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Trip Report - Strolling, sightseeing, sitting, sipping, shooting, and shopping in Sicily, Stresa and Switzerland

Trip Report - Strolling, sightseeing, sitting, sipping, shooting, and shopping in Sicily, Stresa and Switzerland

Aug 6th, 2005, 08:40 AM
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Trip Report - Strolling, sightseeing, sitting, sipping, shooting, and shopping in Sicily, Stresa and Switzerland

Sicily, Stresa and Switzerland. When people ask us why we chose those locations, my husband says “we were up to the “S’s”. Well not exactly. Sicily was our major location, and for the last week of our trip I wanted something different, and a landlocked mountainous country seemed about as different from a Mediterranean island as you could get. And it definitely was, and not just in terms of weather and landscape. Stresa was a convenient transition. Ironically, the weather, which was the main reason we went to Switzerland after Sicily, was hotter in Switzerland, at least on a couple of days. Sicily was not that bad (in July). People at home in the US northeast said it was worse here. Only a couple of days in Sicily was it uncomfortably hot and humid, most of the time is was just nice and hot in the sun, but fine in the shade. We had AC in all our hotels and car. Our last two days in Switzerland they had an unusual heat wave and it was horrible.

We spent a total of 11 days in Sicily, flying into Palermo and out of Catania. After the first two days in Palermo (with a side trip to Cefalu) we rented a car and visited: Segesta; Erice (one night); Selinunte (one night); Agrigento (one night); the mountain towns of Polizzi Generoa, Geraci Siculo, and Sperlinga; the Baroque towns of Ragusa, Noto, and Caltagirone; Siracusa (3 nights) and Taormina (3 nights).

We then flew AirOne to Milan, train to Stresa for one night, then train on to Switzerland where we spent five nights in Interlaken. We did two days up into the Alps, one day visiting the towns and castles around Lake Thun, and one day we went to Bern and Murton. Then we spent two nights in Luzurn, one day I went to Zurich for a few hours.

I hope to get my photos on the web within the next week, but for now I'll just tell you about the places we went. I don't normally do trip reports, as I think my photos speak better than my words, but I found other people's trip reports so valuable when planning this one that I decided to do one. It will probably take a few days to get it all done.

isabel is offline  
Aug 6th, 2005, 08:47 AM
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Sicily is wonderful. A place of great contrasts – gentle, lush, blue/green coast; and dry, rugged, brown interior. Chaotic cities like Palermo; and lonely Greek temples set on a quiet hillside. As different from northern Italy as any two countries. The landscape is rugged and extreme, the cities are gritty, English is not widely spoken, everything is not freshly renovated and well marked. But beautiful and interesting and friendly and fun it is. This is the place people should go who complain that they aren’t seeing the “real “ Italy when they visit Tuscany. This is the place people should go who complain that there are too many tourists in the rest of Italy. Sicily is off the beaten path, but well worth it.

Landscape – The coast is incredibly beautiful. The water is sapphire blue with pockets of turquoise and peridot green. The sky is so blue people won’t believe the photos aren’t touched up. Palm trees, pink and white oleander, hibiscus, trumpet vines, giant cactus – some with tree size flowers growing out of them. Orange trees and lemon trees and grape vines.

The interior is a different story. Vast, rugged, barren, mountainous, dry, cracked fields, sun and dust. Desolate, forelone, monotonous. Tan and brown, then more tan and brown. You can see forever, but that’s all you see. Due to the terrain the roads are one long switchback, except where massive concrete “flyovers” have been built. It can take forever to go a few miles. SS120 crosses some of the more remote stretches of the Madonie and Nebrodi mountains. Although what you see can be pretty boring, the sheer magnitude of how far you can see is impressive.

