The Fearless Travelers In Sicily, April 2002
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One of our more recent excursions was to Sicily, a place we have been wanting to visit for a number of years. We've been to Italy many times and so expected some basic things from this trip. Like delicious food, great wines and many piazzas where we could sit and eat the food and drink the wine. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, this was a disappointing trip.

First, it was planned in a hurry. I asked Katherine what she wanted to do for her birthday and she said 'let's go to Sicily.' She also had only a week open for the trip. So, with only a few weeks to plan, we had to hurry. As usual, we planned on renting a car and driving everywhere.

We had intended to fly into Palermo, but could not find any cheap flights. Depending on the day of the week you wanted to fly, through which city in Italy, and on which airline you wanted to fly, there were a lot of alternatives with major differences in price. Actually, for awhile, it looked like we were going to fly Air Malta and include a visit to Malta, but that got too complicated given our limited time. So we settled on a Lufthansa flight through Milan into Catania.

She then began her quest to find the perfect hotel using several guides to small hotels and the Michelin guide. These references, coupled with information on the Internet, provided the basis for the choice of the hotels and the type of room we wanted. Katherine then made the reservations by simply calling the hotels. This worked just fine with no language problems.

We flew into Catania, the other airport on the island on the eastern coast, picked up our rental car and headed for Siracusa, a town with a lot of history just south of Catania. Things began uneventfully enough until we got to just outside of the city proper. And that's where we hit the traffic. The place was jammed. Now we had a basic map but it was dark and we couldn't read street signs. So, after about half an hour of slow progress I pulled into a parking area and Katherine went into a shop to get some directions. Turned out we just hadn't gone far enough. So, back into the traffic flow we went eventually finding the hotel. Did I mention it was the Saturday night before Easter? Seems like everybody and their brother was in town and looking for a parking place. Miraculously, I found a parking place across the street from the hotel and just left the car there for two days.

Siracusa has some very old ruins. By old, I mean Greek ruins. So the next day we took a bus to the ruins and did the obligatory tour. In short, you have to see the ruins; they were impressive. Ok, enough of the touring, I wanted to get back to town to walk around the shops and sit in the piazzas. Well, there isn't a lot to do in Siracusa. Siracusa, itself, is not a particularly interesting city. The island, however, which is the pretty area, is small. Also, being Easter Sunday, many places were closed. So, after about an hour of walking around, we'd pretty well seen Siracusa. Time for a beer.

We ended up in the piazza de Duomo. Obviously, where the Duomo was. Now this is an impressive and old Duomo. Also, being Easter Sunday, the place was crowded with what seemed to be family get-togethers. So, after checking out the Duomo between services, we ensconced ourselves in a caf' directly across from it.

This was doing Italy like I like to do Italy. Sit in a caf' and watch all the people. By later afternoon, the piazza was jammed. Now most people hold down a table at a caf' with an espresso or maybe a beer. And a European can seemingly milk these drinks for hours. Well, after stretching out our beers for an hour it was time to switch to wine. So, while Katherine left to get her coat-it was getting quite cold-I ordered a bottle of wine. Suddenly, indifferent waiters became very cordial. Maybe because we were spending about five times what the average table was spending. Anyway, this was great fun until it became time to head out for dinner.

The next day, Monday, we were to drive to Agrigento. Checking with the concierge we were advised to take the high-speed autostrada through the middle of Sicily. Fortunately, while we had no major problems leaving the city, traffic coming into the city was backed up for at least a mile stretching out of town.

Agrigento, along the southern coast, is noted for having some beautiful Greek ruins. Our plan was to stop in the center city for lunch and then go on to the hotel. Well, this time driving through the city was dead easy. Easy because everything was closed. Virtually nothing was open and there was nobody around. So, we discovered that the day after Easter is still a holiday. With that we headed for the hotel.

The highlight of the ruins, which are a short distance from the hotel, are the Greek temples. You drive into the parking area, buy your ticket and head up a long hill to the ruins. First, parking is problematic in the lot by the entrance. Expect to park a long way down the hill. Second, as you walk into the site, look carefully off to your right or you will miss the first ruin by the entrance. Considering that they are some 2,500 years old, most of the temples are in pretty bad shape. However, the Temple of Concord, built around 440 BC, is in far better condition than the others. At night the illuminated temple is a sight to behold. After that we went back to the hotel, drank a bottle of wine on the hotel patio and went into dinner. The dining room is delightful as was dinner.

