OVERVIEW: It was our 13th trip to Italy and Sicily was the obvious choice. In hindsight, I feel that our overall strategy was very good. We decided to travel in May based on the positive feedback from Jim Zurer about the favorable weather and the abundance of wild flowers. Both proved to be highlights of the trip.
We decided on a 15 day itinerary and 5 primary destinations. You could possibly see Sicily from 3 locations, but I feel 5 is better given the time. We bought 3 guide books, including the DK– TOP 10 SICILY, and set the itinerary based on a clockwise rotation, starting in Taormina and ending in Palermo. You could easily do the same itinerary in reverse. We also decided to stay in the better hotels at the beginning and end; and to not have a car in those locations. That proved to be wise. So, we flew into Catania on Air One via Rome and returned from Palermo, again using Air One via Rome. We used private drivers arranged thru the hotels for both airport transfers. We got our rental car as we left Taormina and dropped it on arrival in Palermo.
Deciding the final itinerary was not easy. I originally wanted to include the Aeolian Islands and exclude Palermo but some wise heads on slowtrav.com convinced me that you have not seen Sicily without seeing Palermo. Of the top 10 attractions listed in the DK book, we saw 8 of the 10. The exceptions were the islands and Mt Etna. I had ventured up Mt. Etna in 2000 as part of my Puglia trip, and Susan was not too eager. Actually, you could plan day trips from Taormina to include both of those destinations very easily. So, our final itinerary looked like this: • Arrive Catania—transfer to Taormina—3 nites • Get the car—drive to Siracusa area—3 nites [ Labor Day] • Drive to near Piazza Armerina—2 nites • Drive to west coast via Agrigento—stay at Selinunte—3 nites • Drive to Palermo via Monreale—drop car—4 nites
We had the luxury of 15 nites and this trip timing made good sense. With only 10 nites you could pick 3 overnite destinations but would need to compromise on your choice of locations to visit.
Now I will give some of the details of our 5 destinations. Please do not expect me to tell what we had for breakfast—it was always adequate. Also, I will not insult your intelligence or reading ability by listing the primary attractions for each destination—that is why they write guide books. I will tell you some insights based on our experiences that will hopefully enhance your trip. I may also skip one of the nuances of European travel that has always intrigued me—the many and varied plumbing mechanisms designed to merely flush a toilet. I only counted 6 variations on this trip.
DESTINATION : Taormina HOTEL: Villa Schuler
Very nice 3 star—136E/nite This hotel is an excellent choice in a perfect location. I had stayed at the Hotel Belvedere my last trip here and much prefer this hotel and location, well managed by a 3rd generation Schuler. Our room was a corner room with 2 balconies and vistas overlooking both the sea and Mt. Etna—hard to beat. A highlight is a complete breakfast served in the garden terrace in front.
GOOD EATS: Our best meal was at La Griglia at Corso Umberto 54—a real Ristorante—about 70E for 2 with local vino. We also enjoyed the food and service at these lesser trattorias—Gambero Rosso & La Baccanale.
COMMENTS: Taormina is a spectacular natural setting and easily the finest resort destination in Sicily. However, it has become even more crowded with tour bus and cruise ship crowds since my last stay in 2000. The Greek Theater is one of the major highlights in Sicily, but get there early to miss the hordes . Also, be sure to have a drink at the funky bar San Giorgio in Castelmola with a fantastic vista over Taormina and the sea. The Auto Europa car rental office has easy access on to the autostrada. However, we picked up on Labor Day in Italy and hit a massive traffic jam as the road narrowed south of Catania. The drive took us about 3 hours.
DESTINATION: Siracusa area HOTEL: Agriturismo Il Limoneto
A rural B&B–80E; plus optional half board of 20E PP—a total of 120E with dinner. There are not many good choices in this area for mid-range accommodations, but this nice agriturismo located in a lemon grove 7 miles outside Siracusa is one. It is easy to find because of the several brown “ agriturismo” signs posted on all the roads. The rooms are fairly basic but comfortable, and the food is very basic and organic. We loved the location—easy driving access into Siracusa and for day trips to the Baroque towns south of here. I am not aware of a better option in this price range in the Siracusa area.
GOOD EATS: We ate all of our dinners at Limoneto but did have a great lunch at La Terrazza near the fountain on Ortigia. The homemade limoncello at the B&B; is some of the best I have found, and can be purchased there.
COMMENTS: We did not do justice to Siracusa, partially because we had a car problem and lost almost a day getting it replaced. But, we were also mildly disappointed in our half day on Ortigia. The highlight of this area for us was the day we spent exploring the Baroque towns of Ragusa, Modica, and Noto to the south—especially Noto. My wife thinks that Noto will be a major attraction someday when they finish the restoration of the Duomo. None of this area is ready for prime time as yet, but that is part of the charm. The architecture and golden cast to the stone buildings in Noto were most impressive. We got mildly lost on some back roads on our way home that afternoon and were glad we did. The rolling green hills, the plentiful wild flowers, and the majestic masseria farms houses were a real highlight.
DESTINATION: Piazza Armerina [centro Sicily]
HOTEL/B&B; Agriturismo Gigliotto 80E plus optional half board at 20E PP. This is a very nice restored masseria located about :15 south of Piazza Armerina and just off the highway. This was a real find and an excellent choice to stay in this central Sicily region. The rooms are more modern than the previous B&B; and the setting is beautiful. Good value !
