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Trip Report One week in Sicily - Taormina, Ortigia, Agrigento & Palermo

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Catania - Taormina - Etna

We recently returned from a lovely week in (mostly Eastern) Sicily. Unfortunately due to work schedules we were limited to 7 full days, but we were very happy with our itinerary and the places we stayed, so I thought I would pass this info on.

We took a late night departure (10:45 pm) on Alitalia to Rome and then on to Catania. We were pleasantly surprised with the Alitalia flight - hadn't had great memories of the airline. The plane was new and a decent amount of space. The late night departure made it easier both to sleep and to deal with the jet lag. The two hour layover in Rome was a little tight. Our flight was about 30 min late arriving and we had to take a bus to the terminal and pass through security. We had to run through Fiumicino, but in the end had 10 minutes to spare for a quick coffee before boarding the flight to Catania. After collecting bags we walked out the terminal and found the Europcar office to pick up our rental car. (Luckily they had sent us info about the location since there was no Europcar terminal in the airport even though other rental car companies did have desks)

We got a Fiat 500 which I had booked on purpose - feeling like a small car would be more maneuverable on the small streets. I belatedly realized that our luggage would not fit in the trunk out of sight, and due to this and warnings on this forum, I rearranged our schedule so we would not have to leave our car with luggage in it at some of the places we'd planned to visit.

We left the airport about 5 and drove to Taormina. It took about an hour and we weren't overly tired. I had downloaded the Navmii Italy maps and we used that as a GPS. It worked fine. Luckily the hotel had sent explicit directions to the hotel which were very useful once we got to Taormina.

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Schuler and we loved the hotel. We had prebooked parking, which was helpful. As soon as we arrived at the hotel, Eduardo offered us fresh orange juice and we checked in. The setting was lovely and we had booked a room with sea view. There was a small, tight balcony with a beautiful view. The room was not that big, but it was very comfortable, especially the bed. The hotel itself was very tranquil and had its own garden, which was lush and had a fountain with turtles in it. It was a five minute walk through the garden to the main street, which was crowded with throngs of people. I got a little claustrophobic, but it was lively. Taormina was beautiful with its pretty architecture and lots of upscale shops. It was fun to meander off the main drag and wander down the little alleys. We had dinner the first night at l'arco dei cappuccini which was beyond the Porta Messina. A friend had recommended it. Dinner was okay - I just had a salad and pasta alla norma. I can't even remember what my husband got. The salad was fresh and the pasta was fine - nothing spectacular, but nice to have a destination and not have to make a choice between all the restaurants. The waiter was a bit friendlier after I mentioned that a friend had sent me there.

We got a good night's sleep and the next morning had breakfast outdoors on the hotel terrace. There was no buffet - you just ordered from the menu, but it was all included in the room rate. There was a huge selection including eggs, cherry tomatoes, and plenty of other tempting things. It was lovely sitting out in the fresh air with Etna in the distance. As soon as breakfast was finished we got our car (don't look at how tightly they park them - but we got it back without a scratch) and set off for Etna.

It was about an hour's drive to the Rifugio di sapienza - the starting point for the Etna funivia. There were a few craters you could get out and walk to from the level of the Rifugio. Also lots of touristy shops, a few bars and restaurants, and of course the parking area. Payment for parking was very unclear. We parked in front of the shops and there were blue lines, which usually indicate pay parking. But we couldn't see a payment machine. The people in the shops told us to go down a few doors, and in one of the shops they were selling parking tickets. We bought four hourly tickets for about a euro each, or you could buy a whole day for 6 euros. Some cars had the tickets displayed on the dashboard, others did not, so it was a little unclear whether anyone policed.

Anyway, then we went for a coffee and headed for the ticket office. The tickets to go to the summit via funivia and bus were about 65 euros each. This included a guided tour, which is obligatory at the top. The cablecar ride is about 20 minutes, then you go out and line up for the moon bus (there wasn't long to wait) and the bus held about 20 people or so. The buses just keep circulating. The bus ride takes about 15 more minutes. Once on top a guide rounded us up and escorted us on a little walk around the craters. We stopped in several places and he would explain. His English was passable, his French was very good and then he would speak in Italian. So he repeated everything three times, but he usually started wandering again after the French and just recapped for the Italians as he was walking. We probably spent about 45 minutes on top. It was a beautiful day. The trips to the top depend a lot on weather conditions. It was amazing to see the craters which have just been formed in the last two years, and hear how there have been some spectacular displays as recently as a few months ago. I really loved how the mountain dominates everything on the northeast side. We also had some lovely views of Etna from the airplane, which seemed to pass it about three times going in. We are very glad we paid to go to the top.

There was a tourist shop, bar and toilets at the level where you caught the bus. We went back down to the car level and decided to eat then, since it was probably about 1 by that time. We wound up choosing the restaurant the the Rifugio itself (a hotel). It was a nice choice. There were good views out the window and it was calm despite being half full. I had an antipasto plate with different Sicilian specialties which was perfect. My husband got the pasta with pistachio-cream sauce which was not his favorite. I think he just chose the wrong thing, but he shared some of mine. As usual, he wanted to hear about the desserts, but nothing was exciting enough to order. Turns out when the waiter brought the check it came with four mini cannolis - two ricotta and two chocolate, which were a perfect ending.

