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Best of Sicily February 12 Trip Report

Hi Everyone!
This was, quite simply, a fabulous tour! Our guide Karin and our driver Salvatore were top notch. The itinerary was well thought out, the cities were beautiful and the historical sites were magnificent. The hotels were the nicest of any tour we've been on and the food and wine were consistently wonderful. We were very fortunate to have beautiful weather every day - a sunny 50 - 60 degrees, perfect for all the walking we did. I will try to keep this report from being too long, but I can't guarantee it!

Pre-Tour Rome - We planned 3 nights, 2 full days in Rome before the tour began in order to see some of the things we'd missed in our limited time there on our 2015 My Way Tour. Our adventure began with the shuttle ride from the airport with our driver Valentino (and our companions who I dubbed Two Gents, 3 Spanish Ladies and Fur Coat Man.) This was a wild and crazy affair and turned out to be the first of many wild and crazy cab rides in Italy. It was a relief to be dropped at Termini and get another cab to our hotel, the 900 Piazza Del Popolo. This is a newer boutique hotel with only 5 rooms and lived up to the glowing reviews I'd seen on Booking.com. It is in the northern part of the city, at the tip of the shopping triangle and very close to the entrance to the Borghese Gardens and Park. With the metro stop right outside and the Piazza Del Popolo just across the street it was a real find. Our hostess was very gracious while checking us in and gave us a map and restaurant suggestions. After freshening up we headed out to find Babette's, just a few blocks away, for dinner. Oh my goodness, the staff greeted us warmly and we ordered wine and a fabulous meal of ravioli with ricotta, sun dried tomatoes and fresh herbs, lentil soup and freshly baked focaccia. This was on a Thursday and we were so delighted with our meal that we made a reservation for Saturday evening. The next day we visited The Forum, Palatine Hill, Capitoline Museum, Circus Maximus and then took a (what else?) wild and crazy cab ride to the Appian Way. It was a long walk back to the first available metro stop, so we went back to the hotel and had a bit of down time before heading out to La Buca di Ripetta, another recommendation from our hotelier with instructions to order the pasta carbonara with egg and bacon. It sounded rather odd but was terrific! The next day we had an 11:00 reservation at the Borghese Gallery and it was an experience I will never forget - the sculptures! Wow! After a cab ride back to the hotel we were met by throngs of Brits on the sidewalks in red t shirts drinking beer in anticipation of the Italy VS Wales soccer match coming up that afternoon. Happy crowd. After a quick stop for a small sandwich we jumped on the metro back to Termini then walked over to the Baths of Diocletian and then continued on to The Pantheon. I was very tired at this point so we caught a cab (yes, it was wild and crazy) and went back to the hotel after a quick stop at the little corner grocery/wine shop for a few happy hour provisions. Then it was back to Babette's for more ravioli and a fettuccini ragu with minced beef. Oh my. Oh, yes, and wine. And focaccia. Then a stroll in the Piazza before heading back to the hotel as we had a mid morning flight to Palermo. Our gracious hostess had arranged an early cab for us and he was prompt, very courteous but still a wild and crazy cab driver! At least it was a Sunday morning and there wasn't much traffic. You know, I never thought I'd really like Rome but the more I visit the city the more I appreciate its beauty and history. We both regretted that there were sites on our list that we didn't have time for, but that just means we'll have to go back!

Next Up - Pre Tour Palermo

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Pre Tour Palermo - We arrived in Palermo around noon and it was a beautiful, cool sunny day. We bought bus tickets at the airport, hoping we'd be able to figure out where our stop was. Nope. We ended up at the train station but had no problems finding a wild and crazy cab (really?) who said he knew where our hotel, the B&B Delle Vittorie, was. Nope, but he got fairly close and, after a bit of wandering around, we finally found it. We were too early to check in, but they let us drop our bags, gave us an introduction to the hotel, a map and a list of restaurants. I found the hotel through this Forum and it was another great find - just off the Via Maqueda, the pedestrian street in the ancient part of the city, with many shops and restaurants in the immediate vicinity. Another great plus was the Makeda Restaurant right next to the hotel on the ground floor, We went in and it was obvious that there was no room for us, so the waiter says "come with me." Well, ok. He led us across the street to their delightful, cozy sister restaurant where we had comfort food - a pounded and sauteed chicken breast and roasted potatoes for me and lasagna for DH. And freshly baked bread, of course. And wine. It was Sunday and the street was packed with families, lovers, groups of friends all talking, laughing, children squealing and chasing each other, many enjoying their afternoon gelato. After lunch we were able to check in to the hotel, get organized and take a nap. It's funny - I can't seem to nap at home without waking up in a beastly state but had no problems napping in Italy. We didn't want to venture too far from the hotel for dinner so we returned to the Mekada and sat outside and shared a pizza and salad. Then we joined in the Passagiata and found our first.....CANNOLI!! Good grief, how can something so simple possibly taste so good? The Delle Vittorie had a nice continental spread for breakfast with good coffee. After breakfast we headed out and and saw the Quattro Canti, The Piazza Pretoria with its Fountain of Shame, La Martorana (beautiful church) and the Oratorio de la San Lorenzo (another beautiful church.) As we were leaving the church bells on the next block were ringing and I can only describe the moment as one of those "this is why I travel" moments. We then walked to the Museo Archeological Regionale but it was closed, as many sites are on Mondays. We were glad to have time to return the next day. Then we wandered through the Ballaro Market, turned around and walked back to the Theatre Massimo, sat on a bench and listened to the street musicians for a while. We had a light lunch of wonderful minestrone soup, fresh bread with ricotta and tomatoes and a glass of wine from the slopes of Mount Etna in the garden at SUD, right on Via Maqueda. After a little nap we headed down the side streets and stumbled upon FUD, where we sat outside and had a terrific burger and fries. Yes, you read that correctly. It was a nice break from the pasta! The next morning we had to check out by 10:30 so we walked over to the tour hotel, The Ambasciatori. We were told our room wouldn't be ready until 2:00 (we didn't expect it to be) and were showed where to stow our luggage. There was a solo female traveler also stowing her bag and we introduced ourselves. She was Cheryl from Pittsburgh and not only was she on our tour, but she would also become my future tour buddy! I invited her to come hang with us and she said she'd love it, so the 3 of us trooped out and we gave her a mini tour of the things we'd seen. We went back to the Archeological Museum and we all found it fascinating - so much history. Then we went back to the Mekada for lunch. I shared my chicken and potatoes with DH and Cheryl had the couscous and veggies. Then it was time to go back to the Ambasciatori to check in and get ready for the Tour Group meeting at 3:00.

