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Sicily Trip Report - thanks for the planning help!

Sicily Trip Report - thanks for the planning help!

Oct 6th, 2005, 08:31 AM
  #1  
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Join Date: Dec 2004
Posts: 72
Sicily Trip Report - thanks for the planning help!

Hey Europe board posters – just returned from my first trip to Sicily and thought I’d share some details & impressions. I did almost all of my trip-planning logistics online and relied heavily on info from Fodor’s and Slowtravel, so hopefully my report will help others! Although I am very experienced traveler and have actually lived abroad much of my life, I tend to get very nervous about logistics and the nitty gritty details of getting from one place to another. This time around I felt so prepared and knowledgeable thanks to posts here, and so consequently things went smoothly and we had a great trip. Below is the rather long and detailed report, but the quick summary is that we loved Sicily and found that the end of September was a wonderful time to travel. Despite many negative reviews, we found Palermo very easy to navigate and much cleaner than other Italian cities, and even driving around Sicily was not too bad!
Part 1: Rome – Naples – Pompeii – Palermo
Our trip started in Rome after a flight from NY-JFK for my traveling companion, whom I’ll call Tennis Guy (TG) for reasons that will become clear later on. I was already in Rome visiting my parents, who have lived there for 15 years (I went to high school) so we stayed at their home in the northern suburbs of Rome. Two additional friends joined us for the first two days, one who had never been to Rome – so we gave him the abbreviated, super-fast, major highlights (and lots of walking) tour. We managed to see all the major sights including Piazza del Popolo, the view from the Pincio, Spanish Steps (with the horrid advertising covering up the church renovations,) Via Condotti, Fontana di Trevi, Pantheon (complete with a cappuccino in the piazza and a gelato at Della Palma around the corner,) Piazza Navona, Campo di Fiori, Jewish Ghetto and Synagogue, Isola Tiburina, Campidolgio, Foro Romano, Colliseum, and then connected by metro (to Ottaviano station) to Vatican City – all this and we still managed to make it home for dinner by 7 pm, after a 45 minute bus ride! Of course, that isn’t the ideal way to see Rome, but if you are really short on time it is quite possible.
The next morning my father drove us to Termini Rail Station – imagine 4 adult passengers with luggage in a Fiat Punto – needless to say we got very up close and personal with each other! Since TG and I were heading to Palermo on the overnight ferry from Naples, we decided to check out Pompeii on the way and make it a day trip. Hey Europe board posters – just returned from my first trip to Sicily and thought I’d share some details & impressions. I did almost all of my trip-planning logistics online and relied heavily on info from Fodor’s and Slowtravel, so hopefully my report will help others! Although I am very experienced traveler and have actually lived abroad much of my life, I tend to get very nervous about logistics and the nitty gritty details of getting from one place to another. This time around I felt so prepared and knowledgeable thanks to posts here, and so consequently things went smoothly and we had a great trip. Below is the rather long and detailed report, but the quick summary is that we loved Sicily and found that the end of September was a wonderful time to travel. Despite many negative reviews, we found Palermo very easy to navigate and much cleaner than other Italian cities, and even driving around Sicily was not too bad!
Part 1: Rome – Naples – Pompeii – Palermo
Our trip started in Rome after a flight from NY-JFK for my traveling companion, whom I’ll call Tennis Guy (TG) for reasons that will become clear later on. I was already in Rome visiting my parents, who have lived there for 15 years (I went to high school) so we stayed at their home in the northern suburbs of Rome. Two additional friends joined us for the first two days, one who had never been to Rome – so we gave him the abbreviated, super-fast, major highlights (and lots of walking) tour. We managed to see all the major sights including Piazza del Popolo, the view from the Pincio, Spanish Steps (with the horrid advertising covering up the church renovations,) Via Condotti, Fontana di Trevi, Pantheon (complete with a cappuccino in the piazza and a gelato at Della Palma around the corner,) Piazza Navona, Campo di Fiori, Jewish Ghetto and Synagogue, Isola Tiburina, Campidolgio, Foro Romano, Colliseum, and then connected by metro (to Ottaviano station) to Vatican City – all this and we still managed to make it home for dinner by 7 pm, after a 45 minute bus ride! Of course, that isn’t the ideal way to see Rome, but if you are really short on time it is quite possible.
