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Sicily/Tuscany Part 1: “Crossroads of Sicily” Package Tour

SmarterTravel

Author: Carolyn Boyle
Date of Trip: April 2014

This is the first part of a two-part review describing our experiences with an 8-night “Crossroads of Sicily” package tour followed by a 7-night independent tour of Tuscany. Normally, my husband and I travel independently; this was our first experience with an off-the-shelf group tour. (Our only other experience with group travel was a highly-customized bus tour of eastern China organized by a neighbor’s brother.)

Overall, we felt that the Sicily package was a convenient way to visit a number of cultural and archaeological sites. However, we felt constrained by the strict schedule and limited time at the sites. Although we are glad we took the Sicily tour, we preferred our time in Tuscany, where we could set our own pace and choose which sights to see.

CITIES VISITED (Part 1)

Palermo, Monreale, Segesta, Erice, Cefalu, Agrigento, Catania, Mount Etna, Siracusa, Taormina

ABOUT US

John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times.

On this trip, we were joined by our college friends, Robert and Mary (also New Orleans natives), who live in Virginia. All four of us had made a port call to Messina during a cruise in 2012 and taken a shore excursion to Mount Etna and Taormina. On the mainland of Italy, we have all visited Rome, Venice, the Amalfi Coast and Portofino; John and I have also visited Naples, Florence and Pisa.

We have traveled extensively worldwide and enjoy both land tours and cruises; often our trips combine the two. On cruises, we prefer DIY port tours, private tours with other CruiseCritic.com roll call members or shared public tours. We favor nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.

RESOURCES

Those of you who are not familiar with the dining experience in Italy and/or do not speak much Italian may find the information on the following web sites helpful.

Restaurants in Italy: Complete Guide to Etiquette, Ordering, and Tipping
www.fodors.com/news/story_3483.html

Italian Language Lessons: Going Out for Dinner
www.slowtrav.com/italy/language/lessons/restaurants.htm

Budget Travel: Italy Menu Decoder
btsrv.budgettravel.com/bt-srv/misc/0812_ItalyDecoder/italy_menu_decoder.pdf

REVIEW OF THE TRIP (Part 1)

FRIDAY 04/25/14 Day 0: Overnight Flight to Palermo

Although John and I booked the land portion of the “Crossroads of Sicily” package tour through Collette Vacations (using Marriott Vacation Club Points), we all arranged our own flights through Orbitz on Alitalia from RIC-JFK-FCO-PMO and from FCO-JFK-RIC.

The flight from RIC-JFK was operated by Delta, and we encountered our first glitch at the check-in counter. Mary was told that she and Robert did not have tickets for the first leg. In some sort of computer mix-up, Orbitz had created two different itineraries for them. Fortunately, we had allowed plenty of time before the flight and the Delta ticket agent was able to straighten out the confusion.

At RIC, we were given Delta boarding passes for all three legs of the journey. Both couples had had difficulty making seat assignments, whether dealing with Orbitz, Delta or Alitalia. When we checked the boarding passes, some of the seats were as requested and others were not. We had all tried to choose seats near the front of the plane for the JFK-FCO leg in order to maximize the time available to change terminals at FCO. However, John and I had been moved to the back of the plane for that leg. The RIC Delta agent could not move us because that flight was operated by Alitalia; we would have to talk to an Alitalia agent at JFK.

At JFK, John and I got new seat assignments and were issued new Alitalia boarding passes for the JFK-FCO and FCO-PMO legs. As we waited in the long security line, an Alitalia agent noticed that Robert and Mary had Delta boarding passes. They were sent back to the Alitalia counter to receive Alitalia boarding passes. At least the Alitalia agent allowed them to rejoin the security line at the same point once they had the new passes.

SATURDAY 04/26/14 Day 1: Palermo, Italy

At FCO we were happy to confirm that it is possible to walk from the gates in International Terminal #3 to the gates in Domestic Terminal #1 without exiting the secure area and without having to claim baggage and go through a customs inspection. There is a passport control checkpoint between the two terminals but we beat the crowd there and the lines were negligible.

Safely at the gate for the flight to PMO, we foolishly entertained the fantasy that all of the glitches were behind us. At PMO (www.gesap.it/index.php?sezione=1&lang=en), we spotted the Collette Tour Manager, Kathleen Reddington, and she checked us off on her list. Although we thought that our luggage would be on the carousel for international flights, she warned all of the tour group to wait in the domestic carousel area until all the baggage had come out. She said that if we went into the area with the international carousel, we would not be allowed to return to the domestic terminal carousel area if it turned out that our bags had ended up there.

Kathleen eventually was able to determine from airport personnel that all of the group’s luggage would be coming out on the international carousel, so she escorted all of us there. Now it was time for another glitch: Mary’s soft-sided bag had a huge gash in the front and along one of the zippers. Of course, the damage claims counter was back in the domestic carousel area, which we were restricted from re-entering. Kathleen was invaluable in getting us to the damage claims counter and serving as an intermediary between Mary and the Alitalia claims agent. (Kathleen would later purchase duct tape so that Robert could repair the bag well enough to endure the rest of the trip.) Once Mary was supplied with the stack of forms necessary to file a claim after returning home, we were able to pass quickly through customs and into the arrivals hall. We did not stop at an airport ATM because we still had a supply of Euros from our last visit to Europe and planned to obtain more during our stay in Palermo.

Collette Vacations offered transfers from PMO to our Palermo hotel for $50 pp. However, John had arranged a private transfer with Adriana Viaggi (www.adrianaviaggi.it) for four people with luggage for 38 EUR total. The driver was waiting as promised and we were soon on our way to the hotel. We hoped that, after the flight and baggage problems, our trip was now sufficiently pre-disastered that it would be smooth sailing from here on out; fate still had a couple of glitches in store for us though.

We spent the next four nights at the Centrale Palace Hotel (www.centralepalacehotel.com/eng/palermo-accommodation.html). This hotel is an elegant old building that is wonderfully located near the major attractions in town. The common rooms are almost palatial but the guest rooms are a little old fashioned and vary from one another. Our room had a great view of the street scene but that meant it was a little noisy at night. The included breakfast (served in the hotel’s Restaurant 1892) was really good and included a large variety of meats, cheeses, pastries, eggs, bacon, smoked salmon and stuff-your-own cannoli. Of course, nothing starts the day better than a cannolo! There was nice self-serve cappuccino machine that we used and available prosecco that we did not.

John and I find that getting some sun and exercise helps to reset our internal clocks and overcome jet lag. After checking in, picking up our orientation packets and dropping off our luggage in the room, we headed out to begin our exploration of Palermo (www.frommers.com/destinations/palermo). Saturday and Sunday afternoons would be the only free time for us to sight-see on our own in Palermo.

Turning toward the harbor as we exited the hotel, we walked less than a block along Via Vittorio Emanuele to its intersection with Via Maqueda, which is known as Quattro Canti (Four Corners). Each corner of the intersection features a monument with three tiers of statues. Horse-drawn carriage rides are on offer here.

