Since our last four trips took us to the continents of South America (Peru), Africa (Egypt and Jordan), Asia (Indonesia) and Australia (Tasmania), we decided it was time to continue our exploration of Europe, so we tossed some necessities into our trusty carry-on bags and headed to Sicily. Sicily is like an onion, layered with remnants of civilizations from centuries of conquest and occupation. Architecture includes Greek temples, Roman villas, Arabian palaces and Norman castles. In more modern times, the Sicilians went for Baroque, embellishing their cities with vast quantities of stucco and paint.
We went to discover archaeological and architectural treasures but also to relax and celebrate la dolce vita - radiant sun, crystalline sea, fertile soil, lusty food and rivers of locally produced wine. We were not disappointed. Sicily forces you to slow down with its 3-5 hour afternoon siesta and leisurely pace. Even traffic in Palermo dwindles in the afternoon, and on Sunday afternoon you’d swear it was a ghost town.
We arrived in Palermo midday on Saturday and despite written directions from the hotel, proceeded to get lost and wander the streets in our rental car - a cartoonish mini-van that was smaller in length and width than most American sub-compacts. Palermitanos were unfailingly polite and helpful when we asked for directions and we eventually found our way to the Villa Igiea, which is located just north of central Palermo in Acquasanta on the Bay of Palermo.
The Villa Igiea is a former grand estate turned into a luxury hotel. It’s simply exquisite with high ceilings, art nouveau decoration in the public spaces and a well-landscaped garden overlooking a small marina and the bay. Our spacious junior suite was in a turret, which afforded us a wraparound balcony with expansive views and a lovely pentagonal sitting room complete with a brimming bowl of ripe fruit. The furnishings and fabrics were tasteful and elegant. Although there are fine hotels in central Palermo, we highly recommend staying at the Villa Igiea. Even in the worst rush hour traffic it never took more than 15 minutes to get to town and you really enjoy the tranquility of the setting after a day in the city. What better way to start the day than lingering over an abundant breakfast buffet in a fragrant garden overlooking the water and the bustling city in the distance.
After settling in, we hopped back in the car and drove to Monreale, southwest of town, to visit the cathedral and its cloisters. Monreale is high on a hill with views encompassing Palermo and the sea. Although the exterior of the cathedral is austere, the interior is a wonderland of mosaics overseen by the benevolent image of Christ Pantocrater above the altar. The cathedral was built around 1172 and the mosaics were added during the 12th -13th Centuries. We had spent only a few minutes admiring the church when a wedding party arrived to be married. After watching awhile, we decided it was a good time to explore the cloisters. Richly ornamented columns with detailed carving on the capitals frame the beautiful cloisters. You can also climb into the towers and enjoy a spectacular view. The wedding was over when we returned to the church but we only had about 15 minutes to explore before the next wedding party began filing in. At the time we thought that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to visit churches on a Saturday but in the course of the trip we realized that it’s never really a good time. Sicily’s churches are actively used for their intended purpose. There are masses in the mornings (all week not just Sunday), most churches close from about 12 or 1 until about 4 or 5, then the weddings start in the evenings all week long. It surprised us that none of the weddings we witnessed included a full mass.
Dinner hour begins around 8 p.m. Since we were jet lagged and didn’t want to embarrass ourselves by falling asleep in mid-bite at some restaurant, we just ordered room service, which we enjoyed with open shutters and a romantic view of the bay. The food was terrific, grilled vegetables with a drizzle of virgin olive oil, seafood risotto and penne.
The next morning we started with a visit to the Archeological Museum. It’s in a handsome old villa with a courtyard and gardens. What a treasure trove! There are cases and cases of Greek ceramics - the elegant Black-Figure and Red-Figure Attic pottery from the 6th C BC as well as Greek and Roman statuary and prehistoric objects from early civilizations. Rooms on the ground floor display artifacts from some of the ancient cities and temples that we would visit later on. Our favorite was the room with artwork from Selinunte (6th C BC). Powerful stone walls carved with mythological figures - Artemides and Athena, action-figure Hercules grasping an Amazon by her hair, Hera and Zeus in stately repose. The next room was crammed with Etruscan funerary urns - large, skillfully carved depositories of human remains.
Mass was still being served at the area churches so we decided it was a good time to visit another museum and walked over to the Palazzo Abatellis, one of the many restored 15th Century palazzos scattered throughout Palermo. The Galleria Regionale is hosted within, a small but quite fine Italian art collection. The sublime Annunziata by Antonello da Messina (1430-1479), a close-up of the Madonna, is worth the admission fee alone. In addition we particularly admired the 15th C fresco "Trionfo della Morte" (Triumph of Death) and another fresco from this era of Abraham with 3 Angels.
We passed through the Piazza Marina, where stalls from a crafts market buttressed the park in the center of the square, and spotted Santa Maria della Catena a boxy chapel overlooking the marina. After a quick look, we strolled down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele to the Quattro Canti, a round piazza famous for the baroque facades on the four buildings facing into it. Right around the corner, in the Piazza Pretoria, there’s a magnificent fountain that unfortunately for us was in the middle of being renovated, so it was largely covered behind a high wooden fence, though the workers had thoughtfully provided small windows where you could see exposed fragments. From what we could perceive, we wish we could have seen the whole thing. The square was quite nice as well with a municipal building of some kind where squads of dress-uniformed police milled around for some official occasion.
