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Trip Report Trip Report: Sicily, April 2010

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This is a very long trip report for two reasons: one for an obvious reason given in the report, and the other, a direct consequence of the first, is that I wrote this long hand in the Dordogne with little else to do during a period commonly called les saints de glace; we even had snow for a couple of hours.

Our original schedule, upset by the volcano, was to leave SF on the 15th, spend 4 nights in Palermo, one in Erice, two in Ribera, two in Caltagirone, three in Siracusa and two in Taormina. Our new schedule had us spend one night in Palermo, one in Erice, one in Ribera, two in Piazza Armerina (Caltagirone would have been better under normal circumstances), two in Siracusa, two in Randazzo (far better than staying in Taormina under any circumstances), and two in Palermo.

We were supposed to leave on April 15, but the Icelandic volcano changed our plans. We canceled our flight completely and purchased new tickets to leave on April 18. The price differential was substantial but instead of going via Paris and Milan, both closed, we were routed via Rome. We were to meet our friends who were to spend a few days in Milan before coming to Palermo. I thought that they might be able to leave Milan before the airport closed, but they also got stuck and had to take the train to Rome to then fly to Palermo. Both couples had to pay an extra night because we canceled our room too late. Rules are rules, and why should the hotel carry the cost of something beyond its control? We were scheduled to arrive the evening before our friends. Instead we arrived at noon, and they came in around 6 p.m. Bus service to the city is easy, cheap and recommended. There is talk about being ripped off by taxi drivers, but the fare is metered. Taxis are expensive, even within the city for the given distances, and the airport fare will come close to 60€.

Instead of staying 4 nights at the Hotel Joli, we stayed one. We had the cheapest room with a double (queen size) bed. It was under the eaves and required quite a few steps from the elevator. There is no view, but there is AC, and the en suite bathroom was a couple of steps down with the door so low that even my wife (5’1”) hit her head on the frame. But the room was larger than the room on the first floor, which we had at the end of the trip. I would recommend both the hotel and our original room. The cost was 74€ per night, but that may be the April rate outside holiday periods such as Easter. The breakfast was light. The hotel is ideally situated within walking distance of the harbor and the main sites of Palermo. Whatever pictures I have posted of Palermo, they were taken within that walking distance.

Before continuing with our tour of Sicily, I will go at length into an event that had a definite impact on our tour. We arrived in Palermo on April 19 and leave with a car on the 20th. I am the only driver of a standard shift Fiat Bravo (one 22” case per person is the maximum for the trunk). On April 22nd, my wife takes a wrong step in Agrigento and breaks her ankle. We think that it might simply be a serious sprain. We leave the archeological site and decide to go to the museum--not easy to find, nor the parking. We find it. It has an outdoor café where we sit to eat sandwiches and get ice for the ankle. While sitting there, an American couple commiserates with us, and it turns out that the husband is a retired ER physician. He counsels against immediate casting if it's broken because of potential swelling after the cast is in place. My wife stays at the café and we visit the museum. We leave and drive to Piazza Armerina where we stay in the agriturismo Gigliotto. The rooms require walking down quite a few steps. We get switched to a room in the main building with few steps up or down.

The next day, a Friday, following the directions given by the staff at the agriturismo, we find the hospital in Piazza Armerina very easily. We go to the emergency room. The ankle is X-rayed. A bone chip is detached and requires a cast. We veto it because of the logistical problems it represents. So the doctor recommends a boot, circles it on a list of orthopedic devices available at the local orthopedic store. Lunch time has arrived. So we visit the Villa Casale (open during lunch)--my wife stays in the car with ice on the ankle--and we go to the store after lunch. The sales person offers two fixed boots tightened with velcro. We choose the shorter one. My wife complains that she can’t walk. I point out that the sole is curved so that she can rock on it and keep the ankle still. At that point the sales person realizes that it is the wrong boot; the one circled by the MD has an adjustable angle (the other boots were not illustrated on the sheet). She does not have the model, we must drive 40 km. to the main store in Enna. We go to Enna. I drop off friends & wife at the store and look for parking. By the time I come to the store, it is clear that something is wrong: we are made to understand that an orthopedic doctor must adjust the angle of the boot, their technician is already gone for the day. I buy the boot for 200€ (made in U.S.A.) and we go back to the emergency room in Piazza Armerina. We wait 45 minutes. Eventually the doctors on duty see us, fiddle with the boot and finally tell us that it was purchased from a private store and not the hospital’s pharmacy so it’s the store’s technician who has to adjust the boot ... next Monday. Before we could say anything else, a real emergency rolls into the examination room and we are hustled out. On a more positive note, ER care in Italy is free.

