Sicily: third time's the charm

Old Apr 22nd, 2019, 05:48 PM
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Sicily: third time's the charm

I just returned from my third visit to Sicily. Each time I went for one week (Fri night - Sun) in April. The two previous times I traveled with my husband, but this time I combined elements from both those trips and traveled with a small group of friends. I was very happy with my choices and would love to pass on some of the info and recommendations.

Catania - Taormina

We arrived in Catania late Saturday afternoon, and Carmelo, our driver for the week was there waiting ( He drove us to the Hotel Villa Schuler in Taormina. I have stayed there previously and was looking forward to another visit. I love the sea view rooms and the breakfast on the terrace with views of Etna. Everyone appreciated the cook to order breakfasts and the fresh ingredients. I think this hotel is a great choice if you are going at a time when you don't need a pool or the beach. It is very central but just off the often crowded Corso Umberto main drag. It is also very close to the public gardens, which are worth a visit. We ate dinner that night at Trattoria da Lorenzo, suggested by Carmelo. I had booked Trattoria da Nino, which is supposed to have a view, but then it was cool and the outdoor patio wasn't going to be open, and we thought we would try the other suggestion. It didn't turn out to be our most memorable night. the restaurant was a bit empty except for another table of Americans, and they forgot one of the pasta dishes which arrived quite late. The food was okay, but I think next time I'll go with the place I have scouted out.

Sunday morning we left for Etna at 8:30. Carmelo stopped at an overlook so we could take photos of Isola Bella, and then we were on our way. Despite the sunshine in Taormina, as we ascended the road to Etna we drove into the clouds. The weather this year was much colder than when I first visited Etna three years ago. This time there was a solid snow cover. Carmelo drove us to Rifugio Sapienza, and we got out and bought tickets for the Funivia and the guided tour on top of Etna (65 euros). The funivia, or cablecar ride takes about 15 minutes, and then you walk through an area with a restroom, bar and shop before exiting out back to catch the all terrain buses that take you to the top. This was quite crowded and we had to wait for several buses before we were able to get on. We had a bit of comic relief while waiting watching the Spaniards lambast the Italians who appeared to be cutting the line.
Once on the bus it's another 20 minutes or so up to the top. It was strange that when we arrived at the drop off point there was very low visibility and it bore no resemblance at all to what I'd remembered from my previous visit. The guide tried to round up our group and we trudged in the biting cold and ice pellets in a single line to the place where he wanted to tell us about the volcano. Luckily we had worn our warm coats, hats and gloves! The guided tour was interesting and luckily not too long given the weather. We were happy to get back on the warm bus afterwards and go back in the other direction. We stopped to buy some souvenirs - it's hard to pass up the samples they push on you, and then went back down to our van.

Then it was off to lunch at a trattoria near Zafferano Etnea. I had found the place on Tripadvisor by looking at the map. On our first trip we ate at Rifugio Sapienza, and were happy enough, but this time I wanted to look for someplace with a bit more character. I chose Trattoria 'nda Calata in San Venerina. On Sundays they do a 25 euro menu which includes six starters, two pastas, a meat course with potatoes, and a dessert. It also includes wine, water and coffee or digestif. It was a charming place, although not easy to find. Our local driver had one of those GPS experiences where you think you've arrived and nothing is there, but we figured it out and were all very happy with the choice. It was full of locals who were taking away their extra food in containers! The starters were fun - artichokes, caponata, fried ricotta, and I'm blanking a little on the rest. Then the two types of pasta were both a rustic chewy maccheroni with pistachio sauce and a bolognese sauce. It was all very tasty and filling. So it didn't matter that the meat was not as exciting for us- two types of pork and a veal dish stuffed with prosciutto and cheese. Then came a strawberry cake with whipped cream and the coffee. It was a fun, lively place that was full. There were clear tarps shielding us from the now rainy weather. I'm sure it would be lovely in good weather too without the tarps. Following lunch we had a quick stop at a honey shop which our driver for some reason called "the family farm"? It was kind of a tourist trap. Previously we had also stopped for honey in Zafferano Etnea, the first time we lucked out and there was a little outdoor fair set up with stalls where you could taste. The second time we went there we had to hunt down a place ourselves, but we did find a little honey museum with tastings. Both of those experiences were a little less touristy.

We then drove back to Taormina to digest our lunch. After resting for an hour we decided to walk/hike up to Castelmola. I had done this before and told them all it wasn't too difficult. Well, it was a bit steep in the end and took the full 45 minutes Google maps predicted. But it was fun and felt great when we got to the top. We enjoyed the view, did a little shopping, and had a coffee before descending in the early darkness. Most of the path was lit but we did use the flashlight on the phone in a few places.

