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Sicily: Fascinating and Frustrating

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Apr 22nd, 2012, 01:04 PM
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Sicily: Fascinating and Frustrating

My husband and I spent two weeks in Sicily in late Sept/early Oct. 2011 (sorry for the late report!). Our self-drive itinerary included: Palermo- 2 nights at Palazzo Pantaleo; Menfi area near Selinunte - 1 nt at La Foresteria Planeta Estate; Agrigento - 2 nts at Villa Diana B&B; Modica - 3 nts at Palazzo Failla; Siracusa - 2 nts at L’Approdoro della Sirene; Taormina - 3 nts at Villa Schuler followed by a flight to Rome and 3 nights there at Casa Howard. Prior to arriving in Sicily, we’d spent 2 weeks in Corsica (see earlier trip report Corsica: One giant rock ) and 1 week in Sardinia (see earlier trip report Sardinia: Glorious beaches & mountains too.

After an uneventful flight on Meridiana Airlines from Cagliari, Sardinia we arrived on a drizzly Sunday morning at Palermo’s airport, found the city bus easily (5.8 Euro), which dumped us 30 minutes later at Politeama Square, a block away from our B&B, Palazzo Pantaleo, which was on the second floor of an old apartment building in an alley just off the main shopping street, Via Messina. It wasn’t obvious how to enter, but we finally figured out how to buzz Giuseppe, the owner, who came down and showed us how to go upyhe two flights in the elevator. Despite the glowing reviews on TA, we didn’t find him particularly friendly or charming...maybe we caught him on an off-day. However, our room was lovely...huge room with apricot walls and patterned marble floors, a blue & white Murano glass chandelier, large tapestry wall hanging of sunflowers and French doors to a small balcony overlooking an inner courtyard parking area...no view, really. The bathroom had another small shower, a bidet, a decent sink and good storage. We enjoyed the best bed linens and pillows we’ve experienced so far on our three week trip. The room had a flat screen TV, minibar, but no safe. The breakfast sunroom had black and white marble tile floor, marble bistro tables and windows all around. There wasn’t really a public sitting area, but you could sit in there if you wanted to.
One curious thing happened when my husband turned on a box below the TV and a porn channel came on. He immediately shut it off, but later we picked up an email message on his I-phone thanking us for subscribing to Porn of the Month club and we would be charged $39/month with automatic renewals. We thought that was extremely strange that they could access his I-phone, but thought they wouldn’t be able to charge our credit card....but they did! So, when we mentioned this to Giuseppe, he kind of shrugged it off...but we think somehow his site was compromised. Months before, I had used my credit card when planning the trip to book our rooms on all the islands and the card had been compromised. Now, I wonder if this is where it happened. Needless to say, we paid cash when we checked out.

On Sundays, Via Messina is closed to car traffic, so we joined the locals in window shopping and had lunch at the nearby Antico Bar Spinnati, which was crowded. We grabbed an outside table, which was a mistake, because they only served a limited menu outside and we should’ve gone inside for lunch. Great gelato and pastries, though. Later, we walked to the Opera House for a 5:30 performance of Tosca. The theatre was magnificent and we enjoyed the performance. Afterwards, we walked nearby and had great pizza, but I had to inquire about one ingredient because on the English menu, it said “grated horse”. When asked, the waiter said “No...no...it’s cheese!) The incorrect translation was actually for Caciocavallo, which is a local sheep or cow milk cheese specialty.

The morning breakfast included good pastries and fresh fruit, and Giuseppe asked if we’d also like eggs so we had scrambled ones, which really weren’t cooked enough.

We started off in a light rain and first walked through the dilapidated Vucciria neighborhood to visit two chapels, the Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico and the Oratorio di Santa Cita, both which house the lavish baroque stuccoes of Giacomo Serpotta. They were pricey to tour, but a feast for the eyes. We skipped the morning market which covered blocks of the area. Then, we continued walking down to the Four Corners where we saw the Fountain of Shame, with it’s nude statues, at Piazza Pretoria. Then had to check out the over- the- top baroque marble and stucco decor of the church of Santa Caterina next door. By then, we were concerned about getting to Capella Palatina before it closed at noon and walked quickly to the Norman Palace. It would be helpful if the Sicilians posted a sign at the road that directed you to the back, where the entrance is, but no...everyone walks way out of their way up the steps to the front of the building, where then there’s a sign to tell you to go to the back. We didn’t have to wait long to see this jewel box of mosaics that cover every inch of this chapel....truly lovely and the star of Palermo. The Arabian carved wood ceiling was also impressive. We also toured the Royal Apartments and saw where Parliament meets. We had planned to get the city bus out to Monreale, but it wasn’t running today so scrapped those plans.

