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Crumbling Palazzos and Creamy Cannoli - Savoring Sicily

Crumbling Palazzos and Creamy Cannoli - Savoring Sicily

May 26th, 2008, 07:20 AM
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Crumbling Palazzos and Creamy Cannoli - Savoring Sicily

This trip started with three nights on Capri and six in Sorrento (see http://www.fodors.com/forums/threads...2&tid=35123298) but Sicily was always the main attraction. I had done a lot of reading about the island, and was looking forward to beautiful scenery, interesting food, and layers and layers of history and culture from all those invaders.

After a lot of thought I decided to join a tour group for part of the trip, because I was traveling alone and public transport in the middle of the island seemed a little problematic, plus this would get me a guide to the main sights, but I would have three nights at the beginning, and nine at the end, on my own. First, though, I had to get there.

April 18 - Riding the Rails Over Water

I arranged for a special early shuttle from Hotel Il Nido to Sorrento station. I wanted to make sure that the Circumvesuviana train would get me to Naples in plenty of time to find my train to Siracusa. Arriving (late) for the second time at the underground Napoli Piazza Garibaldi station, I fought my way upstairs through the commuter crowds to buy a panini. (I have borderline hypoglycaemia, and I like to board long distance trains already supplied with food and water.)

Then, fortunately, I asked a railway employee for directions. While I had read (multiple times!) that my train left from Napoli Piazza Garibaldi, platform 2, for some reason it hadn�t registered with me that that meant the same dark and grimy station used by the Circumvesuviana commuter trains, and not the relatively clean and bright Napoli Centrale up above. After all, this was a long distance Intercity from Rome to Sicily. Good thing I still had time to get back downstairs, but not the best start to the day.

When the train pulled in I saw no sign of a restaurant car, but I did solve one mystery. The bahn.de site insisted I needed to change trains in Messina, trenitalia.it was equally sure I did not. Turned out, the front four carriages would go to Palermo and the back three to Siracusa. No problem.

I enjoyed a last look at the Bay of Naples on one side, and Vesuvius on the other, before we turned temporarily inland. After Salerno the train filled up, and when I found myself surrounded by a family with a crying baby and a hyper-active toddler I abandoned my reserved seat for a quieter location. The scenery, mostly sea to the right and currently green hills to the left, became monotonous, and I was glad of my new iPod. I had loaded three books (borrowed from the library), plenty of podcasts and some music, but it was the podcasts I mostly listened to - less disruptive to stop and start them than a book.

Still, I wasn�t riding this train for the scenery. Over the last few years I�ve ridden quite a lot of trains (see wilhelmswords.com/rtw2004) including the one that goes under the English Channel and the one that gets its bogies changed at the Chinese border, but this would be the first time I had crossed water on a train that was itself on a boat. At Villa San Giovanni we waited a while, then were shunted backwards and forwards, and finally found ourselves rolling onto - maybe into would be a better word - the ferry.

We were below deck, with a view of the inside of the boat and not the water, but I found that the carriage doors were open, and that boxes had been thoughtfully placed to make it easier to get off the train. Signs indicating the way up to the bar and back down to the train made it doubly clear that we weren�t expected to stay in our seats. Up on the car deck I checked out the view - not especially exciting - and enjoyed the breeze.

After we were unloaded from the ferry at Messina what I thought at first was a bomb-sniffing dog was led through the carriages. On further consideration it seems more likely it was looking for drugs. Or maybe both? At this point the train gave up any pretence of being an Intercity - a designation already belied by shabby rolling stock and dubious toilets - and became a very slow local.

Most people got off at Catania or Taormina, after which we took a detour through the countryside. While the views along the coast were spectacular, and the inland fields were sprinkled with brilliant wildflowers, I did feel that three hours for the journey from Messina to Siracusa was overdoing it. I would not be sorry to fly from Palermo to Naples on the way back.

Leaving Siracusa station I again had to ask for directions, this time to find the bus stop, which was round the corner. I had followed the advice in the guidebooks, and from posters here, and booked a B&B in the old town on the island of Ortigia, instead of staying in the new town. Small, free, shuttle buses run round the island and to the train station, so I had no trouble getting to the island, but some difficulty finding my B&B, as it turned out that I taken the wrong shuttle.

