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Crumbling Palazzos and Creamy Cannoli - Savoring Sicily

Crumbling Palazzos and Creamy Cannoli - Savoring Sicily

Jun 2nd, 2008, 04:39 PM
  #41  
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May 1st - Palermo With the Tour (later there will Palermo on my own)

We arrived in Palermo from Cefalu way too early to check into our next hotel, so we left the luggage there and headed out with our local guide. She gave us a pretty comprehensive tour of central Palermo, but I realized (again) that following a guide around doesn’t give me a good feel for where I’ve been, and often for what I’ve seen.

I do remember La Matorana, a 12th century Greek Orthodox church getting set up for a service, the Fontana Pretoria in the piazza of the same name, notorious in its day for its nude statues, and the cathedral, an Arab-Norman extravaganza, at least on the outside. Then I was upset to learn that the Capella Palatina, another treasure-trove of mosaics was, guess what? Yes, closed for renovation - completely closed this time. We took a walk through the Capo market, and finished in front of the Opera House.

Given a choice of lunch or the Archaeological Museum, I chose lunch, along with several others. The couple I was with and I chose an antipasto buffet in the first reasonable place we saw. When we met up with the rest of the group for an optional tour of the Opera House, I heard that the museum had been a disappointment. The Opera House, five full tiers of red and gold boxes, could have used some of the renovation I kept encountering - the royal box, impressive at first sight, was distinctly shabby.

Unfortunately, my room at the Hotel Tonic (www.hoteltonic.it) turned out to need renovation too - shabby would have been an improvement. I’ve stayed in a few really grotty rooms over the years, but mostly in Asia, and mostly at very low prices - not in Western Europe at 85 euros a night (the Tonic’s rack rate for a single).

I could put up with the room being small (London B&B small). I could put up with the bed being small (I’m only 5’ 5”). But the tiles on bedroom floor suffered from ingrained dirt to the point that I wouldn’t walk on them barefoot. And the room’s narrow window looked out on the bottom of an air shaft full of scaffolding and tanks. The only way to get any airflow was to run the AC. When I asked the front desk to move me I was told they had no other rooms. The “flawless renovation work completed in June 2007” certainly didn’t include this room, or the other single that I saw.

I went for a walk to calm down and consider my options. Although I had already paid for the room as part of the tour cost I seriously considered moving to another hotel. But by the time I got back, and had Alfio confirm that the hotel couldn’t move me or transfer me to their sister hotel, I judged it too late to move. Instead I took pictures for a tripadvisor report (I’ll write up all my hotels after I finish this), and tried to avoid touching the curtain while I showered.

Although we had eaten the farewell dinner the night before, we all met up for a rather disorganized farewell drink. Then I ate a last meal with four friends from the tour at La Tavernetta, a place we had checked out at lunchtime. We shared a spread of “Arab” appetizers, and then I enjoyed prawns and potatoes.
thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2008, 05:00 PM
  #42  
 
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thursdaysd,

I'm so sorry you ended your tour in a horrid room. It's sounding more to me like your tour buide, Alfio, was more interested in Free Time for himself than for you. Was that your impression too?

Note to self: remember to check for renovation, construction on major sights of interest before next trip! Thanks for sharing this experience.
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Jun 2nd, 2008, 05:01 PM
  #43  
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Tour Thoughts

Strictly speaking, the tour would end after breakfast the next morning, but after I hugged my dinner companions good night, I would be on my own again for the rest of the trip. In some ways, the tour had been a success. We had seen everything I had expected, and some things I hadn’t expected, with good local guides. My travel companions had all been interesting, and I had really connected with some of them.

But. Touring places with 27 other people is really not my style - I’m more accustomed to dodging tour groups than parading around with them. Most of the time I’d really rather sit down with a good guidebook and a cup of coffee than stand around listening to a tour guide. I’ve found that when I go back alone to places I’ve visited with a group (the Temple of Heaven in Beijing comes to mind), I see more. If you want to get a feel for a town, the best way is to walk it, on your own.

