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Crumbling Palazzos and Creamy Cannoli - Savoring Sicily

Crumbling Palazzos and Creamy Cannoli - Savoring Sicily

May 30th, 2008, 09:29 AM
  #21  
 
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Yes, we're still reading. More, please (again).
Holly_uncasdewar is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 10:17 AM
  #22  
 
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I'm definitely reading. I hope to make Sicily my next trip, combined with the Aeolian Islands and some more time in Roma! My last trip to Italy (3rd) was 3 weeks solo and I have no problem driving around the countryside on my own etc.

I'm just wondering how different Sicily might be. I am expecting less English spoken and my bit of Italian may not be enough. Also seems like trans will be a bit more challenging, as you thought.

Please do continue!
Dayle is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 10:25 AM
  #23  
 
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Dayle, I think the differences between mainland Italy and Sicily are that Sicily seems more genuine, work-a-day and real. Less concerned with fashion and material things. You can definitely tell that many areas are not as affluent as further north but that is not a bad thing at all.

There are areas where English is not spoken but that is part of the fun and adventure! I am unsure about public transportation but navigating and driving in Sicily is easy for the most part (exception: Palermo at busy times).
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May 30th, 2008, 10:50 AM
  #24  
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Dayle, that sounds like a great trip. If you have no problem driving yourself, go for it. I'd not plan to drive in Siracusa or Taormina, or in Palermo for that matter (where there's good public transport), but the main roads looked fine. I have trouble justifying the cost of a car for one person on a budget, plus I can drive or navigate well, but not both at once!

I don't speak Italian (I'm hopeless at languages) and I managed fine. I did notice that in the less touristy places and restaurants, e.g. on the Egadi islands, off the west coast, less English was spoken.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 10:55 AM
  #25  
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April 24th - Slow Day in Siracusa

Since this was a “free” day I was able to get up a bit later. The tour was staying at the Residence alla Guidecca (www.residenzaallagiudecca.com), self-catering apartments in renovated palazzos in the heart of the old town. I had a big bedroom with a lovely double bed, a sitting room with a mini-kitchen concealed in a cupboard, and a bathroom. My rooms were dark, as they looked out onto a narrow street rather than a courtyard, and there was an easily missed step a few paces inside the bedroom door, but otherwise this would be a good place to settle in for a few days.

A couple of other women on the tour were also interested in visiting the museums in the new town, so we rode the shuttle to the train station together and then shared a taxi to the Papyrus Museum (www.museodelpapiro.it). Good thing it was free, as the labels were all in Italian, and there wasn’t a great deal to see. Some papyrus sheets with Egyptian hieroglyphics and a couple of canoes caught my attention, but I soon moved on to the Archaeological Museum (tinyurl.com/5sa3ly) next door.

In Naples I had been disappointed in the Archaeological Museum because part was closed for renovation. Guess what, same thing here! At least they reduced the admission charge. The prehistoric section was still open, and I found this especially worth visiting as most of the Sicilian history I had read had started with the arrival of the Greeks in the 8th century BC.

Although the Greek section was also accessible when I was there, I was still a little “Greek museumed-out” from my six weeks there in 2006. I was more interested to learn that Sicily had been a magnet for invaders even before the Greeks - just too tempting to resist, apparently. And then there were the dwarf elephants - I had absolutely no idea that such things had existed, never mind on Sicily (and other Mediterranean islands too, it turns out).

I finished with the museum around lunchtime, and walked back to Ortigia just in time to score a panini before the shops shut for the afternoon break. I ate it under the trees on the lungomare, and then revisited the Café Minerva for coffee and cannolo. I also checked that Il Fermento was open and made a reservation for three for dinner.

I had not forgotten that I wanted to take a boat ride. I had mentioned it to Alfio in the hope that he might pass the message on, but no. Luckily I ran into two people from the tour who were interested, and we agreed to take a boat around the island. Our boatman doubled as a tour guide, but he spoke no English - the Italian couple sharing the boat with us were able to help out with a little translation. We had a lot of fun - getting to see the castle at the end of the island, meeting up with a scuba diver who handed up a few sea urchins, and finally sitting in the bottom of the boat as the awning came down to get us under a low bridge.

Underneath the alla Guidecca’s main building lies a surprise - Jewish ritual baths dating back to the Byzantine era. Alfio arranged a reduced admission price for the group, and most of us headed down the steep stairs to have a look at the small, deep, rock-hewn pools before dinner. The water came from an underground spring, and I couldn’t help reflecting that it was mostly women who were supposed to purify themselves in the cold water, not men.

