to a one kilo bag of frozen peas they were probably wondering about too.

    coming soon--the Palermo most tourists come to see

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    I am so sorry to hear about the medical emergency! I am very allergic to insect bites, so I would have been headed to the hospital too. Did the Italian prescriptions work? Is your husband OK? And yes, European medical care can be an interesting experience for Americans! (Even for me, who grew up in England but have lived in the US for decades. The contrast regarding unnecessary overhead is stark.)

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    He was given an antibiotic, a steroid, and an anti-itch/anti-inflammatory prescription. They did the job, and by a week later his leg was nearly back to normal. A follow-up visit with our doctor shortly after arrival home showed that these were close to the same thing he would have been prescribed here.

    Yes, the medical visit was interesting. I'd say the triage center itself was probably similar to what we'd see here. OTOH, the angiology clinic where we were sent seemed a bit run down and in need of paint and sprucing up. I noticed that when the paper sheet cover was changed that the exam table had a rip in its upholstery. So what? We didn't care.

    My elderly father was hospitalized here in the US a few years ago, and I was astounded at the visitors' waiting room/lounge outside his ward. Do hospital really need to decorate with waterfall walls? I know I can already hear some apologist commenting that a feature like this is calming in a stressful environment. But, really? Why spend the money?

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    " Why spend the money?"

    Right. the doctor I saw in France on my last trip didn't even have a receptionist. Or anyone else, just a small waiting room, an office, an examining room, and him. Cost me all of 30 euros.

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    glad this had such a favourable outcome, julies - and that your experience of Italian medicine was so good.

    looking forward to the rest of Palermo - outside the A&E department.

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    PALERMO—part II the regular tourist stuff

    In case of a painful, swollen leg the usual advice is rest, ice and elevate leg. Obviously, the exact opposite of what the typical tourist plans to spend his time doing! I guess you can call it lucky that the first two days we were in Palermo it rained a lot, and we wouldn’t have been too motivated to wander around in the rain and sightsee anyway. This entire episode made me once again wonder what happens to those people whose itineraries are pre-planned down to the half hour (and I do see quite a few of them posted).

    Prior to our trip I had spent a lot of time vacillating about location for an apartment and, for several different reaasons, finally settled on the more modern area near Teatro Massimo. Even though during our visit we definitely saw the appeal of the older parts of the city and saw some neighborhoods that we thought looked much more interesting than where we were, our location ended up being good for us because it was convenient for our needs.

    The neighborhood we were in is commercial, and in fact there was a Foot Locker right next door. So, this isn’t the type of locale we’d notmally seek out. But, our apartment was very comfy (a good thing since we spent so much time inside of it), the owner was marvelously helpful, and we’d probably stay there again. The only strange thing about it was that the only side of the apartment with windows opened out to the next building’s blank wall perhaps six feet away. There was a shared terrace directly across the hall from us that would have been nice to make use of in better weather; we didn’t go out there once. http://www.vrbo.com/1133463a

    It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived at our apartment in the downpour on our first day. So, day one was a bust and was lost due to the rain and the sting. Our only venture out was during a let-up in the rain to find the local grocery store. We even bought s few things to cook and just stayed in for dinner that evening.

    On day two we had a couple hours where it (mostly) didn’t rain, and, despite the fact I didn’t think my husband should be up and walking around much, we set out to explore a bit of Palermo. Our first stop was a couple blocks away at Teatro Massimo so we could buy tickets for a performance of The Magic Flute. I’d intended to do this online before we left home, but this detail got lost in the shuffle of last minute trip planning.

    This day we were out maybe three hours because of the rain and the fact that his leg was so swollen that his ankle would not bend, so walking wasn’t the easiest. (He finally agreed that he needed to be back home with his bag of peas on his elevated leg.) We liked what we saw of Palermo this day, and this continued to be our impression of Palermo. I guess I don’t get the overall “gritty” description some people give to Palermo, but then we’ve also spent a lot of time in India so perhaps my impressions are skewed. In fact, I’d like to return to Palermo for a longer visit some time, perhaps in the winter months when we want to get away from our crummy winters at home.

    While walking we stuck our heads in the doors of a couple churches and had though about seeing some of the recommended chapels but decided against buying the entrance ticket package since we didn’t know how much we’d be able to do and see during our visit. I get the fact that churches need to maintain their facilities and this costs money, but it still seems odd to me to pay entrance fees to a church. We definitely enjoyed the ambience of the older neighborhoods and felt from the outside that this probably may have been a better fit for us as far as an apartment location. But, I also con’t know what the grocery shopping and restaurant scenario was in these locales.

