Secondary subject line:
You know you’re in trouble when buying Nyquil in Modica is your favorite purchase.
We are back from 16 days in Italy – 4 nights in Naples and 12 nights in Sicily. It was not quite the trip we planned since my husband and I were both sick the entire time. We left LA thinking we’d recovered from viruses and head colds . Wrong. So, what had been a perfectly-planned trip was still a perfectly-planned trip – we just lost about three full days when we couldn’t do much of anything and did about half as much as planned during the remainder of the trip. Sicily is a wonderful destination and we’re sorry we missed so much of it.
Because I received so much planning assistance on both TripAdvisor and Fodors, I am posting a trip report heavy on logistics that will hopefully answer many of the typical questions that came up during the 7 months I spent lurking on the TA Sicily forum and the Fodors Italy forum. There are always so many itinerary questions that I will do my best to give input on what did and didn’t work well for us.
Special thanks to all those who patiently answered my questions on Fodors and TA. A special shout-out to BobtheNavigator whose 2005 trip report inspired me to visit Sicily. I kept that report all these years and was able to supplement it with so many other Fodors TR's, most recently Dayle's.
WEATHER – Everyone says spring is the best time to visit and how right they are. We were there May 20 to June 5 and were told it was the coldest May in 50 years. Every day was sunny in the low 70’s and the evenings it went down to the 60’s, sometimes with winds. It only rained once, for about 10 minutes. I strongly recommend this time of year – there were no crowds anywhere and the landscape was green with beautiful wildflowers everywhere. I just wish I’d brought a fleece or an extra layer since I hadn’t expected the weather to be quite this cool.
GETTING TO SICILY – We were fortunate to get award tickets on Lufthansa, which is actually the most convenient way to get from LAX to Naples and Sicily. We flew into Naples, via Munich. After four days we flew Alitalia to Palermo, which is most always an expensive flight. While the ferry is an alternative to flying, I mention this so others know that the one-way fare is usually close to $200; using kayak alert I was lucky to get it for $140 each. The Naples airport is well located by the city so it’s an easy “in and out,” especially if you insist the taxi abide by the 16 euro fixed fare. We returned from Catania, again connecting through Munich. All the flights were on-time and uneventful.
GUIDEBOOKS – Other than the Michelin Green Guide I wasn’t impressed with any of them. I bought Frommer’s Sicily for an overview and cut it apart to bring with us, along with photocopies of relevant sections from other guidebooks I got at the library. I should have photocopied the relevant sections of the Michelin Green Guide as it’s inconvenient to lug around. I found TA hotel and attraction reviews much more helpful than the guidebooks, along with trip reports from both Fodors and TA. And a trip report on TA by SteveinLA is the best guide to the various archaeological ruins.
MAPS – There had been a lot of discussion on TA about which road map to use. I had bought the TCI Italy map, but then someone returned from Sicily and posted that the Michelin map was so much better. So I had both with me and only used the Michelin map. Just now I compared the two around the only place we really got lost due to a closed road and detour (an area south of Piazza Armerina) and sure enough, the Michelin map had the small road we took designated by number and the TCI map did not. We found that using the GPS with the road map as a double-check worked best. The Google map directions I had printed out were almost useless as they use street names where none actually exist. They did help with driving time estimates, adding about 20% to the time indicated. I found the Via Michelin directions too confusing, even though their time estimates were more realistic. My husband had also downloaded the Sicilia map app (it’s logo is a globe with the letters SI above it) and although his phone was on airplane mode and therefore did not have locations services activated, its detailed city street maps saved our lives several times when we were desperately lost driving in surprisingly heavy traffic through a tangle of tiny city streets, as you will read below.
ACCOMMODATIONS – Universally excellent (see below for specifics) and were as described on individual websites and in TA reviews. I am glad that I spent the time to pick the right hotels and – in some cases – even the particular rooms. All were immaculate. They ranged from 85 euro to 125 euro, so nothing was luxurious – but all were charming in their own way. All had in-room safes except Villa Sogno, although there were multiple locks and gates and a feeling of security at all the hotels. I will post separate reviews of all lodgings on TripAdvisor.
GENERAL IMPRESSIONS – Sicily was much calmer and less frenetic than we expected. In fact, my husband describes the country, food and people as “gentle.” We found it relaxing. The drivers were not at all crazy and the autostrada, secondary and even tertiary roads were very well-maintained. Bathrooms were generally clean and usually had paper and soap. But I would like someone to explain why nearly all public toilets have the toilet seats removed so there is only the porcelain bowl. That was strange.