In the evening no one was really hungry for a big dinner, but we walked around town and eventually stopped for a drink at Ferrara Lounge on the Corso Umberto. They had an outdoor table and didn't mind if we just got a drink. We continued the Etna theme by sharing a bottle or two of Etna red and having some snacks. It was a fulfilling day and we capped it off by waving at my husband back in the US from the webcam in the piazza.


Monday we started off slowly - leaving time to shop or wander in Taormina before heading to Gambino winery. I had previously visited Benanti, and almost rebooked there. We had enjoyed the visit with the tour of the vineyards and the light meal with the tasting. However I was poking around and noticed that Gambino is also very highly rated and was half the price of Benanti. For a while I had reservations at both, but then before I could cancel Benanti they emailed to say they were closed for a special event, so good thing I had another choice in mind! The drive to Linguaglossa where Gambino was was prettier because there is more elevation, whereas Benanti is flatter and towards Acireale. I heard there is a nice square in Linguaglossa too, but we wound up spending more than 3 hours at Gambino and didn't make another stop afterwards. At Gambino, there is no outdoor tour, but they pour you a glass of white as you walk in, then chat for a minute and seat you at the table. Once seated, the food starts arriving little by little, and one of the representatives comes over to explain the wines to you. They leave the bottles on the table, so you can keep tasting and comparing. The first food course was three cheeses, some roasted eggplant, olives, and sundried tomatoes. there were also boiled eggs on the table and some salt and condiments. Giuseppe explained we should eat the eggs with salt and then drink the wine. They brought out two whites and then we tasted four more reds. The tasting menu says four wines, but we had six, including their most expensive one. One of the advantages of Gambino is that if you order a certain amount there is free shipping to the USA. Needless to say after the tasting everyone was ready to order at least a few bottles, and we are looking forward to celebrating our trip again once they arrive. After the first plate, they brought out some charcuterie to taste with the red, a small dish of vegetable couscous and some grilled sausages. It was all delicious. I think there were even cannolis after that. They don't do coffees however. Following our meal our driver had been chatting with the owner, and we wound up going downstairs to the vats for a mini tour. The tour wasn't quite what you get at Benanti, but that was fine. Depends on what you are looking for, and the tasting was well done. At Benanti they spend more time showing you a map of Etna and explaining where all their vineyards are located and how they take care of the grapes.

We had time in the afternoon to visit the Greek theatre before our last dinner in Taormina. We had booked Malvasia at 8 pm. It was definitely hopping when we got there, with some people unable to get a table. Our table was ready, and there was another table waiting for people from the Grand Hotel Timeo - the posh hotel near the theatre, which interestingly sends their clients across the town to the Porta Catania to go to Malvasia. We were not super hungry so ordered some salads, bruschetta, a branzino and a half portion of the pasta con sarde. I got a pizza. The waiters were busy but did stop to check, and when they brought a full portion of pasta instead of half, in the end he went and got another plate, put half on that plate and gave it to my friend, and then put the rest in the middle of the table and told us to share it (charging us only for the half portion). The food was good, but the pizza was a bit heavy - not at all like the very thin Neapolitan style. Still the friendliness of the busy waitstaff was exceptional. They did not make a fuss at all when we did not all want to order a lot of food, and the main guy came and asked us where we were from. When I went in to use the bathroom he asked if we had enjoyed our meal, and I told him we liked it better than the previous restaurant we had tried. Then when I went to pay (with six credit cards!) he asked me which one was mine and handed it back to me without charging me!
So I would definitely recommend Malvasia but only order the pizza if you are really hungry!

That's all for tonight: coming next - two nights in Syracuse, and three in Palermo with a side trip to Segesta and Erice.

palatino82 is offline  
Old Apr 22nd, 2019, 06:03 PM
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Lucky you, going back to Sicily. It's still on my revisit list, although Taormina and Etna are not. Looking forward to more,
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Old Apr 22nd, 2019, 07:44 PM
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Thank you for this great report. I am looking forward to reading more!
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Old Apr 23rd, 2019, 05:55 AM
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Wow - this is great! Thanks for all the detail. Keep it coming!
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Old Apr 23rd, 2019, 01:21 PM
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Thank you so much for taking time to post a report. We hope to return this year and your report is going to be so helpful.
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Old Apr 23rd, 2019, 01:54 PM
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Ortigia and Syracuse