I knew I was in the right area, but the google map I had consulted online had been a little off. Finally, I sat down near the very ruinous ruins of the Temple of Apollo and pulled out my new cell phone. Modern technology to the rescue - my landlady headed me in the right direction, then stood waving from her balcony.

I stayed at the Ortigia Sea View B&B (www.ortigiaseaview.it/home_eng.htm), and while the best view is only available at breakfast, the rooms do have a sea view, and a terrace. I had a good-sized double room with a separate big bathroom, closed off at the end of a corridor. I can definitely recommend this place - my landlady was helpful (she spoke English), breakfast included fresh-squeezed orange juice, cereal, fruit and yoghurt, although no cheese or meat, and the location was great.

The train trip had taken the whole day (09:42 to 18:25), and by the time I had found the B&B, chatted with my landlady and gotten sorted out I was more than ready for dinner. The lungomare was cold, dark and deserted, but then I found the Osteria da Mariano (www.osteriadamariano.it), which had been recommended by a poster here (I think it was here, maybe slowtrav). The Osteria felt more touristy than I had expected, and the food quality was uneven. The amouse bouche (ricotta?) - delicate and delicious. The orange salad with onion and chili - excellent. But the antipasto and the sausage main course were just OK. Still, crystallized ginger appeared for dessert and the 25 euro cost included a half liter of red wine.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 26th, 2008, 08:02 AM
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This is great! More, please.
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May 26th, 2008, 08:12 AM
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hi thursdays -

I admire your chuzzpah - this is definitely travel, not tourism. How lucky you asked about the platform!!!

really looking forward to more,

regards, ann
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May 26th, 2008, 08:19 AM
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Excellent report so far. Keep it coming!
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May 26th, 2008, 09:38 AM
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Thanks - more coming as I write it...

Hi ann - nice to "meet" you again. I've discovered that when it comes to buses and trains you can't ask too many questions! When I got back down to Napoli P.G. I asked again, and I checked the itinerary on the door of the carriage before I boarded. Better to look silly than take off in the wrong direction (which I have actually done...)
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May 26th, 2008, 09:44 AM
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April 19th - Not Loving Noto

I would visit the Archaeological Park in Siracusa with the tour group, so I had planned a day trip to Noto and then a day (Sunday) exploring Ortigia. Over breakfast (delicious, but a bit too sweet for my taste) I discussed my plans with my landlady. The bus station, which I had expected to find practically next door to the B&B, had been moved over near the train station, I learned. Marriott had bought a big building two streets away, and not content with renovating the building itself, was intent on cleaning up the neighborhood, and the bus station didnt fit their plans. Even the market, which set up right below my window, was in jeopardy.

The bus to Noto was either very late or very early, but when we passed a parade (demonstration?) on the main street I saw why. A whole line of inbound buses waited behind the marchers. Modern Siracusa did indeed look uninspired, but I enjoyed the countryside - again, wildflowers brightened otherwise rocky hillsides. I learned later that between the demands of shipbuilding and of agriculture, Sicily lost its trees many centuries back.

One thing you hear a lot about on Sicily, at least while you have a guide, and especially if the guide is from Catania, is the earthquake of 1693. This devastated many of towns in the east, including Catania itself (already largely destroyed by Mt. Etna in 1669) and Noto. Im not quite sure why I wanted to visit Noto, as it was rebuilt after the earthquake in baroque style, and Im not generally fond of baroque, but the pictures looked good.

I had expected the town to be quiet, with scaffolding covering the damaged cathedral (the dome collapsed in 1996). Well, I knew my guidebooks (mostly Lonely Planet, copyright 2005, therefore researched 2004) needed updating, and I found that Noto had been discovered, and also cleaned up. No scaffolding in evidence. Just a main street punctuated by shining clean, honey-colored, impressive buildings. Very beautiful. Very sterile. Even though a wedding was underway in one of the churches, all those clean buildings combined with the tourist crowds made the whole place feel inauthentic.

I took to the back streets and the Trattoria del Carmine, where I tucked into an excellent antipasto and so-so ravioli. Then I went back to the main street and took pictures - the crowds had disappeared, no doubt in search of lunch.