Next Up - The Tour, Day 1

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The Tour - Day 1 - Palermo
The group met at the rooftop restaurant for an orientation meeting, led by our delightful guide Karin. Introductions were made by all. There were 26 of us - 8 couples, 2 women friends traveling together, 2 solo female travelers and an extended family of 6 - the parents around my age, his adult daughter and son in law and their 2 delightful boys, ages 13 and 11. We had a short discussion with each of us contributing what we hoped to experience on the tour, and then chose our buddies. For those of you who have never been on a Rick Steves tour, all tour goers choose a buddy who they don't know. When the tour guide says "lets do a buddy check" when you get on the bus or regroup after time on your own, you find your buddy by making meaningful eye contact (and waving or, as the time goes on, making a silly face.) It really helps the guide in keeping everyone together and accounted for. Karin gave us time to go back to our rooms and then we met on the sidewalk to begin our introductory walk to Palermo. It was a substantial walking tour, past the Theatre Massimo and other sites, and down the Via Maqueda - I made sure to point out the restaurants we'd frequented to Karin, as she said at the meeting that she always appreciates new information. I knew from the Rick Steves videos that we were going to the Contessa's home, The Palazzo Federico, and it was a lovely, personal, very interesting peek inside the home of an Austrian girl who, many years ago, married an Italian race car driving Count. Halfway through our visit there was an extremely loud BOOM!! outside, which made us all jump, the Contessa and Karin in particular. It turned out to be a very obnoxious clap of thunder, followed by a brief, driving rain, but I could clearly see concern on the Contessa's face and would find out why on the drive to an upcoming destination. After ending our visit with the Contessa and the Count, who briefly joined us, we were given a glass of wine before setting off for our first group meal at the Marchese Ristorante. Seating at group meals on this tour was very casual - sit wherever you want and you'll probably end up eating with everybody at some time during the tour. Our first course was an octopus salad in an edible bowl - yes, you read that correctly. DH and I looked at each other - "When in Sicily..." It was actually quite good once I cut off the tentacles. Next course was Pasta Con La Sardinia (pasta with sardines) and the third course was Pasta with Anchovies - we liked this the best. It didn't taste fishy. Go figure. Oh yes, and wine. And pistachio cake piled high with whipped cream. I could only manage one bite.

The Tour - Day 2 - Palermo and Monreale
This morning we met our bus driver, Salvatore, after a short walk to the bus. He was taking us to Monreale, about 30 minutes outside of Palermo. I was so glad that I did some previous research on this stop. The Cathedral was astonishingly beautiful, the mosaics are everywhere. Our local guide, Jackie, was terrific. In addition to the Cathedral we saw the Chapel, the Cloister and the Vantage Point. We were then set free for 45 minutes to grab a coffee and pastry (imagine that) and find a restroom, etc. We took the bus back to Palermo and while the others went on a tour of the Ballaro Market, DH and I broke off from the group as we'd already seen it. We strolled back to FUD, sat at the counter and had another burger and a bio (their organic Sicilian cola - highly recommended.) It was obvious that school had just ended for the day because many teenagers piled in, ordering fries and a bio. I loved these little glimpses of Italian life - these are city kids who don't necessarily own (or want) a car - this is what they do after school instead of living in the suburbs and going to each other's houses to hang out. Since it was a later lunch we just had a snack for dinner and went to bed early.
Next Up: The Tour - Day 3 - Segesta, Erice and Trapani

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Thank you so much, Lizthemadhatter, for these trip reports. I very much enjoy reading them and look forward to future installments.
Pat

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Glad you enjoyed the tour. We were on this tour in April 2016, and it remains one of our favorites.