We realize that our post-Sicily trip: Naples, Rome, Florence, Zurich and Paris in 5 weeks has to be canceled and we need to get to our house in the Dordogne as quickly as possible. The agriturismo lets me use their computer and I spend the morning canceling hotel reservations. I try to cancel the ferry ride to Naples with no success but the woman behind the desk calls for me and gets it canceled (it turns out that our tickets were nonrefundable anyway). I try to book a flight from Palermo to Paris on WingJet (about 100€ per person instead of Alitalia’s $1000 for two) but WingJet does not accept American credit cards. I am stuck, not knowing where or when I will arrive in France, and therefore can’t arrange for a car.

We continue our travels to Caltagirone, Vizzini and Siracusa, with restrictions because of one passenger who cannot walk around. In the meantime, thinking about the train cancellations I requested of my cousin residing in Italy, it dawned on me that he could purchase the plane tickets for me. Our friends have a cell phone. I call on April 25 (I obviously was not thinking clearly) and get plane reservations for the 29th. I call Kemwel on the 26 and get a car reservation at the same rate as my June reservation. But I ask them to change the pickup location for June to Périgueux. When I check on the Internet on the 27th, I notice that an error was made. I try to correct it, the result of which will follow.

On April 26 we drive back to Enna. The same person now explains that without the settings from an orthopedic doctor, the technician can’t fit the boot. We argue incomprehensibly, so she tells us to wait for the tech. One eventually appears, speaks Italianate French or Gallicanized Italian, but we can communicate. The boot we have is for individuals who had ankle operations, hence the possible different angle settings. What we need is .... what we looked at originally in Piazza Armerina. It only costs 100€, but the store does not refund the difference, it only gives credit for anything in the store. I refuse to accept that. A lady who was there to get a wrist support for her son spoke some English and some French and explains the rule to me. I say, and she translates, that this is ridiculous; the original boot is a recommendation of the doctor which they then refuse to fit because the doctor won’t give the angle specifications. I think the term “ridiculous” may have done the trick. The tech gets on the phone and I eventually get my 100€ back. We drive off towards Etna.

On April 28th we return to Palermo. On April 29 we leave the hotel at 5:45 for a 7 a.m. flight to Forli with a six hour layover and arrive in Paris at 5 p.m. In Italy the staff was prepared to deal with a handicapped passenger. Somehow the message did not get to Paris where the plane parks on the tarmac and requires a bus transfer to the terminal. We did not get to the rental agency until 6 p.m. I show our voucher; they can’t find it in their system--it was canceled because of the location mix-up which I had tried to change (my mistake). I have to buy a phone card, call Kemwel 4 times before everything is straightened out, except that the car is still to be returned at the wrong location.

We drive out of CDG, get caught in a monstrous traffic jam, spending a good hour in it on the outer belt east of Paris (not the périphérique). We get to the first rest stop south of Paris at 9:50. We are lucky. They close at 10 but are very pleasant and helpful (serviable) so that we get our first real meal of the day. By midnight we reach the Orléans centre exit. The B&B Hotel is full but the Allseasons Hotel has a room near the elevator for 75€ including breakfast.

The 30th we reach the Dordogne, drop off our stuff at the house, go to the hospital where a new x-ray confirms the break and the ankle is cast. While the ankle is being cast, I drive to the orthopedic store to discover that they do not have any wheelchair rentals available, but the store 30 km. away in Thiviers has them. They close at 6:30 and it is 5:30. I return to the hospital with the intent of leaving my wife there while I get a wheelchair. But I have to pay the bill. I run from the ER office to comptabilité and present the papers. The clerk disappears in a rear office only to reappear 10 minutes later to tell me that the wrong form was filled out. I can’t pay, they’ll have to mail the bill to SF. Fine with me as long as they realize that I won’t be there until July. I run back to the ER. I am told to wait for help to get my wife in the car, We don’t wait and get to the same store at 6:05. He calls ahead, we get to Thiviers at 6:35, the store is open and they spend 20 minutes explaining the ins and outs of the chair. We’re off by 7 after paying a 250€ deposit on the chair.