I hadn’t had to worry about hotels or transport or luggage, or about some of my meals. But, I travel light, I can carry my luggage when I need to. I actually enjoy the planning phase - picking hotels and restaurants, and then seeing how they turn out. And I’m not convinced that tours are cost effective.
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Jun 2nd, 2008, 05:12 PM
  #44  
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Dayle - I found Alfio a bit of an enigma. He was very knowledgeable abut Sicily, and I think he really wanted us to share his enthusiasm. He was responsive to requests - after I got tired of standing around in full sun when shade was available, and asked him to put us in the shade when possible, he did so (although he kept pointing out that he was doing so). He went to the Guardia Medica with us. But I saw less of him during unscheduled time that I remember being the case with other RS guides. And I did think that bunching activities into one day to leave the next free was as much for him as for us (or the driver - he mentioned that the driver could have the day off in Siracusa.) But, those tour members who have posted feedback on the RS website thought he was great.

BTW, the end of the tour wasn't the end of the trip - I'm about to take off for Western Sicily on my own.
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Jun 2nd, 2008, 06:05 PM
  #45  
 
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thursdaysd...

Thanks for the trip report. I enjoyed reading it.

I have been on several RS tours too and have been considering the Sicily tour for the fall of 2009 (or South America...I can't make up my mind!).
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Jun 3rd, 2008, 03:36 AM
  #46  
 
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Thursday thank you again. I am sorry that the trip was marred by your being under-the-weather and by those "sight" closings. But it sounds as if you made the best of things..you are a good traveller!
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Jun 3rd, 2008, 05:12 AM
  #47  
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LowCountryIslander - I see on the website that the RS tour will be ct to nine days next year, so not the same itinerary as I did.

eks - thanks - but the trip isn't over yet - I did another nine days in Sicily after the tour ended - more to come.
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Jun 3rd, 2008, 07:28 AM
  #48  
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May 2nd - Heading West

When I checked out of the Hotel Tonic, a new man on the front desk apologized several times for the state of my room. I refrained from pointing out that the hotel had freely chosen to rent it out, and climbed into my waiting taxi with a sense of liberation. Alfio had advised a bus rather than a train to get to Trapani, where I would catch another bus for Erice, and an early taxi to get to the bus station. When I came back to Palermo I discovered that it had a perfectly good bus system, or I could have walked a short distance and caught my bus on its way out of town, but I hadn’t fully switched back to independent budget traveler mode.

While I waited in the Segesta bus company’s office (the bus “station” was a series of offices) I watched a young couple trying to communicate with the clerk. I think they expected the Segesta bus company to have a bus to Segesta (another Greek temple), but they wound up taking the same route I did. The bus took two hours to get to Trapani, but 40 minutes of that was getting out of Palermo, and 30 minutes getting into to Trapani - the traffic was very bad in both towns.

At the Trapani bus station I had time for a coffee in the bar before the bus to Erice left, loaded with locals, including a bunch of school kids. We gradually lost the locals, as the bus progressed out of Trapani and then down the main street of Valderice. When the bus turned round at the end of the village to make the run up to Erice, only a few tourists were left.

When I say up, I do mean up. Trapani is at sea level. Erice is at nearly 2,500 feet, literally, I would discover, above the clouds. The bus zigzagged up the side of Mt. Eryx, avoiding a couple of tour buses on their way down, and stopped outside the town proper. I swung my pack onto my back and set off through the Porta Trapani and up a steep cobbled street, arriving at the Hotel Moderno (www.hotelmodernoerice.it/modernoeng.htm) somewhat out of breath. The Moderno felt especially welcoming after the Hotel Tonic. My single looked out on a quiet side street and was a little dark, but clean, comfortable, and reasonably sized, with plenty of hot water and BBC on the TV.

Erice wound up competing with Ortigia at the top of my “favorite places in Sicily” list. Although tour buses visit during the day, I found it surprisingly easy to avoid their passengers. They packed the souvenir shops (carpets and ceramics are big) on the main street, and the cafes on the main square, but just a couple of steps away the narrow streets were empty.