From this landmark, we walked down Via Maqueda to the Teatro Massimo, which is the opera house setting for the climactic scenes of “The Godfather III.” From there, we angled over towards the Duomo, walking through interesting alleys, passing colorful street markets, and eventually reaching Via Vittorio Emanuele. The streets were crowded not only because of the weekend but also because Friday was a holiday (Liberation Day).

The Duomo (www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/palermo-duomo) is an interesting combination of architectural styles; it was scheduled to be on tomorrow’s city tour. In front of the Duomo was a giant cart decorated with roses and carrying a statue of St. Rosalia, the city’s patron; the cart is used to carry her relics through the city each year during the Festivo (July 14). We cut across the Villa Bonanno, a public park that separates the Duomo complex from the rear entrance of the Palazzo dei Normanni. The garden features tropical plants and statues of Sicilian patriots.

The main site we wanted to visit today was the Palazzo dei Normanni and the Cappella Palatina (www.fondazionefedericosecondo.it/en/norman-palace). It took some jostling to make our way to the ticket office and there was a little language barrier but we managed to secure two tickets for the entire complex (12.50 EUR pp, cash only). The huge Norman Palace was begun by the Arabs in the 11th century. It was continually added to over the centuries and eventually became the palace of the first Norman king, Roger II; the Sicilian parliament now meets here. The highlight of the palace is the Palatine Chapel, its walls and ceiling covered in an extravaganza of gilded mosaics in the Byzantine style depicting Biblical scenes. Characteristically for churches of this period, the apse above the main altar is dominated by a huge icon of Christ Pantocrator, a particular depiction of Christ as ruler of the universe. We were also impressed with the magnificent staircase (containing many fossilized shells) and the foundations of the palace, which are the ruins of a Punic fort.

Before retuning to the hotel, we tried to find another Palermitano highlight, Chiesa San Giovanni degli Eremiti, but our map was not clear about its location and we could not find it. We walked over to Via Vittorio Emanuele, through the Norman city gate (Porta Nuova) and back to the hotel, passing many shops and interesting buildings. Along the way, I was able to buy a Sicilian flag (my preferred souvenir).

Robert and Mary had chosen to rest a bit first and then walk around a little before tonight’s welcome dinner. Although they tried several ATMs near the hotel, their debit card would not work. When she learned of this, Kathleen offered to loan them some Euros until they could find a machine that would work with their card. Fortunately, they were able to obtain cash from an ATM with a different bank the next day. Apparently, their bank at home did not have a reciprocal agreement with the first bank they attempted to use. John and I did not have problems making withdrawals at any of the ATMs we tried.

Before going to dinner, there was a get-to-know-you meeting of the tour group, which consisted of 42 people. The group was mainly couples, one or both of whom were of Sicilian ancestry (John is 3/4 and Mary is 1/2 Sicilian). Most of the group had traveled previously with Collette Vacations to other destinations. Kathleen distributed a list of participants and information about traveling in Italy and encouraged us to bring any problems or questions to her without hesitation. She would set up a bulletin board in the hotel lobby with details on each day’s excursions, meeting times and other useful information.

The welcome dinner was held not far from the hotel at Trattoria del Buongustaio (www.trattoriadelbuongustaio.com). Our group was seated at small tables and shared traditional Sicilian appetizers: bruschetta, aracini (fried rice balls), crocche (fried mashed potato balls), fried cheese. We had a pasta course, a meat course of veal with artichokes, dessert and plenty of wine. The food was pretty good but it is always hard to accommodate a large group in a small restaurant.

SUNDAY 04/27/14 Day 2: Palermo – Monreale – Palermo

John and I had a good night’s sleep and felt reasonably normal this morning. However, Robert was starting to develop sinus problems (possibly from the dry air during the flight), which would plague him more or less for the rest of the trip. I had some problems with the automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke while in Sicily (Palermo and Catania).

After breakfast, we were bused to Monreale in the mountains about six miles southwest of Palermo. The main attraction there is the 12th-century Duomo, commissioned by William II, the grandson of Roger II. Legend holds that the Virgin Mary appeared to William in a dream and revealed a treasure, which he was instructed to use to build a church in her honor. The main entrance to the cathedral is a through a portico on the north side, which is flanked by two modern bronze statues: the Virgin Mary (left) and William II (right) offering a model of his cathedral to her.

As with many churches in Europe, the exterior of the cathedral (www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/monreale-cathedral) gives little clue to its magnificent interior. In this case the interior is a larger and more lavish version of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo. The walls are almost entirely covered in gilded mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible and many saints, including one of the earliest portrayals of Thomas a Becket (the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered by order of Henry II, the father-in-law of William II). The customary portrayal of Christ Pancrator looms above the main altar. Two other noteworthy mosaics show William II being crowned by Christ and offering a model of the cathedral to the Virgin Mary.

The cathedral was extremely crowded with tour groups and all visitors must leave during the celebration of the Mass. Because there are a number of Masses on Sunday, the throng was desperately competing to see as much as possible before we were expelled. Despite our local guide’s best efforts to position us for viewing the mosaics and other features, we could not see everything. Although we managed to squeeze over to the tombs of the Norman kings (William II and his father, William I), it was impossible to reach the royal tombs or the Baroque chapel on the opposite side of the sanctuary. That same area of the cathedral holds the urn with the heart of St. Louis King of France (Louis IX). The heart was left in Monreale when St. Louis’ funeral cortege stopped there on the way back from Tunisia, where he died during his second crusade. This would have been of interest to those of us from New Orleans, where St. Louis Cathedral is one of the city’s most notable landmarks.

After being shooed out at the beginning of Mass, we walked behind the cathedral to view the exterior of the apse. The stonework is made of light limestone and dark lava to create interlaced arch and circle designs. Finally, we admired the bronze doors by Bonanno Pisano, who also created doors for the Duomo in Pisa. Our tour of the cathedral was now over and we were given a brief period on our own for shopping or a bathroom break. John and I considered touring the cloister but decided that the crowds and lack of time made that not worth the extra expense.

Then it was back to Palermo for our “panoramic” (i.e., stay on the bus) tour of that city. We drove past many of the sights that we had viewed yesterday afternoon. This time, however, we had commentary and realized why we had trouble spotting San Giovanni degli Eremiti. The panoramic tour also included some areas near the waterfront that we had not visited yet. After the bus tour, those of us who wished could continue on a walking tour with the local guide.

The walking tour proceeded through Quattro Canti to Piazza Pretoria, Palermo’s most famous square. Although one side of the square is enclosed by the Palazzo Pretorio (City Hall) and another by Chiesa Santa Caterina, the fountain at the center of the square has neither a civic nor a religious theme. The so-called Fontana della Vergogna (Fountain of Shame) was originally intended for a Tuscan villa and is a riot of nude statues and mythological monsters. From here, it was back up Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Duomo. Mass was being celebrated at the Duomo, so visitors were restricted to a roped-off section at the entrance where our guide pointed out some of the main features. After visiting the Duomo, we walked over to the Teatro Massimo, where the tour ended.