On the way back in the car we stopped at Zafferana Etnea, a town just below Etna that is known for honey. There was a little fair set up with stalls and we wandered around and found some honey to taste and then bought a few jars to take home. Then it was back to the hotel.

After a brief rest we set off to hike up to Castelmola, a town above Taormina with nice views. We set off by the restaurant the night before up Via dei Cappuccini and then found the salita Branco - the footpath up. There were lots of steps and then a path. It took about 30 minutes to climb up and we worked up a bit of a sweat. Castelmola was very pretty and there was a very old church and a castle. On a more leisurely day it might have been fun to have a drink or eat a meal up there, but after a wander round we hiked back down to Taormina to shower before dinner.

Dinner that night was at Casa Niclodi, another place recommended by my friend who spent a few weeks in Taormina. The restaurant has a pretty courtyard after you pass through the inside. This was our most expensive meal - totaling 105 euros. We had two starters, two main dishes and one dessert plus water and a bottle of wine. I had a kind of vegetable sformato for a starter and my husband had some starter with seafood he really liked. He had branzino (sea bass) for his main dish that was lightly breaded and delicious. I am not a big fish eater so I got lamb chops, which were a little more cooked than I like them, but the roast potatoes and vegetables were good. Again, we looked at the dessert menu for fun, but did not find something we wanted. At that point we asked the waiter why there was never zabaglione on the dessert menus, since we had thought it was a Sicilian dessert. He knew exactly what we were talking about and he disappeared and came back with one for my husband. All in all a pleasant experience.

One of the things I will always remember about the Villa Schuler hotel is the birds singing in the morning. We had lovely weather in mid April and slept with the windows open. It was very quiet at night.

Monday was our final half day, and finally we were able to go and see the Greek theatre. It was a spectacular setting and very impressive. It worked out well arriving at about 9:15, since there were not too many people there yet. It felt very relaxing to just sit there in the nice weather. After our visit we went for an almond granita at Licchio's Bar, one of the prime people watching spots. It seemed to be the place to be for the pre-dinner drink, when we had passed. Then we wandered around some more, did a little shopping in the "outlet" store (just another boutique but in a better price range for us) and then had a salad before departing Taormina to head for Ortigia. All in all Taormina was a lovely way to start the holiday for us.

One last note: if we'd had more time in Taormina, I would have liked to take the cable car down to the beach and see that area.

Next: Ortigia (Siracusa), Villa Romana del Casale and Bee eaters!

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    Your start sounds very enjoyable. Thanks for the detailed description of visiting Etna. Not many people report on that so im sure it will be helpful
    to others in their planning.

    Cant wait to hear about the rest!

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    I enjoyed reading this! The last week of our upcoming trip to southern Italy is being split up between Taormina and Ortigia. We've also booked a room at Hotel Villa Schuler so it was nice to read your complimentary description of it. I cannot wait to read about the rest of your trip.

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    Three nights in Ortigia (Siracusa), but first - the Bee Eaters.

    We left Taormina after lunch for the drive to our B&B in Ortigia, the oldest part of Siracusa (Syracuse). It was about a 90 minute drive on highway, so an easy trip. But we coudn't get into our B & B until 3 pm or after. So we had a little time to kill.

    Well, my husband is a birdwatcher, and prior to the trip he discovered that it was peak migration time for birds, and he printed out some info. I checked into it and one of the prime spots for seeing birds was only 30 min from Ortigia, Capo Murro di Porco. So this was a perfect detour for us. We drove out to the Capo - which is just a little tiny point surrounded by water. It was very quiet and residential with no one around, and we found up finding a chained off road down to a beach with a lighthouse. We parked there and I just sat in the car and read a book while he went out on the hunt with his binoculars.

    We have taken many vacations on the island of Elba and every time he has hopes of seeing a Bee Eater - a very colorful bird that apparently nests on Elba. But he has never seen one there. Well, after about 15 minutes at the Capo he spotted two. I had to tell him I had also seen one on the wire about our car! So that was a major highlight for him, and it turned out the next day he drove back in the afternoon and saw more than 20. This trip was really perfect in every way!

    It turned out that our detour to Capo Murro di Porco also allowed us some very special views of Ortigia from across the water - since they are like two little tiny peninsulas that face each other. We could already see how distinctively white and ancient Ortigia looked, and it made it all the more exciting to be on our way there.

    I was not really familiar with Sicily before planning my trip, and hadn't heard much about Syracuse or Ortigia until a friend told me about her trip last summer. She highly recommended Ortigia, and it was certainly a jewel. After researching in the forums it was clear that in Siracusa, Ortigia is the place to go. So we headed on to I santi coronati B & B on Ortigia. It was a fairly easy drive through semi-industrial roads to get into Siracusa and find the way over the small bridge to Ortigia. Ortigia is not that big, so even if you get lost it wouldn't be difficult to circle round. We found the B & B on our second try, and when I buzzed Adriano came down and let us into the gated parking court. I had chosen the B&B for the free parking, and its good reviews. But the parking was huge and a great perk. We were given a remote control to operate the gate along with the key. The gate was not always shut - apparently there were workmen there the day we arrived, but Ortigia felt very safe.