NAPLES – Since this is really a TR about Sicily, I’ll just mention that Naples is a very vibrant city that we wish we could have gotten to know better. We did manage a very full day with private guide and driver to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis. I will post a separate review of this. I also want to give a shout-out to Hotel Piazza Bellini, which is a wonderful, whimsical hotel very well positioned for seeing the sights and experiencing Naples. Highly recommended. Again, I will post a separate review.
ITINERARY – Sicily seems to pose itinerary challenges for everyone. It’s a balance between staying too many places and not doing a lot of backtracking, plus not wanting to leave unattended luggage in the car. After much angst and research, we settled on the following itinerary:
Palermo - 3 nights; Scopello – 1 night; Selinunte – 3 nights; Modica – 2 nights; Ortigia – 3 nights. I’ll explain in the narrative how we came to this itinerary.
SHOULD YOU VISIT PALERMO? – My answer is a resounding “yes.” In fact, after being there we are both surprised that there are any naysayers on the various forums. We loved Palermo. We were also happy that we did a counterclockwise half-circle around the island, starting in Palermo as it was a thrilling intro to Sicily and then Ortigia provided a soft ending. Also, we never felt unsafe, did not see much trash and were actually surprised that much of this picturesque city was clean and more orderly than expected, yet with lots of charm. My husband adds (and I don’t completely agree): “And as for the hysteria about driving in Palermo, forget it. Contrary to so many reports, there are traffic lights, stop signs and lane indicators, all of which drivers observe as much or as little as in any other city. The only oddity—and maybe this is what has confounded others—is that many of the many one-way streets have a single opposing lane that appears to be reserved for vehicles that have permission to use them—buses, cabs and apparently some others.”
After reading much about the different areas in which to stay, we were so happy with the Politeama area and can’t imagine staying anywhere else. Palazzo Pantaleo was as described in the reviews. Excellent location, nice rooms, good breakfast (including fresh-squeezed orange juice) in a sun-filled room, and a proprietor with a wry—sometimes disarming--sense of humor who turned out to show us extraordinary kindness. We had room #1, which is likely the largest and nicest, but does have some street noise. Rooms on the other side of the corridor didn’t look quite as large or as nice, but they would be quieter. The street noise was only a bother at night as we had the windows open since it was so cool. This was the only time we used a/c the entire trip when the motor scooter noise started in the early morning. As all the places we stayed, it was immaculate. A special feature is a kitchen for guest use to boil water, have a cup of tea or help oneself to bottled water or fruit. This was very nice, especially since we were in the room more than expected.
We spent 3 nights in Palermo which is just about right if you are not leaving the city. I would recommend longer if you are taking any excursions. We arrived very late the first night, just missed the airport bus, and took a cab instead. This was one of the only unpleasant interactions of the trip. At the taxi stand they told us 45 euro and we refused, so they said 40 euro. We tried to get it to 35 but no luck. The drive at night was only about 25 minutes. Giuseppe was waiting for us at Palazzo Pantaleo and recommended a “typical” nearby restaurant for a late dinner that was perfectly lovely.
We probably felt the best on the trip in Palermo, after having been slammed in Naples, so we didn’t have to adjust our itinerary much, although we were still not our normal, energetic selves. We spent the first day visiting two of the markets – Capo and Ballaro – and wandering around Old Palermo. I particularly enjoy 360 degree sights that can’t be captured in a photo, which is how I would describe Quattro Canti. I just loved this junction. The markets were both wonderful to visit. One suggestion: buy what you want when you see it as you may not find it again. I should have bought Trapani salt at one of the Palermo markets since the only other place I found it was Erice. We loved the specialty sandwich of fried chickpea and eggplant – I think it was 1 euro! We passed on the specialty spleen sandwiches.
In Palermo, the distances were not as far as they appeared in the guide books. We walked everywhere, crisscrossing the tourist part of the city. The only place we didn’t get to was the catacombs. We visited both Mortorana and Cappella Palatina to see the mosaics. To my inexpert eye they were very similar, and as one person staying at our B and B had said to me, “Mortorana was free and Cappella Palatina was 8.50.” Since we weren’t going to Monreale, I’m glad we saw Capella Palatina, but the Royal apartments were not of much interest and it was rather expensive.
That night we walked to La Kalsa area to have dinner at Trattoria di Salvo, which had been recommended by someone on TA. It’s a collection of picnic tables in the middle of the street and a huge BBQ for grilling fish. The fixed-price fish dinner is 20 euro including water and wine and is a real bargain. The tomato salad was like candy, the fish was as fresh as can be and it had a great local atmosphere. “Salvo” is called over at the end of the meal to proclaim the price, but it always seems to be 20 euro which is, after all, the posted price. So, I think it’s all part of the fun. We walked through the Piazza Marina area on the way back to our hotel and were again glad we stayed in the much livelier Politeama area. The area around nearby Teatro Massimo was particularly lively at night, especially Olivella square area where young people gather at outdoor pubs and restaurants.