La Martorana, a church dating back to 1143, was open so we went inside. Once again, the plain exterior did not prepare us for the opulent interior. Every column, arch and wall was intricately patterned with paint and mosaics in sumptuous colors and dazzling gold. San Cataldo right next door could not feel more different with its Arab-influenced rose domes.
By this time we were ready for lunch and since many places were closed, we settled on Bellini, a trattoria/pizzeria in the same-named piazza near the churches. As we waited for our pizza, a large extended family gathered to celebrate the birthday of a teenaged girl, who passed all her fancy gifts around the table for everyone to admire. Buffalo mozzarella adds the most wonderful flavor to the pizza in Italy. After wandering around awhile and finding everything closed, we returned to the hotel to read, listen to music and enjoy the view from our balcony. We could have gotten a massage, taken a swim or played tennis if we’d been inclined. This time we booked a table at the hotel restaurant for dinner. The Sicilian specialties, setting and service were excellent and we didn’t even nod off once.
Next morning was our first taste of workday traffic in Palermo and it was not pretty. We headed straight for the Palazzo Reale to visit the Cappella Palatina only to find that the building was closed due to recent earthquake damage. This was hugely disappointing, as this was the one sight we most wanted to see in Palermo. We walked over to the Cathedral, a stunning structure composed of a hodge-podge of styles with a tall bell tower and ochre stone that glows in the early morning sunshine. A mass was in progress so most of the church was closed. We asked a janitor what time it would open and decided to return later.
We braved the vehicular traffic bottlenecking through the Porta Nuova on foot, stopping to check out the gigantic turbaned figures glowering down on the traffic from the front of the massive stone portal. San Giovanni degli Eremiti (St. John of the Hermits), an Arabian style church from 1136, lacks the ostentatious decoration of most churches in Palermo, but is very pleasing in its simplicity with its petite flowering courtyard and striking red domes. Its small chapel is adorned with crumbling frescos.
By the time we returned to the Cathedral, it had fully re-opened and we were able to explore at leisure. The Treasury was not as extravagant as some, though there was the requisite share of solid gold objects, richly embroidered vestments and crosses encrusted with precious gems. The crypt was well worth a look with interesting carved stone sarcophagi.
Next stop La Vucciria, a popular open-air market where we found stalls full of fresh fruit, vegetables, grains and spices. Fish vendors propped up swordfish heads, their disarmed swords pointing skyward, next to their meaty steaks and an old man shouted his wares as he wheeled a barrow full of slimy octopus down the narrow aisles.
The market street ended at the piazza San Domenico with its fountain and lovely church so we had a look inside. We spent some time trying to find the Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico, which is supposed to have Van Dyke’s Madonna of the Rosary, but we discovered that the shop where the custodian resides was closed for the day. We tried to visit the Oratorio di Santa Citta, which is renowned for its beautiful stucco figures by Giacomo Serpotta, for two days and always found it closed. It’s very difficult to find accurate opening times in Sicily and even when things are supposed to be open they are often not. An Italian school group came by, tried to get in and was surprised to find it closed also.
The restaurant we hoped to try for lunch was also closed so we tried a couple others on our list. All closed. It finally occurred to us that hotel restaurants are always open so we walked over to the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes and had lunch in their restaurant. The front desk staff seemed friendly and efficient and it had an attractive lobby. We weren’t impressed with the staff in the restaurant but the food was good enough.
After lunch we sat in the park in the Piazza Marina people-watching for awhile. A construction crew on the roof of a nearby building especially amused us. Though there were at least 5 men on the job, we never saw more than one working at a time, though occasionally one would hand something to another one. It reminded us of New Jersey road crews. We had been waiting for the re-opening hour of the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette, a delightful museum showcasing the ancient Sicilian tradition of puppetry. Sizeable wooden marionettes with detailed costumes were suspended from the ceiling grouped by their theme story. There’s a very popular knight hero named Rodrigo who was prominently featured.
We finished off the day with visits to some churches in the area, La Gancia, La Pieta and San Francesco with its handsome white rose window. We had asked our concierge at the hotel for a restaurant recommendation for dinner and he sent us off to an intimate place called Lo Scudeiro. The place was filled with locals and the staff was helpful. We enjoyed the meal more than lunch but it wasn’t even close to the best food we had on the trip.
The next morning we packed up the mini-minivan and set out for Segesta. We got turned around in the horrible traffic circles exiting town and stuck in rush hour traffic but once we got out of the city bounds, the highway was spacious and uncongested and the scenery was surprisingly lovely. The island is characterized by craggy volcanic hills sloping down to a clear, blue sea.
What remains of the ancient Greek town of Segesta is a well-preserved Doric temple from 430 BC standing tall in a rural landscape, a not-as-well-preserved theater and the ruins of various buildings. We decided to skip the bus that shuttles visitors from the temple to the theater and braved the long, steep climb up to the theater. The scenery along the way was inspiring.
From Segesta, we continued on our way through Trapani province to the spectacular medieval hillside town of Erice. We found our intimate hotel, the Elimo, easily. Our room was inexpensive and plain but large with great views. The air was crisp and clear at this altitude and cool despite the bright sunshine. We started at the Chiesa Matrice, a 14th C church near our hotel. The façade was handsome with gray stone and a tall adjacent bell tower, but the gothic interior was stunning, looking as if it were fashioned of delicately carved ivory.