By now it was well after 1 p. m., the closing time for most Palermitano tourist attractions on Sunday. It looked like it might rain, so we went back to the hotel for our umbrellas. Our hotel had assured Robert and Mary that the Palazzo dei Normanni was gong to be open this afternoon because of the holiday weekend (the hotel was wrong), so they headed off that way. Now that we knew where to find San Giovanni degli Eremiti, John and I went back there to get a couple of photos, stopping for some gelato along the way. The gardens are supposed to be quite lovely but everything was locked up tight.

After that, we returned to the Piazza Pretoria and walked between the City Hall and the Chiesa Santa Caterina to reach the Piazza Bellini. Although they were both closed, we saw two Norman churches built on the remains of a Roman wall: Chiesa San Cataldo, with rose-colored cupolas, and Chiesa della Martorana, with a Norman bell tower. We returned to Via Vittorio Emanuele and headed toward the port area (La Cala), with a slight detour to view another church, Chiesa San Francesco d’Assisi.

We walked around the Piazza Marina, the largest square in Palermo. This was a lively area, with many vendors. It had started to rain a little, so the vendors were quickly packing up and scattering. There is a park (Giardino Garibaldi) in the middle of the square. We thought some of the restaurants in this area might be prospects for dinner tonight, but nothing looked promising.

Next we headed over to the harbor side and passed the church of Santa Maria della Catena. At one time the harbor could be closed off with a chain (catena), which is displayed in the church. Like most other sights, this is closed on Sunday afternoon. We continued along the waterfront, eventually reaching Porta Felice, another of the old city gates. There is a public park (Terrazza a Mare) along the waterfront, with great views of the Bay of Palermo.

We returned to the hotel to collect Robert and Mary for dinner. Although Collect Vacations offers an optional tour ($75 pp) to Mondello Beach for dinner, we decided to go out on our own. The four of us shared a bottle of wine in the hotel bar before heading out to search for sustenance. Not many restaurants in Palermo are open, however, on Sunday night. Kathleen had worked with the hotel to develop a list of three nearby restaurants that were supposed to be open. The first one we tried was not open on Sunday night after all and the second, although currently empty, had all of its four tables reserved.

We checked out the menus of several establishments along Via Vittorio Emanuele and happened upon Le Delizie di Cagliostro (www.ledeliziedicagliostro.it). The 4-course prezzo fisso menu came in meat and seafood versions; John and I got those so we could try several dishes we had read about. The meat menu featured a mixed antipasto (bruschetta, caponata, fried cheese, arancini), “Pasta alla Norma,” sauteed pork cutlets and semifreddo. The seafood menu featured mussels, pasta con sarde, grilled swordfish and semifreddo. We were extremely pleased with the quality of the food and service. We even found a gem on the wine list: 2002 Cygnus cabernet/nero d’avolo blend for 25 euros. We knew this was serious juice when the waiter decanted it for us! It was a steal at this price and complemented the hearty food marvelously. The total cost for four people (including two bottles of wine and tip) was about 140 EUR.

MONDAY 04/28/14 Day 3: Palermo – Segesta – Erice – Palermo

This morning was designated as free time to explore Palermo on our own. However, most of us chose to take Collettte Vacations’ optional tour ($80 pp) to Segesta and Erice. I had investigated dong this tour on our own but the distance and time constraints made that impractical.

The ancient ruined city of Segesta (www.frommers.com/destinations/segesta, www.planetware.com/trapani/segesta-i-si-sg.htm#SEGE) is about 75 miles southwest of Palermo. The main feature of the Parco Archaeologico is the Tempio di Segesta (mid-5th century BCE), one of the best-preserved Doric temples in the world. The temple stands atop a small hill, surrounded on three sides by the deep Pispisa River gorge. It is a short but steep hike up the path from the parking lot to the temple, which could be a problem for those with mobility issues. At the top of the path the visitor is rewarded with a gorgeous view of the temple in a spectacular mountain setting. At this time of year, the fields around the temple are bursting with wildflowers. Although it is not possible to enter the temple, you can walk completely around it and admire it from many different perspectives.

There are also a theater and some other ruins at the site but we did not have enough time to visit those. It was back on the bus for the drive (about 25 miles) up an incredibly narrow, steep and winding road to the top of Mount Erice and the medieval walled city of Erice. The 2400+ foot elevation might afford fantastic views on other days but today started out foggy; it was also cold and windy on top of the mountain. I had a light sweater but John was in his shirt sleeves; we both wished we had brought something warmer and windproof.

The bus dropped us off outside city walls at the Porta Trapani. The tourist office there was closed, making me glad that I had brought my own map and list of sights (www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions-/erice-i-si-tpe.htm). Erice is shaped like a triangle, with its cobblestone streets branching away from Porta Trapani to the cathedral (left), Piazza Umberto I (center) and the Castle of Venus (right).

Our local guide took us first to the cathedral, Chiesa Matrice, and told us something of its history; the bell tower was originally erected in 1312 as a defensive tower. The church did not seem to be open for visiting. From the cathedral, we took some side streets over to Via Vittorio Emanuele, which leads to Piazza Umberto I. This piazza is Erice’s main square, surrounded by the town hall, library and municipal museum. After some more commentary by our guide, we were released to explore the town on our own.

Robert, Mary, John and I headed roughly east to the Viale Nunzio Nasi side of the triangle. During our tour of Erice, we passed many churches (there are reportedly 60 in the town); San Caldo and San Giovanni Battista were in this direction. Eventually we were rewarded with views of the medieval Castello Pepoli, which stands on the site of the ancient acropolis. This site appeared to be under renovation when we were there.

By the time we reached the town park (Giardino del Balio) on the south side of the triangle, some of the fog had cleared and we had good views of the countryside. From here, Robert and Mary took off on their own while John and I continued up to the Castello di Venere. This site was the location of an ancient Temple of Aphrodite. During the 11th/12th centuries, a Norman fortress was erected on the site, destroying most of the remains of the temple. The tour here is self-guided; there are a brochure in English and interpretive signs throughout the site. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit here. Tickets to the castle are 5 EUR pp but we choose the 6 EUR pp ticket that also includes entrance to the Museo Comunale A. Cordici.

We wandered back through the Giardino del Balio, along Via San Francisco and up Via Vittorio Emanuele back to Piazza Umberto I. The small Museo Comunale A. Cordici is not directly on the square; it is short distance away at the end of a side street. The highlight of the museum is a lovely marble head of Aphrodite (4th century BCE). There are also local finds from the Neolithic, Punic, Greek and Roman cultures, including jewelry, bronze statues, terracotta and marble sculptures.

We still had some free time, so we decided to seek out the Porta Carmine (near the Chiesa del Carmine), part of the old town wall that dates from about 1000 BCE. There is path here that leads downhill along the old walls, so we followed that for a while. However, we were getting short on time; we retraced our steps and walked back along the walls on Via Rabata. Although we had used nearly every minute of our free time, we were surprised that we were not the last people back to the bus. Everyone did return by the deadline, though, and this group was punctual throughout the entire eight days of the tour.