    We checked into our room, which was quite a spacious apartment with a bedroom and a small kitchen that had a hotplate, fridge with a complimentary large bottle of water, a sink and kitchen utensils. I didn't really check out the kitchen since all we really used were the glasses. I had anticipated going market shopping and maybe eating in but that never happened. Still the space was lovely, well decorated, very comfortable We had two large windows onto an inner courtyard. It turned out that the courtyard is a restaurant at night with jazz music. It was a little loud, but didn't bother us too much. I always bring ear plugs when I travel anyway. We like sleeping with the windows open, so it might not be as much of a problem when the windows are closed. Something to consider, but we still loved the B & B and would recommend it.

    Adriano took some time to give us a map and orient us. He made a few restaurant suggestions and then we went out to walk around. We spent the afternoon just exploring the island. There are lots of tiny alleyways, a beautiful white piazza with the cathedral on it, a small castle which we did not visit inside. It was all very charming. We didn't go into many places the first afternoon since we had booked a tour of both Ortigia and the Archeological Park for the next morning. We had dinner at one of the suggested restaurants - La Tavernetta. We were eating early on this trip (7 ish) and most places were not busy when we arrived. But this place filled up quickly. It was reasonably priced, but not memorable. I'm not sure what all the fuss is about, since it gets good reviews. My husband made the mistake of ordering carbonara which was not up to Roman standards! I had a pasta dish with sausage which was fine but not special.

    The next morning we walked across the hall to the breakfast room. I think it opened at 8, and it always filled up quickly, but there was plenty of space to accommodate the guests. I guess there were about 8-12 of us. This was my favorite breakfast. I especially liked the smaller croissants which were very fresh and they had plain, custard filled and pistachio filled. There were also some pastries like pain au chocolat, homemade cakes, fresh kiwi and oranges, yogurt, muesli, cheese and meats, and more. While we had breakfast, Giuseppe, one of the owners would come round and chat with everyone, find out your plans for the day and offer advice.

    That morning we had a 9 am meeting in front of our B & B with Enrica de Melio for a guided tour. We combined her 90 minute tour of Ortigia with a 90 minute tour of the archeological park. Enrica was lovely and we are very happy we used her. It was definitely easier to listen to her describe the places as we saw them, and we learned a lot more than we would have on our own. Our first stop was the Cathedral of Syracuse, which is build on top of a Greek temple. Inside it looked much older than it does from the facade, and it was very cool to see the Greek columns still visible in the walls. Then we wandered down to the fonte of Aretusa, (the Santa Lucia church with the Caravaggio was closed at that time), back up to the fountain of Archimedes, and then to the ruins at the front of the island. We learned a lot about the history of Ortigia too. Then we stopped for a coffee and Enrica drove us in her car over to the archeological park which was about a 10 min drive if that. The archeological park in Syracuse is not huge. We stopped to visit about four different sites and she gave us explanations. It was a beautiful sunny day and there were lots of school groups there. The park is a bit like a garden. It was all very pleasant and informative.

    I remembered driving down a big street with clothes shops on it on the way, and I had read that it was only a 30 min walk back to Ortigia, so we declined Enrica's offer to give us a ride back, and we decided to walk back and go to the market to look for lunch. The walk back did not turn out to be as interesting as I thought it would be. Syracuse just seems to be a mix of businesses, some shops and bars, but not presented in a very attractive way. That said we never visited the historic part of Syracuse, but what we did see wasn't terribly visually appealing.

    However we did decide to stop for a small snack and we popped into a bar that was very friendly and had some indoor seats. We split an arancino (rice ball) and I had another almond granita and my husband had a coffee. It felt great to sit down and the granitas are very refreshing.

    Then we headed back out to the Ortigia market. We got there late - maybe 1:30 or so, and it wasn't all still open, but we were curious to see the Caseficio Borderi that had been recommended by a few people. It was supposedly a deli shop that did takeaway sandwiches. We found it at the end of the market by the water. It did have a huge line, that didn't really seem to be moving forward. There wasn't space to go in and see the small shop, but we discovered that next door was an outdoor restaurant/shop called Fratelli Burgio. It reminded me of the restaurants I saw in the Boqueria market in Barcelona. There were a lot of outdoor tables, all full but we quickly sat down at the only free one. The platters of meats and cheeses going by looked very appetizing. We were quickly served and in the end it was a great choice not to wait in the line at the other shop. The salumi platters at Fratelli Burgio are beautifully presented with the meats in the bottom of small glasses and small servings of marinated vegetables on top of the meats. Then there were a few types of cheese, and of course, cannolis. (I forgot to mention that cannolis are also available for every breakfast!) The platter and two glasses of Nero d'Avola wine made a perfect lunch. It was quite clear that Fratelli Burgio and Caseficio Borderi are two of the most popular places on the island.

    After the big day I out I had a little rest and my husband headed back to the Capo to spot some birds.

    That night, feeling very full from all the meals we were eating, we went out on a hunt for pizza. I tried to look up a few places, and the one we chose turned out to be closed. So we wandered down to the restaurants that face the water and wound up at Luna Rossa. It's funny - looking it up now on Tripadvisor I see that it doesn't get too many stars, but I have to say our experience was very pleasant and the pizza was delicious. Just what we were expecting. Service was good and it was a good spot to watch all the architecture students, joggers, and tourists going by, as well as the sunset.