We wound our way along the steep narrow streets admiring the quaint stone houses and cobbled lanes until we reached the main square and the Museo Comunale Cordici, a library with a small local collection. Our favorite piece was an eloquent marble statue of the Annunciation attributed to Antonello Gagini. We also stopped at Maria Grammatico, a pastry shop renowned for its marzipan. While this confection is a bit too sweet for our taste buds, it was beautiful to behold.
We strolled through the lovely gardens to the 12th C castle and towers built high on a precipice over the ruins of a temple to Venus. The views extended over fertile farmlands and stark white salt flats down the coast towards Marsala. By the time we made our way back to the main square we were hungry so we snaked through narrow alleys to the Ristorante Monte San Giuliano. It’s a charming place patronized by locals and tourists and the food was wonderful. The first course, a rollup of eggplant, mozzarella and tomato sauce literally melted in your mouth. When we finished lunch everything was still closed for the afternoon hiatus, so we returned to the hotel for a rest. The sky had clouded over and it was lightly precipitating so it was good timing.
The weather cleared by the time we were ready to continue our walk and we strolled along the old 8th - 6th C BC Punic walls to the church of St. Ursula, built in 1413. The town is very quiet in late afternoon when most of the day trippers are on their way back to their home base. By the end of the day, we’d covered the whole town on foot and watched a DVD of The Godfather in our room before washing up for dinner at the Moderno, another small hotel with a very fine restaurant. Aside from the family who owned the place, who dined at a big table at the far end, the rest of the patrons were tourists and residents at the hotel. The food and wine were both excellent and the waiter was sweet.
We got up early and had a quick breakfast before checking out and driving down south to the ruins at Selinunte. This site requires a lot more work to fully restore it and there were acres of ancient rubble as well as a few restored temples. Considering the magnificent artwork from Selinunte that we saw in Palermo, we expected more from the site. After our visit, we drove along the coast to Agrigento and our hotel, the Villa Athena. Agrigento has an attractive old town perched high on a hill overlooking the archeological area that sprawls between the town and the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times it had been a very prosperous and important port city with a thriving populace. Our hotel was smack in the middle of the Valley of the Temples with amazing views of the Temple of Concordia. Despite its prime location, this was our least favorite hotel of the trip. The room was small and dingy and we had to play ballerina on our toes for the promised temple view. The room was right next to the maids’ closet so cleaning supplies were continually blocking our entrance along with a heavy pall of smoke since the maids apparently took their smoke breaks in the closet.
At check-in the young woman behind the desk asked if we’d care to book a private tour of the ruins so we signed up for one later that afternoon. It was lunchtime so we crossed the road to the hotel restaurant. The service was slow and diffident but the food was good. Before our tour we drove to town to get some cash from an ATM machine - we found it was the most quick and efficient way to get cash throughout the trip and there were ATMs in every town that accepted our card.
Our guide, Giovanna, was a native of the area and well-versed in archaeology and history. It was worth taking the tour - we learned far more than we would have on our own with the materials we had. The Greek temples at Agrigento are stunning, the best in the country. Giovanna pointed out the perfect classical structure of the Temple of Concordia (430 BC) and the arches of a church that had been built inside it during a later period. She told us about the history, economy and agriculture of the area. She even told us about the special treasures in the archaeological museum though the museum was not included in our tour. We visited the temples of Hera and Hercules and saw the fragment of the temple of Castor and Pollux. There wasn’t much time to stop for photos, but that was all right because the sky had clouded over and the light was not very good. As soon as we hit the south, we were struck by the heat and humidity, so different from the balmy weather in Palermo and Trapani.
When we finished our long tour, Giovanna drove us to the archaeological museum and we were grateful for the air conditioning. This is a fabulous museum, chock full of fascinating objects and art. Among our favorite pieces was a 5th C marble statue of a man called the Ephebus of Agrigento. Strong and graceful, he marked the transition from static form to the suggestion of movement. Another powerful statue was the remains of a gigantic telemon from the temple of Olympian Zeus - a male figure that acts as a column to support a temple (female figures are called caryatids). The enormous temple is reduced to rubble but this figure survived almost intact, though its surface was eroded by time and weather. A small scale model of the temple illustrated where he would have stood.
We got a look at the rugged 13th C Church of St. Nicholas next to the museum but a wedding party soon arrived so we didn’t have much time. We walked back to our hotel, just down the road. We had booked a table at the hotel for dinner and you really have to do it once. Just once. Dinner is set in a pretty garden with a terrific view of the illuminated temples. We were also lucky to have a large and bright, though not quite full, moon. Service was abominable but the food was good and the atmosphere was lovely. It was a good thing we’d booked early because we had a prime table.
The next morning right after breakfast we took the trail from our hotel to the Temple of Concordia that Giovanna had shown us the previous day. The skies were bright blue and the light was sumptuous. We had time to take lots of photos before the tour groups began arriving from the far gates. We covered all of the area we had the day before, this time lingering for photos.
After enjoying the ruins, we hopped in our car and drove up to town. In the municipal parking lot, you buy one-hour-each scratch cards from a local concession stand, scratch off the time and date and leave them on your dashboard. Agrigento is a handsome hill town with a modern shopping street - via Atenea. The people here were the friendliest we encountered on the trip, twice men spoke with us on the street whom we had not approached. It was the only place where people asked us where we were from and seemed to show any interest at all.