Sunday in Palermo has a lot of discussion on TA because much is closed. We actually found it lovely to be there on Sunday. We had inquired in advance about the small and unusual Stanze al Genio (tile museum) tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g187890-d2… and therefore knew they would do tours on Sunday morning. While in Palermo I emailed asking for possible times and was told they could do an English-speaking tour at 12 noon. This is really an amazing place in the beautiful home of a collector with impeccable taste. We really enjoyed our one hour tour and bought some tile reproduction posters to bring home and frame. Ask them for the Palermo map they have that has some craft shops indicated. We were leaving the next day and couldn’t visit them, but they sounded quite nice.
We then walked to Piazza Marina to catch the tail-end of the Sunday morning flea market, which didn’t actually close up until about 2 p.m. Filled with locals and a nice stroll. That afternoon, following the mid-day closing, the streets around Politeama were closed to traffic and many of the stores opened and it was wonderful to walk around. Entire families were walking and biking down the streets and Politeama square turned into a big local playground – great for people watching before dinner. Sad to see all the young Sicilian couples smoking.
Not many restaurants are open Sunday evenings, but we had heard about Pizzeria/Trattoria Biondi. It is very close to Politeama and has a trattoria on one side and pizzeria on the other. We had great pizza and we actually liked the crust better than in Naples – it was crisp rather than chewy. A really nice gelato/patticeria was across the street – Cappello – where I had an exceptional cannolo for dessert.
LEAVING PALERMO BY RENTAL CAR -- The next morning it was time to pick up our car. I had read all the posts about renting cars in Sicily, where and from whom. We ended up booking with Autoeurope on the US site and felt we got a great deal for $366 for economy car for 8 days, with zero deductible. I booked online and then called to ask any questions. I also checked back a few weeks before the trip and the cost of an economy car had actually gone down, so I re-booked to save $20. Autoeurope was having a special on GPS rental that turned out to be more economical than loading new maps on our GPS so we rented GPS through them, too, and it was shipped to me 3 days before we left the US. I read all the warnings about how we should return to the airport to rent a car, rather than picking it up in Palermo. It was enough cheaper to rent in the city rather than the airport that we decided to take our chances (against the advice of expert Vagabonda on TA) and it worked out fine. Because we were dropping the car in Siracusa, the Autoeurope site would only book Europcar, which is located in the Notarbartolo train station north of the new city. While this was much less convenient than the Hertz office a few blocks from our hotel, the cost savings was worth it to take what we expected to be a 10 euro short cab ride. However, as we were leaving to pick up the car we were informed by Giuseppe that there was a cab strike and one of us would have to take the bus to the car rental place, then drive back and get the luggage. Giuseppe to the rescue: he asked the person guarding his parking lot to drive us in his car--and he in turn refused to accept any money. Giuseppe had already that morning gone out to buy us a tube to pack our posters. These were kindnesses above and beyond the call of duty!
The car rental was very easy and they gave us an “upgrade” to a standard size car, even though we preferred economy. But it turned out “standard” was still a small, zippy, highly-maneuverable Lancia and all our luggage fit in the trunk including a 26 inch case, a 20 inch case and two carry-ons. The rental car place was located very close to the ring road so it was easy to get out of the city quickly and on our way west to Scopello. We found navigating in Western Sicily easier than the eastern part of the island and had no trouble finding our way to Scopello.
SCOPELLO – I think it took us about an hour to get there and the roads were very well marked. At first we had planned to make this our base for Western Sicily, but when Marisin at Pensione Tranchina didn’t answer my emails I looked into alternatives. We ended up compromising on one night in Scopello and 3 nights in Selinunte for the western Sicily portion. Even though I don’t recommend one-nighters, we really enjoyed the little village and this pensione. I am glad, however, that we did not stay there for all four nights as it is a ways off the main roads and Scopello itself is charming, but tiny. When I asked Marisin for directions (she never did respond to emails and I ended up calling) she said, quizzically, “after the bar.” The town is THAT small.
However, it is perfectly located for a trifecta of sites – Lo Zingaro, Erice and Segesta. The Pensione is lovely. We were in room 8 with a sea view and a little balcony. Nothing fancy, but immaculate, perfectly maintained and an absolute bargain for 85 euro.
