|symbol of Sicily|
Our schedule was chosen in large part by the flight schedule of the Swiss airline. There aren't direct flights to Sicily every day (at least not at this time of year). Alitalia flies to Sicily daily, but always with a stop over in Rome for much more money. Not appealing! Based on the Swiss schedule, we flew to Catania on Sicily's eastern shore, rented a car there and eventually flew back to Zurich from Sicily's capitol, Palermo, in the northwest. I have a friend here who is originally from Sicily. She gave us a lot of good advice about where to visit, renting a small car and buying the full rental car insurance. We were so glad that she helped us!
At Catania's airport, the first challenge is finding the counters for the rental car agencies. There is only one in the main building and the employee there must spend most of the time pointing out the door towards the building that houses all the others. How about a sign? No. The rental car agent suggested we get a car that had the navigator built-in rather than having to take it out each time we exited the car. This seemed convenient, although she did admit that the car was bigger than what we had ordered. When we got outside, we discovered it was not only bigger, it was a station wagon! My first inclination was to go right back inside and tell her it was too big. Tom disagreed and since he would be doing most of the driving, I shut up. Our next trick was to figure out how to change the navigator from Italian to English. We were not going to leave the parking lot with it only speaking Italian. Of course, the prompts to do this were in Italian so after failing at numerous attempts, I asked an attendant to help us. He solved our problem in short order. We entered our first destination, the rental apartment in Catania, and we were on our way.
Having arrived in the evening, it was dark which did not help navigating the unfamiliar area. We also had to become accustomed to "her" (the navigator) terminology. Some of the streets she wanted us to turn down were barely as wide as a driveway. She wanted us to go the wrong way down one way streets. After avoiding entering a one way in the opposite direction, it became clear that we couldn't get where we were going otherwise. We watched someone else do it and then followed. Yikes!
When she said "destination reached", I think I must have said "where?" There was nothing that looked remotely like a place we should pull in and plan to spend the night. I eventually found the doorbell for Sicily House and Orianna came to open the door into the courtyard. Thankfully we had reserved a parking space there because there was absolutely nowhere to park on the street. However, getting the car into the courtyard was not easy.
This is a view of the courtyard from above. Ours was the black car in the center. (car on the left is a Smart car) What you can't see is that between the outer door and the parking spot, there was another entry before the courtyard. In other words, once inside it was not a straight shot. With those two cars also parked there, Tom had to do it in reverse in the morning. Absolutely no way to turn around and go out forwards.
Since it was dark when we arrived and we were just relieved to find our destination, there were no photos. The picture below shows the outer door. Another day, we had returned after a day trip to find a large car parked (facing the wrong way) and partially blocking the door! Ours is the black car facing the camera and it is as far over to the other side of the road as possible! We had to call Orianna and somehow she got in touch with someone who came out and drove the problem car away.
|view of the narrow side street from our apartment|
This was just the beginning of our adventure.
We decided to take the first morning slowly before getting in the car again. We wandered a bit around Catania and discovered the very busy market. There were produce stalls and then the butchers which had large carcasses, complete with heads, hanging on display. As I exclaimed about one and turned my head away, I was faced with another gruesome scene. I quickly moved out of that area to the very lively fish market. Seeing dead fish doesn't bother me so much.
|many items seemed oversized but all looked great|
|"albino" zucchini - was Bunnicula here?|
Buy a fish and get the hook too! The fishing line is used to tie the fish into loops for display.
|eels were wiggling from one tray to another|
|lots of buying and selling going on|
This choir was rehearsing while we looked around. We heard the same phrase repeatedly and were able to hum it after we left!
|beautiful organ pipes|
Loads of men in uniform were outside the duomo. We never figured out why.
The elephant fountain, the symbol of Catania, stands in the plaza across from the duomo. Several legends attempt to explain the reason for an elephant. Check with google if you are intrigued.