We went to Santo Spirito first, a 13th C church with a convent that has been converted into a museum. The convent guide was a gregarious older woman who shepherded us around pointing out items of special interest. In addition to antiques, there was a room full of luminous modern paintings of Sicilian life and landscapes. The big treat in Agrigento, after the citizens, was the Chiesa di San Lorenzo (aka Chiesa del Purgatorio), a baroque masterpiece with Serpotta statues of women embodying the chief virtues - prudence, fortitude, charity and love - and over-the-top ornamentation. Poignant strains of classical music underscored the beauty of the church. After clambering up the steep, narrow streets around town admiring the architecture and views over the valley, we really needed something cold and refreshing so we were forced to indulge in gelato. (Here’s where you feel sorry for all the suffering we endure when we travel.) It was so rich and satisfying we just skipped lunch (more deprivation <audible sigh>).
Everything closed for siesta so we returned to the hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon cooling off at the hotel pool. The setting was nice, though it wasn’t the best-kept pool we’d ever seen. Despite the heat it was blessedly empty and peaceful. That evening we’d booked a table at Le Caprice - a totally charming restaurant. The setting was pretty with a duck pond and outdoor terrace and the staff was friendly and efficient. The food was wonderful. The antipasto buffet was overflowing with delicious local specialties including many different preparations of seafood and vegetables.
It was raining the next morning as we drove from Agrigento to Noto but the sun had already started to poke its face out of the clouds as we hunted around for parking in the old historical center of town. Noto is baroque architecture run amok. In addition to all the churches and municipal buildings, there are scores of crumbling old palaces in various stages of restoration, some real treasures. The finest is the Palazzo Nicolaci with its splendid balconies encrusted with fanciful carvings of real and imaginary creatures. The dome of the reputedly lovely cathedral had collapsed awhile ago and the entire building was enshrouded in scaffolding and wooden panels while it’s being repaired. The shattered dome, like a moon on the wane, was visible above the construction. We also climbed the tower of Chiesa San Carlo for a view over the terracotta-tiled rooftops.
We grabbed an outdoor table at a trattoria near the main square and enjoyed a simple salad and good cheese ravioli. The setting would have been more pleasant without the aggressive flies that buzzed us throughout the meal. The roads were nice and empty as we continued our journey to Siracusa. We booked a hotel on the island of Ortygia, the ancient heart of town connected to the rest of the city by a short bridge. This is where Archimedes took his momentous bath.
The ruins of a Greek temple to Apollo are visible as soon as you cross the bridge. The turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea lapped against the small vessels moored there. The Grand Hotel di Siracusa is situated on the harbor with lovely views of the sea and the small marina at the tip of the island. The hotel, recently renovated in high style, was a great pleasure, particularly after our last horrid hotel. The staff was helpful and pleasant and we stayed in a beautifully decorated duplex junior suite with tall windows framing the sea view.
We took advantage of the empty streets while everything was still closed to explore the island. Along the way we discovered the elegant Fountain of Diana in the Piazza Archimedes and got some great photos in the gorgeous Piazza del Duomo, which is often mobbed with tourists. The Duomo was built in the 7th C AD on top of an ancient temple to Athena. When we returned later in the day, we found the interior to be as marvelous as the exterior. Many handsome buildings line the square as well as several outdoor cafes. We continued on to the Fonte Aretusa, a freshwater spring that is now surrounded by a seaside park, open-air cafes and an aquarium. There’s an imposing old fort, Castello Maniace, at the tip of the island, but you can only view it at a distance because it is still employed by the military. We took a detour to find the 14th C Palazzo Montalto. Though only a shell of the original building still stands, the attractive gothic windows are intact and worth a look. The whole island was fun to walk around and had surprisingly swanky shops considering the location. That evening we tried Archimede for dinner, a place recommended in lots of guidebooks. The staff was brusque and the food was just so-so. We’d skip it next time.
Breakfast at the Grand Hotel is served on the rooftop with a wraparound outdoor terrace. The view, along with the pleasure of having breakfast al fresco, compensated for the mediocre breakfast. It was a beautiful day and we decided to walk into town to the archeological area. Crossing the bridge from Ortygia onto the Corso Umberto I, we were struck by the prettiness of the avenue, lined with pink and white flowering trees.
We headed for the Paolo Orsi archeological museum first, arriving just at opening hour. The collection is housed in a round, modern building with the exhibits arranged in chronological order. The vast array of objects was overwhelming, though we felt that they might have eliminated some shards (there were so many) and some pieces that were in very poor condition. Still, there were extremely interesting pieces including pottery in shapes we’d never previously encountered. One of the centerpieces of the museum is a small but exquisite bronze horse.
The Catacombs of San Giovanni (4th-5th C AD) were right next door to the museum so we popped in for a tour. They were fascinating and the guide pointed out the spartan cubbyholes for the commoners and the more spacious accommodations for the rich and famous. Colorful murals and stone carvings decorated this underground necropolis.
The Neapolis is the archeological area where you can find Greek, Roman and medieval ruins as well as some interesting landscape. There’s a large fairly well preserved Greek theater as well as a Roman theater that is still used for live performances. Tucked away in an old quarry is the Orecchio di Dionisio, a cavern shaped like a giant ear.
We walked back to Ortygia and had a delicious fish lunch at Darsena a popular trattoria for locals and tourists on the wharf. It was too hot to wander around afterwards, so we relaxed in our room until early evening then visited the Palazzo Bellomo, a Catalan-Gothic mansion built around the 13th C. The building alone was worth seeing, with its lovely inner courtyard and galleries on the second floor.