The next morning my father drove us to Termini Rail Station – imagine 4 adult passengers with luggage in a Fiat Punto – needless to say we got very up close and personal with each other! Since TG and I were heading to Palermo on the overnight ferry from Naples, we decided to check out Pompeii on the way and make it a day trip. We had researched train times on the Trenitalia website, but were hesitant to buy tickets in advance knowing Rome’s awful traffic issues. But, we arrived in plenty of time to catch a Eurostar train and bought our tickets in the machine – very easy, English instructions, can use a credit card. We validated them right there and went on a search for American style drip-coffee for one of our party (happily found at the McDonald’s right in the main area). Our train was delayed (of course) but only took about 2 hours. Once in Naples we tracked down the luggage storage, on your left as you get off the trains, by tracks 23-24. Stored our luggage quickly and followed the precise directions from Fodors to get to the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii. I had looked up schedule online the day before but the arriving trains didn’t seem to really correspond to it. Our train was not an express one, and it took about 40 minutes. It was very easy to find the entrance to the site once you get off the train – follow all the tourists! Since we had limited time, we opted not to do a guided tour, but we did rent the audio guide (4 headsets for 20 Euro). Unfortunately, one headset was broken (we did not discover this until after we had gotten too far into the site to go back) and we were disappointed that the staff did not apologize or offer a full refund. There is a nice cafeteria inside the grounds, so don’t worry about needing to get food outside. We enjoyed the few hours we spent there, and were very glad to have our comfortable walking shoes on – it was hot and you have to walk long distances on uncomfortable stone roads – definitely not for everyone. On our way back we got lucky with an express train which was very quick, under 30 minutes.
goodheart is offline  
Oct 6th, 2005, 08:33 AM
  #2  
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Leaving our travel companions to their next adventure in Bari, TG and I took the #1 Tram to the Porto Molo Beverello for our Tirrenia ferry. To get to the tram stop you walk out of station by the McDonalds and cross the whole piazza, which is under construction. The stop you want will be facing the station, and tram will be traveling to the left. You can buy the tickets in bar/tabacchi in the station. We asked the driver where to get off, walked through the gates, turned right and followed signs to the Bigliettria. It wasn’t too close, probably a good 10 minute walk, so if you have a lot of luggage the tram may not be the way to go - we saw several unhappy people lugging their stuff down the long parking lot… We had reserved tickets for an internal cabin for two on the phone about a month ahead with an English speaking agent. Since we had not actually paid for them yet or even given a credit card number to hold the reservation, I was worried our cabin would be given away, and we arrived several hours early – but no need. We could not actually board until after 7 pm (for an 8:45 pm ferry) so we sat around for a little while. Note, no food or drinks or shops in the maritime terminal during the off-season. We got our cabin assignment at the ticket office, and then used the shuttle they offered to get to the ferry itself. Once you get on the ship, follow signs to the reception desk to get your cabin key. Our cabin was small but sufficient, with a shower and toilet. We noticed one of the reoccurring themes on our trip here - if you are picky about bath towels, be sure to bring your own! The ship’s towels were tiny and thin, and seemed more like dish-towels. TG couldn’t stop commenting on it to my great amusement. I had joked that we were going on a cruise, but while the ship does have bars, cafeteria, restaurant and a lounge, it is far from fancy. The food was decent though, and we went to bed early after hanging out in the “Love-Boat” looking lounge. I took some Dramamine to help me with motion sickness. The ship arrived right on schedule at 6:45 am, which was announced over the loudspeaker, but it took a while (probably half hour) for foot passengers to disembark. We got a little confused getting off the boat and ended up in the middle of all the cars – all we needed to do was go back the way we came. There were numerous taxi drivers right as you got off the boat. Our trip to the hotel on Via Roma cost $15 euro which I am certain was inflated, but we were tired and just wanted to get settled. I had asked the hotel if we could store our luggage there upon arrival and they were happy to do that, and treated us to breakfast and coffee that morning. We freshened up, stored our stuff and headed out for the morning by 8:30 am or so.