Much of the interior countryside is empty, now thoroughly depleted by mass emigration (10% or the population left in just 3 years in the 1950s, the culmination of the 30 years before that), You go miles without even seeing a farm, then suddenly a mid sized town. And small hilltop settlements remain, villages lost in time, occasionally possessing a vitality that’s in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape. These towns give a fascinating look at a life that’s all but disappeared in the rest of Italy. Unfortunately the majority consist largely of unattractive post WWII buildings, themselves now over 50 years old and crumbling. While a 500 year old stone building in decay can be charming, a 50 year old rusty steel and concrete building in decay is just sad and ugly. But a few towns managed to miss the earthquakes, bombs and vandalism and are charming surprises. They have stone churches and buildings and streets and piazzas that are hundreds of years old and well maintained. They could become “touristy” if not for the amount of driving you have to do to get to them. Polozzi Geerosa and Geraci Siculo are two examples, I’m sure there are more but we didn’t find them. You can read about those two towns in the book, The Stone Boudoir. The towns like that on the coast (Erice on the west and Taormina on the east) have become very touristy. The towns in the southeast “bulge” that were rebuilt in Baroque fashion after the 1697 earthquakes are also beautiful (they are collectively a UNESCO world heritage site). Unfortunately they have a fair amount of “modern” sprawl and the “newer” buildings in Sicily are not very attractive.

In some ways Sicily reminded me of Ireland, an island with beautiful coastline, but relatively boring interior. Many beautiful buildings, some with great historic value, some really nice towns – but also lots of 20th C boring, rundown places. Both Ireland and Sicily were very rural and quite poor for much of their history, and in many places (especially in Sicily) still are. Very friendly people (except those in Sicily don’t generally speak English). A different feel from much of the rest of Europe.

I think a lot of people come to Sicily and base in Taormina (a beautiful place, but not really representative of the rest of Sicily) and do excursions to Mt. Etna and a few Greek Temples and feel they have seen Sicily. You could come to Sicily just for its beauty (coast line, Greek Temples, Baroque towns, hill towns like Erice and Taormina, the Arab-Norman buildings of Palermo) or you could spend some time in the “real” Sicily. Much of Sicily is not some place most people would want to spend a lot of time (look how many Sicilians left). But if you want to see the real Sicily you need to spend a few days in Palermo and to drive through some of the interior towns. In eleven days we only drove through one town (Modica, near Ragusa) where we saw “modern” supermarkets and the feel you might be in the 21st C. I’m glad I got to see all that I did.
isabel is offline  
Aug 6th, 2005, 12:00 PM
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Nice report, Isabel. I know we wil love your pictures. Look forward to hearing about sizzling Switzerland.
DixieChick is offline  
Aug 6th, 2005, 04:54 PM
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You describe Sicily well. I would add that the spring flowers in May made the interior landscape more lush and less brown. No doubt, Sicily is more intense than the rest of Italy and may not be for everyone---we liked it. Now, where are your pics?
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Aug 7th, 2005, 02:12 PM
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Photos are coming - it takes a while to sort through as many as I take. But for now I'll post some more info on some of the specific places we went.

Palermo – Well I don’t think I’d want to live there, but I’m very glad I visited. Many people suggest skipping Palermo but we found it very interesting, at least for a couple of days. It’s dirty, gritty, crumbly, chaotic. The street scenes are frenetic, with vespas buzzing on all sides, and “sidewalks”, that at less than a foot wide are more of a joke than a convenience. Air, noise, and visual pollution are everywhere. But so is history, and there are some beautiful buildings, many of which have that Arab-Norman fusion that gives Palermo it’s exotic flavor. Especially the Cattedrale, the Palazzo Reale, and San Giovanni Degli Eremiti. Very few people spoke English and we didn’t see many American or British tourists. But the people were very friendly and helpful. Knowing a little Italian was definitely helpful, as was having traveled to Europe fairly often and therefore knowing the way things work. For example, last year in Florence getting a SIM card for my cell phone was a breeze. First phone store I passed had them, spoke English and did all the paper work in just a few minutes. In Palermo we spent a couple of hours, first several stores said they didn’t have them even though they had cell phones and the TIM logo in the window, and tried to tell us where to go to get one. Finally found a place, but since they didn’t speak English is was a little confusing (they need your passport, address, etc). If I hadn’t done it last year in Florence it would have been pretty difficult. Another thing I noticed was that, although there were plenty of stores, there weren’t all the big international and European chains that you see in other European cities. They definitely have siesta, and it lasts from about 1pm till 4pm. Dinner is also later, many places didn’t start serving till after 8pm. We had dinner twice at a little place run by a family right next to San Domenico. We liked it so well we went back the next night and they were very obviously pleased that we returned. Driving out of Palermo was not as bad as I expected. We just had the map that Avis gave us, and their directions. I think driving out was easier than if we had been driving in and looking for a hotel address. I will add that I learned to drive in New York, so some people might find it more difficult. My husband, who grew up in a rural area definitly wanted me to drive that stretch, although he did most of the rest of the driving.