The collection was also superb, though often suffering from damage. We spent a good deal of time admiring a dramatic Caravaggio painting of the Burial of St. Lucy and a beatific Annunciation by da Messina.
That evening we dined at Junico a Rutta e Ciauli, a short drive away on a cliff overhanging the sea. The romance of the place seduced us instantly as we sat down at an intimate candlelit table on the outside terrace with views of the sea and a brilliant full moon. Our waiter could have charmed the snakes off the Medusa. The meal was excellent, the antipasto was second only to Le Caprice’s, and we were glad that we took our waiter’s suggestion and shared the special salad of the evening. He also recommended a terrific Sicilian red wine, Bennoto, that we continued to order throughout the trip.
Mid-morning the next day we drove out of town to see the Castello Eurialo, the remains of a huge fort that protected Siracusa during the Greek era. It’s an impressive sight with its moats and massive walls even in its current state, dilapidated and overgrown with weeds. You pass through some nice-looking hilly countryside and small villages on the way to the castle.
We had already covered all the sights we most wanted to see in the area so we decided it was an ideal day to drive out to the Agricolo Limoneto, a farm we’d read about that serves lunches prepared with fresh locally grown ingredients. As we found out, many small farms in Sicily set themselves up for "Agriturismo" - providing rustic accommodations and home-cooked meals. It’s a good thing they posted signs all along the way because the farm was off the beaten path. We arrived a bit early for lunch and strolled through fragrant groves of lemon and olive trees on the farm, continuing down the road past several large private properties.
The light and airy dining room filled up completely with locals out for Sunday lunch - old, young, couples, families - we were the only non-Italians. There was only one waiter and he bustled around energetically maintaining a patient and pleasant demeanor. We ordered water and the house wine then the food just kept coming. We started off with cheese, olives and mortadella, followed by a luscious slice of a pastry wrapped egg and vegetable dish. Next came penne and then another pasta, both wonderful. The main course was a tender and tasty grilled steak with vegetables. 3 hours later we finished up with cannoli and espresso. Mercifully smoking was prohibited in the dining room.
Totally satisfied we drove back to town and took a walk around the island to work off a few pieces of pasta. We didn’t bother with supper.
We took the long route to Taormina, circumnavigating the broad base of Mt. Etna and visiting the small towns in its formidable shadow. We lucked out with perfect weather and clear unobstructed views of the volcano. Etna is not one of those neat, perfect cones; it sprawls asymmetrically for miles. We easily found the ruins of Roman baths in Misterbianco but, despite directions from locals, could not find Santa Marie delle Grazie, until a kind policewoman in a cruiser invited us to follow her there. It was worth the trouble. The 18th C church was lovely inside and out, with elegant cream and gold décor. Paterno was the biggest surprise. We’d come to see the austere tower built by Roger II in 1072 and discovered a handsome town with lots to see, including an ornate but exquisite church dedicated to Santa Barbara. Roger’s tower was high on a hill accompanied by an old church, cloister and cemetery. The views of Mt. Etna and the surrounding valley were breathtaking.
We rolled into Adrano and parked on the tree-lined boulevard that led up to the monumental 11th C Castello Normanno. We climbed the steps of the castle to visit the archeological museum inside but the door was locked. As we were leaving, a couple of schoolgirls came along and rang the bell for us only to find that it was closed for the day. We consoled ourselves by sharing a cone of sinfully delicious pistachio gelato from a shop conveniently located near the castle. High quality pistachios are cultivated in Sicily and the gelato captured the essence of the nuts. We wandered around awhile before continuing to our next stop, the Ponte Saraceno. Though it’s believed that the Romans built the bridge, the Saracens are credited with it. It took us awhile to identify the road to the bridge, which is a rough dirt track that winds down to the bed of the River Simeto. The bridge is short but very appealing with multi-color stone shaped into attractive pointed arches.
After our brief detour to the bridge, we hurried on to Bronte to visit the Castello di Nelson & Abbazia di Maniale (castle and abbey) only to arrive just as they closed for a three-hour break. The custodian wouldn’t even let us take a couple of exterior shots. The buildings looked very interesting but we weren’t willing to wait for hours so we drove straight to Randazzo.
We parked near Santa Maria, a striking church built in the 13th C of gray volcanic rock, and had a look at the exterior. We decided to hunt down some lunch and followed signs to San Giorgio di Il Drago (St. George of the Dragon) where we enjoyed a fine, leisurely meal. Though there had been barely wisps of clouds all morning, it was drizzling when we left the restaurant so we figured it was a good time to do something indoors and entered a small and only marginally interesting archaeological museum. The sun was already breaking through the clouds when we arrived at the Chiesa San Martino a 17th C church with a mismatched 13th-14th C campanile. We returned to see the interior of Santa Maria before hitting the road again.
We arrived in Taormina in the late afternoon and struggled through the narrow tourist-clogged streets to our hotel. Despite the fact that Taormina is undeniably the biggest tourist trap in Sicily and is overrun with cruise ship traffic and trashy souvenir shops, it remains phenomenally gorgeous. The panorama of craggy cliffs, placid sea, and temperamental Mt. Etna is irresistible. Like many Italian towns, Taormina, due to consistency of architecture and a deep-seated esthetic, manages to be postcard pretty without seeming precious or theme-parkish.