This afternoon, we were scheduled to visit Palazzo Conte Federico (www.contefederico.com/it/palazzo_proposte_eng.htm), one of the oldest buildings in Palermo (12th century). Robert was feeling too ill to join us, so he stayed at the hotel and went in search of some OTC sinus medicine. Countess Federico met us at the Via dei Biscottari entrance and led us into the atrium. (We later learned that the Piazza Conte Federico has been taken over by a Mafia motorcycle gang and that entrance cannot be used.) Count Frederico competes in rally racing and his antique race car was parked in an alcove off the atrium. Like many royal estates, the funds required to maintain the Palazzo are generated by offering public tours and hosting events like weddings. It also functions as a BnB.

The Countess took us on a tour of all the various rooms in the occupied part of the Palazzo. The rooms display many architectural styles and most have ornate tile floors and painted walls and ceilings. Of course, there are many antiques and portraits or other memorabilia of famous people (Garibaldi of course!) who have visited. However, this is also the Frederico family’s home and there are personal touches, such as CDs in the family room and driving trophies in the Count’s office. Among the more interesting rooms are the tower, which is one of the few remaining parts of the Punic-Roman city walls, and the old kitchen, which boasts a cylindrical vat (and matching colander) carved in the stone, wood-burning stove to keep water constantly boiling for pasta.

The tour ended in the Knights’ Hall (housing an interesting antique weapons collection) where we were offered an aperitif (prosecco, blood orange juice or water) and hors d’oeuvres. The hors d’oeuvres included typical Palermitano street food: arancini, crocche, panelle (chickpea fritters) and two kinds of sfincione (traditional Sicilian pizza).  Although the Countess did seem genuinely happy to show us her home, it must be trying to have strangers tromping through every day; the tour made me grateful for my much smaller, plainer and cozier home (and its paid-up mortgage and lower upkeep).

Before relaxing at the hotel before dinner, John and I decided to visit one more sight. From our room, we had been enjoying great views of the yellow and green majolica tiles covering the cupola of the Chiesa San Giuseppe dei Teatini, which is right across the street from our hotel. The church has an extravagant Baroque interior, with a frescoed ceiling, walls covered with polychrome marble and tons of stucco decoration. Unfortunately, this church needs a major cleaning: the ornate decorations are heavily blackened by candle smoke. Although we are accustomed to beggars outside of churches, this is the first time we have been pan-handled inside a church; a person minding the entrance to the crypt chased the woman out.

Dinner tonight was at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, Restaurant Ai Tetti. For appetizers we had eggplant Parmesan, zucchini gratin and olives marinated with oregano; this was followed by “Pasta alla Norma”. The meat course was breaded roasted veal served with stewed potatoes and mixed green salad. Dessert was a mousse made from blood oranges and ricotta. The food was good enough but nothing compared to what we had eaten at Le Delizie di Cagliostro. Wine was included with tonight’s meal but only one bottle was provided for our table of five; another table of seven was served three bottles. When we requested more wine, our waitress became flustered and hurried to consult with the manager. The manager explained that we could not have any more wine unless we paid extra for it (which John was prepared to do). However, not many other tables were drinking their wine and a few minutes later the manager brought us a half-bottle. Later John tried to order a full bottle but the manager brought us one at no charge. We were not trying to drink the restaurant dry but we do enjoy a couple of glasses of wine every day with dinner. This confusion over the amount of wine included with each meal was a definite black mark against Collette Vacations for us.

TUESDAY 04/29/14 Day 5: Palermo – Cefalù – Sicilian Countryside – Palermo

This morning Robert was still not feeling well and decided to spend today resting at the hotel. The rest of us boarded the bus for our trek to the seaside town of Cefalu, about 40 miles east of Palermo. Our first view of Cefalu (www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions-/cefalu-i-si-ce.htm) was impressive: the town and its twin-towered cathedral nestled at the base of a craggy promontory (La Rocca)

The bus dropped us off on the east side of Cefalu and our local guide escorted us to the Duomo square and into the cathedral. There are nice views along the coast from the sidewalk and several belvederes. According to legend, the cathedral (www.planetware.com/cefalu/cathedral-i-si-cecth.htm#I-SI-CECTHI) was built by Roger II in thanksgiving for surviving a violent storm off the coast near Cefalu. The cathedral has gilded mosaics similar to (but less extensive than) those in Palermo’s Cappella Palatina or Monreale’s Duomo. As usual, the most impressive mosaic is Christ Pantocrator in the apse. An unusual feature of this Christ is that His hair is blond (like the Normans), although His other features are those typical of Byzantine icons.

After the tour of the Duomo, we had free time to stroll up and down the two main streets of Cefalu. Because Easter was just a week earlier, many of the shops selling marzipan fruits also had displays featuring marzipan Paschal Lambs. On one street, we encountered a small truck loaded with produce (garlic was even tied to the side mirrors); it was stopping at each house to sell fresh vegetables. We found the Arabian public wash fountain on Via Vittorio Emanuele near the Chiesa San Biagio. We continued on and had some nice views of the fishing-port, complete with fishermen mending their hot-pink nets. Although we were tempted, we did not hike the trail to the top of La Rocca to see the Norman fortress there; however, one couple in our group did mange to make the climb.

When it was time to leave, we drove back towards Palermo, turning off the main highway near Bagheria and driving through the countryside to Case Varisco (www.agriturismocasevarisco.it). Cinzia Varisco welcomed us to the farm (run by her husband and his cousin) with a glass of prosecco and starters (bread with olive oil, fruit spreads, caponata, artichoke relish and zucchini relish).

Next Cinzia showed us the farm and described the various agricultural products made there. We stopped for a demonstration of how ricotta cheese is made from sheep’s milk; then we got to taste the freshly-made cheese. Now it was time for a hearty farm lunch! The antipasti were caponata, olives and stewed tripe, followed by “Pasta alla Norma”. The meat course was lamb cutlets with sausages and green salad. Wine was also served. Dessert was cannoli with lemoncello and good strong coffee. After lunch Cinzia showed us the farm’s small museum of old farm implements. Each person was presented with a bag of home-made cookies before we left for the drive back to Palermo.

After that very filling lunch, Mary, John and I were not in need of dinner. Robert was feeling better and decided to have a sandwich in the hotel bar, where we joined him and shared a bottle of wine.

WEDNESDAY 04/30/14 Day 6: Palermo – Agrigento – Catania

Today our base of operations was changed from Palermo to Catania. We would drive 80 miles across Sicily from its Tyrrhenian coast to its Mediterranean coast near Agrigento. From there, we would drive east for another 100 miles through the Erei Mountains to reach Catania on the Ionian coast. Although this was a lot of driving, the scenery was gorgeous; the rolling hills were ablaze with a rainbow of colorful wildflowers. Some of the hills were crowned with the remains of Roman watchtowers. It was hard to believe that most of the year those hillsides are covered in dry, brown grass. We definitely picked the right time of year for our visit!

To break up this long day of travel, we stopped to tour one of the main attractions of Sicily, the Valley of the Temples archaeological site (www.frommers.com/destinations/agrigento). Oddly, the temples are not located in a valley, they are atop a long ridge outside Agrigento. That location gives dramatic views of the temples as one approaches the city by road.