I go to the RR station to find a phone and tell our friends that we’ll be late for dinner because we have to find a pharmacy for two prescriptions. One is a pain killer still unused a week later. The other is a prescription for 21 injections against phlebitis. Our friend immediately tells us to find a pharmacy in Thiviers because our local ones are likely to be closed. We drive up the main street, find the pharmacy, fill out the prescription which is quite expensive, and we are on our way. All that remains for our stay in the Dordogne is the construction of a ramp for the one step into the house. It turns out to take about 1 hour with 3 pieces of plywood and lots of glue. We settle in with a daily visit of a nurse for the injections -- about 80€ a week for daily injections and a blood sample every 5 days, plus 8.65€ per test result.

What we did see in Sicily.

Instead of arriving in Palermo on the 16th, we arrived on the 19th (see the beginning of the report). We took public transportation to the closest stop to our hotel and walked 4 blocks to the hotel. We registered, dropped off our luggage and went for a stroll in Palermo. We found the old part of the town, which is shabby, as is Sicily with two notable exceptions. There was a lot of garbage around, and a striking amount in the countryside near Palermo. Farther out the situation was better. But we got a taste of old Palermo, visited the Martorana church that dated back to the 11th or 12th century, with wonderful mosaics, but also Baroque frescoes where, I suspect, the original ceiling had collapsed. We saw the end of a market, went back to the hotel, met our friends, found a restaurant where we established our ordering pattern: 2 antipasti, one or two pastas, one or two secondi and a side order of vegetables. We ate alla famiglia, drank wine and mineral water--it is impossible to get tap water in Italy because that is considered toilet water. Lunches generally were paninis.

We stayed at the Hotel Joli--http://www.hoteljoli.com/ --(1 economic double with breakfast, 251€ for four nights--April prices) which I highly recommend. It seems that their regular rooms are smaller than what we had under the eaves: the regular room we had at the end of the trip consisted of a queen-size bed which allowed the door to the hall to open fully (giving a 30” aisle on that side) and the French doors to the balcony to open fully (giving a 24” aisle); the widths of the doors defined the width of the aisles. The space at the end of the bed was hardly larger, with barely enough space for a narrow desk and an armoire. This not a room for those who need expansive space. The attic room was much larger. The decor, all redone, is 19th century rococo. The staff was extremely helpful, and there is free internet access.

We leave Palermo the next day. I get a quick lesson in Sicilian driving. Signage is a problem. Ads are larger than directional signs and we do not know what shape or color to look for. We miss the turn off for Monreale, backtrack and for the most part find ourselves on secondary or smaller roads until we rejoin the main road close the the parking lot for Monreale.

Monreale is not to be missed, especially the mosaics in the core of the church and the cloisters. The treasury is a disappointment as is the walk on the roof, although the latter offers a nice view of Palermo with the sea in the background. Whoever goes to Sicily without seeing Monreale is missing one of its highlights. The mosaics cover the Old and the New Testament, and the cloisters has fine delicate carvings which belie their Romanesque dating.

After seeing Monreale and having lunch there (paninis and mineral water in a café on the piazza in front of the church) we drove to Erice without using the autostrada. Erice is the Sicilian equivalent of “un plus beau village” set high on a hill overlooking the sea. It takes about a dozen hairpin turns to reach it. We parked the car at the entrance and tried to find the Hotel in the Pines (http://www.lapinetadierice.com/ ) for which we saw signs. We eventually discovered that we had to drive all around and through the town to get to it. There is a tempting shorter route, but the last 30 yards or so are the wrong way on a one-way street and I would not be surprised if that is used as a revenue enhancement by the town. The hotel has a wonderful location facing the sea, set among pines with rooms in individual stone cabins; but not all cabins have views. Ours did not and that night the fog came in like in a SF summer. The cabin felt positively cold and monastical (the bathrooms have electrical space heaters). The cost of a room ranges from 60€ to 140€ for the same room depending on the season.