Looking for lunch, I followed signs off the main street to the Ulisse (tinyurl.com/5su6cj). The antipasto caldo included some good chickpea fritters along with too much potato - coquettes and fries. My order of couscous seemed to have been forgotten (from the waiter’s behavior, this wasn’t just slow service, which doesn’t bother me), and unlike the fritters proved a second disappointment: I wouldn’t order it again. I wouldn’t choose to eat at Ulisse again, either, and after checking out some other restaurants, I decided to take half-board at my hotel.

Erice is a triangle. Having entered at the southwest angle, I now walked through town to the southeast, where Lonely Planet promised a 12th century castle built over a pagan temple to Venus. The castle was there all right, and definitely photogenic, but what blew me away were the views. Clouds drifted below me, hiding and then revealing the pyramidal peak of Mt. Cofano, and the coastline north towards San Vito lo Capo and the hills of the Zingaro National Reserve. Blue sky, blue sea, restored castle to my right, ruined castle outpost below me, church belfry behind me - just stunning.

Dinner at the Moderno wasn’t stunning, but an improvement over lunch. I started with pasta Trapani, heavy on garlic, and then had a so-so veal Marsala.
thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2008, 07:29 AM
  #49  
 
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thursday...

Thanks for the "heads-up" about next years RS tour going to 9 days.

Even though next years tour won't be the same itinerary as your trip I liked reading about your time in Sicily because I usually try to arrive a few days prior to the tour and stay a few days after.

And...any information I can gather from trip reports I take very willingly!
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Jun 3rd, 2008, 01:44 PM
  #50  
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May 3rd - Exploring Erice

The more time I spent wandering around Erice, the more I liked it. I started the day taking photos before the day trippers arrived, and then headed for the northern angle of the triangle. This part of town felt deserted - some of the pathways, overgrown with grass and bordered with wildflowers, seemed positively rural. Some of the stones in the town walls here, according to one of the bilingual signs, had inscriptions dating back to the Carthaginians.

I stopped for mid-morning coffee at Café Maria - run by Mary Taylor Simeti, author of “Bitter Almonds”, according to LP. I started to sit down inside, but the waiter led me upstairs to a terrace with a wonderful view. I bought a panini and apple for lunch from the alimentari just up the street and took it over to the east end of town so I could enjoy another view with lunch. Shady formal gardens spread along the high ground behind the castle, with convenient benches.

Besides looking north, towards San Vito, I could also look south, where Trapani sprawled inland from the coast, its salt pans a series of ordered rectangles beyond the port. Up above, I wandered from church to church, shop to shop, between grey stone buildings and along grey stone lanes. I went back to Café Maria for more coffee and delicious dessert - the local marzipan. I considered buying a small, colorful ceramic frog for my neighborhood coffee house, Mr. Toads. I enjoyed being a solo traveler again.

Eventually I went back to my hotel for dinner. This time I started with the excellent antipasti buffet - lots of mushrooms in various guises, artichokes, assorted cheeses, meats, olives… Then I tackled the mixed grilled meat secondi, which included a very good sausage and equally good meat patty. I retired to bed thinking I should maybe have planned to spend a third night in Erice.
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Jun 5th, 2008, 07:05 AM
  #51  
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May 4th - 6th - Bored on the Egadi Islands

From Erice I would head further west, beyond Sicily itself, to Favignana, the largest of the three Egadi Islands. Sunday is not a good day for public transport on Sicily, but the Albergo Egadi, my next hotel, had assured me that the buses and ferries would be running. Well, there were plenty of ferries, but only three buses down from Erice. Fortunately, I had picked up a timetable in the bus station in Trapani, because the online schedule had the 10:00 bus leaving Erice at 10:30. I suffered through a ride with a surly driver playing the radio at full volume (once we got off Mt. Eryx and into transmitter range, that is), and then carted my pack along the waterfront to the ferries. The Ustica ticket clerk sent me over to Siremar, which had an earlier ferry not listed on their website. Moral - don’t necessarily believe online schedules!