The order of visiting the sites turned out to be dictated by the weather. We were told to visit Erice when it’s clear and since it was such a beautiful day when we arrived we decided to go for it. I have seen debate on the forum about Erice, with some finding it “just another hill town” or a “tourist trap.” We LOVED Erice. I have visited many hill towns, and I think this is special. It took about an hour to get there – taking the road through Valderice. It is well marked and yes, it is definitely curvy going up and down. I would not suggest basing in Erice because it’s really inconvenient to get anywhere else. Others had said it’s magical at night when the day trippers leave, which I’m sure it is. But we found it magical for an afternoon – and there were very few people there anyway. We were there from about 3 to 6 p.m. and had thought everything would be closed mid-day. Actually, many stores – and all the pastry shops – were open. If we’d had more energy, we would have gone to more lookout points and taken more walks along the walls. As it was, we admired the absolutely glorious views – you could see the salt pans of Trapani -- and wandered the town. We had hoped to buy ceramics and perhaps a rug. There was only one store with any selection of the distinct rugs and we weren’t that impressed. One woman’s ceramics studio was amazing, with a very distinct style. Sorry I don’t have the name – but it’s on a lane past the main square – not in the middle of everything. She makes these gorgeous vases – you can watch her work. But, alas, too expensive to ship and too large to bring home as carry-on. The pastries – surprisingly -- lived up to their hype. I could go for one right now! Bazar del Miele, a Vagabonda-recommended gift shop, was a great place for gifts. We bought Trapani salt (2 euro for small bags) and fresh capers in bags. The capers we could have also bought in other places, including Ortigia, but this was the last place we saw the Trapani salt. They had a great selection of other gift items as well. Three hours was just fine and this did not include going into any churches. I would have liked four hours if we had felt better.
Easy drive back to Scopello and time for a short rest before dinner. At 7:45 the guests gather for wine and dinner is served at 8. This was part of the reason we wanted to stay here – we had read about Marisin’s cooking. Dinner was great. The Pasta Norma was among the best pasta we had on the trip and the main course was fresh-caught tuna steak – excellent. I think dinner was an extra 22 euro. The only quibble I had was that it wasn’t spelled out that the dinner wine, water and after-dinner tea were extra, but it was all so reasonable that it doesn’t matter. Marisin is a gracious host. Ask her about how she met Salvadore in Panama and have her show you the pictures of the house from the 1950’s. It looked so bad that I asked if this was the site of war damage. She responded that we were seeing the site of poverty! They have renovated it beautifully and we really enjoyed our time there. Breakfast was a special treat. Unlike all the other Sicilian breakfasts, this had nothing sweet. She served tomatoes and fava beans from the garden, with fresh bread and ricotta, and instructed us to drizzle her home-pressed olive oil over it. Loved it.
We left our luggage and took the short drive to Lo Zingaro to hike the nature preserve. We weren’t feeling so good and therefore took a very short hike. This is one of the few places that is gratis to US seniors, although many places are free or have reduced rates if you are a senior from the EU or certain Commonwealth countries. The weather was ideal and the preserve is really beautiful. We saw no signs of the fire last year. We hiked about 30 minutes in and back, although did not walk down to the “first beach.” Be sure to bring your own water, but there is a bathroom at the little museum about 15 minutes into the park. We would have liked to hike some more if we had the time and energy. Beautiful foliage and views of the coastline. I was surprised that there is cactus in this part of Sicily and it’s so unusual to see cacti on the coastline. From what I understand it’s about a two hour (or more) walk to the end, but there is no economical way to get back to the starting point. Too bad. It reminded us a bit of Cinque Terre.
Back to pick up our luggage and then off to Segesta. Before leaving Scopello we got a Pane Cunzato to share for lunch, a specialty sandwich for this region that has tomatoes, cheese, oil and oregano and made an absolutely delicious picnic at Segesta. There seem to be two bakeries that specialize in this – one on the piazza next to the Pensione (which was closed) and one just up the road. If you eat it there, rather than take out, they warm it up in the oven. Yum.
We had brought a bicycle lock and put it through all four pieces of luggage so it would have been really difficult to steal! However, we felt perfectly safe leaving the car at the Segesta parking lot. There is a lot of coming and going and it’s a fenced area. We had the only rain of the trip at Segesta, and it turned quite cold and windy. We took the bus up to the theatre since we were conserving our energy and were glad we did since it started to pour. We barely saw the theatre because the idea of waiting for another shuttle bus for 30 minutes in the rain wasn’t appealing, but from what we saw it didn’t look like we missed much. The temple, however, was stunning. The rain cleared just as we approached it and with the foliage, wild flowers and butterflies it was quite a sight to behold. Magnificent.