While having a fabulous location, Erice in and of itself is not a particularly attractive town. There are a few old churches, and we would have had to pay to see them even though it ws culture week in Italy and all public sites were free, but the descriptions of the churches indicated a heavy 19th century influence and the few pre-19th century paintings that were touted did not appeal to us. We had dinner in the upstairs room of a restaurant (almost empty) with the fog swirling on the main square. The town buildings are very plain and gray, with no extras such as the arcades found in Poppi (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/4201756686/sizes/l/in/set-72157622914855341/ ) or in small French or Spanish villages (Monpazier (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/4515420547/sizes/l/in/set-72157623717079199/ ) and Garrovillas (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/4174443109/sizes/l/in/set-72157622975757180/ ) come to mind). It is a severe architecture which we found also in Piazza Armerina, Vizzini and near Mt. Etna. Taormina is an exception, but that is because the innumerable restaurants and stores with their postcards, souvenirs and other attraptions [sic] fool the eye.

Any church we visited tended to be plain on the inside, a far cry from Monreale, Mexican Baroque or Austrian Baroque/Rococo churches, or even plainer Romanesque churches in western France. Except for an elaborate Baroque chapel, even the cathedral in Siracusa had little of interior interest aside from the use of pillars from the Greco-Roman temple that preceded it. The Green Guide barely mentions the interior of the cathedral. It is as if the artistic development from the Renaissance onwards by-passed Sicily with the exception of some church fronts. But the sites we had planned to visit but missed because of the time spent on our medical emergency are the Baroque towns and churches in SE. Sicily (Noto, etc.); it might have modified my view of architecture in Sicily.

We did discover the pasticceria in Erice. I am not a lover of pastries and sweets in general, but if I lived in Sicily, I could be converted. The French patisserie products always look attractive, but aside from the croissant, palmier, a chausson aux pommes or a plain tarte aux fruits, I am not tempted. In Italy, when offered a croissant at breakfast, it generally was good--one can count on the quality of their pastries

We left Erice to go to Segesta. The hotel clerk gave us directions via the autostrada which we declined under his dubious looks. Secondary roads were more our style. We did hit a dead-end, but eventually found our way to the site, probably taking three times longer than using the autostrada. The site is known for its Greek temple standing by itself in a rural setting, but there are Roman and later ruins on the hillside above, including an amphitheater with a great view over the countryside. The general entry was free because of culture week, but the bus ride to the top requires payment of a fee for the round trip. I recommend taking the bus up and walking down. The best views of the Greek temple are while taking the badly marked and rough trail down--my wife declined the walk down.

From Segesta we planned to take ordinary roads to the coast near Selinunte. The road we planned to take was closed; a berm of dirt was placed across the road a few miles in. We backtrack, try to find a way around, get lost in a town where we are clearly circling without finding the proper road, and eventually give up to take the autostrada whose entrance is half a mile from the Segesta site. Sicilian towns don’t seem to have the “toutes directions” and “centre ville” signage common to French towns which, for those familiar with it, will guarantee finding the right road in and out of town. The equivalent of “déviations” signs are also lacking. Signage is generally terrible in Sicily with the exception of the autostrada. So we took the autostrada from Segesta to Selinunte and discovered that the interior autostrade are free. We only paid a toll along the coast going back to Palermo. I do not know if the autostrada has a speed limit, but quite a few cars passed us when we drove 130 to 140 km/h. Every so often there was an indication of a reduced speed limit and the reason is not always clear. This seemingly arbitrary change in the actual speed limit occurs on all roads. To slow down to the posted speed is to do so at one’s own risk because the Italians do not slow down as much. They just pay lip service to the signage, reducing their speed by 10 km/h. Sometimes there are signs that the speed is electronically controlled. It’s not clear what that means. I usually never went faster than 10 km/h above a posted limit and saw no traffic lights that would turn on to control the speed, as is the case at the entrance of Portuguese towns. We’ll see if I picked up tickets (none so far 7-21-10). Tunnels on the coast autostrada have a variety of speed limits, with no objective condition being evident for the differences. The scientist in our group tended to speak of standard deviation when things were not quite as expected, but we soon decided that deviation is standard.