Cefalu – We took the train from Palermo (€4 each way, about an hour). Cute little fishing village, although we did not see any fishing boats, just sail boats and beach goers. Water was sooooo warm, and so blue. Town is tiny, you can walk around the whole place in an hour. Duomo is striking, and the mosaics inside are fabulous.

Segesta – About an hour’s drive from Palermo. We stopped there on the way to Erice. The temple is set on a windswept barren hill overlooking a valley of wild fennel. I think it was our favorite but maybe because it was the first one we saw (we saw all three Sicilian Greek temples). It was so awesome to see it. Very few tourists and you can walk all around and inside it. Talk about feeling ancient history. It’s very well preserved with all four sides intact. The Greek theatre is 2km up a steep hilly path from the temple. There is a bus you can take but we walked. Great views of the temple from the path. The theatre is the smallest of the three in Sicily (Siracusa and Taormina being the other two), but the least altered, and has a great view, all the way to the sea which is quite a few miles away. There is a small café and souvenir shop at the parking lot. Admission was 6€ despite the printed tickets saying €4.50. This was the same price as all the other Greek ruins in Sicily.


Erice – Perched high on a mountain top (it takes at least a half hour to get there from Trapani, down on the coast), Erice seems more like a Provence hill town, than a Sicilian one. Everything is gray stone – the streets, the churches, the houses. Extremely clean and tidy (especially for Sicily). The views are incredible, literally breathtaking. Everything you could want in a hill town – narrow winding streets, iron balconies overflowing with flowers, medieval churches, intimate piazzas, cafes, a castle, ceramics shopping. I cannot understand why this place is not more crowded except that the western coast of Sicily does not see many tourists. If Erice were in Provence or Tuscany it would be overrun. And worth it.

Selinunte – The main temple here was not quite as complete as the one in Segesta, but it had been more finished in it’s day. The columns were fluted and there was evidence of interior structures. What makes Selinunte interesting is the setting – right on the coast with views of the sea, and the massive amounts of rubble all around it. There were once several temples at the site, the others all victims of earthquakes. There is also a secondary site, about a five minute drive away, with only one wall of a temple standing (and that is under scaffolding). But there are the ruins of an acropolis there. There were more tourists here than Segesta (though still not at all crowded), and the it had a touristy feel as there were people trying to sell you a ride on a golf cart type vehicle which can take you to the other part of the site (but you can just drive your car there, or walk). As in Segesta, you are free to walk all through the temple. The town, which is actually called Marinella di Selinunte, is just a tiny beach town with a few hotels.

Agrigento – This is the Greek Temple site that is the most famous, and the one that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I can see why. The main temple, Concordia, is very complete and well preserved. Supposedly even better preserved than most ruins in Greece. And there are several other temples with at least one wall still standing, not to mention several more (but with just foundations and broken fragments scattered around). They are strung out along a ridge, five minutes or so walk between each. On the down side, while you have a beautiful setting along the sea, on the inland side of the ridge is the city of Agrigento, very visible from the temples, and it does detract from the ambiance. Also, much more touristy. The walk between the temples is a paved sidewalk, not the same feel as the dusty paths around the other sites. Tour Groups. And you can’t walk around inside the temple, it’s roped off. But it sure is impressive.

I'll post the rest of my Sicily trip tomorrow.
isabel is offline  
Aug 8th, 2005, 07:01 AM
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Here's the last half of where we went in Sicily. I'll do a seperate thread for the Switzerland part, since I doubt too many people are interested in the both those places at the same time. When I get the photos online I'll let you.