ON TO SELINUNTE – Once I saw the TA reviews for Villa Sogno I was hooked. We drove about an hour and it was easy to find right off the main road. By then my husband had figured out how to put coordinates in the GPS so it was really easy. Its location on the SS115 and right near the A29 makes it an absolutely ideal location for excursions around Southern and Western Sicily. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up doing much as we got slammed once again by illness. But fortunately, what a beautiful place to be sick! Cinzia and Lorenzo have created an oasis just off the main road that feels like you are at a resort. Their graciousness and hospitality is without peer. On arrival, Cinzia brings out homemade cake and nectar and makes you feel so welcome. As the website shows, the décor is sort of brothel meets Kasbah, but somehow it works. They have painstakingly turned this into a place of beauty, including heavenly gardens by a pool. We had selected the green room – Esmeralda – because it faces the gardens and gets no street noise. While all the rooms are nice, those facing the front would get some street noise. Another bargain for 100 euro, discounted to 95 euro for booking directly.
This was the halfway point of our trip and time to do laundry. We had a balcony where we strung our clothes line and hung the first load. Cinzia pointed out a sun porch with a real clothes line and clips where they dried much faster and she also offered that one of the housekeepers would do a load of laundry for us. This was a win-win. Someone else did the laundry, and our clothes weren’t strung on the balcony! I tipped the housekeeper 10 euro and hope this was enough, since it was priceless for me.
The first night’s dinner was at Boomerang Bar right in Marinella di Selinunte – 5 minute drive. This has been written up in newspapers for their fixed price fish feast for 25 euro including water, wine and dessert. I think there were six courses of fish and believe me, as fresh and delicious as it was, we were “fished out.” In retrospect, one of these fish feasts (we already did it in Palermo) would have sufficed. After all the fish courses, they bring out pasta…and then fruit and dessert. It was good, but too much.
We had read about breakfast at Villa Sogno, so we were prepared for how special it is. Cinzia bakes cakes without sugar and serves organic fruit, homemade yogurt and ricotta cheese. It is a work of art, in addition to tasting delicious. Then she packs up what’s left for you to take for lunch or snack, which served us very well. She was also totally gracious in providing anything we asked about—loaning aloe vera for sunburn (watch out for that Sicilian sun, which turns out to be powerful even when the weather is cool) and their dog Gaspare’s tennis ball for my husband to use as a physical therapy tool to work out a muscle spasm in his hip.
We had big plans for our first full day in Selinunte – we were going to do some combination of visiting the fishing village of Sciacca, have aperitif and wine tasting at Planeta in Sambuco di Sicilia and visit Ravida House in Menfi for olive oil tasting. Instead, we cancelled the pre-booked visit to Planeta and stayed by the pool and garden at Villa Sogno all day, venturing out to the beach at Marinella for a delicious tomato and cheese Panini and very brief stroll on the waterfront. We were feeling pretty bad, but the rest day in the sunshine helped.
That night we wanted to at least see something, so we visited Mazara del Vallo. Cinzia and Lorenzo gave us directions to get to the lungomare section directly without taking the autostrada and this proved really easy. The GPS guided us back to the hotel by the autostrada. We headed for the Museum of the Dancing Satyr that I had read about in the guidebooks. This turned out to be an unexpected highlight. There is a 25-minute video with English subtitles that is on a continuous loop and explains the discovery of this ancient wonder by fishermen in 1998. We followed the guidebook advice and didn’t peak at the statue until after we saw the film. It was breathtaking. I highly recommend a visit to this little museum if time permits. Then we walked around the town which was unexpectedly beautiful. They must have the equivalent of redevelopment money – or it’s just an affluent town – as the main shopping street was just beautiful as were the various piazzas. I had read about the “Kasbah” area where the Arab community resides and pictured twisted alleyways like Morocco teeming with people and shops. Instead, we found…..nothing there. Either we missed it, or it’s now just a place where people live (that’s what my husband thinks a shopkeeper explained to him in Italian). Allah Kasbah restaurant had been recommended and we had a good dinner there before some great gelato on the busy main shopping street. This was the only place where we saw gelato actually served inside a giant brioche, a Sicilian version of “ice cream sandwich.”
Our second full day in Selinunte was devoted to seeing the ruins. This is a very special place, both for the ruins themselves where you can climb around, as well as the setting right by the sea. Our energy was flagging, so we just spent a couple of hours there. There is a lot to see and if we’d been feeling better we would have seen more of it. Its location right next to the town and beach makes it possible to break up the day with lunch at the many restaurants on the beach.
Then it was on to Cave di Cusa, which is the site of the quarry where the stones were taken for Selinunte. It is very close to Villa Sogno, but we still managed to get lost. Tip: Set your GPS to the small town of Campobello di Mazara, and then follow the signs from there. BUT—stop and ask for directions because in at least one case the sign was totally misleading. We were the only people there and it’s quite scenic. There are no descriptive signs so you have to use your imagination. I would say this is an optional stop, but interesting and a lovely drive through real Sicilian countryside.
