Just back from two weeks in Sicily

Jul 30th, 2007, 05:46 AM
  #1  
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Just back from two weeks in Sicily

The postings on this site were very helpful in planning our trip, and I wanted to share some of the insights we gained during a recent, and amazingly great, 2 week visit to Sicily.

Our approach to the island was to rent two separate villas for one week each:

(1) one on the eastern side of the island, on the bay at Pozillo (just north of Acireale, and 15 miles north of Catania)

(2) one in Castellmare del Golfo (about 20 miles south of Palermo airport).

We used these villas as bases of operation for touring the island.

Sicily is not a huge island -- on the autoroute it takes less than 3 hours to go from one side to the other. But many cities and sites are not linked directly to a major highway. We often found ourselves driving each day to our destinations. Most often, these were 20 minutes to an hour away. The longest trip we took was 90 minutes, from Castellmare to Agrigento. It was a beautiful ride, which compensated for its length.

We rented from a firm based in Florence called Ville in Italia (www.villeinitalia.com). There are several villa rental agencies covering Sicily, but this one was by far the most responsive early on. We dealt with Alessandra at the agency and she was great. Both villas we rented were well-appointed and beautiful. The owners, both local women, could not have been more helpful, and in fact both invited us to come to their homes for drinks and a visit. I think this is a really nice way to visit Sicily.

I was amazed at how reasonable Sicily is from a cost perspective. For western Europe, it's really quite amazing. With one notable exception, dinners were never more than $40 a head, complete with wine and several courses, and often they were less.

Two weeks is just barely enough to get a full sense of this island, in my opinion. Even with two weeks, there were several important places that we could not fit in, like the Aeolian Islands, the Egadi Islands, Cefalu, and large parts of the northern coast.

I was most impressed by the stunning changes of landscape and scenery in such a compact landmass. The eastern side is balmy and typically Mediterranean, the interior is dry as a bone with rolling farmland and staggering hilltop towns, and the western side has giant sheer mountains rising out of turquoise seas.

There were three restaurants that I will mention in this posting if for no other reason than that they were very memorable.

The first was Duomo in Ragusa IBLA (neighboring town to Ragusa, and more beautiful in my opinion). It was an exception to the inexpensive rule. This is a Michelin 2-star restaurant that is superb. It is a casual place (including attire), but the 8-course tasting menu at 100 Euros a person was on a par with the best haute cuisine in the world. The first course -- foie gras ice cream covered with large shaved truffles, was worth the trip. The chef, who was a celebrity in Manhattan for years, went home to Sicily and dedicated himself to using and highlighting the best of Sicily throughout his menu. This is a major dining experience, if you are interested in that.

The second restaurant that rose above many others was at the beachfront Sheraton just outside Catania. It is called Il Timo. We were wary of going to a hotel restaurant, particularly one in a Sheraton. But this chef is a genius in my opinion. We had read about him in an article published in the NY Times in 2004, and he's still there. His dishes are masterfully infused with local flavors of citrus, nuts, oils, and other ingredients that made dining here extraordinarily good. I think the meal was about $60 a person (with wine), so it was slightly more expensive than usual, but this was a very great meal by any standard. One note -- the restaurant looks a bit cheesy and dated, as does the hotel. It also often appears to be somewhat empty. We cannot explain this at all, given its exceptional caliber. When we went to make a reservation, we were skittish, but we moved forward and were hugely rewarded. Sit outside if at all possible.

The third restaurant we loved was very near the temple at Segesta. We stumbled on this place when desperately looking for lunch on a Sunday afternoon after visiting the temple. It is called Baglio Pocoroba, and it is maybe 2 miles from the temple, past the local train station (follow signs from the temple saying "ristorante" and pass the train station -- there is a restaurant at the train station, but don't confuse it with that one). This is home cooking at its best. We ate here 3 times during our visit to the western side of the island, and three generations of the same family were always there to greet us. You kind of eat what the chef is making that day and I don't recall ever being offered a menu. Most often, it was a delicious antipasta plate to share, followed by thick and immediately fresh pasta with some crushed tomatos and basil, followed by a grilled piece of meat and then a bowl of local fresh fruit for dessert. The wine is made on-site from their own vineyards, and there are only house red and white from a tap. The large-screen TV in the otherwise charming dining room is odd, but this is also the family dining room, so it is their home. The welcome here is striking -- we thought they had confused us with other people when we arrived, but it turned out that this is their way of greeting guests. English is not well-spoken, other than by the teenagers who sometimes wait tables. But that is part of the charm.

Other comments -- during our stay we rented a GPS system (called a "Tom Tom") for the car. It was worth the 5 Euros a day, and more. Its 70% accuracy was perhaps disappointing, but 70% navigation aid in Sicily is a big jumpstart, and with a good map, the Tom Tom makes for a useful travel partner. Driving is slightly insane -- moreso on the eastern side than the western side for some unknown reason. But once you get the unspoken rules down, it becomes second-nature.

I am happy to try to answer questions folks may have as there is too much to say in one posting. Overall, Sicily is an amazing destination. I thought I knew most of western Europe, but this place is extraordinary. It is still very under-touristed, which is great. We maybe heard 6 other Americans during our two weeks there. It is breathtakingly beautiful, it's fun, it's got unmatched history, and it's a relative bargain. GO!
mikedparen is offline  
Jul 30th, 2007, 11:02 AM
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PalenQ is offline  
Jul 30th, 2007, 11:23 AM
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Mikeedparen,
We've only got a week in Sicily in late October based near Catania. Any essential, not to be missed places. We'll be travelling with our 18 mo old daughter, is the Sheraton restaurant at all family friendly?
swalter518 is offline  
Jul 30th, 2007, 12:07 PM
  #4  
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I think the Sheraton would be fine with an 18 month old. It's a big restaurant, with a poolside area, and I am sure they could find a comfortable place for you. In fact, we often saw families dining with children/babies at restaurants in Sicily. It was heartening to see the welcome and support they received.

As for must-see's, I could say Mount Etna is a huge one (it was COLD up there, even in July, so be prepared), a day in Siracusa, Taormina (child-friendly strolling in the hillside town), and if you want to go further afield, Noto and/or Ragusa Ibla. Closer to Catania -- Acireale is a sweet town. You're going to have a great time.
mikedparen is offline  
Jul 30th, 2007, 12:12 PM
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Mikeedparen, I'm so excited I can't even begin to tell you. We're staying with relatives on the Naval base near Catania so we have the luxury of being with people who have lived there for a few years now. I only wish we could get away for longer.
swalter518 is offline  

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