Selinunte is a wonderful site with a beautiful ultra modern entry hall that has no impact on the site itself. For us, the site had essentially two components: a hill with a couple of temples, one with the outer columns still standing (or raised again) and one which is a very impressive pile of cut stone and fallen columns. The other part is at some distance, so we drove to it (the more athletically inclined can walk it) which also contains a couple of temples and an area covered by brambles which was the residential part of the city. One dreams of what they might eventually find there. At the present there are only a few alleys going through it. Selinunte was much less crowded than Agrigento and the area around it seemed less developed.

We drove off thinking that we would spend the night in Sciaccia. Driving into town was so bad, with no hotels in sight, that I made a U-turn and drove right out. We had missed the turn for the city center and the harbor, but it had been a long day and I guess I was in no mood to fight the traffic; better signage might have led to a different decision. Guidebooks mention a nice harbor in Sciaccia, hence presumably a pleasant place to spend an evening. We drove off to Ribera, drove through a substantial town without seeing a single hotel. We asked and eventually arrived at the only hotel (http://www.hotel-miravalle.it/pagina.php?pagina=home&pagina_html=home ) in town (we saw no signs for B&Bs) which was at the first major turnoff as we entered the town. It was fine for the night (70€), although the breakfast was probably the skimpiest of the trip.

The next day we drove to Agrigento, We parked and walked down the main avenue taking in the different period ruins. We walked back to the closest temple to the parking lot which we by-passed originally because groups of students were headed that way. Practically no one was there when we saw it. My wife fell and we went back to the car, drove to and eventually found (not easy) the museum and its parking lot. The museum is interesting with a lot of shards, flint tools, and nondescript pottery on shelf after shelf. But there also are some jewels, such as kraters with black figures on burnt orange backgrounds, and some beautiful small objects. It is a museum to be browsed, with the viewer letting the eye wander and be attracted by this or that object.

From Agrigento we continued to Piazza Armerina. One of our group had a cell phone and found an agriturismo outside Piazza Armerina where we could stay ( 100€ per night, good breakfast with fresh blood orange juice, and an evening meal available at 30€ per person including wine--rates may be considerably higher at the height of tourist season). Most of the guest rooms are in a new building built in traditional style. The room which had been originally assigned to us (switched because of steps) had a canopy bed, access to a private veranda, a large bathroom. I highly recommend the place. Interestingly enough, while hotels & rooms were not in obvious evidence until now--with the exception of Erice--the agriturismo Gigliotto (http://www.gigliotto.com/ ) advertises miles around Piazza Armerina, to the point that it would appear to be counterproductive because the ads do not contain usable directions. We later found other B&Bs advertised in the town itself.

Piazza Armerina is a shabby and rundown as any town we saw in Sicily. The cathedral on top of the hill does not have much to offer, There are a few run-down palazzi facing the old fort. But the piazza Garibaldi has a small wine shop with tastings available and the owner also runs a B&B (quality unknown). The trick to driving into such towns is to do it between 1:30 and 3:00; there is less traffic and parking is available.

The main reason to go to Piazza Armerina is the Villa Casale and its mosaics. Most of the site is closed for renovation and judging from the extent of the covered area, we saw only a 10th of the mosaics. Even that limited amount made the visit one of the highlights of our trip and would have been so even if the trip had not been shortened and interrupted. Anyone driving between Siracusa and Agrigento should make the detour to see these mosaics. My photographs don’t do them justice because of the uneven lighting cast on the mosaics on that sunny day. A stay at the agriturismo Gigliotto would be a plus.

From Piazza Armerina we drove to Caltagirone to see the steps and shop for a wedding present in the shops lining the steps. The interior of the cathedral at the top of the steps does not deserve a mention in the Green Guide, and it was closed. We found a pair of candlesticks appropriate as a wedding gift, but generally the style of the ceramics is flowery Baroque. One shop, on the left toward the bottom of the steps, had more modern and in my mind more interesting designs. We did not see more of the town, we were limited to walking from the parked car to the top of the steps and back, and we did not see the ceramics museum which had been a goal of my wife.