Walked around the Kalsa area and had great gelato from Antica San Francisco. Checked out La Rinascente, the Italian department store, which is very nice. That night, we walked to Cucina Papoff and had a lovely dinner and especially enjoyed our first taste of Cerasuola di Vittoria, a Sicilian red wine. The restaurant was very atmospheric with vaulted stone celings, and the food was delicious.

Originally, we had planned to stay three nights in Palermo, but I was glad we’d cut a night out to add a night in a country winery inn. The city didn’t seem as “dangerous” as I expected, but it wasn’t particularly appealing to us either.

Next: La Foresteria Planeta Estate & Selinunte
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Apr 22nd, 2012, 01:07 PM
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Sorry, the links to the earlier trip reports are:

http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...ins-too.cfm?28

and

http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...nt-rock.cfm?35
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Apr 22nd, 2012, 01:55 PM
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Great start can't wait to hear more!
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Apr 22nd, 2012, 04:07 PM
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Loved returning to the Serpotta oratorios, the Capella Palatina, and more. Very engaging and entertaining--grazie mille!
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Apr 23rd, 2012, 04:04 PM
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After taking the city bus back to the airport, it took a bit to find the Europcar Rental Office...had to take another shuttle to get to the right terminal. (We actually booked it through the consolidater AutoEurope) This time we got a Fiat Grand Punto, a medium size car that only fit our two 26” bags in the trunk.

Our next destination was La Foresteria, the small inn associated with the winery La Planeta, although the actual winery is at a different location. It’s near Menfi and sits up high on a hill overlooking terraced grape fields with the sea in the distance.

The inn was a modern looking low-slung building, not particularly attractive from the outside, but the interiors were modest luxury. We had booked lunch for 1pm and they’d set this up outside on the terrace looking down to the sea. We were the only ones there for lunch (25E) each. They said it was going to be a casual lunch, so I wasn’t sure what we’d be getting. They first brought out a big bowl of delicious vegetable lentil soup and I only ate half because I expected more of a second course. Wrong decision. The second course was a salad, which was also very tasty with oranges, followed by fresh fruit for dessert. We also bought a bottle of their Cerasuola di Vittoria and saved half for later.

Now, it was pool time but the meager sunshine had dissipated into threatening clouds. I had chosen this as a day to relax from our now three week trip, hopefully using their infinity pool which overlooked the vineyards. Unfortunately, the weather gods didn’t get the message as it rained in the afternoon...oh well, a nap works too. I’d booked their Hamman (Steam Room) and it felt great to sweat in private. I was also thrilled to find they had hair conditioner, which I’d run out of and couldn’t find in stores...so, of course I took several bottles.

Our room was fine with a vine-covered terrace that overlooked the vineyards and sea....very comfortable and modern with a lovely bathroom.

The highlight of staying here is partaking in a group gourmet dinner complete with the appropriate wine. First we met in the upstairs lounge where we were served an aperitif...their light red wine, La Segreta. Then, they carved thin slices of the most delicious prosciutto that was made in the mountains. At 8:30pm, about twenty of us herded downstairs and were seated at a long communal table. Other than 6 of us, it seemed like the rest were all wine distributors from around the world who were there on business.

The first course was a delicious soup with baby octopuses....which I loathe. I tried a couple but mine seemed to be loaded with them. Next, we had some type of pasta, which was delicious, followed by a choice of either veal roast with the best sauce (but I found it was a little too rare for my taste) or a salt-crusted fish that was good but not excellent...followed by a basil sorbetto for dessert. You have a choice of how many wine pairings you want...we took the least cost option (15E for 3 glasses) so I got to try the Cometa (great white) the Merlot (OK) and the Syrah (again, OK) Then, we finished our dessert with buying an additional glass of their outstanding dessert wine “Passito di Noto”. I’ve never been a dessert wine fan before but now I’m a convert! This tasted like nectar from the Gods. The dinner itself lasted from 8:30-11:30, and the portions were not large...we won’t get fat here (which is a good thing).

A extended breakfast buffet included sweet pastries, yogurt, fruit, etc. We left our luggage at the desk so we wouldn’t have to worry about theft while we toured.

Today was sunny and warm as we drove to the beautifully sited Greek ruins, Selinunte, perched at the edge of the sea about 20 minutes away.

I’d say walking around the site is the main attraction here, as there is only one temple that’s been restored. It was interesting to see the huge boulders that were used in construction. A little granite cart offered a most refreshing lemon granite to cool us off.