We stayed at the Hotel Ambasciatori (www. http://www.ambasciatorihotelpalermo.com) on Via Roma about half way between the train station and Vittorio Emmanuele, near Quattro Canti, and we really enjoyed it. It was great for our purposes – easy walk to everywhere we wanted to see, bus stop right outside the door, close to Stazione Centrale to get buses to go further out. Nice big room, strong AC, better towels than on the ship (not too hard,) friendly (if somewhat clueless) staff, internet access for a fee, and the best part - a lovely terrace with fabulous views of the old city. As another guest, an Italian business man said, “Magnifico!” It was a great place for breakfast and to relax with a glass of wine and snacks in the afternoon, and great to see all the places we visited layed out in front of in a 3D map.

We got right to exploring Palermo that morning, and saw the Ballaro market, Carmine piazza and church, Palazzo dei Normani and Capella Palatina mosaics, S. Giovanni dei Eremiti, the main Cathedral (surprises you out of nowhere!) and Quattro Canti, and the fountain at Piazza della Prattoria (disappointing). After checking into the hotel around noon, we took the bus out to the Circolo di Tennis, near the soccer stadium in Parco della Favorita. The tennis tournament (Campionati Internazionali Di Sicilia) was the main reason for the timing of our trip to Palermo (and quite honestly, the destination) – hence my nickname for TG since I personally know nothing about tennis! We found the bus system very easy to use, frequent, not too crowded and best of all well-labeled – unlike Rome, each stop is listed on the bus stop and you can easily figure out where to get off. The ride took maybe 20 minutes and we spent a nice afternoon at the beautiful tennis club and ate some Sicilian snacks such as arancini, hotdogs wrapped in dough and of course gelato.
That night we planned to go to dinner at Casa del Brodo per everyone’s recommendation, but it was sadly closed (we thought it was closed Mondays; alas) so we headed to Trattoria la Cambusa in Piazza Marina, which seemed pretty popular with other tourists. We tried some Sicilian specialties with eggplant and swordfish, which were good, and liked the outdoor location in the pretty piazza.
Side note: we were bummed to miss the lights all over town which are still up (looked like elaborate Christmas lights in cities in the States) but not lit. We couldn’t figure out if these were part of a special art exhibit in the Kalsa area (which we saw some signs for) or just some summer fun that we missed out on!
goodheart is offline  
Oct 6th, 2005, 08:34 AM
  #3  
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The next morning we enjoyed the fabulous terrace for breakfast and headed out early to see La Martorana church and mosaics – beautiful! Walked around the Vucciria market and admired and photographed the swordfish heads and gigantic vegetables and neon colored broccoli. After a futile attempt to buy stamps in the main post office (another theme of the trip) we walked over to the Teatro Massimo. Unfortunately, our guide book’s times did not coincide with the actual tour times, so we moved on and wandered around a couple of different markets. At this point all the walking got to our feet, so we took a bus down to the Porta Felice and walked around the Terrazzo A Mare along the shoreline. We were hoping for a gelato but the bars closed, so we ended up in Piazza Magione area. It felt like we got off the tourist track in that area – just regular neighborhoods, some in greater disrepair than others. After a refreshing café and snacks we checked out the gardens at Villa Giulia next to the botanical gardens. Took a bus back up to the train station and found a recommended gelato place there to sample our first (but not only) gelato in a brioche - YUM.
The afternoon’s agenda included the uber-creepy Cappucin catacombs. We took the bus switching at Piazza Independenza – we were a little confused about where to catch the bus but again simply followed the other groups of tourists! Unfortunately once we got off the bus we figured we knew enough to get there ourselves – and went in the wrong door - the cemetery was interesting as well, but not what we had come for! We finally figured out the right place (follow the postcard booths) and were promptly creeped out by this very unique place. I cannot imagine taking children in there- I’d have nightmares for days!
After all the running around, we took the bus back to the Vucciria market and picked up some fresh bread, cheese and wine, and relaxed on our terrace for the afternoon. We capped off the day with some more tennis matches for the evening.
Conclusions: we really liked Palermo a lot. We felt it was easily manageable and not at all chaotic as described – we thought it seemed alot cleaner than Rome (and certainly than Naples). I particularly loved that fact that it seemed so much greener than other cities in Italy – lots gardens and trees all around. It was easy to walk everywhere in the old city and the bus system worked great for us. We thought the new city looked pretty nice and definitely very liveable; I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Next installment: on to Monreale, Sciacca and Agrigento.
goodheart is offline  
Oct 6th, 2005, 08:36 AM
  #4  
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ACK! Sorry for the double posting on the first one, I guess it does pay to "Preview My Reply" before clicking on the post button...
goodheart is offline  
Oct 6th, 2005, 09:58 AM
  #5  
 