We drove on to Vizzini which was supposed to have a ricotta festival. Coming from Caltagirone there is a nice view of what turns out to be the upper part of the town. The town itself is quite drab although it has ceramic steps similar to Caltagirone’s next to the city hall. We arrived at the end of the midday break. There was no evidence of a festival, but the tourist office gave us a schedule of the afternoon events. We picked up lunch stuff, walked down the street which held the festival and was emptied for the midday break, found a street market at the end where we purchased a piece of aged cheese and some olives and went back to the car for lunch. By that time there were policemen all over the place to direct traffic, so we can confirm that toward the end of April, Vizzini does hold a ricotta festival. I suspect that there are more festivities on the second day (Sunday) than in the early afternoon of the first, when we were there.

From Vizzini we had a choice: 1 night in Noto or that area or two nights in or near Siracusa, skipping the Baroque towns of Noto, etc. We chose to drive toward Siracusa and on that road we saw signs for a couple of agriturismo. We chose one by convenience: the signage was better and it did not require crossing traffic to turn into its entrance. Everything was on a single floor in the agriturismo Limoneto (http://www.limoneto.it/open.asp?pag=home&lang=eng ), which made it very convenient. The rooms were like attached condos, but no cooking, with a large downstairs room with a queen-size bed and a table in the middle of the room, and there was a loft with three single beds--the bathroom was downstairs. Price: 100€ per night (as it eventually turned out), and again, these are April prices. The agriturismo has a large restaurant dining room where we ate that Saturday (more in the eating section) and a breakfast and dining room for its guests when the restaurant is closed. They’ll do a load of laundry for 5€ (a bargain, and they waived the fee).

The next day we visited the Greek and Roman ruins of Siracusa and the island of Ortygia. After seeing the ruins, we walked to the archeological museum which has a lovely entry through palm trees as if in what might be an idealized oasis, and is an attractive and interesting building whose main exhibit is designed to lead the viewer from A to Z. Again the casual visitor might want to let the eye wander and just stop on what catches it. We had our usual lunch and drove to Ortygia.

I almost drove in a controlled vehicular zone, worthy of a ticket, but saw the sign at the last minute, turned around and looked for parking. My impression is that even in non-restricted driving areas street parking is limited to residents, and visitors must use paid parking. There is an ugly two-story parking structure against the sea wall on the left side of the island as one crosses the bridge, and it probably is the most convenient. It is not expensive and in late April it was maybe 2/3 full. From the parking lot we walked to the temple of Apollo which loses some of its grandeur after the temples of the sites we had already visited. We followed a narrow street toward the cathedral. While not drab, the streets are nonetheless gray, and in contrast the cathedral piazza is absolutely dazzling. The cathedral and city hall, a former palazzo, had been cleaned and were resplendent in their warm golden stone colors. The front of the cathedral is impressive, and as already mentioned, the inside is not particularly striking aside from one Baroque side chapel and the temple columns still functioning as structural elements. The side streets of Ortygia contain interesting buildings, some dating back to the Renaissance, but mostly in a surprisingly state of disrepair. Weeds growing from the upper story of church facades is a common phenomenon; and next door will be a deluxe hotel. Sicily clearly has not been scraped clean like northern Europe or even parts of northern Italy.

From Siracusa we drove back to Enna to get the orthopedic device fitted, and then went back toward Mt. Etna. We originally had planned to stay in Taormina but changed our minds and stayed in Randazzo, a town built out of black lava rock. On the way we stopped in Bronte which has a wonderful view of Etna whose peak seemed to disappear into the clouds by noon time. We arrived on one side of Randazzo and the hotel, a renovated Agip motel, was on the other side of the town. It was the only time we had to fold in the side-view mirrors for fear that they would otherwise scrape the walls; there is a road which by-passes the old town.