    Villa Romana del Casale

    The next day was a big day trip to visit both Caltagirone and Villa Romana Del Casale, the Roman villa with the spectacular mosaics.

    We set off at about 9 for Caltagirone. It was another beautiful day and we enjoyed the drive with nice hilly scenery and lots of wildflowers in bloom. mid-late April is definitely a beautiful time to be in Sicily. It took about 90 min to get to Caltagirone, where I was curious to see the ceramics. We found a parking spot towards the back of town and wandered in one of the gates. It was a little confusing, but we found our way down to the ceramic staircase and the center of town. It was a difficult town for me to get oriented in, maybe due to the way we entered. After getting a coffee, we stopped in the tourist office to get some information about the presepe, or nativity scene that we saw advertised. The man pulled out a map that looked like a jumble of black and white script and went into a lengthy description of the monastery where there is the presepe and apparently a monk gives you a 20 minute description. This kind of convinced us that we were just not feeling in the mood to spend a lot of time there hunting things down, since our main destination was the Villa Romana. So we had a look at the staircase and a few ceramic shops and hit the road. I'm sure there will be other people who may have had a great experience in Caltagirone, but it was not especially memorable for us.

    Next: Villa Romana del Casale.

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    From Caltagirone it was another 45 min or so to Villa Romana del Casale with its stunning mosaics. I am not sure why the GPS took us through Piazza Armerina, the nearby town, since I had thought we could get there bypassing PA, but anyway, it was a twisty, busy route through the town then got slightly more rural as we approached the villa. We stopped for an early lunch at Turismo rurale trinacria, a place right before the entrance to the parking lot. I had noticed it had good reviews. It had a very pleasant porch out back with greenery all around. I think they cater to groups too and have a downstairs restaurant. We got the special of the day - lasagna and a salad to split. Again, the food was fine. It looked like it would have been a better deal to get the set menu (which they didn't push and we didn't see at first) that a family nearby got, with an antipasto platter and then a few more dishes, including the lasagna. Moral of the story - if you stop here check the fixed price lunch! It was very handy to be able to stop there and then head on to see the mosaics. There was a big parking lot, but it wasn't too crowded. Like all the other sites, you cross a small piazza with tourist shops and snack stands before coming to the ticket booth.

    I almost forgot there was also a big complex with a bar/restaurant/shop and some outdoor seating. There was a small band playing music, which seemed in contrast to the otherwise peaceful setting. Since we arrived around 1-1:30 this part of the site was packed.

    There were guides sitting by the booth available, but we were happy to go at our own pace here. It was really a tranquil setting, and the mosaics were more comprehensive than any place we had ever seen. In many rooms the mosaics are completely intact with incredible detail. There is a huge scene of a hunt that was fascinating showing all the different animals that were around. It probably would be a good place to get a guide if you are in the mood. It was nice that there weren't too many people, since there are elevated walkways to look down at the mosaics, and they are not very wide. I can't imagine how one or more tour groups with a guide manage that.

    Anyway we spent a while viewing the mosaics before heading back to the car.

    For the long ride home - 2 hours plus - we decided to try a new route but not the highway. We drove through what looked like a park before coming into rolling hills more reminiscent of Tuscany. I would love to look up something about the geographical formation of Sicily between the volcanos, history of earthquakes, and the particular types of landscape we saw. It was always nice to have Etna to look at and to watch the vague wisps of smoke puffing away. Anyway, after a while our road just ended - closed for construction, and we went on a wild detour that took us back to the motorway. It did influence our decision the next day to take the highway to go to Agrigento.

    It was a long but satisfying day. Back in Ortigia we had short rest before going back out to wander and have dinner at Spizzuliamu. This is one place that stood out for us. Of course I am now blanking on what I had for a starter. But I got a veal dish with pepper sauce and my husband had breaded sardines and a tuna steak with lemon. Everything was delicious. I would definitely recommend it.

    Next: last morning in Ortigia and off to Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples.

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    We had one last morning in Ortigia planning to depart for Agrigento around 11:30. We decided to go see the Palazzo Bellomo which is a museum and then go to the market. On the way we were able to go into the Santa Lucia church in the main piazza to see the Caravaggio painting. The church is sometimes closed. I think it opens 10-4 but I'm not sure. Anyway, it was nice to see the painting and there were some big posters explaining what to look for in the painting which was helpful since I am not very knowledgeable about art.

    We enjoyed the Palazzo Bellomo although it costs 8 euros to get in. Some people seemed to think that this was too much for what it is (a limited collection). Personally I felt that the entrance prices to most places (usually 10 euros) were not expensive so I didn't mind paying. It is not a very busy museum and the collection is organized by time period. I always prefer smaller museums to big ones, and the building itself was pretty.

    Our final stop was the market, and it was much more lively than the day we'd arrived in the afternoon. It was fun walking through and looking at all the produce. And since we were not arriving at meal time, we were able to go back to Caseficio Borderi. This time we got the royal treatment. The man making the sandwiches started giving us tastes of everything - he wound up making a sandwich with a smoked mozzarella cheese, several kinds of tomatoes, ricotta salata and fresh herbs and then cut us each a piece just as a sample! We saw other people buying things to go, and we wound up getting the same ingredients as a salad in a big plastic container to take away for lunch later.