The archaeological site is divided into two sections. Our tour started at the highest point, at the entrance to the east section, so it was very easy to walk down the Via Sacra (Holy Road) that connects the temples. All of the temples were constructed in the Doric style and range in condition from fairly complete to mere piles of rubble. Also, it is not known to which gods/goddesses the temples were actually dedicated. Nevertheless, the number of temples in such proximity and the clifftop setting make this an extremely impressive site.

The first temple is the Temple of Hera/Juno, which has about 30 columns standing; some of those columns still have their capitals and the lintel connecting them. There is a great view of the whole site from here. Nearby, tombs from Roman and Christian times are carved in the rocks along the city wall; some can also be seen further on past the Temple of Concordia, off to the side of the Via Sacra.

Next comes the Temple of Concordia; it and the Temple of Hephaestos in Athens are considered the two best-preserved Greek temples in the world. There is a very old olive tree near the temple (estimated to be 500-660 years old) and a modern bronze statue of Icarus after he flew too close to the sun on his wax-and-feather wings and crashed to the ground. There are other modern sculptures scattered around the site. Farther along, we saw (through a fence) the Villa Aurea. This was the home of Sir Alexander Hardcastle, who funded the archeological excavations here in the early 20th century.

The oldest temple in the Valley, the Temple of Hercules (6th century BCE), is mostly ruined but was once nearly as large as the Temple of Olympean Zeus. Eight pillars are now standing, restored by Sir Alexander. This was the last temple we saw in this section of the park. As at the east entrance, the west entrance is crowded with vendors; there is also a restaurant. Some in our group elected to remain here for refreshments, while the rest of us followed our local guide across the street to see the other section of the park.

The main draw in the west section is the Temple of Olympean Zeus/Jupiter. Although this was the largest temple in the Valley, it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 15th century. Of particular interest is the giant telamon (male caryatid) lying on the ground. A better-preserved telamon is in the Museo Regionale Archeologico and a third was recently unearthed. With some effort, it is possible to spy the Temple of Castor and Pollux (actually made up of bits and pieces of various temples) further away. Today our local guide was exceptionally good and deserving of a tip; however, she was the only guide who slipped away quickly at the end of the tour before we were able to show our appreciation.

It was disappointing that we did not have time to see any of the other small ruins on the site or to visit the Museo Regionale Archeologico. However, stomachs were rumbling and it was time for a lunch break, which was not included in the tour today. This was the one time during the trip that I felt Kathleen failed us. We were a large group, we didn’t have a lot of time for lunch and one person in the group was keen to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. To accommodate all those needs, Kathleen chose Le Dune (www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g194662-d6653267-Reviews-Le_Dune-Agrigento_Province_of_Agrigento_Sicily.html), located on the beach of San Leone and advertised as a “ristorante – pizzeria – bar.” John and I did not want to eat a big lunch now and have a big supper later but Kathleen assured us that pizza would be available for a snack. When we arrived, however, there was no pizza and the menu was very limited. Service was also poor because the place was packed with school groups. John and I decided to share a lunch special (salad with bread and wine for 11 EUR); Robert and Mary did the same. We were pleased that we were not given any flack about sharing a dish. Also, the waiter brought a whole bottle of wine for the four of us and did not charge us anything extra (we had expected only one small glass of wine with each special). After lunch, we had some time to enjoy the beach and the swimmer had his chance to take a dip. Although this was not a horrible experience, I do think that Collette Vacations could have handled it much better; perhaps on long travel days lunch should be included so that arrangements for the group could be made in advance.

We would be spending the last four nights of the tour at the UNA Hotel Palace (www.unahotels.it/en/una_hotel_palace/catania_hotels.htm). This is a fairly modern place with a great location close to the main tourist attractions. There is an outstanding view of Mount Etna from the Etna Roof “a la carte” restaurant (you can go for photos without eating there). Unfortunately, our room reeked of cigarette smoke. The staff made an effort to deodorize it but there was always that lingering smell; we should have asked for another room. The staff was also slow to do things like replace plastic water cups and toiletry items (soap/shampoo). This was a little odd for such an upscale place. The buffet breakfast in the UNA Restaurant was excellent and included eggs, really good bacon and pastries. Overall we were pleased with the hotel but some things could have been better.

Tonight our group dinner was at the hotel’s UNA Restaurant. Dinner was less than impressive: the hotel was fairly skimpy on serving size and limited each diner to one small glass of wine. John and I both had the fish option: pasta with eggplant and swordfish as the first course and a fish roulade as the second course. The “Cassata Siciliana” for dessert was good. Maybe we should have had more to eat at lunch.

THU 05/01/14 Day 7: Catania – Mount Etna – Catania

Today was Labor Day, a holiday here and throughout much of Europe. Collette Vacations offered a guided walking tour of Catania in the morning and an optional ($65 pp) excursion to Mount Etna and lunch at the Murgo Winery (murgo.it) in the afternoon. Robert and Mary went that route and had a great time.

Because we would be missing the guided tour, John and I got up early to walk around for a while on our own. There are ruins of a Roman amphitheater in Piazza Stesicoro on Via Etna just a short distance from the hotel. The ruins are not very large although the amphitheater was once one of the largest of all Roman amphitheaters; most of the amphitheater was destroyed by lava, earthquakes and being used as a source of stone for the Duomo and other buildings. What remains is below street level; you can get a good view from above or descend to walk in the gladiator tunnels. Entrance down to the tunnels is free but the posted opening times bear little relation to reality. We managed to catch it open on another day.

Behind the ruins is the Church of Sant’Agata alla Fornace, which contains the furnace where the saint was allegedly martyred (other legends say she died in prison). St. Agatha is the patron saint of Catania; her intercession is credited with protecting the city during the infamous 1669 eruption of Mount Etna, during which lava flowed as far as Catania.

On the other side of the square is the Vincenzo Bellini Monument. The famous opera composer was born in Catania in 1801 and died young in 1835. He was celebrated in his own time and a number of his operas are still performed today. One of those operas is “Norma,” for which the ubiquitous “Pasta alla Norma” is named.

After this brief outing, it was back to the hotel. John and I wanted a more in-depth Etna experience than Collette Vacations was offering, so we had made our own arrangements for the “Etna Nature and Flavours” tour with Etna Tribe (www.etnatribe.it/en/excursion-etna-nature-and-flavours.php#excursion). This tour costs 55 EUR pp or 44 EUR pp if booked in advance online. Once the tour arrives at Rifugio Sapienza (and one can determine the weather conditions), participants can choose to take the cable car to 2500 m (30 EUR pp extra) or the cable car plus four-wheel drive bus to reach the top of the mountain at 3000 m (60 EUR pp extra). Of course, John and I were hoping for fine weather so that we could go all the way to the top. It is not every day that one can go to the top of the highest active volcano in Europe!

