Touring Sicily

May 13th, 2000, 03:45 PM
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Touring Sicily

My wife and I are planning an early Sept trip to Sicily. We plan to begin in Palermo, rent a car, tour the island. Does anyone have any experience on the island re: the people, possible dangerous areas ect. Restaurants, Great Hotels. I would appreciate your input.
May 13th, 2000, 05:42 PM
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Albert, I really enjoyed Sicily when we did a brief 5-day trip there in January of 1998. We were there for New Year's Eve, so that was a bit out of the ordinary. We flew into Palermo, renting a car at the airpot. After drving across the island we turned it in and flew out of Catania. This worked out really well.

What follows is my journal entry from that trip. Sorry, it's quite long. The first couple paragraghs are about our first night, but if you forge ahead, you'll get a pretty good idea of the major sights.


Sicily was great except for the first night, New Years Eve. Our plan was to spend 2 nights in Palermo and see the western half of the island and 2 nights in Taormina and see the eastern half.

At midnight we were gathered in the main piazza of Palermo with thousands of the locals, dodging exploding bottles of champagne and firecrackers. These were not, however, the little firecrackers that you see in the US. These ones practically left mushroom clouds when they exploded. They were huge - and deafening. As if this weren’t bad enough, people would actually throw these sticks of TNT right at you. My ears were ringing all night and I was exhausted from trying to look in all directions at once for fear that a limb was going to be blown off.

There was a stage set up in the piazza and an announcer that nobody listened to who spoke non-stop. At midnight there were fireworks in the sky - where they belong. For an extra bit of excitement a group of men playing drums where suspended from wires above the crowd while an acrobat did various acrobatic kind of things - very Cirque du Soleil.

Except for the occasional explosion, things quieted down enough by 1:30 to attempt sleep. Although our room looked onto a major street, there was very little traffic, that is until about 2:30. For the next three hours a procession of huge trucks rumbled by. I think Cal Tech measured them as 4.5 on the Richter scale. We finally slept from 5:30 to 8:00. I figured out the next morning that we were on the direct path out of town from the piazza where the festivities were. The parade of trucks must have contained the disassembled stage.

Since we had had so little sleep and the hotel room was the worst one that we had ever had (I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I would rather have been sleeping in Pompeii the night that Vesuvius blew), we decided to cut our trip to Palermo short. However, on our way out of town we saw three of the most amazing sites of the trip. The Palatine Chapel, built in 1132, combines Romanesque architecture with Byzantine-influenced mosaics and Moorish ceilings. It is simply stunning. In fact, Sicily was under the control of so many cultures in its history that it’s very interesting to see the conglomeration of influences that affect its architecture: Greek, Roman, Moorish, Byzantine, and Spanish, among others.

Amazing in a more macabre sense were the catacombs of the Convento dei Cappuccini. 8,000 skeletons line the walls, with parchment yellow skin stretched across their bones. All of them are still wearing clothes - top hat and tails, evening gowns, or religious vestments. Bizarre.

Five miles outside of town, in Monreale, was my favorite church on the island. (Note in the present – This remains one of my all time favorites). It contains the most extensive mosaics in the Christian world. Started in 1174, they illustrated episodes from the Old and New Testaments. The cloister next door contains an arcade supported by 216 twin columns, of which no two are alike.

After Monreale, we set out for Agrigento, stopping along the way to see the amazing Greek temples at Segesta and Selinunte. These were far better preserved than anything that we have seen in Greece, and better yet, surrounded by fields and countryside - no urban sprall to detract from the setting.

We spent the night in Agrigento, at a very uncharming Jolly Hotel, but after Palermo we really appreciated the quiet and modern rooms.

The highlight at Agrigento is the Valley of the Temples. This complex of several temples, set on a slight ridge in the valley below town, gives the best example of the ancient cities, cemetaries and places of worship from the Greek Empire.

I have to say that I was really surprised that Sicily and southern Italy had a huge number of Greek colonies. It is absolutely dumbfounding to see these incredible engineering feats which were accomplished over 2500 years ago.