    Then we went back to the B & B, rang the buzzer, and they opened the gate so we could leave with our car.

    If we had had more time in Ortigia/Siracusa, I think I would have gone to the catacombs and the church of St John near the archeological park. I don't think I realized how old and pretty the church looked until after we left the area. I figured I had been to catacombs in Rome and didn't need to visit more.

    It was a long drive to Agrigento - about 4 hours with the stop, so we took the autostrada. We stopped just before Enna at an Autogrill to eat our market fresh lunch at a picnic table and have a coffee.

    Once the autostrada ended, somewhere between Enna and Caltinasette the road becomes more clogged with trucks on a two lane stretch. It was a little tedious always having to find places to pass since the roads are very windy and busy. Now I can see why people complain about the roads surrounding Agrigento. Fortunately we didn't have too many holdups, except that the GPS had registered Agrigento center instead of the address to the B & B Triskeles. I realized once we got into town as we started getting into the narrow roads of the old town that maybe we weren't heading to the right place. But we sorted that out and made it to the Via delle vittorie and found the address for our B & B. I rang the bell and Cristian immediately came down and helped us find a place to park on the road. Then we unloaded our bags and headed up to the fifth floor.

    The B & B Triskeles gets very high marks, and I can see why. Cristian is the 20 something son of the owners of the apartment, and he seems to manage things. As soon as we entered the beautifully decorated apartment, he offered us a coffee. Then he got out a little tour book which had all the information we could need, oriented us on a map, and proceeded to list the sights. Unfortunately we did not have time for a lengthy stay in Agrigento, so we weren't able to take advantage of anything besides the Valley of the Temples. But there is a nearby town, Favara I think it is called, where they have created a modern art space and it has transformed the town. It sounded very interesting and has been written up in some major newspapers.

    After checking out the terrace of the apartment, which has a view of the Valley of the Temples, Cristian showed us our room. The Triskeles really stands out in terms of comfort. The room was so well thought out and comfortable. There was everything you would need in all the right places. I can see why people rave about it. Also the hospitality was exceptional.

    It was now about 4 pm, and we realized we could gain a half day in palermo by visiting the Valley of the Temples that afternoon. We drove about 5 minutes down the road and parked and we were there. Everyone had recommended getting a guide, and we were going to do that, but we didn't realize that at this site the guides aren't just hanging around the entrance. They have a list of guides, the languages they speak and their phone numbers, but you need to call them. Given the fact that we had not planned in advance and didn't have extra time to wait, we just bought a little guide book and went in on our own.

    It was a lovely time for the visit. The temples were gorgeous in the late afternoon sun. It wasn't too busy. I liked how they don't let people walk into the temple area - you could just walk around the exterior. They were very impressive. It was quite a walk around the whole site, although there are snack bars and toilets in two places (one of them was closed when we were there). It would be a tough place for anyone with limited mobility.

    After our visit we went back to the B & B and then headed out for dinner. We were quite tired after all the walking and not up to exploring the town, so we headed to one of the nearby recommendations. La posata di Federico II was just down the street. Some of the reviews claimed that this restaurant is frequently busy, but it was very quiet the night we were there. The menu is very strange, with the food organized by ingredients rather than by starter, primi, secondi, etc. Luckily we could understand what everything was, so we basically ordered two courses each. My husband hit the jackpot. He had pasta al sarde which was amazing here - a much better version of the ubiquitous Sicilian dish and another seafood starter which he loved. His food really stood out for the flavors. Meanwhile, I did not make good choices that night. I got a fried cheese starter which turned out to be too heavy. I was expecting something more delicate. I couldn't finish it. Then I chose pasta with artichoke sauce. Again, way too heavy. This is what I get for not liking seafood!

    Next: rental car return and 1 1/2 days in Palermo.

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    Palatino - Enjoying your TR very much and you are helping me to make up my mind about whether or not to go to Agrigento, so thank you.

    do you mind if I ask how much Enrica de Melio's services are? I've looked at her website and like what I see but it would be nice to have an idea of price before we take it any further.

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    Annhig I should have added that I think the stop in Agrigento was definitely worth it. So many of the Sicily sites are high impact. I was pleased we were able to fit in so much but it was more driving than we usually do.

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    Agrigento - Palermo

    It worked out well to do our Valley of the Temples visit in afternoon, because we were under no pressure to get the car in. Originally I was thinking we would visit the Valley in the morning and then drive to Palermo, returning the car by 6. I think it would have been very stressful to be under any kind of time limits driving in Sicily.

    We had a nice breakfast at Triskeles with similar types of foods. Unfortunately we were not outside on the terrace. Following breakfast we checked out and set off for Palermo. There were a few routing options, but we chose the fastest which actually took us north along the coast before catching the autostrada to Palermo airport. It was another pretty drive, and nice to be following the coast for a while. One day we will go back and see some of the towns on the western coast and the aeolian islands.