Even Catania has some remains from Roman times in this amphitheater. It was just the first of several we saw on our tour across the island.
|busts were on the rail all around the ruins|
|our first view of Mount Etna|
Catania is home to the Bellini Opera House which was gorgeous lit up. Unfortunately, they had no concerts being performed while we were in town. How rude!
|part of Taormina's old city wall|
We used Catania as our base to explore other sites in the eastern part of Sicily. After wiggling the car out of the courtyard, we made our way to Taormina. Once outside Catania, the driving wasn't as bad...until we got to Taormina! There, we parked and explored by foot. Taormina has a very large amphitheater and also better views of Mount Etna. We opted not to dedicate one day to going hiking on the mountain - we have plenty of great hiking in Switzerland. By the end of our first full day, I had announced "I'm never driving here."
|view of the Mediterranean from Taormina|
Tom went down to the stage area and made a pop sound - it carried quite well. The acoustics are still good!
|Mount Etna in the upper right corner peeking above the clouds|
|Mount Etna with a piece of the theater in the foreground|
Taormina's clock tower does not rival the one in Bern or many others in Switzerland, but it was on the main town plaza next to the church.
This art in the church amuses me. It looks like we are supposed to stand behind and put our faces in the holes, but it was hanging on the wall. Impossible to accomplish! I'd never seen the Madonna and child represented this way and wonder why faces are missing.
|one last view of Mount Etna - goodbye Taormina|
Our next excursion from our base in Catania took us to Siracusa and Noto. Again we chose to find parking on the outskirts of the town first and proceed on foot.
|that's a big anchor!|
I'm sure one day, when we live back in the US, Tom will have a boat. However, it will NOT be big enough to accommodate an anchor of this size!
|fancy fountain with women riding fish|
There was a funeral in progress when we arrived at the cathedral. We stopped for a coffee and the hottest hot chocolate I'd ever had (felt it burn all the way down on the first sip), but we weren't willing to wait too long to see the interior.
|Mediterranean on a gray day in Siracusa|
This gives an idea of what a typical road might look like. This one is actually quite wide since cars are parked on both sides.
|Roman theater with underground tunnels|
Siracusa may have the largest Greek theater, but the one in Taormina is in much better condition.
Work in progress on the stage area so no opportunity to test the acoustics.
|that's me - this ear is huge!|
Stone from a quarry in this area was used to build the city of Siracusa. This opening to the quarry is called an "ear" because of its shape. I didn't realize Dr. Spock was that old!
Getting to these theaters took quite a bit of walking - we opted to take a bus back to the most high tech parking lot we'd ever seen. When we drove into the lot, unbeknownst to us, our license plate was scanned. We did not have to push a button for a ticket (to possibly lose). To pay, we entered our plate number and it told us when we arrived and therefore what we owed! Cool!
Noto was recommended as a very quaint Baroque town. It's not far from Siracusa; therefore we could visit both in one day. Once again, there were plenty of churches. I won't bore you with all of them. As we traveled around, several were charging for touring. Even for just a quick peek. No thank you. I don't care that much.
|Royal Gate for king's visit|
|narrow street of Noto - laundry hanging was a very common sight across Sicily|
|Saint Nicholas Cathedral|
|across from the cathedral - currently a government building|
|another pretty church|
As we were about to leave Noto, we saw the Tourist Information sign. We wondered if the group of old guys was the tourist bureau. We did not try to ask them anything. Our Italian skills are extremely limited. At least by the end of the trip, I had stopped saying "danke".
Time to leave Catania and head to our accommodations for the night in Agrigento. Multiple people recommended we make a stop along the way to visit Villa Romana del Casale. The weather did not cooperate for ease of driving. It rained most of the day, often very hard. Navigating narrow streets is difficult. Picture going down a steep incline, discovering it is a dead end and needing to make a u-turn where there is no extra space. Once that is accomplished (with difficulty), you must go back up the steep incline. Did I mention the road was cobblestone and rain water was gushing down the road? That means getting traction is nearly impossible. You have to give enough gas to get going, but there is also a tight corner to be turned at the top. Sound harrowing? It was, but especially for the driver. I just held on (for no helpful reason) and kept my mouth shut. After sliding backwards several times, we made it out. We were very glad we bought the full insurance!
Villa Romana del Casale was definitely worth a stop. It was originally an official's (huge) hunting lodge and is now the "best preserved and most extensive set of Roman mosaics in the world". (from Top 10 Sicily) The building itself was nothing special to look at. What stands now has been built to protect and preserve the mosaics. Thanks to google for providing a sketch of the (extensive) villa and an exterior picture. If this was just a hunting lodge, imagine what "home" looked like!
