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Sicily on the cheap: a solo travel report

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I was in Sicily Oct 5-18 and intended to do a trip report but have been glued to Barb’s tale and haven’t got around to it. However, as she is thinking of Sicily next, thought it was the least I could do.
This was a super-budget trip, mainly because it was my 3rd and final extravaganza on a 7 week trip to Europe and I was running low on $$ by now…I know a lot of Fodorites are better-heeled, but I also met several Americans/Canadians in the places I stayed so it may be of interest to some. Also (Barb) it was a solo trip, not necessarily from choice, but because all my friends and family had run out of holiday by now. I’ve done solo travel before but hadn’t realized just how important it was until I read your magnum opus.
As I’ve never done one of these before, am afraid of being too detailed, slow and boring. I’m sure you’ll all tell me if I am.

Caveats over with, here goes.

Flew into Palermo on Ryanair from London Stansted . This was booked aeons ago at a price of £1.99 each way. Plus taxes, it came to the princely sum of £20 round trip. I decided that if I couldn’t go at the last minute I could afford to forfeit the price of a round of drinks. The flight left STN at the civilized hour of 16.45 and was in Palermo bang on time.

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    I had booked myself in at Giorgio’s House, a B&B which seems to get a fair bit of praise.
    Giorgio met me at the station as arranged and drove me the few blocks to his House. 25E a night!! Found a nearby pizzeria to keep body and soul together and collapsed in a heap. Next morning awoke to find my fellow housemates having breakfast, while Giorgio was cleaning, waitering, buzzing about, answering questions, giving directions, being a perfect host. What a helpful guy.
    I took myself out and found maps and info on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel, looked at the Cathedral and spent the day in and out of many many churches in the city centre. My Lonely Planet guide book had a Walking Tour of Palermo which I followed to some extent before the rain came down. The city is fairly chaotic, lots of traffic and no parking spaces, I wouldn’t like to drive there, it seems a compete free-for-all. Finally, the rain defeated me, my feet were telling me it was time to head back to Giorgio’s to put the kettle on and have a cuppa.

    By late afternoon the rain had stopped and I’d got an idea of the buses, so jumped on one down to the Abetellis, the main art museum down by the port. Gorgeous. All kinds of stuff. And not overpowering either. Nor crowded. The busloads must’ve missed this one. 6 euros to get in. I think there’s a ‘combination ticket’ you can get which covers a few such places but I never quite got around to this.
    From there I went for a walk down to the port and along the old Fondamentura. A bit deserted and lonely, this was October after all. Didn’t see the Gelato shop much recommended either, everything closed up.
    Back to Giorgios, to find him organizing his flock for dinner, followed by a Palermo by Night Walk. I was so busy talking that I failed to remember the name of the restaurant and have only the slightest clue as to its location but it was right on the 4 Canti. Local specialities, wine etc for the amazing sum of 10 euros each. From there we hauled ourselves around the La Kalsa area of Palermo, quite spooky, lots of bombed-out or falling down churches, one of them (Sta Maria della Spasimo), revamped as a music and theatre venue, though not in October.

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    Keep going Gertie...

    I'm finding it really interesting so far as a solo trip to Sicily is on my list to do in the next year or so!

    Looking forward to the next installment... Also, you should post this on the Europe forum - many more people will read it there and find it of interest too.

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    Next day it had been agreed by the group on the strength of the spooky walk the night before, to see the Catacombs. Giorgio was our guide, it was about a 20 minute walk from his House, and off we set.
    The Catacombs are part of the Church of the Cappuchins (where Guiseppe de Lampedusa is buried). They are vast underground chambers filled with the mummified cadavers of the Great and the Good of Palermo from around 1600 to the 1920s, though the vast number date from the 1850s-1880s. Like nothing I have ever seen before. I didn’t know whether to gasp in horror or chuckle in amusement. The chuckling won, but not everyone saw it that way.

    From there I jumped on a bus (#389) to Monreale to see the spectacular mosaics. And they are. Next to the Cathedral is a Cloister built at the same time, very good on atmosphere and Moorish/Byzantine pillars. Reminded me of the Alhambra (which was one reason I was broke by the time I got to Sicily).
    Next stop was the Palace of the Normans (a return trip on the 389) where the queues were fearsome. But I persevered, got in and followed the hoards. Bus trips, school groups, groups with French, English, German, Japanese-speaking guides. Quite hard for the Solo Traveller to keep her head above water. Thence to the 11th century church of St Giovanni degli Eremitani where another burst of rain made me scurry back to Giorgio’s. In a break between the cloudbursts, I ran out to the local pizzeria where a very nice young Sicilian hand-made the pizzas to order as you watched. I certainly worked my way through much of his repertoire in my stay in Palermo.