Villa Sogno recommended Agriturismo Carbona in Castelvetrano for our final dinner. This turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip and I would highly recommend it. The grounds of the agriturismo are beautiful; too bad it was too cold to eat outside. There are two indoor dining rooms and we were seated in the larger, more atmospheric room, along with two private parties of local families celebrating their children’s first confessions. Because of the large crowd, the service was not as prompt as we would have liked, but the meal was absolutely delicious.
We sadly said goodbye to our hosts at Villa Sogno, who are completely deserving of their ranking as one of the best B and B’s in Italy. We had a long drive ahead to Modica, a part of the trip that I had actually changed late in the planning stage.
ON TO MODICA --In my original itinerary plan we were going to drive to Piazza Armerina to see Villa Romana Casale, spend the night there, and see Catalgirone the next day on our way to Siracusa. Early on in planning we had decided to skip Agrigento as we didn’t want another “one nighter” and figured we would have seen a lot of ruins, but that Villa Romana and the mosaics would be something different. We also wanted to do the cooking class at Modicarte in Modica. That one-nighter in Piazza Armerina had always bothered me, so, with input from Vagabonda and others, I switched to staying in Modica two nights and dropped one night from Siracusa.
So, the plan now was to drive from Selinunte to Modica, do the afternoon/evening cooking class, do a day trip to Catalgirone and Villa Romana the next day, and have an evening and the next morning in Modica before going to Ortigia.
Those plans didn’t exactly work out. I was pretty sick at that point and it was a long drive to Modica – probably about 4.5 hours. When picking lodging in Modica there was an entire discussion on TA about staying at a charming B and B with garden and steps, or staying at a hotel on the main street, Corso Umberto, which is flat, with no garden and no steps. We opted for charm and steps and a breakfast garden. Le Lumie is a 3-room B and B that is very atmospheric, with a gorgeous view from the garden, but there are tons of steps to go anywhere and return. Frederika met us at the Chiesa di San Giorgio (which we were able to find by GPS) and guided us to the tiniest alley that leads to a few parking spaces about 150 meters from the B and B. In kind of an odd arrangement, three hotel rooms are off the garden in their own building. We had the “brown room” which is "deluxe" with balcony for 110 euro. If we had been feeling well, the location would have been lovely. But all we kept wishing was that we were in a hotel on the flat street where we could easily walk places.
Maurizio at Modicarte – the site of our cooking class -- had given us the name of the street to input in the GPS, but hadn’t given further instructions – which meant we got totally lost. If you go there, definitely ask for better directions. It’s above the city just a couple of kms outside of the main town. It was also too cold to be outside; it would have been great to eat the dinner we helped prepare on this fantastic terrace watching the lights come on in Modica. Mama Maria, Maurizio’s mother, doesn’t speak a word of English but is a real kick. They have set up an “industrial” kitchen for lessons that are part demonstration and part lesson. We had opted for the fish cooking lesson and dinner that was 60 euro each. (I think most people do a lunch lesson.) We made bread dough, ravioli, anchovies, sardines, arancini and a puff pastry dessert. We had hoped to have recipes to write on, but Maurizio insisted there wouldn’t be time and he would send the recipes by email, which he did. I do think the recipes will be hard to replicate because many are multi-step and many of the ingredients (such as fresh anchovies and fresh sardines) are not readily available. We did learn some stuff, like – believe it or not – we didn’t know there was a tool to crimp together the ravioli. I guess I had never thought about how they get stuffed and sealed! Most of the food was very good and the bread rolls and ravioli were excellent.
Breakfast the next morning in the Le Lumie garden was simple but lovely. And our second breakfast included extraordinary homemade tiramisu – probably the best I’ve ever tasted, although I never thought of it as a breakfast food.
In order to have an easier day, we changed plans and decided to drive to Villa Romana on our way to Siracusa the next day. This way we could spend some time exploring Modica. But exploring the town with all the steps proved too strenuous, so we spent most of the day resting.
We only peeked in Bonjuto, the famous chocolate shop and could barely enjoy the samples. That night I was too sick to walk anywhere that had steps (which meant anywhere), but my husband felt I had to eat something. I had in my Modica file someone’s description of a little trattoria that had good soup, which was what I was craving. My ingenious husband figured out that we could drive to it since the restaurant review included exact instructions and there was parking nearby. Now, driving anywhere in Modica is crazy because of the tiny streets and stairs, but the idea beat walking! We planned our route, but then ran into a political demonstration that backed up traffic through the entire town. With a detour to the Pharmacia where they had Nyquil and tissues (YAY!), this was one of the times when the map app saved us. It took some guts to turn off into an alley that the map app showed heading to exactly where we wanted to be, but it worked. My heros (the map app and my husband). We found La Rusticana handily near the post office and it was as billed – a little mom and pop trattoria with only locals and real honest to goodness homemade food with pop—as lovely a guy as we’ve met--in front, and mom—as good a cook whose food we’ve eaten-- in back. I had the fava bean soup--usually called pasta fagioli, but called here lili with broad beans--and my husband had the pasta Norma, which he thought was excellent. He also said that my pasta fagioli was the best he’d ever eaten and wants to back to Modica to get a full bowl of it for himself. The proprietor was nice enough to just keep bringing me boiling water with limone, which helped to soothe my throat (my husband had been able to explain to him in Italian that I was sick). This is a place to seek out for really good cooking. It’s not on a fancy street and it’s simply but nicely decorated despite the fluorescent lights, but it’s the real deal. On the way back to the hotel, Café del Artes was still open and we treated ourselves to their very special hot chocolate to go. Sinful, rich and thick.