My landlady had warned me not to miss the bus back. This had worried me a little - I knew there would be few buses on Sunday, but did the service shut down on Saturday afternoon, too? I had been unable to find a timetable anywhere near the bus stop in Noto, but I finally discovered that you could find out the bus times in the same place you bought the tickets - the Tabacchi. Still, when I saw a bus show up I decided to take it, instead of exploring further.

So, I started wandering round Ortigia a little earlier than planned, and was enchanted. (More on that later.) I found a promising looking place to try for dinner, and then stopped off for coffee on a side street before retiring to my B&B to rest my feet. (Last fall I spent a month limping round Budapest, Austria and Venice, but so far this trip my feet were holding up well - no reason to stress them too far, though.)

When I showed up at Il Fermento (Via del Crocifisso, 46) the owner warned me that the back room would get very noisy later, but I decided to stay. (A large crowd of kids did arrive towards the end of my meal, I think they were in town for a gymnastics competition.) I started with a seafood risotto that could almost have made an entire meal. Lovely, creamy rice was packed with small bits of seafood, and decorated with shellfish. Then I tackled some huge shrimp, finding delicate, delicious flesh just inside the heads. An ice cold limoncello made a perfect finish to the meal. Including the house white wine the bill came to around 30 euros. Back outside I found the town alive with people, and I joined the crowds on the main street for a while, before going back to my room.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 26th, 2008, 02:32 PM
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thursdaysd,

Thanks for the report, I can't wait for the rest! Sicily is my next destination and I will probably be traveling solo too.

How was the April weather?
Dayle is offline  
May 26th, 2008, 03:01 PM
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Thanks for this Thursdaysd. I'm really enjoying your report and can't wait for more.
Micheline
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May 26th, 2008, 03:47 PM
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Thanks!

Dayle - I really liked the weather in April - sunny, warm days and cool evenings. I did have some rain one day, but I think it was only one day. By the time I left in mid-May it was getting hotter, and no more cool evenings. If you want to swim I guess fall would be better, but then you'd miss the wildflowers. Avoid the summer if you can! Unless you're really into heat and siestas, I guess. I had AC available about everywhere I stayed, but didn't need it.
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May 26th, 2008, 04:22 PM
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April 20th - Loving Ortigia

After my initial exploration of Ortigia the day before, I knew I would spend this day just wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the buildings and the views. Here, beautifully restored palazzos stood right next door to ones gently crumbling into ruin. In contrast, the main street had plenty of modern shops, and the whole place had a lived-in feel I had missed in Noto.

I started down by the water and had the lungomare, the port and the Fontana Aretusa largely to myself. By the waterfront the lungomare, dark and cold two nights before, now basked in sunshine. Further back, a double row of big trees offered shade. I had been thinking of taking a boat ride, but this seemed an activity better organized for a group than a solo traveler - I would wait until I came back with the tour group.

At the fountain I took pictures of the papyrus - a pretty, feathery plant that I would never have imagined could be used to make paper - and the ducks, before moving on for more pictures of the Duomo and of the Artemis fountain in the Piazza Archimede. Here I picked up a copy of the Herald Tribune to go with an espresso macchiato at the Café Diana, a place that seemed popular with locals.

I should say more about the Duomo, a spectacular building on a spectacular piazza. This day, I mostly admired the outside (Spanish), but later I would learn that it is the oldest continuously occupied religious building in Europe. (I think the tour guide said the world, but Europe seems more likely!) Not the same religion for all those centuries, of course. It started as a temple to Athena, and the 5th century B.C. columns still support the roof. Inside I could feel the age - and the peace.

Lunch - less than 2 euros - was a mortadella and cheese sandwich from a nearby alimentari, followed by a siesta. For dessert and coffee I picked a different café - Café Minerva, near the duomo. This would be a better choice after the improvements to the street outside are finished, but the cannolo was good regardless. I've never had a sweet tooth, and now too much sweet stuff at the wrong time messes up my blood sugar, but I dont really think of cannoli as sweet. On Sicily the shells were much lighter, and the ricotta much creamier, than those Ive had at home. I wouldnt waste any opportunity to indulge.