Our third leg of the trip was from Agrigento to Palermo. We left the hotel on a beautiful day with a spectacular view of the ruins. The drive to Palermo was a couple of hours on the overland route, again as recommended to us by the hotel. And it was through countryside that was at least interesting. Unfortunately, all that was nice about this trip was about to change.

I have driven in a lot of places including through Paris and Rome and in Florence at rush hour. And, it is not uncommon to see some drivers doing crazy things sometimes in Europe and often times in Italy. Lanes, lights, stop signs, are all advisory in Italy. But, nothing prepared me for what I was to experience driving in Palermo. In Palermo, everybody was seemingly doing crazy things all the time. They don't want anybody to get ahead of them in traffic. They will pass anybody or any kind of vehicle anywhere if they think that it is too slow. They will drive into the oncoming traffic lane, expecting them to make room, on the sidewalk or between cars in traffic lanes.

It was like one constant rush hour. I was told by one traveler at our hotel that Naples is actually worse and I have been told since that Madrid is horrible. But I have not driven either of these places, nor do I intend to. BTW, automatics in Europe are hard to find and always expensive so we always drive manual shifts. So that's what I had to drive in this traffic. You drive with one foot on the brake, one foot on the clutch and one foot on the gas. They also keep one hand on the horn.

Arriving at an entrance to the main autostrada through the city the cars look like the chaos of a ski-lift line on a busy day. Every car tries to get as far up as they can making lanes where none existed. And they just keep on pushing forward.

As you may have guessed, we were not very happy with Palermo. It is without a doubt the dirtiest, least interesting city we have ever been to. But, again, we have not been to Naples. We stayed in the best hotel there. It claimed it was a five star hotel but that was in their dreams. There was one upscale restaurant and a mediocre snack bar. We did have a balcony with a view but our view was of a sea port. You know, a place where they unload ships. You couldn't walk to the city, although they did provide a courtesy shuttle. It got to blowing hard that night and the balcony doors would not close tight. And it was cold. I finally had to stuff one of the courtesy robes along the base of the door just to slow the wind down a little.

The city itself is like one moving traffic jam. Cars are parked in every conceivable place including, frequently, straight into a spot between parallel parked cars. And, yes, the car sticks out into the street screwing up traffic. No problem. Between these cars and the multitudes of double-parked cars and trucks, two-way traffic becomes problematic. One of the travelers we talked to said he got so frustrated at one point that he just pulled his car over and parked it and went back to the rental agency and told them to pick it up. But more than anything, the city is dirty.

There is graffiti everywhere on everything. I think I saw some on a police car. And there is trash everywhere. I watched a guy walk out of a store with a pack of cigarettes and just toss the wrapper on the sidewalk as he headed for his car. We walked down what the books and the hotel indicated were the best shopping districts. It was just plain ugly. Now we live to shop. But here there was nothing of interest. We spent 20 minutes just trying to find an outdoor caf' that looked interesting to no avail. And when we finally just sat down at one place, it started to rain. And there were no interesting piazzas. What a bummer.

That night we felt like a good meal and called one of the restaurants in the Michelin guide. Again, communicating in English was no problem. As usual, we arrived at 8:00 o'clock and were the first people there. But we were rewarded with a delightful dinner.

The day after we arrived, we first drove to Mondello, a small beach town just north of our hotel along the coast. It was both small and scenic. On a nice day it would have offered a lot of photo opportunities. But, with sporadic rain and heavy clouds, there wasn't much to do. Did I mention that it was small. So, at about 11 am, we left to find Monreale, a city maybe five miles north of Palermo noted for its Duomo; How hard could this be?

Three hours later we abandoned the attempt and returned to our hotel. We know that we drove through the city but we were never sure just when. And, in any case, we could never find a parking place. We were in a line of cars that just kept snaking its way around where the city should have been. We'd see a sign that said Montreale to the left and would head there. 20 minutes later we'd see a sign that said Palermo straight ahead. Did I mention that it was raining the entire time? Furthermore, what city we saw was not particularly inviting.

Exhausted after the hours of fruitless driving looking for Montreal, we decided to eat in. So, on the way back we found a supermarket, such as it was, and loaded up on meats, cheeses and wine which we ate in our hotel room. It was lovely.