Afterwards, we drove through the town to the end of the beach, where a great seafood restaurant sits...La Pinede.

Next: Agrigento
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Apr 24th, 2012, 05:44 PM
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I forgot to mention that it was an easy drive from the airport to La Foresteria on the interstate. Only took a couple of hours.
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Apr 25th, 2012, 11:07 AM
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Our most frustrating experience happened on the drive to our B&B near Agrigento. We had made reservations at Villa Diana, a B&B that’s about 3 miles outside of the city, because I had read how difficult it was to drive in the city. I originally wanted to stay at Villa Athena, which is right outside the ruins, but it was expensive and I’d read a bunch of mixed reviews which said it wasn’t worth the money.

It took several hours to reach the Agrigento area, and somehow we got lost and ended up in the city anyhow. With some difficulty, we managed to get out and onto the 640 expressway. Now, the real problems began. First, our country map didn’t have the numbers of the yellow roads, my map to the B&B showed a road number that wasn’t on our map or on “Angela”, our GPS, so we weren’t exactly sure what road we were looking for. Then, the 640 was closed due to construction right before we were supposed to exit. We stopped at a gas station and asked how to get to Villa Diana. The guy pointed across the closed expressway and said “it’s right over there”. When prodded for directions how to exactly reach it, he clearly was having trouble telling us and sent us off one way. After awhile, we ended up in what I later termed, ‘@!#$%!’ Favara, another hilltop city about 6 miles from Agrigento that was definitely not on the usual tourist circuit...it was ugly, dirty and even harder to escape. Three times my DH made me get out at cafes to ask scruffy looking men for directions to no avail. I felt like we were stuck in the Twilight Zone on a nightmare endless loop bouncing between Agrigento and ‘@!#$%!’ Favara for three hours! Now it’s 8pm, getting dark, and I’m having a meltdown. We finally decided to go someplace recognizable and call the owner to come get us. So, that was the Valley of the Temples entrance, right across from Villa Athena, and I”m cursing myself for not staying there in the first place. I was ready to lose the deposit for Diana and try to get in Athena no matter what the cost, but my frugal DH wanted to try to call. He went into the souvenir stand and found that the owner spoke English and was willing to call for us and tell him where we were located. It seemed like an awfully long and animated conversation for such a simple task, with a lot of “Pronto! Pronto’s” thrown in, but he finally hung up and said the guy would be here in 20 minutes. Luckily, there was a bar next door to handle some basic needs and I picked up some crummy snacks to take back because I knew we wouldn’t be venturing out for dinner again.

Dario finally arrived and we greeted him like a long lost brother. My DH cautioned him to go slow enough that we wouldn’t lose him, but he took it to heart and only went about 30mph causing a long line of cars to bunch up behind us. We couldn’t believe the convoluted route we followed to get to the B&B with countless twists and turns and the ‘piece de resistance’ was when we came to a barricaded closed road and he drove around the barricade to travel up the closed, unpaved road. There’s no way we would ever have figured that out. Finally, we arrive and are shown to a large room where we eat our cold bar food, thankfully with a great wine from Planeta Estate. I’m cursing myself for not staying at Villa Athena, where we’d now be looking at the illuminated ruins, but I’m also grateful we’re not sleeping in our car tonight, which earlier seemed like a definite possibility.
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Apr 25th, 2012, 11:45 AM
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Glad we opted for the Villa Athena! It sure was convenient. Our downfall was walking to the Trattoria dei Templi from Villa Athena on an unlit deserted road which branched unexpectedly. Google maps said a 15 minute walk but it took us more like 45 minutes. Thanks for writing about your trip.
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Apr 25th, 2012, 11:56 AM
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I'm enjoying all the twists and turns, ups and downs. If it is any consolation, we stayed at the Collaverde Park (not charming; distant view of illuminated temples) and even though it is MUCH easier to find than your place, we drove around and around for what seemed like two hours before finding the turnoff to the hotel. I hope the Villa Diana was worth the effort!
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Apr 25th, 2012, 05:15 PM
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Thanks for your remarks...
Marija, I'm jealous! One thing I learned from our trip to Sicily....you can't trust your maps or GPS!
ekscrunchy, no it was NOT worth the effort, despite the TA reviews.