I had planned to eat dinner with the same couple as the night before, but word had spread that I was revisiting a restaurant I had liked, and in all eleven of us showed up at Il Fermento. We took over a big table in the back room, and fortunately one of the men spoke some Italian, and was able to translate the message that with so many of us, and only one person cooking, it would help if we didn’t order too many different dishes. The risotto and king prawns I had had before were popular, and I gathered that the ravioli and salad were appreciated, too.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 01:47 PM
  #26  
 
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Thursday I am certainly still reading this terrific report! And while I read I continue to learn! Who knew, for example (certainly not me) that the Duomo in Ortygia is the oldest continuously occupied religious building in Europe!

You weave a compelling tale and I am hoping for more soon!
ekscrunchy is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 02:05 PM
  #27  
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Thanks eks! I certainly didn't know that about the Duomo either - that info came from Rosa, who was a terrific local guide. I must say, the atmosphere inside the Duomo was in every way consistent with millenia of use as a sacred building.

Here's the next installment, but I'm off to eat some Chinese food, no more until tomorrow.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 02:07 PM
  #28  
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April 25th - Heading Inland

Today we would leave the east coast behind us and drive through the inland hills to Piazza Armerina for two nights in an agriturismo. Tomorrow would star the mosaics of Villa Casale - one of my absolute must-see sights on Sicily (I just love mosaics). I looked forward to the agriturismo, too - not the kind of place you get to stay at if you only use public transport.

Before we left Siracusa, though, Alfio had added a visit to the recently opened WWII bomb shelters near the Duomo. As shelters go, these weren’t at all bad, cleaner and less claustrophobic than the London tube, for sure. Originally caves, they featured a big cistern for water.

I had been a little concerned that our lunch stop might have been Noto: instead it turned out to be Caltagirone, which I had really wanted to see, but had thought too far for a day trip from Siracusa. Ceramics have been produced there for over a thousand years, but I didn’t want to shop, I wanted to see the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, 142 wide steps leading up to the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Monte , each riser faced with hand-decorated ceramic tiles. And indeed, while the plates and vases in the shops were a little florid for my taste, the tiles were just right - birds and flowers and lions and horses and geometric shapes, each riser different.

Before releasing us to find lunch, Alfio took us to see a huge “nativity” (presepe in Italian). Think of a model railway layout, but without the railway and with the nativity scene as the centerpiece. This one occupied most of a church, and included numerous tableaux of people going about their daily lives - fixing meals, gathering firewood, catching fish.

Again, we were given only sketchy directions for places to eat. I headed straight for La Scala, listed in Lonely Planet and actually on the Scalinata, but they were only offering a “tourist menu” at 25 euro. I should mention that April 25th was a holiday - Liberation Day, both celebrating the end of WWII in Italy, and commemorating the war dead. On a different day I would expect to find a regular menu.

Unfortunately, many places were closed because of the holiday, and I wasn’t having much luck when I ran into a couple from the tour looking equally hungry. Then I took another look at Lonely Planet and we found Non Solo Vino, almost hidden up a staircase, where I enjoyed an excellent piece of swordfish with fennel and orange. Apparently the antipasto buffet and spaghetti with clams were also good.

We couldn’t linger over lunch, though, as we were supposed to meet up with the group for a pottery demonstration. This was where I realized that one pottery demonstration is really much like another - I would have done better to visit the ceramics museum. I didn’t have time for that after the demonstration, but I did abandon the shoppers, which let me spend a little time in Caltagirone’s pretty public gardens, and take a quick peek at a religious festival that seemed to center on the cloak of S. Francesco di Paola (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_of_Paola).

After we got settled in at the agriturismo we had to play the “name game”, designed to help us remember each other’s names. With 27 people on the tour, I could certainly use the help, but I hadn’t realized we were going to do it outside. The evenings were still cool, and even in a sweater I wound up thoroughly chilled. I didn’t know it at the time, but the sickness the Sorrento doctor’s prescriptions had cured would now make a comeback.

We were staying at Torre di Renda (www.torrerenda.it/intro/index_eng.htm) for two nights, and ate dinner there both nights. My room, a double, was small enough I wondered where two people would put their luggage, and again I didn’t have much of a view. There were great views available however, looking across a valley to Piazza Armerina.