The excursion was outstanding. Our charming guide, Giulia, picked us up at the hotel slightly after the agreed time of 8:30 a. m. There were already an Italian couple and a Serbian couple in the car and we picked up a Dutch couple at a hotel a few blocks away; fortunately everyone spoke at least some English. As we drove up the west side of the volcano, our first photo stop was above the town of Nicolosi for a view of Monti Rossi. This was the large cone formed at the main eruptive vent of the 1669 eruption, which completely devastated Nicolosi. Next we saw some basalt lava flows and passed an abandoned hotel that was saved when lava from the 1983 eruption was diverted with explosives. Further along, we explored the remains of a small house that was not so lucky — it was engulfed by the lava almost to the eaves of its roof.

Finally we arrived as far up the mountain as private cars can go, Rifugio Sapienza (1910 m); this was where the Collete Vacations tour went. Two of the couples on our tour opted to explore the nearby nature trails and the Silvestri Craters (extinct cones form the 1892 eruption). However, we and the Dutch couple wanted to take advantage of the beautiful day and go as high as we could. Unfortunately, the cable car was not running due to high winds so we had to take a four-wheel drive bus up to the 2500 m level, Rifugio Torre del Filosofo. We took another four-wheel drive bus from there up to the 3000 m level. This was very near the top and on a hardened lava flow that had formed in December of 2013. An alpine guide is included in the cost of cable car and bus; we were lucky to find one who spoke some English and pointed out the major features of the summit and the current eruption for us. The sky was clear and the views were breathtaking. It was also quite windy and cold; we were glad that we had hats and gloves and a fleece shirt under our windproof jackets. After taking the bus back to the 2500 m level, we were happy to learn that the winds had diminished and the cable car was now operating to take us back to Rifugio Sapienza.

We returned to Catania via a different road on the south side of the volcano. Giulia stopped at a lava tube cave (Grotta dei Tre Livelli) from the eruption of 1792, where we donned helmets for a quick view. Although the lava tube extends about 1 km down into the valley, it is not possible to explore much of it without using ladders or ropes to navigate the changes in floor level. During our visit, we disturbed one of the cave’s residents, a bat.

The last stop was in the town of Zafferana Etnea at a honey producer (www.orodetna.it) in order to sample honey, olive oils, olives, wine, etc. All were quite good and we ended up with some black olives and a nice bottle of local red wine that had been aged in chestnut barrels. We had a great day on and around Mount Etna with EtnaTribe and Giulia. She is informative, concerned and has an excellent command of English. She also has an infectious and bubbly personality. She was happy to provide lots of local information and good dinner suggestions for us.

We returned to Catania around 3:00 p.m. and resumed our walking tour of the city. From the hotel it is a straight shot down Via Etna to the main tourist area. After the Piazza Sesicoro, the next square is the small one in front of a church with a baroque concave facade, Santa Maria della Consolazione (Collegiata); it was not open any of the times we passed by it.

The next square is Piazza Universita, often the site of political demonstrations. Today, however, there were a number of tents being set up and it seemed that preparations were being made for a benefit concert of some kind; we were never sure what the exact reason was for the festivities that would continue all weekend. Most of the buildings around the square are associated with the University of Catania. Passing through an archway connecting two of the buildings leads to the Piazza Duomo.

Catania’s most famous monument, the Fontana dell’Elefante, sits in the middle of the Piazza Duomo. The fountain is reminiscent of Bernini’s monument in Rome’s Piazza Minerva: an elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back. This elephant, however, is carved out of black lava from Mount Etna. In addition to the Duomo, the square is surrounded by the Palazzo degli Elefanti (now the town hall), the Museo Diocesano (Diocesan Museum) and the Badia di Sant’Agata (yet another church dedicated to St. Agatha and where she is buried). Via Etna exits the piazza through the Porta Uzeda, one of the few surviving city gates.

We walked around the square to the start of Via Garibaldi. Far down the street is a decorative triumphal arch originally built to celebrate a royal marriage. This street marks Garibaldi’s route into Catania prior to setting sail from here to the mainland during the struggle to unify Italy.

The Fountaina dell’Amenano is located on the south side of the Piazza del Duomo. It personifies the Amenano River as a young merman holding a cornucopia. Water cascades down from its top basin, suggesting a sheer veil; the Catanians called this effect “acqua a lenzuolo” (sheet water). The water from the fountain pours into the river, which is about two meters below the square.

Behind the fountain, there is a lava stone staircase that leads to Via Zappata Gemelli, the location of a series of outdoor markets. The first of these is the fish market. The dark lava rock archway that leads to the indoor section of the fish market is the Porta Carlo V, another of the city gates. We continued along until we found the Piazza dell’Indirizzo (near the meat section of the market) and the Chiesa Santa Maria dell’Indirizzo. This is not really the most picturesque section of Catania.

We were not particularly interested in the church. However, behind the church are the ancient Roman ruins of the Terme dell’Indirizzo. Only a few of the baths’ original black volcanic rock and terra-cotta brick vaults and arches are still intact. These ruins can only be viewed from the outside.

From the baths, we walked up Via Auteri and Via della Lettera to the Piazza San Francesco. The square is home to a contemporary-looking statue of Cardinal Dusmet, a 19th-century benefactor of Catania’s poor. Around the square are two museums (Museo Civico Belliniano and Museo Emilio Greco) and the Chiesa San Francesco Immacolata. We would have like to see the church’s six massive gilded candelabras that are used in the procession celebrating the Feast Day of St. Agatha (February 5). Although we passed by this church several times on different days, it was never open.

From the Piazza San Francesco, we headed west along Via Vittorio Emanuele II to what we considered the best attraction in Catania: the remarkably well-preserved Teatro Greco Romano (6 EUR pp). The Roman theater was built around 415 BCE on the ruins of an even earlier Greek theater. The theater is completely hemmed in by a 17th-century neighborhood; a black lava bridge that once supported a neighborhood street blocks part of the ruins. Some of the surrounding buildings incorporate parts of the theater. One of the houses has been turned into a museum and there are particularly good views of the theater from the house’s terrace. In addition to the tunnels and cavea (curved seating area), one can see the ducts used to funnel water into the lower section when it was used to reenact water battles. There is also an Odeon (a small theater for recitations and musical performances) but that is not currently open to the public. This is a very impressive site and we were surprised that there were so few visitors when we were there. Robert and Mary said that this theater was not even mentioned on their guided tour of Catania.

It is a straight shot downhill along Via Vittorio Emanuele II back to the Piazza Duomo. Before going there, we took a short detour along Via Crociferi, which leads uphill from Piazza San Francesco. This short street is packed with churches, convents and monasteries, all with baroque facades. Over the street closest to the square is a stone bridge, L’Arco San Benedetto, that was used by the cloistered nuns to travel from one side of the street to the other without being seen.

The Duomo (www.cattedralecatania.it/orarimesse.aspx) was begun in 1070 by Roger I and rebuilt after its destruction in the earthquake of 1693; of course it is dedicated to St. Agatha. The granite columns of the facade were saved from the rubble of the old cathedral; those columns had themselves been taken from the Roman amphitheater. The medieval apses, built from lava, survived the earthquake and can be seen from Via Vittorio Emanuele II.

The Duomo was intended to be Catania’s pantheon. The tombs of various Aragonese royalty are in the choir and some of the side chapels. Vincenzo Bellini’s remains were transferred to the cathedral in 1876. His tomb features a life-sized angel in marble and an inscription from his opera “Sonnambula” that translates as, “Ah, I didn’t think I’d see you wilt so soon, flower.”