Now for the mosaics!
|they knew about exotic animals|
|the exercise area|
|hallway is too long for one photo|
|our only exterior shot - no mosaics here|
It was raining, but too windy for an umbrella. I wore my scarf like this because my jacket didn't have a hood. I think I look Muslim. Although getting there wasn't easy, we were glad we went.
|we passed loads of orange trees bearing fruit|
Returning to the road to drive on to Agrigento, there was a bit less rain and not as much trouble. Still a challenge to find our B&B, but making a phone call to them helped. We were very close - there are just no big signs pointing the way.
|don't bother me|
After settling into the B&B, we wandered around the old town of Agrigento. There were so many small churches! We took a quick peek inside some, but were not able to get inside the cathedral.
|close-up of altar|
|standing on heads is a bit creepy!|
|Cathedral and the shoe project|
The statue of Christ was ready to be carried in a procession on one of the following days.
The main reason to make a stop in Agrigento is to visit the Valley of the Temples. It was our second day to start out with rain. We found our destination and proceeded to wait in the car while the rain let up. I bought a poncho at the entrance in case it started pouring again and it was the perfect insurance for a clear day. Worth the 5 Euros! The Greek temples were spread out over a large area navigable by foot. They had a shuttle bus to go from one end to the other, but we declined. Some temples were in better shape than others.
|Temple of Juno|
|Temple of Concord|
|Sacred Way - with another temple barely visible in the distance|
|Temple of Hercules|
|Temple of Jupiter|
|Atlas in Olympian field|
|Temple of Dioscuri|
|Temple of uncertainty (don't know which this is)|
We had a reservation to stay in an apartment of the Palazzo Conte Federico. Even though it was a palace, that did not make it easy to find. Similar to Morocco, it was nothing special from the outside. The apartment was perfect for our needs, included a stock of breakfast foods, and we even got a private tour of the palace. Very cool experience.
|exterior door - this time we didn't need to drive inside|
|one of the narrow roads to our destination - yes, we (Tom) drove down this with cars parked on the side!|
|tiny but functional kitchenette|
Nicolo and his family aren't like "normal" people who have to earn an income, but what should you do with your time? He told us his father raced old cars and we saw this one parked in the courtyard.
|looking down from the entrance to the "museum" section|
Every room's ceiling was decorated in a different way. Pieces of the original ceilings are framed and hung on the walls as art. We even had some in our apartment.
|palace is built on the original city wall dating from the 12th century|
|Nicolo's mother, in the portrait, was a singer and is still a competitive swimmer|
|chandelier from Murano glass|
|fencing was someone's hobby!|
Meeting Nicolo was helpful for not only the tour, but restaurant recommendations as well. He also asked what plans we had for the area and when we mentioned Erice, he suggested stopping at Segesta on the way. We decided to take his advice - why not?
Segesta was our last spot to view ruins from ancient times. This time we opted to be easy on our bodies and clock. We viewed the temple, then took the shuttle bus up to the theater and back. Definitely worth the small expense. We had more planned for our day!
|from a distance|
|beautiful wildflowers all over Sicily|
Tom walked down to once again test the theater's acoustics. I was too lazy, but then someone had to stay and listen. Result: yes, I could hear the "pop".
We specifically chose to go to the medieval village of Erice on Good Friday because we had learned that there would be a procession of the statues from the church. What we didn't know was what time or where it would start or end.
We easily found parking at the entrance to the pedestrian-only Erice. It was nice not to have to worry about (many) cars. An occasional one did pass us, but we guessed they were owned by residents, not tourists. Erice had its share of churches too - what a shock.
|we did not pay to enter|
|so peaceful without cars|
After a bit of wandering, we heard the sounds of many voices. We followed the noise and found this group waiting outside the church. We lucked out with a great spot for watching the procession which started about 15 minutes after our arrival.
There was no opportunity for us to enter this church, but I'm guessing the scenes that we saw carried were each in a small chapel representing the stations of the cross. They were clearly heavy as evidenced by the grimaces of the people carrying them. There was a group of musicians who played the same somber tune over and over. Luckily the ear worm didn't stick around long.