GOOD EATS: The food here was not fancy but very fresh and more than plentiful authentic Sicilian cuisine. And, it just kept coming. Several antipasti choices, 2 pasta courses, 2 meat courses, and some dolci. And the house wine was an excellent Nero d’ Avola. The other memorable meal was an excellent lunch in the famous ceramic town of Caltigirone—a place we found named Marchesi di S. Barbara on via Boneventura. Highly recommended for travelers to this charming town who need a break from ceramic shopping.
COMMENTS: The drive to here took us via Palazzolo Aricede and Caltigirone. We spent several hours in the latter to allow Susan to exercise her well developed ceramic shopping gene. The damage was minimal but the town is worth your time and the ceramics are the best in Sicily. The highlight in this area are the famous mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. Again, the tour busses are well aware of this treasure and I suggest you get there before 10:00 to miss the roaming hordes in short pants. The mosaics are indeed a true phenom and should not be missed.
DESTINATION: Selinunte [via Agrigento]
Hotel: Hotel Alceste in Selinunte Marinella 69E This is a very adequate 3 star in the fishing village of Selinunte Marinella and next door to the famed archeological site. We used this location as our base for the west coast and were pleased with the village and location. A bonus was the small pizzeria across the street, Bruno”s. Decent hotel, good value.
GOOD EATS: Grazie to Jane for the suggestion of Vittorio ristorante on the beach in the village of Porto Palo. We had a fabulous Sunday dinner on Mothers Day along with a dozen local large families—a real experience.
COMMENTS: We got an early start to be in Agrigento by 10:00—a 2 hour drive in the only showers we had the entire trip. The Valley of the Temples lot was already almost full—we got the last spot. Again, this is a site that is a mandatory stop for every tour bus in Sicily and is overrun with tourists. We stayed only 2 hours and moved on to a late lunch in Scaccia. The next day we were at the Selinunte site by 0900. What a glorious day—my camera was working overtime. We spent the afternoon driving up the coast to Marsala, Mozia, and Mazara del Vallo. Susan liked the Punic museum in Marsala. Mozia is a small island that was the original Phoenician settlement.
DESTINATION: Palermo via Monreale
HOTEL: Hotel Principe di Villafranca 168E This small boutique hotel in the “New City” section of Palermo is a real jewel; thanks to Jim Zurer for the tip. We like to end our trips in better hotels and this one is excellent. The location is a bit north for the major attractions but we compensated by taxiing to the far point of the day and then meandering back home. We really walked in Palermo—probably 4 to 5 miles daily—but we also got to see the real Palermo up close. Great hotel with amenities !
GOOD EATS: The hotel location caused us to eat at night in the New City area of Palermo near Piazza Castelnouvo. We enjoyed these places: Peppinos—a nice trattoria on the west side of the piazza. Trattoria Biondo—the best pizza we had on the trip—good salads too. Trattoria Shanghai—this funky place above the Vuccaria market is surreal.
COMMENTS: Palermo was better than we had anticipated. We never once felt intimidated as we walked the entire city. We were amazed at the upscale areas near our hotel and along via Liberta. This is a shopping area and café society that would rival Rome or Milan. Sure, Palermo has a seedy side, but we found the city to be a mostly typical European metro center. Of course we hit most of the usual major attractions such as Monreale, the Norman Palace, the Cathedral, Palazzo Arbetellis, etc. Susan, the history major, really loved the Archeological Museum. We got lucky at the Church of San Francesco and stumbled into a local wedding ceremony. We stayed for the entire happening and got some amazing pics to show for it. The fabulous mosaics at both Monreale and Capella Palatina are world class treasures and should not be missed. And we were duly impressed with the religious art at the Palazzo Arbetellis in the Kalsa area. So much to see ! I hope to compose a photo gallery on the worldisround.com site later, but let me know if you want a sneak preview.
Palermo is unique and well worth your time. I am glad we spent the time that we did. The taxi to the airport at 0530 was not much fun and cost us 49E at that time of day. The Auto Europa car drop was not hard to find, and I am really glad we decided not to drive in Palermo. Plan on at least 3 days to see Palermo well and read your friendly guide books for more details. ———————————————————–
SUMMARY AND OBSERVATIONS:
Sicily is unique and I am glad we had the chance to experience it in some detail. However, it may not be for everyone. Someone once said that Italy gets more intense the further south that you go, and that certainly applies to Sicily. Most American tourists see Sicily from a tour bus or a cruise ship and that may be very wise—for them. The independent traveler to Sicily needs to be an experienced and confident European travel veteran. The daily logistics of driving, navigating, parking, and communicating are just not as user friendly as other parts of Italy. Sicily can be intense but it is also spectacular. Just be sure you are well planned.
Sicily tourism is really all about the rich legacy of architecture, art, and antiquities left by the many invaders—the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, and the Normans. That legacy is concentrated in several key tourist locations from the Greek Theater in Taormina to the Roman mosaics at Piazza Armerina and the fabulous Norman Palace in Palermo. Each of these popular locations has the same problem—too many tourists at the same time. The rest of Sicily goes relatively undiscovered by the majority of travelers and yet yields a rich bounty for the senses. By all means, try to see Sicily when you can. Just give yourself enough time to do it justice, and do your homework.