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The Tour - Day 3 - Segesta, Erice and Trapani
We were on the bus at 9:00 for the 1 hour drive to Segesta. On the way Karin told stories about the history of the Mafia and the terrible things they did until the people finally stood up to them and said "ENOUGH!" These were not only prominent citizens but ordinary people. Many lost their lives. There was a sign about 30 minutes outside of Palermo engraved in the hillside that said "NO MAFIA." She recommended a book by John Dickie titled "The Cosa Nostra." As I listened to her I could only imagine how horrifying it would have been to live with them lurking around, and I believe that was the explanation for the concern on the Contessa's face when that thunder clapped during our visit. DH, who served 28 years in the USAF and saw combat, whispered to me "@#&&(*&, that sounded like a bomb." We are all haunted by something. Ok, on to Segesta. The ruins were amazing, the old Roman Theatre just beautiful. For those who didn't want to make the steep trek up there was a bus available. We lingered there for awhile, some of us sang in the ancient theatre, some of us went up to the ancient temple which was never finished, and some of us went to the picnic grounds where we could have a rest and a coffee and pastry (imagine that.) They had mini CANNOLIS! Oh Lord. Fighting off the resident black lab was not an easy task, as he really wanted our snacks, but soon it was time to get back on the bus for a 40 minutes ride to Maria Grammatico's mountain top home in Erice for lunch and a pastry lesson. This, at least for me, was one of the highlights of the tour. The food was presented exactly like it is in the RS videos and was absolutely fabulous. The pastry lesson was delightful and very humorous - the tender look on Maria Grammaticos's face when she looked at the two young boys on our tour and insisted they help her make "Nun's Boobies" was priceless. She doesn't speak english (or perhaps prefers not to) but her assistant and translator is a riot! I had the distinct feeling that had we not had the young boys with us that the visit would have been, shall we say, a bit saltier! I had my photo taken with her and bought her book so I, too, can make Nun's Boobies and Cannoli - who would I rather learn from than the best pastry chef in Italy?? I really didn't want to leave, but we had to get on to our next stop, Erice on the mountain top. It is said that the Romans believed that this was the birthplace of Venus - I'm not sure what to believe - all I know is that it was jaw droppingly beautiful. Erice is a walled city and it is easy to get lost in. When we got back to the tour bus we were short of tour members - my buddy Cheryl was missing along with two others. Fortunately they were together. They called Karin (please take a photo of your guide's phone number at the start of the tour - it will be posted) and she talked them back to the bus. Only praise for doing the right thing. No shaming. Class act, our guide. Back on the bus for a 1 hour ride to Trapani and walked to our hotel, La Gancia, which I loved. We met the group at 5:30 for a short orientation walk and then were on our own. We strolled for a while and popped into a rustic wine bar serving wine out of large casks for 2.5 euros per glass. Really? Really. Our fellow tour mates from Boulder were there and we had a fun evening with them. It was such a local experience - the people would come in with their empty bottles to have filled from this cask or the other -there was one cask titled "Only Strong People" that I only saw one man fill his bottle with. We noticed a restaurant across the street that was recommended to us (Al Lumi) so on our way back to the hotel we stopped and were stumped. There was a sign on the door that said "To Knock" and a little trap door. DH knocked on the door and a man poked his head out and asked his intentions. A reservation for the next night? Sure. Took his name and closed the trap door. What?

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Your report is fantastic! I am taking notes. As someone leaving on an independently organized trip (with sister) to Sicily in a few weeks, I really appreciate your mentions of restaurants, walking distances, museums (with closing dates!) and wine spots. Thank you! Looking forward to your next chapter!!

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I held off from posting yesterday afternoon after the first 2 installments because I knew you had more to come. I'm really enjoying your trip! Love your cannoli notes, lol!! Thanks so much!

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Wonderful trip report - can’t wait for the rest!

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Loving every bit of this trip report, can't wait to read the rest!

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This sounds like heaven! Thanks for posting; I'm looking forward to the rest.

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The Tour - Day 4 - The Trapani Salt Flats and the Island Of Mozia
LaGancia's breakfast room was a bit smaller than our other hotels so Karin asked us to divide ourselves into two groups - the early birds and the little bit later birds. Then it was time to board the bus at 8:45 and Salvatore drove us to the Trapani Salt Flats. We boarded a boat for the short ride to the Island of Mozia where we were greeted by the island's resident dogs, Luna and Mozia. With our local guide we toured the ancient ruins which were once houses, towers, fortifications, etc. dating back to several hundred years B.C. There were wild flowers everywhere - those of us from cold climates were snapping away. We then toured the museum - so much history. Then we were led to a separate building where there was yet another fabulous lunch waiting for us - pasta, green salad, olives, eggplant, the freshest tomatoes I've ever had and, of course, wonderful bread - you know, the usual. Then back to the boat and the Salt Flats for a brief video of the history of salt making (fascinating) and the opportunity to purchase a small bag of their harvested salt - don't miss the salted chocolate! Salvatore drove us back to our hotel where we had a little happy hour with the group and then headed out to our reservation at Al Lumi. As we were the first ones there (at 7:30) we were seated at a lovely table by the window so we could watch the action at our favorite little wine bar across the street. I had the selection of grilled meats and DH had the pork loin, both with roasted potatoes. Yum. We ended the evening at the wine bar with our tour mates/new friends from Maryland.