Only one group of children was involved. The noisemaker in front was used to indicate that the procession was moving again. Then the same person counted off and they started walking again. The staff in the other's hand would be used to rest the load on while they were waiting to move again. The procession moved very slowly. Navigating down the stairs was not an easy task.
After Mary was carried past, we opted not to follow the procession, but go off in another direction to find the Norman castle.
We were very glad that Cristina told us Erice would be cold and windy. Tom borrowed my least "girly" scarf and we wore multiple layers (we're not quite as chubby as we look here).
Sicilians live their lives with a fair amount of risk. There were many ways we witnessed people doing things that could easily cause death. On the way down from Erice, two kids were riding go-carts (for lack of a better word) on the very winding and narrow road. Death wish? I have no idea if they had brakes.
Tom and I both like food which you probably already knew. We typically look for a food tour in the cities we visit. They've all been different, but enjoyable. Sicily did not disappoint with its StrEat Palermo tour. The premise behind the name is that all the foods tasted you can purchase while walking around and do not require a sit-down restaurant experience.
We were each given a passport and our guide explained the plan for the day. Later, the passport was stamped after we tasted each item.
We walked through a large and very busy market on our way to the first planned taste. But wait, there was a bonus along the way. I would have been more enthused to taste if she had waited until afterwards to tell us it was "entrails"! Whoa! We bought one serving and most of us took a taste. It wasn't bad. Really.
|a true bargain|
|unfamiliar looking zucchini|
5 kilos for 3 Euros!
Approximately 11 pounds for $3.40! Wow! Nothing like the Swiss prices.
Rice balls filled with ground meat and fried called 'arancine", the Italian word for orange. They're about the size of an orange.
Sicilians (or Palermians which is a term the guide used) obviously like fried food. Next we had fried rectangles made primarily from chick pea flour and also fried potatoes. My fingers were very greasy after these three tastes.
I've tasted Sicilian pizza in the USA and was interested to learn what it would be like in Palermo. As expected, the thick crust was the main ingredient. For my tastes, there was not enough sauce and without cheese, it was just wrong!
|vendor wears apron of the tour operator|
At the markets along the way, our guide had purchased provisions for a picnic which we ate inside a small bar. The specialty of the bar is some local wine which tasted more like sherry.
|two wines - neither very good|
|wine choices in large dispensers|
|picnic foods: sun-dried tomatoes, almonds, cheese, two breads, olives|
In case we hadn't eaten enough, there was another savory stop along our route. Luckily, there was some time and plenty of walking between the tasting spots. Our next vendor had quite a line of people waiting for his specialty. It is clearly quite popular with the locals. On our approach, I could smell it - similar to liver. This one was harder to make myself taste.
Finally, it was time for something sweet! The tiny shop has what looks like a mobile cart as their counter. Our guide told us that it was just for show and they do not roll it around. The cannoli were delicious.
|our guide buying our treats|
Of course, there is a cathedral.
stations of the cross carved in white marble
There is an intersection with four matching corners. The statues are different, but they are all beautiful.
We saw one of the original kiosks that used to be sprinkled all over Palermo. There are others still standing, but this is the only one that is still the beverage and food stand as it was at the start. It wasn't particularly warm, but I wanted to try the Sicilian traditional cold treat, granita. It is partially frozen and tastes like melting Italian ice. Not special, but worth doing once.
Our last day in Sicily happened to coincide with Easter. There is a small village near Palermo, Piana degli Albanesi, that was originally founded by Albanese immigrants in the 15th century. After all this time, the community still holds onto many traditions including language, religion, and folk costumes. We knew in advance that Easter was special in Piana (my abbreviation). We expected to see people in their traditional garb and also for some reason, they would be handing out red Easter eggs. We planned our itinerary in order to visit Piana on Easter.
|Piana degli Albanese|
We found parking and followed others on foot. We had no idea where we were going. As we got close to the church, we could smell the incense!
|when we arrived, not many people were outside|
The church was full of locals, other tourists and incense. The priests or cantors took turns chanting with several languages represented. We were very surprised to hear one begin in English.
|old language still used|
I'm not a fan of accordion music, but it is very popular in Europe, especially the farther east you go. I did like watching and listening to the children's accordion ensemble.
|happy to pose for me|
|the red eggs!|
|I got one!|
|more people arriving|
Eventually, there were lots of people outside the church. The atmosphere was similar to a huge block party. People were in very high spirits and greeting each other whether or not the other person had on a costume. My notes said that after the service, there was to be a procession of the holy veil. We waited for what felt like a long time (people watching is very entertaining so it wasn't boring), but finally decided we should move on. We had another stop on our itinerary and didn't want to miss it.