To the right of the main altar is the Cappella di Sant’Agata, which is closed off by a wrought-iron fence. The chapel contains many relics of St. Agatha including her veil, which was used to invoke her intercession during the 1669 eruption. Another object of great veneration is the body of Blessed Cardinal Dusmet, which is on display under one of the side altars.

Near some of the columns along the aisles are openings in the floor from excavations carried out in the 1950s that illustrate how the current cathedral was rebuilt on the ruins of the earlier church. Also buried under the cathedral are the remains of the Terme Achillane, an Imperial Roman thermal spa. Part of those ruins are open to the public but not, unfortunately, on the day we visited.

The last stop on our walking tour was the Teatro Massimo Bellini, just east of Piazza Duomo. It is considered to be one of the grandest and richest opera houses in Europe. The Fontana dei Delfini (Fountain of the Dolphins) is in the piazza in front of the theater.

Before going out to dinner, we invited Robert and Mary our room to share the wine and olives we bought today at Oro d’Etna. Then, based on Giula’s and the Dutch couple’s recommendations, we went to dinner at the Etna Rosso Wine Bar (www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187886-d3472838-Reviews-Etna_Rosso_Wine_Bar-Sicily.html). This is an attractive restaurant and the food was not bad; the wine selection was very good. We started with bruschetta, then I had a risotto with mussels and clams followed by grilled shrimp; John had pasta with shrimp and zucchini followed by grilled mixed seafood. However, the service was spotty and the bill was not correct (although amended without difficulty). The total for four people with three bottles of wine and tip was 135 EUR.

FRIDAY 05/02/14 Day 8: Catania – Siracusa – Catania

Today we drove 40 miles south to Siracusa (www.frommers.com/destinations/syracuse-and-ortygia-island). Our destination was the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, which contains Siracusa’s most important Greek and Roman buildings. We met our local guide at the bustling flea market just across the street from the Archaeological Park.

First our guide stopped and talked (and talked and talked…) at the Ara di Lerone. This was a gigantic altar, said to be the longest altar ever built, where hundreds of animals could be sacrificed at once. The enormous stone base remains, along with a few pillars.

Next we visited the Teatro Greco, the largest in Sicily and reputedly one of the greatest theaters of the classical period. This was a bit of a disappointment because most of the cavea was covered by modern seating and the stage was covered while it was being prepared for a performance. It is still pretty impressive though.

Several quarries in this area provided the stone used to build ancient Siracusa; now the quarries are gardens. We went down into the most famous of these ancient quarries, Latomia del Paradiso. There is a cave in the quarry wall that is vaguely ear-shaped (if the ear belongs to a Vulcan). Caravaggio is supposedly responsible for naming it the “Ear of Dionysius,” not for the Greek god of wine but for the tyrant who supposedly used it a prison so that he could overhear his captives’ plotting. This is not a natural formation; the S-shaped 200 ft long tunnel is man-made — possibly to amplify sound from the adjacent Greek theater. Certainly it has excellent acoustics and it is popular for groups to sing (or yell) inside and listen to the reverberations.

The last sight was the Anfiteatro Romano, considered among the top five amphitheaters left by the Romans in Italy. After leaving the Archaeological Park, we had a tiny bit of free time before reboarding the bus. I had read that the amphitheater can be viewed from a belvedere on the road outside the park but John and I could not find this overlook.

Our next destination was Ortygia Island, which is home to the Duomo and other interesting sights. The bus dropped us off at the Ponte Nuovo; straight ahead a couple of blocks on Corso Umberto I is Piazza Pancali. In the middle of the square are the fenced-off ruins of the Tempio di Apollo. Heading down Corso Giacomo Matteotti, the next square is Piazza Archimede, with a baroque fountain in the center. Exiting this square on Via Roma and turning down Via Minerva takes you to the Piazza del Duomo. These three squares form the heart of the Old City.

The Siracusa Duomo (2 EUR pp) incorporates architectural elements from a temple dedicated to Athena that dates to the 5th century BCE; 26 of the temple’s columns are embedded in the walls of the cathedral. Those columns can be seen from Piazza Minerva on the outside of the Duomo as well as from inside the cathedral. One of the more interesting items in the Duomo is a font made from a Greek marble krater (large vase for mixing water and wine) and supported by by seven wrought-iron lions. One of the side chapels honors Santa Lucia, a native of the city and its patron saint. Her intercession is credited with a miracle in 1582 during a famine: a flotilla of grain-bearing ships were blown off course into the Siracusa harbor.

On another side of Piazza del Duomo sits Santa Lucia alla Badia, where St. Lucy was buried before her remains eventually found their way to Venice (among other places). The treasure of this small church is a large painting by Caravaggio, “The Burial of St Lucy”.

After checking out the Caravaggio, we bought some gelato and exited the Piazza del Duomo on Via Pompeo Picherali, which leads to Largo Aretusa. In a park there is the Fonte Aretusa. When the river god Alpheius pursued the sea nymph Arethusa, she transformed into this spring to escape. Alpheius then transformed himself into a river so that he could unite with his love. There is a statue near the fountain portraying the myth and the fountain’s basin is full of papyrus plants.

From the fountain, we walked along the waterfront until we reached the Castello Maniace. We would have liked to visit the fort but it was just closing when we arrived. We continued around along the waterfront and eventually returned to the center of the island, the Piazza Archimede. Archimedes was born in Siracusa and there is a nice little museum, the Arkimedeion, devoted to his discoveries and innovations. It seemed a little pricey (6 EUR pp) but we went anyway and were quite pleased. The exhibits were hands-on and well done. Math is not the easiest thing to make interesting for a general audience but this seemed well thought out. John and I are both professional scientists and enjoyed this change from the impressive churches and archaeological sites in Siracusa.

Before dinner tonight, we shared the bottle of wine that Robert and Mary had bought at Murgo Winery yesterday. We dined at Il Quarticciolo Ristorante (www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187888-d6643499-Reviews-Il_Quarticciolo-Catania_Province_of_Catania_Sicily.html), a tiny seafood place around the corner from our hotel. The first good sign was the display of fresh fish and seafood on ice at the entrance. The second good sign was the care taken in removing the bones from the whole fish dishes. When we arrived, there was only one other table occupied (by Brits). By the time we left, the place was hopping, filled almost entirely with local residents. The restaurant offered all the traditional Sicilian seafood dishes and the ones we tried were delicious. The caponata was outstanding and I was finally able to try “Sarde a Beccafico all Catanese,” two marinated sardines sandwiched together, breaded and deep fried. This restaurant was a wonderful discovery! The total for four people with three bottles of wine and tip was 140 EUR.

SATURDAY 05/03/14 Day 9: Catania – Taormina – Catania

Today we would travel about 30 miles north of Catania to Taormina, a resort town that is generally crammed with tourists; we had visited here during a port call at Messina on a cruise in 2012. Taormina (www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions-/taormina-i-si-ta.htm) sits on the slopes of Mount Tauro and has spectacular views of the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna. The main tourist area is along Corso Uberto I, between Porta Messina and Porta Catania, the two gates in the ancient city wall.