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    Blue sky and sunshine next day and a train ride to Agrigento. The first direct train left at 8.15am so I was one the next one at 11.15. Not as direct as I thought; we were removed from the train halfway there, and decanted onto a bus for the rest of the trip. Words like ‘lavoro’ were used, the locals on the train didn’t believe a word of it and were up in arms, threatening to write letters of protest. I wasn’t too worried as was in no hurry and the Sicilian countryside was beautiful to drive though.
    From Agrigento station I got a bus (0.85E) down to the Valley of the Temples. Bought a ticket (6E) and drifted around the site for the rest of the day. Very glad it was October, it would’ve been unbearably hot and dusty in high summer. I liked the atmosphere and the lack of crowds, the fact that it wasn’t too touristy, though there was rather a lot of scaffolding (but that’s Italy isn’t it). Ran out of energy before I made it to the Museum, and didn’t even touch the town of A. Bus and train back to Palermo latish. Some people in Giorgio’s were concerned about wandering around Palermo at night. I had no such anxiety and didn’t feel there was a problem. Had no issues with safety and security the whole time, though I didn’t look like a rich tourist in any way. Just took the usual precautions, left valuables at Giorgio’s (he has a safe but I didn’t use it). Used cash all the time to avoid ATM charges. My Bank (of America) has a deal with several European banks but none in Italy that I discovered.

    There is a good market near Giorgio’s (Ballaro) full of fruit n veg, chickens and fish if you’re into markets. Lots of other stuff too but not the kind of things you might want to buy as souvenirs. Good for fruit, I always find I don’t eat enough on my travels. Apples, pears, bananas and persimmons (if that is what you call them, we don’t really have them in UK, I love em).

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    Sunday: to Cefalu. The sky looks menacing but I don’t have time to delay, so strike out for the station. Less than one hour by very fast train. If I had stayed on it I would’ve been in Rome in about 12 hours….. As I get off the train the heavens open. Splash my way through the town (which looks very picturesque) to the Duomo. More wonderful mosaics. And heavy Norman architecture. Did I say that the Norman architecture in Sicily reminded me of the White Tower in the Tower of London? Same century, same builders, probably all the same family. Sicily is the Other Norman Conquest.
    Cefalu is a pretty seaside town with a little port and nice beach. Pity about the rain. Lots of narrow streets with interesting shops. Unfortunately, as in many of these places, too much traffic and nowhere to park. Was so glad I didn’t have a car. Went to the Antica Marina for delish seafood lunch. 22E. Outside it threw it down. I huddled.
    Once it stopped I wandered about, had a gelato, took pictures of the town and watched a hardy Scandinavian family plunge into the sea in the rain. I guess it depends where you’re coming from…

    One more day in Palermo and sunshine too. First off I set off for the Archaelogical Museum and found a whole nother side to the city: the upmarket end! This seems to happen north of Via Cavour. Smart shops, wide streets, all the usual Italian stuff I’d forgotten about. The Museum is 6E as usual, very worth looking at. 3 floors all crammed with exhibits. All (or most) of the information is in Italian, especially when you get beyond the first floor. Fantastic displays of Greek and Roman remains from Segesta and Selinunte, great for me as I wasn’t able to get to either (too far on public transport, no car). What always amazes me in Italian public buildings is the vast number of staff sitting around chatting, paying no attention to anyone and having loud raucous conversations with each other. Lots of these in the arch museum. But definitely a good idea. Has a little coffee shop too when you’re flagging.
    Very nearby is the Teatro Massimo, a huge rotunda just out of The Godfather with guys hanging around looking like they’re auditioning to be in the movie. They are probably the guides, there are guided tours, apparently also in Italian only. People I talked to did it, said it was OK. Lots of tour groups.
    The rest of the glorious day I spent at Mondello, the Palermo beach resort. Bus #806 from Piazza Politeama takes about 30 minutes, 1.05E. It’s a rather faded little resort with nothing much except the beach (a great big sandy sweep) and the square where the action is. There are a few seafood restaurants near the harbour, all much of a muchness, all charging the same with much the same menu. Pretty little harbour, groups of old men playing cards like they’ve been doing for decades. It was very relaxing in October but Giorgio told me it’s cram packed in summer and not much fun, the beach is sectioned off into private areas with elbow-to-elbow sunloungers. However, for me it was good to lie on the sand and watch the few other people, have a drink in one of the little bars and read my book in the sun on the promenade. Not to mention the gelato. Around 5-6pm there was a shadow of a passagiata starting, nothing like the ones elsewhere, but still, Mondellans, mainly elderly, were strutting their stuff.