If I have any recommendation for future travelers, pick convenience to where you want to go over charm, etc.
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Apr 26th, 2012, 05:15 PM
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Everything looks better in the morning. After our worst driving experience, we slept like logs. Our large room, the Campo d’Fiori, with a king bed and two twins, had a wraparound covered terrace that overlooked the countryside...on a low mountain to the left... Favara and to the far right... Agrigento. The large bathroom had lovely linen towels and the room had a TV with an English speaking channel (uncommon). The home itself is a lovely hacienda style villa with heavy antiques that is much finer than the surrounding area. Turns out, Dario’s grandfather and father had been doctors in Favara.

Dario had set up breakfast outside on the terrace below...yogurt with cereal, toasted bread with pistachio and lemon honey, pear juice, coffee but no hot milk and some oranges, peaches and grapes. One other couple was there also. The next night, we were the only guests.

Fortified, we left for the Valley of the Temples, confident that ‘Angela” had traced our circuitous route of last night and could easily deliver us to the ruins. Wrong! At our first designated turn, we discover they’ve “interrupted” a new road. Once again, we’re detoured up to ‘@!#$%!’ Favara. A lady tried to help us, but ‘Angela’ finally came through and we made it to the Valley in about 30 minutes.

When we first pulled into the main parking lot and a guy approached, at first I thought he was just a wannabe guide, but he actually presented us with a valuable offer. For 2 E each, they offer a taxi service to drive us to the top of the Eastern Section (2 km up the hill) and then you walk down through the ruins. Best 4E I ever spent! Then, we spent 5E on an English-speaking audio guide that we shared, and 29E for two for the temples and the Museum of Archeology.

The Valley of the Temples is actually built on a ridge below and outside the modern town of Agrigento with many of the Greek Temples constructed in the 5th Century, B.C. We began with the highest and most east facing temple, the Temple of Juno (Hera)...still graceful with it’s Doric Greek architecture. You could stand on a huge slab of rock, the altar where common folk worshipped because only priests could go inside the Temple. The views were great from here.

Of course, we ran into an American women right away who really annoyed me because she raved on and on about how wonderful Villa Athena was and that she’d never seen a more impressive site than the Concordia temple lit up at night....sure, rub it in! I strongly considered losing the second night’s charge at Villa Diana and trying to book at Villa Athena tonight, but DH balked at moving the luggage ‘unnecessarily’. Oh well.

There was an amazing outdoor art exhibit going on with huge, green-patina bronze sculptures strategically placed at all the temples. Sometimes they were massive heads, other times warriors. I don’t know if it’s always there or not, but they really added to the ambiance of the site...there are examples in my photos which I’ll post at the end of the trip report.

We then carried on through the massive site, walking amid olive trees and dramatic rock walls studded with round openings for tombs....they think these were from the Roman years. It was truly a lovely experience...not too hot, a nice breeze, not too crowded, panoramic views from the hill-top setting, random huge boulders from the ruins and lovely vegetation.

We then reached the second, most completely restored and most beautiful of the Temples, Concordia...all examples of Doric architecture with columns rising directly from the stepped base, tapering toward the top with a round cap and a square abacus directly below the architrave....see, I was paying attention to the audio tape!

Then, on to what was a private “Villa Aurea”, built by Alexander Hardcastle, who was instrumental in the excavation and restoration of the Valley of the Temples. Now, you could walk through it’s gardens and tour an art exhibit inside.

From there, we came to the Temple of Hercules, built closest to the sea and the main entrance to the Eastern section. Walking further down, you enter the Eastern section and explore the vast remains of the Temple of Zeus, which had been the size of a football field and the height of a ten-story building. Most impressive were the huge male statues called “Telemons” in Greek or Atlas in Roman which supported part of the the roof. One copy was displayed lying down on it’s side, and the actual one was displayed in the Museum of Archeology. From there, we saw the Temple of Castor and Pollux, whose graphic is now used as the symbol of modern Agrigento.

By now it was after one, so we headed to Kolkonos, a restaurant recommended by Dario. It was lovely eating outside on the terrace with distant views of the ruins. The pasta was good but the gamberetti (tiny shrimp) were too small to eat...not as good as at La Pineda the day before. I had involtini di pesce spada, thin slices of swordfish rolled around a filling and wrapped in radicchio....very good and I ordered this often.

Followed by a catnap in the car, we toured the Museum of Archeology, which we enjoyed more than most museums of it’s type (e.g. the one in Cagliari, Sardinia).
We really loved seeing the huge Telemon and the sarcophagus of a boy who died young was touching with beautiful carved scenes of his life. There was a beautiful church next door that we peeked into since there was a wedding going on set on a panoramic terrace overlooking the Valley of the Temples.