On Tuesday morning we bid farewell to the Villa Schuler and the lovely views of the sea and were picked up by Carmelo for the 90 minute ride to our hotel on Ortigia. I had booked the Antico Hotel Roma 1880 specifically for the location, right behind the Duomo of Siracusa on the Via Roma. The location really is perfect and impressive. Most of us were able to get in our rooms when we arrived about 12:00. After quickly dropping the bags, we decided to have a quick trip to the market before meeting our guide at 2:30 for a half day tour. It was delightful getting back to the market and the sensory overload of fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, herbs, and everything else. We made our way down to the end of the road towards the water and my favorite two places: Caseficio Borderi and Fratelli Burgios, both delicatessens - one flashy and polished, the other smaller and very authentic with the older man who is outside every day making his sandwiches and putting on a show for the tourists. Previously I had eaten at Fratelli Burgios, where they have delicious and beautiful platters of meat and cheese and pickled vegetables. This time I didn't think we'd have time, since it is always very busy. To my surprise Caseficio Borderi, the smaller shop now has some tables as well. I spied six stools and quickly ran in to ask the lady at the cash register if she thought we could eat in an hour. She said it was a go and we sat down and quickly ordered two platters and some wine. It was the perfect people watching spot for a first introduction to Ortigia. We all enjoyed the food and the bill which, for two charcuterie & cheese platters & six glasses of wine & water came out to 50 euros! Then we returned to the hotel for our afternoon tour.

Enrica de Melio met us at our hotel. I had used her before for the 1/2 day Ortigia tour and Archeological park. Since we had six people she had arranged for a taxi van to & from the Archeological park for us. So we started there. It is such a pleasant place to walk around with all the vegetation and trees. There doesn't seem to be so much to see, or maybe I have been on the condensed tour with a guide, but we saw Dionysius' ear, the Greek theatre, the Roman theatre, and a few other places that obviously haven't completely stuck in my mind. The Greek theatre unfortunately has some tarps and temporary seating which detract a little from the effect. It was helpful to have the explanations from Enrica, and impressive to see where she pointed out the writing from ancient times. By 4:15 the taxi picked us up again and we drove back to Ortigia for another hour walking around there, including a visit to the cathedral and the temple of Apollo.
After the tour we wandered around some more then rested up a little before our dinner reservation at Sicilia in Tavola.
We had a wonderful dinner there - everyone loved their food, the restaurant was very full, the service was excellent.
Best to book because they definitely fill up.

On Wednesday the main event was a cooking lesson with Fiora. Sicilian demo cooking She has been doing this for 13 years, and also has a B&B - Approdo delle Sirene, which is a favorite of many fodorites. The experience was excellent. We met her near the market, and walked over with her to buy some of the produce for our meal. She showed us a few stalls she likes, the fresh herb lady, the guy who grills potatoes and vegetables every day and the fish guy, Angelo, who is in the Rick Steves Classroom video on Syracuse (I haven't watched the longer video but I think he is in that one too.) It was fun to go to the market with a local, and after about 30 minutes we walked back to her place to get started Her apartment is in a pretty old building near the water. It was gorgeous, and luckily we had a few minutes to sit and rest and have a coffee before starting. Then we went into the kitchen, put on aprons, and rolled our sleeves up. Some of the food had been prepped, but there was a lot to make, so we were able to cut vegetables for the caponata, make our own raviolis after we watched her make the pasta dough right there, cut our own cannoli shells, and peel and slice artichokes. She accomplishes a lot with six people milling around her kitchen! She also has two women helping clean the dishes and managing some of the cooking, to speed things along, since the prep took at least two hours. Then we sat down to a lovely meal that included: a cheese board, caponata, fried zucchini flowers, fried artichokes, fresh spinach and ricotta ravioli in sage & butter sauce, seabass cooked with tomatoes and artichokes, and cannoli. It was the best meal of the week! Everything was super fresh and the cannoli shells just melted in your mouth. We bid farewell about 2:30 pm and walked back to the hotel. I decided to follow the big cooking & eating experience with a walk into Syracuse. I had never really explored and wanted to look at the two churches there - the modern tear drop one, and the older church with the catacombs of San Giovanni. They were about a 30 minute walk from Ortigia. Along the way I looked for a spot to buy a new phone charger since my cord looked like it was about to fray. I stopped in two small shops - both salespeople showed me the cords & tried them out. The first one wouldn't let me pay with credit card - the machine just happened to be broken. So I said I would wait. When the second one said the same thing, I just paid the cash. It seems to be a common occurrence in some places in Italy. Turns out I should have waited because I later saw a bigger electronics store called Tronky and I'll bet I could have charged it there. On this trip I did discover that credit cards were giving the best conversion rate - 1.12 while the ATM's were giving me 1.17. I hadn't always paid attention and I usually change some money first. I know a lot of people recommend ATM's but after paying more attention I would recommend using credit cards when you can.
Anyway the teardrop church was kind of interesting. It was build after a small sculpture that hangs on the wall (not sure what the artistic term for this is) shed tears. This was considered a miracle, and after official verification from Rome, they built this church. There is an upper and a lower section. It looks modern and is very dark inside. I didn't poke around too much. The ceiling was impressive. There are some tired looking buildings nearby to house and feed the non existent pilgrims. So then I moved on to the Catacombs of San Giovanni. I had seen pictures of this church and it looked pretty. It was a short walk from the teardrop church. Unfortunately you can only go in as a guided visit to the catacombs, and I didn't want to spend another hour there. But the outside was very pretty and very old looking. If I'd had more time I think it would have been nice to do the tour. It is not too far from the archeological park.
Then I walked back to Ortigia and met up with my friends for a drink on the piazza facing the church, which is a beautiful spot to people watch.
Later that night we walked to Piano B for dinner. This is a restaurant just across the bridge from Ortigia that does pizza and artisanal salads. Fiora's son is actually the head cook there. They have some process for making pizza dough that is special. You can actually choose what kind of crust you want. We weren't overly hungry so just split one of the pizzas and all got salads. It is a nice change from the typical food we had been eating every night. It is also a very hopping spot (pun intended) as they also specialize in craft beer.