While staying in Randazzo we took a day trip to Taormina, which might have been the least successful day of our trip. We had to use the underground parking--day visitors have no choice--and while the two women stayed in the car, the two men took the shuttle bus into town. In the tourist office we asked if they could recommend a restaurant with a view where my wife could sit while we explore the town, and then we would eat together in the restaurant. Car traffic is banned inside the old walls but taxis are allowed. At first we could not find the place. We walked the entire main street, and found it on the way back. Unfortunately it was one story below street level, which ruled it out; besides, it was rather pricey at 50€ for the kilo of the day’s catch. One of us went to see the Greek theater while the other went to get the non-disabled traveler to see the theater. The shuttle took a long time to leave the parking lot, and by the time we reached the theater 10 minutes before closing time for lunch, we decided that it really was not worth the 6€ a piece--cultural week was over--given that Etna was cloud covered. We walked back to the car, beating the shuttle, and left for the coast to find a recommended restaurant. The Taormina area is worth a day trip. Food was more expensive than in any other area we covered in Sicily, and I would not be surprised if this were true for accommodations. The town is wonderfully located, giving a mixture of town, mountain and sea all at the same time, but there is little that is authentic about it, given the way the entire economy is oriented towards tourism. Without our limitation it might have been worthwhile to reach the top of the mountain, but otherwise I feel that we missed little of the town.

From Randazzo we returned to Palermo . We had two choices to get to the coastal autostrada. We chose the shorter route which probably took longer because it took us through a national park and over high mountain passes which means curvy and slower roads. But it offered a view of a different scenery and flora, a quasi Alpine scenery. On the other hand, arriving at 13:10 meant a wait of two and three quarter hours for the rental office to reopen. At any rate, the highway time between two points is misleading because a great deal of time is lost driving in Palermo, especially if the correct exit is not found right away. Reaching the city during the lunch time rush hour does not help.

We ate and drank well in Sicily. The wine was uniformly good, and one has to be a wine connoisseur to order anything but the house wine. Breakfast usually included a choice of cereal, various rolls & jams, and juice. Some offered cheese and cold cuts, and at times we had hard-boiled eggs. We always managed to get an espresso at breakfast, even if we started with a café au lait. I would consider the breakfasts to be heightened Continental breakfasts. Lunches were generally panini often eaten in the car because of our circumstances. But we had some excellent evening meals. In Ribera we had truly fine pizza around the corner from the hotel. We followed the nose of one of us who was particularly attuned to odors emanating from a kitchen. On the other hand, the hotel breakfast competed with the Randazzo hotel’s as the worst of the trip.

The agriturismo Gigliotto offered an evening meal for 30€ per person. It was a fine meal that consisted of 2 different kinds of antipasti--a variety of hot and cold dishes, 2 different pasta, 2 different meats--first a tripe dish and the second a grilled or fried lamb chop, which were the one disappointing element of the meal--for some because they do not like tripe and for all of us because the chops were overcooked. Then we had dessert. Wine was included with the meal. The meal is worth it and I would recommend it even though we declined the meal on our second evening (we did not want to eat that much) and took their recommendation of a pizzeria in the nearby town of San Michele (curiously, the Sicilian pronunciation of the town has a soft “ch” like in French). Good pizzas and salads, but we misjudged; given the amount of food for each dish ordered, we should have ordered only 2 pizzas for the 4 of us.

Agriturismo Limoneto told almost apologetically us that for that Saturday’s evening meal they offered a buffet for 22€, excluding wine. There was a celebratory party at one end of the large dining area and small parties were placed closer to the live music obviously provided by the big party. The buffet consisted of about thirty dishes, mainly vegetables, both cold and warm, and all, of those we sampled, very good; we were getting satiated ... and then came the pasta--two different stuffed pastry shells--and then two different meats--one of which was grilled veal on a skewer wrapped in pancetta, and then dessert and limoncello. The next evening meal was simpler, but I missed everything after the very good pasta due to a pounding headache.