We stayed at the San Domenico Palace Hotel, a former Dominican monastery. We have to admit that the room was disappointing, small and tired-looking, but we had a balcony overlooking an extraordinary vista of the gardens, the town, the Ionian Sea and Mt. Etna. The public spaces were attractive with priceless art and antiques throughout, the gardens were lush and the concierges were outstanding - helpful and friendly. The second time we approached the female concierge for our room key, she already knew us by name and was grabbing the key before we could spit out the room number. We had plenty of time in Taormina, so we signed up for a tour of the hotel the following morning, which is only offered to guests. It was well worth it. You see rooms that are normally closed and get a wonderful overview of the history and art of the place.
Our first evening, we didn’t make a dinner reservation, figuring we could probably get a table without one. The main street, lined with brightly lit shops and kiosks, had a lively atmosphere with a steady stream of foot traffic. We ended up at Nautilus, an upscale restaurant with a rooftop garden sheltered beneath a canvas roof. The food was nouveau and very good, though somewhat overpriced.
The clientele was strictly tourist and despite the open air the cigarette smoke was disturbing. Amazingly it was the first time on the trip we were bothered by smoking during a meal considering that most of the time we were dining with locals and that many Italians smoke.
The next morning we woke up early and quietly slipped out to have a look around. This is when you can capture what Taormina must have been like before the hordes descended. The streets were empty except for locals heading out to work or setting up shop for the day. When we reached the remarkable Piazza di Nove Aprile, a painter was capturing the San Giuseppe church and a café employee was sweeping with a broom fashioned from tree branches. Tender light caressed the weathered stones of the clock tower in the square. Though we passed through the arch beneath the tower several times the day before, we never noticed the marvelous mosaic of an infant Jesus and the Madonna on the inner wall due to the obstruction of pedestrians throughout the day and evening. We greatly enjoyed the tranquility and the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the town and the rhythm of its inhabitants.
We just had time to wash up, change and grab some breakfast before our hotel tour. Breakfast was a bountiful buffet served on an open-air terrace, offering the best selection and quality since the Villa Igiea. After our tour, we went to see the "Greek" theater. Though Greeks built the original theater, the current incarnation reflects a Roman era remodeling. The setting is spectacular but Mt. Etna was cloaked in clouds so the famous view from the theater was less compelling.
The blocky Palazzo Corvaja, which has structural elements dating back to 600 AD but principal construction from 1400 AD, hosts the Museo d’Arte & Tradizioni Populari with an eclectic collection of traditional art and crafts. Our favorite piece was a small portrait of a man in peasant garb playing a Sicilian goatskin version of a bagpipe. There were also some creatively painted horse carts - an artistic tradition that is dying out - and a band of suspended marionettes. We visited the churches along the main square and hunted down the old roman wall. The duomo was hidden from view under construction, which was a shame since the Piazza del Duomo would have been pleasing with its cathedral unveiled. There’s a terrific fountain in this square featuring horses with fish tails spouting water.
We had lunch outdoors at Gambero Rosso, a family-run ristorante and pizzeria, sharing pizza and mouthwatering spinach cannelloni. We killed time during the siesta filling out postcards in the gardens at our hotel. Exotic flowers and fruit trees graced the gardens, which included a statue of a knight nonchalantly lounging as if he might spring up to rescue a damsel in distress at any moment.
Once things started opening again we visited the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, a very handsome 15th C building with a modern sculpture exhibit inside. Then we climbed up the steep streets leading to the Badia Vecchia. We’d read that the building was attractive and it was, similar in style to the Santo Stefano, with square gray stone towers trimmed in an intriguing black and white geometrically patterned border. The unexpected treat was a modestly sized but exceptionally fine collection of antiquities within. We especially liked the elegant Greek marble statues and an intricately carved sarcophagus. To top it off, admission was free and it was empty except for us. In the course of our wanderings we found a wine shop with a personable owner and grappa bottles in a variety of fantastic shapes. Our favorites were a Columbus-era sailing ship and a simple bottle with a cluster of glass grapes within.
We took a walk in the Villa Comunale, a well-landscaped park with knockout views. Just inside one entrance a bronze couple in business attire and angel’s wings alight on a bench. There’s an early submarine in the park along with more traditional statues. That evening we dressed up a bit for dinner in the hotel restaurant, Les Bouganvilles. A strong wind was whipping around so the outdoor terrace was closed and we were seated inside. Service was very professional and the food was top notch. We had an astounding pistachio ice cream that made the last one we tried seem artificially flavored.
The view of Mt. Etna the next morning was perfect and we watched the dawn unfold from our terrace, then lingered over breakfast. Despite our uncharacteristically slow pace we still arrived in Castelmola, a tiny berg high in the hills above Taormina, before any tour groups made the steep ascent. As you would expect, the views from here were even more expansive and jaw-dropping than from Taormina. A few old men were drinking espresso and conferring with their cronies in a café in the main square, otherwise it was pretty quiet. We visited a couple of churches and the ruins of an old castle, but the chief enjoyment here is navigating the narrow winding lanes and soaking in the local color. One small shop near the square displayed those cunning little wooden puppets, where the arms and legs are wired to a string between its legs. Yanking the string causes the arms and legs to jerk up in an amusing way. We couldn’t resist picking up a grinning Pinocchio. We beat our retreat just as other travelers began arriving. It looked as if the shops near the square were gearing up for the onslaught.