    We wandered down by the harbor and enjoyed our walk there and the brief walk along the sea. At one point in my apartment search I’d contemplated staying at Butera 28 in the Kalsa area. While walking we saw that apartment building, and I think that would have been a good location for us too. Our walk (we didn’t have a plan and were just ambling) also went by one of the markets (Vucciria I think) as its day was ending in early afternoon. We didn’t think it was a particularly appealing market that we’d go out of our way to see.

    Our third day was our full day of non-tourist sight-seeing with our visit to the Pronto Soccorso.

    By day four the weather had finally cleared up, and the medications had started to kick in, so we decided to try a visit to a real tourist venue. We were now down to our second to the last day in Palermo (a Saturday) and had three main places we wanted to see and only two days available and had someone with a gimp leg. Because we didn’t know how my husband’s leg would fare during the day of sightseeing, we decided to stay in Palermo and visit the Cathedral and the Royal Palace complex with the Palatine Chapel.

    When visiting cities we like to walk whenever possible on our way to sightseeing venues because we are interested in more than just the sights themselves; we want to get a feel for the city itself. The walk to the Cathedral and Palace Complex from our Politeama neighborhood wasn’t long at all, maybe a half hour max as we slowly made our way there taking in all of our surroundings.

    The Palatine Chapel is absolutely gorgeous with its profusion of gorgeous, golden mosaics. While tour groups whipped in and out (the English-speaking tour guides seemed to move their groups through most quickly), we prolonged our visit so as to be able to carefully take in the glories of the chapel. Our visit to the Cathedral included the treasury and the crypts, and this extra admission is well worth the price we paid and we recommend visiting these parts of the Cathedral. The Treasury contained some obscenely huge bishop’s rings that, before looking at their date, I would have assumed were centuries old. These were from the 1970s and 1980s and brought back to us the question of why in the world men who are supposed to serve God need such ostentatious and costly pieces of bling.

    Although we are not particular fans of the opera genre, we enjoy classical music a lot so we wanted to take in an opera in the historic opera house. In fact, when we visited the ticket office we were wide open and decided we would schedule our Palermo visit around whichever performance had the best available seats. Luckily for us, the clerk at the ticket window spoke English, and we bought what she told us were very good seats in the tiered balconies.

    Let’s just say that when we arrived at the performance we discovered that our perception of what are good seats differed from the clerk’s. The balconies are comprised of boxes of six seats. The three in the first row of the box are regular theatre seats; the three in the back row are bar stool height seats with backs. I hate this type of seating anywhere and do my best to avoid it. Now we were going to have to sit through a three hour opera in a $75 seat where the only place to put your feet was on the stool’s rung. We were disappointed, and this definitely put a huge damper on an evening we had been looking forward to, especially since the people in the first row who had the regular seats were leaning over the balcony impeding our views. The operformance itself was fine but not exceptional.

    Our last day in Palermo was a Sunday, so public transportation was on a reduced schedule. There were many places in Palermo we hadn’t had a chance to see, but our two top choices were Cefalu or Monreale. We didn’t have time for both. Despite the fact that I really, really wanted to see the mosaics at Monreale, we opted for taking the train to Cefalu for the afternoon. We’ve seen the mosaics in Ravenna, at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and at St. Mark’s in Venice and I loved them all so would have loved to also see the ones at Monreale. Cefalu won out in the debate because I wanted to check out the town as a possible place to stay if we’d make a future visit to Sicily.

    Since it was Sunday, the trains weren’t all that frequent, and we basically had choices of 10:00 or 1:00. We chose the 1:00 because we wanted to have a lazy morning with a leisurely walk to the train station from our apartment. Via Maqueda in Palermo is closed to traffic on Sundays, so we joined the throngs of locals enjoying a stroll. During our walk we passed by the Ballero market and walked through there too. We hadn’t planned in any extra time for sightseeing on our way to the train station so weren’t able to stop and explore it thoroughly, but it seemed much more interesting the the Vuiccera market we’d seen on a previous walk.

    Cefalu is in a great setting on the water, and we enjoyed our afternoon there. In some ways it might be a good base, but I don’t know. Of course, when I mentioned returning to stay for a while as a base, my husband’s first comment was to ask where we would park if we stayed in the old (and most interesting) part of the town. We walked, visited the church and sat in the piazza in front of the church for drinks and snacks. The time had just switched back an hour, and daylight savings time had ended. The fact that it was now dark an hour earlier truly made a difference, and we were so happy that we had planned our dates so that we visited when there was that extra afternoon hour of light.

    When we returned to the train station, we discovered that the train we were planning to take was going to arrive more than an hour late. Since it was a Sunday, with its reduced schedule, we were fortunate in that there was another train scheduled for an hour later. Since our intended train was experiencing a further delay, after sitting in the train station waiting for nearly 1.5 hours we hopped on this other train and rode back to Palermo in the dark. This is a train trip with lovely scenery, so if possible, I’d advise taking a train while it is light enought to be able to enjoy the scenery.