The Albergo Egadi (www.albergoegadi.it) gave me a very nice room, with washed blue walls, and blue chiffon curtains framing a view out to sea, and a lovely bathroom with a tile floor and huge shower. The weekenders had just left, and I had the place almost to myself - my first night I ate dinner in the hotel’s restaurant in lonely state. Before overfishing killed the industry, tuna fishing and canning dominated the islands’ economy, and tuna, in various guises, dominated my meal. While I enjoyed the food, I didn’t have room for dessert, and 40 euros is a bit above my usual budget.

I had read that the islands had few tourists and good hiking. In early May there were certainly few tourists. Unfortunately, that seemed to mean little tourist infrastructure. I had envisioned coves with cafes and beach umbrellas: instead the ones I found were completely deserted. On Levanzo, a five minute ferry ride from Favignana, a couple of sleepy cafes did face the ferry dock, but on Favignana the cafes mostly clustered round the main square. I imagined the locals preferred shelter to sea views during the winter.

The good hiking existed, but only if you were willing to hike in full sun - these islands were just as deforested as Sicily. I did find a few trees on Levanzo, along with more totally deserted coves, but not on Favignana. The views were good, the wildflowers were in full bloom, and I had my choice of coves - provided I brought my own beach umbrella and drinks! Looking at the two sail boats moored round the point from Levanzo’s ferry dock, I concluded that this was the best way to visit the islands.

Breakfast at the Albergo Egadi was very continental - no cheese or meat here, just a croissant and bread with jam or marmalade. At home I don’t eat breakfast, but I get into the habit when I travel as so many places include it in the price. I did have one memorable meal on the islands, at El Pesacdor, featuring an excellent home-made pasta with baby shrimps, basil and cream. And I ate pizza one night at La Sirenetta, where I was amused to see the cook using a pizza press and metal oven to turn out what tasted to me like a perfectly acceptable pie that also seemed to be in demand for take-out. I guess I’m just not a pizza connoisseur - they usually get cold and soggy before I finish eating.

In July and August I imagine the islands are quite different. I did chat with a young couple who had loved their time on Favignana so much they hadn’t even visited the other islands. If you want your own personal cove to go swimming this is definitely the place. But I wished I had spent more time in Erice and less on the islands.
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Jun 5th, 2008, 10:33 AM
  #52  
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May 7th - 8th - Surprising Trapani

At first, I planned to spend these two days in Marsala, hopefully tasting the eponymous wine. When I couldn’t scare up any reasonable accommodations in the town center, I decided to stay in Trapani instead, and day trip. In Trapani I located a B&B in the heart of the old town, just down the street from the cathedral, which also gave its guests a 15% discount at its associated Trattoria.

Trattoria Ai Lumi occupied the front of a palazzo: I crossed a courtyard and climbed some stairs to reach my room in the B&B (www.ailumi.it). Getting into the room presented a challenge, I had to position the old iron key exactly right to unlock the door, but the room behind the door, although perhaps overfull of bed, had windows opening to the courtyard and the usual amenities - after I turned another key on the wall to get the heat/AC unit to work.

I never did make it to Marsala. Partly because my research on the net didn’t turn up any particularly good transport options, and partly because I liked old town Trapani so much. Big surprise! I had thought of Trapani as just a big town useful as a transport hub, and arriving in town by bus I had certainly passed a lot of undistinguished, even deteriorating, apartment buildings. The old town, though, reminded me of Ortigia.

Although not an island, the old town occupies a peninsula, with a port on the south side. On the north is a stretch of sand, although I didn’t see anyone using it as a beach. In between are several streets lined with churches and palazzos in varying states of repair, most decorated with interesting carving. A great place to wander around with a camera.