Tour - Day 5 - Agrigento and The Valley of The Temples
After breakfast we were on the bus at 8:45 for our 3 hour drive to Agrigento. The countryside was absolutely beautiful, full of rolling green hills and farmland. To pass time on the bus Karin would talk briefly about housekeeping items, much more so about Sicilian history and culture, sometimes playing music, sometimes reading Greek or Roman mythology. Today it was music - That's Amore, Volare, Vivaldi's Spring and many others. When we reached The Valley of The Temples we toured the museum with our terrific local guide, Mikela (sp?) This was another fascinating place and he was full of knowledge about the artifacts we saw in depth. Then we headed to lunch at La Promenade where we could pick a smaller plate (10 euros) or a larger plate (15 euros) and point to whatever we wanted out of about 20 selections. Another wonderful meal - it never ends! Then it was on to the tour of the Temples and Mikela really brought them to life for us - this was an incredible site and I think we were all overwhelmed - I know I was. Then it was a short ride to our countryside hotel, Baglio Della Luna. This was such a lovely place - the rooms are standard but the gardens are full of lemon and orange trees and flowers, all with a view of The Valley. DH was delighted at the sight of a bathtub and I knew I was going to lose him for an hour or two so I freshened up then headed to the bar where I sat with my new friends from Boulder and San Diego, enjoying a glass of wine and talking about all we'd seen. About 90 minutes later the young female bartender is at my side asking "Are you Mrs. P?" I said yes and she said "your husband called and he is locked in the room and can you please come let him out." We all looked at each other and burst into laughter and of course I went and let him out - it was my fault I'd locked him in! It's a good thing he's a good sport - Karin said that it wasn't the first time it had happened in that hotel and not everyone was a good sport about it. We had another fabulous group meal in the hotel's restaurant that night - a fish course first, then pasta and then more fish. DH and I skipped the third course - it was just too much!

Up Next: Tour Day 6 - The Villa Romana del Casale and Siracusa

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The Tour - Day 6 - Villa Romana del Casale and Siracusa
We were on the bus at 8:45 and headed to the Villa Romana del Casale, several hours away. On the bus Karin talked about Italian family life and different traditions and expectations. She also talked about patriotism, schools, children and their educational choices and the fact that appearances are very important to Italian parents - if their children do well then they also appear successful. About halfway to the villa Salvatore had to stop the bus because the road was full of sheep, complete with shepherd and border collie keeping them together! It was a really fun, unexpected thing to see. The Villa Romana del Casale was impressive - it was the estate of an enormously wealthy Roman who was an animal trader, providing animals for sport at the Colosseum. The thought made me want to cry but I told myself to keep it together and just go in and appreciate the mosaics. Karin gave us all a map so we would know what we were looking at. The mosaics were incredible and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. When we got back on the bus I asked Karin if the artisans who created the mosaics were indentured servants and she said not necessarily - many of them were hired by the owner to create them to impress his guests. Well, they are certainly impressive. Well, then we had the craziest hairpin drive up a mountain I've ever experienced, our destination being a working farm restaurant called Torre de Ronde. I'm convinced there must be a Rick Steves Nerves of Steel Bus Driver School somewhere! Oh my goodness, another fantastic meal consisting of antipasti, bruschetta, grilled bread with garlic, eggplant and two kinds of pasta. And wine. And spectacular views. Then back on the bus headed to Siracusa - Karin used this time to teach us how to ask for our room keys in Italian. Hmmm. We'd already had one goofy key experience, surely it won't happen again. Our hotel was the Domus Mariae in Ortigia, the ancient island part of the city. The hotel was beautiful, an old converted convent complete with nuns wandering around the premises. The hotel had a lovely rooftop deck with a stunning view of the sea - it was a wonderful place to sit with a glass of wine (bring your own) and enjoy the sea air. We had a short orientation walk and Karin pointed out restaurants and shops and we ended in the main square. It was dark by this time so we strolled around a bit and then found our way back to the hotel for an early night. Some of our group went out for another meal, but we had had enough to eat for the day.

The Tour - Day 7 - Siracusa
It was at this point on the tour that Karin gave us the opportunity to do laundry and had given instructions the night before that the "dirty people" meet at 8:45 in the lobby to walk to the Lavenderia with our bag of laundry - it would cost 15 euros. The others would be in the lobby at 9:00 and our local guide would come for them - we'd all meet up at the outdoor market. So we "dirty people" (there were 10 of us and I have the photos to prove it!) all trooped out with Karin, dropped our bags at the Lavenderia and met up with the group at the market, joking all the way that since we'd soon be the "clean people" we could only sit with each other on the bus. Much laughter. What a beautiful market! We stopped and had cheese samples and then toured the Jewish Quarter and Cathedral. I loved Siracusa - I thought it was beautiful. We then ended our group time with a family run Puppet Show, which was delightful! The family came out after the performance and explained who does what - costumes (Mama,) music (sister,) stages and props (brother,) and the two brothers that work the marionettes. It was fun to get a behind the scenes look. Our group time was over then and Cheryl asked us what our plans were for the afternoon. We thought lunch on the water somewhere and then the Archeological Park and would she like to come along? She would!

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The Tour - Day 7 - Siracusa (continued)
DH, Cheryl and I found our way back through the maze of ancient, charming streets to the waterfront where, on our walking tour, I had spotted a cute place that looked like it had a wide variety of things to choose from. It was called Mokrito and was advertised as fast, quality food. We got the last table outside and Cheryl ordered pizza, I ordered an Italian chicken sandwich, and DH ordered the largest burrito I've ever seen in my life. We needed a little break from pasta and not only was the food fast, it was hot and fresh. Cheryl and I had a glass of Rosso and DH had an Italian beer. After lunch we walked over to the taxi stand to get a cab (uh oh) to the Archeological Park. Our cab driver's name was Fabio and he actually drove like a normal person (sort of.) When we arrived at the entrance I looked around and asked him how we'd get a cab back. His reply was "I come back for you! What time?" I said 4:00? "Ok!" The Siracusa Archeological Park is a sight to behold - an ancient quarry where thousands of slaves labored in gruesome conditions until their death, trapped in a terrible life of hard labor. I learned that there were many who volunteered to fight at the Colosseum just to have a chance at freedom. The Ear of Dionysus was a haunting place - I took a video and I swear I can hear the cries of the slaves. Very moving. As Karin suggested I sang while we were in there because she said the acoustics were unbelievable - they were. We found the two Greek theaters - absolutely stunning. Then it was time to go look for Fabio, who was waiting for us as promised at the entrance. We had picked up another member of our tour group who had walked to the park and was too spent to walk back, so we all piled in with Fabio and he took us back to our hotel. I made him take a tip - no arguing! I told Cheryl that we'd be up on the roof later and she showed up with some great snacks - crunchy breadsticks, a peppery cheese and cherry tomatoes - perfect for a light meal. And wine. There was a beautiful hunger moon and it will forever be a favorite travel memory of mine.