Madonie Mountain Towns – SS120 is a two lane very twisty road through the interior, north of Enna. I had read about this area and these towns in the book, The Stone Boudoir, and decided I wanted to see some of Sicily that most people don’t get to. Polozzi Geerosa (population about 4000) and Geraci Siculo (population about 1000) are two hill towns about a half hour apart. Both were spared earthquakes and bombs and have stone houses and churches and piazzas that are many hundreds of years old and very well preserved. Modern building has been kept to a minimum. There are no decaying concrete and steel buildings that are evident in many other towns in Sicily. There are also no tourists. I didn’t see any hotels. Nobody spoke English. But the people we met (getting our parking pass, buying gelato) were friendly and helpful. There were flower filled balconies, pink tiled street signs, and views that stretched forever. If these towns were in Tuscany they would be on everyone’s top ten list for sure. The third town we stopped in, Sperlinga, is built on troglodyte caves. There is a castle that is built into and on top of a huge stone outcropping which is full of caves. You can tour it, except during siesta which is when we happened to be there. But it looked interesting.

Noto, Ragusa, Caltagirone – These are three of the eight towns that are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the amount and quality of the Baroque buildings. The entire area was flattened in 1697 by an earthquake, and the towns rebuilt themselves in Baroque fashion. Caltagirone didn’t have a major Baroque duomo like the others but was a pleasant little city. It’s main claim to fame is it’s ceramics industry. Many of the ceramics you buy in other parts of Sicily were made here. There are a ton of ceramic shops so the selection is better than anywhere else, but the prices are about the same. There is a massive staircase in the middle of town (142 steps) and the riser of each step is tiled with hand painted tiles. Quite a sight. Ragusa is a wonderful little city built up over two hills separated by a deep gorge. It’s massive duomo is currently under scaffolding but it looked pretty impressive. There are plenty of other Baroque buildings and churches, a very pleasant palm tree lined main piazza, a palm tree filled park with gardens and three churches. Great old stone buildings and streets. I really like Ragusa. Then there is Noto. Supposedly the best, although it’s duomo is also under major construction until 2006, although I couldn’t tell you that for sure as we couldn’t find it! This was the only place in all of Sicily that we got lost. We followed signs for “centro storico” but all we found was a little neighborhood with a big church (every little neighborhood in Italy has a massive church). We knew we weren’t in the right place so we asked a couple how to get to the “old town”. Well, they were extremely helpful but directed us to Noto Antica, which is 15 km away and is the archeological site of the original town. We drove around in circles forever and finally decided to jut skip Noto.

Siracusa – Loved Siracusa. We spent three days (one of which was the day trip to the Baroque towns). The island of Ortygia is the old part of the city. There’s a big newer section but it’s easy to just drive through it and once you are on Ortygia you don’t even notice it. Ortygia is about one square kilometer, with a harbor on the west side and the sea on the east. Relatively flat so easy to walk around. Lots of narrow twisty streets, Baroque buildings (the Duomo is magnificent), fountains, cafes, shops. Great place to just wander around. The whole island is built up quite a few feet above the water level and there are no beaches, but there are a few places where steps lead down and out to huge rocks that you can swim in and around. The water was so incredibly warm and clear, I could have stayed in it forever. There is a promenade/sidewalk all the way around the outside (harabor and sea side) of the island. Great food, great people watching. Very lively at night, beautifully lit, the warmth of the days sun radiating out from the stone streets and buildings. The archeological park/Greek theatre/museum is on the mainland, about a 10 minute drive. This was my least favorite of all the Greek sites. The theatre is large, but lots of the stone areas have been replaced by wood, and they were building huge staging for plays which are preformed every August. Dionysius’s Ear (massive cave) was pretty cool (literally). And the museum is extremely well laid out. There’s an old church, Chiesa di San Giovanni, in partial ruin, between the archeological park and the museum (which are about 10 minutes walk apart). I thought it was very beautiful . There are catacombs under it but since we had done the one in Palermo we skipped this one.