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 631
Thanks, goodheart. I'm enjoying your Sicilian adventure!
eliztrav is offline  
Oct 6th, 2005, 02:15 PM
  #6  
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Part 2: Monreale, Sciacca and Agrigento
After a last glorious breakfast the fabulous terrace we braved the bus again to pick up our rental car at the “other” train station at Piazza Notrabolto. We rented the car online through Autoeurope.com, and simply had to show our pre-paid voucher - this was another worry-point for me, but it went very smoothly and quickly. Our car was nice and new and we only had to fill up on gas once! The only confusion was the fact that there are 2 train stations in Palermo, and I didn’t quite catch the difference until I was more familiar with the city. It would have been easy to assume that the central station was the pick-up location for the car. Lesson learned – read carefully! Thankfully the logistics drama was avoided and we were quickly on our way out of town towards Monreale. We found driving in Sicily to be fine, if slightly nerve wracking the first few miles getting out of Palermo. TG drives a stick shift regularly in NYC traffic, but the Italian rules of the road (loosely translated as the driver does what is convenient for him) took some adjusting to. It helped to have a detailed map of Sicily and we could have done with extra city maps make things easier (we used the small maps in our guide book which were not too detailed) but overall it was definitely manageable and it was convenient to have the car. Monreale: We loved the Duomo, and were extremely impressed by the mosaics and the view from the tower. The 2 or 3 euro to climb up all the (many, narrow) stairs is well worth it, and you get to see the much photographed garden in the cloister, which I was interested in but was too cheap to pay for. Also a great view of Palermo and the ocean. Loved it! We stayed there much longer than planned, so didn’t get on the road out of town until around lunch-time. After about 2 hours on a pretty curvy road we decided to stop in Sciacca based on the many recommendations for the town; but we were pretty disappointed. Perhaps we didn’t find the right part of town, but we didn’t think it was very scenic and it was our only real let-down of the trip. We did have a very tasty lunch at La Lampara near the - loved the sardine ball antipasti and the swordfish and eggplant pasta. But, it was rather expensive (50 Euro, no wine!) and took a long, long, long time, so we left Sciacca feeling rushed for the rest of our drive to Agrigento. It took another hour and a half or so to reach Agrigento on the SS114 road.
Our hotel in Agrigento was actually in San Leone near the beach, Hotel CostaAzzura. It was fine for our needs, although not as centrally located for the temples - about 5-10 minute drive from the center of town (their directions were not that helpful, so again, a detailed map of the town would have been helpful to have). They offer free parking in a locked lot across the street, and there is also a bus right there. The AC in the room only worked until midnight (odd?) but the street was pretty noisy so it was not the best night’s sleep. Towel report: back to dishtowels. But, they lent me a great hair dryer! There is also a nice Conad supermarket literally next door, which could come in handy, and it was a quick 2-3 minute drive to the beach. All in all, good value but nothing outstanding. We didn’t get to see the beach in the day time, but enjoyed the stroll for gelato/granita after dinner with the tons of young people who were hanging out in the area.

We headed out to the temples right around 5 pm, which we ended up feeling was great timing – not too hot or crowded, and the light is just amazing for pictures. We were awe- struck by the ancient temples and just loved the view of the olive trees, cacti, the ocean etc. incredible. Note that one whole side (east) of the Concordia temple (the most intact one) and much the temple of Hera/Juno are under renovation and covered in scaffolding. As the sun starting setting the view just continued to improve, and by the time we left close to 8 pm it was completely dark and the whole place was lit up and beautiful. We saw a couple posing for their wedding shots and we too felt like fashion models too after snapping a million pictures from every possible angle. It was amazing! We would have liked just a little more time during the daylight, but would highly recommend the sunset into evening transition for an amazing experience. We headed home to shower and change and then on to the Villa Athena for our 9 pm dinner reservations. The view of the Concordia temple straight-on is incredible, although I thought it would have been nice to see more of angled view. But, after reviewing the options and the location of the scaffolding on the temples, we decided Villa Athena would be our best bet. I would be curious to hear from others on the views from other hotels/restaurants. We felt rather young and slightly underdressed at the Villa Athena, but it was a wonderful meal and worth every penny for the beautiful setting. We took a stroll in the gardens afterwards and it seemed like a great place to stay! Maybe next time…
We finished up this long day with a stroll near the beach in San Leone and got some gelato along with all the teenagers in town.
goodheart is offline  
Oct 7th, 2005, 02:01 PM
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Part 3: Siracusa and Taormina