The Tour - Day 8 - Mount Etna, The Benanti Winery and Taormina
On the bus at 8:45 for our drive up Mount (or Mama, as the Sicilians call her) Etna. There was a bit of a schedule change with the Volcanologist's presentation for us - since Etna was active and had been smoking the entire time we were there he and his team had been quite busy, monitoring her activity, advising the Catania airport, etc. He would be meeting up with us the next day. Another crazy hairpin drive up to about 6000 feet. Many in our group climbed to different viewing spots - it was snowy and slippery and after going up 10 feet and sliding back down I thought, well, no. Another of our group ended up sliding down on her backside - I helped her brush off. We hung out in the little cafe/gift shop and I bought two very pretty, very inexpensive lava rings, one for my daughter and one for myself. I'm not a big souvenir person as I don't need any more things - I consider my memories and photos to be the best souvenirs. Then it was back down the mountain and on to The Benanti Winery, which was a truly beautiful experience. We toured the winery and vineyards, took a group photo with our glasses of Prosecco and had lunch which included a wine tasting. The very handsome Salvino Benanti gave a brief talk and then mixed among us answering any questions. I took his card and wine list - I liked their Etna Rosso so much that I'd like to help them get a foothold here in Minneapolis. Then it was back on the bus, another hairpin drive up a mountain, then a shuttle to the Hotel Continental. This was another lovely hotel with a fantastic rooftop restaurant/bar with a view of (what else?) Mama Etna, and since she was smoking it was a beautiful and very surreal sight. After checking in we had a short orientation walk and then a light snack on our own - bruschetta and a glass of wine.

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Thanks for taking the time to write this wonderful trip report. I have been thinking about doing this tour next year and now it is more of a for sure, I am doing this tour next year. Trying out the MyWay Italy tour this year after lots of Rick's guided tours so I am glad to see that it was easy to start in Rome because I know my two or three days there with the MyWay tour won't be enough.

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Liz,

Your trip report is magical! I am so ready to be on this trip. I'm taking notes on the great restaurants you visited. I'm especially looking forward to the unhurried, sit on a balcony/deck over the water. And wine.

As I mentioned before, you know how to paint a picture with words. Countdown from about 60 days!

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The Tour - Day 9 - Taormina
I should note that the gentlemen behind the check in desk at the Hotel Continental were in cahoots with Karin - they made us ask for our room keys in Italian! Between DH and I we managed to fumble something out and they let us stay. The next morning there was a walking tour of Taormina including the ancient Greek theatre and the Botanical Gardens. I chose to opt out of this one because I felt the need to decompress and just sit quietly and perhaps work a bit on my journal. For those of you reading this who have never taken a tour please note that it is perfectly acceptable to opt out of an activity without raising eyebrows. Just let your guide and your buddy know. Sitting for two hours in lone splendor on the rooftop was exactly what I needed to recharge. When DH returned to the hotel we had time to visit the theatre, the gardens, a few shops and a stop for lunch among the locals. More strolling and many, many stairs back to the hotel - we had the Volcanologist presentation at 5:00 and the pizza dinner at 6:30. Our Volcanologist, Boris Behncke, was fascinating and I was pleased to learn something I never knew would be interesting. The video he showed us was nothing short of amazing. She is to be respected, that's for sure. Then it was on to the pizza making demonstration and dinner. Good grief - I thought with all this glorious food my pants would be tight but instead they were loose - could it be all the walking? The young man demonstrating the pizza making knew his trade and he was most entertaining. I lost track of how many pizzas were presented to us but there were many. I stuck with the Margherita and it was fabulous.

The Tour - Day 10 - The WWII Museum and Catania
Taormina was such a beautiful spot that I felt a bit sad leaving. Our last rooftop breakfast and on the bus at 9:00 bound for Catania, our last tour stop. But first, a stop at the WWII Museum just outside of the city. This was a fascinating museum and told the story of WWII from the eyes of the Sicilian people. There were many exhibits including, but not limited to, plan drawings of upcoming invasions, replicas of first aid tents, a replica of a bunker, short films, uniforms representing both the Allies and Germans, and very impressive wax figures - I felt sick looking at the one of Hitler but very much enjoyed the ones of Churchill and FDR. I forewarned Karin that DH would be the last one on the bus at 1 minute to noon and she smiled and said "I figured." He loved it - it was one of the highlights of the tour for him. Then back on the bus to downtown Catania where we were dropped off several blocks from the main Duomo Square - very old and very beautiful. Karin gave us a brief introduction to the city, pointed out various spots for lunch and then set us free while she went to scope out our hotel and the restaurant where she had booked our final dinner. We walked through the very pungent fish market and found a lunch spot called mM!! There were 10 of us who had the same idea but the proprietor squeezed us in and we had a wonderful fish arrancinitti and shared a tuna burger. We wandered around a bit and then met up with the group to head to our hotel, The Romano House. The Romano House was more modern than the others on the tour, and it had a nice bar with reasonably priced wine and free snacks at happy hour. The rooms were spacious and the staff, with Marco at the helm, was awesome. Our final dinner was at a newer restaurant called Me Cumpari Turiddu, just around the corner. It was wonderful, part of the farm to table movement and everything was fresh. We had a bread course, pasta course, pork and potatoes and the dessert was crazy beautiful - fried dough with a double side of gelato and 4 toppings, including chocolate and pistachios. I tried. After dinner we all said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel. Except it wasn't goodbye because Mama Etna had other plans for us.