Taormina – The most touristy place in Sicily, but, as with most touristy places, there’s a good reason for it. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. Dramatic, gorgeous setting on a hill overlooking a very picturesque bay, with Mt Etna is the background. Beautiful stone churches, palazzos, piazzas, fountains, flowers, etc. And because it is touristy it has all the amenities: shops, cafes, restaurants, gelaterias, hotels. Beautiful Greek theatre with Roman additions, situated so you can see the sea and Mt. Etna. Big beach area that you can get to by a steep foot path or a gondola (or you could drive, but I wouldn’t advise it). Isola Bella is an island with a nature preserve that is separated by a thin strip of sand (covered by several inches of water) from the mainland. Flowered covered cave, lush plantings. Beautiful. I don’t think Taormina is representative of Sicily, and I think it’s too bad some people only go here, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s a wonderful place, and if I did have to pick only one place in Sicily, this would probably be it.

Castlemola – a tiny village about 5 km up a twisty road from Taormina. Talk about incredible views. You can see all of Taormina, Mt Etna, the sea, and all the way to mainland Italy. Has a castle ruin, a few shops and cafes and a beautiful domed church. There is a footpath from Taormina but there’s a bus every hour or so that only takes about 15 minutes. Definitely a worthwhile excursion for a few hours.
isabel is offline  
Aug 8th, 2005, 02:22 PM
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Thanks for sharing such a detailed report. I have to say that after spending two weeks in Sicily earlier this year, I fell in love with the interior of the island. I'm sure the time of year one is there can influence one's perception.
Presocia is offline  
Aug 8th, 2005, 02:49 PM
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Great report!! Thanks for sharing
TexasAggie is offline  
Aug 9th, 2005, 01:14 PM
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Very interesting. Looking forward to the photos.
Catbert is offline  
Aug 9th, 2005, 01:32 PM
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I meant to ask earlier... what guidebooks did you find useful? Also, do you mind listing hotels?
Thanks
TexasAggie is offline  
Aug 10th, 2005, 07:20 AM
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Hi. The guide book we brought with us was Rough Guide to Scily. It was very good for the sights, but lousy when it came to things having to do with driving into a place. It's much more geared to traveling by public transporation. Before we left I did extensive on-line research and used all the major guide books to Italy (Fodors, Frommers, etc).

Four of the six hotels were recommendations from this forum. It also turned out most of the places we stayed happened to be listed in the Rough Guide. I booked everything on-line in April (we were there in July). All the hotels were ensuite with AC and breakfast included. . All except the Agrigento B&B had TVs and lifts. I would definitly stay at all of them again. All prices are for a double room.

Palermo - Hotel Joli, www.hoteljoli.com.
Newly renovated old building with great lobby with murals painted on the walls and ceiling and huge Venetian glass chandelier. Room on second floor (large by European standards) had terrace with table and chairs and view of Piazza across the street. Less than 10 minute walk from where airport bus drops off, also less than 10 minute walk from Avis car rental pick up. As central to the major sights in Palermo as anywhere else would be. Quiet side street. Friendly staff but spoke minimal English. €88

Erice - Hotel Tirreno, www.tirrenohotel.com
On the water below Erice, so more than a half hour drive up the mountain. Modern, business type hotel, large room, mini terrace overlooking the harbor/sea, gated free parking. Friendly staff spoke excellent English. €68 (booked through Octupus Travel.com)

Selinunte - Hotel Alceste, [email protected]
Modern hotel 5 minute walk from the beach, 5 minute drive from the Temples. Large room/ view of sea, breakfast on terrace with view of sea. Free safe on street parking. Restaurant dinner was quite good and no more expensive than anywhere else in town. Staff spoke minimal English. €80

Agrigento - B&B Villa Amico, [email protected]
Nice house (5 guest rooms) on quiet street with free gated parking, 10 minute walk to beach, 10 minute drive to Temples. Easy access to highway without driving through center of Agrigento. Extraordinarily friendly owner, spoke excellent English. Free laundry and bike loans. [After seeing the Villa Athena, on the temple grounds, I’m glad I stayed at the B&B Amico. The haughtily clad valets and bellhops can’t compare to Pier Domenico Amico, our incredibly friendly, interesting and well informed host.] €60