We drove on to Monreale which is known for its cathedral full of mosaics: 6,500 square meters of mosaics! That's a lot. We found easy parking and had a picnic lunch in the car, including our red egg. Unfortunately, when we reach the cathedral, we discovered it was closed!!! We had a brief moment of panic until we learned that it would reopen at 4pm. Now we had two hours to kill in Monreale. I guess we could have stayed longer in Piana, but we had no idea. Oh well. It was a beautiful day to be waiting around outside.
The exterior of the cathedral is not special. Once inside, we were not disappointed.
|waiting in the warm sunshine|
|lots of tourists, just like us|
|story of Noah|
Stories from both the Old and New Testaments were represented in the detailed mosaics.
|feeding the 5,000|
|mosaics on all sides - amazing!|
Definitely worth the wait!
|limited traffic zone|
Every time we drove to our apartment in Palermo, we had to go through this gate labeled limited traffic zone. We hoped that we were part of the approved traffic.
On our return to Palermo from Monreale, there was another Easter celebration in progress with roads closed. Having the business card for our place helped us greatly. We showed it to the police and they let us through!
Besides the street tour, we enjoyed having tasty food at much more reasonable prices than Switzerland. I feel compelled to share some of the highlights.
|tuna with onion "sauce"|
I was told the fish and onions were cooked together, not adding the onions afterwards. Tasty.
|Tom's lunch at The Black Sheep|
|red wine spaghetti and mussels|
I may experiment with cooking pasta in wine. Gave it a very nice flavor (and color).
I had to try pasta Norma since that's my mother's name. She probably wouldn't like it because she's not a fan of eggplant which is part of the dish. I thought it was good.
Caponata is a mixture of eggplant, peppers, tomato, onion, etc. It was offered in many places and usually served cold.
Since beef is so expensive and normally rather tough in Switzerland, I ordered beef in Agrigento. It was supposed to be served with a red wine sauce and cheese. Unfortunately, it was really veal (overcooked) and I was disappointed. Tom ordered veal intentionally and shared a taste with me. His was much better.
|we tried the local Sicilian wines|
When Tom made this wine selection, the proprietor said "Bravo!"
|warm caponata with swordfish = yum!|
Our host in Palermo recommended restaurants to us and it was nice to end our trip with the best meals.
I can't name the ingredients of these two tasty dishes, but they were both presented very nicely.
There was plenty of seafood available in Sicily, but some of the restaurants had their menu marked with many items "previously frozen". That was confusing. So much fresh fish at the markets - why do they need to use frozen? We avoided those entrees.
Most nights we did not have dessert, but we couldn't pass it up every time!
Here, the menu said vegetable soup and from taste, this was definitely lentil soup. It may be a vegetable, but I expected something more like minestrone. Luckily, it was very good anyway.
Crevettes served with three different toppings - quasi-sushi - raw and cold
|traditional Easter dessert|
At our last dinner in Palermo, Tom asked for the wine list. The waiter answered, "I am the wine list." Then there was a discussion about what kind of wine we like and what foods we were considering. His recommendation was very nice.
|smoked fish - salmon, tuna and swordfish - delish|
|butternut squash and shrimp over pasta|
|pear and gorgonzola risotto|
This was a common sight. Cars either double parked or just parked on a slant "in" a space that is too small for the car. It's no wonder that most of the cars are scratched and dented!
|produce vendors were not all at markets|
I'll close with some pictures of scenery as we drove around. The landscape reminded us very much of Morocco.
|wildflowers were plentiful along the road|
|is that a Moroccan kasbah?|
|shepherd and sheep right along the side of the road|
|unknown ruins on the hilltop|
|harnessing the wind power|
|solar panels were one of the crops in the Sicilian fields, along with grapes and olives|
|a very pretty day!|
If you made it this far, you now deserve to go get yourself a cannoli! These very large ones were advertising that the real thing was available for sale inside.
|larger than life cannoli|
|advertisement worked on us|