Next Up - Tour - Day 11 - Mama Etna & Post Tour

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The Tour - Day 11 - Mama Etna and Post Tour
Well, I was really looking forward to sleeping in but it wasn't meant to be. DH went down to the breakfast room to get me some coffee, took one look at the glum faces of our group and asked what had happened. Etna was spewing ash and the Catania airport was closed. There was a bit of concern (I don't like the word "panic") in our group who had schedules and obligations to get back to and Karin was fabulous - calm, collected and very resourceful in arranging group taxis for those who wanted to go back to Palermo and fly out of there on whatever airline they could book. We had planned on staying two extra nights due to the Carnevale that was taking place the next day just up the coast in Acireale, so we had much more flexibility than the others. DH and I, our new friends from Boulder, and Karin all stayed behind - the three of them had later flights and were fairly confident that the wind would change and Etna would calm down. She did - about three hours after everyone left the wind changed and the airspace reopened. I was relieved, but had the distinct feeling that we wouldn't be attending Carnevale after all. We spent the day strolling around and had a lovely lunch at Cafe Duomo on the main square - a very light pasta dish for me and a strange looking (but he said very tasty) sausage inside a pastry for DH. The pastry case was like something out of a dream. The weather was getting very cool and cloudy so we went back to the hotel and I sat in the lounge and talked at length with Karin while DH took a nap. When he came down to join us he informed me that he'd booked us on a flight the next day to Rome. I was disappointed to miss the Carnevale but my relief outweighed my disappointment. Marco arranged a cab (here we go again) for us the next morning and we set off for the airport. This dude was the wildest and craziest of all, but we arrived safely and breathed a great sigh of relief when we were out of Catania airspace, even if it was a bumpy flight with a very rough landing due to the crosswinds. We stayed at the Rome Best Western Airport hotel and while it was nothing fancy and a bit worn, it was very clean, had a restaurant with good food and a wonderful, friendly staff. We made our flight to Amsterdam with no problems, stayed at the very mod pod CitizenM Hotel within walking distance of the airport, and made a smooth connection home to Minneapolis.
** Please note that when I told Karin I was intending to do a Trip Report she asked me to please emphasize that our experience with Mama Etna is not the norm. Yes, she is there and she does get angry at times, but it is not the norm. I would absolutely hate to scare people away from this beautiful tour because there is an active volcano in the area. Travel is an adventure and sometimes requires flexibility. The guide will take care of you and assist you in getting where you need to be.
In closing I'd just like to add that I know this Trip Report is long. Before we were able to begin traveling I would pay close attention to the reports on this Forum, looking in particular for hotel, restaurant and site information and recommendations. If this report helps someone with their planning and logistics it was worth the time it took for me to write it. I hope I was able to effectively convey the beauty of this tour and Sicily's wonderful people and culture. I'd also like to say to all of you out there who are reading this and are thinking about taking a tour but are worried about this and that - I won't fit in (yes you will,) I'm not in good enough shape (start your own walking program,) I don't have the right clothes and I'll look like a dork (read the packing threads - they were absolutely invaluable to me when we started traveling - you'll be fine,) - Just Go! The folks that take these tours are regular people like you. Is everyone going to become best friends? Of course not, but everyone can be kind, observant and inclusive. Ciao!

Posted by
205 posts

Liz, thank you so much for your informative trip report. Our plan is to visit Sicily next year and I've been reading every bit of information that's written on the forum (and anxiously awaiting the new RS's guide next month!).

Posted by
6059 posts

Liz, what a great report. Almost made me feel like I was there. Wait! I was there! You described it perfectly, with all the details that made it a great tour. I think one of the biggest pluses of the RS tour was that all of the tour participants were "above average". I agree with Liz's description of what a great place Sicily was to visit. Go before it is overwhelmed.

Posted by
1048 posts

Oh, Liz, thank you so much for the long and lucious details. You remind me that beautiful and delicious as Italy is, it is even more the people! I truly appreciate your descriptions and enthusiam! Only a few more weeks before my Sicily sojourn begins! Your trip report will really be useful!

Posted by
2265 posts

Thanks so much for this report, Liz the Mad Hatter! I took this RS Sicily Tour back in 2014, with a slightly different itinerary, and a different but also wonderful Sicilian guide, Tommaso Pante. You brought many of my memories back to life, not just sites, but also some of the hotels, of course the food, and the experiences with the Contessa, the winery, the puppet show, the pizza demonstration, the WWII liberation of Sicily museum, and the view of smoking Etna from the hotel terrace in Taormina. But now you’ve got me wanting to repeat this tour, that’s not fair!