    Our departure the following morning was an 8:00 flight to Rome where we’d make a connection to the US. Our landlady had the name of a driver who would take us to the airport for 25 euros, and we took her up on the idea. Unfortunately, Alitalia wouldn’t let us do an online check in since the last of our three flight sequence was a Delta flight. This meant we had to arrive at the airpport earlier than we had planned. Since we now needed to leave the apartment at 5:30, the price for the ride rose by 10 euros. This was fine with us.

    All in all, we’d very definitely recommend Sicily as a place to visit. The food was fabulous, costs were quite reasonable we thought, and there is a huge variety of things to do and places to see. We spent three weeks there, but I can easily list off a number of things we just were not able to fit into our time there, things I’d like to return to see. Another thing that called to us about the island is that the climate seems such that it could be a nice place to visit during the colder months when other parts of Europe are not very nice weather.

    Winging it as far as lodging worked, but it was additional time and work on the ground. We appreciated the flexibility this gave us, but the trade off was that I needed to spend some time online in the evenings planning our next stop and scouting out places to stay. If I had been super organized, I could have done this at home ahead of time and arrived with a list of two or three potential lodgings in places that I knew for sure we wanted to visit. Unless traveling in peak August season, we’d travel this way again in Sicily, making reservations as we went along.

    We love Sicilian food and miss it. So, finally, here is a fabulous recipe we made the other night with some of the salted Sicilian capers we brought home with us (you could probably also make it with regular capers I’d think).

    http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/sicilian-style-tuna-steaks-tonno-alla-ghiotta-51112430

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    Sorry you didn't get to Monreale, but there's always next time!

    " it still seems odd to me to pay entrance fees to a church"

    Well, you don't have to pay if you go to a service, but otherwise you're really treating it as a tourist site, not a church. I recommend visiting Westminster or St. Paul's in London for choral Evensong, but not sure whether RC churches have a similar service.

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    So sorry about your husband's sting. Glad you were able to have such good care, but too bad it put a damper on Palermo. Your husband is a trooper.

    Funny the parking in Cefalu is mentioned. It's the only place we visited that we absolutely could not find a place to park. We drove around and around for quite a bit -- it was horribly congested and not a space to be found. This was in May so likely more people in town.

    And yes, Monreale will be there for your next visit. I'm a huge mosaic fan and outside of some of the ones in Ravenna, Monreale is my favorite.

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    We'll see if we get back to Sicily and Palermo so I can visit Monreale. Of course, when one gets home then all of the other marvelous places in the world start to cram out the idea of re-visiting a place. There is only so much time to travel and so many places to see.

    We were in Cefalu on a Sunday afternoon when, of all things, there was some type of mini car race (maybe go-karts?? sorry cars are not my thing) set up on the streets between the older and newer areas, so we had to walk around that. We had taken the train in so don't know about parking, but we could see that even in the end of October it would be a problem for people who wanted to stay in the older section of town.

    The one real restaurant we went to (we did some pizza take-out) in Palermo was fabulous and very reasonably priced. In fact, we tried to go back again on our last night in town (a Sunday), but we didn't have a reservation and couldn't get in. Osteria Mercede is not too far from Teatro Massimo.

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    Glad you got a nice meal. Like others, I am very sorry to hear of your husband's mishap and glad to know he was so well served by his Sicilian doctor. (There is a 160-year-old novel about a caring Sicilian doctor called Doctor Antonio that set off a stampede of tourism from Great Britain to the Italian Riviera, where the novel is set. It's partly a romance (the doctor heals a lovely young British girl who breaks her leg while traveling) and partly political, seeking support for the unification of Italy (when the Sicilians were "conquered). It's a bit antique, but online if you ever get in the mood

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Antonio_(novel)

    Anyway, I once spent a week in January in Palermo and it was really very nice. Mild weather for sightseeing and the smell of oranges everywhere. That's the season for them. As the winter progresses, Sicily tends to get more rain, but typically January is dry.

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    Many thanks for the excellent report, julies - you have given me a lot of ideas for my upcoming trip. I'm especially pleased to hear that you enjoyed Palermo as much as you did.

    And, as others have said, sorry to hear that you and your husband had to go through the medical system, but am glad to hear that he was ultimately okay (and able to continue the rest of your trip).

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    Yes, Sicily is an island we really enjoyed and definitely can see ourselves returning to. My husband's sting and my earlier fall while visiting Noto Antica made us realize just how quickly circumstances can change while traveling (and in life). Everything turned out well for us, and we were thankful for the Italian medical system but hope we'll never need to test it out again.

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