I thought dinner good but not great - stronger on quantity than quality. The antipasto, as usual in Italy, was good, the pasta just OK (although since I’m not really a pasta fan, maybe I’m not a fair judge), then we had tough pork as well as tasty rabbit and potatoes. Dessert included both cake and tiramisu.
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May 30th, 2008, 02:19 PM
  #29  
 
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I absolutely love your report and your website and photos! You sure are a role model!! Thanks for sharing.
SeaUrchin is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 06:13 PM
  #30  
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Thanks so much SeaUrchin! (Blush) I don't feel like a role model, but I did hang out on the Solo Traveler's board when we had one to say that solo travel doesn't have to be scary.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 06:24 PM
  #31  
 
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Love your title!
My father was born in Siracusa so reading your wonderful report with my interst. Thank you.
cigalechanta is offline  
May 31st, 2008, 05:44 AM
  #32  
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cigalechanta - I just can't resist an opportunity for alliteration! Probably a silly question, but I haven't been a fodorite that long, and I mostly hang out on the Asia board (the Europe one fills so fast): have you been to Siracusa?
thursdaysd is offline  
May 31st, 2008, 07:34 AM
  #33  
 
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Keep it coming thursdaysd, very informative!
Dayle is offline  
May 31st, 2008, 07:38 AM
  #34  
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April 26th - Mesmerizing Mosaics

A group of 27 doesn’t just make unrealistic demands on people’s memories for names, it makes unrealistic demands on small hotels’ hot water supplies, and some on this tour weren’t up to the challenge. Faced with the choice of a cold shower, getting up earlier or showering in the afternoon, I picked the latter, but I did miss my morning shower.

Remember my previous encounters with museums “closed for renovation”? Well, the Villa Casale, one of my reasons for coming to Sicily in the first place, was also partially closed for renovation! True, renovation is a good and necessary thing,(very necessary in the case of the Naples museum), but I was beginning to feel I had chosen the wrong year for this trip. I do hope that renovation at the Villa includes a new roof - the current monstrosity makes it very hard to take decent photographs, and must turn the place into a sauna in the summer.

Still, the Villa (sights.seindal.dk/sight/456_Villa_Romana_del_Casale.html) is huge, and although some of the most famous mosaics were covered, I had plenty to admire. Built in the early fourth century, probably as the manor for a large estate, it survived the invasions of the Vandals and the Visigoths, and later the Arabs, but was buried by a landslide in the twelfth century, and remained hidden until the 1900s. The UNESCO listing for the site says simply: “the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world”. Just stunning.

Almost anywhere would be an anticlimax after a morning at the Villa Casale, but Piazza Armerina wasn’t bad. I made a quick getaway from the group to be sure I could buy a panini before the shops shut. With a “happy hour” and another large meal scheduled for the evening I wanted a light lunch, which I ate on a bench across from the duomo. Exploring the town afterwards, I found several people from the group in a nice-looking trattoria, and was invited to join them for coffee and dessert.

Heading back to the coach we walked into the first rain I had encountered since Herculaneum back on April 15th - and hail as well - but it cleared by the time we reached the agriturismo. Now, later in the year, I imagine people will spend the afternoon at the pool, but not in April. I admired the views, I went for a walk among the wildflowers and I caught up on my journal, but it was definitely a slow afternoon.

In contrast, the evening was lively. We all showed up with contributions for happy hour (I took olives, from the same alimentari as my lunchtime panini), and then took turns introducing our “buddy”. RS tours have everyone pair up on the first day and then check that our buddy is present when otherwise the guide would need to count heads. (Turns out that “buddy” is a dirty word in Sicilian!)

I tried to graze sparingly on the assorted goodies, but getting through four courses after happy hour was a bit difficult. This night we had the usual mixed antipasto, followed by another pasta Norma, meat and very mediocre spinach, and my favorite cannoli.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 31st, 2008, 02:10 PM
  #35  
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April 27h - Agrigento to Scopello

My notes for this day are extremely sparse, possibly because I had gotten sick again. (For those who missed the Capri-Sorrento part of this trip, I spent most of that time suffering from a cold followed by a cough.) My fellow travelers rallied round with an assortment of remedies, and I would find that Advil for Sinus (which I’d never heard of - I don’t watch ads) shortened the transition from cold to cough.

We spent the morning at Agrigento, where remarkably intact Greek temples stand proud on high ground above the sea, even though the site is known as the Valley of the Temples (go figure). No “closed for renovation” problems here. The setting is dramatic, and the temples among the best I’ve seen. I hear it’s even better at night, when the temples are lit.

Our local guide, while not as dynamic as Rosa, nonetheless knew his subject well. Not a good person to entrust with the group photo, though - the result is dominated by one of the temples, with the people hard to identify!