Posted by
154 posts

Sorry, Larry! Well, not really. I'd love to go back too but there are so many places to see! I have cousins in Scandinavia who are quite miffed with me for gallivanting around Europe three times now without dropping in. I did have a visit planned a few years ago but had to abandon those plans due to obligations that popped up. Such is life. Scandinavia will likely be next.
Stan, you are funny! And if you meant that our tour members were "above average" due to the "kind, observant and inclusive" qualities they possessed, I absolutely agree with you. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in having a good time with the group and mixed with great flexibility at meals - when you have singles on your tour and the table seats an even number spouses may have to sit apart - nobody cared. It's one meal. Everyone's included - you know this. I also noticed that several of our younger tour members (think the Little Family) lended a hand more than once to those of us who have a few years on them, myself included. I was darn glad to have Matt extend a strong arm to me at our last stop at The Valley of The Temples - that was rougher terrain than I am used to and it wouldn't have been hard to take a tumble.

Thank you to all of you for your sweet responses! I'm glad you enjoyed reading my trip report and I am gratified that you may be able to use some of the information contained in it to help plan your own time in Sicily. Ciao!

Posted by
17 posts

Hi Liz, thank you again for the wonderful trip report! For the group dinners, did you generally have a few choices of antipasto, primo, secundo? I see from your report there were a lot of fish dishes. While I am adventurous, I am not much of a fish eater. Were there optional choices, occasionally?

Posted by
154 posts

Hi Peggy! DH and I are not big fish eaters but we do generally try what is put in front of us. On this tour there was some fish served, but mostly pasta, lots of fresh vegetables, including the Sicilian specialty - eggplant, and wonderful bread. At your orientation meeting your guide will give you time at the end to talk personally with him or her regarding problems/preferences you may have regarding food among other things. Travelers with medically diagnosed limitations and allergies (gluten free, dairy free, etc) should include them on the online form they submit when they give their traveler information to the office several weeks before the tour starts. I promise you that there will be no shortage of food on this tour, and a big benefit to having some main group meals earlier in the day is that it really saves on spending in the evening. Several times we only wanted a snack (bruschetta!) and a glass of wine. Sicily is known for its street food - don't miss the arancini!

Posted by
11266 posts

Thanks for taking the time to post this great report, with all those details. It brings back great memories (for the places I saw on my own Sicily trip) and gives me ideas (for places I didn't see on that trip, but will need to go on the next one).

Posted by
4 posts

Hi Liz,
Great report, loved reading it. We are taking the 4/14/19 tour. We await it depature date with bated breath!!!
Bob

Posted by
1135 posts

I am glad I waited and could read your report all at the same time! Thank you for writing it, with all the details and such a wonderful positive outlook!

Posted by
9 posts

Liz, thank you for the wonderful detailed report and I do appreciate you mentioning names of hotels and restaurants. And thank you again for the information on the last night's dinner.

Jill

Posted by
940 posts

Liz - fabulous report and thank you so much for sharing the restaurants and extra sites you visited. This tour has been on my radar and I'm determined to make it happen within the next two years with a nice stopover in Rome. Budapest is also calling so it will be a toss up where we go first.

Posted by
8392 posts

Liz, what a wonderful ending! Thank you so much for sharing part of your journal with us.

I think my favorite line is "I'm convinced there must be a Rick Steves Nerves of Steel Bus Driver School somewhere!" Oh Yes, I totally agree!

Posted by
154 posts

Pam, this made me laugh! For those like you and I who are sensitive to heights the RS drivers are indispensable. I didn't have to put a jacket over my head and lie down on the bus seat like I did on the Alpine Tour but I did have a few moments on the drives to Erice and Taormina - I just didn't look at anything but the flowers and listened to Karin's beautiful mythological stories and projected myself into them, making me the heroine of the day in my own mind. I got by. I have a musician friend here in Minneapolis who lost his wife in her early 50's - he said in a recent interview "Life is finite. There is no sense in sitting around thinking about doing something. Go and do something. "

Posted by
1952 posts

This is a fabulous trip report, Liz. You have beautifully conveyed the feel of Sicily and a Rick Steves tour! Yes, I have taken this tour twice but you have provided enough new-to-me information about what you saw, did and enjoyed that I think I need to return at least one more time. And here's why....you posted-" I have a musician friend here in Minneapolis who lost his wife in her early 50's - he said in a recent interview "Life is finite. There is no sense in sitting around thinking about doing something. Go and do something. " I absolutely love this statement, Liz. Thank you for taking the time to post such an amazing report.

Posted by
15 posts

Lizthemadhatter, Thank-you for your wonderful, in depth report! We will be on this tour in mid April, and can't wait, you're report was so wonderful to read and has me more excited than ever!

Posted by
154 posts

Terry, I think you and Bob (8 posts back) may be on the same tour! How much fun is that? You will have a wonderful time! I'd love to go back with you but I have very important things to do here like chipping ice, etc. Sigh. I don't think anyone ever said in their last moments on this earth "I wish I would've worked more." I'm much more inclined to believe that people would say "I wish I would've traveled more." I'm with them.

Posted by
1971 posts

Liz - thanks for your delightful trip report! I'm planning my third trip to Sicily, this time to visit west and central Sicily. Reading your trip report got me excited about going back! Now back to my planning ….!!!

Posted by
111 posts

Liz! This was fabulous. It truly conveyed the experience of the tour. I loved reliving our experiences through your words. Thank you for such a gift. Everyone in the group was so open to new experiences as well as kind to each other that it made seeing new places and learning even more fun. I hope spring comes soon to you guys up there in the north! All the best - Kristin (the one who convinced 5 other family members to go on this tour and has no regrets only great memories!)