Next up: a trip to the Villa Romana and on to Palermo
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Old Apr 24th, 2019, 03:22 PM
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Villa Romana, Palermo, Segesta and Erice

On Thursday morning we left Ortigia at about 10 am. We left some time to go to market so we could get sandwiches and salads for a picnic lunch at Caseficio Borderi. The day before they had been giving out sandwich samples of a special hard cheese they made mixed with honey and some other ingredients that was amazing. It is quite a show watching the old man chop up the mozzarella cheese and adding herbs, tomatoes, and whatever he feels like at that moment.
Then we set off for the 2 hour drive to the Villa Romana. Once we arrived, we had a picnic on the benches on the way up to the pay toilets up the hill to the left of the parking lot. Actually, the toilets in by the bar are free (before you pay the entrance fee) and much cleaner - just some advice! But the benches were great because down by the bar there are only some outdoor tables and they want you to have purchased your food there.
Then we entered the Villa. A couple of people got the audioguides for 6 euros. It turned out they were ipads and they didn't work well, so I wouldn't recommend them. There is information on signs, or you can get a real live guide there if you really want to.
I have found arriving around 12:30 the two times I have been there has been great for avoiding bus tours. The mosaics are amazing. I knew what to expect the second time, so it didn't wow me as much as the first time, but they are very special. We spent about 90 minutes wandering round before getting back in our van for the ride to Palermo.
In Palermo, we stayed at the Hotel Ambasciatori - specifically for the lovely rooftop bar where they also serve breakfast. We headed up immediately after settling into our rooms for a drink. There is really nothing like gazing over the Palermo rooftops with the mountains in the distance. It is also very calm and quiet. Palermo itself was full of energy and very noisy. Our rooms overlooked the Via Roma, the main street coming down from the station. If we closed the doors we couldn't hear the noise, but it was fun seeing life go by on the street. Then we set out to walk to the Piazza Marina for dinner at Garaffo. Along the way there was a Holy Thursday procession with music and horses. The streets between the hotel and the Via Vittorio Emanuele are full of bars and restaurants and are very popular with the young Palermitani . The buildings are gorgeous. I had been to Piazza Marina, just a 10 minute walk from our hotel, on my last trip, and knew I wanted to go back. Last time we had eaten at a non descript restaurant, but this time I scouted out where to eat ahead of time. We loved Garaffo - the food was excellent and the waiters were very attentive and friendly. One dish that stood out was spaghetti with mussels that had an orange flavor, but everyone enjoyed their food.
The next day being Good Friday, we took our last day trip with Carmelo to Segesta and Erice. It took us about an hour and a half to get to Segesta, partly due to the Palermo traffic and partly because we got pulled over by the police. They actually collected the four passports we had and spent a good 15 minutes examining our driver's credentials. We had a good laugh about it in the meantime, and soon we were off to the temple. Segesta is in a beautiful setting and in April there are lots of wild flowers which make for good photos. There are two spots to see - the temple is off to the right up some steps. I believe it is the most intact temple in Sicily. It certainly is a photogenic spot and very tranquil. After visiting the temple there is another site with an impressive theatre, but it is up a hill. You can take a shuttle bus for 1.50. Previously I had walked with my husband, and it was a bit of a climb. But this time we had limited time, so we took the bus. I think the best option would be to take the bus up and walk down. If you walk down you can get some spectacular photos from the path. We made our way past the ruins to the theatre, which is very pretty and again very peaceful. Then we had to catch the bus down so we could carry on and make our lunch reservations in Erice.