    Big upheaval next day, I was taking the train for Catania for the second half of my trip. Very smooth and straightforward (though long). I love train travel especially on Italian trains which are so cheap and mostly reliable. This cost 11E I think. There was a change at Caltanisetta but on the adjacent platform. Into Catania on time, jumped on a bus into the main drag and to my pre-booked hotel.
    And what a shock. Found the place (Rubens) which had confirmed my booking and asked me to send an e mail telling them what time I would be arriving, only to find the floorboards up, dustsheets covering everything, the whole place uninhabitable. The guy in charge showed me the room, obviously hoping I would stay, but no no no. I asked him to recommend somewhere else and headed round the corner to the Hotel Gresi.

    Catania got off to an inauspicious start. It’s a very black city because of the lava (no, I didn’t see Etna once!) and it was raining. Tried a reviving cuppa in the Piazza Duomo but felt a bit daunted and retired to Hotel Gresi for a hot shower, to rethink my plans, and ask where there was an internet café. I never found the internet but got an international phone call to Phone Home (at least, phone my kids in London) and touch base and reality again. I had intended to use Catania as a base for the next week but decided instead I would head for Taormina which I had heard was Posh Tourist Central.

    Before I did this however, had a day in Siracusa. I made my way to the train station where the helpful woman told me there wasn’t a train for 3 hours and suggested I took the bus. Which I did. They run every hour at the amazing price of 4.50E. Dropped me right in the action, just across the ‘bridge’ in Ortygia. First off I decided to do the Archaeological Park mainly because it hadn’t started raining yet but looked like it would. Quite a hike up there from the bus station; rumour had it that there were buses (#s1&2) but I didn’t see a sign of either. Very tacky and touristy at the entrance down a narrow lane, wall-to-wall souvenir stalls. Mooched around the Greek Theatre and the Roman Amphitheatre, the other bits and pieces, tried to avoid the tour-groups while at the same time ear-wigging for snippets from their guides. It was quite a scramble and I reckon less-mobile tourists would have a fair challenge. Perfect weather though, another place that would be too hot and dusty in summer.
    Back in town, I set off to look at Ortygia. It’s easy to see all the layers of settlements there, everyone in the ancient and modern Mediterranean world seems to have passed through. It really is very impressive with the pale yellow baroque buildings, pink Venetian palazzo, Roman remains, a Jewish area, medieval streets, the colourful market right in the centre near the bus station, miles of restaurants along the seawall all the way down to the Castello on the end. The Duomo is spectacular, a Greek temple complete with pillars, converted into a Christian church in the 12th century. (Had just come from Cordoba where there is much the same thing, where a church has been built in the centre of the mosque). I could go on. I make a mental note to come here again, for longer, to stay for a while and potter about when it isn’t raining. Nice-looking bars and restaurants, I expect there is a fair bit of action in summer.
    Back on the bus, day has turned into night and all is dark and wet. I arrive back in Catania and the Hotel Gresi. Find an internet café at last and am astonished to be asked for my passport before I can use it. Only in Italy…

    Next day it is still raining and I head for Taormina by bus. It only takes an hour and costs 4.50E again. Arrive around 11am to find Taormina bursting with tour groups from a cruise ship. The rain is coming down in bucketfuls and the town is packed with people trying to get out of it. I head for Pensione Adele (45E, breakfast included) at the far end of Corso Umberto and settle in. Find a good book, a quiet coffee shop, keep my head down and wait for the rain to stop. It doesn’t. What I could do with is a very big museum to keep me out of the rain and entertained all day. There doesn’t seem to be one in Taormina.

    Next day I had been hoping to get round Etna on the Circumetna Railway. However, still no visibility though I did find out where Etna was for when the sky cleared. Great potential view from the roof terrace at Adele’s, but not today. I decided to wait for a better day to tackle the Greek theatre so walked around Taormina, in and out of shops, and down to the beach on the cable-car. This is very pebbly, no sand, and quite a mess. I wouldn’t put it on my list of good beaches. There were acres of sunloungers and umbrellas. People were stretched out on the stones and several were stumbling their way across to Belle Isle. The trains rattled past very close to the shore.