In Taormina we planned to in a recommended restaurant known for its seafood which turned out to be at the bottom of the hill by the sea side. Unfortunately it had too many steps and we had to choose an alternative. We found a two-star hotel with a restaurant whose patio gave easy access. For a change it was to be our main meal of the day. It started out fine with the antipasto, but eventually turned out to be a mediocre meal for a price that far exceeded our guesses and expectations (140€ for four) My guess is that the Taormina area has higher prices than the rest of Sicily. That evening in Randazzo we had just soup & salad at the hotel. The mushroom soup was very rich and very good, more memorable than the entire meal the preceding evening at the same hotel.

Our last evening meal in Sicily was across from Hotel Joli. From the clientele I would guess that it is a tourist restaurant, but their pasta with clams and mussels was quite good.

Our original plan was to arrive in Palermo late on the 16th and leave on the 20th. Because of the Icelandic volcanic activity we did not arrive until the 19th, could not have changed the car reservation because our friends were already in Italy, so we left Palermo as originally planned, but decided to cut short the Sicily tour by staying the last two nights in Palermo instead of driving on the last day directly to the airport (for them) and ferry (for us) from Taormina . It turns out that had the medical crisis not occurred, cutting down the days spent on the road did not limit what we intended to see. Even with our slow roads and false starts around Segesta we saw that day more than we anticipated. We originally had planned to stay two nights in Ribera or that area, the choice of town being a purely arbitrary geographical choice (it was between Selinunte and Agrigento). One night was enough. We had planned two nights in Caltagirone. The time would probably have been spent as follows: arrive in the evening in Caltagirone, drive to Piazza Armerina and visit the imperial villa the next morning with lunch in Piazza Armerina, which would have given us plenty of time to visit Caltagirone later in the afternoon and early evening. The next day we would have gone on to Siracusa via Vizzini and Noto.

We did miss the Baroque churches of SE Sicily, and while the gorges near Siracusa and Mt. Etna sounded appealing, they never figured as required in our original planning; but had we not gone to Enna to have the boot fitted, we might have decided to visit one of the nature sites. On the other hand, Taormina was meant to be our stop near Mt. Etna and I think that we were fortunate in finding ourselves in Randazzo. I also suspect that Palermo could use two full days of visiting, assuming that the museum is open. We missed the on full day by leaving the 29th instead of the 30th as originally planned; our friends did get that day in Palermo. The accident limited us in a more subtle way. Generally my wife stayed in the car while we sent to see sights, which meant that we did not dawdle or poke around, spending time looking at ordinary things. For example, in Caltagirone we went up the steps, did some shopping, and went back down to the car. Under normal circumstances, we might have wandered around to see what we could discover for ourselves. We also avoided accommodations in large towns, knowing that these would generally require going up and down steps.

The best car rental rate we could find was through Economy Car Rentals, with an original price for a 10 day rental of 316€. I called them to reduce the contract by two days, and that turned out to add to the price (I did not compare the prices carefully to be aware of that), which would have been 404€, of which 343€ was to be paid to the actual rental agency rather than the original 316€. A stupid mistake on my part, which was misread by who knows who, as my credit card shows us paying $343 to the rental agency. A word of warning: unless one wants to extend a rental agreement, when dealing with Economy Car Rentals, let sleeping dogs lie. My desire to have everything in order had me change the Economy contract and led to the two hour confusion at CDG. Kemwel in that instance may have been at fault but did everything possible to straighten out the issue and treated me well. I called from Sicily on April 26 for a car on April 29 and received the same contract for the same number of days at the same price ($731) as the car I had reserved long before for the month of June. There were glitches and misunderstandings, and I think that one Kemwel operator must have rolled his eyes feeling that he was dealing with a high maintenance customer, but in the end it all worked out.

We lost money: at the beginning because we had to purchase new tickets at a higher cost, and because we did not get everything refunded. The Vatican tickets are non-refundable, as were the ferry tickets, and we could not get to the Naples hotel on time for them to return the train tickets to my cousin so that he could get a refund. Would insurance have helped? Possibly, but when I consider the number of years that we traveled without insurance, our losses are not terrible and cost probably less than travel insurance year in and year out. I think that I’ll continue to be self-insured.

That’s it for our Sicily trip. My hope is that next year we will do the missing five weeks without any reason to have as long a report, either because of circumstances during the trip or weather conditions in the Dordogne.

Photos of the trip can be found at:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157624349637005/

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