I walked off some of the calories by exploring the southern end of the island, finding access to the castle at the very tip completely blocked off. The more time I spent on its back streets, the more I liked Ortigia. Yes, there were tourists around, but not that many. Yes, there were tourist shops, but not whole streets of them. Yes, the buildings were often baroque, but not aggressively so. Mostly, I think I liked the town because of the variety. Greek ruins here, a Spanish church round the corner, modern apartment blocks down the street. It had the feel of a place that had just grown over the centuries, rather than being designed and built all at once.

For dinner I followed my landladys recommendation and went to the Ristorante Porta Marina (www.ristoranteportamarina.135.it) - a bit more up market than Il Fermento, although the food was no better. I started with gnocchi, which came with a good cheese sauce and pistachio topping, but was just a touch gluey. The beef that followed wasnt bad, but the mixed salad was decidedly uninteresting.

Once again, there were crowds out on the streets when I finished eating (it was still the weekend), and again I strolled with them down the main streets. When I got home I watched the parking game being played below me, finally realizing that the helpful man directing cars into spaces was actually running the show, as the drivers tipped him.
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May 26th, 2008, 08:18 PM
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Thursdaysd-I am so glad that you enjoyed Ortigia. My daughter spent a semester there "studying abroad" during college and the whole family fell in love with the little island.I will mention your visit to Cafe Minerva to her-it was her favorite coffee stop between classes.Seriously, if there is heaven on earth its on Ortigia but don't anyone!
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May 27th, 2008, 05:16 AM
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dutyfree - how neat! When I was there they were resurfacing the street between the cafe and the Duomo, which meant it was a bad place to sit outside during the week, but I could see it would be really nice when they finished.

Your daughter was so lucky - I liked Ortigia so much! It really didn't seem to have a lot of tourists (at least in April), so I'm a bit worried about the new Marriott.
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May 27th, 2008, 01:39 PM
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April 21st - Tour Time in Taormina

I started traveling back in the 90s, with tour groups, but over the years Ive switched more and more to independent travel. But I do take an occasional tour - when it makes sense for transport, when Im feeling lazy, when I want some company in the middle of a long trip. This time I would take my fourth Rick Steves tour - Id done two back in the 90s, and then Greece in 2006. Id found the guides to be excellent, and the other tour members interesting travel companions. Still, this is likely to be the last RS tour I take, as the groups have grown larger and the prices higher, and most of the tours go to places where Id rather travel alone.

I had carefully compared itineraries before deciding, and this one came closest to including all the places I wanted to visit (tours.ricksteves.com/tours08/product.cfm/rurl/code/ISC08/). My timing was right - the year before the tour had included Southern Italy, with too much time on the bus and too many places I preferred to visit solo, and I see that next year it will be cut back to only nine nights in Sicily.

I would now backtrack to Taormina to join the tour. Of course, I could have spent my extra nights there, instead of going on to Siracusa, but I thought Ortigia would be much more my kind of place (it was!). I wanted to take a look at Taormina, for the Greek theater and the views, but since Im not a shopper and I dont care for resorts, I didnt want to spend long there.

I began the day by visiting the market, conveniently situated right beside the apartment building housing my B&B, and by buying a panini for lunch from the alimentari even more conveniently located in the building itself. Then I rode the shuttle back to the train station - I had bought my ticket while I waited for the bus to Noto. Initially I thought that a bus would be faster, but then learned I would have to change in Catania. Besides, I really prefer trains - no worries about luggage disappearing from the storage area under the bus, and easy access to a toilet.

At the station I found that a strike has caused the cancellation of trains coming from the mainland - good thing I was already on the island! (One couple joining the tour had to find a car and driver in a hurry because of this.) I also found that groups of schoolchildren were being taken through the train - apparently this was an educational outing...

At the Taormina train station I met up with a young Swedish couple on a long trip, unaccountably lugging a large suitcase around with them. Since the taxis wouldnt take me to my hotel, we rode the bus up to town. Here my cell phone again came in handy - if you want a taxi from the bus station you have to call for one. After dropping the Swedes in town, the driver negotiated some remarkably narrow streets - just wide enough for the car, but not for the car and a pedestrian - on the way to the tour hotel, the Vello dOro (www.hotelvellodoro.com/uk/index.htm). Here I was surprised to find that I had a single room (these tours operate on a mandatory share/no single supplement basis), and a very nice single room at that, with a balcony with a good view (once I got the sticky door fixed).