We had a group lunch, and although I can conjure up the table and the people I sat with, I can’t remember the food. My notes just say that the chickpea fritters, which I had looked forward to trying, were disappointing, and that a promised surprise turned out to be a dessert wine. Then we made the long drive to Scopello, a little village in the northwest near the entrance to the Zingaro National Park.

We stayed at Albergo La Tavernetta (www.scopello.org/la-tavernetta.htm), where I had a room with a small balcony. For dinner many of us wound up at Il Bagnio, said to have food with Arabian influences. My seafood couscous was more couscous than seafood, and very short on expected spice. I ate cassata for dessert, rich with sugar and candied fruits and also on my list of things to try, but found it too sweet for my taste. I’ll stick with cannoli!
thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 1st, 2008, 09:40 AM
  #36  
 
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thursdaysd, I'm really enjoying your report (and enjoyed the one on Capri & Sorrento as well, as I'm going there in July). Sicily is on my list, so it's good to get the information.
SusanP is offline  
Jun 1st, 2008, 01:24 PM
  #37  
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Thanks SusanP - here's the next installment.

28 April - Back to Nature

After Greek temples, Roman mosaics and lots of Spanish baroque, we were going to spend this day in the country, hiking the seven kilometer coast path through the Riserva Nationale della Zingaro (www.riservadellozingaro.it/index.html). We had beautiful weather for the trek, but, unfortunately, I woke up feeling decidedly off color. What to do? We had four hours to make it from the southern entrance to the northern, where our coach would meet us. Or I could do a very short trek at the southern end and then backtrack to take the coach north. Or I could forget the whole thing. There’s no public transport at either end, and although Scopello is only two kms. from the southern entrance, San Vito Lo Capo is 20 kms. from the northern.

Initially I planned to backtrack, but quickly realized I wouldn’t have enough time to reach even the first cove, and that the scenery would be well worth some effort. I had already slathered on sunscreen (I hate the stuff), and with a borrowed bandana to cover my thinning hair I decided to keep going. It’s surprising how far you can get just putting one foot in front of the other.

Four hours only gave most of the group, including me, enough time to make the walk and take a short lunch break (our hotel had provided sandwiches). I’d have liked to take it more slowly, and not just because I was sick. I live in North Carolina, where a three hour drive will get me to mile after mile of sandy beaches, but I really prefer my coastline rugged, with cliffs and breaking waves, and this was much more my kind of place.

To my right a dark blue sea met a sky just a few shades lighter. To my left, open, rocky slopes climbed high, home to birds and wildflowers. I could now recognize acanthus, but I still don’t know the name of the big cactus with a spire that looks like a giant asparagus. And at ground level yellow and red and pink decorated the plants where darting lizards took refuge. We weren’t the only visitors, but only a few others were walking the paths or sunbathing in the coves.

The coach duly collected us at the northern entrance, and we drove on to San Vito, where Alfio treated us to gelato. (I know that many posters here are gelato fans, but I’m afraid I’m a heretic - I’m just not that fond of frozen treats.) San Vito’s long sandy beach had even fewer sunbathers than the coves in Zingaro.

Apparently the folks at La Tavernetta,, where we ate a group dinner, felt we needed feeding up after our hike, because they served way too much food! Assorted bruschetta were followed by no fewer than three kinds of pasta, including pasta con le sarde (not as good as the Granduca’s). The swordfish, accompanied by French fries and salad, seemed a little dry, but dessert, pineapple and little cakes filled with ricotta, was good.
thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 1st, 2008, 02:58 PM
  #38  
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29 April - More Marvelous Mosaics

Today we visited another of my “must-sees” - Monreale cathedral (www.bestofsicily.com/monreale.htm). We left early for the drive through craggy hills in the hope of beating the crowds, but were foiled by the presence of three cruise ships in Palermo. But nothing could spoil my enjoyment of the remarkable mosaics.

The Norman king William II commissioned both the cathedral and its accompanying monastery (now mostly destroyed) in 1174. It had only been a hundred years since the Normans had wrested control of Sicily from the Saracens (or Muslim Arabs) with the backing of the Roman Catholic pope, but Arabs, Normans and Orthodox Christians managed to coexist in an unusual and productive harmony, at least for a while. The cathedral reflects influences from all three religions.

The entire interior is covered with Byzantine-style mosaics, 6,340 square meters of them, with a background of gold. In 42 separate scenes the mosaics depict key episodes from the Bible, culminating in a huge Christ Pantocrator above the main altar.