Posted by
154 posts

Kristin! How fun to see you on here! Thank you for your kind words - we had such a great time with everyone on the tour. Please pass greetings on to your Dad, MJ, Matt and the boys from both of us. I hope our paths cross again. We are experiencing an early spring thaw, thank goodness - and I can only say that because we live on a hill so have no risk of flooding in our lower level. We are expecting almost 60 this weekend. Guess what I made on Sunday?? Maria Grammatico's Bella E Brutti cookies (Good and Uglies.) Oh my goodness, they are so tasty! Next up - CANNOLI! It's very fun to have a little piece of our shared Sicilian experiences in my own cozy galley kitchen in the city. Best to you and yours!

Posted by
12 posts

Thanks for your great trip report, Liz! So glad to relive so many great memories of this wonderful Sicilian adventure and the people who help shared it with us. We were fortunate to fly out of Catania on Friday with no problems and with an on time departure. So I enjoyed (for lack of a better word) hearing about everyone else’s crazy trip to Palermo.

Posted by
154 posts

Marcia! How great to see you here! I have such fun memories of you and CB - swapping stories in the little wine bar in Trapani ("Only Strong People,") in the lounge at the country hotel with Linda, laughing about DH being locked in the room and the young bartender smiling impishly and saying "maybe you should leave him in there," which of course created another round of laughter. What a wonderful trip we had! Since we'd only done the My Way tours I was a bit apprehensive but, as I told Karin, this tour really opened my mind to the possibilities of the RS guided tours. That being said, I'm looking at the Scandinavia tour with time tacked on either before or after for family there, and the Best of The Adriatic - looks quite fascinating. Cheers to our time together and please greet CB from both of us!

Posted by
4 posts

This trip report is EVERYTHING! Thank you for such a comprehensive report. We're planning to take this tour next year and this report really helped me visualize the awesomeness that awaits us.

Posted by
154 posts

Thank you, Jennifer, for your sweet words. I hope you find this tour as wonderful as I did. If I can answer any questions you have please feel free to pm me. Liz

Posted by
30 posts

Liz, I am considering the Best of Sicily tour for next year. Can you tell me the number of miles you averaged each day. I just finished the Eastern Europe tour and we walked between 6-7 miles a day. I have friends that would like to go but they may not be able to handle that many miles a day.

Posted by
154 posts

Hi Brenda. I just looked back at the fitness tracker on my phone and this is what it logged per day:

Day 1 - 5.3 miles. Tour group met at 3 so I'd say half of those miles were logged on our own before we met w/the group. The walk with the group is a guided one to The Contessa's and then back for dinner.

Day 2 - 4 miles. Palermo and Monreale - there is a steep, longish flight of stairs that lead from the bus stop up to the square at Monreale. Other than that the walking is easy. There is a group walk upon return to the Ballero Market which is not far away. On your own after that.

Day 3 - 4 miles. Segesta - a few members walked up to the amphitheater, most of us chose to ride the bus provided. Maria Grammatico's - easy short walk. Erice - I found the uphill part of this walk a bit strenuous, but we were on our own so could go at our own pace. The views are gorgeous. Trapani - in the evening we walked on our own at our own pace.

Day 5 - 5 miles. Most of these miles were logged walking on the island of Mozia - easy walk but some rough terrain. Trapani Salt Flats - no walking except back to the bus. Trapani - walking on our own in the late afternoon and evening.

Day 6 - 3.5 miles. The Museum - the walking is easy but some in our group found that standing while listening to the local guide was harder on the back than walking at the Valley. Valley of the Temples - while this was a long walk I wouldn't call it strenuous, but there is some rough terrain. Easy walking (if you choose to) after that at the country hotel before dinner.

Day 7 - 6 miles. Villa Romana del Casale - lots of walking but easy. The group is all on site but not together so you can go at your own pace as long as you are back on the bus at the assigned time. The restrooms are up the hill a bit away from the site. Lunch at the farm - short but steep walk down to the restaurant and back up to the bus. Syracuse - there is a short guided walk from the hotel to the town square. Then you are on your own for dinner (if you can eat one more thing!)

Day 8 - 3.5 miles. Syracuse - some of us walked to the laundry with the guide in the morning before meeting the rest of the group at the market. Then we toured the market and the old town and ended our group time with the puppet show. We were on our own after that to find lunch and be on our own. I highly recommend the Archeological Park but we chose to take a cab instead of the long walk.

Day 9 - 3.5 miles. Mt Etna - walk/climb at your own pace. Benanti Winery - there is an easy walking tour of the grounds and the cask room and then lunch. The group stays in Taormina that evening - a cliff hugging town with gorgeous views and a LOT of stairs and a LOT of up and down - this was the most strenuous part of the tour for me. There is a short tour of the main part of the town and then you are on your own.

Day 10 - 3.5 miles. Taormina - there is a 3 hour guided tour in the morning at a moderate pace with lots of stairs and up and down. After that you are on your own for lunch and whatever else you want to do. Some of our group took the gondola down to the beach, some went shopping, some sat in a cafe and watched the world go by.

Day 11 - 2.5 miles. Catania - the WWI museum in the late morning - easy walk at your own pace. The City - you have a short guided tour of the square to show you where things are and then you are on your own for lunch and wandering. It's a moderate walk to the hotel and an almost nonexistent walk to the final group meal if you eat at the same place we did.

Day 12 - N/A. Tour is over after breakfast.

If I remember correctly there was one place where the bus dropped us at the door - Baglia de Luna, the country hotel. We took group taxies, hired by our guide, to the hotels in Syracuse and Taormina - the busses couldn't get anywhere near them. For the other hotels it was the standard 15 minute walk with our bags.

I hope this helps! I loved this tour!