I went out to look around - quickly abandoning the shops for the lovely Villa Communale gardens. Gorgeous views, pretty flowers, quirky buildings and some welcome shade - even so early in the season the sun had developed some noticeable heat. Then I compensated for a very bad coffee at the café just outside the gardens (I suppose they thought they were selling the view rather than the coffee), with a much better one back at the hotel.

At 5:00 oclock it was time to switch to group mode and show up for the introductory meeting. Our tour guide, Alfio, turned out to be a tall, dark Sicilian with a charming accent and an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of things Sicilian, but he seemed not to feel the sun, as this meeting was out in the open - no shade, and tables too far apart to hear each other properly. I was surprised to find I was the only solo traveler on the tour. This might sound good - I wouldnt have to share a room - but single rooms are usually the worst, and I would have to work harder on socializing.

After the introductions, and a move indoors, Alfio went through the entire itinerary with us - did he think we had signed up without reading it? Then we went out for a pre-dinner walk to visit a stretch of Roman wall. Nice piece of wall, but Alfio used it as the starting point for a complete outline of the history of Sicily. Standing around listening to things I already know is one complaint I have with tours.

No complaint about dinner, though. Antipasto, including cheese, lasagna and veggies, pasta alla Norma (with eggplant and an excellent cheese, a Sicilian specialty),beef involtini and salad, and a huge slab of tiramisu. And wine - later the wine drinkers would chip in for a wine kitty, but this first night it was included. Unfortunately, I didnt get the name of the restaurant.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 28th, 2008, 01:04 PM
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Enjoying this immensely. Is the Vello D'Oro within walking distance (or reasonably so) from the centro area?
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May 28th, 2008, 01:41 PM
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May 28th, 2008, 02:25 PM
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Thanks Holly - yes, the Vello d'Oro is in a good location just above the main street at the west end of town. I had a good view of the Piazza IX Aprile from my balcony. Breakfast included meat and cheese, and the juice and coffee were good.
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May 29th, 2008, 06:59 AM
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April 22nd - Views, views and more views

While I definitely preferred Ortigia to Taormina - more laid back, more varied, fewer fellow tourists - Taormina does have quite wonderful views, with the coast to the east and Mt. Etna to the west. I started the day on my balcony, with a view out to sea over the main piazza. Late in the morning we visited the Greek Theater, where the views were still stellar despite the stage wall (happily now somewhat ruined) built across the best view by the Romans. And I spent the afternoon up above Taormina in Castelmola, which had the best views of all.

The town itself did have attractions beyond the shops. My photographs include several churches, a baroque fountain with an angel-faced centaur centerpiece (the symbol of Taormina), the narrow streets (staircases in places), a flower-bedecked balcony, a quaint door, but, of course, lots and lots of shots of Mt. Etna and the coast.

The group spent the morning on a walking tour of the town, including the Villa Communale gardens and the Greek Theater, with an informative local guide (of course Alfio was also a local!). Then a group of us rushed off to catch the bus up to Castelmola (www.castelmola.com). One hardy sub-group decided to walk up, but I did mention that Sicily was short on trees, didnt I? No trees means no shade, and I didnt want to trek up a steep hill in full sunshine when I had an alternative. (I do my hiking in the Appalachians - plenty of trees!)

Unfortunately, lots of people wanted to take the bus up, and several of us didnt make it on. I turned to the couple behind me and suggested crossing the street to the taxi stand - with three of us splitting the fare it wasnt that pricey. We picked a quiet place for lunch, and then I went off to enjoy the spectacular views from the castle and explore the town. It was festival time - in the Church of St. George a big statue of the saint and the dragon was up on a float, being decorated with red roses.

Back in Taormina (by shared taxi again) I checked out the restaurants on my list. I had done a fair amount of research - guidebooks, fodors.com, slowtrav.com - and had a list of possibles for most of the towns I would visit. Here the first couple of places seemed too pricey, and I settled on the Granduca (www.granduca-taormina.com). I dont often bother with reservations in Europe - if you go a little early they can usually find space for a single - but the town seemed crowded and one reason to eat at the Granduca was to enjoy the view, so I had my hotel call.