Outside we visited the cloister. Here 228 slender, paired columns, all different, all with intriguing capitals carved with scenes from Sicilian history, and many with mosaic inlay, are in need of the renovation recently completed inside the cathedral. An Arab fountain was tucked into one corner.

I planned to revisit the cathedral after the tour ended, so I didn’t mind leaving for a drive through more craggy hills to a winery. The best part of the winery tour was the bottling operation, but I approved of the wine tasting that followed. (Although why before lunch instead of after?) I quite liked a Viognier and Chardonnay blend, and could have talked myself into buying some of the Nero d’Avola and Shiraz blend if I wouldn’t have had to carry it.

Group lunch at the winery lasted until 4:00, and again was stronger on quantity than quality. I paid more attention to the conversation than the meal.

The streets in our base for the next two nights, Cefalu, weren’t sized for coaches, so we walked into town (our luggage went by taxi). I had a good-sized room at the Hotel la Giara (www.hotel-lagiara.it), with somewhere to put my pack and a table to write at, but again, no view and problems with the hot water.

My cold had now mutated to a nasty cough and congestion - I had been having trouble hearing all day. Two other people were also on the sick list, and after a walking tour of the town we arranged with Alfio to visit the doctor. Actually, the Guardia Medica, which unlike the Emergency Room in Sorrento, was free. Although we arrived just after 9:00, as suggested, we had to wait until nearly 10:00 for the doctor to come back from a house call. (An actual house call!)

Alfio translated her diagnosis of my problem as “cold air”, which, while unlike any diagnosis I had heard before, actually matched my experience. The doctor didn’t want to give me another antibiotic, and instead prescribed nose drops (Argotone). These worked quite well, except that I couldn’t help swallowing some, and after four or five days they started to disagree with my digestive system.
thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 1st, 2008, 07:41 PM
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Still enjoying your report and keepiing it for reference. Sorry you took ill, but you are a trooper, good for you!
SeaUrchin is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2008, 07:37 AM
  #40  
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Well, SeaUrchin, I'm the idiot who hopped around Turkey on crutches after she fell down some steps in Istanbul on a different RS tour! I did go home early when I broke my wrist in Switzerland, though.

30th April - Chilling Out in Cefalu (Pronounced Chefalu, didn’t think I’d pass up an opportunity for alliteration, did you?)

This was our “vacation from our vacation” day - i.e. unscheduled, although Alfio had arranged a pre-dinner visit to a puppet theater, and then moved the “farewell” dinner from May 1st in Palermo to this evening in Cefalu. Like April 25th, May 1st is a holiday in Italy (and much of the rest of Europe: once the pagan festival of Beltane, now it’s the European equivalent of the US’s Labor Day). Alfio said he had just found out that his target restaurant in Palermo would be closed for the holiday, but he also said that he had held the farewell dinner early on other trips, and you would think he would have known about the holiday.

I think Cefalu may be trying to become the next Taormina, with lots of shops and restaurants, but it doesn’t have a Greek theater, or beautiful Villa Communale gardens, and if you want the best views you have to trek up the 900-foot hill, Il Rocca, that soars above the town. While I had made a longer trek through Zingaro, that had been mostly flat, if uneven, and I didn’t feel well enough to tackle this one.

Not that the views at sea-level are bad. Cefalu is an attractive small town, with a crescent beach, some fishing boats, and narrow, atmospheric streets (unfortunately shared with cars). A great place for shoppers and sunbathers, and swimmers in season - although two of our group did brave the waters, they didn’t have much company. The Duomo is a magnificent Norman construction, with Byzantine mosaics created a little before those at Monreale, and there’s no shortage of places to drink coffee and watch the passing parade.

My last puppet show featured shadow puppets, in Malaysia - Sicilian puppets are very different! (See http://www.lifeinitaly.com/tourism/s...et-theatre.asp) Big, three dimensional constructs, manipulated from above, used to tell a story of Christians defeating Saracens. I thought the costumes good but the movements clumsy, and enjoyed the opportunity to examine several generations worth of puppets more than the show itself.

The farewell dinner seemed a little low key, and again I concentrated more on conversation than food. I was surprised when Alfio, who had been of very little help with restaurant recommendations, asked me where I got mine! Of course, it's an understatement to say that Rick Steves has never been a foodie, but I had expected some local knowledge from a Sicilian guide. We moved up onto the Spanish sea walls for dessert - cassata and limoncello under the stars. A beautiful idea, only marred by the fact that we didn’t do a buddy check before we left the restaurant, and one woman got left behind.
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