The next day found the weather no better for our drive to Taormina. So instead of driving the scenic coastal route, once again, on the advice of the concierge we chose the Autobahn. That means that on three separate occasions by three different concierges we were told to avoid the scenic routes. We don't know why and don't know what we missed. But, fortunately, once we got through the chaos of the city traffic, the next three hours were nothing out of the ordinary. That is, until we got within a few miles of Taormina.

First, the rain, which had been sporadic up until then became a steady hard rain. Then, as we approached Taormina, our side of the autostrada was switched over to the oncoming side making it one lane each way. Which didn't seem like a real problem until Katherine noted that we had just driven past our exit going the other way. Our exit was closed. Great. To make matters worse, we had entered the only toll road in Sicily just a few miles back. So I had to exit 7 miles down the road, pay the toll, flip a U-turn and go back to find the Taormina exit. It had indeed been one of those trips. As we often say, "and the saga continues."

By now exhausted, we stopped at a restaurant right down the road from the exit. There we had another delicious meal and another bottle of wine. Fortified, it was now pretty straight forward to drive up the mountain to Taormina. The city, itself, is a considerable distance up a steep mountain and our hotel was that much further up the mountain. Driving up a steep and narrow road in the rain we finally located the hotel. Although still very cloudy and foggy, it was clear that the view was lovely.

Taormina offers you spectacular views of the Mediterranean and of Mount Etna. And the views are as beautiful at night with the city lights on as it is in the day. Unfortunately, the city is a considerable walk down the mountain from the hotel which, given the wet and dark conditions, didn't seem like a good idea. So, we drove back down to the city borrowing the hotel's umbrellas and did the initial walk-around. By then the rain had become sporadic showers so it wasn't so bad. At least for the first hour. Hearing the thunder we headed back to the car arriving just before all hell broke loose. So we headed back to the hotel to await dinner. Unfortunately, the hotel didn't have a restaurant so we had to take a taxi to dinner. But we were again rewarded by great food and wine.

The next morning brought a clear day and the view of Mt. Etna is spectacular. Covered in snow, it is as beautiful as Mt. Fuji in Japan. But, unlike Fuji, there is smoke coming out of the top. It is clearly still active.

There are a lot of good hotels in Taormina and I would have stayed in the town proper if we had it to do over. All of these hotels have a beautiful view of Etna. Obviously, if the weather had been nice the walk down to the city would have been inviting, and the walk back invigorating. And the lack of a restaurant would have been a mere inconvenience. But when your exhausted and the weather is bad, having a nice bar and restaurant in the hotel suddenly assumes major importance.

The town itself has about the biggest shopping area of any tourist town we have ever been to. Unfortunately, most of the stores sold relatively low class tourist things. And, there were a lot of tourists. Groups of people following the guy with the umbrella were everywhere and the people were from everywhere. We were told that in the summer months, the downtown is wall to wall people. Thank you very much, I can skip that.

Despite all of the trips to Italy, I had never tried Italian pizza. So, for lunch, I gave it a shot. Pizza Hut it ain't. I was totally disappointed. First, you don't pick up the pieces to eat them. The USA is just about the only place in the world where you pick up food to eat it. Hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza, you eat them with knife and fork. At least that's what the locals do and being close to Rome, we did as they did. And trying to cut bites was difficult as the crust is thin and tough. And it just didn't taste like what I was used to. Back to pasta where I'm never disappointed. To complete all of the problems we had with this trip, the last night in Taormina both Katherine and I had a serious case of the Sicilian Revenge. Interestingly enough, it hit us both within one hour and seriously affected our sleep that night. Always travel with the appropriate medicine. We think that it was due to the meat we had had at the restaurant the night before.

Saturday morning, the day of departure, was lovely and a little warmer. Our trip to the airport and the return of the car was uneventful until we wheeled the trolley with our luggage up to the departures terminal. There we found lines of people snaking out all of the doors; the place was jammed. And we had arrived an hour and a half early. So I just picked a line and sent Katherine in to see what line I should be in. Fortunately, that proved to be a much shorter line inside the terminal. From that point on, it was uneventful back to London.

Some final comments. As usual, the food and wine were everything we have come to expect in Italy, delicious. Indeed, the Sicilian wines were great and very reasonably priced. You have to watch your timing while walking around. As it is in many places, the shops close for lunch. In most of Sicily, that was between 1 and 4. Eat lunch, drink some wine, take a nap back at the hotel and come back later. Nobody in Sicily went to dinner before 8:30 and most came in after that. The countryside was pretty, but no more than that. So, as we often say, been there, done that.