On our way down the mountain, we stopped at the beautiful Santuario della Madonna della Rocca. This was indisputably the most unusual church we encountered. Though mostly traditional with whitewashed walls and a bell tower, it was built around a rock and portions of the ceiling and walls were unadorned rock faces. It worked remarkably well, lending the church a mystical air.
We figured it was a good time to explore sights out of town so we drove through Naxos, stopping for a good look at the Isola Bella - a scenic spit of land with a popular swimming beach. We continued out into the country trying to find the Francavilla di Sicilia, a supposedly interesting castle near a river gorge. We saw a sign that we thought would lead us there and though the road quickly degenerated into a dirt track we remained confident, until it became clear that we’d never make it in the vehicle we were driving. There was no place to turn around so Stu had to cautiously reverse down this narrow dirt strip with deep ditches on each side. The farmer, who owned the property we were on, came out to see what was going on and provided some guidance until we found a place to turn around. We never did find that castle but we felt grateful to have made it out intact.
The Gole di Alcantara, a river gorge, was on our route so we stopped to investigate. It was very pretty and we climbed down to the river and hiked a short distance to see some unusual rock formations. It felt as if everyone else in Sicily was also down there doing the same thing - it was somewhat crowded. A tour group had donned waterproof gear and was clambering over the rocks in the river.
Not far from the gorge we saw a sign for an Agriturismo farm called San Cataldo. We had no other plans for lunch or for the rest of the day and based on our happy experience at Limoneto, we decided to take a chance. The single lane trail wound up the mountain and through bucolic wooded and cultivated landscape. Mercifully we didn’t run into any vehicles coming from the opposite direction. After miles of driving, we were beginning to wonder if this was such a smart idea after all, when we finally reached our destination. As we drove in, the farmer walked up to welcome us.
The farm was more picturesque than we imagined with tall stands of trees and a corral of stocky ponies. Despite the remote location, San Cataldo is well organized for travelers and offers comfortable rooms, horse riding and other activities. They even have a color brochure and a gift shop with locally made ceramic tableware.
We were the only visitors and the farmer pulled over some chairs and seated us at a wooden table on the porch. The view was stunning and if clouds had not moved in, we would have had an extraordinary perspective of Mt. Etna in the distance. It was a fixed menu so, as at Limoneto, we just ordered the house red and a bottle of water. The farmer delivered the first course, a mixed antipasto that included fresh sheep’s milk ricotta homemade at the farm. We are forever spoiled. We know we’ll be lusting after that ricotta for years to come. The farmer went off to do some chores and his wife served the rest of the meal. She ladled out generous servings of perfectly al dente pasta in a robust sauce made from homegrown tomatoes, grating a huge chunk of tangy parmigiano over our plates. The pasta was followed by tender and moist grilled pork chops with vegetables. The freshly baked bread had a perfect balance of crisp crust and chewy interior. We were relieved when she brought fruit for dessert rather than sweets, juicy local peaches bursting with flavor. The farmer’s wife was warm and lovely and we managed to communicate fairly well even with our broken Italian. We complimented her profusely on her cooking. This was not just our favorite meal of the trip, it is one of our most memorable experiences. We mused about how relaxing it would be to stay for a few days, doing nothing but taking an occasional hike around the countryside to build an appetite for those wonderful meals. We encountered a truck and a car on our way back to the main road but managed to squeeze by each other without incident.
We had a dinner reservation that evening at Il Granduca and fortunately it was late enough that we had a vestige of appetite by the time we arrived. It’s a nice room on the second floor overlooking the sea. The restaurant’s mellow ambience was overpowered by the boisterous revelry of a wedding party in a courtyard just below. The food was delicious though we couldn’t eat much.
We enjoyed our last wonderful breakfast of the trip and took the highway to Enna, a historic hill town in the center of the island. The highway was in great condition and it took no time to get there. Of course, due to the usual awful signage, it took quite some time to find our hotel, which we only found thanks to the kindness of a gas station attendant. The hotel was a depressing, modern place with adequate amenities but no soul. Our room wasn’t ready but we dropped our bags and drove off to Piazza Armerina to tour the Villa Roma del Casale, a 3rd-4th C Roman estate renowned for its extraordinary mosaic floors. Among the more typical animals, martial and mythological scenes, is an astonishing tableau of 10 young women exercising in what appears to be bikinis. They’re tossing balls and a discus and one is even toning her arms with small barbells. In addition to the marvelous mosaics, you can see the remains of the villa’s steam baths and the sophisticated plumbing that they employed. The walkways were clogged with enormous tour groups so at times we were held up, but we also got to eavesdrop on some of the narrative, though we had brought interpretive materials and were able to appreciate the elaborate scenes depicted on our own.
After the Villa, we continued southeast to Caltagirone, a town celebrated for its ceramics. We managed to miss the highway and were routed on a smaller, more rural route. It turned out to be a fortunate mistake, the road was in good shape, was devoid of traffic, and revealed some very appealing scenery. We were surprised how much the volcanic ridges reminded us of the jagged peaks in Kauai or the Tahitian islands, though perhaps we should have expected it.
We parked next to the Villa Comunale, a large park decorated with ceramic tiles and murals. We soon discovered that the entire town proudly displays samples of its famous craftsmanship. We were close to the Museum of Ceramics so we went in and browsed through the showcases. The museum features ancient works as well as the more modern, recognizable style, establishing Caltagirone as an important center of ceramic production for many centuries.