Perhaps as a result, the restaurant gave me a table right in front of their big glass windows, and even after the sun set I could watch the palm trees tossing in the wind. For the first time I had brought my iPod to dinner, and I listened to Marlena de Blasi taking about Orvieto while I ate. And I ate well. A carpaccio of swordfish with greens was excellent. I followed that with a Sicilian specialty, pasta con le sarde, with sardines, raisins and pine nuts. I had had doubts about pasta with sardines, but promptly became a convert. With wine and water, the bill was around 30 euros.
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May 29th, 2008, 06:23 PM
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April 23rd - So Much to See, So Little Time

On the itinerary, days 3 and 4 looked good. This day, we would visit Mt. Etna in the morning, drive to Siracusa, and then meet in the early evening for a walk and dinner. The next morning wed visit the Archaeological Park, which would leave me nicely positioned to spend the afternoon at the museum. It didnt work out that way, as Alfio changed the schedule.

The day started well, despite an early start, with a good talk and good views from the coach. But our visit to Mt. Etna itself disappointed me. The place we stopped at was mobbed, and then we just got to follow a well-worn path round the rim of a small crater. A freezing wind tried to blow us off the mountain, and only dead black ash surrounded us. Alfio had told a stirring story about a close encounter with live lava on the way up, but we didnt see so much as a spark.

Then we stopped off in Catania on the way south for a walk round the town center and a disorganized lunch stop. I did fine - I picked the closest café, shared a table and figured out the buffet system, but others had more trouble. Then, back on the bus, Alfio announced that we would tour the Archaeological Park that afternoon, instead of the next morning. This meant that the tour would include two full free (i.e. no activity days) days instead of one. I like having some free time, but I dont see a need to pay tour prices for too much of it.

Rosa, our local guide for the Archaeological Park, was dynamite, bringing the site vividly to life. The Greek theater was disappearing under plywood in preparation for the summer drama series, but nothing could hide the size of the quarry behind it. The Athenians who had survived the disastrous (for them) naval battle of 413 BC had been forced to work there for seven years, before ending as slaves.

Rosa was so good that, when we were given the option to tour the Duomo with her that afternoon, instead of with Alfio the next morning, most of us chose to do so, even though that meant we didnt reach our hotel on Ortigia until 7:30, with no real orientation to the island, and only a couple of vague suggestions for dinner. (Alfio was swapping the group dinner on Ortigia with two lunches later on.)

I had announced my intention of eating again at Il Fermento, and several people wanted to join me, so I asked Alfio to make us a reservation. When he called me to say he couldnt get an answer, I pulled out my restaurant list for Siracusa, and headed down a little early to meet my group so I could confer with the front desk. We settled on Oinos, just round the corner at Via della Giudecca 71, where I had perhaps the best meal of the whole trip.

We had to split the group, and my table of three shared appetizers - asparagus with quail eggs, and a tuna tartare sampler. Then I had Argentinian beef with Jerusalem artichokes, and got a taste from the duck breast and leg with foie gras. Everything was delicious, and the wine, a Shiraz and Nero dAvola blend, so good it seemed a steal at 15 euro a bottle.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 07:19 AM
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thursdaysd,

This is very intreesting for me to hear about your tour. I'm surprised that there was so much last minute itinerary changing going on. Have you had this experience with other RS tours? Is this part of the reason you won't do another?

I've never been on a tour and this is giving more more confirmation of the many reasons I've never felt a tour would be a good option for me, even if it does mean going solo.
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May 30th, 2008, 09:11 AM
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Hi Dayle - glad to know someone's still reading!

Previous RS tours have not had much in the way of itinerary changes - some extras added, and the need to cope with things like bus breakdowns and local guide availability.

This was the first tour on this itinerary, but I had the feeling the change on days 3 and 4 had more to do with the guide. He said that he liked to put a lot into one day, and then give us a free day the next day. This is completely opposite to what I would like, with some scheduled activities and some free time each day. As I wrote, if I want an unscheduled day, and can organize it myself. I'll be pointing this out when I write my feedback on the tour.

I think the more I travel, the less I like tours, or at least general tours. I don't need to hear the lecture on how Greek temples are designed again, for instance, and I've seen enough glass-blowing, pot-throwing and carpet weaving demonstrations to last me a while. But I did enjoy the Greek RS tour I did in 2004 - the trip report for that is at www.wilhelmswords.com/eur2006, if you're interested.
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