The next day we opted to cut out a visit to Catalgirone, but to go ahead with our plans to visit Villa Romana on our way to Siracusa. This turned out to be a mistake. First of all, it was the only time we got really lost when the GPS took us to a road that was closed and we couldn’t find our way back easily. So, what should have been a 1.5 to 2 hour drive turned into much longer. And, I hope this is not heresy, but we just weren’t all that excited about the mosaics. Yes, it is a remarkable preservation effort. And these ancient mosaics are something to behold. But it just wasn’t worth the long drive to what felt like the middle of nowhere to get there. And if we had been well, I think I would have preferred to have more time to see another baroque town like Ragusa or Noto on the way to Siracusa rather than see the mosaics. I’m sure many will disagree with me on this, though on our flight back we met a couple who volunteered precisely the same reaction we’d had without our having talked about it first. I would just caution people planning their itinerary with limited time that it is a long drive from everywhere just to spend one to two hours at this site, as remarkable as it may be.
In all the discussions on TA about which baroque town to visit, it is always said that Modica is a real town with a mixture of tourists and real life, and that is one of the reasons we were so taken with it. We would have loved to spend more time wandering Modica, walking up to Modica alta, seeing the beautiful views….and eating more chocolate. Itinerary-wise, for us, I would say it would have been perfect if we had the two nights in Modica without the schlep to Piazza Armerina. But if someone really wants to see the mosaics, this itinerary can still work well but I would suggest doing it on the way to Siracusa rather than giving up a full day to get there and back from Modica as we had originally planned.
ORTIGIA/SIRACUSA -- On the way to Siracusa it didn’t help that we missed the turnoff for Siracusa Sud and then ran into yet another political rally on Ortigia so that the drive from Piazza Armerina that should have taken no more than 2 hours ended up being closer to 4 hours. I had read, but forgotten, that the GPS to l’Approdo della Sirene is wrong and tries to take you down a one-way street of Riva Garibaldi. That mistake cost us an hour of being caught in bumper to bumper traffic to go essentially around the corner. Again, the Sicily map app finally showed us the way, and we should have looked at it first. So, ask for exact directions to anywhere you are going on Ortigia island.
We had gone back and forth between staying at Via della Guidecca and l’Appodo della Sirene. I’m sure we would have been happy with either, but was glad we had settled on l’Approdo della Sirene because our room at Guidecca would have been top floor with four flights of stairs. Also, Gianmarco at l’Approdo stood in a parking place in front of the hotel facing the sea to save it for us, which was a huge convenience. Our room, #4, was a sea view with balcony, just as we had requested. It was the most expensive of the trip at 125 euro. It is ideally located at the edge of the island, just over the bridge from Siracusa and around the corner from the morning market. While everything is close on Ortigia, I think this is particularly well situated. The breakfast terrace is also a real treat – looking out at the yachts in the sunshine. It was finally warm enough to eat outside comfortably, but we never did have a single hot day.
By the time we arrived in Ortigia, exhausted and starving, we just ate next door to the hotel at La Darsena, which was fine, but a bit overpriced for what we got and not particularly memorable. Once fortified, we set out to see the island and were absolutely enchanted. At my first site of the Piazza Duomo I have to say that my heart stopped. It was so perfectly beautiful that there was a Disneyland-esque quality to it. We have in Los Angeles a shopping center called The Grove, which is made up of phony perfect Italian-looking streets. We both laughed that it reminded us of the Grove! In the daylight it’s not quite so perfect that it looks phony, but it is really one of the beautiful spots of the world.
Finally, we were feeling a little better for the last two days in Ortigia. However, any plans for excursions to Pantalica or other places I had researched went out the window. We returned the car to Europcar a few blocks away, making one wrong turn from the gas station that cost us another half hour of navigating complicated one-way streets.
Ortigia’s morning market is every day but Sunday and it is really special. We went all three mornings! There are so many free samples that it can be lunch. The specialty of baked ricotta is absolutely delicious and we bought one that they vacuum-packed to bring home.