    The interesting thing about the autostrada between Castelvetrano and Cinesi (where the airport is) is that there are no services (autogrills) directly on the highway. So you have to get off to find gas/coffee, etc. We came off twice, since we are used to breaking for coffee. Once in Ghibellina near the train station we found a nice little bar for coffee. Then we decided to stop for lunch before getting to the airport. This was also our fillup before returning the rental car. I used the search function on the GPS and it showed this place called Brugnano Energia Cafe in Partinico. I noticed that it had five stars (a rating for a gas station?) and we found out why. It was like a tavola calda with all sorts of food ready and a nice area with tables. Plus they must do pastry catering because there was an extensive selection of pastries. We sat down for lunch by the window where we could keep an eye on the car. Actually before sitting down we had looked at the food, and they even let us taste the almond encrusted meatballs. I had the meatballs and melanzane involtini, and my husband had a large serving of lasagna. Plus I ordered a fruit salad and they brought me a beautiful plate with pieces of strawberry, pineapple, kiwi and melon. It was a very nice relaxing break before dealing with the airport dropoff and shuttle into Palermo.

    The rest of the ride by Castellemare and then into Cinesi was uneventful. The Europcar dropoff was seamless. we were surprised at how small Palermo airport was. There was a shuttle from the rental car area to the terminal where we would catch the bus, but as the bus was not visible I suggested walking. There was a little path and it took about 10 minutes. We walked through the terminal and out the other side and caught the Prestia and Comande bus shuttle into Palermo. I had read that there were only two stops: Politeama and the Stazione Centrale. But the bus stopped about 6 times at least once it arrived in Palermo. So it took about 45 minutes. From the station it was about a five minute walk to the Ambasciatori Hotel, located right on Via Roma - the street that leads to the station.

    The Ambasciatori was interesting. Not being familiar with Palermo I wasn't exactly sure where to base. But a lot of people had mentioned the rooftop terrace, so I thought that might be nice. The hotel is odd - located on several floors the first floor is merely the reception area then there is an old elevator. We were on the third floor. They said they had upgraded us to a triple. The room was very large with windows onto a courtyard and a large bathroom, but small shower which took a long time to warm up but worked fine. It was a comfortable enough room with plenty of space to spread out. We did go up to see the roof terrace and there was a beautiful view of Palermo.

    We then went out for a walk around town. We didn't go straight into sightseeing since we had a guide booked for the next afternoon.

    From Via Roma we found discesa dei giudici which took us over to Via Maqueda and we walked by the Fountain of shame and the Martorana church. Everyone was out for the passeggiata so it was very lively. We walked down to the theatre and then decided to look for the Cafe Spinnato which was recommended by fodorites. We finally found it and it was a good destination - obviously a well established cafe with tables in a pedestrian area. The waiter was not particularly helpful - especially since he told my husband the cake he wanted was not available, when we had just seen it in the shop, but we just skipped the cake, I ordered a few of the small pastry treats (including one for my husband) and we also got some little snacks with our prosecco.

    Later we wandered back to the hotel and had a rest before heading out to find some dinner. We felt like pizza again, so we asked our hotel for recommendations. They suggested Piazza Marina, which was in a different direction than we had walked earlier. Piazza marina was towards the harbor in the Kalsa area (the hotel was also in this area). Piazza Marina was a delightful find. There is a park in the middle and several very beautiful looking buildings all around. It turns out that one of the buildings was the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition long ago, and beheadings took place in the park.

    We ate dinner at Le Pergomene - one of two restaurants right where we arrived on the Piazza. There was another restaurant next door. There seemed to be more people at the Pergomene and they had pizza. We really weren't in the mood for a big meal. It turned out the pizza was a bit heavier than what we were expecting and we couldn't even finish it. It was a very nice place to sit out and people watch though, with people and dogs passing by.

    The next morning we were up early. We went to breakfast at 7:30 because we planned on taking the 8:30 AST bus to Monreale. Breakfast was ready when we arrived at 7:30, and it was another very nice spread. We ate out on the terrace and it was quite a highlight to have that view. By 8 am we were out the door to find the bus stop for Monreale.

    Turns out the bus stop was on the same road as our hotel - Via Roma, on the right hand side facing the station. There were already people there when we arrived at 8:10. The bus was there, but of course the driver was not. Anyway, it was clear that was the place. About 8:25 the driver showed up and we all got on the bus. I think the tickets were around 1.80 one way.

    to be continued!

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    Enrica was 70 euros per 90 min tour so we paid 140 for the two tours combined plus a tip.>>

    Annhig I should have added that I think the stop in Agrigento was definitely worth it. So many of the Sicily sites are high impact. I was pleased we were able to fit in so much but it was more driving than we usually do.>>

    Double thanks, Palatino.

    My problem is that for us a trip to Agrigento would not be so much a stop en route to Palermo as a detour from Ragusa to Piazza Armerina; at the moment Plan A has us spending two nights at Agrigento, and then on the 3rd morning travelling to PA to see the Villa, and onto Taormina after that. Plan B gives us one night at Agrigento, spending the morning seeing the Temples, then driving to PA at a leisurely pace, spending the night there, and seeing the Villa in the morning before going onto Taormina. The disadvantage of that plan is that we would have two "one night stands' in a row, which we really dislike.

    at the risk of hijacking your thread, do you have any feelings about Plans A v B [or indeed any better ideas?]