Moving on to the center of the island, we continued to the ruins of the Villa Casale, built by a Roman emperor in the 3rd century. The floors are decorated by over 4,200 square yards of mosaics, depicting hunting scenes, Roman myths, even women gymnasts wearing “bikinis”.

We spent the last two nights in Taormina. This was Nirvana. (Sorry, I don’t know where the ancient Greeks or Romans thought you go when you die. There’s a lot of eastern influence in Sicily, so Nirvana it is.) Taormina is a seaside resort perched on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. The weather was warm, the views were excellent and the days lazy. From the ancient Greek amphitheater in town you can see the snow covered peak of Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in recent history.

Anyway, you wouldn’t know it, judging from the amount of space that I’ve given it, but Taormina was our favorite town on the island. There are not as many “sites” as in the other places, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the sea, the sun, the mountains, the food, and the narrow winding streets of a small town. It was the perfect way to end the trip.
May 14th, 2000, 11:01 AM
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Russ, thanks for the comments. We will let you know how we feel about the island upon our return
May 15th, 2000, 01:36 AM
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Catania & Syracuse are amazing, Palermo is a bit grim in parts.Taormina in lovely, but as old man told me, is "a city of rich men."It is high on a hiilside & is very busy with tourists due mainly to the Greek/Roman theater etc, but there is a small town with a beach at the foot of the hill called Naxos, less busy, cheaper for hotels, you can walk up & see the old sites.
You will find Naxos mentioned in "the history of the Pelleponesian wars" written about 400bc by Thucidides, a Greek general.Look for the "Sicilian expedition" - when you get to Syracuse you can see the quarries where the prisoners were sent, puts it in perspective a bit.Thucidides doesn't mention hotels, but it's worth a read.

Security : seemed safe,there are parts of the cities which are very poor & probably not so safe, but you understand that If I knew anything I couldn't say....(omerta)
May 18th, 2000, 07:17 AM
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What follows is a copy of my message to another person about to go to Sicily:
My husband I and spent last September
in Sicily (our second visit in a year and a half).
Taormina is quite beautiful and easily our favorite in
all of Sicily (although it can get a little touristy). The
first time we stayed in Pensionne Svitzera - very
central, clean, inexpensive ($54/night with breakfast)
and with a great view! When we tried to book it for
our second visit - it was filled and we were referred
to Villa Schuler. It was fantastic - the most beautiful
views of the sea, palm treed terrace, huge rooms
and a spectacular garden. I highly recommend it.
Take the cable car down to the beaches, for $10 you
can rent two lounge chairs and an umbrella.
Swimming is excellent. We went to Lipari, one of
the Aeolian Islands. The Penssione we stayed in
was called "Enzo il Negro." It had been written up in
the NY Times. Very central, clean and inexpensive
($40 per night with continental breakfast). It's fun to
take a quick side trip to Vulcano (bring some old
bathing suits so you can have a "sulfur bath." You'll
need to throw away the suits afterwards. This past
year we also went to the islands off of Trapani. From
Trapani it is a short ferry ride (25 minutes) to
Famigiana. We were sorry that we hadn't stayed
there at least one night. Famigiana has a Morrocan
feel to it. And it's small enough to get around on a
motor scooter or bike. It was a delightful island with
lovely beaches (various shades of brilliant blue
water).We had rented rooms in Trapani and were
slightly disappointed although Trapani is a wonderful
city to use as a base to travel to Erice, and
especially to Segesta (a regular bus ride of one
hour). I would highly recommend going west of
Palermo to San Vito lo Capo (also a short bus ride
from Trapani). It's in the upper northwest corner of
Sicily. It is quieter in September and you should
easily find lodgings. Also, don't miss Cefalu. It's
about one hour east of Palermo and you can walk
from the train to most lodgings. Great beach, terrific
food. We loved Sicily and hope you enjoy it also.
Please feel free to write if you have questions. And
yes, we traveled by train, bus, and boats. Sicily is
easily traveled. Words of advice: Pack light! Enjoy!
May 19th, 2000, 05:41 PM
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Thanks Mimi. I know my wife and I will have a great time.

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