I walked a lot, winding up the first evening at a tree-filled park with a stage and a pond where I was surprised to see black swans. I also rode a bus further into the new town, to visit the Museo Nazionale Pepoli. This was, of course, undergoing restoration, and I had to be led out of the main entrance, through a park, down a street and into a suite of offices to gain access! While the coral artifacts were interesting, this isn’t a must-see, and to me, neither was the Madonna di Trapani in the Santuario dell’Annunziata next door.

The statue of the Madonna is important to the people of Trapani, however, as are the twenty life-size tableaux representing scenes from the Passion of Christ that are carried through the streets on Easter Friday. I visited the statues in the Chiesa del Purgatorio, where I learned that each is the responsibility of one of the town’s guilds, and that several required considerable repair after the town was bombed during WWII.

I lunched both days at one of the cafes on Via Turetta, just down from the twin clock towers enclosing the façade of the Palazzo Senatorio, on good tuna salad. I ate both nights at the Tavernetta Ai Lumi, and was a little surprised that almost all my fellow diners were tourists (maybe the Italians were in the smoking section), as I hadn’t realized Trapani would be so popular. I can recommend the seafood risotto, the mozzarella and tomato salad, and the excellent cheese plate. And the dessert wines!
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Jun 5th, 2008, 10:36 AM
  #53  
 
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thursdaysd,

Still enjoying and certainly appreciating your detailed report! This is great stuff to know for my future, probably solo, trip.

Grazie
Dayle is offline  
Jun 5th, 2008, 11:29 AM
  #54  
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Thanks dayle - nice to know someone's still reading!

Sicily is a great destination, and I think you'll do just fine solo! I look forward to your trip report [grin].
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Jun 8th, 2008, 12:35 PM
  #55  
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May 9th - 11th - Palermo On My Own

Instead of the downtown Palermo hotel Alfio had recommended (Hotel Posta), and despite his suggestion that the Corso Camillo Finocchiaro Aprile might not be in the best part of town, I stuck with my reservation at Sky Sleeping B&B (www.bed-and-breakfast.palermo.it/eng). While it took a short bus ride or a ten minute walk for me to get downtown, I thought this a great find, and the Corso an interesting place to call home. With greengrocers’ stands, a butcher’s shop, a fishmongers and a bakery, the street effectively housed its own little market.

My room at the B&B, a good-sized double, was clean and comfortable and furnished in Scandinavian modern. On the top floor of an apartment block, with sweeping views from the terrace, I found it a nice change after a series of older buildings. My landlord recommended a couple of local restaurants - the downtown ones were just for tourists, he said - although he was a little shaky on where to find an Internet café. The T.I. wasn’t very knowledgeable about Internet cafes either, although I did eventually track down a couple.

I seldom watch sports, except when I’m stuck with local language TV, which is how I developed an interest (admittedly limited) in bike racing. So I was quite pleased to find that Palermo was hosting the start of the Giro d’Italia (Italy’s version of the Tour de France). Pure serendipity - the first I knew about the race was when I saw the pink vans selling souvenir merchandise around the blocked-off Piazza Castelnuovo.

This first stage was a team time trial, and although I didn’t watch the start (I was revisiting the mosaics at Monreale) I did see the teams setting off on practice runs in the morning, and watched almost all of them making the final run up to Piazza Verdi in the afternoon. The speeds they reached were truly impressive.

Besides the race, and my second visit to Monreale (I had thought there might be fewer tour groups in the afternoon, but not really) the highlight of my return to Palermo turned out to be the Palazzo Mirto, near the Piazza Marina, where the huge 150-year-old ficus tree in the shady garden was being ignored in favor of the flea market outside.

The palazzo offered a taste of the high life in Palermo in the 18th and 19th centuries, with a series of beautifully decorated rooms. Although the guidebooks talk about the marble floors, and the painted silk walls in the Chinese sitting room, I particularly admired the embroidered wall hangings and the china collection. Unfortunately, the Castello della Zisa, which I had expected would give me a view of life in Moorish Palermo, was little more than a shell.