It was about another 45 minutes to Erice. On the last trip I had stayed there two nights. This time, with a group and wanting to minimize moving hotels, I opted for the day trip. I loved how quiet Erice was at night, but I'm not sure everyone would. This time we were fortunate to arrive on the day of the Good Friday procession. After getting dropped off at the Porta Trapani, we headed for Gli Archi di San Carlo for a delicious lunch. I would highly recommend the restaurant. Luckily we exited about 2:30, just when the procession was about to start, and the location was around the corner from the restaurant. There was a group of people waiting for the procession to exit the church, so we stood there. It was crowded, but not too much, so we were actually standing right in the front by the steps of San Giuliano church. After waiting for about 45 minutes, the first group came out. Then a second group of little boys carrying a little statue. And finally after that (lots of gaps in between) came the 7 statues carried by four men each. There was a band playing solemn music. It wasn't completely somber, as people were chatting while watching. Given how long it took them all to get out of the church, we opted not to follow them around town. The whole procession takes 6 hours or something like that. So we spent about an hour or so watching them all come out, then we headed over to Maria Grammatica to have a genovese pastry. The garden out back was relaxing until a bus group arrived, so when we finished we walked over to the park to enjoy the views in several different directions. I still haven't made it into the castle, but Erice is such a pleasant place for relaxing and wandering and gazing at the towns below and the sea.
We finally headed back to Palermo after about 5 hours in Erice.
Upon arrival in Palermo, the street our hotel was on was closed. Luckily the hotel is only a short walk from the train station, so we just got dropped there and walked back to the hotel. No one was hungry for dinner, so we stopped at the grocery store on the way and picked up some potato chips and wine and had a party back at the hotel.
Saturday was our last day in Palermo and Sicily. We met our guide, Giorgio Paonita (highly recommended!) in the lobby at 9. Giorgio was a wealth of information and we thoroughly enjoyed listening to him describe the history of Palermo while showing us the Martorana church, the Praetorian fountain (I think that's the name), up the Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Ballaro market, through the market, up a back street to the Norman Palace and the spectacular Cappella Palatina. Then we went to the Cathedral. At this point we'd been with him for four hours and we bid farewell so we could eat and then shop or sightsee some more. We had been contemplating a possible trip to Monreale in the afternoon (I had been before but others had not) but no one had any energy left to catch the bus, so we split into different groups. A few of us wandered through the Capo market, which was slightly smaller than the Ballaro and much less crowded (might have been the time of day) but still good fun. Then we made our way to the Court house so I could see the memorial to Falcone & Borsellino - the two prosecutors who were murdered by the mafia. It was less impressive than I thought because the steps where there are plaques with their names and several other people killed by the mafia are in this concrete area between two buildings. Also there was a group of kids skateboarding there and sitting on the steps. they were probably too young to understand the significance. Anyway, at least I saw them.
Then we went looking for Brioscia, a popular gelato spot Giorgio had recommended. We walked back down the Via Maqueda past the opera house and into the afternoon passeggiata. We returned to the hotel 8 hours after starting out!
Then there was an hour to rest before a final aperitif on the roof top and a stroll back through the picturesque alley ways to the Gagini Social restaurant. I chose this restaurant for its reputation as one of the best in the city. It was a great experience and quite special. We all had the 60 euro vegetarian tasting menu with more local wine. The food was a higher level - not large portions but every bite was full of unique flavors. You can order a la carte and there are some other menus which include more seafood. It was a great way to cap our weeklong experience. Wandering on the way home the city was alive - several venues with live music and everyone enjoying the evening.
It was a delightful week and now we are all eating orange and fennel salads and dreaming of frying our own cannoli shells!
palatino82 is offline  
Old Apr 25th, 2019, 12:24 AM
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Sounds wonderful. Thanks for the report.
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Old Apr 26th, 2019, 06:35 AM
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yes, add my thanks to those of the others who have commented on your excellent TR. It was nice revisiting the places we went to - was it only 2 years ago? And very nice for you to have a driver - we drove ourselves which was a challenge at times but left us with indelible memories!

Just one tip which others might find useful at the Villa Casale - the guides charge €50 for a tour of about 90 mins [or they did in September '16] so for your group it would have been well worth it. Our guide, a lady who lived in Enna spoke excellent english and really made it come alive for us. Very good value for a group [we shared her services with 4 other people who came along at the same time as us].
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