We spent day one only wandering Ortigia and day two in mainland Siracusa at the archaeological park and museum. I would say three nights/two days is the minimum to spend here, and that’s without any excursions outside the city. We LOVED Ortigia.
We mostly just wandered, but we also visited the ancient Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh, that is located under the Hotel Alla Giudecca and found it quite interesting. They claim it is the oldest mikveh in Europe. It’s 5 euro for the 15-minute tour that runs almost every hour.
A special store is Helene Moreau on Via Roma, where she hand-paints silk scarves. Dayle had mentioned this store in her recent TR and I bought one of the beautiful scarves as a gift – reasonable for one-of-a-kind at 33 euro and easy to transport. Olive is a great store on Via Cavour where you can sample the Bonjuto chocolates from Modica or, in my case, purchase them which somehow I had overlooked doing while in Modica. They were expensive at 3.50 euro each; I have no idea how much cheaper (if any) they would have been from the source. But I really love the Modica chocolate (especially the cinnamon and the pepper) and its grainy texture. There are many interesting flavors. Margie (Journeyer) in her TA trip report discussed olive oil tasting at this same store, but I missed that.
Dinner that night was at Trattoria Kaliope, a Vagabonda-recommended place that we really enjoyed. Beautiful outdoor courtyard, very large menu and wonderful service and food. The pizzas looked good, too. And every night we enjoyed Piazza Duomo for gelato or granite or just its special beauty. The best gelato I had in Ortigia was at Gelato Bianca on the far side of Piazza Duomo.
Our last day was devoted to mainland Siracusa and the archaeological park and museum. While it’s apparently a 30-minute walk, again we were conserving energy. We decided to try the public bus which was FREE (we have no idea why), crowded, hot—and remember, the weather was cool!--and a long wait. But it got us there. We knew the theatre would be covered with wood seats for the performances in May and June, but it was still a very nice, well preserved theatre to see. The Ear of Dionysus was rather interesting, but we weren’t captivated, although the grounds of the archaeological park are beautiful. We were either ‘ruined out’ or these just aren’t as much fun as seeing Segesta and Selinunte out in the countryside up close and personal.
We had bought a combination ticket (13.50 euro) and walked about 10 minutes to the museum which is quite large with vast holdings. At the entrance they were out of English guides that have helpful plans. Hint: If they don’t have them at the entrance, turn right instead of left – they had them in a case at the END of the exhibits. I chose to walk through the entire circular museum quickly and see whatever caught my eye. My husband spent some time in the extraordinary exhibit of prehistoric finds and then in the impressive exhibit of classical material in room C. You could be there two hours or all day. Also, Dayle on Fodors had tipped me off to the fascinating jewelry and coin exhibit downstairs the jewelry would be in fashion today. This exhibit has slightly different hours and appears to close some days at 1 p.m., so if interested either go in the morning or have your hotel check on the coin exhibit hours for that day. We ate our picnic of market-purchased vine of tomatoes and apricots on a bench – in the shade – on the museum’s particularly beautiful grounds.
Almost next door is the Catacombs of San Giovanni. Visits are by 30-minute guided tour only, on the hour, with mid-day closing. I thought it was interesting; my husband thought that the catacombs themselves were just a series of caves and that the guide rattled off his pre-packaged info in such a military style (designed to fit the rigorous 30 minute schedule) that if there was anything to be passionate about, he failed to communicate it. Read about it and decide for yourself. However, they (actually, to be fair, the guide) did call a taxi for us that made it very convenient to return to Ortigia for fixed price of 10 euro – and far more pleasant than the public bus.
Our final dinner was at Sicilia in Tavola – reservations required. It has about 9 tables and was the closest meal we had to “fine dining.” You can only eat inside, but the food and service were excellent. I finally got to have the orange and fennel salad I had heard about and never tasted and the pastas were outstanding. Also, great cannola for dessert.
The hotel arranged a driver to Catania airport for 70 euro. Turns out we could have arranged our own taxi for 60 euro, but the driver was punctual and the car was very nice. Easy 50-minute drive to the airport. Also, nice food shops and souvenirs at Catania airport, including a patticeria with beautiful looking cannoli. You can easily do last minute shopping -- and eating – there.
PARTING THOUGHTS – Sicily is a wonderful holiday destination, especially for those who love Italy and have already been to many other parts of this glorious country. Coming from as far as the US, I would suggest at least a two-week trip there if possible. I hope this has been helpful, especially for those in the planning stages. I am happy to answer any questions or feel free to PM me on TripAdvisor: alison18losangeles.
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Sicily Trip Report May 2013 - LONG and DETAILED
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