Siracusa - Hotel Gutkowski, www.guthotel.it, Right on the sea on the quiet side of Ortygia, recently renovated old building, easy to drive to with plenty of free on street parking right out front. Walking distance to everything. Small terrace with view of the sea, Friendly, English speaking staff. €90

Taormina - Hotel Villa Greta, www.villagreta.it/uk/index.php
Absolutely breathtaking view of the sea and Mt Etna from large terrace with tables, chairs, lounge chairs. But you work for it. It’s a steep 15 minute walk from town. But worth it. Free gated parking. No lift and lots of stairs. Some of staff spoke excellent English, others very little. €85

isabel is offline  
Aug 10th, 2005, 08:51 AM
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Thank you so much for your wonderful detailed report, I have saved it for my future trip. I, too, have only been to Taormina but I loved it and when I was there I vowed to return to Sicily and drive all around. I appreciate the trouble you took to list the hotels too.
SeaUrchin is offline  
Aug 10th, 2005, 08:56 AM
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Wonderful report! We will be in Sicily for 8 days in September and I am looking forward to the visit thanks to your help and that of others who have recently visited.
mamc is offline  
Mar 28th, 2006, 10:56 PM
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your trip sounds lovely, looking at a night in the villa greta taormina, can you advise how to get to Catania from there
woodsie is offline  
Mar 29th, 2006, 12:05 AM
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Sounds great,looking forward to the Switzerland part.
Maudie is offline  
Mar 29th, 2006, 08:38 AM
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My husband and I are going to pick up my daughter up at the end of April from her semester in Ortigia (Siracusa) and I have saved your wonderful report on some of the other cities that we have not visited. I think that you summed it up nicely about it "being the real Italy" that we are all looking for-just don't tell too many people as I don't want my favorite country to be ruined?Heaven on earth is Sicily!!!
dutyfree is offline  
Aug 21st, 2006, 11:37 AM
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Just read your Portugal trip report and saw photos - then noticed your Sicily photos and hoped you had done a trip report - so am topping it for others and bookmarking it for me
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Sep 5th, 2006, 02:14 AM
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Hi there! For those willing to spend some days in Agrigento (Valley of the Temples!), I suggest the B&B Terrazze di Montelusa: located in the historical center, huge panoramic terraces, bedrooms with airconditioning and private bathrooms, ambiance 5 star hotel but B&B rates!!! The owner is very friendly and gave us all information we needed. We really loved it!
Axel71 is offline  
Sep 5th, 2006, 11:14 AM
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Isabel....if you're still here, I sure would love to read about your time in Stresa. I plan to be there in late May,2007.
marthag is offline  
Sep 5th, 2006, 01:32 PM
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Since this thread was resurrected I just read over it (nice to relive your own vacation) and realized I never posted the link to the Sicily photos. Maybe I posted it as a seperate thread. But anyway, if anyone is looking for them they are at: www.pbase.com/annforcier/sicily_2005


marthag - Hi, I guess I didn't actually do a trip report for that part of our trip, we were only there for one night. It was kind of a transition for us from Sicily to Switzerland, it made for a sensible way to break up what otherwise would have been a very long travel day. And the year before, I had gone to Lake Como (by myself) and loved it and thought I'd show my husband one of the Italian lakes. It turns out that I really didn't like Stresa as much as Lake Como. It was pretty, but not as dramatic, and the town of Stresa wasn't as "charming" as Belagio or Varenna on Lake Como. But it was certainly nice enough. The big draw is the islands with the gardens which we didn't get to
because of timing. The boats stopped running earlier than I expected, like 5 or 6pm, even though it was light out till 8 or 9. I have some friends who absolutely love Stresa, and those islands. I have a few photos of Stresa posted at: www.pbase.com/annforcier/image/56791507

If I can answer any specific questions about it I'll try.

By the way, I've noticed that posting above by Alex whoever. I think it's probably an ad as I've seen it on three threads today alone.

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