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    Annhig I know it's difficult trying to make these decisions in advance. And I also usually prefer staying more than one night in a place. I actually might recommend Plan B - it sounds like despite the two nights in two places it might be more relaxing than doing the Agrigento - Villa Romana - Taormina all in one day.
    But you should definitely just think what would work for you. It's always hard to make suggestions for other people. Good luck!

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    Monreale and Palermo with a guide

    It was about a 40 minute bus ride to Monreale - a bit quicker in the morning and slower on the return at around 11:30 when the traffic gets worse. It looked like Palermo's main problem is a lack of space for the cars. Anyway, the AST bus dropped us off in some obscure piazza in Monreale near a parking lot. The bus driver just kind of waved us in the direction of the cathedral. We went up some steps from the parking lot up to a main pedestrian street which ended up in the piazza in front of the cathedral. The entrance was actually on the left side of the church. There is no entry fee at Monreale for the church, just for the cloister next door. From the inside of the church it is also possible to pay a fee and go up onto a walkway at the roof level which gives you a birds eye view of the cloister and there are some interior windows which give you a closer look at some of the mosaics over the altar. The upstairs also dumps you onto a roof terrace with views back over Palermo.

    The church was beautiful. The mosaics are very distinctive with their combination of Arabic and Byzantine designs. I won't try to say too many artistic things because I am not much of an expert with regard to art, but I do prefer mosaics to paintings.

    by the way - our afternoon tour guide asked us if we had seen the back of the church at Monreale. We hadn't gone round the back, but apparently it is something special. So remember that if you go visit the Cathedral.

    After spending some time in the church and paying to go up the staircase in the back, we had a coffee at a bar before going to the cloister next door. The church and cloister were slowly starting to get filled up with tour groups.

    The cloister was lovely and there were intricate designs on all the columns. There were a couple of guards making sure that the tourists did not stand on the walls. It was very pleasant. I was a little surprised that the cloister visit did not include entry to any rooms or anything besides the outside area. I have visited other monastery cloisters which included more. But it is quite a special place. We probably didn't appreciate it as much as we would have with some information, but we did have a guide scheduled for the afternoon in Palermo.

    We were able to catch the 11:30 bus at the same bus stop back to Palermo. The way back was very slow, since the bus had to keep stopping because cars had double parked and it couldn't get through. Towards the end of the trip an older Italian man started ranting at all the cars that wouldn't let us through. It was kind of amusing. There were quite a few stops along the way too - it is definitely not just a tourist bus to Monreale but a bus that locals use frequently.

    One note - there are apparently two buses that go to Monreale. We chose the AST because we were closer to the train station where the bus departed from. The other bus is the 389 from Piazza Independenza, but we didn't reconfirm that info since we weren't taking it.

    Back in Palermo it was lunch time and we were tired, so we stopped at a trattoria on the way back to our hotel and had a tourist menu that was just fine. Then we had almost an hour to put our feet up before meeting our guide at the Norman Palace.

    I had booked a half day guided tour of Palermo. I had contacted Jackie Aiello, who was recommended on the forum, but she wasn't available, so she gave me contact info for Cetty Spoto. We arranged the price and a basic itinerary, and planned to meet at the Norman Palace. Cetty was a great guide. She obviously knows a lot and she gave us a lot of good information about Palermo.

    We started with the Norman Palace. It was interesting seeing it the same day as Monreale. I much preferred the cappella palatina (the small church with all the mosaics) to Monreale. It was smaller and cozier and the mosaics just glowed. While it was wonderful hearing about the chapel part of me just wanted to sit there and stare. Cetty explained some information about why the Muslims use the geometric shapes and the Christians have the icons. I can't remember everything but the place was just entrancing.

    It helped having a guide after the chapel because she just whisked us off to visit the other part of the Palace which is the seat of the Sicilian government, so that was the state rooms and where the cabinet meets and things like that. This part of the complex was also very impressive and beautiful. Thinking back, we should have stopped here the first day without the guide and just gone twice.

    Another very cool thing at the Norman Palace was the inscriptions that were written in Latin, Greek and Arabic. There were lots of little things like this that Cetty pointed out that were very interesting.

    After the Norman Palace we walked down towards the Martorana church because Cetty was afraid it might close, and so we would backtrack a bit to see the Palermo Cathedral afterwards. We walked down the alley ways of the Ballaro market on our way and Cetty explained a little about the neighborhoods. It was interesting to see how Palermo was and continues to be a very mixed place with influences and people from lots of different places.

    We stopped at a Baroque Jesuit church to have a quick look because Cetty said it was kind of special. She was correct - it was not at all the type of Baroque I was remembering from Rome. I think it was the church with the ceramic dome. Inside it was just kind of crazy. There was actually a wedding going on too.

    It turns out a few minutes later when we arrived at the Martorana church there was also a wedding, and we couldn't do a proper visit. Beware of Saturday afternoons in April! We saw three brides in all in a three hour span. We went in and had a peek at the back. I am sure I would have enjoyed a real visit there, again because there is such a mix of influences. We headed over to the fountain of shame and heard a little about that, then the Quattro Canti, and walked back up to the Cathedral. The cathedral is quite an interesting looking building. We stopped to hear about Saint Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo, who I had never heard of. We also went around back and at the moment (back to reality and a week of work) I cannot remember what was special about it. I remember I was a little disappointed at how normal the Cathedral looked inside compared to all the other amazing places we had seen.

