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Trip Report Trip Report: Sicily - Doin’ the Ruins (with a slice of Roma thrown in)

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The Travelers

50’s something couple. We are reasonably well traveled. North America, Caribbean, Various Europe & China trips under our belts. I travel in NA for a living so travel planning is easy for me. Ditto with driving in strange cities/places etc.

The Planning

This trip actually started out as a trip to Africa. We thought it might be nice to completely change venues & my wife suggested a “no cobblestones” vacation. Since Asia only has mind interest for us & we have been to China for our ‘son’s wedding trip’, the wilds of Africa was appealing. I researched Kenya, Tanzania & Botswana for safaris but the expense & the seeming necessity to ‘do a tour’ was holding me back.

Rant on. FWIW, I hate, hate, hate tours & tour groups in general. Spending a week or two with the same group of people makes my skin crawl. There would be the loud-mouth. The whiner(s). And the general complainers. The one that jokes ad nauseum. The little stick-together groups would form. The hotels would be typical tourist-type, in all of the typical tourist areas. The restaurants would all be tourist traps. The shopping stops would all be tourist traps. Follow the flag, just follow the flag. No, Thank You. That’s what we will do when we are decrepit & can’t travel independently. Rant off.

Anyway . . . I discovered the self-drive option in Kruger Park in South Africa & that seemed like the way to go for independent animal wanderlust. I thought that we could fly into Johannesburg via Cairo (to spice it up Pharaoh-style with pyramids & museums in that crazed city). Then rent a car & drive to Kruger for some wild animal encounters & round it out with a deluxe camp resort stay. After a lot of research & debate, we started to get the heebie-jeebies due to the political unrest in that part of the world & the real or perceived threat of bodily harm. I know, I know, that this is probably a gross over-reaction, but it’s supposed to be a vacation after all, not a potentially life threatening exercise. So Africa was nixed for now.

So where to go?

Ah yes . . . Sicily. Sun, food, wine, mountains, the Med, some of the world’s best Greek & Roman ruins with cool Baroque towns thrown in for good measure. Now, there was the answer.

So I dove into the internet. I read trip reports until I had them memorized. I looked at everybody’s pictures. I researched towns, cities & probably a thousand hotels. It was funny as we walked around on our actual trip because all of the hotels we passed were familiar . . . I prepared list of chosen restaurants for every stop to try to avoid the ‘misses’. Fodors, Frommers, Trip Advisor, Chow Hounds, TravelersToGo were all sources used.

We had certain unmovable criteria for hotels. No box hotels. Wherever possible avoid the tourist ‘center’. While it is nice to be close to the sites & restaurants, we don’t like stepping out of the door into the madness. It must allow smoking (forget any sanctimonious comments – I will just ignore them) or have a balcony for us to feed our bad habit. And we like to sit out at night talking & consuming our duty free beverages anyway, so balconies are a biggie for us. I am also a Diamond Hilton Honors member, which makes Hilton hotels free, so we used their properties for two stays to ease the budget.

We had visited Roma 9 years ago. And left very underwhelmed. It was too busy, too noisy, too many motorcycles & our hotel was less than inspired. Since the Air Canada gateway to Italy is Roma, we decided to give the city another chance & spend 3 days there to overcome jetlag & to hit some sites we missed on the 1st go.

The Final Itinerary

May 22
- Depart Toronto via Air Canada direct to FCO.
May 23
- Arrive at FCO in Roma.
- Hotel: Hilton Cavalieri.
May 24, 25, 26
- Sites in Roma.
May 27
- Air One flight to Catania.
- Auto Europe car rental.
- Drive to Taormina.
- Hotel: Hotel Villa Ducale.
May 28
- Sites in Taormina.
May 29
- Drive to Ortygia in Siracusa.
- Hotel: Residence Alla Guidecca.
May 30
- Sites in Ortygia & Siracusa.
May 31
- Drive to Modica.
- Hotel: Le Magnolie Hotel.
June 1, 2, 3
- Sites in Modica with sidetrips to Ragusa, Caltagirone & Piazza Armerina.
June 4
- Drive to Menfi with midday stop in Agrigento.
- Hotel: Baglio San Vincenzo.
June 5
- Sites in & around Menfi.
June 6
- Drive to Palermo with midday stop in Segesta.
- Hotel: Hilton Villa Igiea.
June 7, 8
- Sites in Palermo & relax.
June 9
- Air One flight to FCO.
- Air Canada flight direct to Toronto.

Whew. Looking at that itinerary, it looks really busy, but it was a surprisingly laid back & relaxed trip. Sicily is really not that big & pretty easy to get around, although the driving might be challenging to some . . .

Our route

Driving In Sicily

Speaking of driving, I might as well give you the details. We picked up our car at Catania. I rented through Auto Europe. They initially seemed high price-wise, so I looked elsewhere & got a solid quote from a competitor. Auto Europe bettered the quote by $30, so they got my business. It was rented through Avis which is in a combo office in the parking lot outside the small Catania terminal. As a general rule, you want a small car to thread through the small streets & to park in unbelievable tight spots. But . . . you also need a car with a real engine to surmount the hills & the guts to pass slow vehicles.

We got a black VW Passat 2.0 TDI 4 dr intermediate sedan. Very comfy. 6 sp manual with lots of zip. Somewhat larger than the econoboxes but worth it in my mind. Easily held our suitcases securely in the locked trunk. It cruised nicely on the autostradas at 120 km/hr & fit down some very narrow streets. I turned it in without a scrape.

Our Trusty Rental

Autostradas are the 4 lane toll roads. We drove the Catania to Taormina hwy. South of Catania it drops to a slow two lane road. From Siracusa to near Modica there was a four lane freeway. The only other freeway we used was from Castelvetrano to Palermo. All of these were good 4 lane fast roads.

All of the other roads we drove were 2 lane roads that were well-surfaced but often had multiple switchbacks, blind curves with minimal shoulders. More care & attention was required on these as expected. Signage was good in general & the traffic varied from very slow trucks & farm vehicles to high speed drivers that would pass anywhere/anytime. Tailgating is common as they watch for passing opportunities.

Driving in towns was always an adventure. I will go into more detail as the trip report progresses.

We used a TomTom for navigation. It was very, very helpful. It did crash & burn several times, however. In Siracusa, it directed me down a narrow alley that turned into a road that was too narrow for cars. I had to back out of this mess which was not a fun task. Another time in Modica, it directed me to turn right onto a 50 foot staircase leading downwards. Luckily, I ignored her. I called it her because of the pleasant English voice that I chose. She managed to mispronounce most Sicilian place names quite handily.

And let the trip report begin . . . this will take several days so be patient . . .

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