The next morning we got up early and headed out to Siracusa. We had originally considered driving along what we thought would be the more scenic route (SS114 along the coast) but were told that would take over 4.5 hours. So, we ended up driving up to the Autostrada (at Caltanisetta) and then to Catania and on to Siracusa, which still took close to 3 hours. After finding the bridge to Ortigia, we parked along the water right outside the Fodor’s famous Hotel Gutowski. We were very impressed by the Duomo and the amazing remnants of the greek temple, and generally enjoyed our stroll around the cute streets and piazzas on the beautiful day. We didn’t have too much of an agenda and had a nice long lunch at a pizzeria near the Duomo; I can’t remember the name but it was extremely popular with French tourists! The eggplant, zucchini and egg pizza was excellent, as was the Sicilian salad (or so they called it) with tomatoes, oranges, onions and olives. I felt we could have used some more time in town to see all of the other main sights, and it seemed like a nice location to spend the night, but… we pressed on to our destination, Taormina. I had been there before so was somewhat prepared for the stunning views, but it was just amazing to drive in from the autostrada and climb the big hill into town. The drive from Siracusa was pretty quick (around 1.5 hours) with a small toll on the Autostrada.

We stayed at the Pensione Svizzera (http://www.pensionesvizzera.com/english/) based on the many positive reviews on Fodor’s, and were thrilled to see the lovely views of the bay from our window which were reflected in the huge mirror on the wall – idyllic! The hotel was a good value – nice spacious room, big bathroom although tiny shower of course, but plenty of decent towels. Note – they have 3 parking spots right across the street. I emailed a few weeks ahead to reserve one for 10 euros a day, which was very convenient considering the prices of parking at the public lots much further away. Although it seems that nicer views could be had over on the south bay side of town, we were very satisfied and liked the fact that we could walk home without climbing a million stairs and not having to drive/take a bus/cable car. Also very good breakfast.

After a passegiata up and down the Corso Umberto our first night, we had a very nice dinner at GranDuca on the pizzeria terrace and lingered for several hours over wine and dessert.
The next morning got up early to beat the crowds at the post office (this was our third try of the week, and finally, the postcards were mailed off!) and had a nice breakfast at the hotel – delicious cappuccinos. TG also loved the pear sauce which came in a little sealed container which he thought tasted like gourmet baby food... We braved the walk up to the Castelo above town, which was pretty steep although it got easier after the first few minutes. It was definitely worth it for the incredible views of the town, the Greek Theater and the ocean. A highlight of our trip despite the physical exertion which is not my thing ;-)
We then walked back into town to the Greek Theater which is of course an amazing sight. I cannot imagine attending a performance there, I’d be so distracted! On our walk out we stumbled across the Bam Bar which I had just read about in the NY Times, so we took a break and enjoyed a granita di café con panna in the sun. The public garden is truly beautiful and definitely should not be missed! We then headed down to the beach with the cable cars (very fun travel experience, as well as cheap and convenient especially to the Pensione Svizzera, it is right down the street). Since the weather wasn’t great and it was a little too windy and chilly to swim comfortably, we just headed right off the cable car and up the hill toward Isola Bella where the public beach areas were very rocky/pebbly. It was still nice and relaxing to hang out on the beach. We got a sandwich and snacks down there, and borrowed towels from the hotel. Headed home once the sun moved behind the mountain and went back out to town to watch the sunset from the Piazza IX Aprile and get a drink at the Mocombo (?) café right on the piazza. I was surprised by how cold it got – the wind was blowing hard and I had to wear a pretty heavy jacket to be comfortable. We had dinner at Trattoria Siciliana di Giovanni, again on a rec from online travel experts, and it did not disappoint. Loved the Sicilian antipasti, and I had the swordfish involtini – yum. After yet another gelato on the way home we crashed, sad to have to leave Sicily. The next day we got up early again (ugh, I’m not much a morning person) and took a walk around town and in the public gardens, and visited the lovely tennis court next door – where anyone can apparently sign up to play for a small fee! Then to Giardini Naxos for a too-short hour on the beach before a final granita, and on to the Catania airport for our flight to Rome with Windjet. Finding the airport and our car rental return went very smoothly, and the folks at Windjet provided some comic relief with their poor customer service – but we made it back to Rome without too much hassle.

So, that’s the whole tale! As I said above, we really loved Sicily, found it to be beautiful and easy to get around. We were very lucky with fantastic weather and felt this was a great time of the year to travel. The food was great, the scenery spectacular, and thanks to Fodor’s, our entire travel experience was fabulous. Thanks again for all the knowledge and tips and I’d be glad to answer any questions you may have!




goodheart is offline  

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