We stopped in the tourist center for a map and some dining advice and headed to a restaurant nearby for an unremarkable but decent meal. After lunch we found the scala di Santa Maria del Monte; each step is decorated with ceramic tiles. There are a bunch of ceramic shops on either side of the stairway, which we checked out on our way up and back down. Though the overall style is common, each artist uses his or her own unique designs. It’s clear that these are hand-painted, not mass-produced from a factory down the road. In the course of our wanderings, we found an old municipal style building with an excellent array of ceramics - some featuring the images of knights and other apparent VIPs. One of the most beautiful and dramatic ceramic murals we found was on the side of a church depicting a white-bearded man wearing a hooded cloak standing in a small boat on stormy seas with a young woman at his feet. The colors and imagery were outstanding. Between the architecture and the ceramics, Caltagirone is uncommonly attractive and we were glad that we had time to visit.
By the time we got back to Enna, siesta was over and the sun was settling down for the night. We started at the cathedral, another one where the astonishing interior is not telegraphed by the plain exterior. There were so many fascinating details, including a magnificent wood ceiling and a pair of extraordinary bronze doors. We were too late to visit the castle but we made it on time to the Museo Alessi. There were many objects to admire, including a dazzling bejeweled gold crown and an ancient coin collection that featured some exceptional finds.
When we’d exhausted our options, we realized that it was still at least an hour before dinner would be served anywhere. We were too cold to wander around for so long and since our hotel was down the mountain, we called it a night, picked up a picnic of cheese and fruit from local vendors and took it back to our hotel.
Breakfast at the hotel was not worth considering and we didn’t want to get entangled in the horrendous traffic crawling up to town, so we hopped on the highway headed for Cefalu. It only took us an hour and we arrived at the Baia del Capitano in time to have breakfast there. It was poor but we didn’t need much. In retrospect, if we were planning this again, we’d visit Cefalu as a day trip from Palermo rather than staying there.
We drove into town and headed straight for the duomo, built from 1131-1240. The glorious mosaics inside evoked those of Monreale, including an inspiring image of Christ Pantocrater above the altar. Since breakfast was so sparse, we felt justified in checking the quality of the coffee gelato from the Bar Duomo in a corner of the square. We’re pleased to report that it satisfied the high standards of our rigorous inspection. However, we did feel compelled to inspect it again the following day just to verify consistency.
The Museo Mandralisca, named for the prominent family whose former home is now on display, was nearby, so we went in. The most notable piece was a lovely Da Messina painting. The owner also fancied himself a naturalist and there were rooms full of delicate seashells in near pristine condition, as well as a room full of stuffed birds that we decided to skip.
Cefalu sprawls from the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the base of a giant rock outcropping unimaginatively dubbed La Rocca. It reminded us a little of Stanley in Tasmania (geologically, not the town). In addition to Greek ruins, there is a 12th - 13th C fortress at the top of the rock. We had lots of time after exploring what seemed to be the most interesting parts of town, so we decided to scale La Rocca. It was a vigorous climb rewarded by sensational views. Cefalu really is attractive, especially when viewed from above, at a distance from the tourist frou-frou. There were good trails up there and we enjoyed the scenery and a long walk around the perimeter.
Around lunchtime we descended to look for some of the restaurants on our suggested list. We were enticed by the menu at La Brace and gave it a try. We greatly enjoyed the lunch, which included a delicious antipasto and the best stewed rabbit I’ve ever eaten washed down with Bennoto wine. After lunch we thought we’d take advantage of our location and go to the beach. Our hotel boasted a private beach, which we interpreted as one actually at the hotel. Turned out you walk down the road and there’s a tiny strip of sand staked out for hotel guests. You can rent a lounge chair but no towels. There was so much seaweed in the water that we were dripping with it after taking a quick dip. It was nice sitting and reading by the sea for awhile, but it wasn’t quite as ideal as we’d envisioned.
We drove back to town for dinner at La Botte. It appeared to be family run and the staff was congenial. The place was so packed they had to turn people away so we were lucky to have a reservation. We had overindulged a bit at lunch so we had a light dinner.
On our final day in Sicily we had planned to spend the morning at the beach and take our time driving to Palermo to catch our evening flight. We weren’t interested in returning to the beach, so we drove into town early and enjoyed a sparse but greatly enjoyable breakfast in the Piazza del Duomo. We returned to the hotel to check out then drove up the mountain to the Sanctuario di Gibilmanna, a 6th century church and monastery which is still occupied by pious monks seeking solitude for prayer and quiet reflection. It was no surprise that a wedding was in progress in the church when we arrived, so we walked over to the museum on the premises. We were glad we ended up visiting this place because the buildings were handsome and the museum was worth a special trip. There were liturgical objects as well as everyday implements such as antique horse wagons and farming tools. There was a very fine marble statue of the Pieta and some interesting paintings. The collection was intelligently laid out and we enjoyed tableaux such as a recreation of a monk’s study with antique writing desk and articles such as his plain brown robe and simple rosary.
After our visit we decided to drive on to Palermo to find a place for lunch so we’d have a shorter drive to the airport after eating. We ended up going back to the Villa Igiea since we knew the setting would be peaceful and the food good. The concierge remembered us and greeted us as if we’d never left. Our flight to Milano was delayed but we didn’t care. We had arranged to overnight at a clean and functional hotel near Malpensa airport to make it easy to catch our morning flight home. It was a relaxing and fun trip but we were ready to come home.