The bus dropped us off at the north city gate, Porta Messina, and our local guide led us along Corso Umberto to a little tree-covered piazza (Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, AKA Piazza Badia) at the corner of Via Teatro Greco. After an orientation talk, she took us to Taormina’s premier attraction, the Teatro Antico di Taormina, the second largest Greek theater in Sicily. Like the one in Siracusa, this theater is still used for performances but it is much more complete and better preserved. Also, the theater is sited so that the audience has a view of the sea and Mount Etna behind the stage. This is a spectacular setting but, alas, today Mount Etna was shrouded in clouds (as it was on our previous visit). The guide took us around the theater and gave a lot of explanation about it. From the higher parts of the theater there are excellent panoramic views of the coastline, the beach area and the small peninsula, Isola Bella (once a private “island” and now a nature reserve). This visit was brief compared to the one in 2012, when we explored the site on our own. If we had not been there before, I think we would have remained in the theater when the guide herded the rest of the group out and back to the small piazza. This was the end of the guiding for today and we now had a considerable amount of free time to explore Taormina on our own.

Across from the small piazza, which was the site of the ancient Roman agora, are the Chiesa di Santa Caterina and the Palazzo Corvaja, which houses the tourist office and the Museo Siciliano di Arte e Tradizioni Popolari. John and I did not visit the museum but inside the tourist office are some nice examples of traditional puppets and painted donkey carts. Right behind the Chiesa di Santa Caterina is the very small Roman Odeon, which we did visit (free). From the Odeon, we walked up to the next street running parallel to Corso Umberto; this was partially to avoid the crowds, partially for the better views from higher up and partially to see some of the residential areas of Taormina.

Eventually, we came to a staircase that leads down the large black-and-white tiled square, Piazza IX Aprile, which is in front of the Chiesa Sant’Agostino. This former church is now the Municipal Library. We spotted Robert and Mary in the piazza and got a nice photo of them from the top of the stairs. There is a railing along one side of this square with wonderful panoramic views. On the south side of the square is the Clock Tower; Corso Umberto passes through an archway in the tower. On the fourth side of the square is the Chiesa San Giuseppe. We visited this small church with a beautiful double stairway at the entrance.

We continued along to the Duomo Square, the location of the Town Hall as well as the Duomo. In front of the Duomo is a fountain, a baroque confection of cherubs topped by the Minotaur (the symbol of Taormina). From here it is only a short distance to the south city gate, Porta Catania.

After passing through the Porta Catania, we walked alongside the Excelsior Palace Hotel as far as allowed on the promontory. There were great views back toward Taormina from here, especially of the Convento di San Dominico. From here we backtracked through the Porta Catania and then turned right to follow the streets below Corso Umberto: Via Pietro Rizzo and Via Roma. All along this route there were great views, not only of the sea but also of the gardens, villas and palazzos above and below us on the slopes. Eventually, we reached the Villa Comunale, AKA the Parco Duca di Cesarò. This beautiful Mediterranean garden was originally the home of Lady Florence Trevelyan in the late 19th century. After a not-so-secret dalliance with the future British monarch, Edward VII, she was strongly encouraged to take up residence outside of Britain. In addition to the exotic flowers and trees, ponds and fountains, there are a number of “Victorian follies” — picturesque ruins and pagoda-style towers. This is a wonderful spot to stroll the cobbled paths or just to sit and relax on the many benches.

We exited the park heading north on Via Bagnoli Croce. Near its intersection with Via Luigi Pirandello (across the street from Hotel Villa Fabbiano), is a rock wall containing the remains of a Byzantine necropolis. A stairway (Via S. Pietro) runs alongside the south side of the hotel and leads to the Chiesa SS. Pietro e Paolo, the oldest church in Taormina. The church is floored with more tombs and others have been excavated in the hotel gardens; this entire area was probably once the church cemetery. The church itself is in serious need of conservation. The original 5th century frescoes behind the altar, representing the Twelve Apostles, were covered by other frescoes around the 8th century. However, humidity has caused most of the newer frescoes to peel away.

After returning to Via Luigi Pirandello, we continued north to the Belvedere for even more panoramic views. Then we followed Via Luigi Pirandello, past the funicular station, up to the Porta Messina. After all that exercise, it was time for a little snack. We sought out the nearby Pasticceria Minotauro (www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187892-d3598228-Reviews-Pasticceria_Minotauro-Taormina_Province_of_Messina_Sicily.html) on Via Di Giovanni. We each got one of their outstanding cannoli (large size, of course) and enjoyed them in the shade of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. After devouring the cannoli, we strolled along the Corso Umberto and ran into Robert and Mary at the Piazza IX Aprile. They were enjoying a drink at an outdoor cafe; we joined them for a beer until it was time to return to the bus.

We had really been enjoying sharing a pre-prandial bottle of wine with Robert and Mary the past few nights. Unfortunately, our supply was now exhausted. John and Robert went out in search of a wine shop but had to settle for a 5 EUR bottle of local wine from a nearby Tabacchi. Suffice it to say that the wine was literally from the bottom of the barrel.

Tonight was our farewell dinner at Antica Sicilia Ristorante (www.restaurant-anticasicilia.com). This restaurant also had an attractive fresh fish display on ice, where regular patrons can make their selection and have it cooked to order. Because we had a large group, we had two fixed menus to choose from. John and I picked the seafood option of a grilled swordfish steak topped with a grilled prawn. Towards the end of dinner, we were entertained by a stereotypical Italian tenor (rotund and bearded, dressed in a white shirt with black tie and vest). He was not bad, but some of his numbers (e. g., “That’s Amore”) were a bit incongruous for Sicily. Nevertheless, this was a festive end to the group tour part of our vacation.

SUNDAY 05/04/14 Day 10: Catania – Florence

Although many members of our group were taking Collette Vacations’ bus transfer ($50 pp) to the airport, John had researched taking the local AMT “Alibus” for only 1 EUR pp (www.aeroporto.catania.it/page.php?cPath=0_12_20&id_page=36&lang=eng). We had mentioned this to Kathleen yesterday; this morning when we saw her in the lobby, she told us that the bus was not operating today because of the festival (and possibly a race, this was never clear to us). When we checked at the hotel desk, we were told that the bus was running but the pick-up point would be at Piazza Stesicoro, not at the usual stop across the street from the hotel. The hotel desk then called the bus company and was told that the pick-up point would instead be about two blocks from the hotel in the opposite direction. We dutifully dragged our bags to the new pick-up point and waited for the bus. While we were waiting, one local resident told us we were waiting in the wrong spot and another told us we were waiting in exactly the right spot. After waiting about a half-hour with no bus, we went back to the hotel and asked the hotel desk to call a taxi that could accommodate the four of us and our bags. It is a 20 EUR fixed rate taxi fare from the downtown hotel area to the airport.

Safely at the airport, we waited for the flight to Rome, where we would take a train to Florence and begin the independent part of our vacation (reviewed separately).

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