    At this point we were tired and stopped for a strawberry granita and to figure out what we would do next, since we had visited the places we agreed on for the itinerary. We decided to walk back to Piazza Marina and end our trip at the harbor. Along the way we stopped at the Church of San Francesco - an old pretty Gothic church in a quiet little square. For some reason it was closed. In the same square there was the Antica Focacceria San francesco which was a well known place that specializes in street food. Cetty said that street food is very popular in Palermo. We weren't quite in the mood for more heavy things. But there was also a wine bar on the corner called Arrè Gusto, and we wound up returning there for dinner an hour later.

    It was nice to return to the beautiful and tranquil Piazza Marina and hear about the Spanish Inquisition and look at some of the other beautiful buildings in the Piazza. There is another distinctive church in between the Piazza and the Marina. We walked through to the harbor and up on a little walkway and that was where we ended our tour after a little more than 3 hours.

    It was just the right amount of time with a guide for us. It would have been nice to have another day in Palermo to soak it all in and explore a little more, but we had a pretty strict timeline.

    Like I said, we returned to the wine bar and enjoyed our last dinner in Italy. I was pleased to finally have some real recommendations about the wine and the guy serving us asked what kind of wine I liked and I had a delicious full bodied red from a Sicilian grape (not the ubiquitous Nero d'Avola) my husband had, of all things, an American pale ale beer which he was very happy with. We got one tagliere board with meats and cheeses, and another with bresaeola and oranges and fennel - a typical Sicilian salad. This place just did the meat boards and some special sandwiches, but that was actually what I was looking for. The cheeses were quite a bit more distinctive than the other antipasto plates we had which all had similar, very mild cheeses. In fact I liked one of them so much I asked for a few more pieces which they willingly brought.

    That was about it for our trip - just back to the hotel, then another breakfast at the Ambasciatori on the rooftop. Although the last day it got very windy and we were not able to eat outside, but everyone was still stopping there before sitting down for the lovely view. The breakfast crew wasn't as ready to go on Sunday. I almost forgot to mention that it sounded like there was a lot of night life in Palermo. We were always very tired and did not venture out after dinner, but we slept with our windows open and while there wasn't loud noise we could hear faint music and street noise in the distance until at least 2 am. Apparently that is normal for weekends there.

    We decided to just get a taxi to the airport Sunday, so had the hotel call and we had a pre-arranged rate of 40 euros. We had one of the safest taxi drivers I've ever had!

    We found the Sicilians very friendly and hospitable. Many wanted to practice their English so sincerely that I stopped trying to practice my Italian.

    The whole trip was a wonderful experience, and I felt that the sights we visited were all extremely special. I can't wait to go back someday and visit a few more places and return to some of the ones we saw on this trip.

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    Palatino, may I add a few thoughts to annhig's question about one night or two nights in Agrigento?

    I would urge two nights. The old town is very interesting. The temples merit an unrushed visit. The Kolymbetra is a restored Islamic garden with the irrigation system as well.

    We stayed in an excellent little B&B, Le Terrazze di Montelusa, run by Francesco Foti (fluent in English and French). Francesco is a member of FAI, Fondo Ambiente Italiano, and serves on the board of the Agrigento chapter. They have done great work improving the Valley of the Temples and the Kolymbetra.

    Annhig, when do you leave for Sicily?

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    Im so glad you had such a nice trip and that you managed to iron out some of the little wrinkles that happen in travel without them affecting your enjoyment!

    Sounds like your tour of Palermo was very much like mine. I'm a Little jealous that you found the Marina area so beautiful. I never made it that far. The day I returned from Monreale, I walked all the way to the very disappointing Botanical Gardens,then back past the San Francisco church only to find it closed.......

    I certainly agree with you about those views of Palermo from the Ambasciatori roof terrace. Some of my favorite pictures were taken there.

    Thanks for such an excellent trip report!

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    Agree, excellent report. Like you, I packed a lot into a short time in Palermo and found it very rewarding (and easy to get around). We stayed near Piazza Marina and enjoyed that area, not terribly far from the Ambasciatori, really.

    Thank you for writing this.

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    <<Annhig I know it's difficult trying to make these decisions in advance. And I also usually prefer staying more than one night in a place. I actually might recommend Plan B - it sounds like despite the two nights in two places it might be more relaxing than doing the Agrigento - Villa Romana - Taormina all in one day. >>

    <<Palatino, may I add a few thoughts to annhig's question about one night or two nights in Agrigento?

    I would urge two nights. The old town is very interesting. The temples merit an unrushed visit. The Kolymbetra is a restored Islamic garden with the irrigation system as well.>>

    lol, thanks, Palatino and EYWandBTV for your great and contradictory advice!

    EYWandBTV - we will be there from 9 -19 September. My instinct is the 2 nights, but that will leave us with a very full day when we leave, though I suppose if we got an early start [not always our strongest suit] it would help. Another solution I suppose might be to drop it altogether, and to promise ourselves that WHEN we come back to see the west of the island, we will do Agrigento then!

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    Thank you for your trip report. We are traveling during peak season - and even though I know it will be crowded we are adding time so we can see Agrigento. Your report has been very helpful!

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