    Saturday and still no sign of the elusive volcano. I was beginning to run out of days by now and decided to try to get the Circumetna and hope the weather cleared. Got the bus to Giarre, halfway back to Catania and found the station after a hike down through the town. Although this is supposed to be a stop on the Circumetna, there was no sign of it. I did know it was running as had spoken to someone who had ridden it a few days earlier from Randazzo. No joy, so jumped on the first train to arrive in Giarre station, which happened to be going to Messina. Slow slow slow. And full of screaming schoolkids. Arrived in Messina 2 hours later and walked about, found the Duomo (interesting-looking but closed!) and went down to the port to watch the ships. Got a super-fast train back to Taormina, non-stop in 30 minutes, straight from Roma termini. The problem with the station in Taormina is that it’s at the bottom of a steep steep hill and the town is at the top. Interbuses come through about once an hour and there’s plenty of people-watching to do meanwhile. Taormina station was certainly the fanciest I saw in Sicily, shades of glory days gone by.

    Sunday morning and lo and behold, there was Etna in the blue sky and sunshine. Glorious.
    Got moving early hoping to see the Greek Theatre without the crowds. This was not to be entirely, but it wasn’t too bad. One of life’s truly jaw-dropping sights. I must’ve sat for more than an hour in front of that view while tour groups coalesced and dissolved around me. It amazes me that they are so insensitive as to sit all around me when they could so easily go to one side or the other. The invisibility of the Solo Traveller!
    I spent this, the best weather for a week, catching up with the splendours of Taormina with the breathtaking backdrop of Etna. Down to the beach for a nice lunch at one of the seaside restaurants, ogling the tourists, the street performers and the view from the Piazza Aprile IX, lots of mooching around the shops, several gelati (it was almost my last chance) and the delightful Villa Communale, a garden set out in the early 1900s by an Englishwoman in disgrace following an affair with King Edward VII. She doesn’t look to have done too badly out of it if she was exiled to a villa in Taormina.

    The next day I had the tantalising choice of transport back to Palermo: bus to Catania and bus to Palermo, reckoned by the helpful proprietor of Adele to be the quickest and cheapest, or train to Messina and train to Palermo. Being in no hurry and a fan of trains, that’s what I did. No hiccups at all and I was back at Palermo Centrale at 6pm. Strolled through the evening rush hour to Giorgio’s where I met a motley crew of bed and breakfasters for one last bash of pizza and vino (Nero D’Avola from Corleone, 9E a bottle and a joy! Is it the brotherhood’s favourite tipple?).
    Next morning it was 5 minutes to the local station (Orleans) and about one hour on the direct train to the airport. Ryanair was on time and I was back in grey and blowy London for a late lunch with my son.

    Sicily is nothing like the rest of Italy. Don’t expect it to be. Having said that, Taormina is not like the rest of Sicily!
    Take earplugs for staying at Giorgio’s. It’s in an area where the local lads ride their Vespas without silencers or alternatively drive their cars with the radio at full blast and the windows open. At 2am especially. Several people there complained of not being able to sleep.
    I didn’t expect so much rain and was glad I had my umbrella. Someone I spoke to said she went there every year and this was very unusual.
    Sicily’s tourism industry is light years behind that of northern Italy. Apart from the places catering to big tour groups (the Cathedral and Palace of the Normans in Palermo) it feels very amateur. Very few places have information on the displays in any language other than Italian.
    There is a staggering amount of unfinished construction work everywhere. It looks like EU money has not produced the intended results. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions on that one.
    The people are wonderfully friendly and helpful. They go out of their way to give directions and explain things, and even when asked in execrable Italian, they do their best to understand. Outside Taormina I heard almost no English used even in hotels and restaurants.
    I found this trip quite hard work. Possibly because of my tight budget, possibly because there was a lot of rain, but it wasn’t at all restful. Probably it wasn’t restful because I tried to see and do so much, but even so there were lots of places on my list I didn’t get to see. Using public transport really slows things down, but it is certainly a good way get a feel for the island.

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    Thank you so much for this GREAT report! I've put Sicily on my list of places I would be reluctant to go without a tour. You've changed my mind completely! I'm printing this out and keeping it.

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