We stopped at the lousy bar from last night to pick up some takeaway food for dinner because we knew we wouldn’t venture out at night again. Back at Villa Diana, sitting on our huge terrace with the sky turning inky black and the lights of ‘@!#$%!’ Favara turning on, it was almost, but not quite, easy to forget the trauma of last night. The villa is charming, but I couldn’t recommend it for it’s location.
Next: Modica
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Apr 26th, 2012, 05:55 PM
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We also saw the unusual sculpture exhibit among the ruins. I don't think the ruins needed the "enhancement." Looking forward to reading about Modica, a town I wish we had stayed in.
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Apr 27th, 2012, 05:18 AM
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Marija, maybe I should have turned that around and said the ruins really enhanced the sculptures! We had fun taking photos of them with the ruins in the background.
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Apr 27th, 2012, 05:49 AM
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barefootbeach

a small correction....

Telamon was the brother or Peleus and both were friends of Heracles ( Hercules )

Atlas in the Greek mythology was a Titan....

Both names are Greek, Atlas is not the latin word for Telamon....
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Apr 27th, 2012, 10:42 AM
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clauser,
you're probably right, but the excerpt below says that telemon is actually a Roman term....either way I misspoke.

Atlas (architecture)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In the classical European architectural tradition an atlas (also known as an atlant, or atlante [1] or atlantid; plural atlantes)[2] is a support sculpted in the form of a man, which may take the place of a column, a pier or a pilaster. The Roman term for such a sculptural support is telamon (plural telamones or telamons).[2]
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Apr 27th, 2012, 11:27 AM
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barefootbeach

From wikipedia as well :

Telamon
In Greek mythology, Telamon (in Ancient Greek, Τελαμών), son of the king Aeacus of Aegina, and Endeis and brother of Peleus, accompanied Jason as one of his Argonauts.....
He and Peleus were also close friends with Heracles, assisting him on his expeditions against the Amazons and against Troy (see below).


Atlas

n Greek mythology, Atlas (English pronunciation: /ˈætləs/, Greek: Ἄτλας) was the primordial Titan who supported the heavens. Although associated with various places, he became commonly identified with the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa (Modern-day Morocco and Algeria).[1] Atlas was the son of the Titan Iapetus and the Oceanid Asia[2] or Klyménē (Κλυμένη)3]
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Apr 27th, 2012, 06:49 PM
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I liked the sculpture in the Valle die Templi. We also got lost and lost and lost attempting to get to Dario's place. I think the problem is that there is more than one road sign pointing to Favara, and only one of the signs will lead you to whichever road you need to take to get to Villa Diana. I didn't really think Favara was that bad, just not where we were headed and really nothing of interest there. We drove through so many times we made "friends" with the aimless youths we repeatedly passed.

You were smart not to go out to dinner from Villa Diana. We did and got lost again. This was after spending hours trying to get the he!! out of the center of Agrigento on a Saturday night, when every human soul from miles around apparently decides to drive into the city. We were actually just looking for a bank on the edge of town so we'd have cash for dinner and Dario, but every road we took led us into the tiny, throbbing streets of Agirgento Centro. I was the driver and during this neverending journey, I unleashed a torrent of profanity the likes of which my friends hadn't heard from me since we were in high school. So, I feel your pain.

Oh, Sicily.
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Apr 27th, 2012, 06:52 PM
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Valle dei Templi. iPad silliness.

Enjoying your report, though now I'm afraid to read about your (misadventures?) in Modica.

I think Sicily is one of my all-time favorite vacations because I found it not only magnificent but challenging. I had to be tough to have fun!
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Apr 27th, 2012, 07:17 PM
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Leely2....oh, I so enjoyed your remarks! Someone else who knows that "getting lost" in Sicily is not such a trivial pursuit! It's so incredible that it's so difficult to get out of a city...I don't think anyone who's not been in this situation can understand it. That second night I really wanted to just find a grocery where I could get some decent food...but we were too paranoid to go back into Agrigento Centro. And, yes, I reverted to the language of my college waitressing days....who says sailors have the lock on profanity!

I do have to disagree with you about Sicily being one of my favorite vacations...but challenging it was. Don't worry...Modica was a piece of cake after this....well, after we finally found our hotel! There's a theme here.
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Apr 28th, 2012, 12:11 AM
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Barefoot

Your trip followed a route that we have blanket covered over 40 years.

I would fully agree about the demands of Sicily, it is beautiful and has good food but the same could be said of many, many places. The scruffy appearance, crazy road systems, lack of planning control, disregard to rules and insane driving probaby means it could never be our favourite destination.

Bonifacio is a different storey.
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