The day I visited Monreale I picked up a panini before catching the bus at Piazza Indipendenza, but I ate lunch twice at the Antico Caffe Spinnato, a very popular place one block south of the Teatro Politeama. Arriving just a little early let me grab a table outside before the crowds showed up. Here I finally tried granita, a Sicilian specialty made from crushed ice and fruit juice or coffee. Pleasant enough, but I think I would need to be hotter and thirstier to really appreciate it.

My first night in Palermo I met another single female traveler when we left the B&B for dinner at the same time. When we realized we were both heading to Il Vecchio Cortile we joined forces. Her language ability put me to shame - she came from German-speaking Switzerland and spoke English to me and Italian to the waiters. I had an interesting mixed antipasti plate, much of which I couldn’t identify, followed by slightly overcooked shrimp, but I paid more attention to her description of her upcoming trip - she was headed to Tunisia to cruise on her uncle’s boat.

I had planned to eat at my landlord’s second recommendation the next night, but after a long day my feet were tired, and Il Vecchio Cortile was just up the road, so I went back, alone this time. The pepper steak with fries and salad were good but not great, but I had to rely on my iPod for company. I noticed that about the time I finished my meal, around 10:00, a large family with several kids was just getting started on theirs.
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Jun 8th, 2008, 02:21 PM
  #56  
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Farewell to Sicily

My last day in Sicily featured Palazzo Mirto in the morning, Antico Caffe Spinnato for lunch, and a late afternoon Air One flight to Naples. Unfortunately, I left on a Sunday, and buses were few and far between in Palermo after lunch. After I retrieved my pack from the B&B, I waited for a bus. And waited. Finally, worried one would never show, I walked down to Teatro Politeamo, where I caught the airport bus.

Air One had sent me an email a few days earlier. Screen one said: “We regret to inform you that Flight AP6179 on 11MAY has been cancelled”. As panic set in I scrolled down. Screen two said they had re-booked me - same flight number, same day, just half an hour later. Why couldn’t screen one have just said that the flight time had been changed?

Riding the bus out of town and along the coast, I took a last look at Sicily. The island had easily lived up to my rather high expectations. Beautiful scenery: absolutely - from Taormina to Erice, the coastal scenery had been gorgeous, wildflowers had brightened the more forbidding interior, and I had loved exploring the towns. Interesting food: yes. Disappointing couscous and too-sweet cassata and been balanced by wonderful cannoli and excellent seafood - notably tuna and shrimp. Layers and layers of history and culture from all those invaders: again yes. Despite the “closed for renovation” problems.

Would I go back? I’d be happy to, especially to Siracusa and Erice, and I’d like to spend more time on the south coast, and visit Enna and the Madonie and the Aeolian islands. But I’m hearing the siren call of Asia, which I haven’t visited in four years, so it won’t be any time soon.
thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 8th, 2008, 04:01 PM
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Loved your trip report Thursdaysd! It was like reading a journal or a bookguide!
Castellanese is offline  
Jun 9th, 2008, 06:30 AM
  #58  
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Thanks Castellanese - I hope it may inspire some people to consider visiting Sicily.
thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 9th, 2008, 06:33 PM
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thursdaysd,

Mille grazie! So very helpful. You gave me some good ideas on towns to visit. I'll save the links too.
Dayle is offline  
Jun 13th, 2008, 11:56 AM
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Thursday,

I have to tell you that I enjoyed your detailed trip report immensely.

We are planning a trip to Sicily in October and I have a few questions:

I have read conflicting reports about the renovations going on at Villa Romana del Casale. The one report said that everything was covered with dust and not worth seeing. The one mosaic I really wanted to see was the famous Girls in Bikini. Were you able to see that one?

Is Piazza Armerina worth seeing?

I know you said you were disappointed in your trip to Mt. Etna. How far up did you go? I think I might be happy just looking at it and saying I was there.

You raved about Ortigia! This was not on our list of places to see, but I am reconsidering after reading your report.
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